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Bible Dictionaries

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary


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So called from the extraordinary purity of their religious worship, were a Jewish sect, who, with a kind of religious frenzy, placed their whole felicity in the contemplation of the divine nature. Detaching themselves wholly from secular affairs, they transferred their property to their relations or friends, and withdrew into solitary places, where they devoted themselves to a holy life. The principal society of this kind was formed near Alexandria, where they lived, not far from each other, in separate cottages, each of which had its own sacred apartment, to which the inhabitants retired for the purposes of devotion. After their morning prayers, they spent the day in studying the law and the prophets, endeavouring, by the help of the commentaries of their ancestors, to discover some allegorical meaning in every part. Besides this, they entertained themselves with composing sacred hymns in various kinds of metre. Six days of the week were, in this manner, passed in solitude. On the seventh day they met, clothed in a decent habit, in a public assembly; where taking their places according to their age, they sat with the right hand between the breast and the chin, and the left at the side. Then some one of the elders, stepping forth into the middle of the assembly, discoursed with a grave countenance and a calm tone of voice, on the doctrines of the sect; the audience, in the mean time, remaining in perfect silence, and occasionally expressing their attention and approbation by a nod.

The chapel where they met was divided into two apartments, one for the men, and the other for the women. So strict a regard was paid to silence in these assemblies, that no one was permitted to whisper, nor even to breathe aloud; but when the discourse was finished, if the question which had been proposed for solution had been treated to the satisfaction of the audience, they expressed their approbation by a murmur of applause. Then the speaker, rising, sung a hymn of praise to God; in the last verse of which the whole assembly joined. On great festivals, the meeting was closed with a vigil, in which sacred music was performed, accompanied with solemn dancing; and these vigils were continued till morning, when the assembly, after a morning prayer, in which their faces were directed towards the rising sun, was broken up.

So abstemious were these ascetics, that they commonly ate nothing before the setting sun, and often fasted two or three days. They abstained from wine, and their ordinary food was bread and herbs. Much dispute has arisen among the learned concerning this sect. Some have imagined them to have been Judaizing Gentiles; but Philo supposes them to be Jews, by speaking of them as a branch of the sect of Essenes, and expressly classes them among the followers of Moses. Others have maintained, that the Therapeutae were an Alexandrian sect of Jewish converts to the Christian faith, who devoted themselves to a monastic life. But this is impossible; for Philo, who wrote before Christianity appeared in Egypt, speaks of this as an established sect. From comparing Philo's account of this sect with the state of philosophy in the country where it flourished, it seems likely that the Therapeutae were a body of Jewish fanatics, who suffered themselves to be drawn aside from the simplicity of their ancient religion by the example of the Egyptians and Pythagoreans. How long this sect continued is uncertain; but it is not improbable that, after the appearance of Christianity in Egypt, it soon became extinct.

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Therapeutae'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. 1802.

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