The Jews of Leontopolis, Egypt

BMCR has a review by David Noy of this recent Italian book: Livia Capponi, Il tempio di Leontopoli in Egitto: Identità politica e religiosa dei Giudei di Onia (c. 150 a.C-73 d.C), Pisa 2007.

I've mentioned the two Temples in Egypt before, and this new study of Leontopolis sounds fascinating. The key points are:

Leontopolis and Elephantine, both in Egypt, had the only two Temples other than the one in Jerusalem (Temples are defined by performing sacrifices; and I don't count the Samaritan one as it was schismatic, just as I don't consider the Samaritans to be Jewish).

Leontopolis was near Heliopolis, in the Nile Delta region of Egypt.

90+ inscriptions provide our evidence for Leontopolis and its surroundings.

There are mentions of it in Josephus; Philo does not mention it.

Unlike Elephantine, no papyri are preserved ...

The Temple was probably founded by Onias IV soon after 152 BC, though there were already Jews living in the area.

It was not schismatic according to the new study:
Even though this foundation was originally based on hostility to the Hasmoneans and a desire to keep the office of High Priest within the traditional family group, it shared their "counter-reform" ideas, in opposition to the views of Alexandrian Jews expressed in the Letter of Aristeas. There was a rapprochement with Jerusalem at a date somewhere between 124 and 103 BCE, after which Leontopolis appears to have worked in Jerusalem's interests.
Later rabbis accepted Leontopolis as having been a Temple.

Earlier rabbis and scholars seem to have flourished there, producing a number of theological works. The Third Sibylline Oracle may have been written there - or elsewhere in Egypt, since the reviewer notes that the argument for it having been written at Leontopolis is slightly circular ... Ditto the Testament of Job.

The Jews of Leontopolis might have been the Jews who provided Caesar with military support in Egypt - which led him to grant Jews special privileges. For more on this see: Andrew J. Schoenfeld, Sons of Israel in Caesar’s Service: Jewish Soldiers in the Roman Military, Shofar, 24.3, p. 115 ff - available online here.

Cleopatra may have been fluent in Hebrew, but that did not necessarily make her a Judeophile.

After Actium the Jewish forces were amalgamated into the Roman army as auxiliaries, and papyri attest their presence in the Delta region well into the first century AD.

The Leontopolis Temple was not closed until AD 73 - three years after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Jews continued to live there, Noy suggests:
although that community no doubt disappeared after the revolt of 115-17 CE.
but if we are to accept that the Romans did not transplant the whole population of the Holy Land neither after 70 nor later, nor did the have a huge problem with allowing Jews to live in Rome, then I'm not sure why we have to assume that they transplanted Jewish communities elsewhere.

Capponi thinks that the Jews of Leontopolis practised cremation, but Noy is more careful:
It is true that there is evidence for cremation from Alexandria, as the author notes, but it is from a necropolis in which Jews were buried rather than a "Jewish necropolis". .. and the question will probably remain open until a cremation urn is found with a clearly Jewish name written on it.
The site of Leontopolis is not certain; it may be Tell el-Yahudiyeh. Petrie excavated there at the very start of the 20th century, and luckily for us his publication has been digitalised and is available here.

David Noy is the co-author of W. Horbury & D. Noy, Jewish inscriptions of Graeco-Roman Egypt, Cambridge, 1992, and so a great authority on Jewish Egypt.


  1. I just read this review, too. I'm not sure what is meant by " "counter-reform" ideas, in opposition to the views of Alexandrian Jews expressed in the Letter of Aristeas. " Do you know?

  2. It's a term that could mean anything, I'm afraid. But yes, opposition to their reforms sounds likely.

  3. Temple of Onias (the altar of Honio) in Egypt is mentioned and discussed in a rabbinical way in the Talmud, Megilla 1/9

    uri asaf


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