THERAPEUTAE , a name given to a group of Jewish ascetics who lived in a community close to Alexandria in the first century C.E. This particular group is described specifically only by the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo in his treatise De Vita Contemplativa ("On the Contemplative Life"). The treatise explores one of the perfect philosophical lives as defined by the Stoics, and follows on from a lost treatise on the active life of philosophy in which the Essenes were used as the definitive Jewish example of excellence. The group of De Vita Contemplativa may itself have used the name therapeutai as a self-reference, though Philo indicates that all those who follow a contemplative life of philosophy may be called therapeutai (Contempl. 2). In Greek therapeutai has a general meaning of "one who serves [God/the gods]," a sense found widely in Philo's work and elsewhere in contemporaneous Greek literature and inscriptions. This relates to the life they lead of total service to God through an ascetic and spiritually focused existence. Philo also plays on the double-entendre of the word in noting that people engaged in a contemplative life in some way "heal" souls.
Philo describes those who follow the contemplative lifestyle as leaving behind their ordinary lives and homes, distributing their belongings to their children, relatives or friends, in order to pursue philosophy elsewhere. They find a place away from their home city in a quiet, rural location in which their contemplative practice can be pursued. While Philo notes that those who follow this lifestyle exist in many parts of the world, he stresses that it is abundantly seen in Egypt, particularly around Alexandria. At this point in the treatise Philo introduces the Jewish group he would focus upon as "the best" of all the contemplative philosophers (Contempl. 22). He notes that their particular community is situated in a healthy, breezy spot on a flat, low-lying hill (probably south-west of Alexandria), in between Lake Mareotis and the Mediterranean Sea. Philo writes that their location is surrounded by dwellings and villages and implies that there are cultivated fields and pastures (factors that differentiate them from later Christian ascetics who sought more extreme solitude in desert regions). The architecture of the community settlement is described as consisting of a central building – most likely originally a country villa – incorporating a sacred meeting room (semneion) and dining hall (sumposion), along with numerous individual hut-like dwellings divided into two rooms: an outer and an inner, the latter called a monasterion or semneion. In the inner room they keep sacred writings for study and inspiration.
In terms of their spiritual and philosophical exercises, Philo describes the Therapeutae as praying twice every day, at sunrise and sunset. At sunrise they pray to have their minds illuminated by heavenly light, and for the soul to be relieved of the disturbance of the physical senses, in order to follow truth. They interpret "the sacred instructions of the prophet Moses" (Contempl. 64) allegorically in order to discover deeper meanings, using works written by predecessors as guides. They compose and write down hymns. Engaged in this practice, they remain within their rough huts for six days, and on seventh days (Sabbaths) they assemble in the meeting room to hear a discourse from the most senior elder. Philo notes that both men and women are equally members of the group, and that this meeting room is divided by a wall 3–4 cubits high, probably with men on one side and women on the other.
They do not eat until after sunset, since the body and its needs are associated with darkness, while their practice of spiritual philosophy is associated with light. They eat only bread seasoned with salt (and sometimes hyssop), and drink only spring water. Philo notes that some Therapeutae can be so preoccupied with contemplation that they do not think of food for three days, and that they can utter precepts of philosophy in their sleep while dreaming. Their clothing is very basic: a short exomis or linen wrap in summer, covered with a cloak of woolly sheep or goat skin in winter. It is clear from such comments that Philo wished to emphasize aspects of the group that would impress those who followed Stoic philosophy, in which asceticism, detachment from the world, intellectual clarity, and concentration on the essence of the universe (Nature/God) were prime interests.
A large part of Philo's treatise is taken up with a description of a special event that takes place every 49th evening (the Sabbath of Sabbaths). Like the Pythagoreans, the group apparently venerated not only the number seven but its square. On this occasion, they dress themselves in white clothing (also like Pythagoreans, and also serving Levites or Egyptian cultic priests). At this point in the treatise it becomes clear that the community Philo describes is hierarchical with each member allocated a particular place. There is a lower order of Therapeutae: the "dailies" (Contempl. 66). These junior members are chosen to maintain the senior members and wait on them during dinner as diakonoi who take the place of slaves. The dining hall is divided, like the meeting room, into two parts, with men on the right and women on the left. They recline on very rough couches: wooden benches strewn with local papyrus, slightly raised for leaning upon.
The procedure at the 49th evening celebration is carefully described by Philo. The president of the community, while reclining, gives a lecture, using allegorical interpretation, on a passage of Scripture or on a philosophical proposition. The community listens in silence, with occasional utterings of approval. The seniors recline and the juniors stand during the address, and afterwards the president is applauded by clapping. He then stands up and sings a hymn, either an ancient one or something recently composed, and then all the others take a turn in singing, with everyone joining in for closing lines and choruses. The meal – bread, salt, hyssop, spring water – is then brought in on a table and served out by the juniors. The table seems to be symbolic of the table of shewbread in the Temple sanctuary. After dinner, the entire company stand and join together in the middle of the dining room in two choirs, one of men and one of women, each with their own choir-leader. The leaders stand in the places of Moses and Miriam respectively who led Israel in songs of praise after the escape from Egypt (Exod. 15). Everyone sings, claps and dances, eventually forming one harmonious choir, singing songs of thanksgiving to God in an ecstatic state. At dawn they greet the arrival of the 50th day by all standing turned toward the rising sun. They pray for a bright day of truth and intellectual illumination, after which they return to their huts.
Questions have been raised about how much Philo is creating an ideal community out of hearsay or accurately representing an actual group. Philo is clearly using elements he believed would appeal to a Stoic audience and others trained in Graeco-Roman philosophy, but it is not improbable that Philo visited such a community close to Alexandria himself and reported what he saw. Philo himself may not have agreed with every aspect of the group's practice. The group seemed to have followed an older or heterodox solar calendar that has the new day beginning at dawn, and its repetition of the 49th evening as the time for festivity is difficult to reconcile with the usual feasts of the Jewish calendar. The group reveres the number 50 as "the most holy and natural of numbers" (Contempl. 65), like the Pythagoreans, and celebrates the 50th day's regular arrival. The presence of women in the group on an equal or near equal footing with men is striking, but nothing is provided by Philo to explain the group's rationale for such inclusivity, though there may be some implication that both men and women, divested of material connections, aim to be cultic attendants (therapeutai) in a true, spiritual Temple. Philo works hard to ensure that the women are presented as a modest ideal, describing them as "mostly elderly virgins" (Contempl. 68) and thereby somewhat de-sexualized.
It seems likely that if a real group is in fact described in De Vita Contemplativa then it should be seen as part of a larger exegetical and philosophical tradition within Alexandrian Judaism, in which allegorical exegesis, asceticism and an accommodation with Graeco-Roman philosophy is attested. The individual group Philo describes would represent one school of thought within this tradition, but at present much still needs to be learnt about the characteristics of Alexandrian Judaism in the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods before the place of the Therapeutae in this context is properly understood.
F.C. Conybeare, Philo About the Contemplative Life (1895; repr. 1987); F. Daumas and P. Miquel, De Vita Contemplativa (Les Oeuvres de Philon d'Alexandrie; Paris, Éditions du Cerf, 1963); T. Engberg-Pedersen, "Philo's De Vita Contemplativa as a Philosopher's Dream," in: JSJ, 30 (1999), 40–64; D. Hay, "Things Philo Said and Did Not Say about the Therapeutae," in: Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers, 31 (1992), 673–83; idem, "The Veiled Thoughts of the Therapeutae," in: R.M. Berchman (ed.), Mediators of the Divine: Horizons of Prophecy, Divination, Dreams and Theurgy in Mediterranean Antiquity (1998), 167–84; R.S. Kraemer, "Monastic Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Egypt: Philo Judaeus on the Therapeutrides," in: Signs, 14 (1989), 342–70; J. Riaud, "Les Thérapeutes d'Alexandrie dans la Tradition et dans la recherche critique jusqu'aux découvertes de Qumran," in: ANRW, 2: 20: 2 (1987), 1189–1295; G.P. Richardson, "Philo and Eusebius on Monasteries and Monasticism: The Therapeutae and Kellia," in: B.H. McLean (ed.), Origins and Method: Towards an Understanding of Judaism and Christianity: Essays in Honour of John C. Hurd (1993), 334–59; H. Szesnat, "'Mostly Aged Virgins': Philo and the Presence of the Therapeutrides at Lake Mareotis," in: Neotestamentica, 32 (1998), 191–201; J.E. Taylor, Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria: Philo's "Therapeutae" Reconsidered (2003); idem, "Virgin Mothers: Philo on the Women Therapeutae," in: Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, 12 (2001), 37–63; idem, "The Women 'Priests' of Philo's De Vita Contemplativa: Reconstructing the Therapeutae," in: J. Schaberg, A. Bach, and E. Fuchs (eds.), The Cutting Edge (2004), 102–22; J.E. Taylor and P.R. Davies, "The So-Called Therapeutae of De Vita Contemplativa: Identity and Character," in: HTR, 91 (1998), 3–24.
[Joan E. Taylor (2nd ed.)]
A small Jewish religious community of men and women, originating and developing under the influence of the Hellenistic movement in Egypt toward the end of the 1st century b.c. Their Greek name, θεραπευταί, means devotees, persons wholly devoted to the service of God. The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher philo judae us is our sole authority for their existence and way of life. In his De Vita Contemplativa he tells us of their extraordinarily strict rule. They completely renounced the world, its treasures and pleasures; they handed over all their property to others; they practiced celibacy. In their Chartreuse-like retreat in the vicinity of Alexandria, these pre-Christian recluses lived in an encampment of individual huts. In their simple hovels they devoted themselves to contemplation, study, and fasting. In their emphasis on contemplation, to the exclusion of manual labor, they differed from the famous sect of the essenes in Palestine. At dawn and sunset they prayed; the remainder of the day was given to reflection on the Scriptures and their commentaries. They fasted six days of the week, taking their one simple meal after sunset. On the 7th day, they assembled for communal worship and a sermon on the Scriptures. Each 50th day was a solemn festival, closing with an all-night celebration with sacred music and dance.
Bibliography: philo judaeus, Philo about the Contemplative Life … Critically Edited, with a Defence of Its Genuineness, ed. f. c. conybeare (Oxford 1895). p. wendland, Die Therapeuten … (Leipzig 1896). j. moffatt, and j. hastings, eds., Encyclopedia of Religion & Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 1908–27) 12:315–319.
[j. m. dougherty]
Therapeutae (thĕrəpyōō´tē) [Gr.,=worshipers], Jewish monastic order living on the shore of Lake Mareotis, Egypt, about the 1st cent. AD They led an ascetic life devoted to solitary prayer and study of the scriptures, gathering on the sabbath for study and a communal meal. They may have a connection with the Essenes, although evidence is scanty. The only ancient source to mention them is Philo's De vita contemplativa.