In which synchronicities lead me to my next primary source (Remix final)

Shortly after studying early Christian asceticism and the desert mothers and fathers in class this fall, I attended an online reading with Sue Monk Kidd featuring her 2020 historical fiction, The Book of Longings. During the time for questions, I asked her about the Therapeutae community’s timing in the first century since I understood that desert monasticism flourished in the third through fifth centuries. Kidd seemed genuinely excited by my question and encouraged me to read Joan E. Taylor’s, Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria: Philo’s ‘Therapeutae’ Reconsidered (Jewish Woman Philosophers). In my first Remix assignment, I used Taylor’s translation of Philo of Alexandria’s, De Vita Contemplativa (Contempl.) in the appendix of Jewish Women Philosophers to compare similarities and differences between the first-century Therapeutae community and the later Egyptian Christian monastics described in the Apophthemegata Patrum.

Sharing my blog post with my book club friends prompted some interesting feedback. Since reading The Book of Longings together in August, some friends were curious about the Therapeutae and wondered about their portrayal’s accuracy compared to Philo’s historical description. Others asked if there were documented sayings from the Therapeutae like those collected of the later desert mothers and fathers. Both questions led me to ponder how the Therapeutae were perhaps a precursor to the later Christian monastic communities in the third through fifth centuries. This paper will address these three areas of questions, keeping my friends in mind as the primary audience. First, I will compare descriptions of the Therapeutae’s lifestyle by Philo of Alexandria and Sue Monk Kidd. I will also compare quotes from Contempl. describing the Therapeutae with similar themes from the desert mothers and fathers highlighted in the Apophthegmata. Finally, I will clarify why Therapeutae could have been a model for later Christian monastic communities.

Before I go further, I’m excited to share that in early November 2020, Joan E. Taylor (and David M. Hay) released a new translation of The Contemplative Life, Philo of Alexandria on the Contemplative Life: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. (That I stumbled across it in my email feed from Agade@listserv.edu is about as unlikely as getting the referral to Taylor’s first book straight from Sue Monk Kidd during an online Q&A). Taylor’s book, currently only available online, is scheduled for release in 2021. This new translation and commentary of Philo of Alexandria’s Viva Contemplativa, completed after David M. Hay’s death in 2006, contains a more robust commentary. Thus, I will utilize the most current translation in my comparison and analysis. I also now recognize and sincerely apologize for my previous erroneous implication that Taylor’s 2003 translation was obscure, and perhaps not widely circulated. Clearly, she is a respected scholar who was sought out to complete and build on her colleague’s work and noted Philonist, David Hay. After a series of multi-year delays in completing the project, Taylor’s preface explained that her urgency to finish the book at the onset of the pandemic when she contracted the Covid-19, lest the work not be finalized.[1] Interestingly, she completed her manuscript the same month that Sue Monk Kidd’s, The Book of Longings was published in April 2020.

What I am learning, both in the History of Global Christianities and in graduate school in general, is the importance of following my curiosity and passions. With every assignment, I try to identify the spark that lights me up. I am grateful that the Remix assignments provided the opportunity to engage with course material creatively. This allowed an exploration of what might be considered an unconventional connection between a modern historical fiction with a first-century primary source and then to relate those sources to what we learned in class about ascetism and the desert mothers and fathers. I am particularly interested in the connections between historic research and historic fiction, and the importance of historic fiction in bringing the past alive for a modern audience. I continue to be curious if Kidd and Taylor have met or spoken, and I would love to host a public conversation between them at some point during my time at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Regardless of whether I pursue education beyond my MTS, I have had a good lesson in academic humility and will refrain from speculating on one’s academic significance from my position as a fledgling scholar. I apologized earlier in my statement and sincerely meant it. I’d also like to note that it is intimidating to pursue a topic that focuses on Dr. Michelson’s career. I offer my observations, noting that the themes and practices he emphasized in his recorded lectures inspired me to make the connections between The Book of Longing, De Viva Contemplativa, and the Apopthegmata Patrum.

My first Remix assignment was written as a letter to my book club friends and a blog post. While I have not launched an official blog, I intend to do so over the winter break. I am excited about what I am learning and writing at VDS, and many of my friends in Asheville are interested in my progress. While this final Remix assignment is long for a blog post, I will include it as an essential follow-up to my first post.

Finally, my paper’s title, “Synchronicities in Modern Scholarship,” reflects the interesting synchronicities that led to my further connections between the Therapeutae and the desert mothers and fathers. What can I say? When I follow the spark, synchronicities happen.

Synchronicities in Modern Scholarship:

An Examination of Monastic Themes in

Sue Monk Kidd’s, The Book of Longings, Philo of Alexandria’s, De Vita Contemplativa,

and the Apophthemgata Patrum

            As my title suggests, and my forward describes, several synchronicities led me to connect the writings of Sue Monk Kidd, Philo of Alexandria, and the desert mothers and fathers. Together, these writers and theologians trace an exciting line in the arc of religious history, from first-century Jewish philosophers to 3-5th century desert mothers and fathers, and current research and feminist theology in the 21st century. I shared a much shorter blog post version with friends from my long-term book club.  I now intend to explore questions they raised and follow my curiosity, particularly regarding connections between the first-century Therapeutae community and the third-fifth century desert mothers and fathers. Specifically, in this paper, I will compare descriptions of the Therapeutae’s lifestyle made by Philo of Alexandria and Sue Monk Kidd. Next, I will highlight quotes from Philo’s Contempl, describing the Therapeutae with similar themes from the desert mothers and fathers’ sayings noted in the Apophthegmata. Finally, I will clarify why I believe that the Therapeutae were, perhaps, a model for later Christian monastic communities.

Before I compare how the Therapeutae were depicted by Kidd and Philo, some background on both authors. A contemporary author known for her acclaimed first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd’s fiction, historical fiction, and non-fiction works primarily focuses on images and characters representing the Divine Feminine and stories of women’s spiritual empowerment. In, The Book of Longings, Kidd created the account of Jesus’ fictional wife, Ana, and ultimately how she found her voice when living with, and eventually leading, the Therapeutae, a community of Jewish philosophers who lived outside of Alexandria, Egypt. Monk used Philo’s Contempl.as a primary source in her research and stayed true to his descriptions of the Therapeutae community. Philo of Alexandria, an esteemed scholar of philosophy and member of an elite Alexandrian Jewish family, lived in the early first century C.E. He was the leader of two Alexandrian Jewish delegations to Rome to speak with Emperor Gaius Caligula, and later to Emperor Claudius. Alexandria, a cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse city of about 500,000, was ruled by the Romans when Jewish people were under increasing persecution. 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 was to make a case for Jewish people’s rights recently demoted to a class of “aliens and foreigners.”[2] All this to say, Philo’s perspective was influenced by the social unrest in which he lived. In describing the Therapeutae, his goal was to portray Jewish people as representing the idealized “good.”

To address my paper’s first point, Sue Monk Kidd pulled heavily from the detailed descriptions of the setting, housing, clothing, and work of the Therapeutae described in Philo’s Contempl. Starting with the location of the community on the outskirts of Alexandria by Lake Mareotis, Philo noted how the site itself was perfect for seclusion, safety, and reflection and that the abodes were also structured in a way to support both a spiritual and an ascetic lifestyle.[3]

(§ 25) In each, there is a sacred room, which is called a sanctuary (semneion) and “solitarium” (monasterion), in which they perfect solitarily the mysteries of the sanctified life, not bringing in either drink or food, or any of the other things which are necessary for the needs of the body, but rather laws, and oracles delivered through prophets, and hymns, and other things by which understanding and piety are fostered and perfected. [4]

In describing Ana’s first view of the Therapeutae community, Kidd provides a similar description.

Up on the slope, I could make out clusters of flat-roofed houses.

“They’re small and simple,” Yaltha said, following my gaze. “Each one has a little courtyard, a room for sleeping, and what they call a holy room for spiritual work.”[5]

Additionally, Philo noted how the clothing of the Therapeutae reflected their simple ascetic lifestyle.

(§ 38) Since indeed there are two forms of protection, clothing, and housing, housing has been spoken of earlier—that it is undecorated and rough, being made for utility itself alone—while their clothing likewise is very basic, [worn] for a defence against chill and heat: it is a thick chlaina as good as a woolly skin* in winter, and an exomis tunic or linen wrap in summer.[6]

Again, Kidd stays true to Philo’s description and accurately reflects the simplicity of the clothing worn by the Therapeutae, noting that Ana “wore a shaggy goatskin cloak supplied by one of the juniors.” [7] Regarding manual labor, Philo highlights that rather than using slaves, younger community members, or “juniors,” work and serve the elders, and that daily work is part of their routine.

(§ 72) For not just any free persons are selected for these services, but the juniors of those in the company…They enter ungirt and let their tunics hang loose, so in serving there is no image to suggest an appearance of a slave.[8]

Kidd echoes the sentiment of valuing manual work, noting the lack of servants and that juniors provided the community’s labor.

“Everyone is seen as equal, but the labor is divided differently between them… It’s the juniors who grow and prepare and serve the food, tend the animals, build the houses – whatever labor is required, the juniors do it, along with their spiritual work. I used to work in the garden in the mornings and return to my solitude in the afternoon.”[9]

In the physical descriptions of the location of the community, the shelters, the clothing, the organization of labor, as well as many other details of the Therapeutae’s life and worship, Kidd carefully and respectfully wove the 1st-century descriptions of Philo into her modern historical fiction, The Book of Longing.

Already familiar with the desert mothers and fathers’ sayings in the Apopthegmata, one friend wondered if the Therapeutae also left any written advice on how to live an ascetic and spiritual life?  All that is currently known about the Therapeutae comes from Philo of Alexandria as a defense of Judaism during a period of persecution by Rome in the first century. What seems obvious to me is that one would expect a group of educated philosophers who had separate rooms to write and pray, to have created written records; unfortunately, none have been found attributed to the Therapeutae. Philo’s descriptions identify the importance of such values and themes as poverty, ascetism, and humility, which were also valued and highlighted in the later desert mothers’ and fathers’ collected writings.[10] Desert monasticism in lower Egypt flourished in the 4-6th century C.E. The sayings of respected desert mothers and fathers were later recorded in Greek by unnamed editors in the 5-7th century C.E. One such collection is the Apophthegmata Patrum, (Sayings of the Parents), which organized sayings by leading monastics and grouped them systematically by broad themes. The outside world learned how a monastic life, including ascetic living, manual labor, humility, prayer, and meditation, allowed followers to live out a heavenly life on earth by gathering the collected sayings.[11] The goal of the monastic life was the pursuit of the Divine. It was only found through the rejection of the world and society, philosophy, and the Roman empire.[12] Like the later desert mothers and fathers, the Therapeutae practiced voluntary poverty, relinquishing their belongings and family.

(§ 18) When then they get rid of all belongings, ensnared by nothing further, they flee, without turning, leaving aside siblings, children, wives, parents… since the familiar attraction is indeed greatest in its power to catch.[13]

The Therapeutae further embraced ascetism by focusing on self-control and restricting their diet.

(§ 34) Putting down beforehand self-control as a kind of foundation of the soul, they build up the other virtues (on it). Food and drink none of them would ever deal with before the setting of the sun, since they judge philosophizing to be appropriate for light, while the needs of the body are appropriate for darkness; so the former they have allotted for the day, and to these latter needs they have allotted a certain small part of the night. [14]

Finally, the Therapeutae embraced a simple life and valued humility or “unconceitedness.”

§ 39) Summing up, they practice unconceitedness, knowing conceit to be the origin of falsehood, unconceitedness the origin of truth,* each one having the quality of a spring, for from the spring of falsehood the many forms of evil are flowing, while the abundant forms of human and divine good flow from the spring of truth.[15]

While not featuring individual teachings or directives like the Apophthegmata, the Contempl. gives substantial clues that similar foundational values were part of the Therapeutae community’s simple, ascetic, and prayerful lifestyle.

Although they didn’t become widely popular until the third-fifth centuries, I believe that Christian monastic communities developed out of the tradition that included the Therapeutae community of first-century Alexandria. As I argued earlier, the Therapeatae’s chosen life of simplicity had characteristically humble dwellings, simple, serviceable clothing, and manual labor as part of daily practices. The later Christian desert monastics also embraced these themes and values and their commitment to voluntary poverty, ascetism, and humility.[16] Besides the visible lifestyle choices, the guiding philosophy of the community focused on the elevation of the soul and a focus on “the Good.”

(§ 2) The practice of these philosophers is shown at once by their designation, for they are appropriately called “ministers” (Therapeutae), male and female, either insofar as they command a medical art better than that of cities—for that art ministers to bodies alone, but this one indeed ministers to souls conquered by both difficult and intractable diseases (souls which pleasures, desires, sorrows and fears, covetous, senseless and wrongful acts and the unending multitude of the other passions and evils have afflicted)—or else because they have been schooled from Nature and the sacred laws to minister to Being, which is better than [the] Good, purer than [the] One, and more ancient than [the] Monad.[17]

Along with their commitment to a deep spiritual life, perhaps the clue that most profoundly connects the Therapeutae to the later desert mothers and fathers was their goal for oneness with the Divine, achieved through regular singing celebrations.

(§ 88) On this, above all, the choir of the ministers (Therapeutae), male and female, is modeled. With re-echoing and antiphonal melodies, the treble of the women mingling with the deep voice of the men, the choir produces harmonious concord, and it is musical. Lovely are the thoughts, lovely are the words, dignified are the choristers, and the purpose of the thoughts and the words and the choristers is piety.[18]

Philo’s description of the celebration and the “spiritual intoxication” indicates a collective commitment to achieving oneness with the Divine.

(§ 89) Being drunk then until dawn with this beautiful intoxication, not heavy-headed or dozing, but roused more awake than when they came into the dining room, they stand with their eyes and their whole bodies facing the east, when they see the sun rising, lifting up their hands to heaven they pray for a fine day and truth and clear-sightedness of reasoning. And, after the prayers, they depart each to their own sanctuary, plying the trade and tilling the field of their usual philosophy.[19]

About two hundred years later, Abba Lot’s exchange with Abba Joseph similarly described the monastic lifestyle and its ultimate goal of spiritual transformation and the pursuit of the Divine.

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts; now what more should I do?

The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?[20]

Whether becoming spiritually “drunk” or spiritually “on-fire,” I believe that this overwhelming desire to connect with the Divine by rejecting social norms and disposing of wealth and family connections was ultimately the same between the Therapeutae and the later desert mothers and fathers. Perhaps they were Jewish ascetics, connected to the Essenes, or maybe they were Jewish Greek philosophers escaping Alexandria’s increasing persecution.[21] Indeed, first-century Alexandria, Egypt, was a melting pot of ideas and ideologies. I am, however, not alone in seeing strong similarities between the communities. Written in Greek, De Vita Contemplativa was first mentioned by Eusebius, a 4th century Bishop and noted church historian, who interpreted Philo’s description of the Therapeutae as describing an early Christian monastic community and even describing Philo as an early Christian convert. Joan E. Taylor’s, Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria was unclear on this point. Her recent book, Philo of Alexandria On the Contemplative Lie: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary, released in November 2020, more directly makes the connections.

However, the parallels with later Christian asceticism and practices of the Coptic church itself are worthy of consideration in another way: could Egyptian Christianity have used Contempl. as a kind of guide for the establishment of communities that would in some way replicate the prototype of the “earliest Christians” described in Philo’s treatise?[22]

While the academic conversation continues, I wholeheartedly believe that the Therapeutae and the Christian desert monastics’ spirit are indeed connected by an extraordinary passion for deep spiritual communion with the Divine made possible through an ascetic lifestyle. The lifestyle, values, and passion described in Philo’s Contempl. are clearly reflected in the desert mothers and fathers’ collected sayings in the Apopthegmata Patrum. These same passions come alive today in Sue Monk Kidd’s description of the Therapeutae in The Book of Longings. Indeed, Kidd placed Ana, Jesus’s fictional wife, who escaped to and later led the Therapeutae after his death, in the Therapeutae community. This same community was later thought to be early Christians by Eusebius and, more currently, Joan E. Taylor. The point remains, regardless of Kidd’s intriguing fictional narrative, the similarities between the first-century Therapeutae and the later Egyptian Christian monastics are powerful, and warrant further study and consideration.

Bibliography:

Harmless, William. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. Cary, UNITED STATES: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2004. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/vand/detail.action?docID=3053377.

Kidd, Sue Monk. The Book of Longings. New York: Viking, 2020.

Maczka, Mary E. “Poverty, Humility, and Love,” October 13, 2020.

Merton, Thomas. The Wisdom of the Desert. New York: New Directors, 1970.

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

———. Philo of Alexandria On the Contemplative Life: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Philo of Alexandria Commentary Series, Volume 7. Leiden; Brill, 2021.


[1] Joan E. Taylor, Philo of Alexandria On the Contemplative Life: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary, Philo of Alexandria Commentary Series, Volume 7 (Leiden; Brill, 2021). Preface 3. (Other references are identified by the numbered section of the translation of Contempl.)

[2] Joan E. Taylor, Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria: Philo’s “Therapeutae” Reconsidered (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).21-31.

[3] Taylor. 351.

[4] Taylor, Philo of Alexandria On the Contemplative Life. 25.

[5] Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings (New York: Viking, 2020). 321.

[6] Taylor, Philo of Alexandria On the Contemplative Life. 38.

[7] Kidd, The Book of Longings. 325.

[8] Taylor, Philo of Alexandria On the Contemplative Life. 72.

[9] Kidd, The Book of Longings. 321.

[10] William Harmless, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Cary, UNITED STATES: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2004), 175-176.

[11] Harmless. 175-176.

[12] Mary E. Maczka, “Poverty, Humility, and Love,” October 13, 2020. 1.

[13] Taylor, Philo of Alexandria On the Contemplative Life. 18.

[14] Taylor. 34.

[15] Taylor. 39.

[16] Harmless, Desert Christians. 175-176.

[17] Taylor, Philo of Alexandria On the Contemplative Life. 2.

[18] Taylor. 88.

[19] Taylor. 89.

[20] Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directors, 1970). 50.

[21] Taylor, Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria. 69.

[22] Taylor, Philo of Alexandria On the Contemplative Life. 49.

DIV 6700: History of Global Christianities I

Final Remix Assignment

Copyright 2020, Beth Maczka

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike 4.0 International LicenseCL-By-SA-4.0

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