Scripture and The Shepherd of Hermas. Have we got our Bibles wrong?

The Shepherd of Hermas is a fascinating early Christian text, and one of the oldest surviving non-canonical works.

The work itself comprises of a series of visions experienced by a Roman Christian named Hermas, written in the mid-second century. Hermas also provides his own interpretation of the visions. Though we know little about Hermas himself it is likely that he was a contemporary of Clement of Rome (the author of 1 Clement, and to whom 2 Clement is attributed). The Muratorian Canon (c.170 AD) suggests he was the brother of Pius, a Roman church leader who died in 154 AD.

Content and Themes

Hermas’ text presents a series of visions and their explanations, and deals with questions of holiness, asking questions such as: is forgiveness available to those who sin after their baptism? Continually, in addressing this and other issues, Hermas reinforces the mercy of God. God is shown throughout to call Christians to a life of holiness, but to deal with their failings with incredible mercy.

The Shepherd also considers the theme of rich and poor believers. It is likely that Hermas himself was from a freedman background, either as a freedman himself or descended from one. This does not automatically mean he was poor (as some freedmen were able to amass immense wealth and significant influence in the Roman world), but it would have given him a broader experience of Roman society. His considerations of holiness and pious belief feature heavily in this second theme as well.

Rightly non-canonical?

The text was very popular in ancient times, and many Early Church Fathers cited the work and commented on it. To name but a few, Irenaeus, Clement and Origen all quoted or paraphrased the work. Indeed, records suggest that many early Christians saw The Shepherd of Hermas as a part of their New Testament corpus. So why isn’t it today? Have we made a mistake? The text does not contain any truly unorthodox teaching, and though it is apocalyptic in nature, that hardly disqualifies a text from inclusion in canon – just look at Revelation. So why isn’t The Shepherd included in our Bibles today? Below I set out some of the reasons for this exclusion.

1. The Church Fathers considered it helpful but not authoritative.

The work was widely read in the Early Church, and extensively copied. As Larry Hurtado notes, we have at least 11 surviving copies of the work from the first century or so after its publication (Hurtado, 2006, 23). Indeed, the first copy of the Bible in a single volume, the fourth century Codex Sinaiticus, includes The Shepherd at the end of the volume. So it was clearly well respected in ancient times. Nonetheless, second century writers considered it valuable, but not authoritative. It was not recognised as having been written by an Apostle or one of their close contacts, and it was known to have been written after the Apostolic Age had concluded. In other words, the Early Church recognised that it was a helpful work, and clearly respected it, but did not recognise it as Scripture.

2. Early Canonical lists don’t include the work

The earliest surviving list of New Testament works does not include The Shepherd. The second century Muratorian Canon does mention the work by name, but makes its view on the work clear. (4) “The Shepherd, moreover, did Hermas write very recently in our times in the city of Rome…therefore it ought to be read, but it cannot be made public in the Church to the people, nor placed among the prophets…nor among the apostles.” This fragment from this early canon makes clear again the point seen above. The Shepherd was a helpful work, but a recent reflection on Scriptural truth, not Scripture itself.

Origin, in his own discussion of the canon in the third century in his commentary on Joshua (7.1, he continues his thoughts in his Expositions of John as well), made no mention of The Shepherd within his discussion, even though he explicitly mentioned several works that were considered disputed by churches in his own day. Clearly he saw the work as extra-biblical – it didn’t warrant a place in the discussion of canon.

Eusebius, in the fourth century, likewise considered the work spurious. He listed it alongside works such as The Didache and The Epistle of Barnabas as orthodox works, but outside of canon, and repeated the idea that they ought not to be read in formal Church meetings.

3. Questions around authorship challenged its place

Eusebius’ designation of the work as spurious reflected early questions around the authorship of the work. As mentioned above, little is known about Hermas and his role (if any) in the life of the church gathered in Rome. Though the work was considered helpful, the lack of confidence in its origin contributed to the lower view of the title.

4. The work was used to support early heretical teachings

As stated above, the work is largely orthodox and contains many helpful comments. Nonetheless, it was also used to support some early heretical views, including the heresy of ‘adoptionism’. This idea, that Jesus was adopted as God’s Son at either His baptism or resurrection, was a heresy that began to spread among some Early Christian groups. This ‘low Christology’ that the view espouses has given the work a reputation of a similar minded view – even if the work itself does not endorse this heretical teaching. This teaching was particularly popular with the Gnostic followers of Valentinus and Theodotus (second century), all of which contributed to the negative view of the work.

So how should we view the work?

The Shepherd was seen as a helpful text in ancient times. But just as writers such as Clement, Tertullian or Irenaeus did not purport to be writing Scripture, neither did the author of The Shepherd. All these works were seeking to help believers better understand Scripture, to better engage with who God is. Much like great works of theology or discipleship today, we enjoy and appreciate them, but don’t call for their inclusion in our Bibles!

We use and enjoy great hymns and spiritual songs, but don’t try to tack them on to the end of the Pslams. So it was with The Shepherd in the Early Church. The work was well respected from an early time, but it was always recognised as not being a part of New Testament canon, and there were few who seriously claimed that it ought to have been. The evidence illustrates that it simply doesn’t fit the criteria for being included in the canon. It fails to offer us concrete authorship, and makes no claims to have been written by an Apostle or one who knew the Apostles well. It offers us comment on Scripture, not Scripture itself.

A recent book well worth reading in this area of canon is Peter Williams’ Can We Trust the Gospels? Dealing specifically with the text of the Gospels, Pete explores whether we can treat these books as credible sources.

An online translation of the Shepherd is available here.

2 comments

  1. I’m currently reading through the Shepherd again. It’s a great devotional book, in my opinion. There are more copies of this out there than many of the other Early Fathers writings, which attests to how popular it was. Athanasius even recommended every new convert to read it! Reading through it devotionally, I can see why he did.

    But it will definitely challenges some of our more accepted protestant views on sin, repentance and righteousness.

    Have you read Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception” by Matthew Thomas yet?

    Like

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