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The Therapeutae were a religious sect which existed in Alexandria and other parts of the ancient Greek world.

The primary source concerning the Therapeutae is the De vita contemplativa ("The Contemplative Life"), traditionally ascribed to the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE – 50 CE).[1][2] The author appears to have been personally acquainted with them. The author describes the Therapeutae as "philosophers" (cf. I.2) and mentions a group that lived on a low hill by the Lake Mareotis close to Alexandria in circumstances resembling lavrite life (cf. III.22). They were "the best" of a kind given to "perfect goodness" that "exists in many places in the inhabited world" (cf. III.21). The author was unsure of the origin of the name and derives the name Therapeutae/Therapeutides from Greek θεραπεύω in the sense of "cure" or "worship" (cf. I.2).

Philo's description of the doctrines and practices of the Therapeutae leaves great ambiguity about what religion they are associated with. Analysis by religious scholar Ullrich R. Kleinhempel indicates that the most likely religion the Therapeutae practiced was Buddhism.[3]


The term Therapeutae (plural) is Latin, from Philo's Greek plural Therapeutai (Θεραπευταί). The term therapeutes means one who is attendant to the gods[4] although the term, and the related adjective therapeutikos[5] carry in later texts the meaning of attending to heal, or treating in a spiritual or medical sense. The Greek feminine plural Therapeutrides (Θεραπευτρίδες) is sometimes encountered for their female members.[6][7][8] The term therapeutae may occur in relation to followers of Asclepius at Pergamon, and therapeutai may also occur in relation to worshippers of Sarapis in inscriptions, such as on Delos.[9]

De vita contemplativa account[edit]

The author described the Therapeutae in De vita contemplativa ("On the contemplative life"), written in the first century CE. The origins of the Therapeutae were unclear, and Philo was even unsure about the etymology of their name, which he explained as meaning either physicians of souls or servants of God. The opening phrases of his essay establish that it followed one that has been lost, on the active life. Philo was employing the familiar polarity in Hellenic philosophy between the active and the contemplative life, exemplifying the active life by the Essenes, another severely ascetic sect, and the contemplative life by the desert-dwelling Therapeutae.

Hellenistic Jewish synagogue fresco Moses being taken from the river Nile

According to De Vita Contemplativa, the Therapeutae were widely distributed in the Ancient world, among the Greeks and beyond in the non-Greek world of the "barbarians", with one of their major gathering points being in Alexandria, in the area of the Lake Mareotis:

Now this class of persons may be met with in many places, for it was fitting that both Greece and the country of the barbarians should partake of whatever is perfectly good; and there is the greatest number of such men in Egypt, in every one of the districts, or nomes, as they are called, and especially around Alexandria; and from all quarters those who are the best of these therapeutae proceed on their pilgrimage to some most suitable place as if it were their country, which is beyond the Maereotic lake.

— De Vita Contemplativa[10]

Teachings and lifestyle[edit]

Temperance and simplicity[edit]

They lived chastely with utter simplicity; they "first of all laid down temperance as a sort of foundation for the soul to rest upon, proceed to build up other virtues on this foundation" (Philo). They renounced property and followed severe discipline:

These men abandon their property without being influenced by any predominant attraction, and flee without even turning their heads back again.

— De Vita Contemplativa para. 18

Six days per week of solitude, meeting on seventh day, with teaching and hymns[edit]

They were dedicated to the contemplative life, and their activities for six days of the week consisted of ascetic practices, fasting, solitary prayers and the study of the scriptures in their isolated cells, each with its separate holy sanctuary, and enclosed courtyard:

the entire interval from dawn to evening is given up by them to spiritual exercises. For they read the holy scriptures and draw out in thought and allegory their ancestral philosophy, since they regard the literal meanings as symbols of an inner and hidden nature revealing itself in covert ideas.

— De Vita Contemplativa, para. 28

On the seventh day the Therapeutae met in a meeting house, the men on one side of an open partition, the women modestly on the other, to hear discourses. Once in seven weeks they meet for a night-long vigil after a banquet where they served one another, for "they are not waited on by slaves, because they deem any possession of servants whatever to be contrary to nature. For she has begotten all men alike free" (De Vita Contemplativa, para.70) and sing antiphonal hymns until dawn.

Testament of Job[edit]

The pseudepigraphic Testament of Job is seen as possibly a Therapeutae text.[11][12]

Early Christian interpretations[edit]

The 3rd-century Christian writer Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263–339), in his Ecclesiastical History, identified Philo's Therapeutae as the first Christian monks, identifying their renunciation of property, chastity, fasting, and solitary lives with the cenobitic ideal of the Christian monks.[13]

The 4th-century Christian heresiologist Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 315–403), bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, author of the Panarion, or Medicine Chest against Heresies, misidentified Philo's Therapeuate as "Jessaens" and considered them a Christian group.

The 5th-century Christian writer Pseudo-Dionysius, following Philo, interprets that "Some people gave to the ascetics the name 'Therapeutae' or servants while some others gave them the name monks". Pseudo-Dionysius interprets Philo's group as a highly organized Christian ascetic order, and the meaning of the name "Therapeutae" as "servants".[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The authorship has been called into question because of the different stance on Greek philosophy of this work from that of other works that were written by Philo and because elsewhere Philo makes no mention of the Therapeutae. See Philo's work.
  2. ^ Toy, Crawford Howell; Siegfried, Carl; Lauterbach, Jacob Zallel. "PHILO JUDÆUS".
  3. ^ Ullrich R . Kleinhempel, "Traces of Buddhist Presence in Alexandria: Philo and the "Therapeutae"", Научно-теоретический журнал 2019
  4. ^ θερα^π-ευτής, οῦ, ὁ A. one who serves the gods, worshipper, θ. Ἄρεως, θεῶν, Pl.Phdr.252c, Lg.740c; ὁσίων τε καὶ ἱερῶν ib.878a; “τοῦ καλοῦ” Ph.1.261; οἱ θ. worshippers of Sarapis or Isis, UPZ8.19 (ii B.C.), IG11(4).1226 (Delos, ii B.C.); title of play by Diphilus, ib.2.992ii9; name of certain ascetics, Ph.2.471; θ. ὁσιότητος, of the followers of Moses, ib.177. 2. one who serves a great man, courtier, “οἱ ἀμφὶ τὸν πάππον θ.” X.Cyr.1.3.7. II. one who attends to anything, c. gen., “σώματος” Pl.Grg.517e; “τῶν περὶ τὸ σῶμα” Id.R.369d. 2. medical attendant, τῶν καμνόντων ib.341c.
  5. ^ θερα^π-ευτικός, ή, όν, A. inclined to serve, c. gen., “τῶν φίλων” X.Ages.8.1; “εὐσέβεια δύναμις θ. θεῶν” Pl.Def.412e; “θεοῦ” Ph.1.202 (but τὸ θ. γένος, = θεραπευταί, Id.2.473); inclined to court, τῶν δυνατῶν, τοῦ πλήθους, Plutarch Lysander.2, Comp.Plutarch Lycurgus. Num.2; “τὸ θ. τῆς ὁμιλίας” Plutarch Lysander.4. 2. abs., courteous, obsequious, in good and bad sense, X.HG3.1.28 (Comp.), Plutarch Lucullus.16; “θ.παρρησία” Id.2.74a. Adv. “-κῶς” Id.Art.4; “θ. ἔχειν τινός” Ph.1.186, cf. Str.6.4.2. II. inclined to take care of, careful of, λόγου dub. l. in Men.402.15. 2. esp. of medical treatment, ἕξις θ. a valetudinarian habit of body, Arist.Pol.1335b7; ἡ -κή, = θεραπεία, Pl.Plt.282a; also τὸ -κόν therapeutics, Dsc. Ther. Praef. (but also τὸ περὶ παθῶν θ., title of a work on moral remedies by Chrysippus, Phld.Ir.p.17 W.); περὶ θ. μεθόδου, title of work by Galen.
  6. ^ θερα^π-ευτός, όν, A. that may be fostered or cultivated, Pl.Prt.325b. 2. curable, Paul.Aeg.4.5.
  7. ^ θερα^π-εύτρια, ἡ, fem. of A. “θεραπευτής” EM47.45.
  8. ^ LSJ θερα^π-ευτρίς, ίδος, ἡ,= foreg., Ph.1.261, 655: pl., as title of certain female ascetics, Id.2.471.
  9. ^ Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World John S. Kloppenborg, Stephen G. Wilson - 2012 "Vidman thinks they were simple worshipers united in a loose association (1970:69, 125 38); cf. therapeutae of Asclepius at Pergamon (Habicht 1969:114 15). melan-phoroi; cf. Poland, s.v. melan-phoroi, PW 15:408 14; Wilcken 1927 57, 1:8,"....Footnote 33..The latter is found of worshipers of Sarapis in inscriptions (LSJ cites IG XI/4 second century BCE Delos)
  10. ^ On Ascetics (another name for the De Vita Contemplativa), Section III.
  11. ^ Spittler, Russel Paul (1983), 'Testament of Job', in James H. Charlesworth (ed. Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol I Doubleday
  12. ^ Taylor, Joan E., "Virgin Mothers: Philo on the Women Therapeutae," Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, 12.1(2001): 37-63. doi:10.1177/095182070101200102
  13. ^ Constantine Scouteris, University of Athens Source "The semianchoritic character of the Therapeutae community, the renunciation of property, the solitude during the six days of the week and the gathering together on Saturday for the common prayer and the common meal, the severe fasting, the keeping alive of the memory of God, the continuous prayer, the meditation and study of Holy Scripture were also practices of the Christian anchorites of the Alexandrian desert."[permanent dead link] Constantine Scouteris, "The Therapeutae of Philo and the Monks as Therapeutae according to Pseudo-Dionysius Scouteris, The Therapeutae of Philo and the Monks as Therapeutae according to Pseudo-Dionysius
  14. ^ Constantine Scouteris, University of Athens Source "The contribution of Pseudo-Dionysius lies in the fact that, not only has he not rejected Philo's thought, but he enriched it with a distinctly Christian attitude. Or to put it differently. Pseudo-Dionysiu's purpose was to present the Christian teaching concerning the monastic way; and he did so using the Philonian language, symbols and categories."

Further reading[edit]

  • Simon, Marcel, Jewish Sects at the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967; 1980).
  • Елизарова, М. М. Община терапевтов (Из истории ессейского общественно-религиозного движения 1 в. н.э.). М., 1972.
  • Taylor, Joan E. Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria: Philo's "Therapeutae" Reconsidered (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  • Celia Deutsch, "The Therapeutae, Text Work, Ritual, and Mystical Experience," in Paradise Now: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism. Ed. by April D. Deconick (Leiden, Brill, 2006), 287–312.
  • Ullrich R. Kleinhempel, Traces of buddhist presence in Alexandria; Philo and the "Therapeutae".in: ALITER, 2019, pp. 3–31.

External links[edit]