H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 26)

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The Therapeutae—Pt. 6
The Therapeutae, Buddhism, and Gnosis

On pp. 34 ff. Dr. Detering lists some parallels between Buddhism and the Therapeutae, as described by Philo of Alexandria. He notes certain outward, visible characteristics, such as the makeup of the Buddhist order (e.g. men and women living separately), and the posture, dress, and ranking of monks. Such elements can be valuable in drawing parallels between East and West, but it should be noted that they concern a stage of Buddhism where the order (sangha) had already attained a certain level of organization and settled protocol—namely, the onset of the Mahayana from about the turn of the era. The somewhat longer list of parallels between Buddhism and the Therapeutae that I furnished in a prior post, on the other hand, largely deal with inward, invisible characteristics (i.e. doctrine and ethics) and probably reflect an earlier (Theravada) stage in Buddhism (prior to the turn of the era), a stage when Buddhism was still largely composed of a multitude of sects and also of itinerant, unaffiliated monks and nuns. Both lists of parallels are thus complementary. Dr. Detering notes:

1) The Buddhist fellowship (sangha) was composed of monks and nuns, and the Therapeutae of both men and women.
2) Males and females were strictly separated (Vita 33), as they are also in Buddhism (a monk can never be alone with a female, for example).
3) The Therapeutae and Buddhism employed songs and poems;

     [I consider this a questionable parallel. One of the ten Buddhist precepts is to avoid dancing, singing, and music.–RS]
4) The Therapeutae held prayers at sun down and sun up.
     [Detering suggests that such praying is also “generally attested” in Buddhism, but I am not aware of this. It is possible, however, that the Therapeutic all-night singing/ceremony has a parallel in the Buddhist communal recitation/chanting of the Patimokkha (the 227 rules of monks). This chanting takes place every fortnight, at the new and full moon, or sometimes weekly.
     Accompanying the Patimokkha reading was the public confession of transgressions by monks. There is evidence that the Uposatha ritual (including Patimokkha reading, confession, and prayer) was a critical element in keeping the sangha together and is very ancient, probably predating Ashoka’s sending of monks to the West c. 250 BCE. Though the evidence is elusive, I suspect that in the earliest tradition the Uposatha took place at night. If true, this would constitute a possible parallel with the Therapeutic nightlong vigil.–RS]
6) The Therapeutae voluntarily rid themselves of possessions. This is also required for Buddhist ordination, including pabbajja (“going forth,” i.e. homelessness).
7) The Therapeutae limit themselves to two garments. Among Buddhist monks, also, there are two garments: an over garment (worn in winter) and an undergarment.
8) Both the Therapeutae and Buddhist monks rank themselves not by age but by experience. Those who joined young and have many years in the order receive precedence in rank.
9) Philo describes the customary appearance of the Therapeutae, “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” (Vita 30). Detering points out that this is also the customary appearance of the Buddhist monk. The gesture/pose is attested in iconography from Gandhara, the area between present day Pakistan and Afghanistan. This was the domain of the Hellenistic Bactrian kingdom, known to be a Buddhist link between East and West. Detering endorses a theory (first proposed by Holger Kersten) that Buddhists from Taxila, the capital of Bactria, found their way to Alexandria at a very early date.
10) Neither Buddhists nor the Therapeutae had slaves. Instead, the novices served the elders among the Therapeutae, as also is customary in Buddhism.
[When one becomes a monk or nun in Buddhism one loses one’s caste. Thus, Buddhism was and is casteless in a land (India) long inured to the caste system. Similarly, with the Therapeutae one gave up one’s former status (and even one’s possessions), effectively producing equality among community members. One senses that dualist tendencies underpin this equality: this world and its goods are of little worth; what matters is spiritual progress.–RS]
11) Philo reports that, among the Therapeutae, scripture readings were slow, sober, and without ostentation. So also Buddhism rejects reputation, ostentation, and the desire to impress.

Some of the above parallels are stronger and more significant than others. In the aggregate, however, they are persuasive. To the foregoing I wish to add perhaps the most obvious (and overlooked) single parallel between Buddhism and the Therapeutae: monasticism. In Buddhist countries, the regular coming together by monks for the Uposatha (no. 4 above) developed into the vihara (resting place), at first only for the rainy season, and then later on a more or less permanent basis. This is the true beginning of the monastery, and Buddhism rightly claims to have invented the practice of monasticism.

Detering closes his list by mentioning an idea suggested by Kersten and Gruber: that the Therapeutae were voluntary mendicants/beggars. Those authors suggest that Philo does not overtly mention this telling point because he wished to present the Therapeutae in the most flattering light, and begging did not conform to this wish.

Detering writes (p. 39): “Now back to the decisive question: Were the Therapeutae Jews, Christians, or Buddhists?” His answer:

[The Therapeutae] were a little of each. They were Jews, insofar as they observed Jewish holy days, rituals, and held the Old Testament as the basis of their beliefs. However, they were also Buddhists, insofar as they interpreted the Old Testament Buddhistically. And finally, they were (Proto-)Christians, insofar as their interpretation of the Old Testament laid the groundwork for the later development of Christian teaching.

This view helps us solve the problems that arise if we consider the Therapeutae only from one of the three angles. Who sees the Therapeutae as only alexandrian Jews must explain how their asceticism and mode of scriptural interpretation developed from purely Jewish ground. To see them merely as Buddhists is impossible, for their Jewish elements cannot be ignored. Who holds them to be Christians must ask himself why, in Philo’s time, they were not only in Egypt but already spread throughout the known world and could look back on a long history.

But if one views the Therapeutae as proto-Christians—in the sense that they represented a new synthesis of Jewish and Indian-Buddhist traditions—then all contradictions are resolved in the best Hegelian fashion.

Detering notes the emerging significance of Bactria as a critical religious and cultural link between East and West. At the turn of the era Bactria was Buddhist and also Hellenist. “Especially,” Detering writes, “the Mahayana school of Buddhism must now be carefully examined, for it was developing in this very time and place. As will be shown below, Mahayana exercised a strong influence on the genesis of the Christian theology of the incarnation” (p. 40).

In the conclusion (p. 41) to his extensive section on “The Therapeutae, Buddhism, and Gnosis,” Detering observes: “Second century Christian Gnosticism is a continuation and further development of the Alexandrian wisdom tradition. Gnostic exegesis is properly viewed as a combination of Old Testament, Alexandrian wisdom, and Indian/Buddhist spirituality… Even the origin of the Jesus cult, along with the associated role and meaning of the savior, are the result of Alexandrian exegesis of the Old Testament influenced by Indian/Buddhist conceptions.”

If you did not feel the ground move under your feet, then I suggest you re-read the last sentence above.

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