Therapeutae [Gr.,=worshipers], Jewish monastic order living on the shore of Lake Mareotis, Egypt, about the 1st cent. A.D. They led an ascetic life devoted to solitary prayer and study of the scriptures, gathering on the sabbath for study and a communal meal. They may have a connection with the Essenes, although evidence is scanty. The only ancient source to mention them is Philo's De vita contemplativa.
The Therapeutae (male, pl.) and Therapeutrides (female, pl.), according to the account in De vita contemplativa by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE - 50 CE) who appears to have been personally acquainted with them, were "philosophers" (cf. I.2) that lived on a low hill by the Lake Mareotis close to Alexandria in circumstances resembling lavrite life (cf. III.22), and were "the best" of a kind given to "perfect goodness" that "exists in many places in the inhabited world" (cf. III.21). Philo derives the name Therapeutae/Therapeutides from Greek θεραπεύω in the sense of "cure" or "worship" (cf. I.2), whilst Pseudo-Dionysius favours the meaning "servants".

Philo's account

Philo described the Therapeutae in the beginning of the 1st century CE in De vita contemplativa ("On the contemplative life"), written ca. 10 CE. 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 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.

Forerunners of early Christian monastic orders

According to Philo, 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 ther major gathering point being in Alexandria, in the area of the Lake Mareotis:

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 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:

In addition to the Pentateuch, the Prophets and Psalms they possessed arcane writings of their own tradition, including formulae for numerological and allegorical interpretations.

They renounced property and followed severe discipline:

They "professed an art of healing superior to that practiced in the cities" Philo notes, and the reader must be reminded of the reputation as a healer Saint Anthony possessed among his 4th-century contemporaries, who flocked out from Alexandria to reach him.

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.

Eusebius of Caesarea

The 4th century Christian writer Eusebius of Caesarea, in his "Ecclesiastical History", describes Philo's Therapeutae as the first Christian monks, identifying their renunciation of property, chastity, fasting, solitary lives with the cenobitic ideal of the Christian monks.

Eusebius was so sure of his identification of Therapeutae with Christians that he deduced that Philo, who admired them so, must have been Christian himself, not knowing the date of Philo's essay, and Christian readers still believed that this must have been so until the end of the 18th century. Like the first Christian hermits of the Egyptian desert, they were hermits, or anchorites, rather than living communally, as later Christian monastic communities would do.


Secondary reference to the Therapeutae is known through the 5th century Pseudo-Dionysius, which mentions that "Some people gave to the ascetics the name 'Therapeutae' or servants while some others gave them the name monks". The Pseudo-Dionysius however already describes a highly organized Christian ascetic order.

Formative influences

Hebrew tradition

Various formative influences on the Therapeutae have been conjectured. The Book of Enoch and Jubilees exemplify the Hebrew tradition for the mystic values of numbers and for allegorical interpretations, without having to reach to Zoroaster or Pythagoreans.


The similarities between the Therapeutae and Buddhist monasticism, a tradition earlier by several centuries, combined with Indian evidence of Buddhist missionary activity to the Mediterranean around 250 BCE (the Edicts of Ashoka), have been pointed out. The Therapeutae would have been the descendants of Ashoka's emissaries to the West, and would have influenced the early formation of Christianity. The linguist Zacharias P. Thundy also suggests that the word "Therapeutae" is only a Hellenisation of the Indian Pali word for traditional Buddhists, Theravada. In general, Egypt had intense trade and cultural contacts with India during the period, as described in the 1st century CE Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.

From the standpoint of comparative religions, ascetism can be seen as a common point between Buddhism and Christianity, and is in contrast to the absence of asceticism in Judaism:

See also

Further reading

  • Taylor, Joan E. Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria: Philo's "Therapeutae" Reconsidered
  • Simon, Marcel and James H. Farley (tr.) (1967) 1980. Jewish Sects at the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press)


External links

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