The Therapeutae of Philo, and the Monks as Therapeutae according to St Dionysius

by Professor Constantine Scouteris
School of Theology of the University of Athens

In his De Vita Contemplativa the Alexandrian Philo makes an extremely remarkable description of an ascetic community with which he was familiar and which was settled not far from Alexandria, namely above Lake Mareotis. Philo’s intention in this treatise is not to give an idealized account of what he himself describes as βιου θεωρητικου but rather to sketch the way of life of a specific monastic community of Egyptian Jewish ascetics. At the very beginning of his treatise, Philo notes the substantial contrast between the Therapeutae and another Jewish ascetic sect, the Essenes. The Essenes led a more practical and active life, while the Therapeutae were dedicated to contemplative life. One could observe also other differences between the two ascetic traditions. The Essenes were exclusively male communities while women participated in the communal gatherings of the Therapeutae communities. Although the Essene’s highly organized communal life involved great frugality, there is no conclusive evidence that it denied the lawfulness of marriage. The ascetic tradition of the Therapeutae, on the other hand, insisted on absolute sexual abstinence. The Therapeutae did not practice the Essene communistic way of life but lived separately as anchorites. They practiced renunciation of property, living a life of severe discipline, fasting and praying daily according to an established horarium. As regards theological method, they were enthusiasts of the allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament.

It is not the intention of this paper to present a detailed account of the differences between the Essenes and the Therapeutae, but rather to observe the contemplative life of the pre-Christian monastic community of the Therapeutae and to compare it with the angelic life as described in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius.*

It should be pointed out from the very outset that Philonian monachism has been seen as the forerunner of and the model for the Christian ascetic life. It has even been considered as the first picture of Christian monasticism. Such an identification can already be found in Eusebius of Caesarea. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius, referring first to apostolic foundations of the Church of Alexandria by St. Mark, points out that Philo’s Therapeutae were the first Christian monks. He sees in their renunciation of property, in their chastity of life, in their severe fasting, in their solitary lives, in their devotion to scriptural reading and in other aspects of their ascetic life, the Christian monks. Eusebius was so certain that Philo was describing the life of the first Christian monks that he argues that Philo himself, not only knew the life of the first Christian ascetics, but also had himself adopted it.

It is true that there are considerable similarities between the Therapeutae and the way of life of the first Christian monks of Egypt, especially those of the Nitria Desert. It is for precisely this reason that until the end of the eighteenth century Eusebius’ position was widely accepted among Christian scholars. Another deduction, derived from the striking similarities already noted, was that of the Strasbourgian scholar Lucius, at the end of the last century. He insisted that the De Vita Contemplativa was not, in fact, Philo’s work, but that of an unknown Christian author of the third century. Interesting though it may be, Lucius’ position can be dismissed since Massebieau and Conybeare have definitively proved the authenticity of the Philonian authorship of the De Vita Contemplativa. What is indisputable is the fact that in Philo’s presentation one finds basic trends of early Christian monasticism. 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.

In his attempt to clarify their vocation in connection with the title reserved to them, Philo makes the following observation:

The vocation of these philosophers is at once made clear from their title of Therapeutae and Therapeutrides, a name derived from θεραπεία, either in the sense of “cure”, because they profess an art of healing superior to that practiced in the cities which cures only bodies, while their’s treats also souls oppressed by grievous and well-nigh incurable diseases, inflicted by pleasures and desires and griefs and fears, by acts of covetousness, folly and injustice, and the countless hosts of other passions and vices; or else in the sense of “worship” because nature and the sacred laws have schooled them to worship the Self-existent, Who is better than the Good, purer than the One, and more primordial than the Monad.

Dionysius in his Ecclesiastical Hierarchy takes up Philo’s basic points in order to speak about the Christian monastic vocation. We should note that Dionysius is one of the very few Christian writers to actually use the term Therapeutae when referring to the monks. He even preserves the information that the term was in common use: “Some people gave to the ascetics the name Therapeutae or servants while some others gave them the name monks”. Although both Philo and Dionysius use the same name “Therapeutae” to describe the monastic vocation, there are substantial differences between the understanding of Philo and that of Dionysius. In Philo’s interpretation, one realizes that the ascetics described by him in the De Vita Contemplativa were persons who “professed an art of healing superior to that practiced in the cities”. Their art of healing derives from the simplicity of their way of life. Escaping the noise of the city, they embrace the natural way, living in the gardens, enjoying the fresh air and the calm and beauty of the countryside. Apart from that, they have the opportunity to practice inner solitude, not because they are misanthropes, but because they are aware that “in every city, even the best governed, is full of turmoils and disturbances innumerable which no one could endure who has ever been once under the guidance of wisdom”.

The freedom from every necessity and the natural way of living is understood in the Philonian text as a way of healing. It is precisely and basically for this reason that the ascetics were called by Philo “Therapeutae”. In the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius, we find a quite different interpretation. The monks are called “Therapeutae” because they have freely dedicated themselves to the service of God. Here θεραπεία is understood as duty and service to God. The Christian monks have a specific orientation, i.e., to be servants and worshippers of God. It is true that the idea of service is also mentioned by Philo but assigned a secondary importance. The ascetics are named Therapeutae primarily because they practice the art of healing.

  • Already the etymological issue, i. e. the differentiation, regarding the meaning of the word “Therapeutae”, leads us to understand that, despite the use of the common term, the Philonian and Dionysian visions are absolutely different. The monastic vocation in Philo’s De Vita Contemplativa derives all its strength from the monks’ ascetic endeavors. Its inspiration and accomplishments are those of, admittedly dedicated and serious persons; but they are still limited by the human condition. Philo’s monks possess and profess an art of healing derived entirely from their own ascetic labors. According to Dionysius’ approach, the monastic vocation has God as its foundation and final goal. In this sense monastic life is a desire toward God’s life. Dionysius makes his points clear when he writes that the Christian ascetics are called “therapeutae” and “monks”: Because of the purity of their duty and service to God and because their lives, far from being scattered, are monopolized
  • The second observation is related to the term “monk” itself. Dionysius takes up again Philo’s idea concerning the “One” and the “Monad” in order to interpret the term “μοναχός”. In Philo’s De Vita Contemplativa we find the point that the monks “worship the Self-existent who is better than the Good, purer than the One and more primordial than the Monad”. According to Dionysius the monks are named μοναχοι as well, because their constant struggle is orientated toward the undivided and unified life. The author of the Areopagite text following the Eastern patristic theology understands sin as disruption, as something which introduces discord and division. Dionysius defines the destructive character of sin as “an inharmonious mingling of discordant elements”. Christian life in general and monastic vocation in particular is an effort to restore in every human being the unique life of God. In the final analysis the life of God is a life of unity and the monastic
  • But in studying the De Vita Contemplativa of Philo and comparing it to the data concerning the monastic vocation given by Dionysius in his Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, one can discern a third very substantial difference. In the Dionysian exposition there is a strong ecclesiological perspective. Those dedicated to the monastic life are, not simply philosophers or therapeutae in the Philonian sense, but are serving God within the body of the Church. This means that monastic perfection is realized, not via an abstract and autonomous life of contemplation, but indeed in the Church. The monastics, as therapeutae, have a specific function to fulfill which has been understood as an ecclesiastical service. The ecclesiastical character of the monastic vocation is presented by Dionysius with what he says about the “mystery of the consecration of a monk”. It should be noted once more here that monks are considered by Dionysius as having a specific gift and place within the ecclesiastical hierarchy

It is interesting to see how the Areopagite describes this consecration:

The priest stands before the divine altar and chants the invocation for a monk. The person being initiated stands behind the priest and does not kneel on either one or both knees. The divinely scriptures are not put on his head. He simply stands while the priest chants the secret invocation over him. When this is finished, the priest approaches the initiate. First he asks if he will not only renounce his doubleminded way of living, but even refuse every fantasy (which could be a destruction to his way of life). He reminds him of the rules governing a fully perfect life and openly asserts that he must surpass the median way of life. After the initiate has devoutly promised to do all this, the priest makes the sign of the cross on him. He cuts his hair and invokes the three Persons of the divine blessedness. He takes away all his clothes and gives him others. Then together with all the other sacred men present at the ceremony, he gives him the kiss (of peace) and confers on him the right to commune in the divine Mysteries.

Dionysius presents a detailed explanation of every symbolic action of a consecration of a monk. It is not within the purview of this paper to provide a detailed commentary. The only thing we wish to underline is the fact that after the completion of the consecration, the neophyte partakes of the holy Eucharist.

The participation in the Eucharist has evident ecclesiological significance. It is a living testimony that the monks form an integral part of the Church. Their way and their vocation is under the blessing of the Church. According to Dionysius, their life is not an extraecclesial spiritual activity, but is indeed ecclesial life. In the Philonian presentation the absence of such a perspective is striking. One realizes that the Therapeutae were a body of ascetics whose integration within the fold of Judaism was extremely tenuous. In the Pseudo-Dionysian understanding, the art of the ascetic life is the art of the Church herself. Their art leads through purification, illumination and perfection to divine communion. The final goal of the monk’s life, as well as the common goal of all Christians, is to “be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

We can now summarize by saying only that Dionysius, to describe the monastic vocation, used the Philonian way of thinking with all its Platonic background. But behind the similar language, one can easily remark the substantial difference between Philo and Dionysius. The contribution of Dionysius lies in the fact that, not only has he not rejected Philo’s thought, but he enriched it with a distinctly Christian attitude. Or to put it differently. Dionysius’ purpose was to present the Christian teaching concerning the monastic way; and he did so using the Philonian language, symbols and categories.

*Dionysius: Professor Scouteris consistently refers to the author of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy by the western academic name Pseudo-Dionysius.