Saturday, January 19, 2013

Therapeutae = Simeonites (Part One)

In his On the Contemplative Life, the first century Alexandria Jew Philo makes reference to a Jewish sect which lived in an isolated community near Lake Mareotis - "having left their homes and emigrated to a certain spot most suitable, which is situate above the Mareotic Lake, on a low hill" (Vita Cont 22).  All subsequent Christian writers who make reference to the sect assume that they are the first Christian monastic community in Egypt.  Philo says they are spread throughout the world.

The familiar term 'Therapeutae' is Latin.  The Greek in Philo's original text reads Θεραπευταί and simply means 'those who attend' but can also mean 'those who heal' (= those who attend to the sick).  Philo claims he isn't sure why the sect is so called but the term is commonly used in association with the various gods.  There are therapeutai of Serapis and Asclepius.  Christian writers use the term of their god too.  The second century Church Fathers Melito of Sardis use the term to describe 'attendants of God' (Chronicon Paschale 483, Stromata 7.7.42).

Nevertheless when we look closely at Philo's report we can be reasonably certain the term goes back to the name 'Simeonite.'  First of all, the Hebrew word means not only 'those of (the Patriarch) Simeon' the son of Jacob and head of one of the twelve tribes of Israel but specifically 'hear' or 'attend':

Gen 23:12 And he spake unto Ephron in the audience of the people of the land saying But if thou wilt give it I pray thee listen to me (שְׁמָעֵ֑נִי) I will give thee money for the field take it of me and I will bury my dead there

Numbers 25:14 Now the name of the Israelite that was slain even that was slain with the Midianitish woman was Zimri the son of Salu a prince of a chief house among the Simeonites (לַשִּׁמְעֹנִֽי)

The Hebrew word shema of course simply means to 'hear.'  But the term is frequently used to mean  'to hearken,' 'to attend' or 'to obey.'

If I say 'hear my words' I am at once saying 'attend to them.'  Yet beyond this Philo specifically identifies the sect as being exclusively devoted to contemplation and in particular contemplation through hearing.  For instance he says:

But on the seventh day they all come together as if to meet in a sacred assembly, and they sit down in order according to their ages with all becoming gravity, keeping their hands inside their garments, having their right hand between their chest and their dress, and the left hand down by their side, close to their flank; and then the eldest of them who has the most profound learning in their doctrines, comes forward and speaks with steadfast look and with steadfast voice, with great powers of reasoning, and great prudence, not making an exhibition of his oratorical powers like the rhetoricians of old, or the sophists of the present day, but investigating with great pains, and explaining with minute accuracy the precise meaning of the laws, which sits, not indeed at the tips of their ears, but penetrates through their hearing into the soul, and remains there lastingly; and all the rest listen in silence to the praises which he bestows upon the law, showing their assent only by nods of the head, or the eager look of the eyes. (ibid 32)

and again in the description of this same sacred meal:

And he, indeed, follows a slower method of instruction, dwelling on and lingering over his explanations with repetitions, in order to imprint his conceptions deep in the minds of his hearers, for as the understanding of his hearers is not able to keep up with the interpretation of one who goes on fluently, without stopping to take breath, it gets behind-hand, and fails to comprehend what is said; but the hearers, fixing their eyes and attention upon the speaker, remain in one and the same position listening attentively, indicating their attention and comprehension by their nods and looks, and the praise which they are inclined to bestow on the speaker by the cheerfulness and gentle manner in which they follow him with their eyes and with the fore-finger of the right hand. And the young men who are standing around attend to this explanation no less than the guests themselves who are sitting at meat. And these explanations of the sacred scriptures are delivered by mystic expressions in allegories, for the whole of the law appears to these men to resemble a living animal, and its express commandments seem to be the body, and the invisible meaning concealed under and lying beneath the plain words resembles the soul, in which the rational soul begins most excellently to contemplate what belongs to itself, as in a mirror, beholding in these very words the exceeding beauty of the sentiments, and unfolding and explaining the symbols, and bringing the secret meaning naked to the light to all who are able by the light of a slight intimation to perceive what is unseen by what is visible. When, therefore, the president appears to have spoken at sufficient length, and to have carried out his intentions adequately, so that his explanation has gone on felicitously and fluently through his own acuteness, and the hearing of the others has been profitable, applause arises from them all as of men rejoicing together at what they have seen and heard;  and then some one rising up sings a hymn which has been made in honour of God, either such as he has composed himself, or some ancient one of some old poet, for they have left behind them many poems and songs in trimetre iambics, and in psalms of thanksgiving and in hymns, and songs at the time of libation, and at the altar, and in regular order, and in choruses, admirably measured out in various and well diversified strophes. And after him then others also arise in their ranks, in becoming order, while every one else listens in decent silence, except when it is proper for them to take up the burden of the song, and to join in at the end; for then they all, both men and women, join in the hymn. (ibid 76 - 81)

The idea here is that the sect 'attends' by 'hearing' in order to attain the contemplative life which is the subject of Philo's treatise.  There is so much more to this.  I will explain this over the next few days.  Yet it is enough to say that I think we have at last stumbled across the origins of the figure of 'Simon Magus' and the Simonians.  There are more myths and allegories in the gospel narrative than has been previously recognized.

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