image: Wikimedia commons (link).
The ancient philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 BC or 20 BC - c. AD 50), devotes the bulk of the text in one of his most well-known surviving works, De Vita Contemplativa ("On the Contemplative Life"), to discussing the important group of followers of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures who were known as the Therapeutae.
Some of the aspects of the Therapeutae as described by Philo include the following:
- They lived in ascetic communities which were open to both men and women, although living most of the time separated by sexes and coming together for special meals and celebrations in which all participated.
- Philo tells us that while such communities could be found in many countries, they were most prevalent in Egypt.
- They gave away their possessions and left the bonds of society and of family, not (Philo explains) out of any misanthropy, but rather out of desire to benefit others by giving away their wealth and to be free of "undue care for money and wealth" and to devote their time to the pursuit of holy mysteries.
- They typically sought out desert places in order to retreat from the crowded life of cities and pursue a spiritual path with a balance between solitary contemplation and communal activity.
- They made their dwelling places far enough apart from one another to give themselves plenty of room for solitude and contemplation, but close enough together to be able to defend each other in the case of attack by robbers.
- They held the ancient scriptures in extremely high regard and devoted much of their time to their study.
- They spent much of their time in meditation and prayer, with prayer specifically mentioned as being offered at the time of the rising of the sun and the setting of the same.
- They favored very simple clothing and food, nothing that was expensive or ostentatious.
- They followed a vegetarian diet, bringing nothing to their table (Philo tells us) that has blood.
- They did not drink wine but rather water.
- They fasted regularly, and in fact seem to have fasted throughout the daylight hours each day according to Philo, saving food and drink for after sunset, as well as at times fasting for longer periods, such as three days or even six days.
- They did not use slaves at a time when slavery was commonly accepted, but instead "look[ed] upon the possession of servants or slaves to be a thing absolutely and wholly contrary to nature, for nature has created all men free" and regarded slavery as a product of injustice, covetousness, and evil.
- They had a high regard for singing and sang sacred songs, psalms, or chants, and that they did so with a dignified rhythm and sometimes with men and women all together, forming two choruses which at times sing different parts and at times all sing the same, and at times break into stately forms of dance and choreographic expression to accompany their singing.
Translations of Philo's text are easily found on the web, where those interested can consult his descriptions for themselves -- one such site can be found here.
Readers who are familiar with some of the texts that have come to be known as the New Testament will recognize some of the characteristics attributed to these Therapeutae in some of the admonitions and recommendations in certain New Testament passages, including the singing of hymns, psalms and sacred psalms (urged in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3), and the passage in Luke in which Jesus says his disciples must "hate" father and mother and wife and children and brethren (Luke 14:26), which is very similar to Philo's statement that those who left society to join these spiritual communities "desert[ed] their brethren, their children, their wives, their parents, their numerous families, their affectionate bands of companions . . ."
Indeed, the later author and polemecist Eusebius (c. AD 260 or 265 - AD 339 or 340), who was a bishop in the hierarchical and literalist Christian church, recognizes so much in the descriptions given by Philo that Eusebius states very plainly that these ascetic communities described by Philo represented the "multitude of believers" converted by the gospel author Mark when he traveled to Egypt: see chapter 16 of Book II of the Ecclesiastical History written by Eusebius (links to all the Books of the work are available online here, and the link to Book II is here). Eusebius further declares in Chapter 17 of Book II (which contains numbered paragraphs -- the paragraph numbers are preserved below in the quotation):
3. In the work to which he gave the title On a Contemplative Life or on Suppliants, after affirming in the first place that he will add to those things which he is about to relate nothing contrary to truth or of his own invention, he says that these men were called Therapeutae and the women that were with them Terapeutrides. He then adds the reasons for such a name, explaining it from the fact that they applied remedies and healed the souls of those who came to them, by relieving them like physicians, of evil passions, or from the fact that they served and worshipped the Deity in purity and sincerity.
4. Whether Philo himself gave them this name, employing an epithet well suited to their mode of life, or whether the first of them really called themselves so in the beginning, since the name of Christians was not yet everywhere known, we need not discuss here.
Eusebius is here plainly declaring that the Therapeutae and Therapeutrides were the first Christians, going by that name prior to the common use of the term "Christian" itself!
This, Gerald Massey points out (whose arguments regarding the suppression of the original Gnostic nature of the Biblical scriptures by the later literalists was discussed in the preceding post, among other previous posts), is a "fatal admission" on the part of Eusebius, because in arguing that the description given by Philo indicates that the Therapeutae must have been early Christians, and in arguing (as he later does in paragraph 12 of Book II, Chapter 17) that the texts the Therapeutae esteemed so highly were very probably "the Gospels and the writings of the apostles, and probably some expositions of the ancient prophets contained in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and in many others of Paul's Epistles," Eusebius is either completely overestimating the speed with which all those "New Testament" writings were produced (since Philo's description of the Therapeutae was most likely published in AD 40), or else he is inadvertently revealing the truth that all those writings listed were in existence much earlier than AD 40, or were based upon texts that were in existence much earlier than AD 40 (see Massey's Gnostic and Historic Christianity, paragraph 34).
Now, let's examine this argument a little bit. It seems at first to be fairly flimsy: Massey seems to be placing too much weight on the writings of a literalist bishop who was writing sometime around the first two decades of the fourth century (probably completing it prior to AD 323), long after Philo wrote his De Vita Contemplativa. Of course Eusebius could have been making a mistake (or being deliberately disingenuous), so what's the big deal?
And, based on the timeframe of Philo's publication (not later than about AD 50, when Philo died), it would seem that Eusebius was "too hasty" in claiming the Therapeutae as early Christians, and in assuming that the texts they revered and meditated upon must have been early copies of the Gospels and the Epistles. From our perspective in history, it seems very unlikely that the "multitudes" of Therapeutae described by Philo could have possibly had time to spring up and develop the rather rigorous patterns and traditions of ascetic living and worship that Philo describes, and extremely unlikely to the point of impossibility that they could have been doing all that rigorous textual study and exegesis described by Philo upon New Testament texts like the Gospels and Epistles, since virtually no scholar today believes that all of those Christian texts were even written down by the time Philo penned his treatise. Certainly we can ascribe the remarks of Eusebius as simply overly-optimistic or over-zealous, and move on -- right?
And yet Massey, whose analysis often proves to be extremely penetrating, even if there are areas of his analysis with which I strongly disagree, sees in these assertions by Eusebius a "fatal admission" (meaning that Massey believes this admission is "fatal" to the historicist or literalist position which Eusebius held which treats the characters in the scriptures as literal historic persons, and which attacks "pagans," "Platonists," and those who do not share this literalist and historicist version of Christian faith).
Massey does not explain very much further to help us see why this position from Eusebius is so damaging to the historicist approach. He only states by way of explanation that:
it is impossible to claim the Essenic Scriptures [Massey presents arguments to support his conclusion that the Therapeutae and the Essenes were closely related or indeed the same general school] as being identical with the Canonical records, without, at the same time, admitting their pre-historic existence, their non-historical nature, and their anti-historical testimony. They could only be the same in the time of Eusebius by the non-historical having been falsely converted into the historical.
Again, it would seem that the rebuttal that "Eusebius just made an error" would defeat Massey's argument here . . . except for the fact that Eusebius himself identifies the actual actions and practices of the Therapeutae as obviously reflecting the teachings found in the Gospels and Epistles!
In other words, even if the Therapeutae described by Philo did not have the texts
Eusebius says that they had (and there is no way that they could have, unless those texts were more ancient than the time period during which the Christ of the historicists was said to have lived, which is the possibility that Massey believes is the correct solution), the very fact that these Therapeutae were described by Philo doing things that would later be incorporated in the Gospels and Epistles (a couple examples of which were mentioned above) is a strong indication that the New Testament concepts and teachings pre-dated the historical period during which the literalist Christ is said to have lived. This is especially true because Philo, who probably wrote this treatise by AD 40 and certainly by AD 50, is describing these practices as though they are already long traditions.
This is why Massey believes that the descriptions in Philo's text are so damaging to the literalist position. Massey believes that the literalist approach was a later invention, in fact a subterfuge, through which a group of men converted a "non-historical" (that is to say, "allegorical" or "metaphorical" or "esoteric" or "Gnostic") set of spiritual teachings into a "historical" (that is to say, "literalistic, describing events that literally took place in history") faith.
And, in fact, we can find some additional extremely interesting aspects of Philo's description of the Therapeutae which appear to add further powerful support to the argument Massey is making regarding the later appropriation by historicists such as Eusebius of teachings or practices that were essentially anti-historical or esoteric and Gnostic.
Interestingly enough, they are the same two characteristics that were argued in the preceding post which declared that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible are essentially shamanic! That is to say, the two features which that post argues generally go together: an understanding of the techniques of what can be termed ecstatic trance or shamanic out-of-body travel, and an understanding that the ancient scriptures of the world (to include those texts found in the Bible) are allegorical in nature and that their allegorical nature is intended to point to this shamanic understanding.
In Philo's description of the Therapeutae, he distinctly says more than once that their long study of the sacred texts, and their group exposition of the meanings of these ancient texts, involved an allegorical approach, and a search for the hidden (or esoteric) meanings in those texts. For example, in his description of their reading and interpretation of sacred writings, Philo says that the Therapeutae would finish their communal meals and then wait in great anticipation and an even deeper and more reverential silence than that with which their conduct is ordinarily marked as they waited for some one of their number to rise and carefully, patiently, and without any attempts at showy eloquence or cleverness, explain the deeper aspects of some passage of their sacred scriptures. The words with which Philo describes their approach to scripture exposition are significant:
the writings are delivered by mystic expressions in allegories, for the whole of the law appears to these men to resemble a living animal, and its express commandments seem to be the body, and the invisible meaning concealed under and lying beneath the plain words resembles the soul [. . .]
The approach to the scriptures as primarily containing mystic expressions in allegories, and the statement that their invisible meaning is concealed under and lies beneath the plain words, could not be more clear in indicating that the Therapeutae understood their sacred texts to be esoteric in nature.
This, all by itself, appears to demolish the attempts by Eusebius at co-opting the Therapeutae described by Eusebius into the literalistic faith that Eusebius and his colleagues were enforcing during the reign of Constantine. The approach as described is the opposite of the historicist approach. It would also seem to be highly unlikely to have developed to the degree described by Philo in such a short time after the publication of early New Testament texts, even if anyone still believed the Therapeutae could have gotten access to those texts at such an early date. The presence of the type of austere communities devoted to perceiving the esoteric meanings behind and beneath the plain words of the texts speaks to the fact that these texts were undoubtedly of great age themselves.
It is also significant that the Therapeutae appear to have contrasted the "plain words" (what is also called the "exoteric" sense of the passage) as perceived on the surface with the "spirit" that is invisible, and to compare the exoteric sense of the words to "a living animal." The metaphor Philo uses (and which he may well have repeated from the Therapeutae themselves) is most telling. Previous posts (such as this one and this one) have noted the penetrating arguments of Alvin Boyd Kuhn, who maintained that the ancient system used the symbol of the Cross in exactly the same way: with the horizontal component of the Cross symbolizing the "animal" nature of our material existence, when we are "cast down" into this physical world, with that horizontal bar running parallel to the ground in the same way that an animal does, and the vertical component of the Cross represents the spirit which is hidden inside each one of us and in fact within all of creation, and which -- while invisible -- is no less real and which is in fact the truly important aspect of our existence which must be remembered, recognized, and "raised back up," so to speak.
And, in a pattern found throughout the world, where allegorical myths can also be shown to be essentially shamanic in nature, these Therapeutae who valued the ability to seek out the invisible meaning of their sacred texts also appear to have valued and practiced the techniques of traveling to what has been called "non-ordinary reality" or by a host of other names, including the Invisible Realm, the Spirit Realm, and the Dreamtime, and brining back communications from that non-ordinary reality.
Philo tells us that among these communities:
Therefore they always retain an imperishable recollection of God, so that not even in their dreams is any other object ever presented to their eyes except the beauty of the divine virtues and of the divine powers. Therefore many persons speak in their sleep, divulging and publishing the celebrated doctrines of the sacred philosophy.
Philo does not go further than this, and at first glance it is easy to simply skip over it as a rhetorical exaggeration on Philo's part, going over-the-top in his idealized description of the Therapeutae to the point of saying that they even dream of only virtuous and spiritual matters (no impure or even simply mundane dreams among this community).
But, while we might write these lines off as a clumsy and unbelievable embellishment by Philo, he doesn't merely state that they only dream of spiritual and virtuous matters: he states quite clearly that many persons speak in their sleep, and when they do so they divulge sacred matters which might otherwise have remained hidden.
When he adds that detail, it changes the tone of what Philo is saying altogether. He is not simply saying that the Therapeutae are so single-minded that they even dream about spiritual things: he appears to be indicating that many members of their communities regularly enter into a state in which they speak messages divulging hidden teachings. This mode of communication is strongly suggestive of the messages brought from the Invisible World by other practitioners of sacred ecstasy or trance, such as the Pythia of Delphi.
Philo also states during his descriptions of their communal songs and chants and even dances that the participants seem to enter a state of "intoxication" at times (especially when they are continued all night until sunrise).
Both of these features -- an esoteric approach to sacred scripture, and a regular use of the techniques of ecstatic trance -- have been strongly condemned by the literalistic and historicist Christianity that polemicists such as Eusebius advanced (some might counter that church fathers including Eusebius did not deny the allegorical aspects of scripture, but no one can argue that they would have strongly condemned any suggestion that the scriptures were primarily or even exclusively allegorical, and that they were not intended to be understood literally and historically).
And this evidence appears to be powerful support for Massey's general argument, which is that the historicist bishops and polemicists, such as Eusebius, successfully stamped out a much older approach and co-opted many aspects of its teachings and many of its scriptures and turned them to their own ends.
In fact, Massey provides substantial evidence that the ancient wisdom that was historicized and co-opted by the literalists stretched back into much greater antiquity -- and that it can be clearly seen in some of the most ancient texts and teachings of Egypt in forms which suggest that the outlines of the doctrines of the Therapeutae, and the outlines of the texts that the literalists later appropriated, existed for millennia before showing up in the writings of Eusebius or Philo.
Indeed, it can hardly be denied that many of the features of the Therapeutae lifestyle shown in the list above have not characterized most of what we would recognize as "Christian teaching" through the centuries.
Christianity is not generally associated, for instance, with vegetarianism.
Christianity is not widely associated with an emphasis on communal living and the renunciation of possessions and property (with some notable exceptions from time to time).
Christianity is not historically associated with the rejection of the idea of having slaves or even servants, and the teaching that to do so is evil and contrary to nature (again, with some important exceptions).
While there are notable historical exceptions, which could be profitably examined and discussed, it cannot be denied that historic, literalistic Christianity has generally taught quite emphatically that the killing of animals for food, the amassing of property, and even the keeping of slaves are all explicitly condoned by the sacred scriptures (not condemned: condoned).
However, there are some other traditions around the world where the above teachings were widely taught, and practiced, and where they influenced entire cultures and civilizations -- in some places (especially those which were not conquered by the Roman Empire, which by the time of Constantine was increasingly dominated by literalist Christianity) aspects of some of these teachings continue right down to the modern era.
Clearly, the descriptions of the Therapeutae by ancient authors (as well as the possibly-related sect of the Essenes, of whom more at a later time) constitute an extremely profitable line of study, and one which appears to contain powerful evidence to support the theory that a literalist re-interpretation was mistakenly -- or, as other evidence seems to suggest, deliberately and deceptively -- substituted for a far more ancient esoteric approach, and that this switch took place during the first four or five centuries AD within the Roman Empire.
Examining some further aspects of this line of investigation may well turn up some additional surprises, which will be the subject of future posts to follow!