The Therapeutae of Antiquity

The Therapeutae (meaning "healers") were a religious order of mystical ascetics who lived in many parts of the ancient world but were found especially near Alexandria, the capital city of Ptolemaic Egypt. This pre-Christian group of Jewish ascetics is known today from the writings of Philo of Alexandria, who described the group in his De Vita Contemplativa (On the Contemplative Life), written around 10 C.E. Philo compared the Therapeutae to the Essenes as both sects were known for their exemplary religious devotion and ascetic practices.

According to Philo, communities of Therapeutae were widely established in the ancient world but the particular sect near Lake Mareotis, Egypt, was quite famous for its healing arts. The Therapeutae were renowned for both their asceticism and healing abilities. Indeed, the English words "therapy" and "therapudic" are etymologically connected to the name of this ancient religious Order, indicating that medicine, religion, and healing were deeply connected in the ancient world, and healing was seen as a religious art. A similar etymology exists for the word "hospital" and the religious orders of the Hospitallers of the levant.

Philo's monachism is witness as the Therapeutae as forerunners and the model for, the Christian practice of ascetic life. It has even been considered as the earliest description of Christian monasticism. This view was first espoused by Eusebius of Caesarea in his Ecclesiastical History. The practices described by Philo were considered as one of the first models of Christian monastic life. Eusebius was so sure of the identification of Therapeutae with the earliest Christians that he deduced that Philo, who admired them so, must have been Christian himself. Like the first Christian hermits of the Egyptian desert, i.e. Anthony the Great, they were mostly-anchorites (solitary hermits), rather than living communally, as later Christian monastic communities would do. According to Pseudo-Dionysius:
The semianchoritic character of the Therapeutae community, the renunciation of property, the solitude during the six days of the week and the gathering together on Saturday for the common prayer and the common meal, the severe fasting, the keeping alive of the memory of God, the continuous prayer, the meditation and study of Holy Scripture, were also practices of the Christian anchorites of the Alexandrian desert.

sd This is an overview of some of the ruins of the community of Qumran visited by the author in 2007. You can see the rugged hills to the right in which the dead sea scrolls were hidden in caves. The Dead Sea is in the background.  

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During the life time of Jesus, the Essene Brotherhood, was based at Qumran at the northern end of the Dead Sea, or at least that is what we are told. Brian Desborough’s research indicates that this site was a leper colony at the time and that the Essenes lived in a much more appropriate place further along the Dead Sea coast.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, found in caves near Qumran in 1947, have offered a greater insight into their lifestyle and beliefs, despite suppression by 'the authorities' who wish to maintain the official version of history. The scrolls were hidden from the Romans during the ill-fated Judean revolt around 70 AD. Some 500 Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts were found, which included texts from the Old Testament, among them a complete draft of the Book of Isaiah, centuries older than the one in the Bible. There were scores of documents relating to the Essene customs and organisation. The scrolls confirm that the Essenes were fanatics who followed to the letter the Levite inventions in the Old Testament texts. Anyone who didn’t do the same was their enemy and they fiercely opposed the Roman occupation. They were a Palestine branch of an even more extreme Egyptian sect called the Therapeutae (‘healers’, hence therapeutic) and they inherited the secret knowledge of Egypt and the ancient world.

The Therapeutae and the Essenes also used the symbol of the ‘messeh’, the ‘Draco’ crocodile of Egypt, the fat of which anointed the Pharaohs under the authority of the Royal Court of the Dragon. The Essenes had a detailed understanding of drugs, including the hallucinogenic variety, which were used in mystery school initiations and for entering other states of consciousness. The properties of the ‘sacred mushrooms’ or ‘Holy Plant’ were so much part of life in the secret brotherhood that the Jewish high priest wore a mushroom cap to acknowledge their importance. They had special rituals for their preparation and use. The mushroom, too, was given son of God’ connotations (what wasn’t?) and it was connected to the Sun cycle. The mushrooms were picked with great reverence before sunrise and many symbols of this ritual can be found in the Bible and far older texts.

Again, the use of the sacred mushroom and other drugs, and the secret knowledge of their properties, can be traced back to the earliest days of Sumer. The Therapeutae had a flourishing university at Alexandria and from there they sent out missionaries to establish branches and affiliated communities across the Middle East. Here again we have the connection back to Egypt and the mystery schools. The Essenes were advocates of Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and esoteric mathematician, who was a high initiate of both the Greek and Egyptian mystery schools. According to the most famous historian of the period, Josephus, the Essenes were sworn to keep secret the names of the powers who ruled the universe. This was in line with the laws of the mystery schools. The Essenes- Therapeutae practised rituals very similar to the later Christian baptism and they marked the foreheads of initiates with a cross. This being the symbol indicated in the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel for enlightened (or illuminated) ones and also used for initiations into the mysteries of Mithra and other such Sun god figures. The Essenes viewed natural bodily functions, including sex, with disgust and in that sense they were an excellent forerunner of the Roman Church which was to absorb many of their beliefs, terms and practises. Two of the Dead Sea Scrolls, one in Hebrew, the other in Aramaic, contain what we would call horoscopes, the belief that the movement of the planets affects a person’s character and destiny. The Essenes practised astrology, the symbolism of which you find throughout the Gospels and the Old Testament. The early Christians, an offshoot of the Essenes-Therapeutae, did the same, as did the Romans and all the Gentile nations surrounding Judea.

The writer, Philo, who lived at the alleged time of Jesus, said in his Treatise on the Contemplative Life, that when the Therapeutae prayed to God, they turned to the Sun and they studied in order to discover the hidden (coded) meaning of sacred books. He wrote that they also meditated on the secrets of nature contained in the books under the veil of allegory. That is precisely the way the Bible is written. Today this secret language is used in the logos, coats of arms and flags, of companies, countries and other Brotherhood-controlled organizations.

According to the book "A History of the Jews" by Abram Leon Sachar, The Essenes, were members of a Jewish religious brotherhood, organized on a communal basis and practicing strict asceticism. The order, with about 4,000 members, existed in Palestine and Syria from the 2nd century b.c. to the 2nd century ad. Its chief settlements were on the shores of the Dead Sea. The Essenes are not mentioned in the Bible or in rabbinical literature, and information regarding them is largely confined to the writings of Philo Judaeus, a Hellenistic Jewish scholar and philosopher of Alexandria; the Roman historian Pliny the Elder; and the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Various groups have been set forth as possible prototypes for the Essenian order. Chief among them are Tsenium (the “modest or chaste ones”), Hashsh?im (the “silent ones”), Hasidim Harish?nim (the “ancient saints or elders”), Nigiyy? Had Da 'ath (the “pure of mind”), and Wattiqim (the “men of exactitude”). Each of these words was characteristic of the order, the fundamental teachings of which werelove of God, love of virtue, and love of one's fellow humans.

Important features of the organization were the forerunners of msny Christian monastic sects - community of property, distributed according to need; strict observance of the Sabbath; and scrupulous cleanliness, which involved washing in cold water and wearing white garments. Prohibited were swearing, taking oaths (other than oaths of membership in the Essenian order), animal sacrifice, the making of weapons, and participation in trade or commerce. The order drew its recruits either from children it had adopted or from the ranks of those who had renounced material things. A probation of three years was required before the novice could take the oath of full membership, which demanded complete obedience and secrecy. Breaking the oath was punishable by expulsion. Because of the continuance of the binding requirement that no food should be eaten that was ceremonially unclean, this penalty was often equivalent to death by starvation. As a society, the Essenes were the first to condemn slavery as a violation of human fellowship. It is reported that they bought and freed slaves owned by others. The Essenes lived in small communities of their own. Their industries were farming and handicrafts.

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The Therapeutae, (from which we derive the word "therapy" and "therapeutic") were a strict Jewish religious sect, which flourished in the 1st century ad. The Therapeutae are described, among contemporary sources, only in De vita contemplativa by Hellenistic-Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus. Strictly ascetic, the Therapeutae lived in separate cells where they spent the day in prayer, meditation, and study. They ate sparingly and only in the evening. Virgins were admitted to the group, but they sat apart in the dining quarters and did not mingle with the men. On the Sabbath the members met for a communal meal and discussion. A feature of their observances was a nocturnal celebration, during which they spent the whole night singing religious songs. It is not clear, however, whether this celebration was held every seven weeks or only on the principal Jewish festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles). The Therapeutae had much in common with Christian monastic orders, and some scholars have suggested that they may have been Christians, but most maintain that they were a strictly Jewish sect, akin to the Essenes, from whom they may have separated.

 

The Hellenistic Age

Archaic and Classical Greece produced a culture which the third era, the Hellenistic Age, spread throughout the known world. Because of the Macedonian empire builders, the realm of Greek influence spread from India to Africa. When Alexander the Great died, his empire was divided in three parts: Macedonia and Greece, ruled by Antigonus, founder of the Antigonid dynasty; the Near East, ruled by Seleucus, founder of the Seleucid dynasty; and Egypt, where the general Ptolemy started the Ptolemid dynasty. The empire was wealthy thanks to the conquered Persians. With this wealth, building and other cultural programs were established in each region. The most famous contribution of Ptolemy was the Library at Alexandria.

While the culture of ancient Greece was disseminated East and West, the Greeks adopted elements of eastern culture and religion, especially Zoroastrianism and Mithraism. Attic Greek became the lingua franca. Impressive scientific innovations were made in Alexandria where the Greek Eratosthenes computed the circumference of the earth, Archimedes calculated pi, and Euclid compiled his geometry text. In philosophy Zeno and Epicurus founded the moral philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism.


Though Rome dominated politically, the greatest city of the Hellenistic Age, which took place from 300 BC to 300 AD, was Alexandria in Egypt. Due to the numerous cultures that congregated in the city, whether Egyptian, Greek, Persian, Hindu, or Jewish, new esoteric creeds were formulated based on older traditions, a trend, referred to by scholars as syncretism (union of opposing principles). However, upon closer examination it becomes apparent that, though they appear outwardly eclectic, the underlying theology were evolved by the Greek philosophers. The first important evidence of these doctrines in Judaism make their definite appearance among the Essenes, a sectarian Jewish community of the second century BC to the first century Ad, who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.


Their doctrines did not represent the orthodox tradition of Judaism, but a departure from it in the form of teachings developed in Babylon. It was through another Essene-like community in Alexandria, known as the Therapeutae, that the doctrines of the Chaldean Magi, and their mysteries, were interpreted to create different schools, the most important of which were Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism. Greek medicine played an important role in their healing practices. Some authors believe Jesus made contact with this community, which later would produce some of the leading philosophical scholars of early Christian Gnosticism.

A chronology of the historical developments of The Therapeutae of Antiquity can be found here.

Licensing of Religious Practitioners can be found here.

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The Priory of the Therapeutae has been joined to the Sacred Medical Order