In which Sue Monk Kidd helps me with my Global Christianities paper (Remix 1)

My dear friends,

Many of you have asked how things are going. I’m sure others wonder why I decided to go to graduate school at 57 with no clear idea of how I will use this education. I’m writing to you, because each of you helped me, in some way, to find the path I am now traveling.

Over 20 years ago, I joined a book club, which, for better or worse, became known as the “Book Club My A**” (BCMA). As young mothers, we started strong while many of us were still at home with young ones or taking a break from our careers. I remember reading Anita Diament’s The Red Tent and later Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter and The Secret Life of Bees. The charge I felt when first hearing women’s voices describe their relationship with the Divine was electric and life-changing.

We focused on books with a spiritual bent and took off in other directions as we each suggested titles. But true to our BCMA name, we often spent most of our time catching up with each other, drinking wine, eating good cheese, sharing parenting advice, and supporting each other through births, marriages, career changes, cancers, and divorces. Sometimes we were lucky to read one book in a year, so much was going on in our lives.

My early explorations with the Divine Feminine started in college, including three different trips to India and my pilgrimage to Black Madonnas’ sites in five European countries in 2018. My curiosity grew with each book, retreat, and conversation, a trail of breadcrumbs leading to an unknown destination.

So here I am at Vanderbilt Divinity School, to earn a Master’s degree in Theological Studies. I’m not the oldest student, but certainly one of the elders. I am now mainly through the first semester, navigating how to find and read primary source documents, write academic papers, and cite sources using the Chicago Manual of Style. I’m getting into the flow of graduate school during a pandemic; making friends through little zoom squares, the occasional phone call, or socially-distanced porch gatherings.

My current assignment for the History of Global Christianities is to take a topic from our course and remix it into something new. I’ve toyed with starting a blog, which seems like a good nudge in that direction. As for the first topic, I had one of those synchronistic events a couple of weeks ago. We were learning about the 3-4th century desert mothers and fathers of Egypt, and that same week I had a chance to attend an on-line conversation with Sue Monk Kidd about The Book of Longings, which BCMA read in August. Anyway, during questions at the end, I asked Sue about the date of the Therapeutae community, featured towards the end of the book. I was curious that an ascetic group of women lived in the Egyptian desert in the 1st century when I understood that the Christian monastic movement started in the 3rd century. Sue shared the following title: Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria by Joan Taylor.

I am fascinated that this very academic and obscure book written in 2003 was used as the main plotline in a best-selling historic-fiction book. Outside of academia, I imagine few people may ever read Ms. Taylor’s book. I am inspired that her work reached Sue Monk Kidd and is furthered by Sue’s prophetic voice. Anyway, I know BCMA won’t be reading Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century any time soon. Still, I will share some highlights and connections between the Therapeutae community featured in The Book of Longings and the desert mothers and fathers. Perhaps I will post some other assignments along the way. I welcome your feedback and continued conversation.

Onward and deeper,

Beth

Highlights of: Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria, by Joan Taylor

As I noted in my introduction, Jewish Women Philosophers is not breaking any records on popularity. The 2003 hardback book that I secured through the Divinity School library looks brand new, but tucked in its pages; I found a yellowing receipt dated 6/30/2013. I doubt if it has been checked out either before or since then. Nevertheless, I have discovered Jewish Women Philosophers surprisingly approachable, despite being a thoroughly academic analysis of De Vita Contemplative by Philo of Alexandria.

Philo of Alexandria, an esteemed scholar of philosophy and member of an elite Alexandrian Jewish family, lived in the first part of the early century CE. He was the leader of two Alexandrian Jewish delegations to Rome to speak with Emperor Gaius Caligula and Emperor Claudius. Alexandria, a cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse city of about 500,000, was ruled by Romans when Jewish people were considered partial citizens. Indeed, the early first century in Alexandria was a time of much civil unrest between different factions of Romans, Greeks, and Jews. The delegation to Emperor Claudius made a case for the rights of Jewish people recently demoted to a class of “aliens and foreigners.”[1]All this to say, Philo’s perspective was influenced by the social unrest in which he lived. In describing the Therapeutae community just outside of Alexandria, his goal was to portray Jewish people as representing the idealized “good.”

Written in Greek, De Vita Contemplative was first mentioned by Eusebius, a 4th century Bishop and noted church historian, who mistakenly interpreted Philo’s description of the Therapeutae as describing an early Christian monastic community. Indeed, that is where is my discussion will focus on the similarities and differences with the later 3-4th century monastic communities of the desert mothers and fathers. In the spirit of my weekly assignments for Global Histories of Christianities, I am sharing some relevant quotes from De Vita Contemplativa – (The Contemplative Life) and then giving my reflection afterward.

Similarities:

Poverty:

18: Then when they have rid themselves of their belongings, no longer enticed by anything, they flee away without turning around, leaving behind brothers/ sisters, children, wives, parents…[2]

Ascetism:

34. They first lay down self-control as a certain foundation stone of the soul (and then) they build the other virtues (on it). Non them would ever eat food or drink before sunset, since they have decided that philosophizing is appropriate to the light (of day), but the needs of the body (are appropriate) for the darkness (of night).[3]

Simplicity/Truth

39. They entirely practice simplicity (of life), knowing pride is the origin of falsehood, and simplicity of truth, each (state – truth and falsehood) having the essential nature (logos) of (being) a spring, For the many forms of evil (flow) out of falsehood, and the abundant forms of good, both human and divine, flow out of truth.[4]

Differences:

Ownership of books:

25. In each there is a sacred room … in which they solitarily perfect the mysteries of the holy life. They take nothing into it – no drink, no food,… but (only) laws oracles declared through prophets, hymns, and other (writings) which increase and perfect understanding and piety.[5]

All-night celebration:

32. First of all, these people assemble on (every) seventh seventh-day, holding in awe not only the simple number of seven, but also the square (of it)…And it is also the eve of the great special day which the number fifty has been assigned: fifty being the most holy and natural of numbers.[6]

Focus on singing/ Men and women together:

87. Seeing and experiencing this (salvation), which is a work greater than in word, thought and hope, both men and women were filled with inspiration and became a choir singing hymns of thanksgiving to God the Savior. The men were led by Moses the prophet, and the women by Miriam the prophetess. [7]

Comments:

In describing the 1st century Therapeutae community, Philo of Alexandria highlighted features that were understandably later mistaken for an early Christian monastic community. Like the later desert mothers and fathers of the 3-4th centuries, the Therapeutae disposed of their wealth, practiced an ascetic and simple lifestyle in which they severely regulated food and water, and meditated. However, unlike the later monastic traditions, this community of Jewish men and women philosophers’ unique focus and celebrations set them apart. At the core of this community was a focus on “the good,” realized through an extreme allegorical interpretation of sacred texts. This group of highly educated and formerly elite people focused on interpreting texts as leading to truth rather than the literal reading of the texts. This study required access to books, and it seems each member had a small library of scrolls in their dwelling. Also setting the Therapeutae apart from later Christian desert mothers and fathers was their use of a solar calendar and a ritual of an all-night singing celebration every 49th night, which led to ecstatic trances and visions. The Therapeutae community included men and women who came together to learn and celebrate their Jewish philosophy. Indeed, unlike other Jewish people who worshiped in the temple and kept annual festivals and holy days, this community saw themselves as philosophers and separate from other Jews. I find it fascinating that in the first century Therapeutae community, some Jewish women, albeit elite, were literate, educated, and fully participated in sacred rituals. I also find it fascinating that Sue Monk Kidd, in her research for The Book of Longings, found this obscure but incredibly insightful source. In my dreams, I want to host an event where Sue Monk Kidd and Joan Taylor have a conversation about academic research and historical fiction. While it may not be what Joan Taylor had in mind when she wrote Jewish Women Philosophers of the First Century, I imagine she doesn’t mind that the community she so thoroughly researched became a significant plotline in a best-selling book.

Bibliography:

Taylor, Joan E. Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria: Philo’s “Therapeutae” Reconsidered. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.


[1] Joan E. Taylor, Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria: Philo’s “Therapeutae” Reconsidered (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[2] Taylor.

[3] Taylor. 353.

[4] Taylor. 353.

[5] Taylor. 351.

[6] Taylor. 352.

[7] Taylor. 357.

DIV 6700 History of Global Christianities

Remix Assignment

Copyright 2020, Beth Maczka This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike 4.0 International License CL-By-SA-4.0

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