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The Therapeutae
(excerpts from Philo, On the Contemplative Life)

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The Therapeutrides were the female members of a group more often referred to as the Therapeutae or healers. This group lived near the Mareotic Lake, outside of Alexandria. The only surviving description of them comes from the pen of Philo of Alexandria, who wrote an entire treatise on them (On the Contemplative Life). As you will see, Philo apparently wrote two treatises, one on a Jewish group that to his mind exemplified the ideal active life, the Essenes, and one on this Jewish group whose members left their customary occupations and pursued the contemplative life. His complete treatise on the Essenes has not survived.

As you read the following selections from Philo's treatise, make a list of the activities and attributes of the Therapeutrides. Bearing in mind Philo's general attitude toward women, apparent in his remarks on the Essenes, for what does Philo praise these women?

Secondary Evidence
Philo, On the Contemplative Life, early first century C.E.

(1) I have now spoken of the Essenes who followed with zeal and constant diligence the life of action, and so excelled in all, or, to put it more moderately, in most particulars. And therefore I will presently, following the due sequence of my treatise, say whatever is appropriate to be said about these people who have embraced contemplation, though without adding anything out of my own mind in order to exalt them unduly, as poets and composers of tales are wont to do since they have no noble examples. But I adhere simply to the bare truth, before which I know well even the most eloquent tongue will be weak and fail. Yet must I face the struggle and strive to master the task. For the greatness of these men's excellency must not be a cause of dumbness to them that hold that nothing noble should be hidden in silence. (2) But the purpose and will of the lovers of wisdom is discovered in their very name and title; for they are most fitly called Therapeutae [healers, male gender] and Therapeutridae [healers, female gender].

(13) But then, out of their yearning after the immortal and blessed life, they esteem their mortal life to have already ended, and so leave their possessions to their sons or daughters, or, in default of them, to other kinsmen, of their own free will leaving to these their heritage in advance; but, if they have no kinsmen, to their comrades and friends. It makes sense that they who have received the wealth which sees from a free and open store, should resign the wealth which is blind to those whose minds are still blinded. (14) The Greeks sing the praises of Anaxagoras and Democritus, because, smitten with the desire for wisdom, they gave up their properties to be sheep-runs. I, too, admire these men for having risen superior to wealth. Yet how much better are those who, instead of abandoning their possessions for the beasts to eat, ministered to the wants of human beings, kinsmen or friends, aiding them in their need, and raising them from helpless poverty into affluence! For, indeed, their much-praised action was ill-considered, not to use the word "mad," of men whom Greece admired. But the conduct of these is sober, and exhibits the perfection proper to the highest wisdom.

(18) So soon, then, as they have divested themselves of their properties, without allowing anything to further ensnare them, they flee without turning back, having abandoned brethren, children, wives, parents, all the throng of their kindred, all their friendships with companions, yes, their countries in which they were born and bred. For, in truth, what we are familiar with has an attractive force, and is the most powerful of baits. (19) However, they do not go away to live in another city; like those who claim of their owners to be sold, unhappy wights or errant slaves, and who so win for themselves, not freedom, but a mere change of masters. For every city, even the best governed, teems with riots and troubles untold, (20) which no one would endure that had once let himself be led by wisdom. Rather do they make for themselves their settlements outside the walls, in gardens or solitary cots, seeking solitude, not from any harsh and deliberate hatred of mankind, but as knowing that the intercourse with and the influence of those unlike themselves in character cannot profit, but only harm them.

(22) The best people from all parts, as if they were going to the native country of the Therapeutae, leave their homes and emigrate to a certain spot most suitable, which is located above the Mareotic lake, upon a low hill, very conveniently placed both for its security and well-tempered climate.

(24) And the dwellings of those thus met together are indeed of a cheap and simple kind, affording protection against the two things which most require it, namely, the extreme heat of the sun and the chilly cold of the air. For they are neither too close to one another, as in towns; since close proximity would be burdensome and ill-pleasing to those who are seeking to satisfy their desire for solitude; nor, on the other hand, are they far apart, lest they forfeit the communion which they prize and the power of aiding each other in case of an attack of robbers. (25) But in each house there is a holy room, which is called the sanctuary and monastery; because in it they celebrate all alone the mysteries of the holy life, bringing nothing into it, neither drink, nor food, nor any other of the things necessary for the wants of the body; but only the law and the oracles delivered under inspiration by the properts along with the Psalms, and the other [books] by means of which religion and sound knowledge grow together into one perfect whole. (26) And so it is that they for ever remember God and forget him not; in such wise that even in their dreams they picture to themselves nothing else but the beauties of the divine excellencies and powers. Yes, and many of them even utter forth in their sleep, when lapt in dreams, the glorious doctrines of their holy philosophy. (27) And twice every day they are accustomed to pray, about dawn and about evening; praying at sunrise for a fair day for themselves, for the day, which is really fair, which means that their minds be filled with heavenly light. But at sunset they pray that the soul be wholly relieved of the disorderly throng of the senses and of sensible things, and left free to track out and explore truth in its own conclave and council-chamber. (28) But 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.

(29) But they have also writings drawn up by men of a former age, who were the founders of their sect, and left many memorials of the form used in allegorical interpretation; and these writings they use as exemplars of a kind, emulating the ideal of character traced out in them. And so it is that they do not only contemplate, but also compose songs and hymns to God in divers strains and measures, which they write out in solemn rhythms as best they can.

(30) Now during the six days they remain apart, in strict isolation one from the other, in their houses in the monasteries aforementioned; never passing the courtyard gate, not even surveying it from a distance. But every seventh day they come together, as it were, into a common assembly; and sit down in order according to age in the becoming posture; holding their hands inwards, the right hand between the chest and the chin, but the left tucked down along the flank. (31) And then the one that is eldest and most skilled in their principles discourses, with steady glance and steady voice, with argument and wisdom; not making a display of his cleverness in speaking, like the rhetors or the sophists of today, but having carefully sifted and carefully interpreting the exact meaning of the thoughts, which meaning does not merely alight on the outer ear, but passes through their organs of hearing into the soul, and there firmly abides. But the others all listen, in silence, merely hinting their approval by an inclination of eye or head.

(32) And this common sanctuary, in which they meet on the seventh days, is a double enclosure, divided into one chamber for the men and another for the women. For women, too, as well as men, of custom form part of the audience, having the same zeal and following the same mode of life. (33) But the wall which runs midway up the buildings is, part of it, built up together like a breastwork from the floor to a height of three or four cubits; but that part which extends above up to the roof is left open for two reasons: namely, to safeguard the modesty which is proper to woman's nature, and, at the same time, to facilitate on the part of those who sit within the auditory the apprehension of what is said; there being nothing to impede the voice of him that discourses from passing freely to them.

[Philo then describes the simplicity of their food and clothing, and goes off on a long description of pagan symposia or drinking parties in order to contrast them with the festivals of the Therapeutae.]

(64) However, since the banquets so widely known are infected with such folly, and so carry in themselves their own condemnation to any one who cares to have regard to anything except fashion and the glamor of their reputation for being entirely correct and faultless of their kind; I will contrast the banquets of those who have devoted their own life as well as themselves to knowledge and contemplation of the realities of nature, in accordance with the most holy counsels of the prophet Moses. (65) These meet together for the first time after seven weeks, out of reverence not only for the simple seventh, but for its power as well. For they recognize its holy and eternally virgin character. But this meeting is the eve-celebration of the greatest festival, which the number fifty has had assigned to it, as being the most holy and natural of numbers, being composed out of the power of the right-angled triangle, which is the source of the creation of the universe.

(66) When, therefore, they have met in white raiment and with cheerful aspect, yet with the deepest solemnity, one of the Ephemereutae (which is the name commonly given to those who perform these services) gives a sign; and before laying themselves down on the couches, they take their stand one after another in a row in orderly fashion, and upturn their eyes and outstretch their hands to heaven; their eyes, since they have been taught to behold things which merit to be seen; but their hands, because they are pure from unjust gains, being stained by nothing that might be regarded as money-getting. So standing they pray to God that their festivity may be pleasing in his sight and acceptable. (67) But after the prayer, the Elders lie down, each in the order of his election into the society. For they do not regard as elders those who are aged and grey-headed; but, on the contrary, account these to be still mere infants, in case they have been late in embracing the vocation. Elders are, in their regard, those who from their earliest age have passed their youth and maturity in the contemplative branch of philosophy, which truly is the noblest and most divine. (68) But women, also, join in the banquet, of whom most are aged virgins, that have preserved intact their chastity; not so much under constraint, like some priestesses among the Greeks, as of their own free wills, and because of their zeal and longing for Wisdom; with whom they were anxious to live, and therefore despised the pleasures of the body. For they yearned not for mortal progeny, but for the immortal which the god-enamored soul is alone able to bring forth of itself, because the father has sown into it rays of reason, whereby it can behold the principles of wisdom.

(69) But they do not lie down indiscriminately, but the men's couches are set apart on the right-hand side, and those of the women apart on the left.... (70) And 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; but the injustice and greedy oppression of some who were zealous for the inequality that is the source of all evil, laid a yoke on the weaker ones and gave the control into the hands of the stronger. (71) In this holy banquet, then, there is, as I said, no slave; but the service is one of entire freedom, and they perform such service and waiting as is required, not under constraint nor even waiting for orders, but spontaneously, and even anticipate their orders by their careful and ready zeal. (72) For it is not any and every free man who is appointed to discharge these duties, but the novices of the society chosen by merit in the most careful manner; as needs should be godly persons and noble, that are pressing on to win the heights of virtue. And these, like true sons, gladly submit to wait upon their fathers and mothers, and even covet it as an honor; for they regard them as their common parents, and as more their own than those who are so by blood; inasmuch as in the regard of those who are high-minded, nothing is more one's own and akin to oneself than true righteousness. And they go in to do the waiting with the chitons loose and not girt up, in order not to wear the least appearance of being slaves or of demeaning themselves as such.

[Philo goes on to describe the meal, which includes "the clearest and purest water" rather than wine, no meat, and bread with salt relish and hyssop (a sweetener). After the basic meal is completed, the presider stands to read and expound a passage from scripture.]

(78) [The] exposition of sacred scripture proceeds by unfolding the meaning hidden in allegories. For the entire law is regarded by these persons as resembling an animal; and for its body it has the literal precepts, but for its soul the unseen reason (nous) hidden away in the words. And in and through this reason the rational and self-conscious soul begins to contemplate in a special manner its own proper intuitions. For by means of the names, as it were by means of a gazing crystal, it discerns the surpassing beauties of the notions conveyed in them. Thus, on the one hand, it unfolds and unveils the symbols, and on the other brings forward the meanings into the light and exhibits them naked to those who by a little exercise of memory are able to behold things not clear by means of things that are. [Philo then describes that the Therapeutae clap when the exposition is completed, sing a hymn, and share the pure food, a sweetened bread, to recall the offerings eaten in the Jerusalem Temple.]

(83) But after the feast is over, they celebrate the holy all-night festival; and this is kept in the following manner: All rise together, and in the middle of the banquet there are formed, at first, two choruses, one of men, the other of women, and a guide and leader is chosen on either side who is one most held in honor and most suitable. (84) Then they sing hymns composed in honor of God in many measures and strains, sometimes singing in unison, and sometimes waving their hands in time with antiphonal harmonies, and leaping up, and uttering inspired cries, as they either move in procession or stand still, making the turns and counter-turns proper to the dance. (85) Then, when each of the choirs has had its fill of dancing by itself and separate from the other, as if it were a Bacchic festival in which they had drunk deep of the Divine love, they unite, and form a single choir out of the two, in imitation of the dance long ago instituted by the side of the Red Sea to celebrate the miracles there wrought. [Philo goes on to recount the story of the Exodus, when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea, which God had dried for them, and of how God destroyed the pursuing Egyptian army when it entered the Sea.] (87) But when they both saw and experienced this mighty work, greater than could be told of, or thought of, or hoped for, men and women, all alike, were rapt with the Divine spirit, and, forming themselves into a single choir, sang hymns of thanksgiving unto God, Moses the prophet leading off the men and Miriam the prophetess the women.

(88) In closest imitation whereof the choir of Therapeutae and Therapeutridae, has formed itself, and, as the deep tones of the men mingle with the shriller ones of the women in answering and antiphonal strains, a full and harmonious symphony results, and one that is veritably musical. Noble are the thoughts, and noble the words of their hymn, yes, and noble the choristers. But the end and aim of thought and words and choristers alike is holiness. (89) When, then, they have made themselves drunk until dawn with this godly drunkenness, neither heavy of head nor with winking eyes, but more wide awake than when they came into the banquet, they stand up, and turn both their eyes and their whole bodies towards the East. And, so soon as they spy the sun rising, they stretch out aloft their hands to heaven and fall to praying for a fair day, and for truth, and for clear judgment to see with. And after their prayers they retire each to his own sanctuary, to traffic in and cultivate afresh their customary philosophy.

Further Links
Source for Philo Translation
  • Vermes, Geza and Martin D. Goodman, eds. The Essenes according to the Classical Sources. Sheffield: Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies and JSOT Press, 1989.
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