Instructing Literary Practice in The Shepherd of Hermas

In this final chapter I will return to my earlier methodological approach: I will concentrate on a single text, The Shepherd of Hermas. I do not intend to examine it sentence by sentence, but rather to analyze its composition and development and to select for special attention a few passages that I consider to be key. Chapter 1 of this book was significantly guided by the sociology of religion, while subsequent chapters took a more hermeneutical approach, as I aimed, for the most part, to reconstruct ancient observers’ reflections on contemporary lived religion. I have also addressed the producers of texts as part of this religion and examined their specific appropriation of contemporary religious practices, slowly shifting from the early Augustan to the imperial period, and from poetry to mass-produced texts, that is, inscriptions. Ending here with a text from the second century AD, I will continue my twofold approach to authored text, but will then revisit the sociology of literature and religion and examine the text for evidence of long-term processes of individualization, as described in the introductory chapter. The history of the reception of The Shepherd of Hermas

offers at least a glimpse into long-term processes that might indicate a specific type of religious individuality and its development. The text invites such an inquiry, as it explicitly asks for reception, for hearing rather than reading, and later develops a structure that, as I will claim, attests to repetitive use. In general, The Shepherd of Hermas has usually been treated as a—more or less negligible—point in a history of dogmatics. We find it so described, for instance, in the recent Oxford Handbook of Christian Study} I aim to incorporate it into our view of lived ancient religion as a document that is characterized by uncoordinated, parainstitutional, and even con- trainstitutional appropriations.

I will begin by sketching out the text of The Shepherd of Hermas in broad strokes, after which I will dissect the text through the concepts of mediality, authorship and genre, and contents and strategy, only in order to then reconstitute it from the perspective of “religious practice.” The author, I claim, is somebody who thinks in terms of reflective—that is, self-conscious and religious—individuality and offers others material for contemplation, inviting those who wish to follow his lead. The text, its reproduction, and its performance will be analyzed as an institution that furthered individuality, hence as part of a process of religious individualization. Again, as we will see, “institution” does not imply a normative religious order, but a contingent development of lived ancient religion.

The Shepherd of Hermas comes to us as a Greek text in papyrus fragments written from the third until the sixth century. The text (cut off at the end) was part of the Codex Sinaiticus, the fundamental Bible manuscript of the fourth century with the siglum Aleph. It is preserved completely in a fifteenth-century manuscript from Mount Athos. Medieval manuscripts supply two complete Latin translations, the so-called Vulgate, that probably date to the late second century.[1] [2] Additionally, external testimonials begin to appear at the end of the second century. The canon Muratori, as we will see later, assigns the work to the brother of a Roman bishop Pius, traditionally dated to the second quarter of the second century. No further evidence is offered, and this ascription is therefore without historical value. All other deductions must be based on the text itself and remain, therefore, hypothetical. The existence of a Roman “bishop,” in the middle of the second century is, however, certainly a fiction. For the sake of brevity I will treat some of the conclusions drawn from historical analysis of the text as fact, despite their hypothetical character. I have, in earlier publications, offered detailed arguments for my identification of the author of the text as a producer of salt, fully embedded in his culture; this portrait differs from that of the communis opinio.[3]

  • [1] Fitzgerald 2008, 796-97.
  • [2] Thus the first translation might even have been written in Hennas’s lifetime. See Tornauand Cecconi 2014, 8. Cf. Joly 1958, 63. The oldest manuscript pages of the Palatine version datefrom the eighth century (Joly 1968, 417), but it might have been translated around 400 (Tornau and Cecconi 2014, 9).
  • [3] Rupke 1999, 2003a; see now also Rupke 2013b, 2013e.
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