Good Shepherd, Catacombs of Priscilla (3rd century), Rome

Today we go back in time to a text that properly belongs to the Apostolic Fathers, the Shepherd by Hermas, written between 90 and 150. This work is a series of visions experienced by a Christian in Rome named Hermas, a contemporary of Clement’s, accompanied by Hermas’s interpretation of them. It seems likely that Hermas was a freedman. As far as dating goes, the Muratorian Canon from around 170 (one of our earliest lists [if not the earliest] of the New Testament) lists him as the brother of Pius, Bishop of Rome who died in the year 154.

On one hand, then, it is an apocalypse by genre. On the other, it is not unlike the writings of many medieval mystics that similarly recounted their visions and the interpretation of them. I make that second statement with some caution, given that a Jewish-Christian context such as Hermas’ is very different from a High Medieval German Christian writing in Latin like St Hildegard.

Themes

The Shepherd is focussed upon questions to do with piety and holiness, wrestling especially with the question of postbaptismal sin — are repentance and forgiveness available to those who sin after baptism. Hermas is not the only person to grapple with this question, and it certainly does not go away at this time. Indeed, in one form or another, the question of how God’s mercy operates in relation to baptised persons who sin, will continue throughout the Middle Ages and into the Reformation. It may seem distant to the modern Christian, but it was a very real concern for people like Hermas.

Hermas, like so many Christians old and new, is a moralist who also wants to affirm the mercy of God. The visions recounted here are a means of maintaining the tension between a high call to holiness and the mercy of the God who calls His worshippers to said holiness.

A second theme is also one common to Christians old and new, that of the relationship between rich and poor. As a freedman, Hermas seems to represent a somewhat lower status than 1 Clement (as Holmes says in his introduction), but I would not make too much of that. For one thing, both Hermas and 1 Clement (as Holmes also says) represent the same concern with Christian piety.

Reception of this text

Although less popular than many other ancient Christian texts, Hermas’ Shepherd was very popular in its own day, and is better attested in the earliest manuscripts than some texts from the New Testament. In fact, some Christians included it in their Bibles, as attested by the Muratorian Canon that some people seem to have been treating it in such a way. It was not included not because it is not helpful, but because it is after the apostles.

Translations

The Shepherd of Hermas can be found in most of the same places as the Apostolic Fathers, besides (of course) ANF 2:

Michael W. Holmes has produced a parallel Greek-English edition as well as a less expensive English-only text.

See also Bart Ehrman’s two volumes for the Loeb Classical Library and Francis Glimm’s volume for the Fathers of the Church.

Graydon F. Snyder, The Shepherd of Hermas gives a translation and commentary.