The Shepherd of Hermas is probably the most curious book of the first two centuries of Christian history. It’s theology, purpose, and questionable Canonicity gives us an interesting glimpse into both theological development, and confusion, in the early Church.
Authorship. The author of the book is easy enough to identify–Hermas. The question is, however, whether the book is written by the Hermas in Rom 16:14.
There are enough details which appear to clue the reader into identifying this man as the author. For one, the book was obviously written in Italy and it makes note of the Apostles and prophets frequently (implying their present existence). Further, Clement and Grapte are messengers who deliver Hermas’ book. Those names not so coincidentally belong to a Bishop of Rome and a famous martyr who died before the writing of 1 Clement. Clearly, the sense the reader is supposed to have is that the book was written before the events of 1 Clement.
However, the book never explicitly says so and for good reason–it was probably written in the second century. Evidence of this is that we have some early witnesses that ascribe the book to Hermas, the brother of Pope Pius I. The Muratorian Fragment attests to this: “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.” If the Muratorian Fragment is accurate, we can date both the fragment itself and the Shepherd to the second century.
Some scholars believe the fragment is an example of ancient forgery, written in the fourth century. However, we have reasons to doubt this. First, the Shepherd was hardly cited by the Fathers in the fourth century indicating it went out of circulation. It is not likely that a Muratorian forger would have chosen the Shepherd to plant a false historical detail. Second, we likely have an early third century attestation to the same claim. The Liberian Catalog‘s early list of Pope’s is probably drawn from Hippolytus’ Chronica, and the catalog states that during “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.”
Purpose. So why would Pius’ brother imply that the book was almost Apostolic, but not explicitly state the fact? We can only venture to guess, but here’s one: Hermas did not want to sin by lying, because he confesses that he is guilty of this sin within the work itself. The work sets out to address how Christians can deal with post-baptismal sin–a pressing question generally left unanswered by Scripture.
Whenever Paul does address the question he answers in one of two ways.
1. Christians cannot sin as if it were a theoretical possibility (Rom 6:2, 11-12).
2. Christians should not sin just because (1 Cor 6:15, Eph 4:1, Col 3:1, 5).
We can see how such answers would have appeared unsatisfactory, especially in light of the fact that John and Paul in Hebrews write that a Christian cannot (continue in?) sin and go to heaven (see Heb 10:26, 1 John 1:6). They would appear to be of little practical value.
Imagine yourself in Hermas’ shoes. You are a “pretty good” Christian, but you still lust. You still lie. Paul appears to be wrong, because you are not dead to sin as you still commit sins. Worse yet, Heb 6:4-7 even says that those who fall away cannot be brought back to repentance. If Christians cannot sin, have you fallen away? If you cannot repent and return to God, are you damned?
Canonicity. It would appear that a new revelation was needed to clarify things. Hermas himself clearly thought this way as revealed by the Shepherd itself:
“I have heard, Sir,” say I, “from certain teachers, that there is no other repentance, save that which took place when we rent down into the water and obtained remission of our former sins.”
He saith to me; “Thou hast well heard; for so it is. For he that hath received remission of sins ought no longer to sin, but to dwell in purity” (31:1-2).
Luckily for Hermas, in the next sentence, the angel revealed to him a new opportunity for repentance. Essentially, penance exacted forgiveness for post-baptismal sins, though Hermas did not appear to think penance was anything other than a visible turning from sin. Hermas’ “revelation” helped tie up all the loose ends that the Apostles’ letters seemed to leave. Plus, just for good measure, the angel did not allow for repentance in cases of apostasy, something that would seem to specifically correspond with Heb 6:4-7.
Being that no one at the time believed that Hermas, his brother, or anyone else carried the authority of the Apostles, the question then was how was one to receive the revelation of an angel? Was it on par with the other Scriptures?
Obviously, this is what Hermas was hoping for and he probably had some support in Rome in this. The wide dissemination of the work and and its addition to Codex Sinaiticus add credibility to this idea. A few decades later Irenaeus seemingly endorses the work as Scripture by calling it such, though it is more likely that he was quoting a “Scripture” by memory and misremembered the Shepherd for something an Apostle wrote. After all, he specifically defines the New Testament as Apostolic writings, something that the Shepherd clearly was not.
So, how did the book have enough sway that writers such as Origen and Didymus the Blind quoted it as Scripture while others like Terullian claimed that it was “universally rejected” (On Purity, Chap 10)? The Shepherd likely was thought to occupy some sort of inspired middle ground. Clement of Alexandria wrote that “it is in a divine manner that the power which spoke to Hermas by revelation.” Simply put, it was considered prophetic, though maybe not quite up to par with real Scripture. Just as the Deuterocanon was thought to be perhaps inspired but not quite written by God through prophets, the Shepherd might have been a similar, post-Apostolic analogue in the minds of some.
Historical significance. We must remind ourselves of the time it was written. The Church had not yet devise a complete view of what the Canon was. Sure, they had a good idea of what the Apostles actually wrote. Irenaeus details this in AH 3.1-4. But, was the Canon closed? Could God still reveal new things?
Some Christians appeared to think so, such as the Montanists and the Gnostics. Both laid claim to having received new revelations and insights from the Divine. The former were not immediately cast out of the Church, probably because it was not yet settled whether or not their view lacked merit. Maybe the Church was still receiving revelation from God, they thought! The latter, though not part of the Church, obviously came out of the Church (such as Marcion, Valentinian, and Taitian) which does reflect the attitude of some of the Church’s members at this time.
When the issues of Gnosticism and Montanism were essentially dealt with by the mid third century, the stock of the Shepherd appears to have fallen precipitously. As said before, by the fourth century it no longer tended to be cited as Scripture. Instead, debate remained over its use. As Eusebius writes:
[The Shepherd] too has been disputed by some, and on their account cannot be placed among the acknowledged books; while by others it is considered quite indispensable, especially to those who need instruction in the elements of the faith. Hence, as we know, it has been publicly read in churches, and I have found that some of the most ancient writers used it.
In short, what the Shepherd taught about repentance became theologically important to the Church. The book answered the question about what we ought to do in light of the fact Christians still sin. However, by the fourth century, the system of penances was well established and justified on Scriptural grounds. “New” revelation from the Shepherd was not necessary as it was deemed (incorrectly) that the revolutionary repentance that the Shepherd posited actually preceded the time of its composition. After all, they reasoned, penances had always existed. Didn’t Jesus say that to those who give alms everything is clean (see Luke 11:41)?
Perhaps the most important thing about the Shepherd today is that it helped the early Church formulate the rules of what we recognize as Canon today (has to be written by God, quasi-inspired revelations won’t do) and it preserves for us a record in time where penance as we know it today did not exist.
Additional considerations. The Shepherd does more than present to us a historical document that proves that penance as a means of absolving sin is not Apostolic–it shows us that the Bishops which succeeded the Apostles got a lot of things very wrong very fast.
The Shepherd makes the obvious error of being Binitarian at best, and Unitarian at worst. It conflates the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ as a single being, an angelic being at that. The fact that a Roman Bishop’s brother wrote it and it was recognized as a plausible revelation shows that they did not have a firm understanding of the Trinity or Christology in general (which is inexcusable in light of what the Scripture clearly says and how earlier interpreters like Ignatius already wrote about the same topics).
Another possible error is that the book seems to teach that there is a purgatory (the idea is not explicitly stated). After all, a system of penances that absolve sin poses us with a question just as burning as that of what to do with post-baptismal sin: what happens with post-repentance sin that we have not finished repenting of? Well, it still needs to be punished, right? The Shepherd itself wavers on the question, in parts threatening exponential (post-death?) punishment and in others giving full assurance that the faithful will be forgiven strictly on the basis of their faith.
It would be perhaps too cruel to connect the dots and accuse the Shepherd as the work of a heretic and purposeful deceiver, something we may do with the earliest writers within the Christian-ascetic movement. We have no indication that Hermas left the church, or ever had to recant of his writing. However, what we could see in his writing is genuine confusion–confusion as to what to do with post-baptismal sin, as to what is Canon, and as to how Christ and the Holy Spirit are God yet at the the same time there is only one God. The Shepherd records for us a perhaps well-meaning attempt at channeling the divine in getting a more thorough answer for such pressing questions.
However, when we look beyond the words of God Himself for an answer, there is no guarantee which divine entity is going to be answering your call for help. Perhaps the most important lesson the Shepherd can teach us is this.