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Mediality

In speaking of religious experience and referring to the text in the singular, I have already indicated that I assume a single author rather than a later editor. It is this author whom the text invites us to identify with the first-person narrator. The text is a narrative but it is dominated, indeed, overwhelmed, by direct speech from the second textual layer onward. Here, the text becomes a dialogue punctuated by long monologues. A written revelation is reported in the very first textual layer, namely in visio 2. Merely copying the letters, however, as Hermas tells us, does not result in understanding. For this, two weeks of preparatory fasting and praying is required. Even then, an additional vision with textual supplements and further tasks is necessary. The medium of oral speech (fictitious orality, of course, imagined on the basis of the written text only) is, by comparison, much more flexible. Oral exchange permits requests for immediate clarification, and it even allows the interlocutors to “read between the lines.”

A view of verbal communication as a means to interactively clarify problems, deepen understanding, and overcome mistaken judgments is encoded in the written revelations of Hermas. From its earliest layer onward the text is characterized by requests for clarification, interpretation of what had already been said, and even corrections of understandings attained previously.[1] The speakers are important; their characterization becomes a significant part of the text. As I will explain presently, autobiographical details play a momentous role in the generic conventions of apocalyptic literature. Revelatory figures are described in detail: their appearance, companions, changes of facial expression, and attire. The growth of the text suggests a broadening process of communications not only in written form (writing is a distributive medium) but also orally. The text does not merely represent verbal communication: each subsequent textual layer, perhaps initially oral and later in written form, also is constrained by earlier remarks,[2] employs consistent metaphorical language, and refrains from introducing large amounts of new material (as purely written communication would allow one to do). It was the written form, however, and perhaps even the publication of the different textual strata, that permitted precise reference to previous layers. It was the written form alone that allowed for a text of a length that prohibits full recitation on a single occasion; recitation of the final version in its entirety would have taken more than four hours.

However, a written text offers the further advantage of communication “to all those that are chosen” (8.3),[3] especially in its earliest phase of circulation. The organization of those Greek-speaking, Judeo-Christian Romans (this very specific designation is intended to counter common misconceptions) can be reconstructed in its basic structures from the book of visions itself:

The elderly woman came and asked if I had already given the book to the presbyters. I said that I had not. “You have done well,” she said, “for I have some words to add. Then, when I complete all the words, they will be made known through you to all those who are chosen. And so, you will write two little books, sending one to Clement and the other to Grapte. Clement will send his to the foreign cities, for that is his commission. But Grapte will admonish the widows and orphans. And you will read yours in this city, with the presbyters who lead the church.” (8.2—3)[4]

The first authority—and, if we like, patron, reader, and (co-) author— is the elderly lady who “adds words,” which are apparently not just marginal notes. Only once she has done her job does she permit the book to be made public. And yet it is Hermas’s task to see to the initial copying and distribution, which will then be continued through distinct channels: a certain Clement will make further copies and send the book out for the foreign trade, while Grapte will use it for the admonition of “widows and orphans,” hence a female channel for women and children in need. The college of the presbyters, therefore, holds only limited ruling powers, which are not specified at all. They do not, apparently, regulate the relation between patron and author, nor do they have a say in the book’s distribution in foreign cities, nor do they interfere with the instruction of women. The term “presbyter” seems here to be used synonymously with episcopes. This staff forms the forum in which Hermas will recite the written text, which has been revealed to him and thus, probably, also to his patron (8.3).[5] In his narrative of the first layer of the text Hermas opts for precision: the divine original is a letter, which is addressed to Hermas and which features his personal problems as a central theme. It is a letter that charges him with messages for third parties and, above all, the vituperation of a certain Maximus (7.1—4). The general meeting, perhaps referred to by the salutation “brothers,” is not described in terms of an institution that plays an organizational role, and it is not clear whether recitation before the presbyters implied a request for permission to recite the text before a larger circle under presbyterial supervision. By virtue of being written, the text would become easier to control. But above all, the existence of the written form permitted further copying, more precisely, another two copies: the one that reached widows and orphans via Grapte, the second to engage Clemens in the distribution of the text by letter in other municipalities, therefore to create additional copies (8.3). We might recall that John’s Apocalypsis also presented itself as a letter. However, as in all such cases it was, finally, re-oralization alone that enabled the text to become known to larger groups of people. That is, it succeeded in transcending spatial, social, or gender boundaries.

  • [1] Leutzsch 1989, 13-19.
  • [2] Thus Osiek 1999, 10, 13.
  • [3] I employ the continuous numbering of recent editions in the following.
  • [4] All translations of The Shepherd are from Ehrman 2003a.
  • [5] See Vinzent 2014, 106—7.
 
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