The Shepherd of Hermas is a series of revelatory oracles and ethical exhortations delivered by a member of an emerging Christian movement in Rome at the beginning or possibly the middle of the second century C.E. The text consists of autobiographical reports of visions as well as hortatory teaching that together instruct Roman Christians to reform their lax practices, especially economic ones, in anticipation of coming judgment. It draws its title from the work's chief medium of revelation, “the Shepherd” (Vis. 5.1 [25.1]) who appears to its protagonist, Hermas, to warn and instruct his church. As the revelations unfold, Hermas emerges as a highly stylized narrator who—as a once prosperous ex-slave, freed by his mistress, Rhoda—receives announcements of imminent apocalypse and the urgent need for him and his church to repent (Vis. 1.1.1–9 [1.1–9, in the often used alternative system of citation of Whittaker 1956]). Some scholars like Dibelius (1923, pp. 419–420, 449; for others, see Osiek 1999, pp. 23–24) have debated his historicity. Certainly he is an ideal author who simultaneously displays the work's ideal listener/reader, the well-to-do Roman Christian who takes to heart the recurring exhortations to thoroughgoing conversion. Hermas is in turns unwitting of his and his wife's and children's sinfulness and terrified and confused by his remarkable visions, which take the form of elaborate allegories of communal shortcomings, and thus emerges as one of the most endearing literary characters of early Christian literature.

The Shepherd provides an invaluable window on the social world of urban Christianity in Rome, the Roman church's emerging institutional structures of leadership, its struggles to define itself in its imperial context, and the role of belief, especially christological, ecclesiological, and penitential formulations, in assuring communal self-definition and ethical solidarity. The Shepherd's ecclesiology and considerations of the possibilities of the post-baptismal forgiveness of sins (e.g., Vis. 2.2.4–5 [7.4–5]; Mand. 4.3.1–7 [31.1–7]) brings it closest to the theological and social perspectives of its contemporary, the Epistle to the Hebrews (6:4–6; 10:26–31), arguably also written in Rome. Together with Hebrews, The Shepherd urges a firmer allegiance to communal ideals than the audiences of either document were allegedly demonstrating (Heb 10:23–25, 32–36; 12:12; Vis. 2.2.6 [6.6]; 3.11.1–3 [19.1–3]; Mand. 10.1.4–6 [40.1–6]; Sim. 4.4.5–8 [53.5–8]). Both writings share a concern for religious self-definition in an imperial capital and together furnish a snapshot of the challenges to creating a distinct Christian communal identity in the Greco-Roman world. Some have discovered in The Shepherd ancient testimony to emerging practices of penance in the ancient church, as well as a nascent theology of purgatory, as a means of securing postbaptismal cleansing from sins. Hermas does indeed concern himself with retaining the purity of baptism and the tensions between the ideals and realities of the life of faith (Snyder 1968, 69–71). His repeated calls to repent (the Greek word metanoia and its cognates occur 156 times) make repentance a red thread that unites discursively lengthy and diverse materials. It is unlikely however that the work is concerned in the first instance with penitential disciplines (against Poschmann 1940, 134–205) as much as with questions of Christian identity in a cosmopolitan city where some members at least are enjoying a relative degree of prosperity (Maier 2002, pp. 58–86; Lampe 1999, pp. 92–97). Accordingly, Osiek (1999 29) is correct to avoid a straightforward translation of metanoia as “repentance,” and opts instead for “conversion,” a more organic term that steers away from anachronistic questions of the development of doctrine and rightly orients the text to its socio-rhetorical goals of persuasion.

Canonical Status.

The Shepherd of Hermas was considered canonical in some communities of the early church until the sixth century. The Alexandrian Codex Sinaiticus (fourth century C.E.), includes approximately the first quarter of the work; the Western Codex Claromontanus (sixth century) names it in a list of canonical texts. Some early writers like Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis 1.29.181) and Origen (Commentary on Romans 10.31) cited it as scripture, but others like Athanasius (c. 293–373 C.E.) while honoring it as valuable for the instruction of catechumens (Festal Letter 39.7) did not include it in canonical lists. The Muratorian Canon (ll. 77–80), an allegedly second-century list of canonical books, explicitly rejects its canonical status and so would suggest an early disqualification as scripture. However it is possible that the Canon was devised in the fourth century and reflects ideas and debates of a later period, because of which The Shepherd was excluded (Hahnemann, 1992). Finally its records of revelations together with its Christology were most responsible for its ultimate rejection from the canon. Its self-presentation as prophetic-apocalyptic discourse made it seem Montanist, and its adoptionist christological notions rendered it incompatible with later Nicene orthodoxy. Nevertheless, it was one of the most popular and widely quoted texts by both Latin and Greek Christian authors of the first four centuries. (Whittaker 1956, pp. xix–xx; Henne 1992, pp. 15–44), a popularity evidenced by the large number of geographically distributed papyrus fragments dating from the mid-second century onward (Ehrman 2003, p. 170). The oldest virtually complete Greek text of The Shepherd is preserved in the fifteenth century Codex Athous. Two second- and fourth-century Latin translations preserve the entire text; Ethiopic, Coptic, Middle Persian, and Georgian translations contain all or parts of the work (Ehrman, pp, 170–171).

Authorship and Date.

Little is known of the author, Hermas, apart from what the text itself contains. Origen (ca. 185–254 C.E.) identified him (Commentary on Romans 10.31) with the Hermas greeted by Paul in Romans 16:14 but The Shepherd nowhere confirms this. The form of discourses which supernatural mediators instruct him to deliver indicates that in at least one Roman house church he has prophetic/oracular authority (Aune 1983, pp. 299–310), that there is some tension between his mode of authority and those of the presbyter-elders who lead the house church(es) Hermas addresses (Vis. 3.1.8 [9.8]), and that possibly Hermas is in competition with other prophetic authorities (Mand. 11.1–4 [43.1–4]). The dating of the work is highly circumstantial and made complicated by the question of redaction and seemingly conflicting external evidence. Most scholars assign a late first-century date on the basis of the reference of Vision 2.4.3 to Clement as a letter writer to foreign cities (1 Clement is a letter from the Roman to the Corinthian church). First Clement is usually dated circa 96 C.E., upon the death of the emperor Domitian (81–96 C.E.). However 1 Clement nowhere names its author, and a date of 96 rests on a debatable assessment of harassment of Roman Christians under Domitian. The Muratorian Canon furnishes evidence for a mid-second century dating, where it records that Hermas wrote The Shepherd “very recently in our times [nuperrime temporibus nostris] in the city of Rome, while bishop Pius [ca. 142–157 C.E.], his brother, was occupying the chair of the church of the city of Rome” (ll. 74–76). Theories of multiple authorship of The Shepherd center on the seeming contradiction in dates, together with alleged differences of style and contradictions of content (see especially Giet 1963; see Osiek 1999, p. 9, for further examples and discussion), but have little support (Joly 1978, pp. 411). Against the Canon's association with Pius, The Shepherd nowhere indicates the presence of a single bishop and instead everywhere presumes a more collective form of ecclesial governance (Vis. 2.4.2–3 [8.2–3]; 3.1.8 [9.8]; Sim. 9.27.2 [104.2]; Maier 2002, pp. 63–64). The anachronistic attribution of monepiscopacy by the Canon may reflect a later date and hence polemical intent against canonical attributions to The Shepherd. Most contemporary scholars (for example, Brox 1991, pp. 26–28) overcome the apparent contradiction by a theory of composition by one author over a period of time. (Henne, pp. 18–21).

Genre, Structure, and Contents.

The Shepherd is usually designated as an apocalypse because of the many literary features it shares with that genre, especially in the Visions and Parables/Similitudes: dream or ecstatic spiritual journeys; visions warning of impending judgment and world cataclysm; revelatory figures; symbolism coded to warn, convince, and exhort; revelations about the world beyond; and possible pseudonymity (Hellholm 1980). However, its extensive allegorical discourses as well as much of the content of the second section (Vis. 5 [25] and Mand. 1–12 [26–49]), though containing characteristic warnings and visions of punishment and reward, do not conform easily to the apocalypse genre and suggest that the final work is a hybrid. The Shepherd remains an important test case for the scholarly definition of what constitutes an apocalypse.

Three sections constitute the work—Visions, Commandments or Mandates, and Similitudes or Parables—according to which earlier critical editions and translations are divided. More recent editions (for example, Ehrman), following Whittaker, divide the text into a simple numerical sequence of consecutively ordered chapters and verses. The first two visions (Vis. 1.1–2.4 [1.1–8.3]) introduce The Shepherd's chief dramatis personae and establish the work's rhetorical situation. Hermas, after seeing his former master Rhoda bathe nude in the Tiber, is accused by a revelatory figure, “a beautiful lady,” of impure thoughts as well as the improper regulation of the members of his household, and goes on to learn of his church's need for conversion. The next visions (Vis. 1.1.2–5 [1.1–5], Vis. 3 and 4 [9.1–24.7]) present Hermas with predictions of coming persecution (3.2.1 [10.1]; 4.1.1–10 [22.1–10]) accompanied by allegorical expositions of the state of Hermas's church. In the first, Hermas witnesses stones of varying qualities (members of the church) being used or rejected to build or renovate a tower (the church) under construction; by benefit of a second repentance readers/hearers are to make themselves fit stones for the purified church the white stones used to build it represent. The second vision reveals a beast that is coming to persecute the church, whose persecution the audience can escape if they repent of “double-mindedness [dipsychos],” a favorite designation (occurring with cognates over fifty times) to represent the divided loyalties of The Shepherd's readers to the church and the society around them.

Vision 5 [25] introduces by way of literary transition the Mandates or Commandments section (Mand. 1–12 [26–49]). As a whole the unit represents a series of ethical reflections that, like the letter of James, offer a nondoctrinal formulation of an ethically oriented monotheistic faith, apparently absent of Christology or other definitively Christian ideas, and as such reflect a Christianity virtually indistinguishable from currents in contemporary Hellenistic, ethically oriented Judaism. The Commandments outline in fuller detail the dispositions necessary to preserve or restore the church's purity, to live in freedom from double-mindedness, and to pursue a life marked by the virtues the mandates command. Remarkable here is Hermas's theory of two angels who steer righteous and wicked inclinations (Mand. 6.2.1–10 [36.10–10]) which bears a striking resemblance to motifs in Hellenistic and rabbinic Judaism (Seitz 1947). Significant as well is Hermas's representation of a “false prophet” who enjoys a special seat in the worship assembly and who, governed by an earthly evil spirit, commends a way of wickedness (Mand. 11 [43]). He is a literary foil for the true heavenly spirit who inspires Hermas's prophetic exhortation and enjoins a life of virtue (11.7–21 [43.7–21]).

The third section, the Similitudes or Parables, constitute six allegorical parables that expand themes introduced in Visions 1–4. Similitudes 1 [50] admonishes wealthy listeners to live in Rome as foreigners, refrain from business pursuits, and care instead for the poorer members. Similitudes 2 [51] expands these exhortations though an allegory of an elm tree and a fruit-bearing vine that grows on it. The poor (the vine) rely on the rich (the elm); even as the rich care for the poor, the poor bear fruit that include prayers for the wealthy so that both benefit symbiotically. These chapters furnish one of the most informative snapshots of the social world of a diversely stratified Christian community in imperial Rome and reflect Hermas's strategy to promote the social integration of an economically stratified church (Lampe 2006, pp. 98–99). Similitudes 3–4 [52–53] develops the elm metaphor further through an allegorical treatment of budding and withered trees as symbolic of faithful Christians and the unfaithful [sinners]/outsiders who pursue economic benefits rather than keep their thoughts pure and live according to Hermas's communal ideals. In an intriguing exposition of a slave who is a faithful vinedresser of a master who leaves his slave to tend to his vineyard when away on a journey, Similitudes 5 [54–60] develops themes strongly reminiscent of Synoptic tradition parables of the Talents (Luke 19:11–27 and parallels), the Wicked Vinedressers (Mark 12:1–12 and parallels; Gos. Thom. 65), and the Barren Fig Tree (Luke. 13:6–9), and their later allegorical developments. His allegories however center on the reward of sonship to the faithful slave on account of his sharing of his master's rewards with his fellow slave. The exposition leads to a detailed elaboration of Hermas's pneumatology and its place in an inherently adoptionist Christology (5.6.1–8 [59.1–8]). In the next parable, the allegory of the willow tree (Sim. 8.1–11 [67–77]), Hermas sees willow branches in varying degrees of health. This occasions a teaching of a second repentance as all the branches are pruned and then replanted to see which will bud; those almost dead come back to life and so confirm the hope for restoration to life after postbaptismal sin. The final and lengthiest parable, 9.1–33 [78–110], is an elaborate reworking of the allegory of the tower in Visions 3 [9–21] and repeats the main themes found there, but with a more detailed exposition of the possibility of faulty-looking stones drawn from twelve different mountains, typifying the failures of Hermas's community members to preserve their purity, to be fully incorporated into the tower upon repentance (9.19–29 [96–106]). Hermas again holds the promise of a second repentance to reaffirm communal boundaries compromised by immoral, specifically immoderate economic, behaviors.


Earlier more traditional doctrinal treatments of The Shepherd as a source for evidence of emerging patterns of early Christian doctrine (Poschmann; Rahner 1982) have given way in more recent discussion to interpretations that link the work's theological teachings with its social setting and its attempts to persuade its audience of particular social outcomes. In The Shepherd Hermas offers an invaluable account of a Roman church constituted by some relatively well-to-do members whose economic interests he alleges undermine communal solidarity and group purity. Hermas deploys his visions to solidify community boundaries and to encourage a distinctive communal ethos. Its recurring life situation is a thriving imperial capital during the period of an ambitious rebuilding program initiated by the Flavian Dynasty after the destructive civil war of 69 C.E., and continued through the reign of Trajan (98–117 C.E.), and possibly beyond to those of Hadrian (117–138) and Antonius Pius (138–161). It is no accident that Hermas's favored metaphor for the church is the construction of a monumental tower.

Several important studies take up Hermas's social challenges by way of apocalyptic warning and ethical parenesis as a means of identifying more closely the social stratification of Roman Christianity and the author's efforts at social control (Riddle 1927; Osiek 1983, pp. 91–136; Lampe pp. 91–99, 218–236). Indeed Hermas's report of his own depleted wealth (Vis. 3.6.7 [15.7] provides a distinct clue about Christianity in the capital; Lampe (2003, p. 223), for example, discovers evidence of Christian harassment by the authorities taking the form of confiscation of property. Herein lies the motivation for the chief purpose of Hermas's calls to repentance and warnings about offending against baptismal purity as a means of creating religious cohesion and economic integration: the church has suffered and will suffer persecution because of its members’ “numerous businesses” (Sim. 4.5.7 [53.5–7]), and its leaders’ misuse of their wealth (Vis. 3.9.3–7 [18.3–7]). However, as the parable of the elm and the vine suggests, The Shepherd does not advocate revolution, but an ethic of mutual love and prayer centered in the practices of love patriarchalism—the uses of wealth for the sake of communal solidarity and concord. Hermas's repeated calls to repentance seek a balance between rigor and grace to achieve their parenetic aims and have led to complex appraisals of whether Hermas promotes the forgiveness of post-baptismal sin (Osiek 1999, pp. 28–30; Snyder 1968, pp. 69–71). While a theology of penance may be inherent in the work, The Shepherd's aim is hortatory, not systematic and doctrinal: social integration and religious definition rather than theological definitions are its goals.

Similarly non-doctrinally but rather socio-rhetorically oriented are The Shepherd's christological and pneumatological descriptions. Significantly the name “Jesus” appears nowhere in the text, although ambiguously “God” and “the son” do. The Shepherd's Christology and pneumatology are inconsistent. In one parable (Sim. 9.1.1 [78.1]) the “Holy Spirit” who speaks to Hermas “in the form of the church…is the Son of God,” an evocation difficult to parse literally. Elsewhere it speaks distinctly of Father, Son, and (Holy) Spirit (e.g., Sim. 5.6.3–5 [59.3–5]), only to describe the Holy Spirit and the Son as brothers through the latter's adoption by the former (5.6.6 [59.6], and then the Father's “son and glorious angels as counselors” (5.6.7 [59.7]). The parable of the vineyard expresses The Shepherd's chief interest as well as the warrant for its theological fluidity: reward through faithful obedience represented in a two-stage Christology of exaltation. The aim is primarily hortatory rather than doctrinal or dogmatic. Thus The Shepherd's pneumatology importantly moves beyond questions of nascent Trinitarian theology to its anthropology, and thence to its ecclesiological and sociopolitical concerns. The faithful are the battleground of both a holy and a wicked spirit whose pleadings are obeyed freely by choice (Mand. 5.2 [33.2]); those who choose the Holy Spirit are rewarded, indeed “made upright” (5.7 [33.7]). The Shepherd's Christology is then ethical and exemplarist: to follow the Son is to follow the Spirit who enables The Shepherd's faithful audience to realize the goal of preserving baptismal identity, the church's purity, and thus negotiate the complexities of an emergent Christian movement as believers who are profiting from their imperial urban order even as Hermas is urging them to distance themselves from it.



Critical Editions and Translations

  • Ehrman, Bart D. The Apostolic Fathers. Vol. 2, Epistle of Barnabas, Papias and Quadratus, Epistle to Diognetus, The Shepherd of Hermas. Loeb Classical Library 25. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. Provides a comprehensive introduction to the critical Greek and Latin text with facing English translation, as well as a useful summary of current scholarship on The Shepherd. This is a new edition of the earlier Loeb volume edited by Kirsopp Lake in 1976 that is regularly cited in earlier studies.
  • Joly, Robert. Le Pasteur: Hermas: Introduction, texte, critique, traduction et notes. Sources Chrétiennes 53. Paris: Cerf, 1958, reprinted 1978. Offers an excellent introduction to the critical text with facing French translation.


  • Aune, David. Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983. Invites a close and comparative formal treatment of The Shepherd as oracular and prophetic literature.
  • Brox, Norbert. Der Hirt des Hermas. Kommentar zu den Apostolischen Vätern 7. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1991. The most recent German historical critical and literary critical commentary; especially useful in its discussion of Hermas's theology of repentance in its social setting.
  • Dibelius, Martin. Der Hirt des Hermas. Die Apostolischen Väter, Vol 4. Handbuch zum Neuen Testament 4. Tübingen: Mohr, 1923. Remains a definitive study proposing that the text represents differing responses in a variety of literary forms composed by a single author under changing social conditions. Dibelius interprets The Shepherd as a literary device designed to achieve an otherwise unknown author's social aims.
  • Giet, Stanislas. Hermas et les pasteurs: Les trois auteurs du Pasteur d'Hermas. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1963. Presents a case for multiple authorship of a diverse text that contains a variety of irreconcilable views concerning repentance, ecclesiology, Christology, and eschatology.
  • Hahnemann, Geoffrey M. The Muratorian Fragment and the Development of the Canon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Defends an early first-century dating of The Shepherd by arguing for a fourth-century date for the Muratorian Canon and relating rejection of its canonical status as a reaction to later doctrinal considerations.
  • Hellholm, David. Das Visionenbuch des Hermas als Apokalypse. Vol. 1. Coniectanea biblica, New Testament 13.1. Lund: Gleerup, 1980. Presents the now widely accepted case for treating The Shepherd as a literary example of an early Christian apocalypse.
  • Henne, Philippe. La christologie chez Clément de Rome et dans le Pasteur d'Hermas. Paradosis 33. Fribourg, Switzerland: Éditions universitaires, 1992. Takes up The Shepherd's shifting christologies, especially in Similitudes 5 [54–60] and 9 [78–110], from the perspective of the needs of the text's final redactor and his need to urge penitence and reform. Henne relates these to The Shepherd's pneumatology and angelology as well as to other ancient christological constructions.
  • Lampe, Peter. From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries. Translated by Michael Steinhauser. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008. English translation of Die Stadrömischen Christen in den ersten beiden Jahrhunderten: Untersuchungen zur Sozial-geschichte, first published in 1987. Lampe places The Shepherd in a diverse Roman Christian community constituted by various groups in a period before a local monepiscopacy, in order to arrive at a precise definition of Hermas's social status, his concerns to limit members’ pursuit of wealth, and the social function of his teaching about repentance.
  • Maier, Harry O. The Social Setting of the Ministry as Reflected in the Writings of Hermas, Clement, and Ignatius. Studies in Christianity and Judaism 12. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2002. With the help of a sociology of sectarianism considers The Shepherd in a social setting of a Roman church led by wealthy leaders, as an attempt to preserve communal boundaries and the protection of group purity.
  • Osiek, Carolyn. Rich and Poor in the Shepherd of Hermas: An Exegetical-Social Investigation. Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 15. Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association, 1983. Provides a thorough socio-historical examination of the setting, meaning, and scope of Hermas's economic exhortations as a means toward a critical assessment of the nature and purpose of his paranesis.
  • Osiek, Carolyn. Shepherd of Hermas: A Commentary. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999. A historical-critical and literary commentary with excellent introductions to the main themes and the scope of critical interpretation of The Shepherd; also furnishes an exhaustive bibliography.
  • Poschmann, Bernhard. Paenitentia Secunda: Die kirchliche Busse im ältesten Christentum bis Cyprian und Origenes. Theophaneia 1. Bonn: Hanstein, 1940. Presents a traditional treatment of The Shepherd as a moment in an unfolding development of the church's discipline of penance.
  • Rahner, Karl. “The Penitential Teaching of the Shepherd of Hermas.” In Penance in the Early Church. Theological Investigations 15, pp. 57–113. New York: Crossroad, 1982 (originally published in 1955). Places The Shepherd in the context of the early church's teachings on penance as a resource for contemporary theological reflection.
  • Riddle, Donald. “The Messages of the Shepherd of Hermas: A Study in Social Control.” Journal of Religion 7 (1927): 561–77. Remains an excellent study of Hermas's uses of prophecy and apocalyptic to achieve social outcomes of group control and solidarity.
  • Seitz, O. J. F. “Antecedents and Signification of the Term ‘Dipsychos’.” Journal of Biblical Literature 46 (1947): 211–219. Compares Hermas's use of the term double-mindedness with rabbinic uses, as well as usage in other contemporary Jewish, canonical, and early Christian literature.
  • Snyder, Graydon F. The Shepherd of Hermas. The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation and Commentary, vol. 6, edited by R. M. Grant. Camden, N.J.: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1968. A translation with a more general commentary, prefaced by discussion of critical issues for historical-critical interpretation.
  • Whittaker, Molly. Der Hirt des Hermas. Die Apostolischen Väter 1. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1956; 2d ed., 1967. A literary critical investigation that introduces a sequential numeration of the text.
  • Wilson, J. C. Five Problems in the Interpretation of the Shepherd of Hermas: Authorship, Genre, Canonicity, Apocalyptic, and the Absence of the Name ‘Jesus Christ.’ Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellon, 1995. Represents a state-of-the-art review of critical issues of interpretation of The Shepherd with bibliography.

Harry O. Maier