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Presentation of the Text

A decade ago I would have introduced The Shepherd of Hermas as an early Christian but post—New Testament document, as a well-known representative of the “apostolic fathers,” which became an object of theological interest only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, our chronological assumptions have recently become tenuous. As an extreme but thoroughly plausible example, I will briefly outline the recent conclusions of Markus Vinzent.[1] The demanding and theologically very trenchant Pauline letters are old; they date from the middle of the first century. However, they were rarely read—despite the very diverse interests betrayed by the pseudo-Pauline letters—before the Asian shipowner Marcion came to Rome in the middle of the second century. He made them the central component of a new post-biblical “canon,” which was completed by the Gospel of Luke and the same author’s “Acts.” These historical narratives, certainly built on earlier collections of sayings, quickly found imitators and rivals, leading to a larger number of Gospels, four of which achieved canonical status (earlier with some, later with other ancient theologians) and, like The Shepherd, were included in the Codex Sinaiticus. According to such a model, the Shepherd might antedate rather than postdate these Gospels.

I have not myself done sufficient research to judge this hypothesis, but against such a backdrop (or similar, even earlier scenarios), we need not be surprised that no quotations of what later came to be called the New

Testament are to be found in The Shepherd. Nor need we be surprised that Hermas does not speak of “Christ followers,” of Christianoi, and that his Christology identifies Christ with “god,” the “son of god” (89), that is, Jesus Christ, who (like the logos) remains unnamed, is a “spirit,” a “name,” and a special “angel” of the father who has granted all power to his son and adviser (59, 89).[2] Finally, by this hypothesis, we should not be surprised by how many authors quote The Shepherd.[3] Around AD 200 Irenaeus quotes The Shepherd in Gallic Lyon, Tertullian does so in African Carthage, Clemens in Egyptian Alexandria, and Origen in Palestinian Caesarea. Translations (beyond those in Latin) were completed in both the Sahidic and the Achmimic dialects of Coptic, in Ethiopian, and in Middle Persian. The complete lack of interest of the theologians of the fourth and fifth century seems, admittedly, at odds with this popularity. But for these writers, the text did not provide arguments pertinent to ongoing Christological debates. Nevertheless, despite these theological debates, the text continued to be read and copied throughout this period. In the fifth or sixth century it found its way, in fairly good shape, into the compilation of Pseudo-Athanasius.[4]

I will postpone discussion of the possible reasons for the text’s popularity at the time of its genesis and the ensuing period to later, when I examine its contents in detail. For now, I note that one would, rather, expect the text to have had limited appeal on account of its intimidating length; in today’s editions The Shepherd is well over one hundred printed pages. Thus it exceeds every other text collected in the canon of the New Testament since the end of the fourth century.

The structure of the text points to a rather complex developmental process in the emergence of a written text. Five sections can be distinguished; I will argue that these are not merely layers, but indications of a process of textual growth, the duration of which cannot be precisely determined.

  • 1. A book of visions (vis 1—vis 4) of about twenty modern printed pages mark the starting point—historically as well as in the text as it is published today. Different revelatory figures converse with the first-person narrator and appear to him in visions that he experiences while he is awake or asleep. Finally, a heavenly book is dictated.
  • 2. Introduced by the fifth vision (this numbering is already ancient), twelve “commandments” (entolat, mandata) follow, forming a second stratum consisting of about twenty-five printed pages (vis 5-mand 12), that is to say, filling an average ancient scroll of eight hundred to one thousand lines of text. The revelatory figure and interlocutor is, for the first time, the eponymous “shepherd,” a man dressed in goatskin, with a satchel on his back and a staff in his hand, who introduces himself as the future companion of the first-person narrator, who is now addressed as “Hermas.” The section closes with a discussion of the problem of false prophets, thus indirectly questioning the reliability of the text itself.
  • 3. In an expansion of the dialogical scene of the twelfth commandment, the revelatory figure transforms into an angel “of penitence,” of whom, till now, no mention has been made. This angel reports eight parables, a text again on a scale of almost twenty-five printed pages (mand 12- sim 8). These parables are interpreted in a dialogue between Hermas and the angel. This stratum is more politically oriented than those previous: not only does it commence with the question of belonging to the true city, of true civitas, it also reflects on specifically Roman and Italic institutions and social life, as can be seen from the metaphors and terminology used.
  • 4. Opening with the remark that the previous two passages have been written down, the angel of penitence offers a new parable, the ninth and most extensive of all (sim 9). Alone it covers almost twenty-five printed pages, another ancient book. So far as its contents are concerned, it returns to the image of a tower, already introduced in vision 3. The tower signifies the new church (ecclesia), the new community of the faithful. The text closes with the equation of the angel and the shepherd. It was probably this apposition that prompted a later editorial adjustment introducing the same equation into the fifth vision (the opening of the second layer of text).
  • 5. The final stratum is again introduced with the remark that the previous parable has been written down. The angel speaks for the last time (sim 10). The place of revelation is Hermas’s bedroom (in which occurred the prelude to the third vision and the fifth vision itself, the first appearance of the shepherd). This relatively short text (only about three printed pages) is obviously editorial and marked the end of the redaction of The Shepherd as a whole. Here, the further support of the shepherd is promised, as well as that of the virgins, that is, those virtues of the Ecclesia, beautiful women robed in white, that had urged on the building of the tower in visio 3 and simile 9. In the latter, these women had invited Hermas to stay overnight with them.

One could summarize The Shepherd as the text of a Roman Jew who cared for his own moral status and the moral status of his contemporary cobelievers, who were already Christ-followers. He tried to convey visions of an ideal church. His audience was a steadily growing group of Jews into whose collective imagination this spirit, angel, and son had entered. Otherwise, this group appears to have been fully integrated into local Roman society, a society that held reasonable values and offered many attractions. It is within this context, judged by the author as a context of temptation, that Hermas reports his insights in the form of an apocalyptic text, as readers of the book of visions or the canon Muratori could not fail to detect. Genuine religious experiences[5] are combined with a strong will to communicate them.

  • [1] Vinzent 2011a, 2011b, 2014.
  • [2] See in general Brox 1991, 485—95; for the angelology, see Stuckenbruck 1995; Bucur 2007,2009a, 2009b.
  • [3] Cf., for instance, the poor reception of the Gospel of Mark in antiquity.
  • [4] Joly 1968, 62, 417.
  • [5] See Stone 2003 on the question of authenticity.
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