EARLY CHRISTIANITY: The Shepherd of Hermas – Early Christian Writer

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APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS

Introduction

Barry Hofstetter is an instructor of Latin at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. Previously: he North American Reformed Seminary and The American Academy. He Studied M.Div. and Th.M. at Westminster Theological Seminary. Graduated in 1991

The Shepherd of Hermas is part of that collection of writings that since the 19th century has been termed “The Apostolic Fathers,” the first generation of Christian leaders writing after the end of the apostolic age and the completion of the New Testament (NT) canonical documents. These writings are a vital part of our understanding regarding the development of Christianity. How did the ancient Christians understand the Gospel and apply it to their own context? We find in them a witness to the fact that certain documents of the NT were known to the ancient Christians. We see development regarding doctrine and practical issues which contribute significantly to the later history of the church. The Shepherd of Hermas is arguably somewhat later than some of the other documents in the collection (see below), but still provides a fascinating witness to the way in which one ancient author saw the paradosis (tradition) in application to his own context.[1] As we shall see, however, the author’s conception of that tradition is quite different from the NT and even the other writings contemporaneous with him.

9781949586121 BIBLE DIFFICULTIES THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

Summary, Structure and Genre

The Shepherd of Hermas begins with a Christian slave named Hermas who is sold by his master to a woman in Rome named Rhoda. He is apparently set free by her, and as a freedman goes on to live a moderately successful life engaging in the types of business to which freedmen were accustomed to pursuing.[2] Many years later, he sees her bathing in the Tiber river and is sorely tempted by her beauty. This moral lapse results in a great deal of soul-searching on his behalf, and provides the segue into the rest of the work and its primary concern with the issues of what it means to live a moral Christian life, and particularly the issue of repentance. Hermas is the central character of the work, with regard to whom these issues are explored. He successively meets, as he seeks to improve his life as a Christian, the Woman (the church) and the Shepherd (who may or may not stand in a position similar to that of the Lord). The work therefore take the shape of a novella or a morality play with a definite plot. It is divided historically into three sections, the Visions, the Mandates (precepts or instructions) and Similitudes (parables). Unlike a modern writing, in which the author might endeavor to give each section more or less equal weight, these sections are not equal in either length or content. The Visions are actually introductory and provide what we might call now the “backstory” for the work. The great weight of the moral and theological instruction are contained in the second and third parts. The genre is partly in the form of an apocalypse, showing the triumph of the church over and against the secular forces arrayed against her, and partly in the form of parables.

Authorship, Date and Provenance

There is more than one theory concerning the authorship of the work. One is that the Hermas of the story is the individual known to the apostle Paul (cf. Rom 16:14). This is by far the least likely theory, but demonstrates the tendency of both ancients and some moderns to make connections based on very tenuous facts, in this case the same name. Another theory is that Hermas was a contemporary of yet another of the apostolic fathers, Clement of Rome, and this connection is made from Vision 2.4.3:

Thou shalt therefore write two little books, and shalt send one to Clement, and one to Grapte. So Clement shall send to the foreign cities, for this is his duty; while Grapte shall instruct the widows and the orphans. But thou shalt read (the book) to this city along with the elders that preside over the Church.[3]

This theory, based on actual textual evidence from the document, has much greater weight, but is still unlikely. The Clement mentioned is not referred to as presiding over the church at Rome, but seems to have the duty of passing correspondence on to “foreign” cities (Grk, “outside” cities), a duty which may or may not have belonged to someone of the rank of bishop, but one might expect a little more description if it was the bishop of Rome.

THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

The third and most likely theory is that Hermas was the brother of “Pope”[4] Pius the first of Rome (c. 140-155). The authority for this is the famous Muratorian Canon, a list of writings considered canonical or non-canonical by the compiler. This provides an external referent that in the absence of any competing facts to the contrary is likely to be accurate.

But Hermas composed The Shepherd quite recently in our times in the city of Rome, while his brother, Pius, the bishop, occupied the [episcopal] seat of the city of Rome. [45] And therefore, it should indeed be read, but it cannot be published for the people in the Church, [46] neither among the Prophets, since their number is complete, [47] nor among the Apostles for it is after their time…[5]

Most scholars are agreed that the Muratorian Canon was originally composed in the second century, although some think it may have been as late as the fourth. It is on interesting grounds that the compiler rejects the canonicity of the text. We shall see below that there are even more compelling reasons for not including it in the canon of Scripture.

If this is accurate, it also gives us the approximate date of the composition, which would be mid- to later second century A.D. This assumes single authorship of the text, something which several scholars dispute (for what I think are insufficient reasons, discussed below).

The provenance is the place where the text was written. The simplest explanation would be city of Rome. The author in several places shows familiarity with the city and its environs, and clearly represents the action as taking place in that locale. Whether this is actually the case is less important than the fact that the church of Rome even in ancient times had a certain priority, both due to the legends of the apostles who had resided there and due its location in the capital of the empire. By placing the action there, the writer lends a certain gravitas to the work which would help his readers take it more seriously.

The Epistle to the Hebrews PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL

Manuscripts and Language

An incomplete Greek copy of the Shepherd is included in codes Sinaiticus, perhaps the most important ancient manuscript left to us from ancient times. The other Greek manuscript (also incomplete) is the Athos manuscript, dating from the fourth century. There are also a number of Latin manuscripts in two distinct textual traditions (the Old Latin Version and the Palatine). These are complete. In the Lightfoot edition, the two Greek manuscripts are combined to produce the text, but the reader may be surprised that the final part of the text finishes in Latin. There is also an Aethiopic version, and occasional citations by ancient authorities, and especially Clement of Alexandria and Origen.[6]

The character of the Greek is quite interesting. The syntax (the actual grammar and order of the words) is quite simple. We have reasonably short sentences which tend to use a paratactic arrangement, similar to the style found in the Johannine writings in the NT. This means that the author favors coordinating conjunctions rather than subordinate clauses or the equivalent, and avoids long sentences with several clauses. The style is very consistent throughout. This indicates to me that there is one author for the text, though arguably you could have an editor who simply made sure that the combined parts are consistent in style, but that seems less likely. Usually in a redacted text, one can find sufficient inconsistencies in style to at least make the case. If the reference to Clement is to the bishop of Rome, then this might indicate that the text was written in several parts over a long period of time, concluding in the mid-second century.

Jesus Paul THE EVANGELISM HANDBOOK

The author also seems to have a fairly limited vocabulary, which might indicate familiarity in Greek only with early Christian writings. Most of his vocabulary will be familiar to students of NT Greek. He tends to communicate the same ideas in the same words over and over again. This is often a feature of people who are writing in a second language that they do not know that well. A native or bi-lingual speaker of a language will often vary his vocabulary and expressions intuitively according to the context, but one who is not fluent but at a lesser level of mastery will tend to stay in the confines of what he has learned. If he is familiar with a particular body of literature or a particular linguaculture his speech and writing will reflect that. If in fact the provenance of the text is Rome, it may be that Hermas’ first language was Latin, and that his Greek was limited to the Christian writings available to him and the Greek that may still have been spoken in the church of Rome at that time.

At the same time, like the NT authors, although his language would not be the polished and educated Greek of the literati, he still uses quite sophisticated literary devices and figures to communicate his content. This suggests to me that the style may actually be to some extent affected. In other words, he may be deliberately imitating the simpler style of the NT and other early Christians authors, for the simple reason that this might have sounded to his readers more authentic, much as Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon in 17th century English, even though writing in the 19th century 200 hundred years after that dialect had gone out of style.

The Latin manuscripts faithfully represent the style of the Greek original.[7]

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

Comparison with the NT

Many years ago, I once had a dream, as a teenager and very young Christian, that I was visiting hell (along with several of my friends!). A demon came and gave us what looked like a NT. As I opened it up and read it, with a sinking feeling I realized it was nothing like the Bible that I had already come to cherish. This is precisely how many Christians feel when they read the Shepherd of Hermas. It clearly borrows imagery and ideas from canonical materials and the early Christian tradition, yet in content it is significantly different from the majority of the NT.

AN ENCOURAGING THOUGHT_01

Specifically it maintains what many would call salvation by works and a very strict code of moralism as the rule for the Christian life. This can be seen by a simple vocabulary study (in addition to reading the actual content). The word grace (Grk., charis) appears four times in the Shepherd, and in the more general sense of “gift” or “favor,” and not the semi-technical sense of “divine forgiveness” that it often has in the NT. In contrast, in the NT, the same word appears 155 times, the majority of these in the Pauline epistles. Grace is clearly not an important concept for the author of the Shepherd. By contrast, repentance (Grk., metanoia) appears 13 times in the Shepherd and the verb repent (Grk., metanoeo) appears 93 times. The verb appears 34 times in the NT and the noun 22 times. While word studies are not the whole story (the context and usage of the words is very important) here it reveals a clear difference in the emphasis, indeed, a difference in conceptualization, between the Shepherd and the NT. For Hermas, the focus is on the deeds of the individual, and particularly repentance, and not on the work of grace from God that produces that repentance, as in the NT.

THE CREATION DAYS OF GENESIS gift of prophecy

This becomes even clearer when we read the actual content of the Shepherd. One of the major problems of the early church was repentance after baptism. Baptism covered sin up until the time of the baptism, but what if one sinned after baptism? Related to his was the problem of lapsing during persecution. If one recanted the faith in order to save his life and property, could he then repent and return to the fold after the persecution was over? You can imagine the very human reaction of many who remained faithful and suffered great loss. Their answer was often a resounding “no!” and this led directly to the “second repentence” controversy. Because of The Shepherd’s handling of this, some have dated the text later, but it was an issue of continuing concern for the ancient church, and was applicable to all sins, not just lapsing under persecution. The Shepherd’s answer to this issue is that one repentance for sin after baptism is acceptable, but no more.

After that thou hast made known unto them all these words, which the Master commanded me that they should be revealed unto thee, then all their sins which they sinned aforetime are forgiven to them; yea, and to all the saints that have sinned unto this day, if they repent with their whole heart, and remove double-mindedness from their heart. 5For the Master sware by His own glory, as concerning His elect; that if, now that this day has been set as a limit, sin shall hereafter be committed, they shall not find salvation; for repentance for the righteous hath an end; the days of repentance are accomplished for all the saints; whereas for the Gentiles there is repentance until the last day.[8]

Sir,’ say I, ‘to ask a further question.’ ‘Speak on,’ saith he. ‘I have heard, Sir,’ say I, ‘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.’…But I say unto you,’ saith he, ‘if after this great and holy calling any one, being tempted of the devil, shall commit sin, he hath only one (opportunity of) repentance.[9]

DEFENDING OLD TESTAMENT AUTHORSHIP Agabus Cover BIBLICAL CRITICISM

Now, what would the NT perspective on this be? Is there a limit on forgiveness for sins? For one thing, baptism is seen as a sign and symbol for the forgiveness of sins, not that which actually produces that forgiveness. In the NT, it is particularly faith which obtains forgiveness. Of the many verses that could be cited:

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. [10]

We also have:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. [11]

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.[12]

From these and other NT passages, a case could be made that there is no limit at all to forgiveness of sins. One issue that the Shepherd is clearly concerned with is antinomianism, the idea that one can, after having received forgiveness, sin with impunity. The answer the Shepherd invents is that this simply means one loses his salvation. Even if one repentance is valid after baptism, that is still essentially salvation by works. The answer of the NT is that forgiveness is radical, total and eternal, but if that forgiveness is truly obtained, then it results in a completely different lifestyle for the individual. The Christian will become concerned with living in gratitude to God for the immense gift he has received. When he does sin, he will grieve, and immediately seek to restore his relationship with God. It is the love of God which is the motivation for living a moral life in the NT. It is the fear of God, not in the biblical sense of awe or reverence, but in the sense of true fear, of losing eternal life and eternal punishment, that is presented as the motivation in the Shepherd.

is-the-quran-the-word-of-god UNDERSTANDING ISLAM AND TERRORISM THE GUIDE TO ANSWERING ISLAM.png

Conclusion

The Shepherd is an important document from early church history, a witness to the different ways in which the early Christian tradition could be interpreted. From a literary perspective, it is a fascinating use of allegory and parable used to communicate its message. From a biblical and evangelical perspective, however, the doctrine of the work is completely contrary to the Gospel. For this reason, the ancient church did well not to include it in the canon, and not simply because it was a later work not to be included with the apostles. It reminds us that heresy can be produced at any time, and even become popular in certain circles, and that we must be ever vigilant to guard the truth as expressed in the canonical Scriptures. Reading the Shepherd and other writings produced after the completion of the NT also highlights the superiority of the NT with its high view of soteriology (salvation) and Christology (doctrine of Christ), both of which are severely lacking in the Shepherd.

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[1] I am using the Lightfoot edition of the Apostolic Fathers, both Greek (mostly) and English translation. The English translation is readily available on the Web, and though usually attributed to Lightfoot, was actually produced by his colleague J.R. Harmer, as the introductory note to the text indicates. Citations in this article are actually from the Logos collection, derived from the 1891 edition published by Macmillan and Co., London.

[2] Freedmen, liberti, were a very important part of the economic context of ancient Rome, providing the backbone of what today we would call the business and mercantile classes.

[3] Lightfoot, J. B., & Harmer, J. R. (1891). The Apostolic Fathers (409). London: Macmillan and Co.

[4] The term “pope” of so early a figure is almost certainly anachronistic, but he is so called even by Protestant scholars.

[5] Found online at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/muratorian-latin.html

[6]  Lightfoot, p. 294-297.

[7] I can’t comment on the Aethiopic, since I know nothing about that language.

[8] Lightfoot, J. B., & Harmer, J. R. (1891). The Apostolic Fathers (408). London: Macmillan and Co.

[9] Lightfoot, J. B., & Harmer, J. R. (1891). The Apostolic Fathers (425). London: Macmillan and Co.

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Ro 3:21–26). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[11] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (1 Jn 1:9). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[12] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (1 Jn 2:1). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

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