| HOME | |< | << | The literary traditions | The date of Hermas | Inspiration and vision | Hermas and Rhoda | The elder lady | The Italian Sibyl | Hermas the prophet | The family of Hermas | The vision of the tower | The gnosis of Hermas | The appearance of the Shepherd | The commandments (Mandata) | The moral theology of Hermas | The parables (Similitudines) | The dedication of the tower | Hermas as literature | >> |
As we come to the close of the second apostolic generation we cannot help being impressed by its vigorous and creative character and by the variety in the types of Christianity which it develops. The task of the third generation will be to blend these various apostolic types into the harmony which is known as Catholicism. We know of four Gospels, for instance, each of which represents a local apostolic tradition; what we do not know is how they came to be combined in one book, and received by the catholic church as The Gospel ; but the creative phase of apostolic Christianity is not complete until this is done. And this, in its turn, is part of the larger process in which the various apostolic traditions were combined into a catholic or universal pattern.
Among these traditions were the liturgy, the creeds, the sacraments, the ministries, and so forth; but none was more important than the making of the New Testament.
When the outline and shape of the New Testament become visible in the second century, it is in some respects larger than we would expect; for it carries Clement and Hermas with it. It was not a question of including them in it; it was a question of detaching them from it. They circulated from the first with the rest of the church literature, to which Syria contributed Matthew, Asia the Johannine writings, and Greece (quite likely) the writings of Luke.
There was no New Testament at first. There was a church literature of an apostolic or ecclesiastical or prophetic character, made by inspired men to serve the needs of the time. It survived because it did serve the
|392 needs of the time, and therefore continued to be read in the churches. It included Clement and Hermas, and they lingered for a very long time on its confines. The fourth-century Bible known as Sinaiticus or Aleph (or S) contains Hermas; the fifth-century Bible known as Alexandrinus or A contains Clement.
Strange to say, these books were excluded from the New Testament earlier in Rome than elsewhere, if we may judge by the Muratorian Fragment, which gives a list of New Testament books which were accepted for public reading about A.D. 180 to 200. It excludes Hermas by name, and gives a reason for doing so. Hermas composed The Pastor in our own times, it says, when his brother Pius was occupying the bishop's chair in the city of Rome. Now Pius did not become bishop until thirty-five or forty years after the death of Clement, and since the Visions of Hermas refer to Clement as living, the Muratorian author must be wrong;or, more likely, the ministry of Hermas extended from about 100 to about 140, when a final edition of his writings may have been prepared by him for use in the Roman church.
Some scholars are inclined to date the whole book in the episcopate of Pius, but careful reading confirms the early date which is demanded by the reference to Clement. Its thought is simple and unreflective; its theology is untutored or non-existent; the church order which it reflects is undeveloped. The catholic form of the episcopate has not apparently been received. The writer appears to know nothing of Matthew or Luke or John. All his Gospel references can be explained as due to the influence of Mark, with a little help from the oral tradition. ' Ask and it shall be given you', and 'By their fruits ye shall know them', pretty well exhausts it.
Its reception with the books of the New Testament cannot be explained if it originated in the hundred-and-forties; Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria would never have accepted it as Scripture if it had been so recent. It is easily explained if it first appeared in the same period as Matthew and John and the Revelation, when inspired creative literature was still being received; and if it went out as a prophetic message to the |393 whole church under the sponsorship of Clement and with the sanction of the Roman elders. These data had to be given if the revelation which it contained was to be taken seriously; and that is why they were given. The Visions, therefore, went out to the Christian world in the nineties or early hundreds. The rest followed later.
A survey of the whole evidence suggests a ministry of Hermas during the first forty years of the second century, but whether the whole of this ministry was spent in Rome is another matter. He saw his first vision on the road to Cumae, in the part of Italy in which Naples is situated. He saw his second vision as he was walking along the Campanian Way, a name which is given to a road in this neighbourhood; but the commentators, for some reason, approve the idea that Hermas meant the road leading out of Rome along the right bank of the Tiber. The scene in his last 'parable', a most ambitious effort, is laid in Arcadia. Does this mean that Hermas visited Greece and received new inspiration there? His mission was addressed to the whole Christian world, and it is perfectly possible that he made extended journeys like other Christian prophets and teachers. We ought not to pin any early Christian teacher down to one locality; but the centre from which he worked was Rome, and it was Rome that received his first revelations and issued them to the world at large.
Hermas has no parables or imagery borrowed from sea-travel. His mental horizon is limited by his life on a farm or great estate and by his relations with the Roman church.
The theologians and critics are baffled by the fact that the writers of the first Christian century expressed themselves in poetry and imaginative symbols. There is not one formal theologian among them. The parables, the epigrams of Jesus, the apocalypses, the mythology or gnosis of Paul, the visions of the Revelation, the mysticism of the Fourth Gospel, the eschatology of Matthew, the liturgy of Clement, wherever you look, it is all expressed in a succession of visual images and poetic diction which defy logical analysis. This is the language in which the first Christians talked about the great spiritual realities. Those who take it over-literally betray themselves into fearful absurdities. It is the language of inspiration.
|394 Hermas 'saw' his visions in a condition of high emotional tension, which was created by a grievous personal humiliation. He wrote them as he saw them; but as he wrote them, he expanded them and conventionalized them. Somewhere on the borderland between conscious and unconscious cerebration, and in the realm where the divine and the human meet, we may place the thinking of Hermas. The visions which he saw were perfectly real to him; the heavenly scroll was present to the eyes of his mind; he copied it in a state of intense exaltation; and we are not astonished that when he had finished, it vanished from under his hand. The experiences which he communicated to the ecclesia were perfectly genuine; but we may assume that they had passed through the normal conscious literary processes before they reached their present form. The work of reflexion is to be seen in them, as well as the work of inspiration. Even so, the heavenly guidance was thought of as continuing through all the stages of composition. When Hermas had pen in hand, his 'angel' was never very far away.
Hermas is the first pagan convert who comes clearly into view, and his autobiography is valuable as a case-history. He had been a slave, born of slave parents or sold as a slave in infancy. He does not say that he was a foundling; the fact that his brother was known seems to prove the contrary. He had received a good education. Promising slave-boys were trained in medicine, literature, art, science, business or other vocations. His older contemporary, the philosopher Epictetus, was a slave from Phrygia; Phaedrus, the collector of Aesop's Fables, was a slave from Macedonia. Men of his class often obtained their freedom and rose to positions of wealth and influence, much to the disgust of Romans of the old school, such as Tacitus. Hermas rose to be the principal literary figure in the Christian world, and his brother Pius became the ninth bishop of Rome.
Hermas was sold by the man who brought him up to a lady named Rhoda, and his various interests and special knowledge suggest that he managed her estate. Many of his illustrations are taken from masonry, farming and technical processes. He gained his freedom and made money for himself in business. He married and had children. He met Rhoda again, he says, when she was bathing in the Tiber; or was he assisting at her baptism? He gave her his hand to help her out of the water, and a thought ascended in his heart, 'Happy were I, if I had such a wife, both for her beauty and her character!' This, and nothing more, he assures us, was his thought. He loved her as a sister, and revered her as an aunt; or perhaps the word should be translated goddess; but when she died, his sensitive imagination magnified the passing thought into a deadly sin. It preyed upon him.
How Rhoda died, we are not told, but possibly as a martyr in the persecution of Domitian; and Hermas saw her once again in a dream.
It was thus that Hermas saw her. A spirit took him and led him away through pathless country, where no man could travel. It is an opening like that of the first canto of Dante's Inferno.The place was precipitous and broken off by the waters. He passed through the river and came to a level plain, where he went down on his knees and began to pray to the Lord and confess his sins. Then the heaven was opened, and he saw the woman whom he had desired, who greeted him by saying, 'Hermas, rejoice', or 'Hail, Hermas', as this common Greek salutation is generally translated.
'What are you doing here, my lady?' Hermas asked.
'I was taken up', she said, 'to convict you of your sin before the Lord.'
'Are you my accuser?' he asked in consternation.
She smiled as she answered him. 'The desire of evil ascended upon your heart. Surely you agree that it is a bad thing if an evil desire ascends upon the heart of a righteous man?'
Moral collapse followed this painful speech. 'I was overcome with terror and grief, he says. 'If this sin is entered against my account, I said to myself, how can I be saved?'
The moral theology of Hermas was worked out in fear and trembling in his own unduly sensitive conscience before it came to be worked out further in his domestic life and in the forum of the church.
The figure of Rhoda now fades out of his dream, and he sees a 'presbyteress' or venerable lady, in shining garments, seated on a great white throne, with a book in her hand.
'Why so downcast, Hernias', she asks, ' the patient and serene and ever-smiling?'
He tells her his story, and she agrees that such a thought must bring sin for the man who is holy and proven, and especially for Hermas the austere, who abstained from every evil desire and was full of all simplicity and great innocence. But this was not the real cause of God's anger; it was on account of his softness of heart in failing to discipline his children and so leaving them to spiritual ruin. God was full of tenderness and mercy, however, and would establish him in his former glory; but he was not to be so easy-going in the future; he must be fearless and strong, and admonish his family with the daily word of righteousness. From which we learn that there had been a family crisis.
The presbutera or 'elderess' was the Sibyl, or so Hermas thought. There was an Italian Sibyl, and in such a place Aeneas, the hero of Virgil's great poem, had found her in her cave among dense woods and broken rocks. She was his guide to the underworld and the abode of the dead. It was she who gave him the famous warning: Facilis descensus Averno.
Easy is the going down to hell;
The gates are ever open night and day;
But to retrace the steps and gain the upper air,
This is labour, this is toil.
(Virgil, Aeneid vi.)
Virgil makes use of Sibylline literature and Orphic lore, not only in his Sixth Aeneid, but in his famous Fourth Eclogue.
The last era of Cumaean song has come;
The great order of the ages begins once more.
Now the Virgin returns, and Saturn's kingdoms come:
A new-born child descends from highest heaven.
(Virgil, Eclogue iv.)
|397 He draws on a Jewish Sibyl here, or even on the prophet Isaiah; and his Sibylline song is connected with Cumae, like the vision of Hermas.
Cumae, near Naples, was the legendary abode of the Italian Sibyl, and a temple existed there, where prophecies were given out. Cumae and Naples were ancient Greek colonies, so that the Sibyl of Cumaean legend was of Greek origin. She wrote her prophecies on leaves, which the wind soon dispersed. Rome itself had once possessed three 'Sibylline Books', which foretold its history and were consulted when disaster threatened the city; they had been purchased by the fifth king, Tar-quinius Priscus, from a mysterious old woman. The Sibyl of Hermas resembles this old woman, since she appears with a mysterious scroll, from which she reads to him. Since her first words were terrible and unbearable, it is possible that they foretold the doom of the city, but Hermas professes that he could not even remember them. Her last words were agreeable and gentle.
Behold the God of hosts,
Who by his invisible power and great understanding created the world,
And by his glorious counsel adorned his creation with beauty ...
Behold he moveth the heavens and the mountains and the hills and the seas;
And all shall be made level for the elect of God. (Isaiah xl. 4.)
(Hermas, Visions, i, iii, iv.)
This Sibylline opening would serve to commend the Visions of Hermas to a Roman audience; but it was borne in upon him later that he had made a mistake.
We are given an exquisitely clear picture of this kindly and conscientious young man, who had so much charm but was rather too suggestible and imaginative and lacked the quality of decision. The elder lady read to him from her scroll, which terrified him with its vision of the judgement to come, and then comforted him with its promise of glory and joy for the righteous. When she had finished, four angelic beings appeared and carried her away towards the east. As she went she said, 'Hermas, be strong.'
It was a year later, and at the same season of the year, that he had another vision, or rather a protracted series of visions lasting for three weeks. He had made but little progress in his domestic life. His seed had |398 blasphemed against the Lord and had betrayed their parents; that is to say, his children had utterly failed him under the stress of persecution. Hermas himself had not denied the living God, and that had been his salvation, along with his simplicity and great continence. It would seem that his property had been confiscated or plundered; for, whereas he had been wealthy, he was now a poor man. Others had suffered more severely than he; they had endured whips, prisons, great afflictions, crosses, and wild beasts, for the sake of the Name; a passage which is forgotten by those scholars who think there was no noticeable persecution under Domitian.
It was a time of trial for the church as well as for Hermas, and the crisis was not over, for there was the usual aftermath of spiritual and moral problems. And it was at this point that he saw the elder lady again, and she handed him the scroll which assured all the saints who had sinned up to this day of forgiveness and restoration. He was to read it in the ecclesia with the elders and to tell the rulers of the church that they must direct their paths in righteousness. Hermas, the weak brother, had made good his glory by standing firm in persecution, and had been chosen to declare the will of God to the Saints. He was entrusted with a special message for one who had denied during the persecution, a rival prophet perhaps.
'Say unto Maximus, Behold affliction cometh if it seem good to thee to deny again; the Lord is near unto them that turn, as it is written in Eldad and Modat who prophesied in the wilderness.'
We know nothing of the apostate Maximus, or of the book of Eldad and Modat, which is the only Scripture that Hermas ever quotes by name; but these passages in his writings help us to visualize him in his important work as a prophetic teacher in the Roman church. The ex-slave had won his way to a place of honour in the counsels of the church and sat among the elders, some of whom, we do not doubt, belonged to noble Roman families.
It seems incongruous to some scholars to find that the family affairs of the prophet should occupy so large a place in the document from heaven; but this is a social fact of great importance. Hermas did not find his way to heaven, apart from his wife and family, by some path of pure philosophy or pure mysticism. His emotional tension at this time was |399 due to his mortification over the behaviour of his children, and his fear that they could not be forgiven or restored; it was for them in the first place that the message of forgiveness was required. It was incumbent, too, upon an elder or ruler in the church to have his family under control, which had not been the case with Hermas, as the ecclesia very well knew. The lapse from grace of his children reflected on his own standing in spiritual things. The social order of the day did not very readily consider individuals apart from the domestic or tribal group to which they belonged; the family was the legal, social and sacred unit with which it dealt.
Primitive Christianity constantly dedicated whole families to God in baptism. In the old Hebrew tradition the Law constantly addressed itself to a man and his family; 'thou and thy house' we read, or 'I and my house'. Hermas imitates this language when he gives directions about fast-days.
The families of the old prophets had been regarded as signs and patterns exemplifying God's dealings with Israel.Hermas was in good company, therefore, in bringing his own family rather prominently into the scope of his prophetic activity. His sense of domestic solidarity was so strong in fact that he was prepared to suffer on account of their sins. When a sudden and severe affliction came upon him, an illness of some sort perhaps, his angel convinced him that he must accept it as a punishment for the sins of his children. How could they be afflicted unless he was afflicted?
It is the converse of the teaching of the Second Commandment; the sins of the children are visited upon the father.
Fifteen days after he had received his second revelation, he saw his famous vision of the building of the tower. He had been informed now that the elder lady of his visions was the church, 'which was created first of all things ... for this reason she is very old, and for her sake the world was created'. In more modern language, the appearance of the Christian religion was the goal towards which creation and history had been moving; it had always existed in the eternal purposes of God. This was the regular Christian teaching, and was based on Hebrew thinking about Israel; and Israel appears as a venerable woman in |400 Jewish apocalypses which Hermas probably knew. In the vision of Hermas the familiar apocalyptic figure represents the church considered as a divine predestined factor in history and revelation and the final phase of all creation; the tower represents the church as it is actually being built on the earth, so realizing the divine purpose. There were four layers of stones in its foundations, and these represented four stages through which it had passed, or four classes of Christians who had emerged into notice: first, the apostles, bishops, teachers and deacons; secondly, the martyrs who had suffered for the Name of the Lord; thirdly, the upright men who observed the commandments of the Lord; and fourthly, the young, by which he means the new converts or hearers. So short has been the history of the church so far that this comprises it all; in his later rewriting of this vision he extends its past history back to Adam.
The building of the tower was very nearly complete, and there was little time left in which to take advantage of the preaching of repentance; those lapsed Christians who did repent would be built into an inferior part of it; and only then, after they had been tormented and had fulfilled the days of their sins. They are represented by stones which have been taken out of the tower, or are lying near the tower, or are rolling away from the tower.
This period of visionary experience continued until the twentieth day. In his fourth vision, he is again walking along the Campanian Way when he sees a fearful monster, with a body like a whale and a head like an urn, which is capable of destroying whole cities. It was the 'aeon', the age in which men were then living, in its aspect as persecuting world-power. He walked on in perfect faith, and the creature lay down and protruded his tongue. It reminds us of the story of the virgin martyr Thecla and the lion which licked her feet.
And now he sees advancing towards him a figure in white, dressed like a bride, who says 'Hermas, rejoice!' like the sainted Rhoda of his first vision; but this charming figure is not Rhoda, who has been forgotten now; she is the church, who has been renewed and rejuvenated during the twenty days of prayer, fasting, abstinence and revelation.
The theology of Hermas is based on a Hellenized Hebrew monotheism, but it has parted somewhat from its Old Testament moorings, and has taken aboard a certain amount of material from the dreamland of gnosis or apocalypse. It is not gnosticism, but it shows how a Syro-Italian gnosticism might have developed. The symbols or images which appear in the Judaeo-Christian imaginative writings of the period were quite limited in number. Many of the images used by Hermas were also used in the Revelation of St John, and yet careful investigation has not succeeded in establishing any direct literary connexion. The woman adorned like a bride, the tower or city which is being built and the beast which embodies the persecuting 'aeon', were not invented by either writer. They were familiar concepts in the poetic tradition quite apart from the gospel. Hermas affiliates the Marcan Gospel to a Judaism of this kind.
In these circles Jewish monotheism was interpreted by a number of symbolic elaborations, which had a respectable ancestry and sometimes expressed quite profound thoughts. The supreme deity was not thought of apart from the 'angels' or 'spirits' which emanated from his being or were created to serve him day and night without ceasing. Hermas has no exact definition of a spirit or angel; almost any impulse which comes to him was personified in this way.
Jewish mysticism of this sort knew of two principal Spirits of God which were prior in existence to all creation, one of them being personified as a male and the other as a female. In Egypt they were the Word of God and the Wisdom of God. Hermas calls them the Son of God and the Holy Spirit. He even calls the Holy Spirit a Son of God, for his nomenclature is disturbingly fluid. The Son of God is also called the Glorious Angel; for angels are normally male, and spirits female.
Hermas is enchanted with female spirits, and especially with the lady of his vision, who is said to be the Holy Spirit as well as the church. She guides the work of church-building, which is the final stage in the work of creation. She directs the six male angels who bring the stones and place them in the tower with the assistance of seven virgins; but these angels have a leader of their own who will appear in due course, making up the number seven (and finishing the seven days of creation?). His name is Michael; but he is generally called the Glorious |402 Angel. This is one of the two forms in which Christ appears in this book; but the name of Jesus and the title of Christ are never used.
This is similar to the pattern that we found in the myth of Simon Magus, to which Hermas may be providing an antidote; the divine spirit who guides the seven creator angels in their work. The nuptial element is suppressed, but the female spirit appears in the last vision adorned as a bride, and doubtless the implication is that the bridegroom will appear and be united with her. The Jewish and Christian literature of our period is full of this symbolism in which the spirit is a bride, and the bride is a city or a temple or a tower or the church. The Sibylline oracles, the Jewish apocalypses, and the Christian chiliasts like Papias, were concerned with the literal rebuilding of Jerusalem and its Temple; Ephesians, Revelation, Hermas and Barnabas refer these ideas mystically to the church as the bride of Christ. This idea underlies Hermas, though it is not expressed in so many words. As the lady of his vision waits for her lord to come and visit her tower, with which she identifies herself, the nuptial symbolism is not far off; she is waiting for a husband.
Setting on one side the possibility that the visions have been expurgated, it has to be remarked that Hermas does not combine his more difficult symbols very well; they coalesce like the symbols in dreams, one of them following another without logical sequence. His seven virgins are the elder lady over again; they are the Christian graces or gifts of the Holy Spirit, with which the Christian must clothe himself as he enters the tower. Their names are Faith, Temperance, Simplicity, Understanding, Innocence, Holiness, and Love. The meaning is clear enough when he explains it; the difficulty is that he crowds too many lessons into his more complicated efforts.
It is useless therefore to look for any gnostic or pseudo-theological scheme, which combined these concepts into a Christian pantheon. The day had not come for theology. They are such stuff as dreams are made on, and each vision or parable must stand on its own feet if it can. The figures fade into one another and re-form ranks. Hermas ought to be compared to Spenser or John Bunyan rather than to Cerinthus or Valentine; but we can see how it was that when the Gnostics arrived in Rome, and Valentine established his school there, his fantasies about the heavenly Wisdom cannot have looked too strange to the Roman Christians, whose minds had been formed on the scriptures of Hermas. The idea of a queen of heaven was not unfamiliar to them.
As the fourth vision fades out, we find ourselves at the beginning of a totally new book, the Pastor or Shepherd, which consists of 'Commandments' and 'Parables' which were written down under the guidance of a male spirit. Hermas is no longer a mere recipient of heavenly messages or allegorical visions; his mind becomes more active, and he is the partner of the shepherd-spirit in the rebuilding and renewing of the church.
When this new book of Hermas was combined with the earlier collection of'Visions', it lost its first paragraph or paragraphs, and what was left of its introduction was numbered as the fifth vision. We gather, however, that the ' Glorious Angel' had appeared, and had handed Hermas over to the care of a lesser angel, who was glorious of face, shepherd-like in appearance, clad in a white skin, with a wallet over his shoulder and a staff in his hand. This angel is with him in his house; he is about his bed and spies out all his ways. He is the 'Pastor' from whom this new book receives its name; but the word was soon extended to cover all his works, the Visions, the Commandments, and the Parables. The complete text exists only in the Latin translation, and consequently is often quoted by its Latin name, the Pastor, the three subdivisions appearing as Visiones, Mandata, and Similitudines.
This pastor and teacher is the inward monitor who teaches and illuminates the Christian mind; he is indeed, in some sense, the Christus himself; but Hermas never says that. He is a spiritual influence from the Christus; the Christus so far as he speaks in the heart of Hermas; but not as it were the Christus as he is in himself.
Relatively to the Pastor, Hermas occupies the position of a penitent. He is put back to the beginning of his Christian life. He must learn the commandments over again. He must even write them out, so that he can have them by him in a handy form, and be able to read and keep them. Does some dissatisfaction with oral methods appear here? It is perhaps the technique which Hermas began to use with his pupils, for every now and then he turns from his inner colloquy with the Pastor and addresses a class. At any rate we have here our only picture of an important stage in the evolution of the teaching technique, the making of a teacher's transcript of the oral tradition, a development which had to be defended on the authority of a revelation from heaven. At the
|404 end of the century Clement of Alexandria was still obliged to defend the writing down of the oral tradition, and did so by quoting this passage from Hermas (Stromateis, I, 1).
The first commandment of Hermas was to believe in God, and to fear him, and to practise abstinence or self-control (enkrateia), a word which would acquire undertones of rigorism and asceticism and renunciation. His second was to be simple-hearted and innocent, like little children. His third was to love truth, an ideal which he finds strangely difficult. His fourth was to guard purity or consecration, a word which was already being associated with celibacy. These words came out of the Judaeo-Christian catechisms; they were words of authority in the church and part of the fabric of the tradition. They had been taken over from the synagogue and christianized in the first apostolic generation. We find material of this sort in the Epistles, especially in the Epistle of St James, which Hermas makes use of at this point. Some of it had been worked up into a document called The Two Ways which is used in the Didache and Barnabas.
Hermas expatiates on these commandments. He adds explanations and appendices. He answers questions. His chapters came very slowly into their present form, and we can trace certain developments in his teaching as he goes on. These must be reserved for a later chapter.
There is nothing legalistic about his presentation of these commandments. He sees his Christian virtues as dispositions of the soul, and calls them pneumata or spirits, like the author of the old Jewish treatise called the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which was well known in the church. Simplicity or sincerity, for instance, is a motion or disposition in the heart. It is the soul itself, or a spirit in the soul, trusting happily in God. Over such the world, the flesh and the evil spirits have no power; but the evil spirits are also dispositions in the soul, sad, angry, gloomy, destructive forces. The most dangerous condition of all is called di-psychia, the wavering or divided soul, the fluctuating or uncertain frame of mind which is the victim of doubt or anxiety or fear and so cannot pray in happy confidence, but gives way eventually to melancholia or even mania. This condition resembles the concept of schizophrenia in modern psychology, while |405 the 'single' or simple-hearted individual is the properly integrated happy personality.
It is a little fanciful for our taste, but the fundamental thought is perfectly clear; it is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. If the heart is pure, the indwelling Spirit will be happy and gay and childlike; but if it is forced to dwell with dark and gloomy spirits, it will depart and intercede against that man.
Needless to say Hermas personifies these spirits. They are virgins who tend and preserve the Christian soul. The evil dispositions are dark women in black raiment, who lead the soul to madness and destruction. His moral theology is sharply dualistic; there are two ways to walk in; two desires or inclinations in the soul; and two loyalties, God and the devil.
Hermas gives twelve commandments in all, and later on he increased the number of his virgins to correspond.
The spirituality of Hermas is strangely difficult to classify because it is concealed under highly elusive symbolic forms. He adopts the traditional Jewish forms of apocalypse and commandments and parables, all of which are used in the Gospels; but the external features of traditional Judaism have disappeared. What is left is a de-Judaized Judaism for Gentile enquirers. Like the Didache, and certain other Christian literature, it was written out of a refined Hellenistic Judaism which was attempting to capture the pagan world. A theism of this kind had taken form prior to the gospel among the pious Gentiles who had attached themselves to the synagogue. It was carried on into the second century, and appears in the apologists. Aristides sums it up under three heads; first, the pure worship of the One God; secondly, the commandments which were engraved in the heart; and thirdly, the hope and expectation of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the coming 'aeon'.
This spiritual and moral Judaism, as it appears in Hermas, has been infused with the Christian spirit and related to the Christian mysteries, but it is expressed in a language of allegory which tends to conceal its Jewish and Christian origins. It speaks of commandments, but not of Moses; of the church, but not of Jesus Christ; of apostles and teachers and bishops and deacons, but not of the gospel. It uses its language of allegory as a disguise; the elder woman and the |406 shepherd and the
virgins and the towerbuilding are intended to conceal the Christian mysteries; Christians would understand what was being referred to; others would not. But he speaks perfectly openly and without disguise about the need of repentance in the church, which was a new thought altogether; and the importance of the moral life of its members, which was sadly in need of renewal. This was his mission from the church to the church, to rebuild its moral life by repentance and righteousness. The supernatural visions provided the authority for this mission.
In the Parables we see quite another side of Hermas. We see him as he moves about his country estate, or the country estate of some wealthy Christian who has received him into his household. We see him among his elms and vines; he watches the trees dropping their leaves as winter approaches; he wears a linen apron, and sets out willow slips to see if they will grow; he stores his wine and honey in earthen jars. He knows the country techniques. He understands the mysteries of tending vineyards and building towers. He has a mystical feeling about his work which has been quickened by his study of the gospel parables. He has his angel with him, his touch of insight or inspiration which reveals unexpected lessons. The change of the seasons is like the course of the world; men have their winter and summer like the trees, and time will show whether they are fruitful or barren. The willow-slips remind him of his pupils; some have promise of life and some have not, but all are worth trying a second time. The rows of earthen jars teach another lesson; some are full and some are empty; but empty you put them away, and empty you find them when you come again. Your honey is good honey, but a little gall mixed with it spoils the whole pot. The rabbis used similes exactly like this.
Hermas has the observant eye and the uncanny inspiration of the poet. His little sketches are full of life. His picture of the old man, a prey to many infirmities, who sits in a chair and thinks of nothing but death, and is completely rejuvenated when he gets an unexpected legacy, was surely drawn from life and made people smile when they heard it. Such is the effect of the heavenly message, Hermas says.
A character in whom Hermas delighted was that of the young slave who was left to fence the vineyard, and occupied his spare time in |407 weeding it, though he had not been told to do that. This exercise of initiative and intelligence won him his liberty. Hermas could identify himself in his imagination with that slave, since he had been a slave, too, and had somehow won his liberty. In the parable he stands for the Son of God, who took the form of a servant, and cleansed our sins by much toil and the endurance of many labours; it is his only picture of the Jesus of the gospel message. He uses this parable to enforce other lessons too; too many of them.
The use of parables, which Hermas learned from the gospel itself, is a method which brings the majesty and glory of God into the most intimate contact with the smallest things of everyday life. The everyday quality of the writing of Hermas may at times seem a little flat and homely, but it brought the magic of the gospel into the lives of the simple people to whom he ministered, and enables us to see something of their problems.
Towards the end Hermas allows his parables to grow too complex. The parable of the willow tree is an example. It overshadows plains and mountains, and Michael the Glorious Angel slashes off slips which he distributes; the character and destiny of each recipient is indicated by the condition of the slip when he returns it. It suggests some spring or autumn ritual like the ' Gardens of Adonis' in Syria, or the Feast of Tabernacles of the Jews. There are no less than twelve classes of recipients, and this number corresponds to the twelve patriarchs of Testaments, the twelve tribes of the 'dispersion' in James, the twelve commandments of Hermas himself, and so forth; it is the conventional number of the Israelite or Christian dispensation. It is weary reading, but we are enabled to see the various classes of persons with whom Hermas had to deal.
Last of all he rewrites his vision of the tower, which has now expanded out of all recognition. It is in the middle of the earth, a locality which he places in Arcadia. Its building has occupied the whole of recorded history. It has been visited by its Lord and very strictly tested. This is the persecution of Domitian, which now lies in the past. It is interesting to see that a persecution may be regarded as an advent of the Christ.
Hermas and the shepherd are hard at work reconditioning the |408 rejected stones, and building as many as possible back into the tower. The new stones are more carefully selected and dealt with than the old. They are carried in by twelve virgins who represent the Christian graces, and no stone can be accepted unless it is clothed in these. Among the new stones are several beautiful white ones which will be very suitable when their curves are cut off; these are wealthy converts who will be splendid acquisitions to the church when they have been parted from some of their wealth.
The twelve virgins are the joy of Hermas' heart. There is a species of dedication of the tower, which is now cleansed and renewed. He walks round it with the shepherd and the virgins; everything is swept and cleaned up. The shepherd leaves him and he keeps vigil with the virgins, who constrain him to stay with him and sleep in their midst. We have to go back to the Song of Songs which is Solomon's, to find a background for this delightful scene.Nothing unseemly occurred, Hermas assures us. They supped all night on the words of the Lord. It is the same sentimental Hermas who assured us at the beginning of his book that his feelings for Rhoda were of the most innocent character.
In the tenth and last chapter of the Parables the Glorious Angel in person appears, and authorizes him to continue his ministry of teaching and reconciliation. 'And when he had spoken, he rose from the bed, took the shepherd and the virgins with him, and went his way; but he said that he would send back the shepherd and the virgins to my house.' These are the last words of the book.
We have it on the highest theological authority that Hermas is dull, pious, and stupid; but those who take the trouble to go along with him will be rewarded by the discovery of an innocent charm spiced with a little innocent vanity. His sense of humour sometimes fails, but he has the social gift and we see him at his work of personal counselling, as it is called today. He is a shrewd judge of persons and things. He weaves something of his own everyday life and business into the prophetic and didactic tradition of the church, and in consequence it comes to life. |409 His simple moralizing narratives appealed to the church public of his day, and so no doubt did his earnest and kind and conscientious character. They provided pleasant and profitable Sunday reading for the churches for some centuries, and that is more than can be said for most pious literature. He was in touch with ordinary Christian life, as it was lived by the average church members. He gives a first-hand picture of the work of a prophet or teacher among all classes in the Roman church in the first quarter, or longer, of the first century.
It is the first piece of imaginative Christian literature in the European tradition. He is the harbinger of Dante and Milton.
<< | top | >>