Shepherd of Hermas

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The Shepherd of Hermas is a book that contains five visions, twelve commandments, and ten parables. It was originally written in Greek, but Latin versions have also been discovered. It fits the genre of apocalyptic literature and was very popular for centuries. Through the form of angelic messengers (a shepherd and an old woman), it imparts divine revelations to Hermas. Upon request, the messenger also interpreted the revelations.

The visions and parables are somewhat obscure, but the commandments are straightforward. One should do good deeds, be truthful, pay alms, and remain pure. The major concern of the book is to address what happens when a baptized Christian faltered, either by renouncing the faith or simply going back to a sinful life. The predominant theology suggested that these individuals were doomed to a life of eternal torment. Yet the book of Hermas allowed for a second chance, only one more chance, which is better than none at all. By following the mandates outlined in the book, the shepherd revealed that people could repent and receive God's promise and grace.

The book opens with Hermas' first person account of a vision. He was on the road to Cumae when he had a vision of Rhoda (who had already died, whom "he loved like a sister"). She informed him that she was his accuser in heaven because he had once had an impure thought about her. For this reason, he was directed to pray for forgiveness, not only for himself, but also for his whole household.

Obviously, this was very upsetting to him because he was an upright and just man – he was also married with children. He believed the sin would cost him salvation and there was virtually nothing he could do about it. While he agonized over this new information, an old woman appeared to him. She asked why he looked so sad, and he told her about his previous vision. She acknowledged, "….probably something did rise up in your heart." This, however, was balanced by his "fully-tested spirit, self control, and abstinence from every evil desire."

Nonetheless, she told him God was still angry with him, not for this sin but because he indulged not only his children but also his entire household. His lack of oversight allowed them to commit sins with impunity. That had to stop. She, then, began to read to him about the glories of God. The images were both frightening and amazing.

The second vision occurred a year later, again, while on the road to Cumae. Troubled by the memory of the first vision, he began to pray when the old woman appeared again, reading from a book. She gave it to him to write down what it said, but he could not read it until weeks later, when its contents were revealed to him. He was, once again, admonished for the sins of his family, especially his wife. He was to instruct them, forgive them, and be reconciled to them in love. He was also instructed to read this to the elders of the church.

In the third vision, Hermas met the woman in a field. She was accompanied by six men (angels) who soon left to build a tower of stones upon the water. New stones were added to the tower seamlessly so that it looked as though it was one stone. Thousands of men brought additional stones. Some were rough and tossed aside; some came from the water; some were put in the fire. In her explanation of the parable, the stones represented various Christian lives – the smooth ones were the faithful; the stones from the water represented those who had suffered; the rough ones were those who had fallen away; the ones tossed aside were still close to the tower and could repent; those in the fire were doomed. Around the tower were seven women representing qualities of Faith, Self-restraint, Simplicity, Knowledge, Innocence, Reverence, and Love. Since the tower was a work-in-progress, people had time to embody the qualities and have a place in the tower. Hermas also noticed that over these three visions the old woman had become younger and more vibrant. This was linked to the rejuvenation of his spirit.

In the fourth vision, Hermas was told not to be of two minds. He didn't know what it meant at the time, but shortly afterward a large beast began running toward him. Instead of panicking, he turned to the Lord and the beast allowed him to pass without incident. Then the old woman returned (now as a young bride) and praised him for his faith. He was told to share his vision with the elders. While the beast represented calamities that awaited the world, it would be powerless against faithfulness and repentance.

The fifth vision brought the shepherd (the Angel of repentance) who was commissioned to live with Hermas for the rest of his life. This is the shepherd for which the book is named. The shepherd's task was to give him the twelve commandments that he was not only to write down but also to obey.

The first command was to believe in and fear God. The second was to retain the simplicity and innocence of a child by avoiding the sin of slander and doing good deeds. The third exhorted him to love and only speak the truth. By this point, Hermas felt his whole life had been a lie and begged for forgiveness. Number four involved adultery. He should remain holy and true to his wife. If his wife strayed and he knew about it, he must divorce her or be found complicit in her sin. Yet if she repented, he was obligated to take her back (one time only). He was not allowed to remarry.

The fifth commanded him to be patient and understanding. The sixth described two forces (angels) within man; one was of righteousness (good), the other of iniquity (evil). One should obviously submit to the good angel. The seventh commanded Hermas to fear God and not the devil. Those who feared God would do all things well and have dominion over the devil. Likewise, the eighth commanded him to flee from evil and to do good works. The ninth exhorted him to petition God daily and with full confidence that his prayers would be answered. Those who doubted would receive nothing.

Number ten required the putting off of all sadness — the sister of doubt and anger. Though sadness sometimes leads one to God, it is only temporary and must give way to living life joyously in God's presence. The eleventh contrasted the faithful with an earthly spirit. Both prophets, they would be defined by their life and works. One would have power; the other would be empty. Lastly, the twelfth assured him that he could keep all these commandments. The natural result would be the abhorrence of all evil and a victory for good. If he would do these things, Hermas would be an approved servant of God. Not only was he to walk in these commands, but he was also compelled to share them with others. With the Lord in his heart, he would be easily able to fulfill them.

The third part of the book is comprised of parables. Since Hermas was a wealthy man, he was asked to consider which was more important: stately buildings or a stately life? He could lose his estate, but he could never lose the good he was doing. Secondly, a rich man is likened to an elm that supports a vine. Though the elm gave no fruit, it supported the vine and was blessed by its fruit. In like manner, when a rich man reached out to the poor, he was blessed by their prayers. The third parable compared the world to winter. Just as trees could not be identified without their leaves, neither could the righteous be distinguished from the wicked in this world. The fourth parable moved to summertime, when some of the trees would be leafed out. Now one could see the green trees that represented the righteous; the dried trees would be barren and, eventually, burned.

Though the fifth parable used the metaphor of a vineyard whose owner entrusted its care to a servant, it is really about fasting. The idea is that not only should one fast, but that one should also give the food that was not used to those who need it most. The sixth parable described two shepherds. The first was young, foolish, and led others astray. The second's job was to punish those who succumbed. Every day of pleasure would result in a year of punishment. Because Hermas was troubled by that information, the angel moved to number seven. Hermas asked that the second shepherd be removed from his property, for he had done nothing wrong. The angel reminded him that he and his family had been guilty of many sins. Hermas' suffering would convict his family and lead them to repentance – a possible explanation for why the righteous suffer.

Using the image of an elm with many branches, the eighth described a whole variety of people, both righteous and sinners. To each would be given a reward that was in proportion to the measure of their good or evil deeds. The ninth is about twelve mountains that represented twelve nations, i.e. all the people of the world. The parable then returned to the image of building the tower mentioned in the third vision. The builders used stones from the various mountains, which represented all types of people. As before, some of these "stones" were rejected; others were used to build the tower (the Church). In the last parable, virgins were sent to the house of Hermas. Their job was to help him keep the commands, for the commands could not be kept without the virgins. In order for them to remain, his house would have to remain pure. He was to "go forth in your ministry," declaring God's glory.

While this book might seem to be filled with simplistic metaphors, it focuses on people who were seeking salvation. It emphasizes that the work of salvation is a process that's subject to human weaknesses. It, therefore, tries to provide a pathway forward, back to righteous behavior and God's grace. It does this by exploring repentance, safeguarding the purity of the Church, and providing hope for those who are less than they could be.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha