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The So-Called Therapeutae of De Vita Contemplativa: Identity and Character

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2011

Joan E. Taylor
University of Waikato
Philip R. Davies
Sheffield University


It has become quite common in scholarship to consider the community described by Philo in De vita contemplativa as a specific Jewish group comprising contemplative Essenes or people somehow related to the Essenes. In this study, we shall explore the meaning of Philo's masculine and feminine designations, θεραπευταί and θεραπευτρίδες, and consider the possibility that these words referred not to the male and female members of one group that was part of a Therapeutae sect, but to individuals whom Philo understood as exemplary devotees of God. We shall also consider a few matters concerning the character of the group. Overall, this study seeks to call into question the assumption that, in his De vita contemplativa, Philo is describing an Essene community in Egypt.

Research Article
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 1998

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1 For example, Simon, Marcel, Jewish Sects at the Time of Jesus (1960; Farley, J. H., trans.; reprinted Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967) 120–30Google Scholar; Vermes, Geza and Goodman, Martin, eds., The Essenes according to the Classical Sources (Sheffield: JSOT, 1989) 76Google Scholar; and Bergmeier, Roland, Die Essener-Berichte des Flavius Josephus: Quellenstudien zu den Essenertexten im Werk desjiidischen Historiographen (Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1993) 4147.Google Scholar For a survey of those who link the Therapeutae with the Essenes, see Riaud, JeanLes Thérapeutes d'Alexandrie dans la tradition et dans la recherche critique jusqu'aux découvertes de Qumran,” ANRW 2. 20.2 (1987) 11891295, esp. 1241-64.Google Scholar We will not address the old proposal that the group is purely an ideal, constructed by Philo for the purposes of his ongoing debate with the Greco-Roman philosophers, or otherwise fictive (ibid., 1202-10). For an excellent argument for the historicity of the group on the basis of what is missing and included in Philo's rhetoric, see Hay, David M., “Things Philo Said and Did Not Say about the Therapeutae,” SBL 1992 Seminar Papers (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992) 673–83Google Scholar.

2 All translations are by Taylor, Joan E. from the Greek text in Philo Cont. 1 (LCL; 10 vols.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1941) 9. 105–8Google Scholar

3 Philo, Prob. 7591Google Scholar; Hypothetica (as preserved in Eusebius Praep. ev. 8.11.1-18).

4 See Hay, , “Things Philo Said and Did Not Say,” 677 and n. 24Google Scholar.

5 Philo Cont. 12.

6 See below for further consideration of the precise locale.

7 This acknowledgement of other cultural ideals of excellence in philosophy or wisdom is found in Diog. Laert. 1.1-11 and Clement Alex. Strom. 1.71-73. Laertius indicates that “some say the study of philosophy had its origins among the barbarians” and cites the Persian magi, the Babylonian and Assyrian “Chaldeans,” the Indian gymnosophists, and Celtic and Gallic druids. He cites as authorities for this view Aristotle's Magicus and Sotion's Succession of the Philosophers. Clement clearly derives his discussion from similar sources, although in his case they are unmentioned. In Apollonius of Tyana's Life of Philostratus (books 1-5), there is a lengthy narrative in which the philosopher visits Persia and India, consulting the Brahmins, and then goes to Egypt and visits gymnosophists.

8 They “are called” (καλούνται) θεραπευταί; they do not call themselves by this name.

9 Philo Cont. 2.

10 LSJ, s.v. “θερπεύω.”

11 Philo Mos. 2.67.

12 Philo Prob. 75.

13 Plato Phaedr. 252C. The Oepajieutai here are those who serve Ares and are linked with the devotees of Zeus. See also Plato Leg. 740C. A “devotee” of the body is also referred to at Gorgias 517E and 369D.

14 Wilcken, Ulrich, Urkunden der Ptolemäerzeit (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1922) 8. 19Google Scholar(dated to the 2d c. BCE). θεραπευταί was also the title of a play by Diphilus Comicus; see Kock, Theodor, ed., Comicorum Atticorum Fragmenta (3 vols.; Leipzig: Teubner, 1980-1988) 2. 541.Google Scholar See LSJ, s.v. “θεραπευτής.”

15 Habicht, Christian, ed., Die Inschriften des Asklepieions (Altertümer von Pergamon 8.3; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1969) 108–9 (no. 71).Google Scholar LSJ Supp., s.v. “θεραπευτής.”

16 Vidman, Ladislav, Sylloge inscriptionum religionis Isiacae et Sarapiacae (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1969) 161CrossRefGoogle Scholar(no. 314). The inscription is dated to the 1st or 2d c. CE. We are grateful to Professor Helmut Koester for this and the following four references.

17 Vidman, , Sylloge inscriptionum, 158Google Scholar (no. 307, marble stele dated to the 1st or 2d c. CE).

18 Ibid., 46 (no. 102, dated ca. 117 CE).

19 ibid., 163 (nos. 318 and 319, probably dated to the 1st c. CE) compare 113 (nos. 200 and 201 from Lindus, dated to the 3d c.) where there are references to τάν θεραπείαν των ίερωντού ∑αράπιος.

20 Roussel, Pierre, Les cultes égyptiens à Délos du Hie au ler siècle avant J- C. (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1916) nos. 3, 21, 105, 115, 117, 151, 160, 164, 175Google Scholar; compare nos. 2, 41,42.

21 The inclusion of a specific reference to women in the very term Philo uses for the group is surprising, given that the masculine plural form θεραπευταί. could have included women anyway. At the very start, Philo signals his interest in the women here, giving some indication that he will discuss them specifically in the course of his essay, even though in general he views women with ambivalence, if not disdain (see, if authentic, Hypothetica 8.11.14—16). For further discussion, see Sly, Dorothy, Philo's Perception of Women (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Baer, Richard A., Philo's Use of the Categories Male and Female (Arbeiten zur Literatur und Geschichte des hellenistischen Judentums 3; Leiden: Brill, 1979)Google Scholar; Wegner, Judith Romney, “Philo's Portrayal of Women—Hebraic or Hellenic?” in Levine, Amy-Jill, ed., Women Like This: New Perspectives on Women in the Greco-Roman World (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991) 4166Google Scholar; and Scholer's, David M. foreword in The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Yonge, Charles D., trans.; New York: Hendrickson, 1993) xvGoogle Scholar.

22 Philo Cont. 11.

23 Philo Q. Exod. 2.42-43.

24 Here “service (of God)” rather than “medical treatment.”

25 Philo Cont. 12.

26 Compare Philo Mut. 32.

27 Philo Spec. 2.42-48.

28 Ibid., 47.

29 According to Philo, the decision to live away from urban life is characteristic of nearly all true and good philosophers (see Prob. 63; Abr. 22-23; Spec. 2.44; and compare Mos. 2.34).

30 The leaving aside of possessions and neglect of the things of the body are common characteristics of all who are “virtuous and wise” (Philo Mut. 32).

31 Philo Cont. 64.

32 ibid., 63.

33 ibid., 25-26.

34 See Vermes, and Goodman, , Essenes, 12Google Scholar; Vermes, Geza, Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospels (2d ed.; London: SCM, 1983) 5963Google Scholar.

35 Perhaps Jewish Aramaic speakers of the 2d c. BCE adapted the Greek usage of θεραπευταί to refer to one of their own devotional groups. In this case, however, one would have to assume that they took only one of the meanings of θεραπευταί—and not the primary one—and found an Aramaic word that approximated that meaning alone.

36 Philo Prob. 75-91 and Hypothetica (see Eusebius Praep. ev. 8.11.1-18).

37 Regarding the Hypothetica, the possibility of Eusebius's amending the text must be considered, as he is not absolutely accurate in his quotations from ancient authors. Some harmonization with the description of the Essenes found in Josephus's works may have occurred. For example, while Philo states that the Essenes live in villages, in the Hypothetica he states that they live also in towns. Josephus states that they live in towns (Bell. 2.124).

38 Philo Prob. 8.

39 Philo Com. 35; Philo calls them rich, for they have received the “wealth of perception” (Cont. 13), leaving behind blind wealth to those who are still blind in mind.

40 Compare Prob. 42, 4 4 and Cont. 90.

41 ∑χολάζω is a verb that refers to how one spends one's time; it would therefore fit with the Jewish contemplatives rather than the Essenes, who are busy artisans and agriculturalists, among other things.

42 Compare Prob. 6 3 and Cont. 19. Th e devotees “embrace contemplation of Nature” in Cont. 90.

43 Philo Prob. 64.

44 Philo Cont. 80-81.

45 It seems rather fanciful to suggest that Philo got this wrong and confused Lake Mareot with the Dead Sea, as suggested by Bergmeier (Essener-Berichte, 43), when his prospective readership would have been able to verify the accuracy of his statement by a morning's excursion from Alexandria by boat.

46 The word here is χωρίον not τόπος. This term is a common one, the diminutive form of χωρος and χωρα, which have agricultural or rural associations. The word applies to a small tract of land. See the discussion in Taylor, Joan E., Christians and the Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993) 198–99Google Scholar, where it is noted that χωρίον translated at times into Latin as villa or praedium.

47 Philo Cont. 22-23. Later on, Philo also mentions that they drink “spring water” (Cont. 37), which indicates the close proximity of a natural water source.

48 The word γεωλοΠος indicates a hill of low height. The long ridge or hill west of Alexandria rises to a maximum height of 30 m.

49 This is part of a long limestone spur which runs from Bahig to Aboukir. See Forster, Edward M., Alexandria: A History and a Guide (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1968) 5Google Scholar.

50 This was higher than today because the lake went to the southern walls of the ancient city (see Forster, , Alexandria, 10Google Scholar), and a finger of the lake in fact breached the wall. See also Smith, William and Grove, George, An Atlas of Ancient Geography, Biblical and Classical (London: Murray, 1875) map 33Google Scholar.

51 Daumas, François and Miquel, P., De vita contemplativa (Les æuvres de Philon d'Alexandrie; Paris: Cerf, 1963)Google Scholar.

52 “des bourgs et des vallons qui ont pu contenir à une époque où la végétation était moins desertique, quelques filets d'eau douce.” ibid., 44-45. Daumas also notes the presence of wells in this region, which would indicate ancient settlements.

53 Strabo Geog. C800; 17.14. See Daumas, and Miquel, , De Vita, 45Google Scholar; and Cosson, Anthony de, Mareotis: Being a Short Account of the History and Ancient Monuments of the North-Western Desert of Egypt and of Lake Mareotis (London: Country Life, 1935) 106113Google Scholar.

54 Cosson, de, Mareotis, 106–7Google Scholar; see also Daumas, and Miquel, , De Vita, 4546.Google Scholar The monastery of Enaton was located at the 9th milestone from the western (Moon) gate; and at the 18th milestone was a monastery aptly named Oktokaidekaton.

55 “[t]oute cette cote jusqu’ à Taposiris Magna est pleine de vestiges antiques.” Daumas and Miquel, De Vita, 45.

56 For the wealthy resorts, see ibid., 42. It should also be noted that the community location was a farm: there were cattle that should be untied on a Sabbath (Cont. 36).

57 The suggestion by G. P. Richardson that the community may have been on the south shore of Lake Mareot relies on a reading of ύπέρ λίμνης Mαρείας as “beyond Lake Mareot” or “farther inland” from it ( “Philo and Eusebius on Monasteries and Monasticism: The Therapeutae and Kellia,” in McLean, Bradley H., ed., Origins and Method: Toward a New Understanding of Judaism and Christianity [Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993] 334–59Google Scholar). This suggestion has been rejected by Annewies van den Hoek, who notes that the first meaning of ύπέρ with the genitive in LSJ is “over,” “above,” or “on higher ground.” The second meaning, favored by Richardson, is more common with an accusative, and indeed Philo uses it with the accusative when he wishes to indicate “beyond” (Leg. 1.2; Som. 1.54; Spec. 86.4). Otherwise, particularly in a geographical context, Philo uses urcep with the genitive to mean “above” a location, as in ύπέρ γής (Sac. 25; Her. 226; Fug. 57; Abr. 140.1; Mos. 1.175; Decal. 56.2). See Hoek, Annewies van den, “The Catechetical School of Alexandria and Its Philonic Heritage,” HTR 90 (1997) 5997, esp. 84-85 n. 124CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

58 See Sly, Dorothy, Philo's Alexandria (London: Routledge, 1996) 37Google Scholar.

59 Pliny, Nat. Hist. 5.17.4 (73)Google Scholar; Josephus, Bell. 2.120.Google Scholar Philo appears not to know about the case of married Essenes described by Josephus, (Bell. 2.16061)Google Scholar.

60 Hippolytus Ref. haer. 9.18.

61 In a book comparatively discussing women in the writings of the Essenes, women in the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls, and women in De vita contemplativa, provisionally entitled Mothers of the Congregation.

62 Philo Cont. 32.

63 ibid., 68.

64 It is unlikely that Philo included women in his account here as an “idealizing” motif. Elsewhere, Philo does not exhibit a particularly high opinion of the philosophical capabilities of women; see Hay, “Things Philo Said and Did Not Say,” 674.

65 For discussions of the education of women, see Cole, Susan Guettel, “Could Greek Women Read and Write?Women's Studies 8 (1981) 129–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Pomeroy, Sarah B., “Technikai kai Mousikai: The Education of Women in the Fourth Century and in the Hellenistic Period,” American Journal of Ancient History 2 (1977) 5168Google Scholar; and Kraemer, Ross S., “Monastic Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Egypt: Philo Judaeus on the Therapeutrides,” Signs 14 (1989) 342–70, esp. 350CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

66 Barrow, Robin, Greek and Roman Education (London: Macmillan, 1976) 7677Google Scholar.

67 ibid., 137. For discussion of women's literacy, in the context of literacy in general, see Harris, William V., Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989) 142–43.Google Scholar The literacy of the men is significant itself. As Harris notes, in the Egyptian papyri “there are no revelations of lower-class literacy” (p. 142).

68 P. Grenf. 1.15.

69 P. Rein. 1.16 (109 BCE). For this and the preceeding papyrus, see Harris, , Literacy, 143Google Scholar.

70 Sel. Pap. 1.16; P. Mich. 9.554; P. Fayum 100; P. Oxy. 17.2134; P.Amh. 2.102; P. Tebt. 2.399; compare P. Oxy. 12.1463 (see Harris, , Literacy, 279 nn. 516–17)Google Scholar.

71 P. Oxy. 12.1467.

72 See Harris Literacy, 163. Funerary reliefs showing girls and women carrying book-rolls most likely indicate, according to Harris, that “some literary education was thought to be desirable for a woman of good family” (p. 252).

73 ibid., 263.

74 Origen Cels. 1.27.

75 Kraemer, Ross S., Her Share of the Bessings: Women's Religions Among Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) 114Google Scholar.

76 Philo Cont. 13.

77 ibid., 29.

78 Marrou, H. I., A History of Education in Antiquity (London: Sheed and Ward, 1956) 134–37.Google Scholar Marrou notes, however, that learning music had declined in value since classical antiquity (pp. 138-41).

79 Philo Cont. 80, 84-88.

80 ibid., 67.

81 ibid., 81 and 73. In the English translation of LCL, Colson wrongly translates τράπεζαν in the plural (p. 163).

82 Philo Cont. 69.

83 For further discussion on this point, see Hay, “Things Philo Said and Did Not Say.”

84 Philo Cont. 75 and 88. Kraemer thinks that Philo may indicate that he had lived within the community at one time (Spec. 3.1-6; 2.85). It is certainly possible that he considered joining the group, but did not (“Monastic Jewish Women,” 343).

85 Josephus Bell. 2.122-23.

86 Philo Cont. 11-21.

87 Compare Cont. 38 and 66. In the latter place, they are dressed in white for a special occasion. According to Josephus, the Essenes “always wear white garments” {Bell. 2.123).

88 Philo Cont. 19-20.

89 ibid., 24.

90 We are told that women sit together by themselves on the left side and men sit together by themselves on the right, at the 49th-day symposium (69); this suggests the same divided space and seems to confirm that it is the same room and not another.

91 They do not eat a communal meal on the Sabbath (against Kraemer, “Monastic Jewish Women,” 345).

92 Philo Cont. 71-72

93 The similarity of this term with Christian usage is significant. Th e word διάκονοι here, as in Jewish contexts, may be male or female. Phoebe, in the church of Cenchraea, a suburb of Corinth, is a διακονος (Rom 16:1).

94 Philo Cont. 30.

95 Compare ibid., 33 and 35.

96 ibid., 72.

97 ibid., 66.

98 ibid., 67.

99 ibid., 77.

100 ibid., 36.

101 ibid., 22-23.

102 Philo Prob. 75-91; see Hypothetica 11.6-7.

103 This does not necessarily imply that they were poor. See Josephus Ant. 18.18—22 and Bell. 2.119-61.

104 The very significant and complex issue of the calendar we must leave for another article. It may suffice to say here only that a deviant calendar was not necessarily indicative of Essenism, for the solar calendar was one that appears to have been utilized widely in this period within certain forms of Judaism which might later be deemed “heterodox.” For example, see 1 Enoch and Jubilees.

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