Thoughts on the Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd, as it has come to be called, was the first great Christian allegorical book among which many later texts would follow, like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Like The Apocalypse of John or the letter of Paul, The Shepherd is written in the first-person, as a reflection or a vision. It was likely written in the first or second century, and was considered canonical among Christian literature by early theologians, like Irenaeus, and it was included on several early codex lists of authoritative Christian texts. The Shepherd was originally written in Greek. It was not found among the texts of the Nag Hammadi Library. I recently read the J.B. Lightfoot 1891 translation.

The narrative is recounted by Hermas, a former Roman slave who describes falling in love with a woman bathing in the Tiber River and while on the road to Cumae one day (a city in Southern Italy) he falls asleep and is taken by a “Spirit” to a land impassable by human beings. While confessing his sins, the Lady appears to him. She had been taken up to heaven to judge Hermas’s sins, even those he had in his heart (lust). Then an older woman appears on a chair and reminds Hermas that God forgives all. Then four men take away the chair followed by two men who carry her East. This woman is revealed in the third vision to be the Church.

In the second vision, Hermas is again visited by the Spirit and the old lady in a vision while en route to Cumae. A great book appears to Hermas and he tries to copy it word for word, but then it is snatched away from him and he fasts for fifteen days and then its teaching is revealed to him – Hermas’s seed has sinned. Hermas is commanded to write two books: one to Clement and one to Grapte. One theory suggests Clement was actually the author of the text. One of the early lists of the Christian canon, the Muratorian canon (around 180 AD) suggests Hermas was a brother of Pius I.

The text continues in this way. It is composed of five visions, twelve commandments, and then ten parables. The text gets its title from the fifth vision in which Hermas meets the “Angel of Repentance” in the form of a Shepherd, who then takes Hermas through the commandments and parables.

One of the chief themes in the text is of forgiveness: that people can be forgiven at least once per day for sins. The contents of the text attempt to harmonize Mosaic Law with the new Christian ethos. Early Church founders like Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian accepted the text as canon, but others like Jerome expressed minimal familiarity with the Shepherd of Hermas. Its popularity lasted to a much greater degree with the Eastern Church.

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