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

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

Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 2.4.1-3[1]

Ἀπεκαλύφθη δέ μοι, ἀδελφοί, κοιμωμένῳ ὑπὸ νεανίσκου εὐειδεστάτου λέγοντός μοι· τὴν πρεσβυτέραν, παρ᾿ ἧς ἔλαβες τὸ βιβλίδιον, τίνα δοκεῖς εἶναι; ἐγώ φημι· τὴν Σίβυλλαν. πλανᾶσαι, φησίν, οὐκ ἔστιν. τίς οὖν ἐστιν; φημί. ἡ ἐκκλησία, φησίν. εἶπον αὐτῷ· διατί οὖν πρεσβυτέρα; ὅτι, φησίν, πάντων πρώτη ἐκτίσθη· διὰ τοῦτο πρεσβυτέρα, καὶ διὰ ταύτην ὁ κόσμος κατηρτίσθη. 2. μετέπειτα δὲ ὅρασιν εἶδον ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ μου. ἦλθεν ἡ πρεσβυτέρα καὶ ἠρώτησέν με εἰ ἤδη τὸ βιβλίον δέδωκα τοῖς πρεσβυτέροις. ἠρνησάμην δεδωκέναι. καλῶς, φησίν, πεποίηκας· ἔχω γὰρ ῥήματα προσθεῖναι. ὅταν οὖν ἀποτελέσω τὰ ῥήματα πάντα, διὰ σοῦ γνωρισθήσεται τοῖς ἐκλεκτοῖς πᾶσιν. 3. γράψεις οὖν δύο βιβλαρίδια καὶ πέμψεις ἓν Κλήμεντι καὶ ἓν Γραπτῇ. πέμψει οὖν Κλήμης εἰς τὰς ἔξω πόλεις, ἐκείνῳ γὰρ ἐπιτέτραπται. Γραπτὴ δὲ νουθετήσει τὰς χήρας καὶ τοὺς ὀρφανούς. σὺ δὲ ἀναγνώσῃ εἰς ταύτην τὴν πόλιν μετὰ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων τῶν προϊσταμένων τῆς ἐκκλησίας. While I was sleeping, brothers, I received a revelation from a very beautiful young man, who said to me: “The elderly woman from whom you received the little book—who do you think she is?” “The Sibyl,” I replied. “You are wrong,” he said; “it is not she.” “Who then is it?” I asked. “The church,” he said. I said to him, “Why then is she elderly?” “Because,” he said, “she was created first, before anything else. That is why she is elderly, and for her sake the world was created.” 2. And afterward I saw a vision in my house. The elderly woman came and asked if I had already given the book to the presbyters. I said that I had not. “You have done well,” she said. “For I have some words to add. Then, when I complete all the words, they will be made known through you to all those who are chosen. 3. 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. But Grapte will admonish the widows and orphans. And you will read yours in this city, with the presbyters who lead the church.”

Shepherd Early ChristianityFinally a young man (likely an angelic messenger) reveals to Hermas who the elderly woman was: the church, who appears elderly because she was created before the earth.[2] Hermas thus reveals that the Lady Church—simultaneously ancient and rejuvenated—bears God’s messages to the world. The process for this revelation seems to be God’s inspiration of the Church, whose prophets and visionaries record messages which are then given to qualified men (Clement) and women (Grapte) for dispersal among the cities and churches of the world. Grapte stands as an otherwise unknown figure, who is tasked with delivering Hermas’s message to orphans and widows, suggesting that she held a teaching role of some sort.[3] If she does indeed hold an office (perhaps that of deaconess) this reference stands as one of the earliest to a woman holding a church office.[4] It would seem that the “manly” role of instruction was not only reserved for men, but that Hermas felt it appropriate to task a real woman with teaching at least certain portions of the Christian community.

The conception of women revealed in these portions of the Shepherd of Hermas suggests a careful negotiation of complex social and theological factors. Hermas’s experience with Rhoda and her correction of his sin prepared him for later visionary experiences, only the first portion of which have been touched upon here. Hermas’s interactions with the elderly woman clearly cast her as revealer of God’s divine messages, and her identification as the Church only further reinforces the authority of her revelations. For Hermas, visionary women were fully capable of speaking truth on behalf of God. Not only this, but his identification of the Church as an elderly woman suggests that, in some sense, all Christians were to hear and obey the corrections, admonition, and instruction of a “woman.” As for Grapte, Hermas indicates that she could, and was actually expected to, teach the widows and orphans, thereby fulfilling a teaching office of the church. While it seems doubtful that this office would have been extended to the instruction of males, Hermas nonetheless reveals a relatively high conception of women and female figures as, at least in the proper contexts, those who may speak for God and instruct others.


 

[1] Ehrman Apostolic Fathers II, 190-3.

[2] Osiek, Hermas, 58. Snyder, 38-9.

[3] Trevett, 155-7. Trevett suggests that Grapte, like Clement, was a true person of first or second century Rome.

[4] Madigan and Osiek, 26. Batovici, 305-7. Synder, 40.

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