I’ve got the end-of-semester crunch soon, and an academic book that very much needs as much of my attention as I can manage in the coming months, but I’m still trying to get a bit of space here and there for research on my next fiction book (while crossing fingers that the first one sells, of course).
What I’m in the midst of researching right now is the Therapeutae, which is a little-known Jewish sect that lived near Alexandria in the first century. Our only decent description of them is by Philo Judaeus, in his work De vita contemplativa. There he describes them as desert-dwelling ascetics, renowned for their healing arts and dedicated to a contemplative, philosophical outlook on the world. Where they came from, where exactly they lived, what exactly they believed, and what happened to them are all unknown … the precise sorts of mysteries that tend to interest my mind.
Particularly fascinating, I think, is the possibility that the Therapeutae have some connection to the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka. Among the famed Edicts of Ashoka, rock inscriptions that can still be found marking Ashoka’s empire in modern-day India and Pakistan are statements about how he sent missionaries throughout the known world — including Alexandria specifically — to proselytize the Buddhist faith to which he himself had converted. There’s little indication what exactly happened to these missionaries, though Buddhism was known to at least some Romans by the first centuries of the Common Era. A Buddhist holy man, for instance, is described in association with Augustus Caesar in Cassius Dio 54.9 (he apparently commits self-immolation, actually), and Clement of Alexandria gives a brief description of Buddhist belief in Stromata 1.15. Indeed, some revisionists have looked to stories of the Buddha’s “virgin” birth (from the side of his mother) as the source for the later Christian traditions of Jesus’ birth (and much else about the Christian mythology).
Anyway, the possibility of a small, mysterious group of Jewish-Buddhist philosophers living a quiet, communal life in the deserts beyond the walls of Alexandria is just too brilliant not to use somehow.