1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hermas, Shepherd of

HERMAS, SHEPHERD OF, one of the works representing the Apostolic Fathers (q.v.), a hortatory writing which “holds the mirror up” to the Church in Rome during the 3rd Christian generation. This is the period indicated by the evidence of the Muratorian Canon, which assigns it to the brother of Pius, Roman bishop c. 139–154. Probably it was not the fruit of a single effort of its author. Rather its contents came to him piecemeal and at various stages in his ministry as a Christian “prophet,” extending over a period of years; and, like certain Old Testament prophets, he shows us how by his own experiences he became the medium of a divine message to his church and to God’s “elect” people at large.

In its present form it falls under three heads: Visions, Mandates, Similitudes. But these divisions are misleading. The personal and preliminary revelation embodied in Vision i. brings the prophet a new sense of sin as essentially a matter of the heart, and an awakened conscience as before the “glory of God,” the Creator and Upholder of all things. His responsibility also for the sad state of religion at home is emphasized, and he is given a mission of repentance to his erring children. How far in all this and in the next vision the author is describing facts, and how far transforming his personal history into a type (after the manner of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress), the better to impress his moral upon his readers, is uncertain. But the whole style of the work, with its use of conventional apocalyptic forms, favours the more symbolic view. Vision ii. records his call proper, through revelation of his essential message, to be delivered both to his wife and children and to “all the saints who have sinned unto this day” (2. 4). It contains the assurances of forgiveness even for the gravest sins after baptism (save blasphemy of the Name and betrayal of the brethren, Sim. ix. 19), “if they repent with their whole heart and remove doubts from their minds. For the Master hath sworn by His glory (‘His Son,’ below) touching His elect, that if there be more sinning after this day which He hath limited, they shall not obtain salvation. For the repentance of the righteous hath an end; the days of repentance for all saints are fulfilled. . . . Stand fast, then, ye that work righteousness and be not of doubtful mind. . . . Happy are all ye that endure the great tribulation which is to come. . . . The Lord is nigh unto them that turn to Him, as it is written in the book of Eldad and Modad, who prophesied to the people in the wilderness.”

Here, in the gist of the “booklet” received from the hand of a female figure representing the Church, we have in germ the message of The Shepherd. But before Hermas announces it to the Roman Church, and through “Clement”[1] to the churches abroad, there are added two Visions (iii. iv.) tending to heighten its impressiveness. He is shown the “holy church” under the similitude of a tower in building, and the great and final tribulation (already alluded to as near at hand) under that of a devouring beast, which yet is innocuous to undoubting faith.

Hermas begins to deliver the message of Vis. i.-iv., as bidden. But as he does so, it is added to, in the way of detail and illustration, by a fresh series of revelations through an angel in the guise of a Shepherd, who in a preliminary interview announces himself as the Angel of Repentance, sent to administer the special “repentance” which it was Hermas’s mission to declare. This interview appears in our MSS. as Vis. v.,[2] but is really a prelude to the Mandates and Similitudes which form the bulk of the whole work, hence known as “The Shepherd.” The relation of this second part to Vis. i.-iv. is set forth by the Shepherd himself. “I was sent, quoth he, to show thee again all that thou sawest before, to wit the sum of the things profitable for thee. First of all write thou my mandates and similitudes; and the rest, as I will show thee, so shalt thou write.” This programme is fulfilled in the xii. Mandates—perhaps suggested by the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (see Didache), which Hermas knows—and Similitudes i.-viii., while Simil. ix. is “the rest” and constitutes a distinct “book” (Sim. ix. 1. 1, x. 1. 1). In this latter the building of the Tower, already shown in outline in Vis. iii., is shown “more carefully” in an elaborate section dealing with the same themes. One may infer that Sim. ix. represents a distinctly later stage in Hermas’s ministry—during the whole of which he seems to have committed to writing what he received on each occasion,[3] possibly for recital to the church (cf. Vis. ii. fin.). Finally came Sim. x., really an epilogue in which Hermas is “delivered” afresh to the Shepherd, for the rest of his days. He is “to continue in this ministry” of proclaiming the Shepherd’s teaching, “so that they who have repented or are about to repent may have the same mind with thee,” and so receive a good report before God (Sim. x. 2 2-4). Only they must “make haste to do aright,” lest while they delay the tower be finished (4. 4), and the new aeon dawn (after the final tribulation: cf. Vis. iv. 3. 5).

The relation here indicated between the Shepherd’s instruction and the initial message of one definitive repentance, open to those believers who have already “broken” their “seal” of baptism by deadly sins, as announced in Visions i.-iv. is made yet plainer by Sim. vi. 1. 3 f. “These mandates are profitable to such as are about to repent; for except they walk in them their repentance is in vain.” Hermas sees that mere repentance is not enough to meet the backsliding condition in which so many Christians then were, owing to the recoil of inveterate habits of worldliness[4] entrenched in society around and within. It is, after all, too negative a thing to stand by itself or to satisfy God. “Cease, Hermas,” says the Church, “to pray all about thy sins. Ask for righteousness also” (Vis. iii. 1. 6). The positive Christian ideal which “the saints” should attain, “the Lord enabling,” it is the business of the Shepherd to set forth.

Here lies a great merit of Hermas’s book, his insight into experimental religion and the secret of failure in Christians about him, to many of whom Christianity had come by birth rather than personal conviction. They shared the worldly spirit in its various forms, particularly the desire for wealth and the luxuries it affords, and for a place in “good society”—which meant a pagan atmosphere. Thus they were divided in soul between spiritual goods and worldly pleasures, and were apt to doubt whether the rewards promised by God to the life of “simplicity” (all Christ meant by the childlike spirit, including generosity in giving and forgiving) and self-restraint, were real or not. For while the expected “end of the age” delayed, persecutions abounded. Such “doubled-souled” persons, like Mr Facing-both-ways, inclined to say, “The Christian ideal may be glorious, but is it practicable?” It is this most fatal doubt which evokes the Shepherd’s sternest rebuke; and he meets it with the ultimate religious appeal, viz. to “the glory of God.” He who made man “to rule over all things under heaven,” could He have given behests beyond man’s ability? If only a man “hath the Lord in his heart,” he “shall know that there is nothing easier nor sweeter nor gentler than these mandates” (Mand. xii. 3-4). So in the forefront of the Mandates stands the secret of all: “First of all believe that there is one God. . . . Believe therefore in Him, and fear Him, and fearing Him have self-mastery. For the fear of the Lord dwelleth in the good desire,” and to “put on” this master-desire is to possess power to curb “evil desire” in all its shapes (Mand. xii. 1-2). Elsewhere “good desire” is analysed into the “spirits” of the several virtues, which yet are organically related, Faith being mother, and Self-mastery her daughter, and so on (Vis. iii. 8. 3 seq.; cf. Sim. ix. 15). These are the specific forms of the Holy Spirit power, without whose indwelling the mandates cannot be kept (Sim. x. 3; cf. ix. 13. 2, 24. 2).

Thus the “moralism” sometimes traced in Hermas is apparent rather than real, for he has a deep sense of the enabling grace of God. His defect lies rather in not presenting the historic Christ as the Christian’s chief inspiration, a fact which connects itself with the strange absence of the names “Jesus” and “Christ.” He uses rather “the Son of God,” in a peculiar Adoptianist sense, which, as taken for granted in a work by the bishop’s own brother, must be held typical of the Roman Church of his day. But as it is implicit and not part of his distinctive message, it did not hinder his book from enjoying wide quasi-canonical honour during most of the Ante-Nicene period.

The absence of the historic names, “Jesus” and “Christ,” may be due to the form of the book as purporting to quote angelic communications. This would also explain the absence of explicit scriptural citations generally, though knowledge both of the Old Testament and of several New Testament books—including the congenially symbolic Gospel of John—is clear (cf. The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, Oxford, 1905, 105 seq.). The one exception is a prophetic writing, the apocryphal Book of Eldad and Modad, which is cited apparently as being similar in the scope of its message. Among its non-scriptural sources may be named the allegoric picture of human life known as Tabula Cebetis (cf. C. Taylor, as below), the Didachē, and perhaps certain “Sibylline Oracles.”

Hermas regarded Christians as “justified by the most reverend Angel” (i.e. the pre-existent Holy Spirit or Son, who dwelt in Christ’s “flesh”), in baptism, the “seal” which even Old Testament saints had to receive in Hades (Sim. ix. 16. 3-7) and so attain to “life.” Yet the degree of “honour” (e.g. that of martyrs, Vis. iii. 2; Sim. ix. 28), the exact place in the kingdom or consummated church (the Tower), is given as reward for zeal in doing God’s will beyond the minimum requisite in all. Here comes in Hermas’s doctrine of works of supererogation, in fulfilment of counsels of perfection, on lines already seen in Did. vi. 2, cf. i. 4, and reappearing in the two types of Christian recognized by Clement and Origen and in later Catholicism. Again his doctrine of fasting is a spiritualizing of a current opus operatum conception on Jewish lines as though “keeping a watch” (statio) in that way atoned for sins (Sim. v.). The Shepherd enjoins instead, first, as “a perfect fast,” a fast “from every evil word and every evil desire, . . . from all the vanities of this world-age” (3. 6; cf. Barn. iii. and the Oxyrhynchus Saying, “except ye fast from the world”); and next, as a counsel of perfection, a fast to yield somewhat for the relief of the widow and orphan, that this extra “service” may be to God for a “sacrifice.”

Generally speaking, Hermas’s piety, especially in its language, adheres closely to Old Testament forms. But it is doubtful (pace Spina and Völter, who assume a Jewish or a proselyte basis) whether this means more than that the Old Testament was still the Scriptures of the Church. In this respect, too, Hermas faithfully reflects the Roman Church of the early 2nd century (cf. the language of 1 Clem., esp. the liturgical parts, and even the Roman Mass). Indeed the prime value of the Shepherd is the light it casts on Christianity at Rome in the otherwise obscure period c. 110–140, when it had as yet hardly felt the influences converging on it from other centres of tradition and thought. Thus Hermas’s comparatively mild censures on Gnostic teachers in Sim. ix. suggest that the greater systems, like the Valentinian and Marcionite, had not yet made an impression there, as Harnack argues that they must have done by c. 145. This date, then, is a likely lower limit for Hermas’s revision of his earlier prophetic memoranda, and their publication in a single homogeneous work, such as the Shepherd appears to be. Its wider historic significance—it was felt by its author to be adapted to the needs of the Church at large, and was generally welcomed as such—is great but hard to determine in detail.[5] What is certain is its influence on the development of the Church’s policy as to discipline in grave cases, like apostasy and adultery—a burning question for some generations from the end of the 2nd century, particularly in Rome and North Africa. Indirectly, too, Hermas tended to keep alive the idea of the Christian prophet, even after Montanism had helped to discredit it.

Literature.—The chief modern edition is by O. von Gebhardt and A. Harnack, in Fasc. iii. of their Patr. apost. opera (Leipzig, 1877); it is edited less fully by F. X. Funk, Patr. apost. (Tübingen, 1901), and in an English trans., with Introduction and occasional notes, by Dr C. Taylor (S.P.C.K., 2 vols., 1903–1906). For the wide literature of the subject, see the two former editions, also Harnack’s Chronologie der altchr. Lit. i. 257 seq., and O. Bardenhewer, Gesch. der altkirchl. Lit. i. 557 seq. For the authorship see Apocalyptic Literature, sect. III.  (J. V. B.) 

  1. More than one interpretation, typical or otherwise, of this “Clement” is possible; but none justifies us in assigning even to this Vision a date consistent with that usually given to the traditional bishop of this name (see Clement I.). Yet we may have to correct the dubious chronology of the first Roman bishops by this datum, and prolong his life to about A.D. 110. This is Harnack’s date for the nucleus of Vis. ii., though he places our Vis. i.-iii. later in Trajan’s reign, and thinks Vis. iv. later still.
  2. That a prior vision in which Hermas was “delivered” to the Shepherd’s charge, has dropped out, seems implied by Vis. v. 3 f., Sim. x. 1. 1.
  3. Harnack places “The Shepherd” proper mostly under Hadrian (117–138), and the completed work c. 140-145.
  4. A careful study of practical Christian ethics at Rome as implied in the Shepherd, will be found in E. von Dobschütz, Christian Life in the Primitive Church (1904).
  5. Note the prestige of martyrs and confessors, the ways of true and false prophets in Mand. xi., and the different types of evil and good “walk” among Christians, e.g. in Vis. iii. 5-7; Mand. viii.; Sim. viii.