Contents and Strategy

From the perspective of classic dogma-historical terminology, The Shep- herd of Hermas deals with the possibility of a second penitence after baptism. But this is a view of our text that presupposes later problems, situations, and a theology of sacraments as a point of departure. Without this lens the text appears in another light.

One of the distinctive features of the The Shepherd is its interest in typology and classification. This is conspicuous in the discussion of virtues and sins that structures the commandments, the second layer of the text. However, the classification of members of the ekklesi^ is even more striking and central. They are presented as different types of stones (vis 3, sim 9) or tested with branches (sim 8). It seems to be of central importance to distinguish between different types and gradations, or even specific “percentages,” of strong or weak belief. In parable 8 this results in twenty-eight different grades of believer. Thus, the distribution of long branches of willow leads to the following results:

From some he received sticks that were withered and eaten up, as if by a moth. The angel commanded those who gave him these kinds of sticks to stand to one side. Others handed over withered sticks, but they were not moth-eaten; he commanded these to stand to one side as well. Others handed them over half withered. These also stood to the side. Others handed over sticks that were half withered and split. These stood to the side. Others handed over sticks that were green, but split. These stood to the side. Others handed over sticks that were half withered and half green. These stood to the side. Others brought their sticks two parts green and the third part withered. These stood to the side. Others handed over sticks that were two parts withered but the third part green. These stood to the side. Others handed over their sticks that were almost entirely green, but a little part of their sticks was withered, at the end. But they were split. These stood to the side. The sticks of others were just a little green, but the remaining parts of the sticks were withered. These stood to the side. Others came in carrying green sticks, as they had received them from the angel. The majority of the crowd handed over sticks like this. The angel was extremely happy with these. And they stood to the side. Others handed over sticks that were green and budding. They stood to the side, and the angel was extremely cheerful about these. Others handed over sticks that were green and budding, but their buds seemed to be bearing fruit. The men whose sticks were found like this were extremely cheerful. The angel rejoiced over them, and the shepherd was extremely cheerful with him about these. (67.6—18)

Hermas was not concerned with the delineation of sharp borders. There are those within and those outside circle of fellows in religion; “peoples”

(ethnoi) and apostates are on the outside (4.2), and the text is not interested in these. Rather, the problem that was central for Hermas lies in the gray areas. According to him, it is easy to come to belief, and it is easy then to gradually fall out of it again. But it is difficult to know where oneself or another stands exactly. The Shepherd captures the problem in the parable of the trees in winter. If you regard the trees without leaves you do not know which of them still lives (sim 3): “For just as the trees that shed their leaves in the winter all look alike, with the withered indistinguishable from the living, so too in this age it is not clear who the upright are and who the sinners, but they all appear alike” (52.3).

The same problem is expressed in the parable of the building of the tower (sim 9). The tower rapidly rises to an impressive size, but then repair becomes necessary, and “stones” must be reworked or removed—“stones” that in their different qualities represent the members of the community and their deficiencies (82.2, 83.3—5). Construction is interrupted, and the eschatological completion is delayed. What is missing here is a clarification of the community’s limits. Whosoever are in the gray area must quickly change their minds; they require metanoia.

But what exactly is to be changed? Here Hermas remains astonishingly vague. In talking about marriage and separation, adultery is described as “to behave like the peoples” (29.9),2’ and to seek for advice from professional fortune-tellers is idolatry (43.4). But such behaviors as these could also be observed among the members of Hermas’s own group.

“The deeds of the peoples” are the indicator of full apostasy (75.3), but this is not specified further either. Obviously the wealthy are foremost in occupying dangerous territory, and a simple businessman like Hermas must be classed among these. To act euergetically, to gain in prestige and thus to reap public glory, is just as reasonable as it is problematic. Hermas, I am tempted to conclude, tries to fight a traditional middle-class ethics with a new middle-class ethics.

Occasionally, this leads to surprising emphases. Of course greed, extramarital sexual relations, luxury, and splendid meals are associated with each other. But Hermas focuses on the physical results of excessive dining, on business contacts with heathens, and on uncharitably turning away beggars. He formulates a complex psychological model for this and illustrates [1]

it with the simile of the willow branches. I quote only a portion of the relevant material from the end of the eighth parable:

Those who handed over sticks that were two parts withered and the third part green are those who have been faithful, but who also have grown wealthy and maintained a high standing among the outsiders. These have clothed themselves with great arrogance and become conceited; they have abandoned the truth and do not cling to those who are upright, but live with the outsiders. And this path has become very sweet to them. Still, they have not fallen away from God, but have remained in the faith, even though they do not do the works of faith. And so many of these have repented, and their dwelling is in the tower. But others have taken up residence, once and for all, with the outsiders. These have fallen away from God by being borne along by the vanities of the outsiders and acting like them. And so these are counted among the outsiders. Some of them were doubleminded and did not hope to be saved because of what they did. Others were doubleminded and created schisms among themselves. (76.1—4)

Straightforward economic problems are signs of a divine punishment for the rich; as a consequence they fall into the danger of apostasy (14.5). The angelos tryphes, the angel of luxury, is also an angel of deception; it is inherent to the active and irritable character of the businessman. A productive occupation, therefore, should be preferred to trade. Here, the social climber Hermas evidently reflects on his own situation.

However, Hermas is not interested in issues of social class, but in the individual and in psychology: the high-spirited (eupsychos) and the doubtful (dipsychos) emerge as important types in his analysis. “Turning around,” metanoia, is an individual biographical process. This process does not remain abstract but neither does it become radical: the rich man should make charitable donations but should not give up his status, as is stressed in the very first parable (50). Again, the problem exists that one cannot recognize the believer by his generosity, his euergetism. Too much prayer and fasting is also harmful; it weakens the body (18.7). To fast is fine, but a moral life is better (54.3—5). One can give the savings of short-term fasting to the poor (56.7). To do more than necessary is praised as leiturgeia (56.2—3), a concept fully established in the embedding society.[2] And finally, the positive role of knowledge remains. Ironically, Hermas is criticized again and again for his inexhaustible thirst for knowledge. Only the knowing finally knows whether “God is or not” (12.3). This is a clear religious distinction.

Unfortunately, not much is so clear in everyday life. The text itself opens with the extreme example of a sin of thought. Not even Hermas himself knows that he is thinking of adultery on seeing Rhode naked. The divine revelatory figure must draw Hermas’s attention to this fact. The individual needs such a figure, needs a “shepherd,” an “angel of justice,” an “angel of penitence,” because he or she is always endangered by “angels of malice” and the like. The latter wage war within the individual, which the individual cannot win without help. The sixth commandment details this:

“Hear now,” he said, “about faith. A person has two angels, one of righteousness and the other of wickedness.” “And how, then, Lord,” I asked, “will I know the inner workings of these, since both angels dwell with me?” “Listen,” he said, “and you will understand these things. The angel of righteousness is sensitive, modest, meek, and mild. And so, when he rises up in your heart, he immediately speaks with you about righteousness, purity, reverence, contentment, every upright deed, and every glorious virtue. When all these things rise up in your heart, realize that the angel of righteousness is with you. These are the works of the angel of righteousness. Trust this one, therefore, and his works. See now also the works of the angel of wickedness. First of all, he is irascible, bitter, and senseless, and his works are wicked, bringing ruin on the slaves of God. And so, when this one rises up in your heart, recognize him from his works.” “I do not understand, Lord,” I said, “how to perceive him.” “Listen,” he replied. “When any irascibility or bitterness should fall on you, realize that he is in you. Then there is desire for many activities and numerous extravagant food and drinking bouts and many wild parties and various completely unnecessary luxuries, and desires for women and greed and a certain great haughtiness and arrogance, and everything that is closely connected to these things.” (36.1—5)

This is more than an ethical message. The text also presents a strategy of communication and participates in such a strategy. The question of good and evil is not just an act of accounting and balancing, but a biographical process that can be narrated. “Turning around” is not a unique, dramatic event, but an ongoing struggle. The text illustrates and enacts this in its ever-new approaches to the same ethical problems. Just as the visionary stimulus was decisive for Hermas, the representation of this process, the narrated vision, could become the stimulus for Hermas’s addressees.

  • [1] Ehrman (2003a, 247) translates “like the outsiders“ (tots ethnesin).
  • [2] Andreau, Schmitt, and Schnapp 1978; Veyne 1988.
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