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The Therapeutae

Don Wyeth

The Therapeutae

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3 mins
August 3, 2021

 I would like to share with you an interesting ancient monastic group referred to as the Therapeutae. Ther​a​peu​tae | \ ˌtherəˈpyü(ˌ)tē \ from the Greek - Θεραπευταί…implying cure or worship… Definition: ascetics of both sexes held to have dwelt anciently near Alexandria, Egypt and described by the Jewish philosopher Philo (c. 20 BCE – 50 CE) as devoted to contemplation and meditation. Philo states that he had direct contact with this group, who lived on a hill near Lake Mareotis in the northernmost part of the Nile delta. 

  In Philo’s words…“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.” De Vita Contemplativa

  Interestingly, there is also a possibility that the word Therapeutae is originally derived from the Indian Pali word for traditional Buddhists, Theravada. “Philo's description of the doctrines and practices of the Therapeutae leaves great ambiguity about what religion they are associated with. Analysis by religious scholar Ullrich R. Kleinhempel indicates that the most likely religion the Therapeutae practiced was Buddhism. Traces of Buddhist Presence in Alexandria: Philo and the Therapeutae “Linguist Zacharias P. Thundy suggests that the word "Therapeutae" is only a Hellenistic corruption of Theravada."

  Philo portrays the Ther​a​peu​tae as living a very simple, chaste life, “…renounc[ing] property and follow[ing] severe disciplineThese men abandon their property without being influenced by any predominant attraction, and flee without even turning their heads back again.

  The Ther​a​peu​tae was a true ascetic order, spending six days a week on solitary practices such as fasting, solitary prayer, and the study of the Scriptures in their individual cells, each of which had its own sanctuary and enclosed garden. On the seventh day they met together to hear teachings and sing hymns and contemplative chants. Philo reports that “…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.”

  As mentioned above, some authors have pointed out strong similarities between the Therapeutae and early monastic Buddhism, a sect the predates the Therapeutae. In approximately 250 BCE, India enjoyed cultural and trade interchanges with the Mediterranean area, due in part to the Edicts of Ashoka, which provided a platform for Buddhist missions as well as trade to the West. The interchanges both in India are the Mediterranean are well documented. Additionally, Philo is of the belief that the Ther​a​peu​tae are in real ways connected to the Essenes of the Dead Sea scrolls; a brotherhood that some believe with whom Jesus of Nazareth was associated.


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Don Wyeth

Passionate and intelligent columnist from Madison, WI.

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