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Shepherd of Hermas

HERMAS, SHEPHERD OF hur’ məs (̔Ερμα̂ς, G2254). A noncanonical apocalypse of the Early Church. The writing called The Shepherd is the longest of all the writings classified among the Apostolic Fathers. It is considerably longer than any book of the NT.


The author called himself Hermas. His style indicates either Jewish origin or acquaintance with Jewish lit. He was, or had been, a slave, and was not brought up by his parents. He was married. A revelation indicated that his wife was too careless in her speech. (Vision II. ii. 3). His children were apparently, at best, undisciplined. He had a country farm that he worked, but he was obviously not a man of great ability or talent.

Date and place of origin.

Hermas placed part of his life at least, at Rome, and some of his early visions occurred on the road to Cumae, an ancient Gr. town about twelve m. W of Naples. The work has, then, a central Italian background.

Hermas was instructed to write some of the words revealed to him in two little books and to give one to Clement and one to Grapte (Vision II, iv. 3). Clement was to send his book to the foreign cities, since that was his function. Presumably this Clement was the author of the first epistle of Clement, an officer of the chuch at Rome, considered by later writers from Irenaeus on, in the succession of Rom. bishops, though not in a modern sense of the term. Since Clement lived in Rome c. 88-97, it is probable that the early part of The Shepherd was written at some time during that period. On the other hand, the Muratorian Canon (c. a.d. 200) reads: “very recently, in our own times, in the city of Rome, Hermas wrote the Shepherd, when his brother Pius, the bishop, sat upon the chair of the city of Rome.” This gives an impression of being trustworthy. Pius was a bishop in the decade beginning with the year 140. These indications are not necessarily contradictory. The Shepherd may well have been written in parts over a considerable period of time, which seems more likely because of its content, style, and organization.


The Shepherd is almost exclusively concerned with Christian living. Its purpose was to set forth in detail the Christian virtues, to indicate how the Christian should live and what he should avoid. A particular problem, referred to more than once, is the problem of sins committed after baptism. Can they be forgiven? The generally held view of sin in the 2nd cent. was so far removed from that presented in Scripture that it was commonly believed that Christians did not, ideally, sin at all after baptism. However, it was obvious that some did. Could they be granted forgiveness, if they repented? Hermas reverted to this again and again. In general, his answer was that God was graciously granting an opportunity for repentance and forgiveness at the time at which Hermas was writing. But there would be no such opportunities in the future. This would be the last occasion upon which the grace of God might be expected in such an instance.

The Shepherd is divided into three sections of unequal length: five visions, twelve commands (mandates) and ten parables. References are to Visions, Mandates, and Similitudes. The first two are approximately of equal length, the third is much longer.

The visions concerned the church. The basic form in which the church appeared is that of a tower in process of construction. Explanations were given by an old lady who also personified the church. The first woman to appear in the visions was Rhoda, who was Hermas’ owner when he was a slave. Then came the old woman who personified the church. The tower, which is the church, was being built of stones, representing people. The officers—apostles, bishops, deacons, teachers—fitted easily. So did martyrs and the upright. Unbelievers and apostates were the stones that were cast away. There were seven women around the tower. They were daughters, one of the other, who represented the virtues faith, continence, simplicity, knowledge, innocence, reverence, and love. The old woman, the church, appeared first as old, then as middle aged, and finally, as young and beautiful as the faith of Hermas became stronger.

The fourth vision is devoted to the great beast of persecution. The world was to be destroyed by blood and fire. The fifth, which is called a revelation rather than a vision in the oldest MS, introduced the shepherd who was to give Hermas the commandments and parables. At the end of the vision he was called the angel of repentance.

The commandments were not organized according to any discernible plan or developing sequence. The unity of God was stressed in the first, the seventh exhorted concerning the fear of God; the fear of God, and warnings against grieving the Holy Spirit were mentioned in the tenth. The ethical principles of simplicity, reverence, and innocence were commended in the second, patience in the fifth, joy in the tenth. Christian conduct was discussed by the command in the third mandate to tell the truth, in the fourth, to reject adultery and fornication, and in the eighth, to be temperate in all living. Faith, an undivided heart, and the rejection of evil desire were commended in the sixth, ninth and twelfth commandments. The section came toward its close with the warning that if the commandments were not kept, salvation would be lost. On the other hand, resolution will make it easy to keep them.

The parables are not a brilliant collection. They are a group of exhortations containing similes and metaphors and an occasional full story parable. The city in heaven and the city on earth were compared. The rich man is like a prolific vine that needs the support of the poor man, the elm tree, to be most useful. Budding trees are the righteous, dry trees the wicked. There is an elaborate parable of the willow tree as the law of God, with the distribution of branches from it to Christians and their varied development. There is a shepherd of luxury, clothed in yellow, and a shepherd of punishment, clothed in a white goatskin. The most extensive parable is the ninth, concerning the twelve mountains in Arcadia. They differed in color, formation, and vegetation, and represented different types of persons from good bishops and hospitable men on the one hand, to apostates and blasphemers on the other. The figure of the tower, as the church, appeared again, being constructed in stages.


Hermas was not a theologian. His theological statements are confused. In the parable of the field, the master, the son, and the servant (Similitudes V), the field was the world and the servant was said to be the Son of God (V. 2. v. 2), leaving the Son unexplained. The Holy Spirit was said to dwell in flesh and the flesh was made the Spirit’s companion (V. vi. 6). Later, the Holy Spirit was the Son of God (IX. i. 1). Baptism was necessary for salvation. The apostles baptized those who had died before them that they might be saved (IX. xvi. 5).


The tone of The Shepherd was that of ascetic living in general, though not to the strictest degree. The twelve maidens in Arcadia were faith, temperance, power, longsuffering, simplicity, guilelessness, holiness, joy, truth, understanding, concord, and love (Similitudes IX. xv. 2). A second marriage after the death of a partner was permissible but is not as virtuous as remaining unmarried (Mandates IV. iv). Works beyond the commandments of God were possible and made one “more honorable with God” than one was “destined to be” (Similitudes V. iii. 3).


The Shepherd was written in Gr., but there is no complete Gr. text available. The Aleph of the NT contains the text as far as Mandate IV. iii. 6. A 15th cent. MS from Mt. Athos contains most of the rest, and other incomplete texts on papyrus or parchment exist. There are two Lat. and one Ethiopic VSS, and fragments in Coptic and Persian.

The Shepherd was considered an inspired book by Irenaeus, Origen, and by Tertullian in his earlier years.


J. A. Robinson, Barnabas, Hermas and the Didache (1920); M. Dibelius, Der Hirt des Hermas Handbuch zum neuen Testament, Ergänzungs-Band, Die apostolischen Väter, IV? (1923); W. J. Wilson, “The Career of the Prophet Hermas” in HTR, XX (1927), 21-62; Die apostolischen Väter (Griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller), I—M. Whittaker, Der Hirt des Hermas (1956); R. M. Grant, The Apostolic Fathers, I (1964). See also Apostolic Fathers, esp. for texts and translations.

See also

  • Hermas