THERAPEUTAE (Gr. OfpaireuTal, literally "attendants" or " physicians," hence " worshippers of God "), a monastic order among the Jews of Egypt, similar to the Essenes. Our sole authority for their existence is Philo in his treatise De Vita Contemplativa. He takes them as the type of the contemplative, in contrast with the Essenes, who represented rather the practical life. While the Essenes were confined to Palestine or its near neighbourhood, the Therapeutae, we are told, existed in many parts of the world, but especially in Egypt. Their headquarters there were on Lake Mareotis, which at that time debouched into the sea. This establishment near Alexandria was, as it were, the Grande Chartreuse of their order. Philo himself was uncertain as to the meaning of the name, whether it was given to them because they were " physicians " of souls or because they were " servants " of the One God. Their mode of life he in one place (ii. 473, line 14) calls depairela, and his use of words generally accords better with the latter meaning. That the origin of the name of these ascetics was unknown in Philo's time goes to prove their antiquity.
A man on joining the order died to the world, and so voluntarily resigned his property to his heirs. How the order itself was supported does not appear. So far as we are informed, prayer and study were the sole occupations of the Therapeutae. The community at Alexandria lived in mean and scattered houses, near enough to afford protection, without depriving the members of the solitude which they prized. Each of these houses contained a chamber called mnvtiov or fiovaffrfipiov (cf. Matt. vi. 6), which was devoted to prayer and study, and into which the inmate brought nothing but the Law and the Prophets, together with the Psalms and other works which tended to the promotion of piety. At sunrise the Therapeutae prayed and again at sunset. The whole interval was devoted to a study of the internal sense of the Scriptures. In addition to the Old Testament the Therapeutae had books by the founders of their sect on the allegorical method of interpreting Scripture. They also contributed to sacred h'terature themselves in the composition of new psalms. Attendance to the ordinary needs of nature was entirely relegated to the hours of darkness. Some of these recluses only ate every second day, while others succeeded in confining the necessity to a single week-day. But the Sabbath was a feast on which, after attending to their souls, ^they indulged their bodies, like yoke animals let out to graze. But their indulgence even then is not mentioned to have gone beyond the coarse bread, flavoured with salt and sometimes hyssop, while their drink was water from the spring. Thus during the six days of the week the Therapeutae " philosophized," each in his own cell, but on the Sabbath they met in a common assembly, where women also had places screened off from the men, and listened to a discourse from one who was the eldest and most skilled in their doctrines.
In contrast with the drunken revels of the Greeks, Philo describes the sober enjoyment by the Therapeutae of the feast of Pentecost, or rather of the eve of that festival. They assembled together with glad faces and in white garments, and the proceedings were begun with prayers, in which they stood and stretched their eyes and hands to heaven. Then they took their seats in the order of their admission, the men on the right and the women on the left. Slavery being against their principles, the younger members of the society waited on the elder. No flesh was served at table, and for drink only water either hot or cold. But first came " the feast of reason and the flow of soul." All listened devoutly to a discourse delivered with an emphatic slowness and penetrating beneath the letter of the Law to the spiritual truth that lay hidden within. When the president's address had been duly applauded, there followed the singing of hymns ancient and modern. Then came the meal of the simple kind already described. And after this a pervigilium, celebrated with antiphonal and joint singing on the part of men and women and with choral dancing in imitation of Moses and Miriam at the Red Sea. At sunrise, turning to the east, they prayed that the light of truth might illumine their minds, and then returned to their studies.
Such is the account of the Therapeutae given by Philo. It seems to have formed part of the Apology for the Jews (Eus Pr. Ev. viii. 10, 12) hence its highly rhetorical character from which Eusebius gives the extract about the Essenes; while this in its turn may have constituted the fourth book of a large work entitled (" sarcastically," says Eusebius, H.E. ii. 18) vtpl 'Apertiv, of which the Legatio ad Gaium formed the first. The De Vita Contemplativa thus owes its place next to the Quod Omnis Probus Liber, a place which it already occupied in the copy of Philo's works possessed by Eusebius (H.E. ii. 18), merely to the mention of the Essenes at the beginning of it.
To the modern reader the importance of the Therapeutae, as of the Essenes, lies in the evidence they afford of the existence of the monastic system long before the Christian era. We have no clue to the origin of the Therapeutae, but it is plain that they were already ancient when Philo described them. Eusebius was so much struck by the likeness of the Therapeutae to the Christian monks of his own day as to claim that they were Christians converted by the preaching of St Mark. He goes so far as to say that " the writings of ancient men, who were the founders of the sect " referred to by Philo, may very well have been the Gospels and Epistles (which were not yet written). This is a strong instance of how the wish may be father to the thought even in a fairly critical mind. Eusebius having gone wrong on this point, others of the Fathers followed suit, so that Philo is reckoned by Jerome among the ecclesiastical writers of the Christians.
Nothing is more h'kely than that Christianity gained adherents among the Therapeutae, and that then- institutions were adapted to the new religion, just as they seem to have been borrowed by the Jews from the Egyptians. Strabo (xi. 29, p. 806) tells us how he saw at Heliopolis large buildings belonging to the priests, which had once been tenanted by men skilled in philosophy and astronomy, who had been consulted by Plato and Eudoxus, but that the ffvaTtj/jui and fioxTjaij (the very words used by Philo in speaking of the Therapeutae) had then fallen into decay. The system, however, was not even then extinct, for it was described by Chaeremon the Stoic, a contemporary of Strabo's. Chaeremon's account has been preserved by Porphyry (De Abstinentia, iv. 6), and has curious resemblances to Philo's description of the Therapeutae, even down to such details as their posture and gait and the eating of hyssop with their bread.
After 1879 a theory became current in Germany (first stated in P. E. Lucius, Die Therapeuten und ihre Stellung), and accepted in England, to the effect that the De Vita Contemplativa is not a work of Philo's at all, but a forgery put forward about the end of the 3rd century and intended to procure the authority of Philo's name for the then rising monasticism of the Church. But this theory was signally refuted by F. C. Conybeare in his Philo about the Contemplative Life (Oxford, 1895).
Reli xix. 677 (1907).
(ST G. S.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)