H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 8)

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The Therapeutae—Pt. 4
Not this, not that

Buddhism with a difference?

A prior post summarized Philo’s discussion of the Therapeutae in 23 points, and we have seen that most of those points surprisingly resonate with early Buddhism. But in two of the points, Philo attributes apparently non-Buddhist elements to the Therapeutae. The most obvious is point (f):

[The Therapeutae] are ecstatics, they “give way to enthusiasm, behaving like so many revelers in bacchanalian or corybantian mysteries, until they see the object which they have been earnestly desiring.” (Vita 11)

This contradicts the seventh Buddhist precept, which explicitly states: “I undertake to refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments.” Point (f) also contradicts the meditative and sober aspects of the Therapeutae that Philo elsewhere describes (points a, d, j, m, o). In one passage, Philo states quite plainly: the Therapeutae are “free from passion” (point d, Vita 6). How to reconcile being “ecstatics” in one passage, and “free from passion” in another? I am not sure. Perhaps Philo was engaging in authorial license or exaggeration in his description of the nocturnal celebration. Or perhaps he simply misunderstood the tenor of the “great feast”—a vigil that was joyous yet not irresponsible (“bacchanalian or corybantian”).

We also need to address the nocturnal aspect of the principal celebration among the Therapeutae, point (t):

“their great feast is on the fiftieth day, when they come together wearing white garments and celebrate the sacred festival during the whole night” (Vita 65, 66, 83).

In the preceding post we saw that the Therapeutae share a ‘fifty day celebration’ with Judaism (Shavuot) and with Christianity (Pentecost). All of these sacred proceedings also have a nocturnal component. Buddhism, however, knows no fifty-day commemoration nor, to my knowledge, does it have a nocturnal ceremony. It does, however, follow the moon in its principal events, known as Uposatha (observance, cleansing) days, which occur at the new and the full moon. During the Uposatha ritual, the Buddhist monks recite the 227 rules of the Patimokkha, which takes about an hour.

New moon and full moon uposatha convocations by the monks are customarily observed in Theravada Buddhist countries.

In addition, we have seen that Buddhism shares no less than 21 out of 23 points itemized for the Therapeutae. Without doubt, the Therapeutae share strong similarities with Theravada (southern) Buddhism—the form of the religion that came to Egypt via Ashoka’s missionaries c. 250 BCE. However, their great, joyous, and nocturnal celebration on the eve of the fiftieth day—both in form and in content (points f and t)—comes from a non-Buddhist source. Nevertheless, that joyous celebration was ancient enough and powerful enough to influence multiple religious traditions, including Judaism and Christianity. We will now see that the roots of the Therapeutic celebration may have come from a nearby, yet routinely overlooked source: the moon religion of ancient Arabia.

A little-known Jewish sect

In a very informative appendix (“Sanbat,” pp. 328 f) to R. Reitzenstein’s 1923 book Die Vorgeschichte der Christlichen Taufe, Dr. Luise Troje explicitly relates the nocturnal dance and song of the Therapeutae to ancient practice among an obscure Jewish sect: the Falasha (also known as the Beta Israel) of Ethiopia/Abyssinia. Troje writes that the indigenous people of that land worshipped the serpent until Ethiopia was Christianized in IV CE. About the turn of the era, however, a Semitic sect migrated there from S. Arabia. This sect brought with it the proto-gnostic cult of the moon. Some of those immigrants were Judaized (the Falasha), others were Christianized. Of interest to us here is that the Falasha celebrated the seventh sabbath with communal music and dance—precisely as did the Therapeutae (Troje 331).

In Falasha religion, the Sabbath (Sanbat) is a deity known as the “Son of God.” Such deification, of course, represents the ultimate honor that can be bestowed upon the number seven. One can then appreciate the magnified sacredness of the number 7 x 7, that is, forty-nine. The great celebration among the Falasha of the seventh sabbath after Passover is known as Lengela Sanbat. It is simultaneous with the Jewish Feast of Weeks/Shavuot and the Christian Pentecost, and it takes place at night.

Falasha Jews of Ethiopia

In Falasha religion, Lengela Sanbat is when Sanbat the Son of God rises from his throne in heaven in order to visit the earth, engendering great celebration among his followers below. Before Sanbat descends, he receives God’s blessing with the words: “Those who honor you honor me, and those who reject you reject me; those who serve you, I will consider that they have received me” (Te’ezaza Sanbat, folio 40r, p. 154). These words are strikingly similar to Lk 10:16—“He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (cf. also Lk 9:48).

In Falasha mythology, the moon and Sanbat are identical. This makes little sense unless we keep in mind the discussion of the preceding post, namely, that gnosis is (in one view) equivalent to the moon’s light—to the self-created (Gk. αυτογενης) light that overcomes the darkness (of ignorance). When Sanbat descends from on high, then, gnosis descends to visit man.

In Christian mythology, parallels can readily be drawn between the foregoing and the scene of Jesus’ baptism. It is at the baptism that “the spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove” (Mk 1:10). Then, too, the baptism took place in the Jordan (the river of gnosis, according to the Mandeans) and marked the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. All these elements are laden with meaning for the Gnostic—the water of the Jordan, the descent of the spirit/gnosis, and the beginning of a new ministry / a new birth. Such is the spiritual “crossing over.” Thus, a deep parallel also exists between the Exodus motif on the one hand, and the baptism motif on the other:

[Passage] from the world into the Jordan
[is passage] from the blindness of the world into the sight of God,
from the carnal into the spiritual,
from the physical into the angelic,
from the created into the Pleroma,
from the world into the Aeon,
from the servitude into sonship… (A Valentinian Exposition, NHL 42:10–20.)

Parallels between Johannine Christianity and Falasha religion are also extensive: Sanbat sits in heaven at the right hand of God, he is everlasting, and he has always existed (is pre-existent). He is also the eschatological judge who saves his own—that is (in a gnostic context), he saves those who are enlightened.


Troje also draws parallels between Falasha thought and Mandean texts. In Mandaism, the great savior is Manda d’Haije, literally “Knowledge of Life.” Manda d’Haije is the personification of gnosis and also of baptism (Troje 338). Baptism is when gnosis comes to the individual. (Cf. ‘adoptionism’ in early Christian thought [Mk 1:11], and also the Buddhist ‘moment of enlightenment.’)

In Mandaism, Habshabba is analogous to Sanbat among the Falashas. Habshabba is judge, and he is sent into the world by Manda d’Haije in order to forgive sins (Troje 368). This occurs at baptism, which is brought to the world by Habshabba. It is evident that, for Mandeans, baptismal immersion in water is equivalent to the acquisition of gnosis and the forgiveness of sins. All this, of course, has great implications for later Christian doctrine. When one concludes that Mandaism preceded Christianity (thus Bultmann), then one can begin to connect the dots in a general way:
[1] the gnostic moon religion (many centuries BCE);
[2] the introduction of the gnostic religion of Buddhism to the West under Ashoka (mid-III BCE);
[3] the gnostic religion of Mandaism with its immersion in water (gnosis) by “John” (I BCE);
[4] the emergence of normative, anti-Gnostic Christianity (II CE, post-Marcion).

Troje derives the Mandean practice of baptism from the first light/new moon celebration (p. 376). She sees “Indo-Iranian” precursors. (Discussion of the Mandeans continues →here.)

Modern Mandeans of Iraq. Note the white robes, in common with the Falasha and mentioned by Philo (Vita 66) in connection with the Therapeutae.
(AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

Persia and India

Troje brings in Zoroastrian concepts (p. 351), including that Ahura Mazda (lit. “Lord Gnosis”) is pure light, in the sense that light = nous, “mind.” As with other lunar/gnostic religions, the number seven is perfect in Zoroastrianism, while the number six signifies imperfection and preparation. Similar use of the numbers six and seven is found in much Gnostic literature from the early Christian centuries. We recall that it is also found among the Therapeutae (point [o] of the list here, and in Philo, Vita 30).

Finally, Troje discusses parallels with early religion in India, noting the Brahmanic equivalence between mind (manas) and the moon: “What this manas is, that is the moon above.” The moon is “beyond death,” that is, its light—occurring in the darkness of night—is transcendent/from the other side. Furthermore, its knowledge is transferable to human beings: “Thus does that deity carry him, who knows this, across death” (Brhad Aranyaka Upanishad I.3.16; III.1.6).

One long-forgotten aspect of the moon is its function as a time-measurer, a virtual clock in the heavens. Its attribute as expert measurer was early extended to religion: the moon is that which measures good and evil—it is the cosmic judge, rendered more acute by its ability to shine light in the darkness (Troje 357). But the moon is also within each of us: it is our conscience. Thus the Kaushitaki Upanishad 1.2: “When you come to the moon… it will ask you–‘Who are you?’ To this give answer… I am you.’”

From Troje’s article alone, it is clear that—in pre-Christian times—the primacy of the moon (and implicit gnosticism) was undisputed from India to North Africa. In this religion, “not sacrifice nor service determined one’s fate before the judge, but only gnosis—the knowledge that man is master of his fate…” (Troje 366). Both the moon and water were symbols of gnosis—the former for its ability to shine in the darkness, and the latter because the underworld ocean was the ‘home’ of the gods (see here). Inevitably, the symbols of water and moon became mixed, and we read in religious literature of “the moon in the middle of the water” (Rigveda 1.105.1), and of rain coming down from the moon (Aitareya Up. 8.28).

I suspect that the equivalence water = gnosis was so pervasive in the Iron Age that it seeped into many religions from India to North Africa. Even in Jewish scripture, we read of the Israelite priests standing in the water of the Jordan River (Josh 3:8, 13, 17), collecting stones from the riverbed to put up as sacred mementos on dry land (Josh 4:1–9). All this is meaningless without the gnostic water symbolism described above.

Hindu public prayer at the Ganges River

Ultimately, one cannot escape an Indian origin for the practice of baptism. Sacred immersion in the rivers Ganges and Sarasvati is still practiced in India, and it is age-old. It seems clear to me that, along with the importation of Buddhism to the West in III BCE, the practices of monasticism (uniquely Buddhist at that time) and also of ‘baptism’ or sacred immersion also percolated into the West. These eastern practices were clothed with western doctrines and rendered virtually unrecognizable to someone from India.

Were the Therapeutae Christians?

In the preceding posts we reviewed the practices of the Therapeutae, as reported by Philo Judaeus shortly after the turn of the era. We compared their practices and beliefs to Buddhism—with surprisingly positive results. In this post we have noted that the Therapeutae shared the nocturnal celebration on the fiftieth day with the Falasha, and that the Falasha brought their beliefs from Arabia to Ethiopia at a time prior even to Philo and the Therapeutae (Troje writes “at the turn of the era”). Thus, it is entirely possible that the Alexandrian Therapeutae received their quasi-Buddhist practices (meditation, asceticism, etc) from the south of Egypt, and that they also received their lunar calendar with its celebration on the third full moon (see here) from the proto-gnostic Falasha, who imported their moon religion from Arabia.

In closing this part of the discussion, it is of interest to note that the Therapeutae are referred to again by a later writer, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite c. 500 CE. In his Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, Pseudo-Dionysius describes the sacred order of Christian monks as “higher than all the initiated,” having “attained to intellectual contemplation and communion in every ministration which it is lawful [to] contemplate…” He continues his effusive praise of monks, and then—astonishingly—he calls them “Therapeutae”! The entire passage is as follows:

     Now the rank, higher than all the initiated, is the sacred Order of the Monks, which, by reason of an entirely purified purification, through complete power and perfect chastity of its own operations, has attained to intellectual contemplation and communion in every ministration which it is lawful for it to contemplate, and is conducted by the most perfecting powers of the hierarchs, and taught by their inspired illuminations and hierarchical traditions the ministrations of the Mystic Rites, contemplated, according to its capacity, and elevated by their sacred science, to the most perfecting perfection of which it is capable. Hence our divine leaders have deemed them worthy of sacred appellations, some indeed calling them “Therapeutae,” and others “Monks,” from the pure service and fervid devotion to the true God, and from the undivided and single life, as it were unifying them, in the sacred enfolding of things divided, into a God-like monad, and God-loving perfection. (Text from: J. Parker, The Works of Dionysius the Areopagite, Pt. 1; London: James Parker & Co. 1899:139. Emphases added.)

I have bolded the above phrases to show that there are far too many agreements between Philo’s description of the Therapeutae and the description of Pseudo-Dionysius for the identity between the two to be casual or in error. That identity being therefore granted, it must astonish us that a Christian writer, c. 500 CE, thought that the Therapeutae exemplified “the most perfecting perfection of which it is capable.” In other words, Pseudo-Dionysius held that the Therapeutae were models of Christian perfection!

We will return to the Therapeutae later in this series (no. 25).

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website www.NazarethMyth.info.

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