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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Hermas Shepherd of

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This valuable and interesting relic of the life and thought of the early Roman Church may be described as a manual of personal religion, cast in an imaginative form. It has been compared in the latter respect with Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, with Dante’s Divina Commedia, and with the visions of such mystics as St. Teresa and St. Catherine of Siena. Whether it be looked upon as a work of allegorical fiction, or, as G. Salmon strennuously maintains (Historical Introduction to the NT5, p. 529ff.), a record of actual dream experience, or again, as may well be, a combination of both, its strong moral earnestness and its didactic purpose are equally apparent. It is primarily a call to repentance, addressed to Christians among whom the memory of persecution is still fresh (Vis. iii. 2, 5, Sim. ix. 28), and over whom now hangs the shadow of another great tribulation (Vis. ii. 2, iv. 2). From the first Vision, with its revelation of the sinfulness of sins of thought, and of neglect of responsibility for others, to the last Parable, where the greatness of the Shepherd, the supernatural Being ‘to whom alone in the whole world hath authority over repentance been assigned’ (Sim. x. 1), is ordered to be declared to men, the theme is repentance and amendment of life.

Indeed, the little book would almost seem to have been written partly as an attempt to break through the iron ring of despair resulting from a rigorous acceptance of those words in the Epistle to the Hebrews which speak of the impossibility of repentance for sin committed after baptism (Hebrews 6:6; Hebrews 12:17). The subject is discussed in the Fourth Commandment (Mand. iv. 3) in a curiously simple manner. The authority of this teaching is admitted verbally, and then an exception is made, which covers the whole teaching of the book. ‘I have heard. Sir,’ says Hermas, ‘from certain teachers, that there is no other repentance, save that which took place when we went down into the water and obtained remission of our former sins.’ The Shepherd replies that this is so. They that have believed, or shall believe, have not repentance, but only remission of their former sins. He then, however, goes on to say that, if after this great and holy calling any one, being tempted of the devil, shall commit sin, he hath only one (opportunity of) repentance. This one opportunity, however, would seem to be embodied in the Shepherd himself, who was sent ‘to be with you who repent with your whole heart, and to strengthen you in the faith’ (Hebrews 12:6), and whose command to Hennas is, ‘Go, and tell all men to repent, and they shall live unto God; for the Lord in His compassion sent me to give repentance to all, though some of them do not deserve it, for their deeds’ (Sim. viii. 11).

1. Authorship.-There are a few references scattered through the work to the circumstances of its author. He had originally been a slave, and was sold to one Rhoda, in Rome (Vis. i. 1). After his freedom he had engaged in business and prospered (iii. 6), but he had been corrupted by the affairs of this world (i., iii.), practising deception in the course of his business (Mand. iii.). However, he had lost his riches, and become useful and profitable unto life (Vis. iii. 6). His worldly loss seems to have been connected with the misdeeds of his children (i., iii.), who had not been very strictly looked after by him. His wife is represented as a person who did not sufficiently restrain her tongue (ii. 2). Hermas depicts himself as slow of understanding, but insatiable in curiosity (Mand. xii. 4, Sim. v. 5), and at the same time as ‘patient and good tempered and always smiling,’ ‘full of all simplicity and of great guilelessness’ (Vis. i. 2).

The scene is laid partly in the house of Hermas in Rome, partly in the country where he abides (Vis. iii. 1), and once in Arcadia (Sim. ix. 1). Mention is made of the road to Cumae, the Campanian Way, and the river Tiber, in which Hermas sees Rhoda bathing (Vis. i. 1).

To the question who Hermas was there are three possible answers. (1) He may, as Origen supposes in his Commentary on Romans (x. 31 [p. 683]), have been the Scriptural character mentioned by St. Paul as a member of the Roman Church c. [Note: . circa, about.] a.d. 58 (Romans 16:14). (2) According to the Muratorian fragment (circa, about a.d. 180), he was brother of Pope Pius I. during his Episcopate (circa, about a.d. 140-155). (3) He may have been an otherwise unknown person who was a contemporary of Pope Clement (circa, about a.d. 90-100). This theory involves the identification of the Church official mentioned in Vis. ii. 4 with the Bishop of Rome. ‘Thou shalt therefore write two little books, and shalt send one to Clement.… So Clement shall send to the foreign cities, for this is his duty.’ Of these views Lightfoot with some diffidence prefers the second, while G. Salmon, Zahn, and others accept the third (see J. B. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, 294; G. Salmon, Introduction to the NT5, 46, 534).

2. Date and use by the Church.-Whether the work was written in the beginning or in the middle of the 2nd cent., there is evidence of its wide circulation soon after the latter date. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in a.d. 177, accepted it and spoke of it as Scripture. ‘Well did the Scripture speak, saying, etc.’ (ap. Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.)v. 8). Clem. Alex. quotes it several times (e.g. Strom. I. xxix. 181), while Origen in the passage above referred to speaks of it as a very useful, and, as he thinks, Divinely-inspired writing. Tertullian approved of it in his pre-Montanist days, but afterwards condemned it (de Pudic.10). The author of the Muratorian Canon, while seeking to deprecate the public reading of the Shepherd in church, commends it for private use.

‘But the “Shepherd” was written quite lately in our times by Hermas, while his brother Pius, the bishop, was sitting in the chair of the Church of the city of Rome; and therefore it ought indeed to be read, but it cannot to the end of lime be publicly read in the Church to the people, either among the prophets, who are complete in number, or among the Apostles.’

3. Contents.-The book is divided up into five Visions, twelve Mandates or Commandments, and ten Similitudes or Parables. The Visions form the introduction to the rest, the Shepherd not appearing until the last of these. The following outline will give an idea of the purport of the work as a whole.

(1) Visions.-In the first Vision Hermas tells now, while journeying to Cumae, he saw in the opened heavens Rhoda, his former owner, whom he had recently met again, and whom he had begun to esteem as a sister. She rebukes him for an unchaste thought towards herself, and leaves him aghast at the strictness of God’s judgment. Then he sees a great white chair of snow-white wool upon which an aged lady in shining raiment seats herself. She tells Hermas that what God is really wroth about is his lack of strictness with his family whereby his children have become corrupt. She then reads from a book the glories of God, but Hermas can only remember the last words, for the rest is too terrible to bear. She rises, the chair is carried away towards the east by four young men, and two other men assist her to depart in the same direction. As she goes, she smiles and says, ‘Play the man, Hermas.’

The second Vision takes place a year later, and in the same locality. The aged lady again appears, and gives him a little book that he may copy its contents and report them to the elect of God. He copies it letter for letter, for he cannot make out the syllables, and when he has finished, the book is snatched away by an unseen hand. After fifteen days the meaning is revealed to Hermas, who is directed to rebuke his children for their wickedness, and his wife for her faults of the tongue, as well as to exhort the rulers of the Church. A great tribulation is at hand, with danger of apostasy by Christians. One Maximus, in particular, is to be warned against a second denial. Then it is revealed that the aged woman is not, as Hermas supposes, the Sibyl, but the Church, created before all things. He is directed by her to write two copies of the book, after the revelation is finished, and send one to Clement that he may send it to the foreign cities, and one to Grapte that she may instruct the widows and the orphans. Hermas is to read it to the city along with the elders that preside over the Church.

The main part of the third Vision is the revelation by the lady of the Church under the image of a tower being built by angels upon the waters of baptism. The stones of various degrees of suitability (some of them castaway), are explained to mean different kinds of members of the Church, among whom are ‘apostles and bishops and teachers and deacons,’ and ‘they that suffered for the name of the Lord.’ The tower is supported by seven women. Faith, Continence, Simplicity, Knowledge, Guilelessness, Reverence, and Love. Hermas is next commissioned to rebuke the self-indulgence of the well-to-do and the ignorance and divisions of the rulers of the Church. He inquires why the lady was aged and weak in the first Vision, more youthful and joyous in the second, and still more so in the third, and learns that these appearances were the reflexion of his own changing spiritual state.

The fourth Vision occurs twenty days later, on the Campanian Way. Hermas sees a huge cloud of dust, which resolves itself into the form of a beast like a sea-monster, emitting fiery locusts from its mouth. Its length is about a hundred feet, and its head was as it were of pottery, coloured black, fire and blood-colour, gold and white. This is a type of the impending tribulation, but it does not harm Hermas, for the angel Segri has shut its mouth. The colours represent this world (black), the blood and fire in which it must perish, those that have escaped from the world (gold), and the coming age (while).

The fifth episode is called a revelation (Ἀποκάλυψις, not Ὄρασις). The shepherd, the angel of repentance, now appears for the first time, glorious in visage, with sheepskin wallet and staff. He has been sent by the most holy angel to dwell with Hermas for the rest of his life. Hermas at first fails to recognize him as the being to whom he was delivered, but on recognition proceeds to write down the Commandments and the Parables dictated by the Shepherd.

(2) Mandates.-The first Commandment is to believe in and to fear the One God, the Creator, the incomprehensible (ἀχώρητος), and to practise continence; the second to avoid slander, whether by hearing or by speaking it, and to be generous of the needy; the third to abstain from falsehood; the fourth to be pure in thought as well as in deed. An adulterous wife is to be divorced, if unrepentant, but her husband may not marry again, for that would be committing adultery. If she repents after divorce her husband sins if he does not receive her again (after baptism only one opportunity of repentance is given, over which the Shepherd has authority). If a husband or a wife die, the other may marry without sin, but to remain single is better. The fifth Commandment enjoins longsuffering, the opposite of ill-temper (ὀξυχολία), that most evil spirit which causes bitterness, wrath, anger, and spite. The next three Mandates expand the provisions of the first-faith, fear, and temperance. Contrasts are drawn between the two ways (and the two angels) of righteousness and wickedness, between the fear of God and the fear of the devil, and between temperance as to what is evil, and indulgence in what is good. The ninth Commandment extols faith in prayer, and condemns doubtful-mindedness, while the tenth exhorts Hermas to be clothed in cheerfulness and to put away sadness. In the eleventh striking descriptions are given of the false prophet, who absents himself from the Christian assembly, and is consulted as a soothsayer by men in corners, and of the true prophet upon whom the Divine afflatus comes in the course of the Church’s worship. The last Commandment is to banish evil desire by the cultivation of desire which is good and holy.

(3) Similitudes.-The first Parable is a simple expansion of the theme that the Christian is a sojourner in a foreign city, and should act as a citizen of the city which is his true home. In the second the duty of the rich to give to the poor is illustrated by the figure of an elm and a vine. The former, though Fruitless, supports the fruitful vine. So the intercessions of the poor man prevail on behalf of the wealthy benefactor. In the nest two, a similitude is drawn between trees in winter, when all are leafless, and all seem equally withered, and in summer, when some are sprouting, while others remain withered. The winter represents the conditions of this world, the summer those of the world to come. The fifth Parable presents the story of a vineyard, a master, and a faithful servant, the exposition of which reveals an early belief in the doctrine of works of supererogation, and an Adoptianist conception of the personality of the Son of Cod (see below). In the next, two shepherds are shown, one of pleasant mien sporting with his sheep, the other of sour countenance lashing his flock with a whip and otherwise maltreating them. The former is the angel of self-indulgence and deceit, the latter the angel of punishment. A few days later Hermas is afflicted by this angel of punishment, and in the seventh Parable he is taught that this is because of the sins of his household. The nest two are long and complicated. First Hermas sees a great willow tree (the Law of God, which is the Son of God preached unto the ends of the earth) under which stands a multitude of believers. A glorious angel (Michael) cuts rods from the tree and gives them to the people, who in due course return them in great variety of condition-withered, grub-eaten, cracked, green, some with shoots, and some with a kind of fruit. These last are those who have suffered for Christ. They are crowned and sent into the tower with some of the others. The remainder are left to the care of the Shepherd, who, as the angel of repentance, plants the rods in the earth, and deals with the owners according to the results. The ninth Parable is an amplification of the third Vision. Hermas, seated on a mountain in Arcadia, sees a great plain surrounded by twelve mountains, each of which has a different appearance. These are the tribes of the world, varying in understanding and conduct. In the midst of the plain is a great and ancient rock, with a recently-hewn gate in it. This is the Son of God, older than creation, and yet recently made manifest. Upon the rock a tower (the Church) is being built by angels, of stones that are brought through the gate. The first course is of ten stones, the second of twenty-five, the third of thirty-five, the fourth of forty. These are the first and the second generation of righteous men, the prophets and ministers, and the apostles and teachers. These stones come from the deep, and the rest come from the mountains. Some are suitable and other’s are rejected. The Shepherd, as in the former Parable, deals with the latter, to fit those that are capable for a place in the building. A curious feature is the introduction of the Son of God, already symbolized by the rock and the gate, as the glorious man who inspects the tower and rejects certain of the stones. The purport of the concluding Parable is an exhortation to Hermas to keep the Shepherd’s commandments and to publish them to others.

4. References to organization and doctrine of the Church

(a) Organization.-In the first respect, the allusions are too slight to give more than a general picture. We read of the rulers (προηγούμενοι) of the Church, whom Hermas is directed to exhort (Vis. ii. 2) and even to rebuke for their divisions and their ignorance (iii. 9). There are apostles, bishops, teachers, and deacons (iii. 5), also prophets and ministers (διάκονοι; Sim. ix. 15). There are deacons who plunder the livelihood of widows and orphans, and make gain from the performance of their office (ix. 26), and, on the other hand, bishops who exercise hospitality and are like trees sheltering sheep, receiving into their houses the servants of God at all times, and sheltering the needy and the widows in their visitation (ix. 27). Clement, whose duty is to communicate with foreign cities, may, as we have seen, have been the bishop of Rome, while Grapte, who instructs the widows and the orphans, may have been a deaconess (Vis. ii. 4). Hermas, who is told to read his book to the city along with the elders who preside over the Church (μετὰ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων τῶν προϊσταμένων τῆς ἐκκλησίας), may well have been one of the order of prophets. The office of a prophet is held in estimation by the Church. ‘When then the man who hath the divine Spirit cometh into an assembly (συναγωγή) of righteous men, who have faith in a divine Spirit, and intercession is made to God by the gathering of those men, then the angel of the prophetic spirit who is attached to him, filleth the man, and the man, being filled with the Holy Spirit, speaketh to the multitude, according as the Lord willeth’ (Mand. xi.). The false prophet, on the contrary, is dumb in the Church assembly, and plies a wizard’s trade in corners. In view of the Roman character of the Shepherd, it is interesting to note that the tower which represents the Church is represented as founded, not on Peter, but, in the third Vision, upon the waters of baptism, and, in the ninth Parable, upon the rock of the Son of God.

(b) Doctrine.-The doctrinal references reveal, at least in the case of Hermas, a creed which is simple and yet has its own peculiarities. Perhaps the most striking of the latter is the conception of the Son of God. In the Parable of the vineyard (the fifth) the Son of God is represented as a slave placed in charge, with a promise of freedom if he fulfils his allotted duty. He does so much more than is expected of him that the Divine master of the vineyard resolves that he shall be made joint-heir with His Son, who is represented as the Holy Spirit. ‘The Holy Pre-existent Spirit, which created the whole creation, God made to dwell in flesh that He desired. This flesh therefore, in which the Holy Spirit dwelt, was subject unto the Spirit … When then it had lived honourably in chastity, and had laboured with the Spirit, and had co-operated with it in everything, behaving itself boldly and bravely, He chose it as a partner with the Holy Spirit’ (Sim. v. 6). This Adoptianist conception, which illustrates early Roman speculation on the Person of Christ, finds frequent expression in phrases identifying the Spirit with the Son of God, e.g. ‘For that Spirit is the Son of God’ (ix. 1). In this same fifth Parable we have an early trace of the doctrine of works of supererogation, which, in mediaeval times, was so prominent in the Church’s system. ‘If thou do any good thing outside the commandment of God, thou shalt win for thyself more exceeding glory, and shalt be more glorious in the sight of God than thou wouldest otherwise have been’ (v. 3).

Hermas also teaches that the first apostles and teachers who had died, went like Christ, and preached unto the Spirits in prison (ix. 16). His eschatology is in one respect severe and narrow. Not only are unrepentant sinners to be burned, but also the Gentiles, because of their ignorance of God (iv.). In the fifth Vision there is an apparent reference to the belief in guardian angels. When the Shepherd at first appears, Hermas fails to recognize him, as apparently he should have done.* [Note: Another explanation is that a previous Vision may have dropped out from the MSS which have come down to us.] to be the being to whom he was ‘delivered,’ and only when the visitant changes his form does recognition come. It seems curious that while Baptism is plainly mentioned two or three times (Vis. iii, 3, Mand. iv. 3, Sim. ix. 16) the Lord’s Supper does not appear to be alluded to. Fasting is often mentioned, and once we find Hermas keeping a ‘station,’ as the early fast-days were called (Sim. v. 1). In this case he is commanded, not to abstain entirely from food, but to take bread and water.

While Hermas shows fewer traces of the influence of St. Paul than of that of St. James, with whose Epistle he shows great familiarity, he need not be definitely classed as a Judaizer. His office is that of a prophet, and his mission is to recall Christians from the danger of too intimate contact with pagan social influence. He speaks of those ‘who have never investigated concerning the truth, nor enquired concerning the deity, but have merely believed, and have been mixed up in business affairs and riches and heathen friendships, and many other affairs of this world’ (Mand. x. 1), as specially without understanding and corrupt. Hence his standard of Christian duty is put in the most practical shape: ‘faith, fear of the Lord, love, concord, words of righteousness, truth, patience, … to minister to widows, to visit the orphans and the needy, to ransom the servants, of God from their afflictions, to be hospitable, … to resist no man, to be tranquil, to show yourself more submissive than all men,’ etc. (viii.). The indwelling of the Spirit of God is a feature of Christian life prominently insisted on, and if intermediate. beings like Faith, Continence, Power, Longsuffering (Sim. ix. 15) seem to shape the Christian character, these are declared to be ‘powers of the Son of God’ (ix. 13), God is the Creator alike of the world and of the Church. ‘Behold, the God of Hosts, who by His invisible and mighty power and by His great wisdom created the world, and by His glorious purpose clothed His creation with comeliness, and by His strong word fixed the heaven, and founded the earth upon the waters, and by His own wisdom and providence formed His holy Church, which also He blessed’ (Vis. ii. 3).

Hermas, who was evidently acquainted with the contents of the Didache, does not directly cite Scripture by name, but he continually uses Scriptural words and ideas, handling them with a light touch, and working them into new combinations. C. Taylor (The Witness of Hermas to the Four Gospels) has investigated these allusions minutely, and considers Hermas to be a valuable witness to the Canon, especially in the case of the four Gospels. He finds in the four feet of the couch in the third Vision (13), with the associated cryptic utterance ‘for the world too is upheld by means of four elements,’ the source of the famous saying of Irenaeus that there can be neither more nor fewer than four Gospels, because there are four regions of the world, and four catholic winds, etc. (see p. 13ff.). There is a citation of the lost work Eland and Medad (Vis. ii. 3), and Segri, the name of the angel who shuts the monster’s month in Vis. iv. 2, is a word derived from the Hebrew verb in Daniel 6:22shut the lions’ months’ (The Johns Hopkins University Circular, April, 1884, iii. 75).

5. Text and Versions.-There is no complete Greek text of the Shepherd. About the first quarter of it is contained in the 4th cent. Sinaitic manuscript (א), while the Athos manuscript (A) written in the 14th cent. is the authority for the rest of the work, except the concluding portion, from Sim. ix. 30 to the end, which has to be supplied from the Latin versions. These are two in number, the so-called Old Latin Version (L) found in about twenty Manuscripts , and the Palatine Version (L2) existing in one manuscript of the 14th century. There is also an Ethiopic Version (E) published in 1860 with a Latin translation (see J. B. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, p. 295).

Literature.-J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, I vol., London, 1891; O. von Gebhardt and A. Harnack, Patrum Apost. Opera, Fasc. iii., Leipzig, 1877; F. X. Funk, Patres Apostolici, Tübingen, 1901; C. Taylor, The Shepherd of Hermas (Translation, Introduction, and Notes), London, 1903-1906; T. Zahn, Der Hirt des Hermas, Gotha, 1868; A. Hilgenfeld, Hermœ Pastor, Leipzig, 1887; C. Taylor, The Witness of Hermas to the Four Gospels, London, 1892; [Bp. Fell], Barnabas and Hermas, Oxford, 1685; G. Salmon, Historical Introduction to NT5, London, 1891.

A. Mitchell.



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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Hermas Shepherd of'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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