In my opinion, the original material written by Josephus in the first century is completely lost to us. But as this isn't going to be a post about how and why I think that what has survived in his name should be used cautiously let's move on to deal with the claims of this material that the Jewish temple in Egypt was located in Leontopolis rather than Alexandria. Scholars tend to just open the works of Josephus and exclaim 'there it is!' and end the discussion of alternative possibilities at that. Some will even tell you that W M Petrie 'found' the temple at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet this is academic research at its very worst.
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 not the only one to think this. Only those who don't notice the fact that everyone who has ever accepted Petrie's claims that he has found Josephus' temple in Egypt has to find ways of creatively 'cutting corners' to make one resemble the other. Let's not forget what the surviving text of Josephus claims was at Leontopolis.
Oh, but wait a minute. I forgot. We also gloss over the fact that Josephus' account is absolutely contradictory.
You see at first he says that the building that Onias made in Egypt was an EXACT REPLICA of the Jewish temple:
the son of Onias the high priest, who was of the same name with his father, and who fled to king Ptolemy, who was called Philometor, lived now at Alexandria, as we have said already. When this Onias saw that Judea was oppressed by the Macedonians and their kings, out of a desire to purchase to himself a memorial and eternal fame he resolved to send to king Ptolemy and queen Cleopatra, to ask leave of them that he might build a temple in Egypt like to that at Jerusalem, and might ordain Levites and priests out of their own stock. The chief reason why he was desirous so to do, was, that he relied upon the prophet Isaiah, who lived above six hundred years before, and foretold that there certainly was to be a temple built to Almighty God in Egypt by a man that was a Jew. Onias was elevated with this prediction, and wrote the following epistle to Ptolemy and Cleopatra: "Having done many and great things for you in the affairs of the war, by the assistance of God, and that in Celesyria and Phoenicia, I came at length with the Jews to Leontopolis, and to other places of your nation, where I found that the greatest part of your people had temples in an improper manner, and that on this account they bare ill-will one against another, which happens to the Egyptians by reason of the multitude of their temples, and the difference of opinions about Divine worship. Now I found a very fit place in a castle that hath its name from the country Diana; this place is full of materials of several sorts, and replenished with sacred animals; I desire therefore that you will grant me leave to purge this holy place, which belongs to no master, and is fallen down, and to build there a temple to Almighty God, after the pattern of that in Jerusalem, and of the same dimensions, that may be for the benefit of thyself, and thy wife and children, that those Jews which dwell in Egypt may have a place whither they may come and meet together in mutual harmony one with another, and he subservient to thy advantages; for the prophet Isaiah foretold that "there should be an altar in Egypt to the Lord God; and many other such things did he prophesy relating to that place." [Antiquities 13]
So let's remember that this whole story is supposed to end with the building of some sort of a building THAT WAS NOT like the Jewish temple (according to what is written at the end of Jewish War). So let's continue with the story:
So this was what Onias wrote to king Ptolemy. Now any one may observe his piety, and that of his sister and wife Cleopatra, by that epistle which they wrote in answer to it; for they laid the blame and the transgression of the law upon the head of Onias. And this was their reply: "King Ptolemy and queen Cleopatra to Onias, send greeting. We have read thy petition, wherein thou desirest leave to be given thee to purge that temple which is fallen down at Leontopolis, in the Nomus of Heliopolis, and which is named from the country Bubastis; on which account we cannot but wonder that it should be pleasing to God to have a temple erected in a place so unclean, and so full of sacred animals. But since thou sayest that Isaiah the prophet foretold this long ago, we give thee leave to do it, if it may be done according to your law, and so that we may not appear to have at all offended God herein."
So Onias took the place, and built a temple, and an altar to God, like indeed to that in Jerusalem, but smaller and poorer. I do not think it proper for me now to describe its dimensions or its vessels, which have been already described in my seventh book of the Wars of the Jews. However, Onias found other Jews like to himself, together with priests and Levites, that there performed Divine service. But we have said enough about this temple.
Okay, the words on the page say that the temple was located in Leontopolis. There is no doubt about that. That's what the text NOW reads. There's no doubt about it.
There is also the same story reference (sort of) in the First Book of the Jewish War, where it says:
Onias, the high priest, fled to Ptolemy, and received a place from him in the Nomus of Heliopolis, where he built a city resembling Jerusalem, and a temple that was like its temple concerning which we shall speak more in its proper place hereafter. [Jewish War 1.1]
Okay, so it would seem like there are no problems with this story, right? There was a temple made to resemble the Jewish temple only now in Leontopolis. So let's read that story that the last story tells us will confirm everything just said:
So Ptolemy complied with his proposals, and gave him a place one hundred and eighty furlongs distant from Memphis. That Nomos was called the Nomos of Hellopolls, where Onias built a fortress and a temple, not like to that at Jerusalem, but such as resembled a tower. He built it of large stones to the height of sixty cubits; he made the structure of the altar in imitation of that in our own country, and in like manner adorned with gifts, excepting the make of the candlestick, for he did not make a candlestick, but had a [single] lamp hammered out of a piece of gold, which illuminated the place with its rays, and which he hung by a chain of gold; but the entire temple was encompassed with a wall of burnt brick, though it had gates of stone. The king also gave him a large country for a revenue in money, that both the priests might have a plentiful provision made for them, and that God might have great abundance of what things were necessary for his worship. Yet did not Onias do this out of a sober disposition, but he had a mind to contend with the Jews at Jerusalem, and could not forget the indignation he had for being banished thence. Accordingly, he thought that by building this temple he should draw away a great number from them to himself. There had been also a certain ancient prediction made by [a prophet] whose name was Isaiah, about six hundred years before, that this temple should be built by a man that was a Jew in Egypt. And this is the history of the building of that temple.
And now Lupus, the governor of Alexandria, upon the receipt of Caesar's letter, came to the temple, and carried out of it some of the donations dedicated thereto, and shut up the temple itself. And as Lupus died a little afterward, Paulinns succeeded him. This man left none of those donations there, and threatened the priests severely if they did not bring them all out; nor did he permit any who were desirous of worshipping God there so much as to come near the whole sacred place; but when he had shut up the gates, he made it entirely inaccessible, insomuch that there remained no longer the least footsteps of any Divine worship that had been in that place. Now the duration of the time from the building of this temple till it was shut up again was three hundred and forty-three years. [Jewish War 7.10]
The way scholars work of course is to abuse Occam's razor and basically 'find the path of least resistance' to make everything work. The notes to Whiston's translation of Josephus is typical in this regard - "of this temple of Onias's building in Egypt, see the notes on Antiq. B. XIII. ch. 3. sect. 1. But whereas it is elsewhere, both of the War, B. I. ch. 1. sect. 1, and in the Antiquities as now quoted, said that this temple was like to that at Jerusalem, and here that it was not like it, but like a tower, sect. 3, there is some reason to suspect the reading here, and that either the negative particle is here to be blotted out, or the word entirely added."