Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Biblical Modifications Series: The Shepherd of Hermas

This is the first of a series of posts on changes to the bible.  I hope to discuss significant changes that have been made to biblical texts or the canon during the course of history, and the reasons behind those changes.  Please note that I am not a historian or a biblical scholar.  I base my information on what I have been able to learn from my own (admittedly non-scholarly) internet-based research efforts.  I try not to depend on dubious sources, but if I get some facts wrong, I would appreciate corrections.

This post is about one of the "lost scriptures" of the New Testament: the Shepherd of Hermas.  This book presents one of the best accounts of early Christian ethics and morality.  It is believed to be written in the mid second century, and its authorship remains in doubt, but is often attributed to Hermas, the brother of Pius I, Bishop of Rome, during the time of the Christian persecution.

The Shepherd of Hermas was one of the most popular books produced in the early Church, and for a time it was frequently quoted and regarded as inspired. The book is a picturesque religious allegory, in most of which a rugged figure dressed like a shepherd is Hermas' guide. From this the book took its name, 'The Shepherd'. Comprising a rambling mélange of 5 Visions, 12 Mandates, and 10 Similitudes, the book is characterized by strong moral earnestness. It is primarily a call to repentance and adherence to a life of strict morality, addressed to Christians among whom the memory of persecution is still fresh., and over whom now hangs the shadow of another great tribulation.
        - The Development of the Canon of the New Testament

... there is probably no other document which better reflects the "simplicity and genuine piety of the rank and file of the average church members in the sub-apostolic age."

        - Is the Shepherd of Hermas Inspired Scripture?
Considered canonical before the 4th century by at least some of the early church fathers, it was regarded as divinely inspired, and cited as scripture by Irenaeus of Lyon, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.  This book was widely accepted by orthodox Christians, and included in the Codex Sinaiticus.

Truly, then, the Scripture declared, which says, "First of all believe that there is one God, who has established all things, and completed them, and having caused that from what had no being, all things should come into existence. He who contains all things, and is Himself contained by no one." [Book 2, First Commandment, of the Shepherd of Hermas]. Rightly also has Malachi said among the prophets: "Is it not one God who hath established us? Have we not all one Father?" (4.20.2. of Adversus Haereses)
        - The Development of the Canon of the New Testament
However, the Shepherd eventually fell out of favor, and came to be regarded as apocryphal.  There were some who felt that it was too lax in its view toward sin and repentance.  For example, Tertullian "designates the book as apocryphal, and rejects it with contempt, as favouring anti-Montanistic opinions."*  This, and other ideological problems, led to its gradual exclusion from the recognized canon.

One of the most significant of these ideological problems was a consequence of the development of the Trinitarian doctrine of the church, which occurred over a few centuries.  The book expresses an adoptionist view of Jesus (as a mortal who was adopted as the Son of God by a pre-existing spirit).  Adoptionism was a common belief among second century Christians.  It was a pre-Arian step along the way from seeing Jesus as human (during his own lifetime) to eventually granting him fully divine status with eternal existence, which was the Trinitarian doctrine that the church finally settled on.

The Shepherd of Hermas, a strange allegory written sometime in the second century, had a great vogue in orthodox circles and was even included in some copies of the New Testament (it is found in the Sinaitic Codex). The theology of the Church must have been very elastic at a time when such a book could enjoy popularity and implicit, if not explicit, ecclesiastical sanction, for its Christology does not seem to square with any of the Christologies of the New Testament, or with those of contemporary theologians whose occasional documents have reached us. The Shepherd speaks of a Son of God; but this Son of God is distinguished from Jesus. "That Holy Spirit which was created first of all, God placed in a body, in which it should dwell, in a chosen body, as it pleased him." This is Martini's translation. F. C. Conybeare renders the passage: "God made His Holy Spirit, which pre-existed and created all creation, to enter and dwell in the flesh which He approved." In this text the Holy Spirit appears to be a divine substance. But we must not suspect Patripassionism. The "flesh" is spoken of as a person who "walked as pleased God, because it was not polluted on earth." "God, therefore, took into counsel the Son and the angels in their glory, to the end that this flesh might furnish, as it were, a place of tabernacling (for the Spirit), and might not seem to have lost the reward of its service. For all flesh shall receive the reward which shall be found without stain or spot, and in it the Holy Spirit shall have its home." This passage appears to make the "tabernacling" of the Holy Spirit in Jesus a reward for the purity of his life. Jesus then becomes divine through the power of God, after consultation with the Son of God, who elsewhere in The Shepherd is identified with the Holy Spirit. "The most venerable angel," "the glorious angel," "the holy angel" are titles that Hermas gives to Jesus in his allegory; but it is understood that the angelic status of Jesus is not his by nature. His labours on earth to save and to cleanse have gained him a co-inheritance with the Holy Spirit, God's primary Son, so that Jesus now is the second Son of God.

        - A. D. Howell-Smith, in Jesus Not a Myth, pp. 120-121

Why doesn't the Christology of Hermas square with the rest of the New Testament?  It is true that the New Testament reflects different Christologies.  The earliest New Testament books, including the gospel of Mark, for example (as found in older biblical manuscripts) doesn't indicate any kind of divine nature of Jesus.  But neither does it explicitly contradict the subsequently adopted dogma of the church.  The same cannot be said of the Shepherd of Hermas.

... it can be said that The Shepherd of Hermas is a book that gives interesting insight into the life of early Christianity in the second century. Although the contents of The Shepherd is certainly not without its theological difficulties this present writer believes, in fairness to the book, that this could be partly due to the fact that Hermas, along with other early Christians were still grappling with many of the finer points of their belief structure, some of which (such as the doctrine of Christ) the Church was still in the process of working out in the fourth century.
        - Is the Shepherd of Hermas Inspired Scripture?

Many people feel the Shepherd of Hermas lost favor in the church mainly because it was regarded as post-apostolic.  That is, it was of too recent origin to be seen as having apostolic authorship.  While this certainly played a role, it might be noted that several other books that also fell into that category were nevertheless included: Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 Johns, Jude, Revelation.
Competing doctrines were excluded from the canon, and subsequently regarded as heresy.  Due to the church's eventual acceptance of Trinitarian dogma, the Shepherd of Hermas went from being "divinely inspired" to heresy.  Apparently, while inspiring the writing of this book, God was not able to foresee (or at least disagreed with) how church doctrine would unfold.
This heresy is the view that Jesus was in nature a man who became the Son of God by Adoption; that is, that Jesus was virtuous man that God adopted and constituted him as His Son. The earliest extant writing that expresses this view is the Shepherd of Hermas, which is thought to be written by the brother of the bishop of Rome about A.D. 150. It taught that Jesus was an ordinary man, born of Mary and Joseph; at his baptism the Spirit or Christ descended upon Jesus and at his crucifixion the Christ departed, leaving the man Jesus to suffer alone. A similar view was held by Theodotus, a learned Byzantine leather-merchant, who came to Rome from Byzantium about A.D. 190. He taught that Jesus was a man who was born of a virgin through the operation of the Holy Spirit. Because of the purity of his life, at his baptism the Spirit, or Christ, descended on him and he received power for his special ministry. But he was still not fully God; some of his followers believed that at his resurrection Jesus did become God. Theodotus was excommunicated by the Roman Pope Victor (186-198 A.D.) but his ideas were taken up by an Artemas (or, Artemon) and by another Theodotus, who was a banker. They founded a separate church early in the third century. The Adoptionist Controversy arose in 8th century Spain and it was condemned in the Charlemagne-sponsored synods of 792, 794 and 799 A.D.
Many Christians today may deny that there was ever much serious debate within the church about which doctrinal stances it should adopt.  But history shows that it was not so clear-cut.

The victors in the struggles to establish Christian Orthodoxy not only won their theological battles, they also rewrote the history of the conflict; later readers then naturally assumed that the victorious views had been embraced by the vast majority of Christians from the very beginning ... The practice of Christian forgery has a long and distinguished history ... the debate lasted three hundred years ... even within "orthodox" circles there was considerable debate concerning which books to include.
        - Bart Ehrman, in Lost Scriptures
Out with the old (heresy), in with the new (dogma).

* Interestingly, the Montanism favored by Tertullian also eventually came to be regarded as heresy by the church.


  1. And the pitcher winds up and throws a fast ball across the plate, right up the middle. The batter swings, and it's a miss. Strike One!

    Sorry, Skep. The Shepherd of Hermes (which I've read) is no evidence for "altering the Scriptures". How can that be? We have very faithful copies of the document - nothing was altered. We know pretty much exactly what it looked like when written. Plus, it's not part of the Canon, so you're swinging at phantoms. You are absolutely correct that there was healthy discussion for a generation or so about whether or not it should be included - we even know the details of that debate; who was in favor (and why), and who was opposed (and why), which is excellent evidence for the absence of any supposed "modification". Quite the reverse of what you're trying to prove!

    So the count is now 0 and 1. I look forward to your next attempt. I really do.

  2. You're wrong, Bob. I didn't claim that they changed the text of the book. (More on textual changes in a future post). But it was part of the canon. Look at the Codex Sinaiticus. It was removed some time later because it presented an ideology that disagreed with the newly emerging dogma of the church. That's what I call changing the bible to fit church dogma.

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  4. The Shepherd of Hermes was never in the Canon. Yes, it was indeed a candidate for a time, and then (rightfully) rejected. There was of course a period (lasting more than 2 centuries) in which the Church had to decide what was canonical and what was not. During that period, the final list was naturally a matter for discussion. The very fact that we know about this period, that we know which books were first considered but ultimately excluded, and why they were, and that we know the details of the debate, and that even the excluded books were (at times) still admired and their reading actively encouraged, shows that no one was attempting to modify anything, as per your charge. The Shepherd of Hermes was far from being the only work whose canonical status was in doubt in the first centuries. The letters of Saints Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna were strong candidates for inclusion for a good 200 years or more. In fact, they are still included in the Church's Liturgy of the Hours. The Book of Enoch to this day is included in supplements to the Bibles of various Eastern Orthodox sects. (In fact, the Assyrian Orthodox Church, the very one whose members are being murdered or driven into exile at this moment by ISIS, does so.) In contrast, the gnostic pseudo-scriptures were never in serious contention even for a moment. (I've read all of them that I've seen, and can easily understand why they weren't.)

    For your thesis to be correct, the early Church would have made every effort to suppress the excluded works. In contrast, it lovingly preserved them (even to the extent of including them in the Codex Sinaiticus, for instance. As for the gnostic works, they were never Christian to begin with, and their writings more resembled today's Book of Mormon than anything else. It wasn't the Church's responsibility to preserve such things, which is why so many were lost for centuries.

    By the way, Skep, were you trying to trip me up with some fact you (erroneously) thought I didn't already know? Please be assured that I've studied this period of Church history extensively. I've read shelves full of books on the subject, from scholars with wildly differing viewpoints - Catholic, Protestant, and non-Christian. I've read (and sometimes re-read) most of the extant literature from the time, and the contemporary commentaries on them. Saint Jerome is the best "close to the fact" source for learning about the canonization process. And I've read him in the original Latin.

    You appear to have this weird belief that I take all this on some sort of "blind faith" and discount the years of study and objective analysis of the evidence that I've undertaken on the subject. Despite your totally inappropriate moniker, it is rather you who seems to approach the facts with a preconceived idea of what conclusion they must lead to. How on Earth can such an approach be considered "skeptical"?

    1. "The Shepherd of Hermes was never in the Canon."

      I guess that depends on which canon you mean. See here.

      "For your thesis to be correct, the early Church would have made every effort to suppress the excluded works. In contrast, it lovingly preserved them (even to the extent of including them in the Codex Sinaiticus, for instance."

      My thesis? My thesis is that this book (after being widely accepted within the church) was excluded from the canon for ideological reasons after the emergence of newer dogma that didn't agree with it. However, the Sinaiticus obviously was compiled by someone who felt that certain books (certainly not all disputed works), that were subsequently rejected by the church, should be included. And this was hidden away for centuries.

      Lovingly preserved? "The text of the Shepherd has not been well preserved. Only 3 incomplete Greek manuscripts and a number of small fragments have been discovered, and no Greek text is available for nearly all of 107.3-114.5."

      "were you trying to trip me up with some fact you (erroneously) thought I didn't already know?"

      What on earth would make you think that? All I'm doing is presenting information that I have found, and there will be more.

      "You appear to have this weird belief that I take all this on some sort of "blind faith" and discount the years of study and objective analysis of the evidence that I've undertaken on the subject."

      Don't worry, Bob. I never expected you to give serious consideration to any evidence that would dispute what you believe.

  5. "any evidence that would dispute what you believe"

    You have yet to show me any. The Shepherd of Hermes has no bearing whatsoever on your slanderous accusation that the early Church "modified" Scripture to conform to doctrine. If that's the best you got, then it's time to either apologize or retract your accusation.

    "All I'm doing is presenting information that I have found"

    Oh, I get it. Well, at least you are now admitting that you made your original accusation prior to doing any actual research on the subject. So now you are frantically playing catch-up football (to mix my sports metaphors) in an attempt to justify yourself.

    1. Bob,

      I did say this was the first of a series of posts. What I hope to show in the end is that in the first few centuries, Christian beliefs evolved, church dogma evolved, and the New testament evolved as well. This is nothing new, and it's not my own wild idea. Whether you agree or not, there is plenty of evidence for this, and I intend to bring some of it forward.

  6. "Christian beliefs evolved, church dogma evolved, and the New testament evolved as well."

    Well, if that's all you've got, I'll accept your apology and call it even. None of the above sentence implies that Scripture was modified to comply with doctrine (the precise wording of your previous slander).

    Heck, every fool knows that "beliefs evolved, church dogma evolved" - no sensible person has ever contested that. But that's not what you accused the Early Church of doing. You explicitly accused it of altering texts to match this evolution. If you are willing to retract that accusation, then we are done here.

    If not, then the count remains 0 and 1 (and you're down by 2, with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th, and no one on base).

  7. Skep,

    You might find it profitable to read THIS.

  8. Thanks, Bob.

    Next in series will probably be a week or so.