Saturday, July 10, 2010

Why We Shouldn't Believe the Christianized Texts of Josephus When it Tells us that the Jewish Temple in Egypt was in Heliopolis

Josephus tells us that Onias obtained permission from king Ptolemy Philometor to build the Temple of Leontopolis in the nome of Heliopolis for the worship of God (J.W. 7.423-432; Ant. 13.62-73). According to Josephus’ version in Jewish Antiquities 13.63-64, this “Temple to the Most High God” was modelled on the Temple of Jerusalem. Certain Levites and priests were appointed to its service and its building would bring a prophecy of Isaiah to fulfillment (Isaiah 19:18-19). In his Jewish War 1.33, Josephus also writes about the likeness of the temple of Onias to the Temple of Jerusalem.

Yet, at the end of the Jewish War (J.W. 7.420-433 at 427), when Josephus writes about the demolition of the Jewish Temple of Onias in the aftermath of the Jewish war against Rome (66-70 CE), he appears to change his previous view, denying that the Temple of Onias is similar to the Jerusalem Temple. Josephus also casts doubt on Onias’ motives for building this Temple in Egypt, calling the building of this temple a “sin and transgression against the Law” (Ant. 13.69). According to Ant. 13.62-63 the desire of eternal fame and glory for himself; according to J.W. 7.431 the will to rival the Jews at Jerusalem, bearing in mind the outrage of his exile against them.

Furthermore there is strangeness of Josephus’ harmonious description of the ‘one Temple for the one God’ in the second book of his treatise Against Apion, paragraph 193, leaves the existence of rival Temples, for example the Jewish Temple at Heliopolis in Egypt described in his other works, out of the picture (Ag.Ap. 2.193: 23 4 cf. Philo, Spec.Laws, 1.67 which also expresses the idea of one temple symbolising monotheism, the service of the one God). All of this seems to be inconsistent with this idea or at least paradoxical that Josephus refers to the Temples of Shechem, Gerizim and Heliopolis as having been built ‘resembling’ ( 6 - Ant. 13.63), ‘after the model of’ (Ant. 13.255-256) or ‘similar to’ ( Ant. 13.285) the Temple of Jerusalem.

I can't overstate how utterly implausible the whole description is. Many have suggested that the second account was added by a later editor. Yet I would go further and argue that there never was a Heliopolis temple. The text has undergone a series of changes to ultimately remove any reference to the historical existence of the Jewish temple in Alexandria, consistently referenced in the rabbinic literature.

Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. Josephus quotes two documents: Onias' letter to the royal couple, and the king's answer to Onias. Both of these, however, appear spurious. As the Jewish Encyclopedia notes:

Onias refers in his letter to his military exploits in Cœle-Syria and Phenicia, although it is not certain that the general Onias and the priest Onias are identical. His assertion that a central sanctuary is necessary because a multiplicity of temples causes dissension among the Jews evidences imperfect knowledge of the Jewish religious life; and, finally, his request for the ruined temple of the goddess Bubastis, because a sufficient supply of wood and sacrificial animals would be found there, seems unwise and improbable for a suppliant who must first obtain compliance with his principal request. It seems strange, furthermore, that in the second letter the pagan king points out to the Jewish priest that the proposed building of a temple is contrary to the law, and that he consents only in view of Isaiah's prophecy.

Moreover there are also difficulties with the claim that the temple was built on the site of a ruined temple of Bubastis, in imitation of the temple at Jerusalem, though smaller and less elaborate (ibid 13. 3, 3). Josephus uses calls it the "fortress" (ὀχύρωμα) of the temple of Bubastis which is again difficult to explain.

We have already demonstrated that the Christian editors got the idea for a temple in Heliopolis from Isaiah 19:18. Yet there is another layer to the development which might already be seen in Against Apion. There were a number of stories concerning an Egyptian history of Moses, denounced by Josephus as false but which identify Moses as a priest in Heliopolis. In his apologetic treatise Against Apion Josephus refers to a story in in Manetho’s work about Egyptian history, in which a certain Osarsiph, a native and a priest of Heliopolis, changed his name into Moses and would have been expelled from Heliopolis for leprosy (Ag.Ap. 1.228-287, there 238-241, 248-250, 261-270, 279-286). Josephus, in his criticism of the fictitious stories of Manetho, concludes that there is a total disjunction between the ancient records and unfounded legends which are mixed up in Manetho’s work (Ag.Ap. 1.287). Nevertheless these stories were well known and might have offered a plausible locale to distract attention from the existence of an Alexandrian Jewish temple.

Anyone surfing the net inquiring into these matters will soon run across Petrie's claims to have discovered the Jewish temple in Heliopolis. They have been mostly laughed off as pure nonsense by many scholars. As Albert Pietersma Professor of Septuagint and Hellenistic Greek at the University of Toronto recently noted on Petrie's claim to have uncovered the Jewish Temple at Leontopolis "my impression has been that his identification of the Oniad temple was highly dubious." Pietersma is certainly not the only one to think this but since most scholars just want the issue closed Petrie's claims are often referenced in order to avoid having us lose confidence in Josephus's reliablity as a source.

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