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

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

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

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


The first-century ascetic Jewish philosophers known as the 'Therapeutae', described in Philo's treatise De Vita Contemplativa, have often been considered in comparison with early Christians, the Essenes, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. This study, which includes a new translation of De VitaContemplativa, focuses particularly on issues of historical method, rhetoric, women, and gender, and comes to new conclusions about the nature of the group and its relationship with the allegorical school of exegesis in Alexandria. Joan E. Taylor argues that the group represents the tip of aniceberg in terms of ascetic practices and allegorical exegesis, and that the women described point to the presence of other Jewish women philosophers in Alexandria in the first century CE. Members of the group were 'extreme allegorizers' in following a distinctive calendar, not maintaining usualJewish praxis, and concentrating their focus on attaining a trance-like state in which a vision of God's light was experienced. Their special 'feast' was configured in terms of service at a Temple, in which both men and women were priestly attendants of God.


I will not add [anything] of my own for the sake of making
[my account] better, which is customary for all the poets
and chroniclers to do for want of good [historiographical]
practices, but will absolutely go about [telling] the actual
truth, even though I know the most skilled speaker would
grow weary of telling it [like this]. But nevertheless we must
persevere and fight on to the end, for the superlative virtue
of the[se] men should not be a reason to strike dumb those
who rightly think that nothing good should be passed over
in silence.

(Philo, Contempl. 1)

In the world of advertisement there's no such thing as a lie;
there's only the expedient exaggeration.

Roger Thornhill, in Alfred Hitchcock's North by

There have been many studies on the people Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE–c.50 CE) describes in his treatise, De Vita Contemplativa. These contemplative, mystically minded Jews, devoted to music, meditation, and the study of scripture, who met together for special communal meals and lived an austere, ascetic lifestyle, are suggestive of many other more famous religious communities. Usually referred to as the 'Therapeutae', and defined explicitly just in this one text, they are frequently called as evidence in discussions of contemporaneous Jewish sects, especially the Essenes and those who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, or of the earliest Christian churches.

In future cited as Contempl. References to Philo's works in the text are given
in accordance with the standard abbreviations of SPA.

For a survey of literature see Jean Riaud, 'Les Thérapeutes d'Alexandrie
dans la tradition et dans la recherche critique jusqu'aux découvertes de
Qumran', ANRW 2: 20: 2 (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1987),
1189–1295. For comparison between the Therapeutae and early Christian
monastics see G. Peter Richardson, 'Philo and Eusebius on Monasteries and
Monasticism: The Therapeutae and Kellia', in Bradley H. McLean (ed.) . . .

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