The Shepherd of Hermas

From Academic Kids

The Shepherd of Hermas is a Christian work of the second century, of the category Catholics term "deuterocanonical" suggesting that though it was not part of the Biblical canon, yet it was recommended. The Shepherd had great authority in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, was cited as Scripture by Irenaeus and Tertullian and was bound with the New Testament in the Codex Sinaiticus, and was listed between the Acts of the Apostles and the Acts of Paul in the stichometrical list of the Codex Claromontanus. The book was originally written in Rome, in the Greek language, but a Latin translation was made very shortly afterwards; some say, 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.

Contents

Contents

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 the (married) narrator 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 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.

In spite of the grave subjects, the book is written in a very optimistic and hopeful tone, like most early Christian works.

Authorship and Date

The evidence for the place and date of this work are in the language and theology of the work. The reference to Pope Clement I would give the date 88 - 97 for at least the first two visions. Since Paul sent greetings to hermas, a Christian of Rome (Romans 16:14), a hopeful minority have followed Origen's opinion that he was the author of this religious romance; however, textual criticism and the nature of the theology, and the author's familiarity with Revelation and other Johannine texts, set the date of composition securely in the 2nd 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, 1891. The witnesses are:

  • The Muratorian fragment is a list written c. 170, that is the earliest 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, or among the Apostles, for it is after their time.'
  • The Liberian Catalogue of Popes, a record that was later used in the writing of the Liber Pontificalis, states in a portion which dates from 235: "Under his [Pius's] 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."
  • The poem of Pseudo-Tertullian against Marcion, of the 3rd or 4th century. "Then, after him, Pius, whose brother according to the flesh was Hermas, the angelic shepherd, because he spoke the words given to him."

These three 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. 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.

Sources

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.

The Place of The Shepherd in Christian literature

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." And 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". Two controversies divided the mid-century Roman Christian communities. One 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 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 but two in number; whereas in the West it became better known and was frequently copied in the Middle Ages.

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