There have been numerous chapter-length and book-length studies of the Jews of Graeco-Roman Egypt published recently. Livia Capponi goes into a more localised aspect of the topic with a monograph on the history of the Jews of Leontopolis near Heliopolis in the Nile Delta. The evidence with which she has to work is scanty: some passing references by Josephus (who is quite able to contradict himself and is unlikely to have had any personal knowledge or particular interest), a few late sources, and just over 90 inscriptions that can be attributed to the site or to nearby Jewish settlements. There are no papyri, and Philo notoriously says nothing whatsoever about Leontopolis, provoking the question of whether this indicates hostility between Alexandria and Leontopolis or just lack of interest.
Capponi begins with the Egyptian and Jewish historical background before looking in detail at the evidence for the foundation of the Jewish temple at Leontopolis. She argues plausibly that there was already a significant Jewish population in the area around Heliopolis before the temple was created, thus resolving some chronological problems created by Josephus. Like most scholars, she prefers Josephus’ attribution of the foundation to Onias IV in Ant. (dating it to shortly after Jonathan Maccabeus became High Priest in 152 BCE) to his reference to the ejected High Priest Onias III in B.J. She attributes the latter version to a hostile Jewish-Egyptian source. Onias IV was never High Priest and had his hopes of holding the office thwarted by the Hasmoneans, but Capponi believes that his temple in Egypt was not intended to be schismatic. Unlike the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim, it did not attempt to replace Jerusalem as a focus of loyalty and was more concerned with introducing greater “rigour” to Egyptian Judaism, a point which the author stresses repeatedly. 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.
Capponi thinks that the main criticism of Leontopolis from Jerusalem would have been that it was built in an impure place because of the site’s association with Egyptian cult. She argues (103) that the description of the Temple in Jerusalem as “the great temple” in 2 Macc. 2.18 implies the existence of lesser temples, but that argument seems like saying that Jews who described their god as Theos Hypsistos believed in the existence of lesser gods. The contravention of the one-temple principle for Judaism would surely have been a source of hostility, even if later rabbinic references show that Leontopolis was not considered idolatrous. Leontopolis seems to have been a centre of Jewish scholarship, and other writers have suggested that various works of literature were produced there. Capponi follows Gideon Bohak ( Joseph and Aseneth and the Jewish Temple in Heliopolis, Atlanta, 1996) in finding a close connection with Joseph and Aseneth, and also links the Testament of Job, 3 Maccabees and the 3rd Sibylline Oracle to the Jews of Leontopolis. Unfortunately none of these works can be used as independent evidence for Leontopolis without the argument becoming circular.
The author also deals with the end of the Ptolemaic period and the Roman era. Capponi suggests that various references to Jewish military forces in Egypt during the 1st century BCE are likely to refer to the Oniads based in and around Leontopolis. Jewish support was crucial in rescuing Julius Caesar at Alexandria, leading him to grant privileges to Jews throughout the Roman Empire (which, it might be noted, did not then include Egypt) in 47 BCE. Cleopatra was not as pro-Jewish as has sometimes been claimed on the basis of her knowledge of Hebrew. It is likely that the Jewish troops in Egypt were taken over as Roman auxiliaries after 30 BCE, and apparently Jewish names in papyri from several places in the Nile Delta suggest a continued Jewish military presence in the 1st century CE. The closure of the temple at Leontopolis by Vespasian in 73 CE was a propaganda measure which did not necessarily destroy the Jewish community around it, although that community no doubt disappeared after the revolt of 115-17 CE.
The most original part of the book is a study of the theology of the epitaphs: “una teologia mistica?”. Capponi thinks that there are traces of mysticism, without messianic or eschatological messages but with a spirituality based on love for family and community and a belief in reward in the afterlife. Her views are based mainly on the verse epitaphs: 12 out of a total of 91 epitaphs attributed to the Jews of the southern Nile Delta. She argues that they show ideals which are not found in other metrical epitaphs from Egypt, and that they should therefore not be dismissed as too Hellenised to provide evidence for Jewish beliefs. The deceased are praised for moral qualities and values that in some cases seem to be specifically Jewish and can be compared to those found in the Letter of Aristeas, such as wisdom and justice. The author suggests that some show beliefs about the afterlife that seem more Pharisaic than Sadducean, contrary to what has previously been suggested. She thinks that references to “burning” can be taken literally as showing the use of cremation, rather than being metaphors or conventional language used out of context. 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”. Since it would be difficult to use the exact wording of the epitaphs to claim that Jews literally believed in deities called Hades and Tyche, it is also difficult to be sure that they literally practised “burning”, and the question will probably remain open until a cremation urn is found with a clearly Jewish name written on it.
As with the Jewish catacombs of Rome, it is not possible to be certain that all the deceased commemorated in the epitaphs were Jewish; it would be arbitrary to omit the minority without clearly Jewish names when there is evidence of Jewish and non-Jewish names being used in the same family. As Capponi observes (134), we can only speak of people belonging to a community of predominantly Jewish soldiers. Many of the inscriptions are also difficult to date. She notes that the dating formula “year x, month, day y” disappeared during the reign of Tiberius, which provides a terminus ante quem for most of the inscriptions, but she also suggests that they are distributed across the whole period from 150 BCE to 117 CE. In fact, the homogeneity of style and formulae may indicate that many belong to a more limited chronological range, since it is unlikely that fashions of commemoration would not have changed over 250 years. The author thus proposes that metrical inscriptions may have been replaced by shorter, formulaic ones in prose during the Augustan period.
The author also discusses, in Appendix 3, “the site of Leontopolis”, looking at the archaeological evidence found in the 1890s and early 1900s at Tell el-Yahoudieh, the place identified as Leontopolis on most maps including Capponi’s own, and at other possible locations of the Leontopolis described by Josephus. She concludes that the “land of Onias” comprised the whole area around Heliopolis and that there were numerous Jewish villages, but she ultimately refrains from arguing whether Tell el-Yahoudieh is really Leontopolis.
All ancient texts are given in Greek or Latin as well as Italian translation. Each chapter is clearly set out, with conclusions restated at the end. All the inscriptions are given in full in Appendix 1, with critical apparatus, and there are some that have appeared since the publication of JIGRE (W. Horbury & D. Noy, Jewish inscriptions of Graeco-Roman Egypt, Cambridge, 1992) and can be attributed to Leontopolis. This appendix in itself therefore makes the book very useful.
The 2nd-century BCE papyri of the Jewish politeuma of Heracleopolis (P. Polit. Iud.) were published recently (J. Cowey & K. Maresch, Urkunden des Politeuma der Juden von Herakleopolis, Cologne, 2001). These documents have substantially advanced scholars’ understanding of how one Jewish community was organised, with the implication that others such as that at Leontopolis may have worked on similar lines, even if Heracleopolis was a long way further south and its Jewish community did not have such an august founder. Heracleopolis had a politarch and a council of archons in the city and elders in the surrounding villages, and Capponi makes some comparisons (141-2) with this structure. Unfortunately, it was not normal at Leontopolis for epitaphs to record the deceased’s communal office (unlike the Jewish epitaphs of Rome). The one exception, the epitaph of Abraham, “politarch of two places” (JIGRE 39) has had great weight placed on its exact choice of language, but the Heracleopolis model may offer greater insight now.
Capponi concludes the main part of the book with a section on “problems still open”: whether the practice of Judaism developed differently at Onias’ temple; how important the temple was in affirming Jewish monotheism. From a historical rather than theological perspective, there is much else that would be good to know about Leontopolis: the size and organisation of the community; the relationship between the temple and the secular authorities; how exclusively Jewish the population was. These are questions that are unlikely to be answered directly, but the small amount of evidence, clearly set out and discussed in this book, still yields a lot of information.