7.18.2008

The Two Jewish Temples in Egypt

In the States synagogues are often called Temple X,; in Europe they are not. In Judaism there is only meant to be one temple - the one in Jerusalem. An interesting historical phenomenon therefore is the fact that there were two separate synagogues in Egypt in Antiquity that served Jewish populations, and were called temples.

One was at Elephantine in the very south, almost on the Nubian border, and has yielded a cache of famous papyri from the 5th century BC. One of these letters makes it clear that the Elephantine temple was destroyed by anti-Semites in or before 407 BC, since it appeals for help from Judea. The letter also dates the building of the temple to before the reign of Cambyses (conquered Egypt in 525, died in 522 BC) - it points out that he destroyed Egyptian temples, but not the Jewish one. It is possible then that the Jews who came to Elephantine had left Jerusalem after that temple had been defiled by Manasseh of Judah, who had forced pagan worship in it. In the middle of the fourth century the Elephantine temple was closed down. The Jews moved either down into Ethiopia or back up to the Delta; within a generation Alexander had founded Alexandria, and many settled there.

The other temple was that of Onias IV at Leontopolis (ca. 200 BC). Antiochus IV Epiphanes had desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem, and a new group of priests had been installed. The legitimate priests fled to Ptolemy's Egypt (which Ptolemy is not certain with IV to VI proposed), and there they were able to found a new temple based on the one in Jerusalem but smaller in scale. The philosopher Philo of Alexandria sacrificed here.

Both are temples rather than synagogues because sacrifices were made at them - and these are the only two places where this occurred other than at Jerusalem. Elephantine was rebuilt in 404 BC, but with a new condition from the Persian rulers of Egypt - no more sacrifices. That is how we know that sacrifices had been performed prior to 407.

The papyrus path - Jerusalem Post

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