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The Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd was a popular book among Christians of the first four centuries. Written by Hermas, brother of Pius, bishop of Rome, during the first half of the second century, the book was regarded by some churches as canonical Scripture. It was eventually excluded from the canon, however, in part because it was known not to have been written by an apostle.1 Even so, it was still included as one of the books of the New Testament in the fourth-century codex Sinaiticus and is mentioned by other authors of the time as standing on the margins of the canon.2 The book takes its name from an angelic mediator who appears to Hermas in the form of a shepherd. Other angelic beings appear here as well, in particular an old woman who identifies herself as the personification of the Christian church. These various figures communicate divine revelations to Hermas and, upon request, interpret their meaning to him. The book is divided into a series of five visions, twelve sets of com­ mandments (or “mandates”), and ten parables (or “similitudes”). The visions and similitudes are enigmatic and symbolic; they are usually explained to Hermas as having a spiritual significance for the Christian here on earth. The mandates are somewhat easier to interpret, consisting for the most part of direct exhortations to speak the truth, give alms, do good, and avoid sexual immorality, drunkenness, gluttony, and other vices. Indeed, the entire book is driven by an ethical concern: what can Christians do if they have fallen into sin after being baptized? A number of early Christians had insisted that those who returned to lives of sin after joining the church had lost any hope of salvation. An alternative view is advanced by Hermas, who maintains, on the basis of divine revelations, that Christians who have fallen again into sin after their baptism have a second chance (but only one second chance) to repent and return to God’s good graces. Those who refuse to avail themselves of this opportunity, however, or who revert to sin again thereafter, will be forced to face the judgment of God on the day of reckoning soon to come.

1

See the Muratorian Canon.

2

See the Canons of Eusebius and Athanasius.

Translation by Bart D. Ehrman, in The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 2 (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003); used with permission.

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