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Text as a Religious Practice

In its biographical dimension—in its movement through rooms, through time, and through social constellations—the text describes a religious practice. It formulates the mode of its reception through multiple references to distribution and writing. Writing the text is, therefore, described as part of the religious practice of the narrator and protagonist called “Hermas.” This is not about a unique action. Although we do not have any testimonials for how long the author worked on the text as it is transmitted, a period longer than a year is affirmed in the book of visions (5.1). The text may in fact, in its different layers, reflect the work of several years and multiple attempts to convey the visionary insights, primarily, in the additions and corrections necessitated by the author’s patron (but perhaps not by the presbyters—at least we do not hear of such). In subsequent layers, reworking is also suggested by theological modifications, the use of images, and in their interpretations.

The resulting text invited its audience to engage in individual religious practice and offered itself for appropriation by any of those in situations that are not described as entirely hopeless. It is significant for its reception that the book was recommended by the canon Muratori for private reading, not for recitation in an official ritual setting:

We receive only the apocalypses of John and Peter, though some of us are not willing that the latter be read in church. But Hermas wrote the Shepherd very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, while bishop Pius, his brother, was occupying the chair of the church of the city of Rome. And therefore it ought indeed to be read; but it cannot be read publicly to the people in church either among the prophets, whose number is complete, or among the apostles, for it is after |their| time. (Canon Muratori, lines 71-80)[1]

In the prologue to the Latin Vulgate, the text was also recommended as “in fact a useful book,” with the added note that “many of the ancient writers use the testimonies, but [that] among the Latins it is almost unknown.” Perhaps this was one of the reasons why this Latin translation was made; a Latin audience demanded Latin versions of current texts.

Neither biblical traditions nor reflections on martyrdom appeared in The Shepherd; audiences needed to wait for Ignatius of Antiochia and Polykarp of Smyrna for the latter.[2] What was offered instead was an ideal of individual moral responsibility and the admonition to attend to (personified) internal voices and to follow the correct one. For this work on oneself (a metonym that does not appear in The Shepherd) the text continually offered new images, parables, and knowledge. The repeated reading of the text was a religious practice. Such ancient texts, as John Dagenais’s characterizes medieval manuscripts, “engage the reader, not so much in the unraveling of meaning as in a series of ethical meditations and of personal ethical choices.”[3] Evidently, many accepted this invitation, as my brief review of the processes of distribution and translation has shown.

However, other individuals necessarily mediated between author and reader. The female patron mentioned at the beginning of the text, copyists and translators, book traders, and their customers and financiers. The offer made by the text was not only determined by demand but also by supply, by the readiness to copy the text so that it could be disseminated. This included adapting it to the audience, both through translation and stylistic adjustments; the text of the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus was much more literary and less popular than that of the third-century Michigan Codex.[4] The text itself suggested that these activities, too, should be understood as religious practice, both for one’s own benefit—such multipliers were also users of their texts[5]—and as a way to share one’s time and means with the poor but trained listeners or even readers among fellow believers.

Hermas’s visions are, in short, available to us as a phenomenon of a specific textual quality. Strategies of communication and the use of media, concepts of authorship, and constructions of genre shaped each other in the historical context of the city of Rome in the middle of the second century and in the Roman Empire for at least another two centuries. In the expanding communicative space of the Hellenistic period and the principate, writing was regarded as a resource of power, and copying books could express allegiance, whether this took the form of copying Epicurus in Campania, rewriting the Bible at Rome, or copying Hermas in Oxyrhynchos. The copying of these texts did not aim primarily at public reading but allowed for and called for individual practice, for which it was important to have them in an easily accessible library, if not one’s own. In terms of book culture, I do not see any significant distinction between Jews and Christians, or Greeks and Romans.[6] But I do think that one can detect chronological differences and developments: by the third century AD, the practices of reading and copying were much more widespread and important for religion than they were in the third century BC. Writing had become a tool and institution in the individualization of lived ancient religion.

  • [1] The translation is that of Ehrman 2003b, 333.
  • [2] Frend 1965; Bowersock 1995; Klausner 2005; Waldner 2015.
  • [3] Haines-Eitzen 2012, 11; drawing on Dagenais 1994.
  • [4] Joly 1968, 62.
  • [5] See Haines-Eitzen 2000, 130.
  • [6] Here I would disagree with Haines-Eitzen (ibid., 132).
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