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Authorship and Genre

If one were to believe the canon Muratori, perhaps written, as the text itself claims, at the end of the second century (perhaps, however, much later), Hermas would have been the brother of the Roman bishop Pius.[1] On the other hand, the prologue to the text in the Latin Vulgate tradition identifies Hermas as one of those to whom Paul sends greetings in Romans 16:14. Evidently, learned scribes attempted to locate the popular text within valued traditions. The Shepherd itself does not offer the slightest hint that it aimed to solve its naturally questionable reliability through any such reference to the author’s genealogy or association with the letters of Paul. Of course, every visionary faces the problem of establishing his or her credibility.[2] I do not here question the authenticity of the visionary experience. Rather, I presuppose it, taking into account all the refinements of our current understanding of the idea and even of the very concept of “experience.”[3] It was a widespread conviction in Mediterranean antiquity that visions by day or during sleep were credible forms of communication with superhuman authorities, and such visions were passively or actively appropriated in many instances. This appropriation at times included critical attitudes, tracking down the deceptions, the false or empty dreams that were like water in wine. Cicero presents the extreme positions in the form of two radically contradictory statements in On divination: occasional false dreams cannot discredit correct forecasts. This is the position developed in the first book.[4] The second book, however, offers an argument that can be summarized thus: given the large number of dreams, occasional correct forecasts must be accepted as lucky chances, as flukes, but they are no proof of the divinatory character of such dreams.[5]

Against this critical background, Hermas chose a double strategy. First, he produced his own reliability through ruthless autobiographical self-revelation. Hence the beginning of the whole text:

The one who raised me sold me to a certain woman named Rhoda, in Rome. After many years, I regained her acquaintance and began to love her as a sister. When some time had passed, I saw her bathing in the Tiber river; and I gave her my hand to help her out of the river. When I observed her beauty

I began reasoning in my heart, “I would be fortunate to have a wife of such beauty and character.” This is all I had in mind, nothing else. (1.1—2)

Hermas was a released domestic slave by birth (verna) or a foundling, who managed to establish a family of his own and had conducted business with variable success, probably trading. Only later did he come to the more honest activity of sea-salt extraction.[6] On seeing his former owner and fellow believer Rhode emerging naked from her bath in the Tiber, he indulged in inappropriate (as he himself will point out later) erotic fantasies.[7] To imagine a sexual relationship with his former mistress was probably deeply offensive to his social environment.[8] At the same time, realizing this fantasy—the ultimate libertine achievement, to judge from its frequent emphasis in tomb inscriptions—would endanger his legitimate marriage.[9] Hermas’s self-recrimination continues. His own children have fallen prey to corrupting influences (3.1). As an old-fashioned Roman paterfamilias he must also accept responsibility for their behavior before the God of Jewish tradition. The text (that is, the message) has an author, and this author is “transparent,” honest to the point of confessing his own mistakes and admitting that others mistrust him. He is, therefore, credible. Thus laid bare, the author remains present not only as a narrator but also as a partner in dialogue, within which he exposes himself as fainthearted and lacking in understanding, and is again and again rebuked.

This first strategy seems almost antithetical to the second. Hermas furthered his communicative efforts by combining his emphasis on oral- ity and authenticity with the conventions of the apocalyptic genre. In postexilic Judaism, particularly since the second century BC, texts were produced that presented themselves as the reports of outstanding biblical characters. These offered insights in the form of visions into the events of the last days of continuous history.[10] The pseudonymous nature of such “apocalyptic” texts was predetermined by the putative narrator: a biblical seer narrating in the first person was meant to be understood as the

Tomb of the rich freedman and baker Eurysaces at the Porta Maggiore, Rome, depicting work in his bakeries and using mixing machines as architectural elements. Second half of the first century BC. Photo by J. Rupke.

author, as is frequently indicated by the titles of such texts. Hence writing was a necessary feature; only as a written text, that is, as a book, could the story be preserved for the often enormous period of time preceding its rediscovery, its “apocalypsis.” The necessity of written communication is regularly (as would not be otherwise necessary) reflected in the contents of the visions: the knowledge of the visionary often originates from heavenly books, the contents of which are communicated summarily or even word for word in his visions.[11] Hermas knew apocalyptic texts, as is shown by the only explicit quotation in the whole of The Shepherd; he quotes the apocalyptic Jewish text “Eldad and Modat” (7.4), a text that is unfortunately lost to us.

It is into this tradition and this sequence of texts that Hermas inserted himself. Many of the conventions and motifs of apocalyptic texts appear in The Shepherd: the rapture by a spirit and the visions of heavenly revelatory figures, who within one vision add further visions and explanations. A command is issued to pass on the texts, either orally or by circulating the text. In a recitation of the book of visions the words apokdlypsis or apo- kfllyptein would have been spoken with extraordinary frequency: they appear twenty-seven times in total.

The combination of the two strategies described above would have changed the audience’s concept of apocalypse. Above all, it presented the heavenly hypotext as an immediate concern; it encoded a contemporary individual moral admonition, not a primarily eschatological one. This strategy was modified in the later layers of the text, but it was pursued in principle. From the second layer onward, it is not the key word “apocalypse,” which continued the strategy, but the address to the visionary individual, the repeated imperative to create a written record. This became true to an even higher degree when, in the second vision, Hermas is promoted to the role of primary addressee of all revelations. This rendered the apocalyptic tone less obtrusive, but more general at the same time, as is shown by the scope of the reception.

  • [1] See below.
  • [2] Rupke 2003a, 2013e.
  • [3] Csordas 1994; Jung 1999, 2006; Ricken 2004; Davies 2008; Taves 2009, Taves 2010; Martin,McCutcheon, and Smith 2012; Mastrocinque and Rupke 2013; Rupke 2013a.
  • [4] Cic. Div. 1.60ff.
  • [5] Ibid., 2.121-122.
  • [6] For this reinterpretation of Hermas’s description of his professional activities, see Rupke1999.
  • [7] For a more extensive discussion, see Rupke 2013e.
  • [8] I am grateful to Barry Schwartz for suggesting this probable attitude (through a comparison to American slavery), which is consistent with ancient epigraphic evidence.
  • [9] For the general observation, see Mouritsen 2005; see also Ehmig 2015.
  • [10] See Collins 1987; K. R. Jones 2011; Yabro Collins 1988; Kippenberg 1990.
  • [11] Sometimes a heavenly journey is necessary. See Segal 1980; Dean-Otting 1984.
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