THERAPEUTÆ (Greek, Θεραπευταί="Worshipers of God"):

Depicted by Philo.

A community of Jewish ascetics settled on Lake Mareotis in the vicinity of Alexandria at the time of Philo, who alone, in his work "De Vita Contemplativa," has preserved a record of their existence. The fact that the Therapeutæ are mentioned by no other writer of the time, and that they are declared by Eusebius (3d cent.) in his "Historia Ecclesiastica" (II., ch. xvi.-xvii.) to have been Christian monks, has induced Lucius, in a special work entitled "Die Therapeuten und Ihre Stellung in der Geschichte der Askese" (1879), to attempt to prove the Christian origin and character of the Philonean work and of the "monks and nuns" described therein, after Grätz ("Gesch." 4th ed., iii. 799) had declared it to be spurious. Lucius found many followers, among whom was Schürer ("Gesch." 3d ed., iii. 535-538). His arguments, however, have been refuted by the leading authorities on Philo, viz., Massebieau ("Revue de l'Histoire des Religions," 1887, pp. 170-198, 284-319), Wendland ("Die Therapeuten," 1896), and most thoroughly and effectively by Conybeare ("Philo About the Contemplative Life," Oxford, 1895; see also Bousset, "Religion des Judenthums im Neutestamentlichen Zeitalter," 1903, pp. 443-446).

Mode of Life.

Although the life of the Therapeutæ as depicted by Philo appears rather singular and strange, its Jewish character may as little be questioned as the authenticity of the Philonic work itself. The influx of many currents of thought and religious practise produced in the Jewish diaspora many forms of religious life scarcely known to the historian: several of these helped in the shaping of the Christian Church. The name "Therapeutæ" (Θεραπευταί; Ἱκεταί is another name for these ascetics) is often used by Philo for Jewish believers or worshipers of God; and it was the official title of certain religious gilds found in inscriptions, as was also the Latin name "Cultores" = "Worshipers" (see Conybeare, l.c. p. 293, and Metuentes). It corresponds with the Aramean "Pulḥane di-Elaha." The members of the sect seem to have branched off from the Essene brotherhood; hence also the meaning "Physicians" given to the name "Therapeutæ" (Philo, l.c. § 1), just as the title "Asaiai" (= "Healers") was given to the Esaioi (see Essenes). The Therapeutæ differed, however, from the Essenes in that they lived each in a separate cell, called "monasterium," in which they spent their time in mystic devotion and ascetic practises, and particularly in the study of the Torah ("the Law and the Prophets") and in reciting the Psalms as well as hymns composed by them. While remaining in retirement they indulged in neither meat nor drink nor any other enjoyment of the flesh.

Like the Essenes, they offered every morning at sunrise a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the light of day as well as for the light of the Torah, and again at sunset for the withdrawal of the sunlight and for the truth hidden within the soul. In studying the Scriptures they followed the allegorical system of interpretation, for which they used also works of their own sect. They took their meals only after sunset and attended to all their bodily necessities at night, holding that the light of day was given for study solely. Some ate only twice a week; others fasted from Sabbath to Sabbath.


On the Sabbath they left their cells and assembled in a large hall for the common study of the Law as well as for their holy communion meal. The oldest member of the community began with a benediction over the Torah and then expounded the Law while all listened in silence; the others followed in turn.After this they sat down to a common meal, which was very simple, consisting of bread and salt and herbs (hyssop); and water from a spring was their drink in place of wine. The Therapeutæ, differing in this respect from the Essenes, included women members. These, though advanced in years, were regarded as pure virgins on account of their lives of abstinence and chastity; and they seem to have been helpful in nursing and educating waifs and non-Jewish children that took refuge in such Essene communities (Philo, l.c. § 8). For these female members a partition was made in the assembly hall, separating them from the men by a wall three to four cubits in height, so that they might listen to the discourses on the Law without infringing the rules of modesty becoming to women (comp. the "tiḳḳun gadol" in the Temple gatherings at Sukkot; Suk. v. 2); also at meals the women sat at separate tables remote from the men. Young men, but no slaves, waited at table; and probably young women at the tables of the women. They all wore white raiments like the Essenes. After the repast, passages of Scripture were explained by the presiding officer and other speakers, with special reference to the mysteries of the Law; and each of these interpretations was followed by the singing of hymns in chorus, in which both men and women invariably joined.


Of all the festivals of the year they celebrated with especial solemnity "the night of the seventh Sabbath" (Pentecost), when they ate unleavened bread in place of the two loaves of leavened bread from the new wheat offered on Pentecost in the Temple. After this they spent the whole night until sunrise in offering up praises and in songs of thanksgiving sung in chorus by men and women; the song of Moses and Miriam at the Red Sea was thus sung. The singing itself was rendered according to the laws of musical art, which seems to have been borrowed from Egyptian temples, and was then transmitted to the Christian Church (see Conybeare, l.c. p. 313).

Whether these nocturnal celebrations took place every seventh week or only at Passover and Pentecost (and the Feast of Sukkot), as Conybeare thinks, is not made clear in Philo's description. The probability is that the Passover night gave the first impulse to such celebration (see Wisdom xviii. 9); and the custom of rendering the song of the Red Sea chorally appears to have prompted its recitation every morning in the synagogal liturgy in a manner betraying an Essene tradition. How far back the celebration of the night preceding Shabu'ot by study and song until daybreak goes may be learned from the Zohar (Emor, iii. 93), where reference is made to the custom of "the ancient Ḥasidim who spend the whole night in the study of the Law and thus adorn Israel as a bride to be joined anew to God, her bridegroom."

In no way, however, does the Philonic description bear any trace of the Christian character attributed to it by Grätz and Lucius. See also Jew. Encyc. x. 8b, s.v. Philo Judæus.

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