The Shepherd of Hermas Concerning Orality, Writing, and the Role of the Heart (“Some Baseless Speculations about…”, Part 6b)

For Yuri. Continued from parts onetwothreefourfive, and six-a (6a).

Part six will need to be broken up into sections, so that I can release them at all, given that my workday is now 14 hrs long, with 1.5 hrs of commuting. After I am finished with the course I’ve laid out here, I’ll post them together in either a summary or a collection. 

Across these sections of the sixth post, I thought it was wise to linger over the transition from the earliest writings in the New Testament vis-à-vis our themes of writing vs. speaking, the role of the heart, and the nature of basically prophetic or oracular speech –particularly the writings of St. Paul in the years following A.D. 50 and 60– towards the third and fourth century.

In the previous post in this series, we saw something of a love-hate relationship to writing (if I am granted to phrase the relationship so, Yuri). I suspect that the different dynamics involved in itinerant missionaries/apostles on the one hand (and their relationship to writing), and the flow of stable communities (and their relationship to writing) on the other hand, reinforce this suspicion, as there are potentially competing disciplines and messages that these texts are being used for.

Itinerant apostles set up stable communities, or else visited these communities on their circuits. There is at least a potential tension, it should be noted, between the disruptive and urgent proclamation of the gospel by itinerants like the apostles and wandering prophets on the one hand, and the establishing of stable cells and communities who abide faithfully over the long haul in eschatological hope and love (on the other). Writings are not treated as charters in this sense among the earliest Christians — there are some church rules that manage to work their way into some of the Gospels (such as in Matthew’s counsel about “if your brother sins against you”), but full-blown “church orders” don’t seem to appear until the end of the first century and after, with the Didache (ca. A.D. 100-110 says Bart Ehrman, though Ehrman notes that some of its component parts are likely as early as A.D. 50). They have a different role. Charters are legal, and impersonal: anyone can read them. Early Christian texts are usually too direct, too specifically-addressed, to be likened to this function. –and in Papias, as we saw, there is even a skepticism towards texts that has to do with a perceived lack of value they hold apart from a relationship of direct training — the “living voice”.

Shepherd of Hermas

The tension between the urgency of itinerant apostles and the regularities of stable communities is worth remembering. If there were time to look at the Didache, we would see that this tension between itinerant prophets and stable local leadership is a theme that appears explicitly in that charter. In the Shepherd of Hermas (ca. A.D. 95-150), there is also tension between the elders (πρεσβυτεροι, &c.), who lead the church in Rome, and the prophetic visionary character of Hermas.

This tension is reinforced in Vision 3.5.1. There, a tower is being built, and the stones by which it is built are people. Among these stones, there are several shapes, the foundation of which are listed as

apostles and overseers and teachers and deacons

whose activities are

govern[ing] and t[eaching] and serv[ing] the elect of God in holiness and dignity [1]

The office of overseer corresponds to the activity of governing; the office of teacher corresponds to the activity of teaching, the office of deacon corresponds to the activity of serving the elect of God. What of the apostolic activity? The apostolic office is mentioned next to the other offices, yet the apostolic activity is not mentioned in the parallel list.

This suggests, I think, Yuri, that this title is now a memory, given the stable form of community that is prevailing, and given the threatening and destabilizing force which itinerant prophets and preachers presented to stable communities. Inspired prophetic activity is, likewise, difficult to assimilate from within a stable community, unless it is subordinated to the established authority of the elders (and the stability of established texts?), which Hermas seems concerned to do — even if he is primarily calling people to repentance and purity of heart.

In the Shepherd, however, we see the scripturalization of prophetic activity, and its embeddedness in the reception of a community; Carolyn Osiek suggests that the text was added to over time, as a sort of commentary, in response to the reception that the oral delivery of the visions had within the original community. The Shepherd is a set of visions that contained orally-delivered content ostensibly received from heavenly messengers, and when the Shepherd himself appears in Vision 5, he commands Hermas to commit to writing what is given to him orally, and to read this himself before preaching the material orally to the churches in Rome.

[5] […] “I have been sent,” he said, “to show you again everything you saw before, the important points that are helpful for you. First of all, write my commandments and parables. Beyond that, you will write as I show you. This is why,” he said, “I am telling you to write the mandates and the parables first, so that you can read them right away and keep them.” [6] So I wrote the mandates and the parables as he commanded me. [2]

The theme of the interpreting angel could take a monograph of its own, but I would direct your attention to how the textualized vision ends in an appeal regarding how the hearers of the performed text are to respond to it. Addressing the churches, the Shepherd himself says to them “if ye hear [the mandates that are about to follow], keep them, go forth in them, and do them with a pure heart, you will receive from the Lord everything he promised” (Vision 5.7) The theme of the heart appears again.

We have looked at writing with regard to Hermas, Yuri, but what about texts? Interestingly, in the Shepherd, the author cites only one text explicitly –the lost Book of Eldad and Modat in Vision 2.3– but otherwise, the Church appears to him as a venerable lady with a heavenly book holding a message for him –not delivered through Hermas’ reading the book, of course– that Hermas is to interpret through fasting, prayer, and the receiving of visions. The themes of the Shepherd are drawn from the patterns found in scripture, granted, but explicit citations are limited to one book, and it is a lost book, extra-biblical. It is certain that Hermas would have heard scriptures read aloud regularly in the services, and interpreted, and expounded — even if the list of “scriptures” was still rather open. The categories of “scripture” and “canon” are not identical. The Shepherd of Hermas would join this list of books that were apparently used among African Latins and Italian Latins as well as by Greeks for public preaching and teaching and edification; as Hermas presents itself as given by God, it is hardly surprising that so many Christians treated it as such, until it was eventually dropped from canon lists in later centuries (though it is found in several ancient codices).

The point of so much of the basic vision in The Shepherd is purity of heart, purity of intention, which is the theme raised at the outset, and connected to repentance, μετανοια, in contrast with a purely external change of behavior. Even Carolyn Osiek, who is the editor on the Hermeneia volume of the Shepherd of Hermas, uses this phrase to summarize the purpose of the Shepherd‘s allegorical images: “Hermas’ strategy is to reshape the church by bringing listeners to the point of openheartedness in which they can change.” (Osiek, 12) Hermas’ message is to be brought to the churches of Rome, but is to be read aloud before the elders, and distributed to other churches through the seemingly nascent (though sophisticated enough) ministry (or bureaucracy) of letter-writing that the church in Rome has, at this point, already set up. [Vision 2.4]

The priority of the vision, and its piecemeal commitment to writing, is also interesting. The vision, of course, is not for the sake of producing a text to be admired distantly for its aesthetic suggestiveness, but is given, and is to be committed to writing, for the sake of moving hearts — and The Shepherd uses this language. Hermas’ set of visions employs some images that seem strange to us today, and its message would at points seem severe to us, though some contemporaries thought it was too lax, like the rigorist and eventual sectarian Tertullian. The Shepherd does not, however, ground this teaching by an explicit appeal to New Testament texts. In fact, as Osiek notes, the whole work is marked by patterns that are

characteristic of a predominantly oral culture, in which paratactic aggregations, repetitions, and images from everyday life are common and do not distract, but rather strengthen the medium of communication. The text arose over the course of some years, with several editions, in a miliu and from a mind in which oral communication was the norm. (Osiek, 21)

The visions are committed to a book form, and are read aloud, and read together with the elders (presumably they are the representatives of the various congregations meeting throughout Rome); the books are crucial to the life of the larger Roman Christian community and the stability of the message, but the message is performed, is always, as it were, live. In hearing the voice of the reader, however, one was hearing the voices of several figures — Hermas, when he was speaking or asking a question, but also of the Lady Church, or of the messianic/angelic figure of the Shepherd. The address is direct: they are not speaking about topics that are “out there”, but making direct calls on the hearers to reform their lives ‘from the heart’.

It is not without reason that Franz Overbeck called early Christian literature urliteratur or pre-literature; the address is direct, and even the secondary recipients are imagined rather directly. If memory serves, Harry Gamble, in his Books and Readers in the Early Church, shows why this doesn’t work (strictly speaking), but it seems to me that there is something to it, Yuri.



The Shepherd of Hermas transl. Carolyn Osiek (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1999), 66


Hermas, 98


Header image is handwritten by Dostoyevsky himself regarding The Brothers Karamazov, and can be found here.

11 thoughts on “The Shepherd of Hermas Concerning Orality, Writing, and the Role of the Heart (“Some Baseless Speculations about…”, Part 6b)

  1. Pingback: Harry Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, Introduction | Into the Clarities

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