The Therapeutae

I started Joan Taylor’s Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria: Philo’s ‘Therapeutae’ Reconsidered.

The Therapeutae were a Jewish group that was near Lake Mareotis, which is close to Alexandria, Egypt.  On page 99, Taylor refers to them as “an educated Jewish Alexandrian elite, who, for philosophical reasons, had chosen to forsake their affluent urban lifestyles in order to embrace a contemplative life of reading, music, and meditating on scripture.”  Taylor appears to believe that the group was supported by benefactors (as Buddhist monasteries are), who helped the Therapeutae to survive and to have “buildings, books, clothing, [and] food” (page 97).

Philo in the first century C.E. talks about the Therapeutae in De Vita Contemplativa, even as he discusses another group, the Essenes.  According to Taylor, Philo’s audience in terms of this work included a lot of Gentiles, and she says this because Philo apparently feels compelled to spell things out about Judaism, things that many Jews would know about.  For Taylor, Philo is essentially saying to his Gentile audience that there are Jewish groups that live up to pagan philosophical ideals, such as asceticism (restraining the passions) and contemplation. 

Taylor believes that the Therapeutae were an actual group that existed in history, against those who hold that Philo is being utopian or is simply using rhetoric.  Taylor acknowledges that Philo is using rhetoric and may even be idealizing the group, but, in her eyes, that does not mean that the group did not exist.

According to Philo, the Therapeutae had women.  For Taylor, Philo makes this point even though it conflicts with his misogynist tendencies, and so it was probably historical.  Since the women in this group could read, they most likely came from wealthy women, the women who had literacy.

The presence of women in the group was one factor that led Eusebius (third-fourth centuries C.E.) to think that the Therapeutae were Christians, for Christianity included women in worship (Ecclesiastical History 2:17:18).  Eusebius thought that Philo wrote De Vita Contemplativa later in life, after Philo had supposedly met the apostle Peter.  But, as Taylor notes on page 32, “No one today seriously entertains the idea that the group was Christian”, for “It is rather to be identified as Jewish (cf. Contempl. 64, where the group follows the sacred instructions according to the prophet Moses).”

What interested me was something that Taylor said on page 65: that Philo in Spec. 2:42-48 says that the people who elevate themselves above their passions and bodily needs are few.  That makes me wonder if Philo (and perhaps also the Stoics in general) saw asceticism as an ideal, not as a requirement for everybody.  I am curious about this because Stoicism and Judaism were big on marriage and the family, which seem to go against elements of asceticism (i.e., restraining the passions).

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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