The Therapeutae (meaning: "healers") were an ancient order of mystical ascetics who lived in many parts of the ancient world but were found especially near Alexandria, the capital city of Ptolemaic Egypt. This pre-Christian group of Jewish ascetics is known today only from the writings of Philo of Alexandria, who described the group in his De Vita Contemplativa (On the Contemplative Life), written around 10 C.E. Philo compared the Therapeutae to the Essenes as both sects were known for their exemplary religious devotion and ascetic practices.
According to Philo, communities of Therapeutae were widely established in the ancient world but the particular sect near Lake Mareotis, Egypt, was quite famous for its healing arts. The Therapeutae were renowned for both their asceticism and healing abilities. Indeed, the English words "therapy" and "therapudic" may be etymologically connected to the name of this ancient religious order, insinuating that medicine and healing were deeply connected in the ancient world, and healing was seen as a religious art.
Philo described the Therapautae in the beginning of the first century C.E., in De Vita Contemplativa (On the Contemplative Life). By that time, the origins of the Therapeutae were already lost in the past, and Philo was even unsure about the etymology of their name, which he explained as meaning either "physicians of souls" or "healers."
According to Philo, the Therapeutae were widely distributed in the Ancient world, with one of their major settlements being in the area of the Lake Mareotis, Egypt:
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 (Philo, Ascetics III).
The Therapeutaeare described as living 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" (Philo para. 18). 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 (Philo, para. 28).
In each house there is a consecrated room which is called a sanctuary or closet (monastērion), and closeted (monoumenoi) in this they are initiated into the mysteries of the sanctified life. They take nothing into it, either drink or food or any other of the things necessary for the needs of the body, but laws and oracles delivered through the mouth of prophets, and hymns and anything else which fosters and perfects knowledge and piety. They keep the memory of God alive and never forget it … Twice every day they pray, at dawn and at eventide … The interval between early morning and evening is spent entirely in spiritual exercise. They read the holy scriptures and seek wisdom from their ancestral philosophy … For six days they seek wisdom by themselves in solitude in the closets (monastēriois) mentioned above … But every seventh day they meet together as for a general assembly … (in a) common sanctuary.
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" (Philo, para.70) and sing antiphonal hymns until dawn.
Philo's monachism has been seen as the forerunner of and the model for the Christian ascetic life. It has even been considered as the earliest description of Christian monasticism. This view was first espoused by Eusebius of Caesarea in his Ecclesiastical History.
The practices described by Philo were considered as one of the first models of Christian monastic life. Eusebius was so sure of the identification of Therapeutae with Christians that he deduced that Philo, who admired them so, must have been Christian himself. This assumption prevailed in Christian circles until the end of the eighteenth century, when it was discovered that Philo's essay was pre-Christian. Like the first Christian hermits of the Egyptian desert, they were mostly-anchorites (solitary hermits), rather than living communally, as later Christian monastic communities would do. According to Pseudo-Dionysius:
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.
Various formative influences on the Therapeutae have been conjectured by scholars including Buddhism and Hebrew apocryphal texts.
Some scholars have suggested that the Therapeutae may have been influenced by (or decendents of) Emperor Ashoka's Buddhist missionaries from ancient India. The similarities between the monastic practices of the Therapeutae and Buddhist monastic practices have led to suggestions that the Therapeutae were in fact Buddhist monks who had reached Alexandria, descendants of Ashoka's emissaries to the West, and who influenced the early formation of Christianity. The ancient city of Alexandria in Egypt had Buddhist missionary activity around 250 B.C.E. The Therapeutae could have been the descendants of Ashoka's emissaries to the West, and thus could have influenced the early formation of Christianity. Egypt had intense trade and cultural contacts with India during the period, as described in the first century C.E. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.
Others have pointed out a possible Buddhist-Christian link in the life of Jesus himself. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus spent his early childhood in Egypt which was at the end of the Silk Road. Elmar R. Gruber, a psychologist, and Holger Kersten, a specialist in religious history, argue that Buddhism had a substantial influence on the life and teachings of Jesus. Gruber and Kersten claim that Jesus was brought up by the Therapeutae, teachers of the Buddhist Theravada school then living in the Bible lands. As a result of its role in trade with the East, Egypt was prosperous and enriched with religious diversity. Their work follows in the footsteps of the Oxford New Testament scholar' Barnett Hillman Streeter, who established as early as the 1930s that the, moral teaching of the Buddha has four remarkable resemblances to the Sermon on the Mount."
It has also been suggested by scholars that the Therapeutae were deeply influenced by the aprophycal Book of Enoch and Book of Jubilees due to their mystical value and for allegorical interpretations.
It may also be the case that the Therapeutae were an offshoot of Pythagoreanism given their ascetic dietary restrictions to vegetarianism, albeit other Jewish groups were also vegetarian or followed strict dietary laws (Kashrut).
All links retrieved June 15, 2015.
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