Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Livia Capponi, Il tempio di Leontopoli in Egitto: Identità politica e religiosa dei Giudei di Onia (c. 150 a.C-73 d.C.). Pubblicazioni della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia dell'Università di Pavia 118. Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2007. Pp. 255. ISBN 9788846719430. €18.00 (pb).

Reviewed by David Noy, University of Wales Lampeter (

Word count: 1623 words

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.

This in particular caught my eye, since I'm always on the lookout for evidence for Jewish mysticism:
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.
Gideon Bohak has argued that the long version of Joseph and Aseneth is connected with the Jewish Leontopolitan priesthood (see the review) and it might be worthwhile to look at this pseudepigraphon in comparison to these inscriptions.

Via PhDiva Dorothy King.