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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:

"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[1]

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:

"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 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:

"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 "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.[2]

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 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."[3]

Scouteris, The Therapeutae of Philo and the Monks as Therapeutae according to Pseudo-Dionysius


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.[4]

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.


Buddhist proselytism at the time of king Ashoka (260-218 BCE), according to the Edicts of Ashoka.

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.[5] The Therapeutae would have been the descendants of Ashoka's emissaries to the West, and would have influenced the early formation of Christianity.[6] The linguist Zacharias P. Thundy also suggests that the word "Therapeutae" is only a Hellenisation of the Indian Pali word for traditional Buddhists, Theravada.[7] 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:

"Asceticism is indigenous to the religions which posit as fundamental the wickedness of this life and the corruption under sin of the flesh. Buddhism, therefore, as well as Christianity, leads to ascetic practices. Monasteries are institutions of Buddhism no less than of Catholic Christianity. The assumption, found in the views of the Montanists and others, that concessions made to the natural appetites may be pardoned in those that are of a lower degree of holiness, while the perfectly holy will refuse to yield in the least to carnal needs and desires, is easily detected also in some of the teachings of Gautama Buddha. The ideal of holiness of both the Buddhist and the Christian saint culminates in poverty and chastity; i.e., celibacy. Fasting and other disciplinary methods are resorted to curb the flesh.
The Jewish Encyclopedia [8]

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)


  1. Philo, Ascetics III
  2. Professor Constantine Scouteris, Source
  3. Dr Constantine Scouteris, "The Therapeutae of Philo and the Monks as Therapeutae according to Pseudo-Dionysius
  4. Professor Constantine Scouteris Source
  5. "Zen living", Robert Linssen
  6. "The Original Jesus" (Element Books, Shaftesbury, 1995), Elmar R Gruber, Holger Kersten
  7. Thundy, Zacharias P. (1993). Buddha and Christ: Nativity Stories & Indian Traditions. Brill Publishers. pp. 244–249. ISBN 9004097414. 

External links

pt:Therapeutae ru:Терапевты fi:Therapeutai zh-yue:特拉普提派