Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria: Philo's "Therapeutae" Reconsidered

By Okland, Jorunn | Journal of Biblical Literature, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria: Philo's "Therapeutae" Reconsidered


Okland, Jorunn, Journal of Biblical Literature


Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria: Philo's "Therapeutae" Reconsidered, by Joan E. Taylor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. xv + 417. $99.00 (hardcover). ISBN 0199259615.

Not every book represents the publication of a research process spanning three continents. This book does (among other places, Harvard, Copenhagen, and Waikato, New Zealand), and the result is a learned, open-minded, messy hybrid that dares to say things about Philo, gender, and Alexandrian Jewish philosophy that may be deemed not "within the true" in one or the other of these more local settings.

The book is divided into two parts, of which the first, "Philo's 'Therapeutae' Reconsidered," deals with various aspects of Philo's literary construct, the Therapeutae, and their possible historical counterpart. The second part, "Women and Gender in De vita contemplativa" focuses, as the title indicates, more narrowly on the representation of women Therapeutae and gender issues in the text.

Chapter 1 focuses on method. Taylor briefly situates her work in some modern scholarly debates over rhetoric versus history, over the possibility of recovering ancient women, and over theory of history in the postmodern era. She refutes the common argument that De vita contemplativa (which is also the only surviving text from the ancient world describing the Therapeutae) shows so many traits of literary and rhetorical composition that Philo has probably just made it up. Taylor nuances such views by stating that if Philo merely wanted to construct an ideal community, he would not have situated it in the neighborhood of his primary audience but rather on a far-off island. Concerning the presence of women in this philosophical group, Taylor states that they rather seem to pose a rhetorical problem for him: they need to be "explained." Had Philo had a choice, it would have been far easier for him to describe this ideal philosophical community as consisting of men only.

In ch. 2 Taylor asks why Philo wrote De vita contemplativa. Taylor works from a historical empirical perspective by establishing as much evidence of a historical context for the work as possible, from Philo's other works and from other sources. It is in this constructed context that she sees the rationale behind Philo's rhetoric and the target audiences that may have found it persuasive.

In ch. 3 she discusses the name Therapeutae, its rhetorical nature as well as the identity of the group behind the name. Of particular importance is her insistence that this is a cultic term, which leads to her exploration of why, then, Philo used this word in the context of contemplative philosophers (p. 62). Because of the (wrong) sectarian connotations that have stuck with the term in research, Taylor announces her redesignation as "the Mareotic group," named after the lake they lived near to. Chapter 4 then situates the group geographically and socioeconomically within Alexandrian society and maps its internal hierarchical structure.

Chapter 5 widens the scope a bit and analyzes how Judaism was conceptualized as a philosophy in the Greco-Roman world. Taylor points out how the discourses of cult and philosophy were converging in the Hellenistic-Roman periods. Judaism was widely seen as a philosophy in Alexandria and elsewhere. An appreciation of this is necessary in order to understand Philo's rhetorical construct and to trace the group's perception of themselves.

In ch. 6 Taylor discusses the radical allegorical method that the group applied in their reading of Scriptures and the links between allegorical interpretation and degrees of asceticism. Chapter 7 continues by linking De vita contempkitiva and De migratione Abrahami and argues that the "extreme allegorizers" in the latter are strikingly similar to the Therapeutae in the former. Both groups share a solar calendar that dropped the celebration of the usual Jewish feasts and conformed all festivals to a regular pattern based on the cosmic power of the number 7, Taylor takes the links between cult and philosophy, allegory, asceticism, and calendar as indications of the wider cultural context in which the Mareotic group took shape.

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