Shepherd of Hermas: Author, Dates, and Exclusion from the Bible

Written by Joshua Schachterle, Ph.D

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Date written: October 30th, 2023

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

One of the most popular books that was ultimately left out of the New Testament was the Shepherd of Hermas. It’s an early Christian document that gives us a window into a Christian community and doctrine in the 2nd century. In this article, I’ll explore this text, its authorship, and its dominant themes.

Shepherd of Hermas - Author, Dates, and Exclusion from Bible

Who Wrote the Shepherd of Hermas?

The author claims to be Hermas, a freed Christian slave. Scholars find no reason to doubt these facts. However, even in the ancient world, a lot of people wrote about who Hermas was. The Muratorian Fragment, a list of canonical New Testament books written in 170 CE gives some info about this author:

But Hermas wrote The Shepherd very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, while bishop Pius, his brother, was occupying the chair of the church of the city of Rome.

We know that Pope Pius was the bishop of Rome from 140-154 CE. Since the Muratorian Fragment was written around 170 CE, we can probably trust this author that Hermas was, at the very least, a prominent Christian author in  2nd-century Rome.

When was the Shepherd Written?

Referring again to the blurb from the Muratorian Fragment, if the Shepherd was written “in our times” and the Fragment was written around 170 CE, scholars generally believe that the Shepherd was written in the mid-2nd century.

There is, however, a reference in the Shepherd to a person named Clement, who some have assumed is the author of a letter called 1 Clement and an early bishop of Rome who wrote around 90 CE. It is possible that the Shepherd was written around that time. However, most scholars still date the Shepherd to the middle of the 2nd century.

What is the Shepherd About?

The Shepherd is a long book. As Bart Ehrman points out, its overriding concern is the question of what to do when a person who has been baptized sins again. It consists of three sections: the visions, the mandates (or commandments), and the similitudes (or parables). Let’s look at these sections one at a time.

The Visions

The book starts by introducing Hermas, a former slave living in Rome. Hermas is given five visions in this section.

Walking from Rome to a city called Cumae, Hermas falls asleep, seeing a vision which commands him to repent. An elderly woman who is the embodiment and a representation of the Church appears and speaks to him. Another character then explains that the Church is an old woman because she was the first created thing.

Each time Hermas sees her, though, she has grown younger until in the end, she appears as a lovely young bride, the bride of Christ as written about in Ephesians 5:22-33. Hermas discovers later that her gradual transformation represents his soul’s improvement.

One powerful image comes from the third vision. In this vision, Hermas is shown some young men building a tower “upon the waters.” The waters are a symbol of baptism, but each of the young men brings stones one at a time and fits them together so well that it looks like the tower is made of one large stone. The tower is another symbol of the church and each of the stones are individual Christians who, when they join the Church, become one.

It is during the fifth and final vision that Hermas finally meets the shepherd, an angel responsible for bringing about Hermas to repentance. He also later grants Hermas the mandates and the similitudes, both of which communicate ethical doctrines.

Why isn’t the shepherd of hermas in the Bible

The Mandates

The Mandates are a group of twelve commandments or behavioral rules which Hermas is tasked with relaying to the Church:

  • Believe in God
  • To live in simplicity and innocence; do not speak evil and give alms to all who beg
  • Love truth and avoid falsehood
  • Preserve chastity in your thoughts
  • Learn patience and generosity
  • To know that with every man, there is a good and an evil spirit
  • To fear God and not to fear the devil
  • To do every good and to refrain from every evil deed
  • To pray to God from the depth of the soul with faith that our prayer will be fulfilled
  • To guard against melancholy as the sister of doubt and anger
  • To question true and false prophecies
  • To guard against every evil desire

The main thrust of the ethics in the Shepherd has to do with repentance and penance. Many ancient Christians believed that one could only be baptized once and then had to keep all the ethical commandments for the rest of their life.

For this reason, a lot of Christians waited for many years to be baptized, hoping to become better people so they wouldn’t sin after baptism. So, what could people do if they sinned after they were baptized?

The shepherd tells Hermas that for those who have been baptized, repentance is still possible but only within a certain fixed period set by the angel. He says, “The repentance of the righteous has limits.” This repentance must include fasting, self-discipline, and prayer for the forgiveness of one’s own sins and the sins of others.

The Similitudes

The Similitudes are ten parables the shepherd tells Hermas in the form of visions. The tower from the earlier visions is shown again, for example, emphasizing the same symbolic meaning.

Unlike in the earlier vision in which it appears that only holy people can be the stones in the tower, however, this similitude makes it abundantly clear that anyone who is baptized is included. However, if people commit severe enough sins after baptism, they can be ejected until they repent and do penance.

Why Isn’t the Shepherd of Hermas in the Bible?

The Shepherd of Hermas was incredibly popular for the first four centuries of Christian history. This makes its eventual exclusion seem odd. What about it was so objectionable that it would not only be left out of the New Testament but even disappear from the lives of most Christians?

According to Robert Heaton, it all begins in the fourth century with an embattled Egyptian bishop named Athanasius. In another article, I wrote that Athanasius was the first Christian author we know of to publish a list of which books should be included in the Bible.

He didn’t prohibit the Shepherd (and some other popular books). Rather, he said that while it was good for Christians to read, it was not worthy of being called Holy Scripture. Why did he say this about the Shepherd?

Athanasius’ time was highly contentious for Christianity. The Council of Nicaea, which Athanasius attended, a meeting of Christian bishops, was convened by the Christian emperor Constantine in 325 CE. The bishops defined orthodox beliefs at this council, which were then approved by the emperor.

Heaton argues that the Shepherd, while not offensive to Athanasius, failed to meet his criteria for solidifying the orthodoxy of Nicaea. It said very little about correct beliefs, preferring to speak of ethical actions as crucial for salvation.

Additionally, the words “Jesus” and “Christ” are completely absent from the Shepherd. There is a Son of God mentioned but he’s never explicitly identified with Jesus.

Finally, it was not written by an apostle, nor did it claim to be. For many, this was enough to deny scriptural status to the Shepherd of Hermas.

Conclusion: What Was the Shepherd of Hermas?

What is the historical significance of the Shepherd? This text was incredibly popular with early Christians. To this day, there are more surviving manuscripts of the Shepherd than of any other New Testament book besides Matthew and John. Nevertheless, it was denied canonical status.

Who wrote the Shepherd and when? It was probably written by Hermas, a former slave who was a Christian. Hermas may or may not have been the brother of Pius I, a bishop of Rome. It was likely written in the mid-2nd century.

What is the Shepherd of Hermas about? The overall question the Shepherd addresses through visions, commandments, and parables, is what Christians can do if they sin after their baptism. Its answer? A person who sins after baptism has one more chance to repent, but only one.

Why was the Shepherd left out of the New Testament, despite its popularity? The Shepherd didn’t address orthodox beliefs, dominant at the Council of Nicaea, but rather focused on ethical actions in order to achieve salvation. In addition, the name Jesus is never mentioned and the author doesn’t even pretend to be an apostle.

Josh Schachterle

About the author

After a long career teaching high school English, Joshua Schachterle completed his PhD in New Testament and Early Christianity in 2019. He is the author of "John Cassian and the Creation of Monastic Subjectivity." When not researching, Joshua enjoys reading, composing/playing music, and spending time with his wife and two college-aged children.

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