‘Do you want to hear me read?’Footnote 1 So begin the revelations of the Shepherd of Hermas, a second-century Christian prophetic work. The question, directed from an angelic mediator to Hermas, the central figure and presumed author of the text, presages a larger theme within the work: the importance of reading, as well as writing and book production more generally, in Hermas's receipt and transmission of prophetic knowledge. Yet, despite the Shepherd's centralisation of book reading and dissemination, previous treatments of the Shepherd have emphasised Hermas's illiteracy (or limited literacy, at the least) and poor writing style. Peter Lampe notes that modern readers have described the Shepherd's writing as ‘clumsy’, ‘disorderly’, ‘contradictory’, ‘childish’, ‘crude’ and ‘awkward’, and Lampe himself concludes that Hermas ‘possessed a rudimentary literary ability’.Footnote 2 Along similar lines, William Jerome Wilson attributes to Hermas the following characteristics: ‘possessed of little education’, ‘no great intellectual endowment’, lacking ‘penetrating intelligence’ and possessing an ‘unsystematic mind’.Footnote 3
The persistent emphasis on Hermas's illiteracy or lack of intelligence has had a significant impact on the text's reception among scholars, as many have interpreted it as an unsophisticated reflection of Hermas's Roman Christian context. J. Christian Wilson argues, for example, that ‘the Shepherd of Hermas … tells us more about the daily living and thinking of ordinary Christians at the turn of the second century than any other document’.Footnote 4 James Jeffers similarly asserts that ‘Hermas’ very ordinariness makes quite probable the representative nature of his work.’Footnote 5 What follows explores how turning to the Shepherd's discussion of books and reading culture might call into question this emphasis on the ‘ordinary’ and ‘representative’ nature of the Shepherd, and instead bring attention to how the text constructs and prescribes the type of reality that it works to enact. A major part of the Shepherd's self-presentation entails depictions of reading, copying and book production, which work in tandem to construct an idealised Christian reading culture centred on the dissemination and public reading of revelatory works. I argue, moreover, that many of the elements that contemporary scholars have cited as revealing of Hermas's intellectual shortcomings are in fact part of the author's self-authentication and self-positioning within the Shepherd's idealised Christian reading culture.
This analysis builds on the work of the classicist William A. Johnson, who has argued for analysing ancient practices of reading as part of their respective ‘reading cultures’, which Johnson defines as ‘the cultural construct that underpins group and individual behaviors in a reading event’.Footnote 6 Johnson emphasises that reading practices must be analysed as part of ‘the negotiated construction of meaning with a particular sociocultural context’,Footnote 7 while highlighting how ancient texts played important roles ‘as a part of the negotiated construction of a community that centered around literary texts’.Footnote 8 Following Johnson's lead, the Shepherd of Hermas will be examined for how it constructs Christian practice and identity as centred on the writing, reading and production of authoritative texts. This examination consists of three parts, correlating to the roles taken on by Hermas in the Shepherd: Hermas the reader; Hermas the scribe; and Hermas the auditor. Through these interrelated portrayals, the Shepherd constructs an early Christian reading culture that authenticates Hermas's role as a prophetic scribal transmitter, activates the textual dissemination and reception of the Shepherd and ritualises the process of auditory ‘reading’ by which Hermas envisions his audience engaging with his work. The article concludes with ‘Hermas the freedman’, which considers how Hermas's self-presentation as a formerly enslaved person may have connections to the Shepherd's centralisation of textual expertise in the revelation of divine knowledge.
Hermas the reader
Throughout the Shepherd, the process of reading books forms an integral part of how both Hermas and his heavenly interlocutors transmit prophetic knowledge. Hermas's first revelatory partner, the elderly woman, appears ‘dressed in radiant clothes and holding a book [βιβλίον] in her hands’.Footnote 9 The woman then begins to reveal ‘great and amazing matters’, which form the foundation for Hermas's first revelations.Footnote 10 As part of Vision 2, Hermas again encounters the elderly woman: ‘When I arose from prayer I saw across from me the elderly woman I had seen the year before, walking and reading a little book [περιπατοῦσαν καὶ ἀναγινώσκουσαν βιβλαρίδιον].’Footnote 11 In both of his initial visions, therefore, Hermas portrays heavenly figures as possessing and reading books. In this regard, Hermas stands alongside other ‘bookish’ ancient apocalyptic texts that forefront the importance of the written word in the transmission of heavenly knowledge.Footnote 12 Distinctive to the Shepherd is that it identifies its revelatory figure with the cultic community writ large: according to a later revelation, the ‘elderly woman from whom [Hermas] received the little book’ is in fact ‘the church’ (Ἡ Ἐκκλησία).Footnote 13 In such a way, the Shepherd portrays the Christian Church, and thus the community as a whole, as a bibliophilic purveyor of textualised knowledge, with special access to a ‘heavenly archive’ of revelatory texts.Footnote 14
It is perhaps surprising, then, that the Shepherd portrays its protagonist (and apparent author), Hermas, as an unskilled reader. After the lady asks Hermas to ‘announce these things [i.e. the contents of the little book] to the ones chosen by God’, Hermas admits that he cannot remember all the information. Hermas requests that she lend him the book to make a copy, and she accedes.Footnote 15 ‘I took it and went away to another part of the field’, Hermas explains, ‘where I copied the whole thing, letter by letter, for I could not distinguish between the syllables.’Footnote 16 Hermas's failure at distinguishing the syllables is likely a reference to ancient educational approaches to the learning of reading: beginning readers acquired literacy by learning potential syllabic sets of letters (e.g., ba, be, bi, bo, bu, ca, ce, etc.).Footnote 17 Hermas thus presents himself as being unable to perform the basic reading task of perceiving the syllables and making meaning of the text.Footnote 18 But to what end?
Previous commentators have frequently seen in this passage evidence that Hermas was perhaps only ‘basically literate’.Footnote 19 Such interpretations fail to account for the broader narrative arc of the Shepherd. Shortly after Hermas's failed reading of the little book, he explains his eventual ability to understand its contents: ‘Fifteen days later, after I had fasted and asked the Lord many things, the meaning of the writing was revealed to me.’Footnote 20 Hermas claims, therefore, that his understanding of the book emerged through repeated prayer and a lengthy fast, which resulted in a heightened level of spiritual discernment.Footnote 21 As such, the Shepherd reveals that Hermas's initial shortcomings as a reader were not due to a lack of functional literacy, but insufficient spiritual preparation for understanding heavenly texts.
Hermas's initial ‘illiteracy’ and eventual comprehension of the heavenly book serves a two-fold purpose. First, the two-part revelation places textual processes (i.e., copying and reading) at the centre of divine revelation. It is notable, for example, that in the second scene of Hermas's revelation, when he is able to discern the meaning of the book, no revelatory figure is present. While Norbert Brox argues that this demonstrates that the ‘revelation apparatus’ is ‘secondary’ to the text,Footnote 22 I would propose instead that it centralises the ‘revelation apparatus’ within the text itself. Put another way, the primary purpose of the revelatory figures is in service of the conveyance or creation of textualised knowledge; when such textual knowledge is available (for example, through copying and reading), the revelatory figure is superfluous.
Second, the Shepherd constructs a culture of reading that cannot be reduced to pure literacy (i.e., the discerning and understanding of syllabic units), but which must be combined with proper spiritual practices to comprehend heavenly knowledge. This connection is encountered again later in the text, when the Shepherd asks Hermas, ‘What did you have for dinner?’ Hermas responds, ‘All night long, Lord … I dined on the words of the Lord.’Footnote 23 With this response, Hermas again connects fasting – here indicated by Hermas's apparent eschewal of a meal – with revelation and receipt of divine words (whether through prayer or reading). In this way, Hermas constructs proper ‘reading’ of divine words as a multi-step process, one completed through an interconnected set of ritualised practices that promoted spiritual perspicacity. The Shepherd's portrayal of Hermas's initial reading failures, therefore, serves the broader goal of constructing a particular culture of reading, centred on the synthesis of Christian reading, prayer and fasting.
Within this Christian reading culture, the Shepherd positions Hermas as an idealised reader and interpreter. Hermas successfully completes the ritual actions that unlock the divine secrets of the heavenly book. In Vision 3, moreover, the revelatory figure tells Hermas that ‘these things have not been revealed for your sake alone; for you are to show [δηλώσεις] them to all the others’,Footnote 24 thus identifying him as an authoritative expositor of heavenly knowledge. The woman later makes plain that Hermas's role will comprise an exegetical component, commanding Hermas to ‘go and explain [ἐξήγησαι] the great acts of the Lord to his chosen ones’.Footnote 25 The woman's intertwining of reading and interpretation fits well with what is known about ancient reading practices. Ancient texts, including those produced by Christians, were recorded in scriptio continua, blocks of undifferentiated letters largely lacking in reader's aids (for example, spacing, punctuation, accents). In public reading settings, therefore, the reader held the extra responsibility of discerning the appropriate division of words and clauses and conveying the meaning of the text properly.Footnote 26 ‘To engage in reading a text’, Kim Haines-Eitzen surmises, ‘necessarily involves one in the practice of interpreting a text.’Footnote 27 Hermas's charge to ‘show’ and ‘explain’ to fellow Christians the contents of the heavenly book, therefore, situates him as an authoritative reader and interpreter for his community. In this regard, it is notable that the Shepherd repeatedly portrays Hermas as an inquisitive interlocutor who persistently seeks to understand his visions.Footnote 28 While Hermas's initial foray into the heavenly archive is not without its difficulties, therefore, the Shepherd none the less constructs a broader reading culture wherein heavenly revelation and Christian ritual practice combine to form a foundation for idealised Christian reading practices. Through his writing, reading, questioning and interpreting, Hermas tracks for his audience an appropriate evolution from beginning reader to advanced interpreter, ultimately becoming a reader who does not fail to ‘read the syllables’.Footnote 29
Hermas the scribe
Equally important to Hermas's role as prophetic mediator is his practice of transcribing heavenly knowledge. This theme is demonstrated in the second vision that Hermas receives from the elderly woman. Hermas asks to borrow the woman's little book so that he may ‘make a copy’ (μεταγράψωμαι).Footnote 30 The lady responds by granting Hermas's request, on one condition: ‘Take it … and then return it to me.’Footnote 31 Hermas explains, as noted previously, that he then ‘copied the whole thing, letter by letter, for I could not distinguish the syllables. And then, when I completed the letters of the book, it was suddenly seized from my hand; but I did not see by whom’.Footnote 32 Beyond initiating Hermas's development as an authoritative reader, this passage functions to underwrite Hermas's unique authority as a prophetic scribe, while also positioning scribal activity and private book networks as foundations of a broader Christian reading culture. First, Hermas's letter-by-letter copying, occasioned by his initial inability to make sense of the ‘little book’, situates textual copying as an act that carries the potential to communicate divine knowledge, while simultaneously portraying Hermas as a reliable copyist who ensures that his copied texts are accurate through detailed transcription.Footnote 33 Thus, while Hermas might initially appear unable to handle the divine revelations, he none the less emerges as an effective medium of revelatory knowledge through his ability to copy heavenly books for earthly consultation.Footnote 34
The centralisation of scribal activity emerges even more clearly when the Shepherd is compared to comparable ancient representations of the transcription of heavenly knowledge. While the Shepherd shares with other ancient apocalypses a process of revelation through textualised knowledge, it is unique in the handing over of the heavenly text for copying by a human scribe; in other apocalypses, the text is dictated orally (Revelation i.19; ii.1), consumed for later public preaching (Ezekiel ii.9–10) or memorised for later transcription (Jubilees xxxii.21–6).Footnote 35 Hermas, by contrast, admits his inability to memorise or understand the material, and so must resort to borrowing and transcribing the book ‘letter by letter’. In this way, the Shepherd constructs the process of divine revelation as a textual phenomenon from beginning to end, with the transcriptional practice of the careful scribe at the forefront.
The portrayal of Hermas as a prophetic scribe surfaces elsewhere in the Shepherd. In Hermas's fifth vision, which serves as an introduction to the commandment and parable sections, the Shepherd (as part of his first appearance as a revelatory figure) orders Hermas to ‘write my commandments and parables’ and additionally to ‘write the other things just as I show them to you’.Footnote 36 Hermas indicates his successful completion of the task: ‘And so I wrote the commandments and parables, just as he commanded me.’Footnote 37 The vision closes with a summary of Hermas's transcriptional task: ‘The shepherd, the angel of repentance, thus commanded me to write all these things.’Footnote 38 In the span of just a few verses, then, Hermas's charge to write the commandments and parables is repeated four times, underscoring the importance of transcription to Hermas's revelatory programme.Footnote 39 Hermas later similarly claims that he ‘wrote the commandments and parables of the shepherd’,Footnote 40 and, again, that he ‘had written out’ the additional book of revelations that he received from the Shepherd.Footnote 41 In this way, the Shepherd repeatedly presents itself as a self-reflexive written work, dependent on the transcription of a revelatory scribe.Footnote 42
Throughout the Shepherd, Hermas's heavenly interlocutors command that he share his textualised revelations with the broader Christian community. The elderly woman orders Hermas, for example, to ‘make these words known to all your children and your wife’Footnote 43 and ‘not stop speaking in the ears of the saints’.Footnote 44 Such ‘commission-scenes’ are frequently followed by a switch in the narrative from address to Hermas (in the second person singular) to address to an unnamed audience (in the second person plural), thus suggesting that these passages were to serve as part of paraenetic instruction for the broader Christian community.Footnote 45 Hermas's textual transmission of heavenly knowledge, therefore, seems destined for oral reading and interpretation in a group setting.Footnote 46 Carolyn Osiek has previously argued that such commission scenes indicate that the Shepherd is part of ‘a basically oral culture’.Footnote 47 Osiek's analysis draws on the work of the anthropologist Walter Ong, who posits a strong distinction between ‘literate’ and ‘oral’ cultures.Footnote 48 Osiek argues that the Shepherd consists of ‘underlying oral patterns’, such as ‘additive’ or ‘redundant’ characteristics, which are to be contrasted with the productions of ‘literary cultures’.Footnote 49 To substantiate this hypothesis, Osiek downplays the importance of texts within the Shepherd's narrative:
Hermas’ authority is confirmed in writing, but most of the process as described within the narrative is oral: the opening scenes of the visions use personal figures to give oral instruction and communication; the woman church reads aloud to Hermas (Vis. 1.3.3–4), and only a year later does he receive a written text, which requires two weeks of prayer and fasting from him to be able to read (2.1.3–4; 2.2.1). The first written text is actually quite brief (2.2.2–3.4). At the appearance of the Shepherd, Hermas is commanded to write what he receives by oral dictation for the purpose of oral proclamation.Footnote 50
While Osiek correctly highlights the oral components of Hermas's revelatory process (e.g., dictation, oral proclamation), her analysis oddly discounts the fact that texts are at the centre of each of the ‘oral’ practices that she cites here: the woman reads aloud from a book, Hermas receives and copies a written text for his revelations, Hermas then reads the written text, and the basis for Hermas's proclamations will again be the written text that he copies.
Osiek's stark dichotomy between oral and literate cultures, therefore, is ill-suited for analysing the Shepherd's constructions of divine revelation. Indeed, there was extensive overlap between textual and oral cultures within ancient Mediterranean societies.Footnote 51 Oral dictation was often part of the process of textual copying, and ancient readers frequently encountered written texts through oral reading performances; oral proclamations, on the other hand, often gained wider distribution through their textualisation.Footnote 52 ‘Both in production and consumption’, Matthew Larsen concludes, ‘it was difficult to separate the oral and the written.’Footnote 53 The fluidity between oral and written cultures can help to explain, therefore, why the Shepherd clearly situates oral proclamations as an important part of an otherwise text-focused revelatory process.Footnote 54
The close interconnection between textualised knowledge and oral proclamation is visible again in Vision 2. There, the elderly woman asks if Hermas has ‘already given the book to the presbyters’, clearly implying that this was an expectation of Hermas's prophetic activity.Footnote 55 The woman then informs Hermas that she will be adding to his revelations and that he should make sure to disseminate copies of the book more widely: ‘And so, you will write two little books, sending one to Clement and the other to Grapte. Clement will send his to the foreign cities, for that is his commission.’Footnote 56 With this directive, the woman charges Hermas with using his initial copy as the Vorlage for the production of several books. First, he is to make two separate copies for Clement and Grapte. Grapte ‘will admonish the widows and orphans’, seemingly referencing a text-based liturgical reading and interpretation for a select group of Christians.Footnote 57 Clement, on the other hand, ‘will send his to the foreign cities’; it is likely that the woman here is suggesting that Clement lend his book to other Christian communities so that they can make copies of their own. In effect, this scene tasks Hermas with initiating a collection of ‘informal Christian scribal networks’, by which several copies of Hermas's textualised revelation will be disseminated through book copying and (book-based) oral proclamations.Footnote 58
The woman's instruction here aligns well with what is known of ancient book production, copying and dissemination. Raymond Starr notes that ‘Romans circulated texts in a series of widening concentric circles determined primarily by friendship’; this ‘private’ mode of textual dissemination, which predominated likewise among early Christians, was much more common than acquisition of copies through book shops or libraries.Footnote 59 Texts in antiquity were relatively scarce; even for the wealthy and elite, tracking down copies of specific texts was difficult.Footnote 60 A book-hunting expedition was typically only successful if one happened to have a friend who possessed a copy, as well as the resources or requisite skills to make a copy. For its part, the Shepherd constructs a Christian reading culture modelled on such private book networks, and so establishes both the conceptual underpinning and practical means by which the transmission of heavenly knowledge should take place.Footnote 61 In doing so, the Shepherd forestalls the problem of textual scarcity by establishing a private network of lenders and copyists and preemptively saturating Christian scribal circles with copies of Hermas's ‘little book’.
Hermas's network of Christian lenders and copyists is an imitation of its heavenly counterpart. Recall that in Vision 2, Hermas encounters the elderly lady reading a ‘little book’.Footnote 62 Hermas asks that the lady give him the book to make a copy; ‘Take it’, she responds, ‘and then return it to me.’Footnote 63 Hermas takes the book and copies it, before an unknown figure takes it back.Footnote 64 Hermas here presents what would have been the standard method of copying within a private book network: a friend lends a book to another, the borrower then makes a copy before returning the original. By portraying these aspects of ancient reading culture as part of the process of divine revelation, the Shepherd constructs a divine/human culture of reading and book dissemination, comprising a transmundane network of lenders, readers and scribes.
The Shepherd hints that there are several books in the heavenly ‘archive’. Within Hermas's first two visions, for example, the elderly lady is portrayed as reading two different books: first, a lengthy scroll [βιβλίον], then a ‘little book’ [βιβλαρίδιον].Footnote 65 Hermas's initial encounter with the woman, moreover, is preceded by Hermas expressing his concern that his sins are ‘recorded’ (ἀναγράφεται) against him, likely referencing a heavenly book that archives the deeds of humans.Footnote 66 Hermas's anxiety over this text eventually leads to the lady comforting Hermas that, pending their full repentance, he and his family's names ‘will be recorded [ἐνγραφήσονται] with the saints in the books of the living [τὰς βίβλους τῆς ζωῆς]’.Footnote 67 In this way, the Shepherd constructs a heavenly library, containing books on human deeds, the ‘books of the living’, and multiple books of divine knowledge. Books emerge in the Shepherd, therefore, as both a medium through which heavenly secrets are revealed to humans, as well as the original and sanctified format by which divine knowledge materialises. The Shepherd here manifests what Steven Johnstone refers to as the ‘objectification’ of the book: a trend in the Hellenistic and Roman eras toward valuing the book not only for its content, but also for its form.Footnote 68
In light of the Shepherd's heightened valuation of books, it is significant that the text positions Hermas as having privileged access to heavenly texts. As noted previously, ancient book-copying networks typically formed along lines of friendship; Hermas's ability to borrow books from the elderly woman, therefore, establishes him as a special friend of the heavenly Church. Thus, the portrayal of Hermas's scribal activities authenticates his role as a prophetic medium and authorises the textual knowledge that he produces (i.e., the Shepherd), while also providing a heavenly model for the textual network that Hermas wishes to establish among Christian communities. As Judith Lieu puts it, ‘the [Shepherd of Hermas] authenticates itself in its textuality. Indeed, since the lady it encodes is the church, church and text authenticate each other’.Footnote 69 The dual authentication of the Shepherd and the Church, in turn, also validates Hermas's role as scribal prophet: ‘Hermas simultaneously ascribes power to texts and maintains a power over the text.’Footnote 70
The Shepherd's construction of the transmundane network of heavenly lenders and earthly scribes, with Hermas at its centre, prompts a reconsideration of Hermas's self-presentation as a revelatory scribe. As part of his initial revelation, Hermas struggles in discerning the ‘syllables’ of the little book, having to resort to ‘letter-by-letter’ copying. For a text that otherwise emphasises the general importance of textual transcription for heavenly revelation, it is, at first glance, admittedly odd that Hermas is here portrayed as a rather ineffective scribe. Yet, as noted by Jonathan Soyars, Hermas's detailed copying here may function to underscore the accuracy of Hermas's transcription, assuring his audience that he has preserved the heavenly text's integrity down to the very last letter.Footnote 71 In the context of ancient book production and copying, this was a necessary reassurance. The copying of ancient texts was unregulated and haphazard.Footnote 72 Ancient writers frequently complain about the adulteration of texts by copyists, and recurrent corruptions in the earliest manuscripts of Christian literature confirm that such books were not copied under tightly regulated circumstances.Footnote 73 Thus, Hermas's detailed copying underscores the accuracy of his transcription, while simultaneously distancing him from any charges of corruption or compositional invention of the material that he transmits.Footnote 74 The scene likewise accentuates the revelatory potential of scribal work – since heavenly knowledge is transmitted in book form, it is the skill of accurate copying that will be the most valuable in helping the Church access the divine archive. In doing so, Hermas locates the task of revealing divine knowledge in the work of ancient scribes and copyists.
Hermas the auditor
Hermas's heavenly interlocutors stress that his transcriptions are destined for public dissemination and reading. As part of the elderly lady's instructions to Hermas, for example, she explicitly directs Hermas, alongside others, to read the prophetic works to various segments of the Christian community: ‘But Grapte will admonish [νουθετήσει] the widows and orphans. And you will read [ἀναγνώσῃ] yours in this city, with the presbyters who lead the church.’Footnote 75 This aligns well with the woman's more general commands that Hermas ‘tell everyone’ about his revelations and speak his prophecies ‘in the ears of the saints’.Footnote 76
The explicit invocation of oral proclamation makes clear that, for the Shepherd, Christian reading cultures were to comprise not only personal reading and copying of books, but communal reading and auditing. This connection surfaces again in Vision 5, when Hermas summarises his scribal activity in an apparent aside to his audience: ‘And so I wrote the commandments and parables, just as he commanded me. If then, after you hear them, you keep them and walk in them and accomplish them with a pure heart, you will receive from the Lord everything he promised you.’Footnote 77 Here Hermas combines his own process of writing with the listening of the audience, thus constructing his transcribed revelation as texts designed for communal reading.
Other elements of the Shepherd suggest a context of oral proclamation. Vision 3 includes a direct address to ‘you who lead the church and sit in its chief seats’, invoking a communal gathering of church leadership.Footnote 78 Hermas at times addresses his audiences in the plural, using ‘brothers’ as a common identifier for what he apparently imagines as a crowd of listeners.Footnote 79 In similar fashion, Hermas's heavenly interlocutors sometimes engage in direct speech to their ‘listeners’: ‘But I, the angel of repentance, say to all of you who have this schismatic thought’,Footnote 80 and elsewhere, ‘I, the angel of repentance, say to you who are like this’.Footnote 81 Carolyn Osiek has also noted that the text frequently switches without comment between the use of the second person singular (in address to Hermas) and the second person plural (in an apparent address to a listening audience).Footnote 82 As a final point, Hermas's heavenly mediators constantly exhort him to ‘hear now’ and ‘listen’,Footnote 83 a feature which not only positions Hermas an auditor, but will have lent itself to easy adaptation for oral proclamation in communal settings.
In this way, the Shepherd constructs a Christian culture of reading that centred on the public reading of texts within communal settings. As noted by Gamble, ‘the public reading of texts was far more common in antiquity than it is today’, and ‘even among the literate, it was as common to be read to as to read for oneself’.Footnote 84 Importantly, the communal reading of texts was an integral part of ancient textual production; Greco-Roman writers would often hold a recitation among close friends when they had composed a new text, in order to solicit feedback before distributing to a wider audience.Footnote 85 Thus, reading and aural culture were tightly intertwined in Roman literary cultures, and this also applied to early Christian reading cultures. The communal reading and interpretation of authoritative texts was a common element of Christian gatherings by the time the Shepherd was composed in the mid-second century ce.Footnote 86 In this way, ‘reading in the ancient world was a communal and performative act’, which, for most attendees, will have consisted of aural engagement with collective readings of written texts.Footnote 87
By the end of the second century, there existed in early Christian communities an official office of the ‘lector’, who specialised in reading (and perhaps interpreting) authoritative texts in the presence of the community.Footnote 88 It is unclear if such an office existed at the time of the Shepherd's composition. Even so, the narrative clearly imagines that certain figures, including Hermas as well as Grapte, will take on this role for certain segments of the community.Footnote 89 In such a way, the Shepherd implies that, at least in the case of Hermas, those involved in the copying and distribution of the text should make it known to fellow Christians through a communal reading. As noted already, the assignment of reading to figures such as Hermas and Grapte will have accorded them an important role in explaining and interpreting the text at hand.Footnote 90 In this way, the Shepherd's construction of a network of book-lending and copying will have had important ramifications for formulating predominant beliefs and practices within the Christian community.
The centralisation of oral proclamation has ramifications for the Shepherd's broader construction of the Christian community. It is notable, for example, that as part of the woman's interpretation of the church tower in Vision 3, wavering Christians are described as those who ‘have heard the word’ and yet not remained faithful.Footnote 91 In the commandments, upright Christians are consistently identified as those who have ‘heard’ the commandments and heeded their lessons.Footnote 92 In Vision 1, moreover, the elderly woman commands Hermas to ‘be a hearer and hear the glories of God’ (‘Γενοῦ ἀκροατὴς καὶ ἄκουε τὰς δόξας τοῦ θεοῦ’).Footnote 93 In this way, we can see how the Shepherd constructs the Christian faithful not only as groups of readers and scribes, but also as communities of hearers – those who listen and engage with books in communal settings.Footnote 94
As a final point, the Shepherd's centralisation of oral readings might help explain an otherwise perplexing element of the text: the portrayal of Hermas as a rather foolish and overly inquisitive ‘auditor’ of his prophetic mediators. Hermas constantly fails to understand the prophecies he receives, which frequently lead to rounds of pestiferous questioning.Footnote 95 In commandment 4, for example, Hermas asks that the Shepherd ‘bear with me for a few more words, since I understand nothing … Give me insight, for I am extremely senseless and comprehend nothing at all’.Footnote 96 Similarly, after asking for details regarding his great vision of the tower, Hermas proclaims, ‘I have to ask you everything, Lord … because I can grasp nothing at all.’Footnote 97 These passages, despite their rather negative portrayal of Hermas, serve important narrative functions in the Shepherd. Diane Lipsett has argued, for example, that these exchanges encourage ‘act[s] of self-examination and relentless questioning’ that ultimately contribute to Hermas's personal ‘transformation’.Footnote 98 I would note also that this self-examination and inquisitiveness construct Hermas as an interested listener who, despite occasional criticisms from his interlocutors, persistently seeks to understand the revelations read to him. This reading receives explicit support elsewhere: ‘Do not try to comprehend what is beyond your power’, the Shepherd exhorts Hermas, ‘but ask the Lord for the understanding necessary to comprehend these things.’Footnote 99 Similarly, the elderly woman in Vision 3, after a round of questioning from Hermas, responds, ‘I have told you already … and you keep seeking; it is by seeking, therefore, that you find the truth.’Footnote 100 In this way, the Shepherd ritualises engaged listening as the appropriate response to oral proclamations of Christian prophecy. The processes of revelation and reading, according the Shepherd, are dialogical, dependent not only on the tasks of scribes and readers, but also on the engaged curiosity of the listener.Footnote 101
Hermas the freedman
Through the character of Hermas, the Shepherd constructs a Christian reading culture centred on the scribes, readers and auditors of early Christian communities. The book, as privileged depository of heavenly insight, forms the foundation for the revelation of divine knowledge. The scribes and readers of the Christian community, in turn, emerge as essential components in the transcription and interpretation of textualised knowledge, while Christian auditory ‘reading’ serves as the essential practice by which ‘everyday’ Christians gain divine insight. By placing textualised knowledge and reading at the centre of Christian piety, the Shepherd authenticates its own revelatory medium, accentuates the reliability and authority of Hermas, enacts a private network of scribes and readers to promulgate its revelations and ritualises the aural engagement by which everyday Christians will encounter the text. Through book production, dissemination and consumption, therefore, the Shepherd constructs a reading culture whereby its textualised revelations will become a centrepiece of Christian communal life.
If the textual reception and material remains of the Shepherd are any indication, Hermas was successful in promoting just such a reading culture.Footnote 102 The Shepherd became one of the most popular early Christian texts of the first few centuries, enjoying a wide distribution across the Mediterranean and translation into several languages.Footnote 103 What is more, the Shepherd seems to have spread rather quickly: while it was likely composed in Rome around the mid-second century, there is evidence for its spread to Egypt, North Africa and Gaul by the late second and early third centuries.Footnote 104 It is possible, therefore, that the text's promotion of its own copying and reading directly contributed to its wide dissemination.Footnote 105
The successful ‘afterlife’ of the Shepherd provides an opportunity for considering the potential contexts that gave rise to its uniquely self-reflexive approach to the construction of an early Christian reading culture. Why did the Shepherd, distinctively among ancient sources, enumerate its own transmission and objectification as a book?Footnote 106 One potential explanation lies in the self-presentation of Hermas, the text's apparent author.Footnote 107 According to the Shepherd, Hermas was a freedman, or manumitted slave.Footnote 108 Hermas's background as a slave-then-freedman could explain his ability to read and write, as well as his knowledge of book copying practices: slaves and freedpersons often served as scribes and readers on behalf of wealthy Romans.Footnote 109 Enslaved persons, for example, regularly worked as ‘lectors’ (i.e., readers of literary works) at elite Roman symposia, copied written works (including letters, literary works and administrative documents), and even sometimes composed texts on behalf of their masters or patrons.Footnote 110 Freedpersons typically continued to perform the work they did as slaves, often on behalf of their former masters.Footnote 111 For this reason, slaves and freedpersons dominated the ranks of the main literary professions in the Roman Empire, including copyists, librarians, booksellers and lectors.Footnote 112
Though the Shepherd is not forthcoming about Hermas's professional background,Footnote 113 it is possible that he was a copyist or bookseller.Footnote 114 We know of other freedpersons who used their literary skills to make their post-manumission living,Footnote 115 and Hermas's self-presentation as scribe and lector could reflect this background.Footnote 116 It is also noteworthy that the name Grapte, used in reference to one of Hermas's appointed lectors,Footnote 117 is elsewhere attested as predominantly used among slaves and freedwomen, including enslaved secretaries.Footnote 118 Even if Hermas and Grapte were not booksellers or professional copyists, however, it is significant that, as a freedperson, Hermas centres the essential work of divine revelation in the roles of copying and public reading, tasks that slaves and freedpersons typically performed.
The Roman system of slavery highlighted the corporeal nature of slave labour. Elite Romans often distanced themselves from lower-class citizens and enslaved persons by their ability to opt out of difficult labour that taxed the body.Footnote 119 As Michele Kennerly puts it, there was a ‘cross-indexical’ connection between one's bodily labour and one's place within Roman society.Footnote 120 The labour of ancient scribes and copyists was experienced and characterised as difficult and arduous,Footnote 121 thus perpetuating its association with lower-class Romans. It is possible that the absence of discussion in antiquity of book production stems from the associations of such processes with the manual labour of underprivileged Romans.Footnote 122 In the Shepherd's narrative presentation, however, scribes go from ‘unnamed and uncredited’ figures to the centrepieces of Christian revelatory reading culture.Footnote 123 In this way, the Shepherd of Hermas interrupts the ‘cross-indexical’ connection between devalued labour and devalued social standing by making the toil of scribe and lector a focal point of Christian piety.Footnote 124 The authority over texts granted to scribes and lectors within the Shepherd's idealised portrait, in turn, will have afforded such Christians substantial influence within a community that increasingly shaped its identity around its interpretation of written texts.Footnote 125 Put another way, ‘power exercised over texts allows power to be exercised through texts’.Footnote 126 Through its distinctive highlighting of the reading, copying and auditing of texts, therefore, the Shepherd of Hermas provided a potential path toward social prestige and cultic influence for persons who typically resided at the margins of ancient Roman society.