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Pagan Erotica and The Shepherd of Hermas

A while back I was reading Peter Lampe’s fantastic book From Paul to Valentinus, when I came across a rather curious claim about the Shepherd of Hermas. Before I say more, let me first reproduce the text of one of the passages in question. The following is Lake’s translation of the first two verses of Vision 1:

1:1 He who brought me up sold me to a certain Rhoda at Rome. After many years I made her acquaintance again, and began to love her as a sister.
2 After some time I saw her bathing in the river Tiber, and gave her my hand and helped her out of the river. When I saw her beauty I reflected in my heart and said: “I should be happy if I had a wife of such beauty and character.” This was my only thought, and no other, no, not one. (Herm. 1:1-2)

While the oddity of the introduction is plain to all (the visions literally open with Hermas ogling a naked woman while insisting he was not thinking untoward thoughts), the supposed source for the image is anything but obvious. Lampe proposes that this juicy bit of plotting is ripped straight from the pages of pagan erotica. According to Lampe (pages 218-219 for the curious), the protagonist’s chance encounter with the bathing damsel is a staple trope for the Attic equivalent of a lad mag. Imagine some cheesy 70s music and read verse 2 again. Seems plausible to me. Perhaps you are not convinced, but I have saved the best example for last.

5 But I took him by his wallet, and began to adjure him by the Lord to explain to me what he had shown me. He said to me: “I am busy for a little and then I will explain everything to you. Wait for me here till I come.”
6 I said to him: “Sir, what shall I do here alone?” “You are not alone,” he said, “for these maidens are here with you.” “Give me then,” said I, “into their charge.” The shepherd called them and said to them: “I entrust him to you till I come,” and he went away.
7 And I was alone with the maidens, and they were merry and gracious towards me, especially the four more glorious of them.

88:1 The maidens said to me: “To-day the shepherd is not coming here.” “What then,” said I, “shall I do?” ” Wait for him,” said they, “until the evening, and if he come he will speak with you; and if he come not you shall remain here with us until he come.”
2 I said to them: “I will wait for him till evening, but if he come not I will go away home and return in the morning.” But they answered and said to me: “You were given to our charge; you cannot go away from us.”
3 “Where shall I stay then?” said I. “You shall sleep with us,” said they, “as a brother and not as a husband, for you are our brother and for the future we are going to live with you, for we love you greatly.” But I was ashamed to stay with them.
4 And she who seemed to be the first of them began to kiss and embrace me, and the others seeing her embracing me began to kiss me themselves, and to lead me round the tower, and to play with me.
5 I, too, had, as it were, become young again, and began to play with them myself, for some were dancing, others were gavotting, others were singing, and I walked in silence with them round the tower, and was merry with them.
6 But when evening came I wished to go home but they did not let me go, but kept me, and I stayed the night with them and slept by the tower.
7 For the maidens spread their linen tunics on the ground, and they made me lie down in the midst of them, and they did nothing else but pray, and I also prayed withthem unceasingly and not less than they, and the maidens rejoiced when I was praying thus, and I stayed there until the morrow until the second hour with the maidens. (Herm. 87:4-88:7)

Again this is Lake’s translation. It should be noted that here maidens means virgins. So, Hermas spends the night with a bunch of virgin ladies who make out with him all night.  They all get naked and won’t let him leave, but it’s ok because they spend the whole night praying together. Apparently the gaggle of game virgins is another plot device borrowed from the sultry pages of pagan erotica. If Lampe is right, there are at least two examples of this shocking appropriation of literary smut. I very much doubt that we are viewing something like intentional literary dependence. It seems much more likely that Hermas fell victim in his composition to those floating bits of narrative that seem to imbue cultures. Perhaps, however, the most shocking thing about the Shepherd of Hermas is not its questionable source material, but rather that such an extraordinarily long text filled with bizarre images and containing such obviously adoptionist Christology was read and used by Christians for hundreds of years and almost made it into the canon.

7 Responses

  1. Fascinating analysis here.

    Can you help me understand what assumptions about the canon and the relatively messy and long process of creating/closing it you are holding that cause you to be surprised that this was read by Christians for so long?

    Is it the adoptionist Christology? It seems to me that at the time fo the canon formation the issue of how Christology would be formulated was also on the table? Is it the inclusion of tropes from “pagan” or what I might term indigenous culture erotica?

    I’m also a little fuzzy on what you mean when you say:
    “…Hermas fell victim in his composition to those floating bits of narrative that seem to imbue cultures.”

    Interesting stuff.

  2. In terms of its prolonged usage, there is evidence that the Shepherd was in use in the east well into the era of the Christological controversies. In fact, Codex Sinaiticus has Hermas bound together with the New Testament. But even before we get the codified descriptions of Christology from the councils, there is a clear difference between how texts like 1 Clement or the Letters of Ignatius deal with Christology in comparison to Hermas. Hermas teaches that the Spirit is the eternal son, and Jesus is a “slave” who functions as a receptacle for the Spirit. Because Jesus is such a good and cooperative receptacle, he is elevated to some higher position. You just don’t get anything like that in other writers.

    To clarify about the narratives imbuing cultures thing, I just meant that certain plot lines can become popular and generic and thereby reside in the brain, ready to be trotted out whenever necessary. If I started to tell you a story about a boy who lost his parents to some evil person(s), was therefore spurred on to love justice, and labored to make himself into a weapon against evil, then you would already know the broad outlines of the story before I had gotten very far along. Either Hermas had read these stories, or they were common enough to bleed in through social interaction. That’s all I really meant.

  3. Due to having watched “The Big Lebowski” on one or two occasions, I have a vision of Hermas the cable guy coming to the apartment of the virgin in her nightie, fixing the cable, and then wholesomely watching Christian Broadcasting Network until the break of dawn.

  4. Judy S-N

    So, are we just going to let the whole “dancing around the tower all night” thing pass without comment?

  5. There is so much going on in that passage, it is easy to overlook things!

  6. “took him by his wallet” needs retranslating. Good thing he didn’t take him by his package.

© Jeremiah and Ashleigh Bailey 2012