× Old Testament New Testament Book of Mormon Doctrine and Covenants Pearl of Great Price
[ Top

Jewish Temples:

Jewish Temple in Elephantine, Egypt

The Onias Temple in Heliopolis

Jewish Temple in Elephantine, Egypt

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.

20 And it shall be for a sign and for a witness unto the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt: for they shall cry unto the Lord because of the oppressors, and he shall send them a saviour, and a great one, and he shall deliver them.

21 And the Lord shall be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the Lord in that day, and shall do sacrifice and oblation; yea, they shall vow a vow unto the Lord, and perform it.

The Elephantine Papyri consist of 175 documents from the Egyptian border fortresses of Elephantine and Syene (Aswan), which yielded hundreds of papyri in Hieratic and Demotic Egyptian, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and Coptic, spanning a period of 2000 years. The documents include letters and legal contracts from family and other archives, and are thus an invaluable source of knowledge for scholars of varied disciplines such as epistolography, law, society, religion, language and onomastics. They are a collection of ancient Jewish manuscripts dating from the 5th century BCE. They come from a Jewish community at Elephantine, then called Yeb, the island in the Nile at the border of Nubia, which was probably founded as a military installation in about 650 BCE during Manasseh's reign to assist Pharaoh Psammetichus I in his Nubian campaign. The dry soil of Upper Egypt preserved documents from the Egyptian border fortresses of Elephantine and Syene (Aswan). Hundreds of these Elephantine papyri, written in hieratic and Demotic Egyptian, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and Coptic, span a period of 1000 years. Legal documents and a cache of letters survived, turned up on the local 'gray market' of antiquities starting in the late 19th century, and were scattered into several Western collections.

Though some fragments on papyrus are much older, the largest number of papyri are written in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, and document the Jewish community among soldiers stationed at Elephantine under Persian rule, 495–399 BCE. The Elephantine documents include letters and legal contracts from family and other archives: divorce documents, the manumission of slaves, and other business, and are a valuable source of knowledge about law, society, religion, language and onomastics, the sometimes surprisingly revealing study of names.

The 'Passover letter' of 419 BCE (discovered in 1907), which gives detailed instructions for properly keeping the passover is in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin.

Further Elephantine papyri are at the Brooklyn Museum. The discovery of the Brooklyn papyri is a remarkable story itself. The documents were first acquired in 1893 by New York journalist Charles Edwin Wilbour. After lying in a warehouse for more than 50 years, the papyri were shipped to the Egyptian Department of the Brooklyn Museum. It was at this time that scholars finally realized that "Wilbour had acquired the first Elephantine papyri".

The Jews had their own temple to Yahweh evincing polytheistic beliefs, which functioned alongside that of Khnum.

Excavation work done in 1967 revealed the remains of the Jewish colony centered on a small temple.

The "Petition to Bagoas" (Sayce-Cowley collection) is a letter written in 407 BCE to Bagoas, the Persian governor of Judea, appealing for assistance in rebuilding the Jewish temple in Elephantine, which had recently been badly damaged by an antisemitic rampage on the part of a segment of the Elephantine community.

In the course of this appeal, the Jewish inhabitants of Elephantine speak of the antiquity of the damaged temple:

'Now our forefathers built this temple in the fortress of Elephantine back in the days of the kingdom of Egypt, and when Cambyses came to Egypt he found it built. They (the Persians) knocked down all the temples of the gods of Egypt, but no one did any damage to this temple."

The community also appealed for aid to Sanballat I, a Samaritan potentate, and his sons Delaiah and Shelemiah, as well as Johanan ben Eliashib. Both Sanballat and Johanan are mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah, 2:19, 12:23.

There was a response of both governors (Bagoas and Delaiah) which gave the permission by decree to rebuild the temple written in the form of a memorandum: "1Memorandum of what Bagohi and Delaiah said to me, saying: Memorandum: You may say in Egypt ... to (re)build it on its site as it was formerly...".

By the middle of the 4th century BCE, the temple at Elephantine had ceased to function. There is evidence from excavations that the rebuilding and enlargement of the Khnum temple under Nectanebo II (360–343) took the place of the former temple of YHWH.

In 2004, the Brooklyn Museum of Art created a display entitled "Jewish Life in Ancient Egypt: A Family Archive From the Nile Valley," which featured the interfaith couple of Ananiah, an official at the temple of Yahou (a.k.a. Yahweh), and his wife, Tamut, who was previously an Egyptian slave owned by a Jewish master, Meshullam. Some related exhibition didactics of 2002 included comments about significant structural similarities between Judaism and the ancient Egyptian religion and how they easily coexisted and blended at Elephantine.


ONIAS, TEMPLE OF, temple of the Hellenistic and Roman period established in Egypt for Jewish worship and sacrifice. Its location is given by Josephus as being in the district of Heliopolis, where it was built over an earlier ruined temple to Bubastis, the lioness-goddess; hence the area's other name Leontopolis. It was established for the worship of "God the most High," as that at Jerusalem (Ant., 13:62–68). The location is presumed to be at Tel el-Yehudiyah (Mound of the Jewess), the name serving as a clue to its identity. It was first investigated by E. Naville in 1887 and in more detail by Flinders Petrie in 1905. The site is part of an earlier Hyksos encampment outside the present town of Shirban el-Qanatir, 25 km. north of Cairo. Petrie found a towered structure beside a small temple-like enclosure, accessed by a long staircase and surrounded by a mudbrick wall, triangular in plan. He showed a model of his finds to a meeting of the Jewish Community in London in 1906, but the model has since disappeared. The location in Egypt has been visited by a number of archaeologists, including the writer, who have been unable to confirm Petrie's findings, though it is clear that the alleged site is close to a necropolis of Jewish burials in the area known as Leontopolis. The temple is mentioned several times by Josephus and twice in some detail, but each time differently. He describes it first as being modeled on the Temple of Jerusalem (Ant., 13:72), while the second time he says it was built like a fortress in the form of a tower 60 cubits high, unlike Jerusalem (Wars, 7:426–432). It is presumed that the second description is a correction of the first. Josephus claims that it stood for 343 years (ibid., 436), but this is unlikely; 243 years would be nearer the mark. It was destroyed in 73 C.E. on the orders of Titus or Vespasian (ibid., 421), who feared that it might become the focus of further revolt after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. At the earliest it could have been built in 170 B.C.E., shortly before the Hasmonean Revolt, because it is always referred to as the Temple of Onias (Ḥonia in Hebrew). There are two candidates for that honor, *Onias III (son of Simon II, the Just), who was high priest some time after 200 B.C.E., or his son *Onias IV. It is generally accepted that the earlier Onias, who was ousted by his Hellenizing brother Jason, was murdered in Antioch (II Macc. 4:34), so Onias IV is the more likely candidate. When he saw that his legitimate right to the High Priesthood had been usurped by the Hellenistic party, friendly to the Seleucids, Onias set up a rival sanctuary in Egypt, under the protection of their enemies, the Ptolemies.

It is unlikely that he did this to serve the Jews of Egypt as a whole, who may have had some difficulty in reaching Jerusalem under the Seleucids, as the temple is never mentioned by Philo or other Judeo-Egyptian sources; nor was it located in or near Alexandria, the chief center of Egyptian Jewry. It is more likely that the temple served a military colony under the direction of this Onias, acting in the capacity of an officer willing to bring manpower and troops over to Ptolemy VI Philometor and his queen, Cleopatra II. Josephus records that two sons of Onias acted as generals in assisting Cleopatra in her fight against her son Ptolemy Lathyrus (Ant., 13:285–287 and 348–349). In that role the temple was similar to the earlier fifth century B.C.E. temple serving the Jewish mercenaries at Elephantine, at the southern border of Egypt. The Talmud takes a somewhat relaxed view of this temple. It claims that it was not an "idolatrous shrine" because Onias had based himself on Isaiah 19:18, which says that, "One day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt," and because he was a legitimate Zadokite priest, a descendant of the high priest Simon the Just (Men. 109b). The Mishnah states that some vows made in the Temple of Jerusalem could be redeemed in the Temple of Onias and, while a priest who served at Onias was precluded from serving in Jerusalem, he could nevertheless eat the terumah (consecrated food) there together with his priestly brethren (Men. 13:10).


M. Delcor, "Le Temple d'Onias en Egypte," in: Revue Biblique, 75 (1968), 188–203.; R. Hayward, "The Jewish Temple of Leontopolis: a Reconsideration," in: Journal of Jewish Studies, 33 (1982), 429–43; J.M. Modrzejewski, The Jews of Egypt, from Rameses II to Emperor Hadrian, trans. R. Cornman (1995), 124–29; E. Naville, The Mound of the Jews and the City of Onias (1890), 13–21; W.M. Flinders Petrie, Hyksos and Israelite Cities (1906), 19–27; E. Schuerer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (rev. English edition, G. Vermes, F. Millar, M. Goodman, 1986), vol. 3:47–48, 145–47; V. Tcherikower, Hellenistic Civilisation and the Jews, trans. S. Applebaum (1959), 275–81.