ECA: Shepherd of Hermas

This post is part of our ongoing series examining Early Christian Authority.

Shepherd of HermasEven after nearly 2000 years, the Shepherd of Hermas remains an intriguing set of apocalyptic writings from the early Church. The central concern of Hermas revolves around post-baptismal sin: What can Christians do if they have fallen into sin after their baptism? In answering this question, Hermas writes down five visions, twelve commandments, and ten parables, many of which he recounts in terms of divine visions and conversations with an angelic figure called the Shepherd (hence the title of the book). The Shepherd remains the longest extant text of early Christianity, much longer than a number of New Testament books, and was included in many early canonical lists and codices, including Codex Sinaiticus and some contemporaries of Eusebius and Athanasius. Ultimately, the Shepherd was rejected as canonical, due at least in part to its not being written by an apostle (as argued in the Muratorian Canon). Hermas may have been the brother of Pius, Bishop of Rome from around 140 to 154, and Origen argues that he was the Hermas mentioned in Romans 16.14. Additionally, Hermas mentions someone named Clement in V8.2, which may be a reference to Clement of Rome. Most scholars agree that the Shepherd was likely written between 110-140 CE, perhaps over a period of time. Such as early date fits the writings widespread use in both East and West, as well as the claims to usefulness by the Church Fathers despite its ultimate non-canonical status.

Shepherd stands out among the writings of the early Church that we have reviewed so far due to its lack of scriptural references and citations. Only seven possible citations and allusions to written materials are made in this extensive apocalypse. Of these, the one possible Old Testament reference, possible Old or New Testament material reference, and the four possible uses of now New Testament material are all allusions with non-formulaic uses. These possible uses of material are insignificant enough for Bart Ehrman to not cite them in his translation of the Shepherd. The one clear citation of material as scriptural comes from the lost work Eldad and Modat, likely a pseudopigryphal manuscript claiming authorship by two prophets mentioned in Numbers 11.26. While Hermas references concepts and concerns of the early Church such as use of authoritative writings (V1.3.3; V2.2.1; V2.1.3; V2.4.2), the Church (V2.4.1), penitence and repentance (C4.2.2; P8.6.2; P8.11.3), Baptism (C4.3.1-2), and the centrality of the Son of God in salvation (P9.12.2-4), no appeal to ecclesiastical or written authority is made by Hermas. Instead, the implicit authority of the Shepherd appears to derive from Hermas’ experience of revelatory visions and conversations with the angelic Shepherd. Hermas claims no authoritative status in the beginning of this writing, and relies so little on written authority or ecclesiastical tradition, that it seems necessary to read this apocalypse as claiming its apparent revelatory status as its sole basis of authority. It remains uncertain to what extent this writing made claims of authority, though its widespread popularity and use in the early Church seems to indicate at least the implicit authority granted to the Shepherd by early Christians.

ShepherdTentatively, it seems that Hermas had knowledge of early Christian tradition and teaching on a number of issues, including at least the use of previously written materials, basic ecclesiastic structures, baptism, and the centrality of the Son of God. The written materials that Hermas had been exposed to likely included a written gospel, probably Mark, a selection of Psalms, and almost certainly the Epistle of James, as numerous allusions to James and parallels with language and images in James are throughout the Shepherd. However, Hermas’ primary source of authority for the Christian faith, at least in answering questions concerning post-baptismal sin, appears to have been his prophetic revelatory experiences.

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