The Shepherd of Hermas was a very popular Christian writing of the second century C.E., considered to be canonical by some of the early Church Fathers. Cited as Scripture by Irenaeus (second century C.E.) and Tertullian (ca. 155–230 C.E.), the text was bound with the New Testament in the Codex Sinaiticus. Additionally, the work was listed between the Acts of the Apostles and the Acts of Paul in the stichometrical list of the Codex Claromontanus. The text had great authority in the second and thirrd centuries C.E. and was seen as a valuable resource for the instruction of new catechumens.
The book was originally written in Rome, in the Greek language, but a Latin translation was made very shortly afterwards. Some say this was done by the original author as a sign of the authenticity of the translation, though others dispute this. Only the Latin version has been preserved in full; of the Greek, the last fifth or so is missing. Eventually, the text fell out of favor among the Christain bishops and it was excluded from the finalized list of canonical scriptures found in the New Testament.
The book consists of five visions, twelve mandates (commandments), and ten similitudes (parables) that were granted to Hermas, a former slave. The text makes use of allegorical language to present its religious themes and teachings.
The work begins abruptly in the first person:
The text explains that following the death of Rhoda, Hermas had a vision of her in which she told him that she was his accuser in heaven, on account of an unchaste thought the married Hermas had once had concerning her. He was told to pray for forgiveness for himself and his entire house. Distressed by this vision, he is consoled by another vision of the Church in the form of an aged woman, weak and helpless from the sins of the faithful, who tells him to do penance and to correct the sins of his children. Subsequently, he sees the old lady made younger through penance, yet still wrinkled and with white hair. Then again, he sees her as quite young but still with white hair; and finally, he sees her as a glorious Bride. This allegorical language continues in other parts of the work.
In a second vision, Hermas is given a book, which is subsequently taken back in order to add to it.
His third vision describes the building of a tower, symbolizing the Church, which is made out of stones of the faithful.
The last visions introduce "the Angel of repentance" in the guise of a shepherd, from whom the whole work takes its name.
Following these visions, the angel delivers to Hermas a series of precepts (Greek: mandata, entolai), which form an interesting development in early Christian ethics. One precept deserving special mention is the husband's obligation to take back an adulterous wife on her repentance. Another mandate, on humility, is concerned with false prophets who desire to occupy the first seats (that is to say, among the presbyters).
After the mandates come ten similitudes (parabolai) in the form of visions, which are explained by an angel. The longest of these (Similitude 9) is an elaboration of the parable of the building of a tower, which had formed the matter of the third vision. The tower is the Church, and the stones of which it is built are the faithful. However, in the third vision it looked as though only the holy are a part of the Church; in Similitude 9 it is clearly pointed out that all the baptized are included, though they may be cast out for grave sins, and can be readmitted only after penance.
In spite of the grave subjects, the book is written in a very optimistic and hopeful tone, like most early Christian works.
In parable 5, the author expresses an adoptionist view of Jesus Christ, as a virtuous man filled with the Holy Spirit and adopted as the Son. In the second century, adoptionism was one of two competing doctrines about the nature of Jesus Christ, the other being that he pre-existed as a divine spirit (Logos).
The evidence for the place and date of this work are found in its language and theology. The reference to Pope Clement I suggests a date between 88 and 97 for at least the first two visions. Since Paul sent greetings to a Hermas, a Christian of Rome (Romans 16:14), a minority have followed Origen's opinion that he was the author of this religious allegory. However, textual criticism, the nature of the theology, and the author's apparent familiarity with Revelation and other Johannine texts, set the date of composition securely in the second century.
Three ancient witnesses, one of whom claims to be contemporary, declare that Hermas was the brother of Pope Pius I, whose pontificate was not earlier than 140-155, which corresponds to the date range offered by J.B. Lightfoot (Lightfoot 1891). The witnesses are the following:
These authorities may be citing the same source, perhaps Hegesippus, whose lost history of the early Church provided material for Eusebius of Caesarea. As Pseudo-Tertullian quotes some details from this list which are absent from the Liberian Catalogue, it would seem that he is independent of Pseudo-Tertullian. The statement that Hermas wrote during his brother's pontificate may similarly be an inference from the fact that it was in a list of popes that the writer found the information that Hermas was that pope's brother. In order to attribute the earliest possible date for The Shepherd, it has been speculated that he may have been an elder brother of the pope, and that the Pius was probably an old man in 140. Hence it is possible that Hermas might have been past thirty when Clement died, at the time of his first and second visions.
The Shepherd makes many indirect citations to the Old Testament. Hermas never cites the Septuagint, but he uses a translation of Daniel akin to the one made by Theodotion. He shows acquaintance with one or another of the Synoptic Gospels, and, since he also uses the Gospel of John, he probably knew all three. He appears to employ Ephesians and other Epistles, including perhaps 1 Peter and Hebrews. However, the books he most often uses are the Epistle of James and the Book of Revelation.
Remarks of Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria give a sense of resistance to the Shepherd among its hearers, and of a sense of controversy about it. Tertullian implies that Pope Callixtus I had quoted it as an authority (though evidently not as one of the books of the Bible), for he replies: "I would admit your argument, if the writing of the Shepherd had deserved to be included in the Divine Instrument, and if it were not judged by every council of the Churches, even of your own Churches, among the apocryphal and false." Again, he says that the Epistle of Barnabas is "more received among the Churches than that apocryphal Shepherd" (De pudicitia, 10 and 20). Though Clement of Alexandria constantly quotes with reverence a work that seems to him to be very useful, and inspired; yet he repeatedly apologizes, when he has occasion to quote it, on the ground that "many people despise it." His comments may be an allusion to the controversies that divided the mid-century Roman Christian communities: One of these was Montanism, the ecstatic inspired outpourings of continuing pentecostal revelations, such as the visions recorded in the Shepherd may have appeared to encourage. The other was Docetism that taught that the Christ had existed since the beginning and the corporeal reality of Jesus the man was simply an apparition.
Cyprian makes no reference to this work, so it would seem to have gone out of use in Africa during the early decades of the third century. Somewhat later it is quoted by the author of the pseudo-Cyprianic tract Adversus aleatores as "Scriptura divina," but in Jerome's day it was "almost unknown to the Latins." Curiously, it went out of fashion in the East, so that the Greek manuscripts of it are only two in number; whereas in the West it became better known and was frequently copied in the Middle Ages.
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