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The Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd of Hermas is a Christian work of the first or second century which had great authority in ancient times and was considered by some as one of the books of the Bible. Since Paul sent greetings to a Christian of Rome with this name (Romans 16:14), some have speculated that he was the author of this religious romance; however, research since the 18th century has cast doubt on this identification.

Table of contents
1 Contents
2 Authorship and Date
3 The Place of The Shepherd in Christian Literature
4 External Link


The book consists of five visions, twelve mandates or commandments, and ten similitudes, or parables. It commences abruptly in the first person: "He who brought me up sold me to a certain Rhoda, who was at Rome. After many years I met her again, and began to love her as a sister." As Hermas was on the road to Cumae, he had a vision of Rhoda, who was presumably dead. She told him that she was his accuser in heaven, on account of an unchaste thought he had once had concerning her, though only in passing; he was to pray for forgiveness for himself and all his house. He is consoled by a 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 her made younger through penance, yet wrinkled and with white hair; then again, as quite young but still with white hair; and lastly, she shows herself as glorious as a Bride.

This allegorical language continues through the other parts of the work. In the second vision she gives Hermas a book, which she afterwards takes back in order to add to it. The fifth vision, which is represented as taking place twenty days after the fourth, introduces "the Angel of repentance" in the guise of a shepherd, from whom the whole work takes its name. He delivers to Hermas a series of precepts (mandata, entolai), which form an interesting development of early Christian ethics. One point, which needs special mention, is the assertion of a husband's obligation to take back an adulterous wife on her repentance. The eleventh mandate, on humility, is concerned with false prophets who desire to occupy the first seats (that is to say, among the presbyters). Some have seen here a reference to Marcion, who came to Rome c.140 and desired to be admitted among the priests (or possibly even to become pope).

After the mandates come ten similitudes (parabolai) in the form of visions, which are explained by the angel. The longest of these (Sim. 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. But in in the third vision it looked as though only the holy are a part of the Church; in Sim. 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.

Authorship and Date

The evidence for the place and date of this work are contradcitory. The reference to Pope Clement I would give the date 88 - 97 for at least the first two visions. On the other hand, if the writer is identified with the Hermas mentioned by Paul, an earlier date becomes probable, unless he wrote as a very old man. But three ancient witnesses, one of whom claims to be contemporary, declare that he was the brother of Pope Pius I, who was not earlier than 140 - 155.

'But Hermas wrote The Shepherd very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, while bishop Pius, his brother, was occupying the chair of the church of the city of Rome. And therefore it ought indeed to be read; but it cannot be read publicly to the people in church either among the Prophets, whose number is complete, or among the Apostles, for it is after their time.'

These three authorities may be citing the same source, perhaps Hegesippus. 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. He may have been an elder brother of the pope, who 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 Place of The Shepherd in Christian Literature

The Shepherd makes many indirect citations from the Old Testament. According to Henry Barclay Swete, 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. But the books he most certainly and most often uses are the Epistle of James and the Book of Revelation. His matter may be dull to us moderns, and the simplicity of his manner has been characterized as childish. But the admiration of Origen was not given to a work without depth or value; and, even with regard to the style, Westcott observes (On the Canon, pt. I, ch. ii): "The beauty of the language and conception in many parts has never been sufficiently appreciated. Much of it may be compared with the Pilgrim's Progress and higher praise than this cannot be given to a book of its kind."

Irenaeus and Tertullian are the earliest writers to cite from The Shepherd. 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." And again, he says that the Epistle of Barnabas is "more received among the Churches than that apocryphal Shepherd" (De pudic., 10 and 20). Clement of Alexandria constantly quotes it with reverence, as does Origen, who held that the author was the Hermas mentioned by Paul. He says the work 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". 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 Adv. aleatores as "Scriptura divina", but in Jerome's day it was "almost unknown to the Latins".

Eusebius tells us that it was publicly read in the churches, and that while some denied it to be canonical, others "considered it most necessary". Athanasius speaks of it, together with the Didache, in connection with the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament, as uncanonical yet recommended by the ancients for the reading of catechumens; elsewhere he calls it a most profitable book. Curiously, it went out of fashion in the East, so that the Greek manuscripts of it are but two in number; whereas in the West it became better known and was frequently copied in the Middle Ages.

External Link

The Shepherd of Hermas