Sect of Jewish ascetics believed to have settled along Lake Mareotis near Alexandria in the 1st century AD. Their origin and fate are unknown, and the only account of them is attributed to Philo Judaeus. They shared with the Essenes a dualistic view of the body and soul (see dualism) but differed from them in that their objective was “wisdom.” They viewed the scriptures as allegorical. Devoting themselves entirely to prayer and spiritual exercise, members lived in isolation for six days of the week and met on the Sabbath for discourse and a common meal.
Learn more about Therapeutae with a free trial on Britannica.com.
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:
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 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.
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: