ONIAS ō nī’ əs (̓Ονίας). The name of three persons who were high priests in the Maccabean period, and of a fourth who, though not becoming high priest, was the builder of the temple of Leontopolis.
1. Onias I was high priest from c. 320-290 b.c. and a contemporary of the Spartan King Arius (309-265 b.c.). This king at one time, according to 1 Maccabees 12:1-23, sent a letter to Onias embodying a declaration of alliance and friendship, and stating, among other things, that the Spartans and Jews were brethren. This Onias had a son, Simon I, called “the Just” by Josephus (Antiq. XI. viii. 7; XII. iv. 1) who succeeded him in office.
2. Onias II, son of Simon I, assumed the high priesthood after Eleazar and Manasseh. For several years he failed to remit to Ptolemy III Euergetes the annual tribute of twenty talents. At last Ptolemy, the king of Egypt, threatened to take military action. The impending disaster was averted by Onias’ nephew Joseph, who, having friendly relations with the Egyp. court, managed to conciliate Ptolemy (Jos., Antiq. XII. iv. 1ff.). His son Simon II assumed the high priestly office after the death of his father.
3. Onias III, son of Simon II, ranks as the most important of the high priests bearing this name. Having assumed office c. 198 b.c., he was high priest mainly during the reign of the Syrian King Seleucus IV (187-175 b.c.). He was noted for his piety and hatred of wickedness and commanded the respect of Seleucus to such a degree that the king from his own revenues defrayed all the expenses connected with the service of the sacrifices (2 Macc 3:1-3). A dispute between him and a man named Simon, a captain of the Temple, led to a break between Onias and the king. Simon, via Apollonius of Tarsus, governor of Coelesyria and Tarsus, informed the king of the existence of a Temple treasury, apparently greatly exaggerating the amount. Seleucus commissioned Heliodorus to confiscate this treasury. With the strong backing of his people Onias refused to yield. According to the account in 2 Maccabees 3:8, Heliodorus was supernaturally repulsed. After the assassination of Seleucus to whom Onias had gone to plead his cause, Antiochus Epiphanes deposed him and put his brother Jason in his place. Onias later was murdered (2 Macc 4:33ff.).
S. Tedesche and S. Zeitlin, The Second Book of Maccabees (1954), 1-15; V. Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (1959).
4. Onias IV. Son of Onias III and his rightful successor. Because of the dreadful circumstances in Jerusalem he fled to Egypt where he was welcomed by Ptolemy Philometor. The latter gave him an unused temple in Leontopolis in the Egyp. Delta. Onias proceeded to rebuild this into a rival temple of the one at Jerusalem and as a religious center of Hellenic Judaism (Jos., Antiq. XII. ix. 7; XIII. iii, 1. 2. 3; XX. x. 1).
S. A. Hirsch, “The Temple of Onias,” Jews’ College Jubilee Volume (1925), 39-80.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
There were 3 high priests of the name of Onias, and a 4th Onias who did not become a high priest but was known as the builder of the temple of Leontopolis (Josephus, Ant, XIII, iii, 1-3). Only two persons of the name are mentioned in the Apocrypha--Onias I and Onias III.
(1) Onias I, according to Josephus (Ant., XI, viii, 7), the son of Jaddua and father of Simon the Just (ibid., XII, ii, 5; Sirach 50), and, according to 1 Macc 12:7,20, a contemporary of Areus (Arius), king of Sparta, who reigned 309-265 BC (Diod. xx.29). This Onias was the recipient of a friendly letter from Areus of Sparta (1 Macc 12:7; see manuscripts readings here, and 12:20). Josephus (Ant., XII, iv, 10) represents this letter as written to Onias III, which is an error, for only two Areuses are known, and Areus II reigned about 255 BC and died a child of 8 years (Paus. iii.6,6). The letter--if genuine--exists in two copies (Josephus, Ant, XII, iv, 10, and 1 Macc 12:20 ff) (see Schurer, History of the Jewish People, 4th edition, I, 182 and 237).
(2) Onias III, son of Simon II (Josephus, Ant, XII, iv, 10), whom he succeeded, and a contemporary of Seleucus IV and Antiochus Epiphanes (2 Macc 3:1; 4:7) and father of Onias IV. He was known for his godliness and zeal for the law, yet was on such friendly terms with the Seleucids that Seleucus IV Philopator defrayed the cost of the "services of the sacrifices." He quarreled with Simon the Benjamite, guardian of the temple, about the market buildings (Greek aedileship). Being unable to get the better of Onias and thirsting for revenge, Simon went to Apollonius, governor of Coele-Syria and Phoenicia, and informed him of the "untold sums of money," lodged in the treasury of the temple. The governor told the king, and Seleucus dispatched his chancellor, Heliodorus, to remove the money. Onias remonstrated in vain, pleading for the "deposits of widows and orphans." Heliodorus persisted in the object of his mission. The high priest and the people were in the greatest distress. But when Heliodorus had already entered the temple, "the Sovereign of spirits, and of all authority caused a great apparition," a horse with a terrible rider accompanied by two strong and beautiful young men who scourged and wounded Heliodorus. At the intercession of Onias, his life was spared. Heliodorus advised the king to send on the same errand any enemy or conspirator whom he wished punished. Simon then slandered Onias, and the jealousy having caused bloodshed between their followers, Onias decided to repair in person to the king to intercede for his country. Apparently before a decision was given, Seleucus was assassinated and Epiphanes succeeded (175 BC). Jason, the brother of Onias, having offered the new king larger revenue, secured the priesthood, which he held until he himself was similarly supplanted by Menelaus, Simon’s brother (2 Macc 4:23; Josephus, Ant, XII, v, 1, says Jason’s brother). Menelaus, having stolen golden vessels belonging to the temple to meet his promises made to the king, was sharply reproved by Onias. Menelaus took revenge by persuading Andronicus, the king’s deputy, to entice Onias by false promises of friendship from his sanctuary at Daphne and treacherously slay him--an act which caused indignation among both the Jews and the Greeks (2 Macc 4:34 ff). Josephus (Ant., XII, v, 1) says that "on the death of Onias the high priest, Antiochus gave the high-priesthood to his brother Jesus (Jason)," but the account of 2 Macc given above is the more probable. Some see in Da 9:26; 11:22 reference to Onias III (Schurer, 4th edition, I, 194 ff; III, 144).