Philo in Ethnographic Discourse: Some Observations to the Literary Context of De Vita Contemplativa

In De Vita Contemplativa, Philo of Alexandria describes a group of male and female philosophers, whom he refers to as therapeutae and therapeutrides, respectively. The existence of the group it is beyond doubt due to the close proximity of their settlement to Alexandria. However, Philo, whose theology and language are reflected in the writing, is our sole witness. This paper argues that the riddle of the historical therapeutae can be solved by a detailed comparison of De Vita Conemplativa with ancient ethnographical writings. Like Philo, Diodor, the Stoic Chaeremon and Plutarch also highlight Egyptian religiosity and myth as a source of original wisdom, philosophy and truth. It will be shown that Philo’s depiction of the “therapeutical race” refers to a full repertoire of topics and motifs from ancient ethnographical discourse, including etymology, climate, ascetic and religious practice and the role of women. De Vita Conemplativa also features extensive comparisons to positive models such as Homer’s legendary Mysians as well as to the cultural decay of Philo’s day. Most strikingly, the Jewish author self-presents here as Greek while creating an idealized portrait of a group, the Jewish identity of which is revealed only in the last third of the writing. The paper argues that with his therapeutae and therapeutrides, Philo actually presents “common” Judaism in the guise of an Egyptian religious “sect”.