Judean wisdom: Philo on the Therapeutists’ lifestyle (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judean wisdom: Philo on the Therapeutists’ lifestyle (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 14, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=7173.

Ancient author: Philo of Alexandria, On the Contemplative Life, full work (link).

Comments: Philo of Alexandria was a Judean philosopher settled in Egypt who was well-trained in Stoic and Platonic philosophy and who expressed his understanding of Judean (Jewish) ancestral customs in relation to Greek philosophy. This particular work by Philo is expressly a sequel to one of his other ethnographic discussions of the superior lifestyle of the Judean Essenes (on which go to this link). In the more extensive version on the Essenes, Philo’s main focus was to present the Judean Essenes alongside Persian Magians and Indian wise men as instances of superior wise “barbarians.”

In this document, he does not directly employ the category “barbarians,” even though the consistent contrast with Greek groups (though Egyptians are taken down hard once as well) suggests this framing. Here Philo continues in an ethnographic posture as he describes the customs of the Therapeutists settled in Egypt as superior to apparently pious or wise Greeks. He does so without actively identifying himself or the Therapeutists as Judean and this gives the sense of an accurate description and comparison (he’s going to tell you the “truth”) by an objective outsider. Because of this posture, I have placed this piece under the “wise barbarian” category rather than the non-dominant perspectives category (although this is obviously a Judean perspective despite the aura of something else). The finale with the Therapeutists presented as ideally putting the lifestyle of Moses into full effect obviously identifies the group as Judean nonetheless.

Source of the translation: F.H. Colson, G. Whitaker, and R. Marcus, Philo, 12 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1929-41), public domain (Colson passed away in 1943; Whitaker passed away in 1929; Marcus passed away in 1956), adapted by Harland.


[Introduction and relation to Philo’s earlier account about Essenes]

I have discussed the Essenes, who persistently pursued the practical (praktikon) life and excelled in all or, to put it more moderately, in most of its departments. I will now proceed at once in accordance with the sequence required by the subject to say what is needed about those who embraced the life of contemplation (theōria). In doing so, I will not add anything of my own to improve upon the facts as is constantly done by writers of poetry or prose due to a lack of excellence in the lives and practices which they record. Instead, I will completely adhere to the actual truth. Though I know it is a very difficult thing to put into words, we must still fight it out and put in the effort. For the magnitude of virtue shown by these people [i.e. the Therapeutists] must not be allowed to make speechless those who hold that nothing excellent should be passed over in silence.

The motivation of these philosophers is at once made clear from their title of male and female Therapeutists, a name derived from therapeuō, which, on the one hand, can have the sense of “cure.” This is because they profess a skill at healing better than that current in the cities which cures only the bodies. Their skills at healing treat also souls oppressed with grievous and nearly incurable diseases, inflicted by pleasures, desires, griefs and fears; inflicted by acts of wanting what belongs to others, folly and injustice, along with a countless host of the other passions and vices. Therapeuō can, on the other hand, also have the sense of “worship.” This is because nature and the sacred laws have schooled the members of this group to worship the self-existent who is better than the good, purer than the One and more primordial than the Monad.

[Inferiority of Greek forms of piety or worship in comparison with the Therapeutists]

Among those who profess piety, who deserves to be compared with the Therapeutists? Can we compare them to those who revere the elements, earth, water, air, fire? These have received different names from different peoples who call fire Hephaistos because it is kindled (exaptō), air Hera because it is lifted up (airō) and exalted on high, water Poseidon perhaps because it is drunk (potos), and earth Demeter because it appears to be the mother of all plants and animals. Sophists have invented these names for the elements but the elements themselves are lifeless matter incapable of movement by itself and laid by the craftsman as a substratum for every kind of shape and quality.

(5) How do the worshippers of the bodies framed from the elements – the sun, moon or the other stars, fixed or wandering, or the whole heaven and universe – compare? But these too were not brought into being self-made, but through an architect of most perfect knowledge. What about the worship of the half-gods? Surely this is quite ridiculous. How could one and the same person be both mortal and immortal, to say nothing of the reproach attaching to the original source of their birth, tainted as it is with the sexual immorality of reckless youth which they impiously dare to ascribe to the blissful and divine powers by supposing that those blessed three times and exempt from every passion in their infatuation had intercourse with mortal women.

How do the worshippers of the different kinds of images compare? The images’ substance is wood and stone, until a short time ago completely shapeless, carved away from their congenital structure by quarry workers and woodcutters. At the same time, their brothers, pieces from the same original source, have become urns and foot-basins or some others of the less honourable vessels which serve the purposes of darkness rather than of light.

[Inferiority of Egyptian animal worship]

For as for the gods of the Egyptians it is hardly decent even to mention them. The Egyptians have promoted to divine honours irrational animals, not only of the tame sort but also beasts of the worst savagery, drawn from each of the kinds found below the moon, from the creatures of the land the lion, from those of the water their indigenous crocodile, from the rangers of the air the hawk and the Egyptian ibis. Even though they can see these creatures brought to their birth, requiring food, eating voraciously, full of shit, venomous too and man-eating, the prey of every sort of disease, and perishing not only by a natural but often by a violent death, the Egyptians render worship to them, the civilized worshipping the uncivilized and untamed, the reasonable worshipping the irrational, the relatives of the deity worshipping ugliness unmatched even by a Thersites, and the rulers and masters worshipping the naturally subservient and slavish. (10) Since they infect not only their own compatriots but the peoples in their neighbourhood with their folly, these people must remain incurable, for they have lost the use of the most vital of the senses, sight. By this I do not mean the sight of the body but the sight of the soul, the sight which alone gives a knowledge of truth and falsehood.

[Superior vision of the Therapeutists]

But it is good that the Therapeutists, a people always taught from the first to use their sight, should desire the vision of the existent and soar above the sun of our senses and never leave their place in this company which carries them on to perfect happiness. Those who set themselves to this service, not just following custom nor on the advice and admonition of others but carried away by a heaven-sent passion of love, remain rapt and possessed like bacchic devotees or Korybants until they see the object of their yearning. Then such is their longing for the deathless and blessed life that, thinking their mortal life already ended, they abandon their property to their sons or daughters or to other relatives, in this way voluntarily advancing the time of their inheritance, while those who have no relatives give them to comrades and friends. For it was right that those who have received ready to their hand the wealth that has eyes to see should surrender the blind wealth to those who are still blind in mind.

[Inferiority of idealized philosophers like Anaxagoras and Demokritos]

The Greeks praise Anaxagoras and Demokritos because, struck with the desire for philosophy, they left their fields to be devoured by sheep. I myself admire them for showing themselves superior to wealth. But how much better are these who did not let their estates serve as feeding-ground for cattle but focused on the needs of people, their relatives and friends, and so turned their poverty into affluence. Of the two actions the first was thoughtless, I might say mad, but that the persons concerned have the admiration of Greece, the second showed soberness and careful consideration and remarkable good sense.

(15) What more does a hostile army do than cut the crops and cut down the trees of their opponents’ country to force them to surrender through lack of necessities? This is what Demokritos did to his own blood-relatives, inflicting on them poverty and indigence artificially created, not perhaps with mischievous intent but through lack of foresight and consideration for the interest of the others. How much better and more admirable are these Therapeutists who with no less enthusiasm for the study of wisdom preferred high-mindedness to negligence and gave away their possessions instead of wasting them. In this way they benefited both others and themselves, others through supplying them with abundant resources, themselves through furthering the study of philosophy? For taking care of wealth and possessions consumes time and to economize time is an excellent thing since according to the physician Hippokrates “life is short but art is long.” The same idea is suggested I think by Homer in the Iliad at the beginning of the thirteenth book in the lines “The Mysians fighting hand to hand, and noble Galaktophagians (Milk-eaters) / Nothing else but milk sustains their life, these men of perfect justice.” The meaning conveyed is that injustice is bred by anxious thought for the means of life and for money-making, justice by holding and following the opposite creed. The first entails inequality, the second equality, the principle by which nature’s wealth is regulated and so stands superior to the wealth of vain opinion. So when they have divested themselves of their possessions and have no longer anything to ensnare them, they run away without a backward glance and leave their brothers, their children, their wives, their parents, the wide circle of their relatives, the groups of friends around them, and the homelands in which they were born and reared. The attraction of familiarity is very strong and its power to ensnare is great. They do not migrate into another city like the unfortunate or worthless slaves who demand to be sold by their owners and so procure a change of masters but not freedom. For every city, even the best governed, is full of many turmoils and disturbances which no one could endure who has ever been under the guidance of wisdom. (20) Instead of this they pass their days outside the walls pursuing solitude in gardens or lonely bits of country, not from any acquired habit of bitterness directed at humanity but because they know how unprofitable and mischievous are associations with persons of dissimilar character.

[Superior location and climate of the Therapeutists’ settlement]

This kind exists in many places in the inhabited world, for perfect goodness has to be shared both by Greeks and barbarians, but it abounds in Egypt in each of the “nomes” (districts) as they are called and especially around Alexandria. But the best of these Therapeutists journey from every side to settle in a certain very suitable place which they regard as their homeland. This place is situated above the lake Mareia [modern Mariout] on a somewhat low-lying hill very happily placed both because of its security and the pleasantly tempered climate. The safety is secured by the farm buildings and villages around it and the pleasantness of the climate due to the continuous breezes which arise both from the lake which empties into the sea and from the open sea nearby. For the sea breezes are light, the lake breezes close and the two combining together produce most healthy climatic conditions.

[Customs of the Therapeutists]

The houses of the society collected in this way are exceedingly simple, providing protection against two of the most pressing dangers, the fiery heat of the sun and the icy cold of the air. They are neither near together as in towns, since living at close quarters is troublesome and displeasing to people who are seeking to satisfy their desire for solitude. Nor are they at a great distance because of the sense of community which they cherish, and to render help to each other if robbers attack them. (25) In each house there is a consecrated room which is called a sanctuary or closet. Closeted in this they are initiated into the mysteries of the sanctified life. They take nothing into it, either drink or food or any other of the things necessary for the needs of the body. They bring only laws and oracles delivered through the mouth of prophets and psalms and anything else which fosters and perfects knowledge and piety. They keep the memory of God alive and never forget it, so that even in their dreams the picture is nothing else but the loveliness of divine qualities and powers. In fact, many talk about the glorious truths of their holy philosophy when they are asleep and dreaming.

[Prayer and reading]

Twice every day they pray, at dawn and in the evening. At sunrise they pray for a fine bright day, fine and bright in the true sense of the heavenly daylight which they pray may fill their minds. At sunset they ask that the soul may be wholly relieved from the press of the senses and the objects of sense and sitting where she is consistory and council chamber to herself pursue the quest of truth. The interval between early morning and evening is spent entirely in spiritual exercise. They read the holy writings and seek wisdom from their ancestral philosophy by taking it as an allegory. This is because they think that the words of the literal text are symbols of something whose hidden nature is revealed by studying the underlying meaning. They have also writings of men of old, the founders of their way of thinking, who left many memorials of the form used in allegorical interpretation and these they take as a kind of archetype and imitate the method in which this principle is carried out.


So they do not confine themselves to contemplation but also compose hymns and psalms to God in all sorts of metres and melodies which they write down with the rhythms necessarily made more solemn.

[Solitude and communal gatherings on the seventh day]

(30) For six days they seek wisdom by themselves in solitude in the closets mentioned above, never passing the outside door of the house or even getting a distant view of it. But every seventh day they meet together as for general assembly and sit in order according to their age in the proper attitude, with their hands inside the robe, the right hand between the breast and the chin and the left withdrawn along the flank. Then the senior among them who also has the most knowledge about the doctrines which they profess comes forward and with visage and voice alike quiet and composed gives a well-reasoned and wise discourse. He does not make an exhibition of clever rhetoric like the orators or sophists of today but follows careful examination by careful expression of the exact meaning of the thoughts. This does not lodge just outside the ears of the audience but passes through the hearing into the soul and there stays securely. All the others sit still and listen while showing their approval merely by their looks or nods.

This common sanctuary in which they meet every seventh day is a double enclosure, one portion set apart for the use of the men, the other for the women. For women too regularly make part of the audience with the same enthusiasm and the same sense of their calling. The wall between the two chambers rises up from the ground to three or four cubits built in the form of a breast work, while the space above up to the roof is left open. This arrangement serves two purposes: the modesty appropriate to the women is preserved, while the women sitting within ear-shot can easily follow what is said since there is nothing to obstruct the voice of the speaker.

[Ascetic practices]

They consider self-control the foundation of their soul and build the other virtues on this foundation. None of them would put food or drink to his lips before sunset since they hold that philosophy finds its right place in the light, the needs of the body in the darkness. Therefore they assign the day to the one and some small part of the night to the other. Some in whom the desire for studying wisdom is more deeply implanted even only after three days remember to take food. (35) Others so enjoy and delight in the banquet of truths which wisdom richly and lavishly supplies that they hold out for twice that time: only after six days do they bring themselves to taste such sustenance as is absolutely necessary. They have become used to abstinence like the grasshoppers who are said to live on air because, I suppose, their singing makes their lack of food a light matter. But they have awarded special privileges to the seventh day, as they consider it to be sacred and festal in the highest degree. After providing for the soul on the seventh day, they refresh the body also, which they do as a matter of course with the cattle too by releasing them from their continuous labour. Still they eat nothing costly, only common bread with salt for a relish flavoured further by the daintier with hyssop, and their drink is spring water. For as nature has set hunger and thirst as mistresses over mortal kind they propitiate them without using anything to curry favour but only such things as are actually needed and without which life cannot be maintained. Therefore they eat enough to keep from hunger and drink enough to keep from thirst, but they hate excess as a malignant enemy both to soul and body.


As for the two forms of shelter, clothes and housing, we have already said that the house is plain and a makeshift constructed for utility only. Their clothing likewise is the most inexpensive, enough to protect them against extreme cold and heat, a thick coat of shaggy skin in winter and in summer a vest or linen shirt. For they practise a general simplicity knowing that its opposite, arrogance, is the source of falsehood as freedom from arrogance is of truth, and that both play the part of a fountain head of other things, since from falsehood flow the manifold forms of evil and from truth abundant streams of goodness both human and divine.

[Inferiority of Greek drinking-parties compared to the Therapeustists’ meals]

(40) I also want to talk about their common gatherings (synodoi) and the cheerfulness of their meals (symposia) as contrasted with those of other people. When some people have filled themselves with strong drink, they behave as though they had drunk not wine but a poison of frenzy and madness and anything more fatal that can be imagined to overthrow their reason. They bellow and rave like wild dogs, attack and bite each other and gnaw off noses, ears, fingers and some other parts of the body. This way they fulfill the story of the comrades of Odysseus and the Kyklops by eating “bits” of men, as the poet says, and with greater cruelty than the Kyklops. For he avenged himself on men whom he suspected to be enemies, they on their familiars and friends and sometimes even on their kin over the salt and across the board. As they pour the libation of peace, they commit deeds of war like those of the gymnastic contests, counterfeiting the genuine coin of manly exercise.

These are not wrestlers but wretches, for that is the right name to give them. For what the athletes do in the arena while sober, in the daylight, with the eyes of all Greece upon them, in the hope of victory and the crown and in the exercise of their skill, are debased by the revellers who engage in their activities in convivial gatherings by night and in darkness, soaked in drink, ignorant and skilful only for mischief to inflict dishonour, insult and grievous abuse on the objects of their assault. If no one plays the umpire and comes forward to intervene and separate them, they carry on the comtest with increased licence to the finish, ready both to kill and to be killed. For they suffer no less than what they dish out to others though they know it not. So infatuated are these who do not hold back from drinking wine, as the comic poet says, to taint not only their neighbours but themselves. So those who but now came to the party sound in body and friendly at heart leave soon afterwards in enmity and with bodily mutilation. Enmity in some cases calling for advocates and judges, and mutilation in others requiring the medicine and physician and the help that they can bring.

(45) Others belonging to what we may suppose is the more moderate part of the company are in a state of overflow. Draughts of strong wine act upon them like mandrakes [i.e. a poisonous plant], they throw the left elbow forward, turn the neck at a right angle, belch into the cups and sink into a profound sleep. They see nothing and hear nothing, having apparently only one sense and that the most slavish: taste. I know of some who when they are half drunk and before they have completely gone under arrange donations and subscriptions in preparation for tomorrow’s gathering, considering that one factor in their present exhilaration is the hope of future intoxication. In this way they spend their whole life ever hearthless and homeless, enemies to their parents, their wives and their children, enemies too to their homeland and at war with themselves. For a loose and a dissolute life is a menace to all.

Perhaps some people may approve of the style of banqueting now prevalent everywhere through seeking out Italian expensiveness and luxury which is emulated both by Greek and barbarians, who make their arrangements for ostentation rather than festivity. There are sets of three or many couches made of tortoise shell or ivory or even more valuable material, most of them inlaid with precious stones; coverlets purple-dyed with gold interwoven, others brocaded with flower patterns of all sorts of colours to allure the eye; and, a host of drinking cups set out in their several kinds, beakers, stoops, tankards, other goblets of many shapes, very artistically and elaborately chased by skillful craftsmen. (50) Waiting there are slaves of the utmost comeliness and beauty, giving the idea that they have come not so much to render service as to give pleasure to the eyes of the beholders by appearing on the scene. Some of them who are still boys pour the wine, while the water is carried by full-grown youths fresh from the bath and smooth shaven, with their faces smeared with cosmetics and paint under the eyelids and the hair of the head prettily plaited and tightly bound. For they have long thick hair which is not cut at all or else the bangs only are cut at the tips to make them level and take exactly the figure of a circular line. They wear tunics fine as cobwebs and of dazzling white held high up. The front part hangs below the knee, the back part a little below the back of the knee and they draw together each part with curly bows of ribbon along the line of join of the tunics and then let the folds dangle down obliquely, broadening out the hollows along the sides. In the background are others, grown young men newly bearded with the down just blooming on their cheeks, recently pets of the pederasts, elaborately dressed up for the heavier services, a proof of the opulence of the hosts as those who employ them know, but in reality a proof of their bad taste. Besides there are the varieties of baked meats, savoury dishes and seasonings produced by the labour of cooks and confectioners who are careful to please not merely the taste as they are bound to do but also the sight by the elegance of the dishes. The assembled guests turn their necks round and round, greedily eyeing the richness and abundance of the meat and nosing the steamy odour which arises from it. When they have had their fill of both seeing and smelling, they give the word to give many compliments to the entertainment and the munificence of the entertainer. Seven tables at the least and even more are brought in covered with the meat of every creature that land, sea and rivers or air produce, beast, fish or bird, all choice and in fine condition, each table differing in the dishes served and the method of seasoning. So that nothing found in nature will be unrepresented, the last tables brought in are loaded with fruits, not including those reserved for the drinking bouts and the “after-dinners” as they call them. (55) Then while some tables are taken out emptied by the gluttony of the company who gorge themselves like cormorants, so voraciously that they nibble even at the bones. Other tables have their dishes mangled and torn and left half eaten. When they are quite exhausted with their bellies crammed full, but their lust still ravenous, powerless to eat they turn to drinking. But why dilate on these doings which are now condemned by many of the more sober minded as giving further vent to the lusts which might profitably be curtailed? For one may well pray for what men most pray to escape, hunger and thirst, rather than for the lavish profusion of food and drink found in festivities of this kind.

[Inferiority of the banquets of the philosopher Sokrates]

Among the banquets held in Greece, there are two celebrated and highly notable examples in which Sokrates took part: namely, one held in the house of Kallias and given by him in honour of the victory in which Autolykos won the crown and the other in the house of Agathon. That these deserve to be remembered was the judgment of men whose character and discourses showed them to be philosophers, Xenophon and Plato, who described them as worthy to be recorded, surmising that they would serve to posterity as models of the happily conducted banquet. Yet even these if compared with those of the Therapeutists who embrace the contemplative life will appear as matters for derision.

Pleasure is an element in both, but Xenophon’s banquet is more concerned with ordinary humanity. There are flute girls, dancers, jugglers, fun-makers, proud of their gift of jesting, and joking around. There are other accompaniments of more unrestrained merry-making almost entirely concerned with love, not merely with the love-sickness of men for women, or women for men, passions recognized by the laws of nature. Rather, love-sickness of men for other males differing from them only in age. For, if we find some clever subtlety dealing apparently with the heavenly Love and Aphrodite, it is brought in to give a touch of humour. (60) The chief part is taken up by the common vulgar love which robs men of the courage which is the virtue most valuable for the life both of peace and war, sets up the disease of effeminacy in their souls, and turns into a hybrid of man and woman those who should have been disciplined in all the practices which make for courage. Having caused havoc with the years of boyhood and reduced the boy to the level and condition of a girl besieged by a lover, it inflicts damage on the lovers also in three most essential respects: their bodies, their souls and their property. For the mind of the lover is necessarily set towards his darling and its sight is keen for him only and blind to all other interests, private and public. His body wastes away through desire, particularly if his suit is unsuccessful, while his property is diminished by two causes, neglect and expenditure on his beloved. As a side growth we have another greater evil of importance to the whole people. Cities are desolated, the best kind of men become scarce. Sterility and childlessness ensue through the devices of these who imitate men who have no knowledge of farming by sowing not in the deep soil of the lowland but in briny fields and stony and stubborn places, which not only give no possibility for anything to grow but even destroy the seed deposited within them. I pass over the mythical stories of the double-bodied men who were originally brought by unifying forces into cohesion with each other and afterwards came asunder, as an assemblage of separate parts might do when the bond of union which brought them together was loosened. All these are seductive enough, calculated by the novelty of the notion to trick the ear, but the disciples of Moses trained from their earliest years to love the truth regard them with supreme contempt and they continue undeceived.

[Description of the Therapeutists’ superior festal meetings following the model set by Moses]

The story of these well-known banquets is full of such follies and they stand self-convicted in the eyes of any who do not regard conventional opinions and do not regard the widely circulated report which declares them to have been all that they should be. But I will describe in contrast the festal meetings of those who have dedicated their own life and themselves to knowledge and the contemplation of the truths of nature, following the truly sacred instructions of the prophet Moses. (65) First of all these people assemble after seven sets of seven days [i.e. 49 days] have passed, for they revere not only the simple seven but its square also, since they know its chastity and perpetual virginity. This is the eve of the chief feast which fifty takes for its own. Fifty is the most sacred of numbers and the most deeply rooted in nature, being formed from the square of the right-angled triangle which is the source from which the universe springs.

So then they assemble, white-robed and with faces in which cheerfulness is combined with the utmost seriousness. But before they recline, at a signal from a member of the “daily-functionaries” (ephēmereutai), which is the name commonly given to those who perform these services, they take their stand in a regular line in an orderly way. They lift their eyes and hands up to heaven, eyes because they have been trained to fix their gaze on things worthy of contemplation, hands to represent that they are clean from gain-taking and not defiled through any cause of the profit-making. So standing they pray to God that their feasting may be acceptable and proceed as he would have it. After the prayers the elders (presbeuteroi) recline according to the order of their admission, since by “elder” they do not mean merely those who are old and grey (who are regarded as still mere children if they have only in late years come to love this rule of life), but those who from their earliest years have grown to manhood and spent their prime in pursuing the contemplative branch of philosophy, which indeed is the noblest and most god-like part.

The feast is shared by women also, most of them aged virgins (parthenoi), who have kept their chastity not under compulsion, like some of the Greek priestesses, but of their own free will in their enthusiastic pursuit for wisdom. Eager to have wisdom for their life mate, they have turned away from the pleasures of the body. They desire no mortal offspring but only those immortal children which the soul that is dear to God can bring to the birth unaided, because the father has sown in her spiritual rays enabling her to behold the verities of wisdom.

The order of reclining is arranged so that the men sit by themselves on the right and the women by themselves on the left. Perhaps one might expect that couches, though not costly yet still of a softer kind, would have been provided for people of good birth and high character and trained practice in philosophy. Actually they are plank beds of the common kinds of wood, covered with quite cheap native papyrus, raised slightly at the arms to give something to lean on. For while they mitigate somewhat the harsh austerity of Sparta, they always and everywhere practise a frugal contentment worthy of the free, and oppose with might and main the temptations of pleasure.

(70) They do not have slaves to wait upon them as they consider that the ownership of servants is entirely against nature. For nature has produced all men to be free, but the wrongful and covetous acts of some who pursued that source of evil, inequality, have imposed their yoke and invested the stronger with power over the weaker. In this sacred banquet there is as I have said no slave, but the services are rendered by free men who perform their tasks as attendants not under compulsion nor yet waiting for orders. But they do so with deliberate goodwill anticipating eagerly and zealously the demands that may be made. For it is not just any free men who are appointed for these offices but young members of the association chosen with all care for their special merit who in keeping with their good character and nobility are pressing on to reach the summit of virtue. They give their services gladly and proudly like sons to their real fathers and mothers, judging them to be the parents of them all in common. They have a closer affinity than that of blood, since to the right minded there is no closer tie than noble living. They come in to do their office without a belt and with tunics hanging down, that in their appearance there may be no shadow of anything to suggest the slave. In this banquet (I know that some will laugh at this, but only those whose actions call for tears and sadness) no wine is brought during those days, but only water of the brightest and clearest. The water is cold for most of the guests but warm for the elders who live delicately. The table too is kept pure from the meat of animals. The food laid on it is loaves of bread with salt as a seasoning, sometimes also flavoured with hyssop as a relish for the the more sophisticated appetites. Abstinence from wine is enjoined by right reason for the priest when sacrificing, so to these Therapeutists this is enjoined for their lifetime. For wine acts like a drug producing folly, and costly dishes stir up that most insatiable of animals: desire.

(75) Those are the preliminaries. The guests recline in rows, as I have described, and the “servants” (diakanoi) set themselves up with everything in order ready for their service. Then their president (proedros), when a general silence is established (here it may be asked when is there no silence, but at this point there is even more silence than before, so that no one dares to make a sound or to breathe more heavily than usual), amid this silence, I say, the president discusses some question related to the holy writings or solves one that has been propounded by someone else. In doing this, he is not focused on making a display, for he has no ambition to get a reputation for clever rhetoric but desires to gain a closer insight into some particular matters. After gaining that insight, he desires not to hold it back selfishly from those who, if not so clear-sighted as he is, have at least a similar desire to learn. The president’s instruction proceeds in a leisurely manner. He lingers over it and spins it out with repetitions, in this way permanently imprinting the ideas on the souls of the hearers. Since, if a speaker goes on talking rapidly without taking a breath, the mind of the hearers is unable to follow his language and the mind loses ground and fails to apprehend what is said. The president’s audience listens attentively with eyes fixed on him always in exactly the same posture. They signify comprehension and understanding by nods and glances; praise of the speaker by the cheerful change of expression which comes across their faces; and, difficulty understanding by a gentler movement of the head and by pointing with a finger-tip of the right hand. The young men standing by show no less attentiveness than those occupying the couches.

The exposition of the sacred writings deals with the inner meaning communicated through allegory. For to these people the whole law book seems to resemble a living creature with the literal ordinances for its body and the invisible mind lying behind its wording for its soul. It is in this mind especially that the rational soul begins to contemplate the things akin to itself. Looking through the words as though through a mirror, the rational soul beholds the amazing beauties of the concepts. It unfolds and removes the symbolic coverings. It brings out the thoughts and sets them out in the light of day for those who need but supplies a reminder to allow them to discern the inward and hidden through the outward and visible. So when the president thinks he has spoken long enough and both sides feel sure that they have attained their object (the speaker in the effectiveness with which his speech has carried out his aims, the audience in the substance of what they have heard), universal applause arises showing a general pleasure in the prospect of what is still to follow. (80) Then the president rises and sings a hymn composed as an address to God. The hymn is either a new one of his own composition or an old one by poets of an earlier day who have left behind them hymns in many measures and melodies, hexameters and iambics. The lyrics are suitable for processions or in libations and at the altars, or for the chorus while standing or dancing, with careful metrical arrangements to fit the various movements. After him all the others take their turn as they are arranged in the proper order while all the rest listen in complete silence except when they have to chant the closing lines or refrains, for then they all lift up their voices, men and women together.

When everyone has finished the hymn, the young men bring in the tables mentioned earlier. The tables have on them the truly purified meal of leavened bread seasoned with salt mixed with hyssop. This is done this way out of reverence for the holy table enshrined in the sacred vestibule of the temple on which lie loaves and salt without condiments, the loaves unleavened and the salt unmixed. For it was appropriate that the simplest and purest food would be assigned to those in the highest position, namely the priests, as a reward for their service, and that the others while aspiring to similar privileges should abstain from seeking the same as the priests and allow their superiors to retain their precedence.

After the supper they hold the sacred night-festival which is conducted in the following way. They rise up collectively and, standing in the middle of the banqueting hall, form themselves first into two choirs, one of men and one of women. The leader and chorus-director chosen for each are the most honoured amongst them and also the most musical. Then they sing hymns to God composed of many measures and set to many melodies. Sometimes they chant together and sometimes they take up the harmony antiphonally with hands and feet keeping time in accompaniment. Caught up in the enthusiasm they reproduce sometimes the lyrics of the procession, sometimes of the halt and of the wheeling and counter-wheeling of a choral dance.

(85) After each choir has separately done its own part in the feast and has drunk (as if in the bacchic rites) of the strong wine of God’s love, they mix together to become a single choir, a copy of the choir set up in the old days beside the Red Sea in honour of the wonders done there. For at the command of God the sea became a source of salvation for one party and a source of destruction for the other. As it broke in two and withdrew under the violence of the forces which swept it back, there rose on opposite sides the appearance of solid walls. At the same time the space opened in this way between them broadened into a smooth and dry road on which the people marched under guidance until they reached the higher ground on the opposite mainland. But when the sea came rushing in with the returning tide, and from either side passed over the ground where dry land had appeared the pursuing enemy were submerged and perished. This wonderful sight and experience, an act transcending word and thought and hope, so filled with ecstasy both men and women that forming a single choir they sang hymns of thanksgiving to God their saviour. The men were led by the prophet Moses and the women by the prophetess Miriam. It is on this model above all that the choir of the Therapeutists, both men and women, note in response to note and voice to voice, the treble of the women blending with the bass of the men, create a harmonious concert of true music. Lovely are the thoughts, lovely the words and worthy of reverence the choristers, and the end and aim of thoughts, words and choristers alike is piety. In this way they continue till dawn, drunk with this drunkenness in which there is no shame. Not with heavy heads or drowsy eyes but more alert and wakeful than when they came to the banquet, they then stand with their faces and whole body turned to the east. When they see the sun rising, they stretch their hands up to heaven and pray for bright days and knowledge of the truth and the power of clear-sighted thinking. After the prayers, they depart each to his individual sanctuary to once again ply the trade and till the field of their customary philosophy. So much then for the Therapeutists. They have taken to their hearts the contemplation of nature and what it has to teach. In their souls, they have lived as citizens of heaven and the world, presented to the father and maker of everything by their faithful sponsor, Virtue. Virtue has provided to them God’s friendship and added a gift going hand in hand with it, true excellence of life. This is a benefit better than all good fortune which rises to the heights of happiness.


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