Professor Judith Lieu

23rd November    

“Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker” (Acts 14.12)

Nearly every one of you could not manage without Hermes. You use Hermes to connect with each other, to submit your essays or your excuses to your supervisor, to find out or tell others about the event they cannot afford to miss. Trust Cambridge to choose for its email system not some neologism like google nor a fashionable appeal like ‘hot’, but the name of a Greek God, and not just any Greek God but the God responsible for communication, for messages from the gods, or in modern jargon from cyberspace.

Hermes was the outcome of one of Zeus’s typical nightime sexual forays; his mother was the mountain nymph Maia, so he could hardly help but be the go-between between the worlds of the gods and of humans. But perhaps that is also why he is such a two-sided character, as well as being the ultimate multi-tasker. He did not limit his responsibilities to the divine postal service; under his care came travel but also trade. And being unprejudiced, he was equally concerned for the dishonest merchant as he was for the honest one. Indeed he himself excelled in trickery and in theft; while not yet out of nappies – if gods wear nappies which I doubt – he stole the cattle of the god Apollo, herding them backwards and across the sands to confuse pursuers. But such resourcefulness also had its positive side; he also stood for invention and inventiveness. You can thank Hermes for the guitar, or its prototype the lyre, and for competitive athletics, or at least for boxing.


So messenger of the gods, icon of invention, patron of trade and commerce, quick thinking and not above a little chicanery, even a fraudster: you can see why I have called Hermes the internet God. In our world the internet would be his metier; guaranteeing next day delivery of goods ordered from Amazon or Olympia, even if you could never be quite sure whether what you were getting really was the genuine article; oiling the wheels of money exchange and transfer, while perhaps smiling with approval on those who manipulated the foreign exchanges or the libor rate to their own gain. Perhaps not above sending one of those messages from a mysterious source offering miraculous promises of untold wealth, if only you disclose your bank details. Exploiting the creative potential of the internet, for developing, for testing and for selling the latest must-have device. But perhaps at the same time hacking into webcams or infiltrating email accounts in order to exercise the sort of hidden but all-seeing surveillance that is surely the right of the unaccountable gods, whoever and wherever they might be.


When Zeus heard of Hermes’ cattle-rustling he laughed even while he also restored the herd to Apollo. The gods of the Greeks were never meant to be ethical examples to follow. You do not expect Hermes to be morally accountable any more than you can expect the internet to be morally accountable – although that still seems to come as a shock to some people. That is why it is folly to worship both the one and the other, just as it is folly to fear or try to appease one or the other, by whatever sorts of worship and sacrifices. Inventiveness, trade and exchange, communication however carried out, can be forces for good just as they can be forces for destruction; just don’t blame the messenger. That is the point of Paul’s response: he points the people to a God who alone has the ultimate right and the ultimate power to survey everything; a God who is the ultimate creator; a God who is defined by a generosity that is indiscriminate, that is predictable and reliable; a God who provides by direct gift the true goods, or gains, food to eat and joy for the heart. A God who gives without needing to be cajoled by sacrifice or won over by adulation. But when he proclaimed God as creator of all things for all people, a God who had not left herself without witnesses, he was also pointing the way to future Christian commitment to investigating the natural world, to refusing to assign disease or healing to the inexplicable mysteries or unpredictable caprices of the gods.


Hermes would have adapted to the internet because he proved himself adaptable to changing times. By the time that Acts was written the educated elite had already decided that if there was truth in the stories of the gods, as there surely was, - one could no more expel Homer than we could Shakespeare even if some of his history is shakey – clearly that truth did not lie on the surface alone. The tales of the gods demanded interpretation to meet the modern age. Here Hermes came into his own. Any of you who are engaged in interpreting texts are engaged in the art of hermeneutics, and people have long seen a fortuitous link between the Greek verb to interpret, hermeneuo, and Hermes; Hermes is the arch-interpreter – for is not interpretation involved in all communication, whether or not from the gods? Little wonder then that Hermes himself was interpreted as the word when it is expressed, as reason as it is articulated; the very antithesis of the mumbo-jumbo of fable and knee-jerk ritual. When the people of Lystra identified Paul as Hermes because he was the chief spokesman, the author of Acts, quite deliberately I think, used the phrase, ‘the guide of the word’, ‘the leader of the word’, of the logos, very much the designation that the philosophers gave to Hermes. So, would Paul or Hermes best demonstrate a belief in God that could be celebrated by the word, spoken, preached, argued and heard, written, that could be translated and interpreted, re-translated and re-interpreted? A longer sermon would trace how Hermes has continued to fascinate and to invite followers, after the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire, during the Renaissance, during the Victorian period. Perhaps in the age of the internet, when some again see Christianity as caught in ways of thought and belief that belong to the past, Hermes still has a challenge of offer – the challenge of being interpreters, faithful interpreters of the Gospel, for today and tomorrow.