Shepherd of Hermas (Discussion of an Ancient Christian Text)

View an educational discussion on the ancient Christian text, The Shepherd of Hermas, including introductory matters, issues of enslavement in the text, and its manuscript tradition.

Video

In this video, Chance Bonar covers introductory issues, the language of enslavement present in the text, and the text's rich and varied manuscript traditions. 

 

About Shepherd of Hermas

(Notes and Images from the Interview) 

Shepherd of Hermas is a 114-chapter account of visions, commandments, and parables given by two divine interlocutors. These are purportedly recorded by a formerly enslaved man named Hermas near Rome over a series of decades in the late 1st and early 2nd century CE. (The historicity of Hermas is a thorny issue, and a discussion that goes beyond this overview.) The text comes in three main sections: the Visions (ch. 1-25), Mandates (ch. 26-49), and Similitudes (ch. 50-114). There are two main stories: (1) Hermas in dialogue with the Church (Ἐκκλησία; ch. 1-24), and (2) the narrator in dialogue with an angel called the Shepherd (ch. 25-114).

As the video discusses, Christians across Eurasia were using and talking about Shepherd of Hermas from the 2nd century CE onward, with various uses. It was translated from Greek to Latin, Coptic, Ethiopic, Middle Persian, Arabic, and Georgian.

Starting with the Greek, we have at least 27 Greek manuscripts of the Shepherd before the 7th century. For context, the only New Testament texts that we have more material evidence for are the Gospels of John and Matthew. People were reading Shepherd on papyri and parchment, in codices and rolls and opisthographs, trying to get whatever part was meaningful for them down on the page.

For example, here's P.Mich. 130, a 2nd/3rd century fragment of the Mandates section written on the back of a land contract.

P.Mich. 130, a 2nd/3rd ct. fragment of the Mandates written on the back of a land contract.

P.Mich. 130, a 2nd/3rd ct. fragment of the Mandates written on the back of a land contract.

It also appears in one of our most famous manuscripts, Codex Sinaiticus, alongside the Epistle of Barnabas at the end of other biblical books. It seems that the wealthy & not-so-wealthy alike read or heard it.

Selection of Hermas in Codex Sinaiticus
A Selection of Hermas in Codex Sinaiticus

 

Early Christian writers refer to the text often. Irenaeus calls it scripture (γραφή) in the late 2nd century and cites Mandate 1.1, which talks about God creating out of nothing that which didn't exist (ex nihlo). Clement of Alexandria frequently cites Hermas's revelatory visions. Tertullian rails against the Shepherd by claiming it's "apocryphal and forged," distressed that Christians are engraving shepherds into their chalices and trusting its doctrinal teachings about a second repentance.

Origen gives us our first attempted identification of the Shepherd's authorship, claiming that it's Paul's correspondent from Romans 16.14. His theory doesn't seem to pan out in the long run, since Hermas becomes associated with the brother of Pope Pius I (81-154 CE). Hermas as the pope's brother seems to have its first mention in the Muratorian Fragment, a 2nd or 4th century Latin text that tries to limit reading the Shepherd in churches — because the Shepherd was apparently a very popular text in churches! We hear about this too from the likes of Athanasius, Eusebius, Jerome (see ch. 10 at this link), and Rufinus. People were reading the Shepherd in church contexts and/or for catechesis, and even those who don't think it falls into the canon by the 4th ct. agree that it's an important book.

Cyril of Jerusalem associates a disciple of Mani named Thomas with the Gospel of Thomas, and another disciple named Hermas/Hermeias with a text popular in Egypt. Perhaps this is a reference to the Shepherd? It is difficult to say for sure. Pseudo-Tertullian's Song Against Marcionites may conflate Hermas with the Shepherd who gives him the message, while the 6th ct. Book of the Popes definitely thinks the angelic Shepherd himself is the brother of Pius I. 

In Latin, we have two different translations from the 2nd/3rd and 5th ct. One of our earliest attestations comes from an anonymous 3rd ct. sermon called On Gamblers, which cites the Shepherd to argue against Christians dice playing. The later Latin translation first pops up in the 6th ct. Life of St. Genevieve. The Shepherd might be lurking behind texts such as Boethius's Consolation and Waladfrid Strabo's Visio Wettini.

Another Latin transmissions is found in Irish canon law — the Collection canonum Hibernensis, which uses the Shepherd to comment on divorce. 8th ct. Irish clergy still found it useful for ecclesiastical and legal processes!

Collection canonum Hibernensis

Collection canonum Hibernensis

In Coptic, we have 4 manuscripts, all dating from the 4th-7th ct. These manuscripts provide evidence of different enumeration of the text's sections.

Shepherd of Hermas attested in Coptic

Shepherd of Hermas attested in Coptic

For Ethiopic, we have 4 manuscripts, likely dating back to a 6th ct. transmission. It's one of our most complete versions and needs to be better utilized to understand the few chapters that aren't preserved in Greek anymore.

For Middle Persian: We have one great little piece that needs more research, but seems to be a Manichaean copy of Similitudes 9 with some commentary on it.

Middle Persian, Similitudes 9

Middle Persian, Similitudes 9

For Arabic and Georgian: The Arabic is unfortunately lost, but the Georgian is a fascinating copy of the Mandates in which pseudonymous "Ephrem" is the author and narrator, not Hermas!

Shepherd of Hermas attested in Georgian

Shepherd of Hermas attested in Georgian

The Shepherd continued to be copied throughout the medieval period, with our most important manuscript making its way from Constantinople to Mt. Athos sometime after the 14th ct. It's very, very small script on 9 extant leaves. As a side note, the famous forger Constantine Simonides found this MS, sold 3 leaves to Leipzig, & forged versions of the other 6. So it wasn't until we realized they were forged that a new Greek edition was made with the correct 9 extant leaves.

Hermas manuscript from Mt. Athos

Hermas manuscript from Mt. Athos

The first European "scholarly" publication happened in 1513 in Faber Stapulensis's Liber trium virorum, alongside figures like Hildegard and Mechthild

Faber Stapulensis's Liber trium virorum

Faber Stapulensis's Liber trium virorum

Eventually, Jean Baptiste Cotelier (1672) would include it in his collection that would eventually be known as the Apostolic Fathers, but the Greek text wouldn't reach scholars until the 19th ct.

Jean Baptiste Cotelier
Jean Baptiste Cotelier's edition of Shepherd of Hermas

Beyond the manuscripts, a 3rd century fresco of the tower vision (Vis. 3 or Sim. 9) in the Catacomb of San Gennaro in Naples. It’s our only visual culture of the Shepherd!