Book: Re-Reading the Visions in The Shepherd of Hermas
Chapter: The Popularity of the Shepherd of Hermas
Chapter One presents the manuscript evidence for the Shepherd and shows that it was a compelling work for ancient readers, especially for the elite literary culture at Oxyrhynchus in the third and fourth centuries. This narrative of a man with a slavish past was a very successful literary work, an achievement that can be measured by the fact that it was produced with a frequency that rivaled or exceeded that of the Gospels. The ancient evidence indicates that the Shepherd was identified by ancient authors as an important catechetical work, but this alone does not account for its widespread popularity. We know that the Shepherd was extremely popular in regions where there was a strong elite literary culture, particularly in third- and fourth-century Oxyrhynchus in Egypt.
This chapter begins by asking generally what the elite literary culture of third- and fourth-century Oxyrhynchus found appealing about the visionary experiences of a former slave. We review all of the early manuscript evidence that has survived for the Shepherd, with special attention to the oldest manuscript that preserves the sequence of the Book of Visions and Mandates together in a bookroll format. This is the papyrus manuscript known as P.Oxy 69.4706, which is dated to the third century. This chapter argues that the physical experience of reading the Shepherd in a bookroll instead of in a codex introduces a new set of questions that scholars of this ancient work have not previously considered. The bookroll apparatus constrains the reader’s reading by ensuring that he or she moves through the Visions in a linear way. The format also prevents random access of the later parts of the Mandates and Similitudes, ensuring that the reader moves to those portions of the Shepherd only when he or she is ready to do so.