I’m continuing my way through Joan Taylor’s Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria: Philo’s ‘Therapeutae’ Reconsidered.
In my latest reading, Taylor did two things. First, she argued that the Therapeutae may have come from the extreme allegorizers whom Philo criticizes—-the Jews who interpreted the rituals of the Torah in an allegorical sense and thus felt that they did not have to do them literally. Philo himself employed a rigorous allegorical interpretation of the Torah, but, in contrast to the extreme allegorizers, he still believed in literal obedience of the Torah’s rituals, such as circumcision.
According to Philo’s description, the Therapeutae honored the Sabbath and every forty-ninth day (and Taylor discusses the calendar of the Therapeutae, which started the day at sunrise rather than sundown, in contrast to much of Judaism). Yet Philo does not refer to them engaging in purification rituals, which is odd, considering that the Therapeutae were near a lake where they could wash. Perhaps that is because they interpreted purification spiritually and concluded that they did not have to observe the rituals on a literal level. Moreover, according to Taylor, the Therapeutae and the extreme allegorizers resembled one another in their asceticism, as both sought to subdue and escape the body to see God, thereby achieving ecstasy.
Second, Taylor talks about women who were students of philosophers in the Greek world. Socrates is depicted as teaching women, and Plato has a fairly inclusive attitude. Sexism was still a characteristic of Greco-Roman culture, and yet, within the Greek world, there was a belief that women and those with poor mental capacity had some ability to learn (which is a slap in the face, I know!). Taylor is setting the stage for her book’s main topic: the women who learned within the Therapeutae community.
Taylor talks more about a topic that is of interest to me: the extent to which Philo believed that people should engage in asceticism. From what I read, it appears that Philo himself was not an extreme ascetic, for he did not spend all of his time in contemplation but was also involved in political activity. Moreover, Philo acknowledged that not everyone had the motivation to pursue a rigorous, contemplative lifestyle.