Nile RiverThe Oniads were the descendants of Zadok, high priest in the time of King Solomon. They had occupied the office of high priest since Onias I, son of Jaddus, the high priest who had, according to legend, opened the gates of Jerusalem to the victorious Alexander, on the high priesthood until the advent of Jason “the Hellenist,” brother of Onias III. About 172 B.C.E., the latter, after having taken refuge in a pagan temple in Daphne, near Antioch, was assassinated by order of a fellow “Hellenist,” Menelaus, Jason’s successor. His son, Onias IV, who had fled Judah to Egypt, was the Onias of our papyrus.

Our papyrus shows that the arrival of Onias IV in Egypt must have occurred well before 164 B.C.E., since by that date he was already a high dignitary in the Ptolemaic court. He had fled to Egypt under the priesthood of Jason, or at the beginning of that of Menelaus; moreover, he could not have been a mere child, but must already have been old enough to rise rapidly in rank among the courtiers of Ptolemy VI. It would have been very reasonable for the partisans of the Oniads to send the young man off to Alexandria, in their desire to safeguard this latest scion of a distinguished priestly lineage, of which he was to be the last representative. Until the day when he would be able to return to Jerusalem, he was put into “high priestly reserve” in foreign territory, under the protection of Ptolemy VI. But that day never dawned.

Josephus quotes an exchange of letters between the high priest and the royal couple. The subject under discussion was Onias’ project for the erection of a temple in Leontopolis in the Heliopolite Nome, dedicated to “God the Most High,” an expression we have already encountered. In his first letter, Onias informed the sovereigns of his decision. He had found a fitting site and was strongly motivated. Official approval was still lacking but, in view of the services he had rendered the Ptolemies, he had good reason to believe he would obtain it. One should recall the context of rivalry between Ptolemy VI and “Ptolemy the brother,” the future Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, and the military prowess of our Onias, who may have been the Jewish general mentioned by Josephus.

Jewish Antiquities 13, 64-68

Many and great are the services I have rendered you in the course of the war, with the help of God, when I was in Coele-Syria and Phoenicia, and when I came with the Jews to Leontopolis in the Nome of Heliopolis and to other places where our nation is settled; and I found that most of them had temples [hiera], contrary to what is proper, and that for this reason they are ill-disposed toward one another, as is also the case with the Egyptians because of the multitude of their sanctuaries and their varying opinions about the forms of worship; and I have found a most suitable place in the fortress called after Bubastis-of-the-Fields, which abounds in various kinds of trees and is full of sacred animals.

Wherefore I beg you to permit me to cleanse this temple, which belongs to no one and is in ruins, and to build a temple to God the Most High in the likeness of that at Jerusalem and with the same dimensions, on behalf of you and your wife and children, in order that the Jewish inhabitants of Egypt may be able to come together there in mutual harmony and serve your interests. For this indeed is what the prophet Isaiah foretold: “There shall be an altar in Egypt to the Lord God,” and many other such things prophesy concerning this place.

A prophecy of Isaiah offered him an ambiguous argument. The prophet had actually said Isaiah (19:19):

”In that day shall there be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border thereof to the Lord.”

Modern authors had been wary of this passage, which they took for a gloss, inserted into the biblical text in order to legitimize a posteriori, the sanctuary of Leontopolis. But the presence of this very same passage in a manuscript from Qumran dispelled their hesitations. The fact remains that the first clause alone of the passage is applicable to Onias’ project, as Leontopolis was really situated “in the midst of the land of Egypt.” The second clause is applicable rather to the Jews of Elephantine, actually situated at the southern frontier. Strangely enough, the royal couple were aware of these subtleties. Here is their answer:

Josephus Jewish Antiquities 13, 70-71

King Ptolemy and Queen Cleopatra II to Onias, greeting. We have read your petition asking that it be permitted you to cleanse the ruined temple in Leontopolis in the Nome of Heliopolis, called Bubastis-of-the-Fields. We wonder, therefore, whether it will be pleasing to God that a temple be built in a place so wild and full of sacred animals. But since you say that the prophet Isaiah foretold this long ago, we grant your request if this is to be in accordance with the Law, so that we may not seem to have sinned against God in any way.

Tell el-Yehoudieh, “the knoll of the Jews,” near Shibin el Qanatir, north of Heliopolis (not to be confounded with the Leontopolis of the Leontopolite Nome in the Delta, today Tell el-Moqdam) has been recognized as the site of ancient Leontopolis. One guarantee of its identity is its Arabic name; epigraphical evidence furnishes another, in the mention of the “land of Onias,” equivalent to the term employed by Josephus. The Greek name of Leontopolis, “city of the lions,” is quite fitting for a secularized sanctuary of Bastet (Bubastis), the smiling feline goddess, originally a lion-goddess, and who had become a cat-goddess by the time of Onias. Many statuettes represent her in semi-human shape; she occasionally had the aspect of a bejeweled queen, seated but with muscles tensed, ready to spring.

Josephus The Jewish War 7, 426-30.

Induced by this statement, Ptolemy gave him [Onias] a tract, a hundred and eighty furlongs distant from Memphis, in the so-called Nome of Hemiopolis. Here Onias erected a fortress and built his temple (which was not like that in Jerusalem, but resembled a tower) of huge stones and sixty cubits in altitude. The altar, however, he designed on the model of that in the home country, and adorned the building with similar offerings, the fashion of the lampstand excepted; for, instead of making a stand, he had a lamp wrought of gold which shed a brilliant light and was suspended by a golden chain. The sacred precincts were wholly surrounded by a wall of baked brick, the doorways being of stone. The king, moreover, assigned him an extensive territory as a source of revenue, to yield both abundance for the priests and large provision for the service of God.

Source: Joseph Mélèze Modrzejewski. The Jews of Egypt. (p. 124-129)