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Volume 10, Issue 3: Patres

Shepherd of Hermas

Ben Merkle

Although reading the early church fathers can be often distressing (as it becomes very clear how much more mature they were in their understanding of Christianity than we are), it can also be rewarding to see the overwhelming progress the church has made over the last two thousand years. For instance, in the latter half of the second century a writing called The Pastor of Hermas or The Shepherd had become fairly popular. This work was thought by many to be inspired and was read frequently in church services. The work was, however, never accepted into the canon, for which we should praise regularly the providence of God.

For those who have never had the misfortune of reading The Pastor of Hermas, imagine Jim Morrison of the Doors trying to write his own version of Revelation, and you've got a good idea of the book.
The plot goes something like this: In book one, named Visions, the hero of the story, Hermas, runs into a beautiful woman bathing in the river Tiber and lends her a hand to help her out. As he draws her out, he admires her beauty (only as a sister of course): "The sight of her beauty made me think with myself, `I should be a happy man if I could but get a wife as handsome and good as she is.' This was the only thought that passed through me: this and nothing more." Later on he is walking along "magnifying the creatures of God, and thinking how magnificent, and beautiful, and powerful they are" (Herm. 1.1), when all of a sudden he falls asleep and is confronted by a vision of the bathing woman who accuses him of thinking bad things about her. He starts to feel guilty, but the watery tart disappears and is replaced by an old woman in a woolly chair who assures him that God wasn't mad about his treatment of the river girl, but the real problem was the state of Hermas's family. The elderly woman gives Hermas some advice and then is hoisted off in her chair by four young men. Hermas ponders all of these magnificent things, but nothing else happens until the one-year reunion of their meeting when he is whisked off in the spirit again to meet the elderly woman in the woolly easy chair. She tells him again what a wreck his family is, and then they go watch the hunky young men build a rock tower full of all sorts of spiritual significance.
Next begins book two, Commandments. Hermas goes home, but a man "of glorious aspect, dressed like a shepherd," comes in who is going to be Hermas's guardian from now on. He gives Hermas all sorts of commandments: believe in God, don't sleep around or marry women who do, don't get mad very much. He continues in book three, Similitudes, where the shepherd follows Hermas around for quite a while and continually points out all sorts of similitudes to him. Most of these similitudes have to do with another rock tower that is built by more hunky men and some virgins.
Of course this is just a sketchy outline and there remain many more nuggets of greatness in Hermas that I have left unmined. These I leave for those readers willing to trudge through The Shepherdthemselves. Another thing that should tip the reader off to the nature of this favorite of our early fathers is the fact that all of the prefaces and introductions to the story begin by assuring the reader that the more times you read it, the less repulsive it becomes. This reminds me of a promise I was once given regarding clams, a promise that never held to be true.
Just who the author of The Shepherd is has never been settled for certain. Some have suggested that it was written by the Hermas referred to by Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. This was attested to by many of the early fathers like Origen, Jerome, Eusebius, and Irenaeus (who quotes it as Scripture). The other prominent opinion, and the most popular one in modern circles, is based on a fragment published by Muratori that describes Hermas as being the brother of Pius, Bishop of Rome, putting the writing of the story around 160 A.D.
The Shepherd was written in Greek and, although it never caught on with the western Latin crowd, it was a best seller in the Greek east. Many have suggested that in the early Greek church it played the same role that Pilgrim's Progress would play much later in the church. Much of the story's success can be attributed to the antagonism that The Shepherd directed towards the Montanists. The Shepherd helped to revive and encourage a church that was being shaken by these charismatic heretics, and gave the beleaguered church a footing to resist Montanist attacks. Tertullian, a Montanist of sorts, condemned The Shepherd as adulterous (Tert. 4.7:10).
Although The Shepherd is stuffed with goofiness, the writer has a healthy understanding of the Christian life. Most of the story is an exhortation to believers to conform their lives to God's standard of morality. The teaching on sin, prayer, confession, and such remains very practical and, if you can get past the wackiness of it all, can be very convicting.
When considering the influence and significance that The Shepherd held for the eastern church, contrasted with the utter repugnance it inspires in the average modern reader, one thing becomes very clear: we just don't get it. The type of similitude that The Shepherd uses captivated the early audience, but only repulses the modern reader. Our early church had a strange fondness for this sort of writing. It had a beauty that was conveyed in a way no longer perceptible to us. We shouldn't be too harsh on the fathers for this. No doubt our culture enjoys idiosyncrasies that will be scorned by our children in years to come. Besides, part of loving the fathers means appreciating their goofiness as well.

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