Women in the Apostolic Fathers: Visionary Women in Hermas (Part I)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Women in the Apostolic Fathers.

Shepherd of HermasPerhaps no other piece of early Christian literature gives women such prominent and significant roles as does the Shepherd of Hermas.[1] Of course, the visionary character of Hermas allows commentators to conclude little about the meanings of the visions and even less about the lives of real Roman women. Nonetheless, an investigation of some women in Hermas reveals the revelatory authority that females could have for some early Christians.

Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 1.1.1-5[2]

Ὁ θρέψας με πέπρακέν με Ῥόδῃ τιν εἰς Ῥώμην· μετὰ πολλὰ ἔτη ταύτην ἀνεγνωρισάμην καὶ ἠρξάμην αὐτὴν ἀγαπᾶν ὡς ἀδελφήν. 2. μετὰ χρόνον τινὰ λουομένην εἰς τὸν ποταμὸν τὸν Τίβεριν εἶδον καὶ ἐπέδωκα αὐτῇ τὴν χεῖρα καὶ ἐξήγαγον αὐτὴν ἐκ τοῦ ποταμοῦ. ταύτης οὖν ἰδὼν τὸ κάλλος διελογιζόμην ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ μου λέγων· μακάριος ἤμην εἰ τοιαύτην γυναῖκα εἶχον καὶ τῷ κάλλει καὶ τῷ τρόπῳ. μόνον τοῦτο ἐβουλευσάμην, ἕτερον δὲ οὐδέν…. 4. προσευχομένου δέ μου ἠνοίγη ὁ οὐρανός, καὶ βλέπω τὴν γυναῖκα ἐκείνην ἣν ἐπεθύμησα ἀσπαζομένην με ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, λέγουσαν· Ἑρμᾶ, χαῖρε. 5. βλέψας δὲ εἰς αὐτὴν λέγω αὐτῇ· κυρία, τί σὺ ὧδε ποιεῖς; ἡ δὲ ἀπεκρίθη μοι· ἀνελήμφθην ἵνα σου τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἐλέγξω πρὸς τὸν κύριον. The one who raised me sold me to a certain woman named Rhoda, in Rome. After many years, I regained her acquaintance and began to love her as a sister. 2. When some time had passed, I saw her bathing in the Tiber river; and I gave her my hand to help her out of the river. When I observed her beauty I began reasoning in my heart, “I would be fortunate to have a wife of such beauty and character.” This is all I had in mind, nothing else…. 4. While I was praying the sky opened up and I saw the woman I had desired, addressing me from heaven: “Hermas, greetings!” I looked at her and said, “Lady, what are you doing here?” 5. She replied to me, “I have been taken up to accuse you of your sins before the Lord.”

Hermas opens with the author’s recollection of Rhoda, a former owner and enchantress. Carolyn Osiek suggests that Hermas’s loving her “as a sister” indicates affection rather than eroticism (likely as a fellow Christian), although the bathing scene suggests erotic imagery.[3] Sometime later, the earthly Rhoda was transformed into a heavenly messenger who appeared to Hermas in order to accuse him of sinfulness. While Hermas focused on his external actions, Rhoda emphasized the desires of the heart, encouraging Hermas’s contemplation and recognition of personal and communal sin.[4] Rhoda thus appeared to Hermas bringing a message of conviction, but most importantly, she also set the stage for his subsequent experiences with visionary women, forming the “bridge” between a woman revelator whom Hermas knew and the later revealers with whom he had no prior personal experience.


 

[1] Trevett, 111-6.

[2] Ehrman Apostolic Fathers II, 174-9.

[3] Osiek, Hermas, 42-3. Cx. 2 Sam. 11:2; Daniel 13:5-33 LXX. Consider also Juvenal, Satire VI, 419-25. Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 3.32-3. Osiek further notes that the “general assumption that Hermas’ desire for Rhoda is only sexual may not be complete: such a liaison would mean status elevation for a freedman. In view of the fact that the desire for wealth and status is to be the central focus for sin (see 1.8 below), it must also be implied here.” Osiek, Hermas, 42.

[4] Osiek, Hermas, 44.

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