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The Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd of Hermas


In early Christianity, churches were largely isolated from one another, each one based in its own city. By the final quarter of the first century CE, a handful of Paul’s letters were in circulation (along with a few forgeries), and the first (known) Gospels were being written. It could take days, weeks, or even months for the churches to correspond with each other through letters, and it could take longer for entire books to be copied and shared with the next church.

This church in Syria might have some of Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Mark, while that church in Greece might have some of Paul’s other letters, the Gospel of Luke, and the letter of James. Because there was no formal, agreed-upon New Testament — and wouldn’t be for another few centuries — different communities had different collections of texts they considered ‘authoritative’. Several of them used books that, as time went on and churches communicated more frequently, are no longer recognized as ‘divinely inspired’.

One such book is titled the Shepherd of Hermas.

A Christian apocalypse, the Shepherd of Hermas, emerged from the same period [the decades around 100 C.E.] and rivaled Revelation for both popularity and acceptance well into the fourth century.1

This book is difficult for the average student of the Bible. Few Christians care to spend time on the Revelation of John because of its arcane symbols; less so on a book they don’t even consider ‘canonical’. Hermas is about three times longer than the Revelation, most of its message are buried beneath many layers of symbolism, and it can be a bit dry.

Here I will provide a summary of the Shepherd of Hermas’ contents, as well as some of its more unusual features.

The Shepherd of Hermas belongs to the apocalyptic genre, which developed in the middle of Second Temple Judaism. Apocalypses typically fell into one of two categories: cosmological, where the author intended to reveal the nature of the world, and eschatological, revelations about the end of the world. The biblical books of Daniel and Revelation belong to the latter category, where dense symbolism was extremely common. The authors of eschatological apocalypses wrote in response to an ongoing crisis during their own time period, and expected astute readers to catch their meaning in the symbolism, though many of them depict an angel interpreting some of the symbolism just in case it was too opaque.

The book is organized into three sections: five visions, twelve commands, and ten parables. These sections are intentional, given by the text itself. Although the Shepherd of Hermas has a lot of traits normal in eschatological apocalypses, the book also represents a push into a third direction: sapiential.

Both the author of the Apocalypse and the author of the Shepherd of Hermas regarded themselves as confronted with a crisis […] for Hermas it was moral laxity which must now cease upon a second and final opportunity to repent.2

Hermas begins with an ‘end times’ focus that moves into the background, as the author shifts to dispensing wisdom about Christian ethics and salvation.


Within the book, Hermas requires his visions to be explained to him by an angelic guide. This was a typical feature in apocalyptic literature, but the book takes it a step further by regularly disparaging Hermas for being so slow to understand the symbolism on his own. Despite his shortcomings, Hermas is spiritually elevated by the book’s end.

If anything, one might argue that Hermas actually demonstrates some growth during the process of his revelation. […] Hermas's growth apparently culminates in Similitude 9, as he assists in constructing a tower, another figure for the church. Here, Hermas actually participates in his own vision.3

Outside the biographical information provided by the book — Hermas was a former slave, lived in Rome, was married and had children — we know little about the author. This has led to a variety of theories as to who he was, when he lived, and even if the whole book came from one person.

On the very fringes of scholarship are those who think Hermas is the man mentioned in Rom 16.14, and the Clement mentioned in Vision 2 of the Shepherd of Hermas is the one from Php 4.3, which would require the Shepherd of Hermas be written in the final couple of decades of the first century CE. This is extremely unlikely, due to the author’s use of the Revelation (described below), which itself was not completed until 95–100 CE. Still, Hermas cannot have been written very far into the second century. One manuscript we have of Hermas dates to the late second century, which is remarkably early.4 Both ‘Clement’ and ‘Hermas’ were common names in Greco-Roman cultures, so there is no need for us to assume the ancient world was so small that anyone by those names must have been the ones mentioned by Paul.

The Muratorian Fragment — a list from the late second century that lays out which Christian texts are ‘authoritative’ and which are not — attributes the Shepherd of Hermas to the brother of Pius, who was the bishop of Rome’s church in the middle of the second century. This seems equally unlikely: ‘Hermas’ is a Greek name where ‘Pius’ is a Latin name, and Hermas never indicates the author had a brother in a position of power in the Church.

For many years there was little agreement whether the Shepherd of Hermas had just one author, or a few different writers who appended their contributions to an earlier text. The latter certainly wouldn’t be unusual among apocalyptic texts; Daniel, 1 Enoch, Revelation, 4 Ezra, and the Sibylline Oracles were also expanded over multiple stages by multiple authors. Today, scholars are largely in agreement that Hermas wrote the whole book over the course of a few decades,5 with individual sections already in circulation before the entire book was complete.6


The Visions

Vision 1 Hermas introduces himself to the reader as the former slave of a Roman woman named Rhoda. At a later time — after Hermas has been freed, and married — he sees her bathing and lusts for her. He is soon confronted by a vision where Rhoda condemns him for his lust. Hermas next has a vision of an unidentified old woman who chides him for bad parenting and then reads to him.

Vision 2 A year later, the old woman appears again to Hermas. She gives him a scroll, he copies it, only able to read it two weeks later. The scroll condemns the sins of his wife and children, warning that Christians have a deadline for repentance. The ‘end times’ tribulation is near. The old woman is identified as the personification of the Church.

Vision 3 The Church shows Hermas a vision of a tower under construction. The tower also symbolizes the Church, and its stones are of varying qualities and colors, representing the many types of people who will become Christians or who will apostasize. The end times will happen when the tower is complete. The old woman changes into a young woman.

Vision 4 Hermas walks into the country on the Via Campana when a gigantic monster charges him from the sea. Hermas walks past the beast, which rolls onto its back, tongue hanging out like a dog. The young woman explains the monster represents the tribulation, which is imminent; Hermas’ bravery got him through the trial.

Vision 5 This chapter is a segue for the twelve commands. A shepherd enters Hermas’ home. The titular shepherd is actually the angel of repentance, who has been assigned to Hermas. He has come to instruct Hermas and lead him through further visions.

The Commands

Traditionally called ‘Mandates’.

Command 1 Trust that God is one and made all things with order.

Command 2 Be simple and innocent, slander no one, resist the devil, and do what is good.

Command 3 Love truth, for the spirit from God has no falsehood.

Command 4 Pursue celibacy and abstain from lust. A man whose wife commits adultery is just as guilty as her; he must divorce her and not remarry, but if she repents he must take her back. It was taught that any sins after baptism were permanent, but the angel tells Hermas people who are baptized actually have one opportunity to repent of all their sins after baptism.

Command 5 Endure and have patience, for endurance keeps the holy spirit within pure, but a violent temper leads to rage and evil.

Command 6 Follow justice. The angel of justice is sensitive, modest, gentle, and dwells in the heart, but he is opposed by the angel of wickedness.

Command 7 Fear the Lord and keep his commands, but do not fear the devil.

Command 8 Do not do what is evil: adultery, fornication, uncontrolled drunkenness, evil luxury, gluttony, excessive wealth, pride, lies, hypocrisy, and blasphemy.

Command 9 Do not be ‘double-minded’.

Command 10 Do not grieve.

Command 11 Stay away from false prophets. True prophets are meek, humble, avoid vanity, do not speak privately, and are filled with the divine spirit when in the church. False prophets have an earthly spirit, are arrogant, reckless, indulgent, and deceitful, and are wordless in the church.

Command 12 Have only good and holy desire.

Afterword A brief segue into the parables comes after the twelfth command. Hermas is informed that these commands are, in fact, easy to follow if the person convinces themself they are easy. The devil cannot overcome those who resist him, and Christians should not fear the devil, but should fear the one who can save or destroy.

The Parables

Traditionally called ‘Similitudes’.

Parable 1 Christians belong to a ‘faraway’ city, so those who invest themselves in ‘this’ (local) city are ‘double-minded’. The faraway city is their home, so they must act as if they live in a foreign land.

Parable 2 Hermas sees a fruit-bearing vine climbing up a fruitless tree. The tree symbolizes the rich, who are too distracted by their wealth, but they can prop up the poor to do good works. This is how the rich are able to contribute to good works.

Parable 3 Hermas sees dry, withered trees, which represent people in the current world. From the outside, good and bad people can’t be distinguished.

Parable 4 Hermas sees blooming trees and shriveled trees, which represent people in the coming world. The blooming trees are the good, who will live as if in summer, and the shriveled trees are the sinful, who will be burned like firewood.

Parable 5 Hermas fasts on a mountain, but the angel criticizes the way he fasts. True fasting is doing good works. This is like a man who planted a vineyard, and ordered his slave to fence in the vineyard to earn his freedom. While the master was away, the slave fenced the vineyard, then pulled its weeds. The man returned, and his household praised the slave, who was freed and appointed joint-heir with the man’s son. When the man held a feast for the slave, the freed slave shared the good food with the other slaves. Hermas asks the angel to explain the parable, who gives two subsequent interpretations.

Parable 6 There are two shepherds. One is the angel of deceit, who leads his flock astray. The other is the angel of punishment, who chastises his sheep and then gives them to the angel of repentance.

Parable 7 The angel of punishment is chastising Hermas’ household. When Hermas complains that they’ve already repented, the angel of repentance informs him that forgiveness is not immediate.

Parable 8 A huge tree provided shade to the world. An angel pruned its branches, then gave wooden staffs to people. When the staffs were returned, they varied in condition. Those who gave back a staff that had begun growing on their own were given crowns and sent to the tower (from Vision 3). The tree represented God’s law, and the angel is Michael. Michael sends those who trust in the Gospel to the tower, but the rest are left with the angel of repentance. The people who returned ruined staffs are condemned.

Parable 9 Hermas sees twelve mountains surrounding a plain, where a rock grew into a taller mountain, with a brand new gate leading in. Builders begin construction on a tower on the rock, but pause partway through. An inspector orders some of the tower’s stones removed for poor quality. The angel explains the symbolism to Hermas.

Parable 10 Hermas is returned home, and twelve virgins are assigned to live in his home. They leave, but promise to return.

Blurred Identities

Hermas’ theology is well-defined in itself, but his presentation can leave readers lost. His depiction of God is standard, but his discussion of Jesus and the holy spirit requires untangling. The most likely reason for this confusion is because Hermas doesn’t really distinguish the holy spirit as a ‘person’ the way later trinitarian theology does. He has this in common with Paul and most New Testament texts, where the ‘holy spirit’ is the active presence of God in the world (cf. Matt 12.28 and Luke 11.20), or of Jesus among his followers (Rom 8.9; Gal 4.6). According to Hermas, a person who has this spirit can unintentionally reduce its power in them through inappropriate thoughts or actions.

Command 10

When the doubting man attempts any deed, and fails in it on account of his doubt, this grief enters into the man, and grieves the holy spirit, and crushes him out.

Something I skimmed over in the summaries above is the way Hermas personifies abstracts. The global Church is symbolized not only as a tower under construction, but as a morphing woman who partially helps to explain the symbolism of Hermas’ visions. Repentance, punishment, and other divine acts of God are embodied as angels.

Additionally, the virgins who are assigned to live in Hermas’ household at the end of the book are not human women, but the personifications of divine virtues mentioned throughout the book (patience, simplicity, truth, etc.). On the other side of the coin, though, are sins (distrust, unrestraint, grief, etc.), which take the form of women dressed in black. In this regard, the holy spirit is just one of the many personifications found in the book, and can be overwhelmed by the presence of the black-dressed ‘women’.

Command 10

He said ‘Remove grief from yourself, for she is the sister of doubt and anger.’

I said, ‘Lord, how is she the sister of these? For anger, doubt, and grief seem to be quite different from each other.’

‘You are senseless, O man. Do you not perceive that grief is more wicked than all the spirits, and most terrible to the servants of God, and more than all other spirits destroys man and crushes out the holy spirit, and yet, on the other hand, she saves him?’

One of the more enigmatic components of these personifications is the way Hermas blurs divine identities. This is most prominent in Parable 9, which seeks to round up much of the book’s symbolism and theology.

Parable 9

After I had written down the commands and parables from the shepherd (who is the angel of repentance), he came to me and said, ‘I wish to explain to you what the holy spirit that spoke with you in the form of the Church showed you, for that spirit is the son of God.’

Further, to be ‘clothed with the holy spirit of these virgins’ is the same thing as ‘receiving the holy spirit’.

Parable 9

‘And these virgins, who are they?’

‘They are holy spirits, and men cannot otherwise be found in the kingdom of God unless these have put their clothing upon them […] For these virgins are the powers of the son of God […] Everyone who bears the son of God’s name ought to bear their names, for the son himself bears the names of these virgins […] So also those who have believed in the Lord through his son and are clothed with these spirits shall become one spirit’

In Hermas’ theology, Jesus (the son of God) is the holy spirit, and the Church/woman, and the virtues/virgins. Some even think the angel Michael is identified with the ‘son of God’ in Parable 8.7

A very similar personification of divine attributes is also found in Zoroastrian theology, which first began to influence Judean religion in the fifth century BCE. We don’t know the precise age of many Zoroastrian beliefs, so we don’t know exactly which parts of Judaism were borrowed from Zoroastrianism. Regardless, I will outline this concept for the sake of comparison. God, the Wise Lord (Ahura Mazda), has virtues, which are identified as the seven Holy Immortals (Amesha Spentas). The first of them is the Holy Spirit (Spenta Mainyu). These Holy Immortals are emanations of God’s own traits, yet also serve him as if they were created by him.

This blending of identities may seem very unusual to modern senses, but we actually see this kind of ‘angelomorphic’ theology Judean and Christian texts from the Second Temple period. The earliest clear personification of one of God’s traits is in Prov 8.22–31 and Wis 7.25–26, where his Wisdom is a female divinity that helps him create the world.

Proverbs 8

‘I, Wisdom, life with prudence, and I attain knowledge and discretion. […] Yhwh created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.

Closer parallels are found in an apocalyptic text written not long before Hermas. The Revelation’s seven spirits (1.4; 4.5) — possibly derived from the seven archangels tradition in Judaism, or perhaps related to the seven Holy Immortals of Zoroastrianism — are identified as the eyes of the Lamb (5.6), meaning those seven spirits are, in some way, aspects of Jesus himself. The physical appearance of Jesus as ‘one like a son of man’ in Rev 1 borrows from descriptions of both God (Ezek 1.26–28; Dan 7.9) and angels (Dan 10.5–6). Jesus also appears as the fourth (center) of seven angels that announce and execute judgment (14.6–20).

In organizing Hermas’ theology, we find God at the top of the ladder as expected. The next step down is Jesus, the son of God, who is the holy spirit.8 Another rung down we find Jesus’ own attributes, personified as angels or women; they are holy spirits which Christians must receive in order to truly be saved.

Hermas’ Sources

Hermas shows knowledge of earlier books, but the extent of his knowledge and use of them is somewhat debated.

The author never quotes other early Christian writings. This, however, may not tell anything, since he also never quotes any part of Israel's Scripture although he knew it well. Only once does he quote anything explicitly, the lost writing Eldad and Modad (Vis. 2.3.4). Parallels to parables of the Synoptic Gospels, especially the parable of the good servant (Sim. 5.2; 5.4–7), are best explained as reflecting a knowledge of the parables of Jesus from the oral tradition.9

Still, the vision of a beast in Vision 4 may show dependence on the Revelation of John.

Vision 4

The sun shone out a little, and see, I saw a huge beast, like a sea monster, and fiery locusts came from its mouth. The beast was about one hundred feet long, and it had a head like an earthenware jar. […] And the beast had four colors on its head: black, then a fire and blood color, then gold, then white.

It appears that Hermas combines parts of Rev 6 (four colors), 9 (locusts and breathing fire), and 13 (the beast which brings the tribulation). The Revelation’s seven spirits may have also helped inspire Hermas’ personified theology described above. In contrast to Revelation, though, Hermas ‘does not call to subvert or even change the status quo’,10 and dilutes the specific symbolism of the Revelation’s beast from a representation of the Roman Empire and its emperors down to a general image of ‘tribulation’.11

Hermas also seems to have made use of Paul’s letters. Per 1 Clement — a letter written by the Roman church — at least a few of Paul’s letters were available to Roman Christians by the time Hermas was written in the first half of the second century.

The Book of Eldad and Modad cited in the second vision is an interesting case.

Vision 2

The Lord is near to them who return to him, as it is written in Eldad and Modad, who prophesied to the people in the wilderness.

This book — attributed to the two prophets briefly mentioned in Num 11 — is now lost. Other traditions around Eldad and Modad are found in the Targums, where they are said to have predicted things about the end times, the same context where Hermas cites the book. This strongly suggests the Book of Eldad and Modad was a prophetic or apocalyptic text popular among some Judeans and Christians in Hermas’ time.

Hermas makes frequent use of a term, ‘double-minded’, which is found sparingly in early Christian literature. The same word is found earlier, in 1 Clement, when that author quotes an existing text.

1 Clement 23

Let what was written be far from us: ‘Wretched are they who are of a double-mind and a doubting heart, who say, “We have heard these things even in the times of our fathers, but see, we have grown old and none of them has happened to us.”’

This is remarkably similar to 2 Pet 3.2–4, yet 1 Clement was written before 2 Peter. The vocabulary in this passage from 1 Clement also has a high overlap with unusual terms used by Hermas. The same cluster of unique vocabulary is also found in the Letter of James, written maybe a decade before 1 Clement. All four of these Christian texts — James, 1 Clement, Hermas, 2 Peter — were drawing on an earlier source, the Book of Eldad and Modad.

it would seem that Eldad and Modad was especially influential in the Roman Christian circles represented by Hermas, 1 Clement and perhaps 2 Clement, and with which the letter of James may also be connected […] The resemblance between the quotation in 1 and 2 Clement and 2 Peter 3:3–4 suggests that 2 Peter, probably another product of the church of Rome, may also have been influenced by Eldad and Modad.12

Chasing down a minor reference in the Shepherd of Hermas led us to uncover a source used by New Testament texts.


The Shepherd of Hermas is certainly a complex book, and it’s this complexity which may have convinced early Christians to reject its authority. Despite its popularity in some communities, it met widespread resistance around the end of the second century. The Muratorian Fragment has this to say:

But 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. And so it certainly should be read, but it can’t be read publicly in church to the people, either among the prophets (whose number is complete) or among the apostles (since it’s after their time).

Hermas was important, and even ‘authoritative’, but it wasn’t written by an apostle, and was considered too late to be counted with the Prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. Hence, it was relegated to private reading, where it eventually fell out of favor.


1 Greg Carey, Ultimate Things: An Introduction to Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic Literature, 179.

2 David Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World, 326.

3 Carey, 194.

4 Larry Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, 54; Jonathan Soyars, The Shepherd of Hermas and the Pauline Legacy, 5–6.

5 Jonathan Soyars, The Shepherd of Hermas and the Pauline Legacy, 16ff.

6 Ibid., 10.

7 Matthias Hoffman, The Destroyer and the Lamb: The Relationship Between Angelomorphic and Lamb Christology in the Book of Revelation, 78.

8 Many have interpreted the angel’s two explanations in Parable 5 as expressing an unusual form of ‘adoptionistic’ Christology. In this interpretation, the angel’s two explanations are meant to be combined, resulting in the master’s son being the holy spirit, while the master’s servant is Jesus. Hence, when the servant is made co-heir with the master’s son, this is Jesus being ‘adopted’ into the divinity already shared by God and the holy spirit. The two explanations should instead remain separate, which results in a much more familiar Christology. In the first explanation, Jesus is the master’s servant who is rewarded for his obedience (cf. Php 2.7–9), but the symbolism of the master’s son is ignored entirely. In the second explanation, Jesus (who is the holy spirit) is the son, while Christians are symbolized in the servant; when a Christian is obedient, the spirit fills them and they are ‘adopted’ as co-heirs with Jesus (cf. Rom 8.14–17). See: Bogdan Bucur, ‘The Son of God and the Angelomorphic Holy Spirit: A Rereading of the Shepherd’s Christology’, ZNW 98, 121–143.

9 Helmut Koester, History and Literature of Early Christianity, 263.

10 Mark Grundeken, Community Building in the Shepherd of Hermas: A Critical Study of Some Key Aspects, 90.

11 Ibid.

12Richard Bauckham, 'Eldad and Modad', Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures: Volume One, (ed. Richard Bauckham, James Davila, & Alexander Panayotov), 251.

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