The Shepherd of Hermas

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The Shepherd of Hermas (Greek: Ποιμὴν τοῦ Ἑρμᾶ, Poimēn tou Herma; Latin: Pastor Hermae), sometimes just called The Shepherd, is a Christian literary work of the late first half of the second century, considered a valuable book by many Christians, and considered canonical scripture by some of the early Church fathers such as Irenaeus.[1] The Shepherd was very popular amongst Christians in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries.[2] It is found in the Codex Sinaiticus,[3][4] and it is listed between the Acts of the Apostles and the Acts of Paul in the stichometrical list of the Codex Claromontanus.

The work comprises five visions, twelve mandates, and ten parables. It relies on allegory and pays special attention to the Church, calling the faithful to repent of the sins that have harmed it.

Language and translation[edit]

The book was originally written in Rome in the Greek language.[5] A first Latin translation, the Vulgata (Common language),[6] was made very shortly afterwards. A second Latin translation, the Palatina, was made at the beginning of the fifth century. Of the Greek version, the last fifth or so is missing. The Vulgate Latin translation is the earliest translation and the most complete witness.

The Shepherd was also translated at least twice into the Coptic (Egyptian) language and fragments of both Sahidic and Akhmimic translations survive. Three translations into Ge'ez (Ethiopic) were also made, but none survives complete. The sole surviving Georgian translation may have been made from Arabic, but no Arabic translation has been preserved. There does not appear to have been a Syriac translation and no Syriac author shows any awareness of the Shepherd.[7] It was always more popular in the Western Roman Empire and in Alexandria than in the east. There was a Middle Persian translation made for a Manichaean readership which survives in a single fragmentary manuscript found at Turfan.[8]


The Shepherd of Hermas, or the Good Shepherd, 3rd century, Catacombs of Rome.

The book consists of five visions granted to Hermas, a former slave. This is followed by 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 is on the road to Cumae, he has a vision of Rhoda. She tells him that she is now his accuser in heaven, on account of unchaste and impure thoughts the (now) married narrator once had regarding her. He is to repent and 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 her unfaithful children, who tells him to bear fruits of repentance and to correct the sins of his children. Subsequently, after his repentance he sees her made younger, yet still wrinkled and with white hair; then again, later she appears as quite young but still with white hair; and lastly, she shows herself as a glorious Bride.

This allegorical language continues through the other parts of the work. In the second vision she gives Hermas a book, which she later takes back in order to add to it. The fifth vision, which is represented as taking place 20 days after the fourth, introduces "the Angel (Messenger) 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 deserves special mention is the instruction of a Christian husband's obligation to forgive and take back an adulterous wife upon her repentance.[3] The eleventh mandate, on humility, is concerned with false prophets who desire to occupy the primary, or best 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 bishop of Rome).

After the mandates come ten similitudes (parabolai) in the form of visions, which are explained by the 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. In the third vision it looks as though only the holy are a part of the true 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 repentance.[3]

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 mentions a Son of God, as a virtuous man filled with a holy "pre-existent spirit" and adopted as the Son.[9] In the 2nd century, adoptionism (the view that Jesus Christ was, at least initially, only a mortal man) was one of two competing doctrines about Jesus' true nature, the other being that he pre-existed as the Word (Logos) or only-begotten Son of God and is to be identified as such from his conception; Christ's identity as the Logos (Jn 1:1), in which the Logos is further understood to be uncreated and coessentially divine with God (that is, the Father), was affirmed in 325 at the First Council of Nicaea.[10] Bogdan G. Bucur says the document was widely accepted among "orthodox" Christians, yet was not criticized for apparently exhibiting an adoptionistic Christology. He says that the passage in question should be understood as Jesus making his dwelling within those who submit to his spirit, so that the adoption that takes place is not of Jesus, but of his followers.[11]

Authorship and date[edit]

Textual criticism, the nature of the theology, and the author's apparent familiarity with the Book of Revelation and other Johannine texts are thought to set the date of composition in the 2nd century. However, several ancient witnesses support an early dating and there is internal evidence for the place and date of this work in the language and theology of the work. The reference to an unknown Clement is presumed by some to be Clement of Rome; if this is that Clement, it would suggest a date c. 90 for at least the historicised setting of the first two visions. Since Paul sent greetings to a Hermas, a Christian of Rome (Romans 16:14), a minority have followed Origen of Alexandria's opinion that he was the author of this religious allegory.[12]

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 AD, which corresponds to the date range offered by J. B. Lightfoot (Lightfoot 1891). These authorities may be citing the same source, perhaps Hegesippus,[13] whose lost history of the early Church provided material for Eusebius of Caesarea. The witnesses are the Muratorian fragment, the Liberian Catalogue of Popes (a record that was later used in the writing of the Liber Pontificalis) and a poem written by "Pseudo-Tertullian" against Marcion in the 3rd or 4th century AD.

The Muratorian fragment is a list written c. 170 AD (although some scholars now question this date and prefer to assign the fragment to the 4th century[14]) that may be the earliest known canon of New Testament writings. It identifies Hermas, the author of The Shepherd, as the brother of Pius I, bishop of Rome:

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,[15] or among the Apostles, for it is after their time.

The Liberian Catalogue of Popes states in a portion under the heading of 235: "Under his [Pius'] episcopate, his brother Ermes wrote a book in which are contained the precepts which the angel delivered to him, coming to him in the guise of a Shepherd."

A poem written against Marcion from the 3rd or 4th century, by a writer adopting the name and persona of Tertullian — and sometimes therefore referred to as "Pseudo-Tertullian" — states "Then, after him, Pius, whose brother according to the flesh was Hermas, the angelic shepherd, because he spoke the words given to him." Note that Pseudo-Tertullian quotes some details from this list which are absent from the Liberian Catalogue, which may mean that he is independent of it.

Place in Christian literature[edit]

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 again, he says that the Epistle of Barnabas, which is Tertullian's name for the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews, is "more received among the Churches than the apocryphal epistle of the Shepherd".[16] 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 "some people despise it". Origen makes this same claim in his 'First Principles', 4.2-3. Origen was a student of Clement and cites 'the Shepherd' at least three separate times in 'First Principles'. Two controversies divided the mid-century Roman Christian communities. One was Montanism, the ecstatic inspired outpourings of continuing pentecostal revelations; the visions recorded in the Shepherd may have appeared to encourage Montanism.[citation needed] The other was Docetism, which taught that Christ had existed since the beginning and the corporeal reality of Jesus the man was merely an illusion.[17]

Cyprian makes no reference to this work, so it would seem to have been out of use in Africa during the early decades of the 3rd 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 but two in number; whereas in the West it became better known and was frequently copied in the Middle Ages.[citation needed]


The Greek text is edited by Gebhardt and Harnack (Leipzig, 1877), by Funk (Tübingen, 1901), and, with its English translation, by Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, edited by Harmon (London, 1893); the Codex Sinaiticus of Hermas was edited by Lake (Oxford, 1911). The English translation by William Wake (Archbishop of Canterbury 1716-1737) is given in W. Hone and J. Jones's Apocryphal New Testament (London, 1820). An English translation is also in volume ii of the American edition of Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Roberts and Donaldson (Buffalo, 1886). In general, consult:

  • Cruttwell, Literary History of Early Christianity, volume ii (London, 1893).
  • Krüger, History of Early Christian Literature (New York, 1897).
  • Harnack, Chronologie der altchristlichen Literatur, volume i (Leipzig, 1897).
  • Taylor, The Shepherd of Hermas (New York, 1901).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p230
  2. ^ "The Pastor of Hermas was one of the most popular books, if not the most popular book, in the Christian Church during the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries. It occupied a position analogous in some respects to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in modern times." (F. Crombie, translator of Schaff, op. cit.).
  3. ^ a b c Chapman, John. (1910). "Hermas." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 27 September 2017
  4. ^ Aland, Kurt; Barbara Aland (1995). The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 107. ISBN 978-0-8028-4098-1.
  5. ^ J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Macmillan & Co., 1891, p. 160; Reprint ISBN 0-8010-5514-8
  6. ^ Christian Tornau. (2014). Paolo Cecconi (ed.), The Shepherd of Hermas in Latin: Critical Edition of the Oldest Translation Vulgata. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter.
  7. ^ Jonathan E. Soyars, The Shepherd of Hermas and the Pauline Legacy (Brill, 2019), pp. 9–10.
  8. ^ Werner Sundermann (2012 [2003]), "Hermas, The Shepherd of", in Encyclopaedia Iranica, retrieved 14 March 2020. First printed in Vol. XII, Fasc. 3, pp. 232–234. Sundermann provides an English translation of the Persian text.
  9. ^ "The Holy Pre-existent Spirit. Which created the whole creation, God made to dwell in flesh that He desired. This flesh, therefore, in which the Holy Spirit dwelt, was subject unto the Spirit, walking honorably in holiness and purity, without in any way defiling the Spirit. When then it had lived honorably in chastity, and had labored with the Spirit, and had cooperated with it in everything, behaving itself boldly and bravely, He chose it as a partner with the Holy Spirit; for the career of this flesh pleased [the Lord], seeing that, as possessing the Holy Spirit, it was not defiled upon the earth. He therefore took the son as adviser and the glorious angels also, that this flesh too, having served the Spirit unblamably, might have some place of sojourn, and might not seem to have lost the reward for its service; for all flesh, which is found undefiled and unspotted, wherein the Holy Spirit dwelt, shall receive a reward."
  10. ^ "Jesus was either regarded as the man whom God hath chosen, in whom the Deity or the Spirit of God dwelt, and who, after being tested, was adopted by God and invested with dominion, (Adoptian Christology); or Jesus was regarded as a heavenly spiritual being (the highest after God) who took flesh, and again returned to heaven after the completion of his work on earth (pneumatic Christology)." Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma,
  11. ^ Bogdan G. Bucur, The Son of God and the Angelomorphic Holy Spirit: A Rereading of the Shepherd's Christology
  12. ^ Philip Schaff wrote hopefully, "It would not be a very bold conjecture, that Hermas and his brother were elderly grandchildren of the original Hermas, the friend of St. Paul. The Shepherd, then, might be based upon personal recollections, and upon the traditions of a family which the spirit of prophecy had reproved, and who were monuments of its power." (Schaff, Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria, introduction to "the Pastor of Hermas").
  13. ^ A suggestion made by Bunsen, Hippolyrus and His Age, vol. I, p 315.
  14. ^ G. M. Hahneman. (2002). The Mutatorian Fragment and the Origins of the New Testament Canon in "The Canon Debate" (ed. L. M. McDonald and J. A. Sanders), pp. 405–415. Massachusetts: Hendrickson
  15. ^ This is a specific refutation of the continuing revelations (charismata) expressed by the Montanists.
  16. ^ De pudicitia, 10 and 20
  17. ^ Gonzalez, Justo (2005). Essential Theologial Terms. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 46–47. ISBN 0-664-22810-0. Docetism is the claim that Jesus did not have a physical human body, but only the appearance of such.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Hermas". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

Further reading[edit]

  • Carolyn Osiek, "Wealth and Poverty in the Shepherd of Hermas," Studia Patristica, Vol 17, Pt 2, 1982, 725–730.
  • Carolyn Osiek, "The Genre and Function of the Shepherd of Hermas," Semeia, 36, 1986, 113–121.
  • U. Neymeyr, Die christliche Lehrer im zweiten Jahrhundert. Ihre Lehrtätigkeit, ihr Selbsverständnis und ihre Geschichte (Leiden, 1989) (Vigiliae Christianae. Supplements, 4), 9–15.
  • Carolyn Osiek, "The Second Century through the Eyes of Hermas: Continuity and Change," Biblical Theology Bulletin, 20, 1990, 116–122.
  • D. P. O'Brien, "The Cumaean Sibyl as the Revelation-bearer in the Shepherd of Hermas," Journal of Early Christian Studies, 5, 1997, № 4.
  • Carolyn Osiek, "The Shepherd of Hermas in Context," Acta Patristica et Byzantina, 8, 1997, 115–134.
  • Carolyn Osiek, "The Oral World of Early Christianity in Rome: The Case of Hermas.," in Karl P. Donfried and Peter Richardson (eds), Judaism and Christianity in First-Century Rome (Grand Rapids, 1998), 151–172.
  • Carolyn Osiek, Shepherd of Hermas: A Commentary (Minneapolis, 1999).
  • Jörg Rüpke, "Apokalyptische Salzberge: Zum sozialen Ort und zur literarischen Strategie des 'Hirten des Hermas'," Archiv für Religionsgeschichte, 1, 1999, 148–160.
  • Jörg Rüpke, "Der Hirte des Hermas: Plausibilisierungs- und Legitimierungs strategien im Übergang von Antike und Christentum," Zeitschrift für antikes Christentum, 7, 2003, 362–384.
  • Marco Frenschkowski, "Vision als Imagination. Beobachtungen zum differenzierten Wirklichkeitsanspruch fruehchristlicher Visionsliteratur," in Nicola Hoemke, Manuel Baumbach (hrsg), Fremde Wirklichkeiten: Literarische Phantastik und antike Literatur (Heidelberg, 2006) (Studien zur griechischen und lateinischen Poesie, 6), 339–366.
  • Joseph Verheyden, "The Shepherd of Hermas," in Paul Foster (ed), Writings of the Apostolic Fathers (London, 2007) (T & T Clark Biblical Studies).
  • Christian Tornau - Paolo Cecconi (Eds.), The Shepherd of Hermas in Latin. Critical Edition of the Oldest Translation Vulgata, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin/Boston 2014.

External links[edit]