Should the Shepherd of Hermas be considered scripture?

by Luke Wayne
8/22/16

No, the "Shepherd of Hermas," was never part of the New Testament and should not be considered scripture.

In the early church, there was a very popular book known as "The Shepherd" by a man named Hermas (today, the book is generally referred to as "The Shepherd of Hermas"). It recorded a series of teachings and parables which, in the narrative of the book, are given to Hermas through visions of a heavenly figure in the form of a shepherd. The book was written some time in the mid 2nd century and was extremely widely read, copied, and translated by early Christians. We have around 11 surviving manuscripts of The Shepherd that are from the 2nd/3rd century AD (within 150 years of the book's composition).1 That is an incredible wealth of very early witnesses and speaks to the book's popularity. The earliest bound copy of the entire Bible as a single book, the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus, contains the Shepherd of Hermas at the end of the volume. It is not surprising that this has led some critics to conclude that The Shepherd was once considered Holy Scripture by early Christians and that it was originally part of the Canon of the New Testament before later being removed. One scholar, for example, explains:

"The Shepherd was a popular book among Christians of the first four centuries. Written by Hermas, brother of Pius, Bishop of Rome, during the first half of the second century, the book was regarded by some churches as canonical scripture. It was eventually excluded from the canon, however, in part because it was known not to have been written by an apostle. Even so, it was still included as one of the books of the New Testament in the fourth century codex Sinaiticus and is mentioned by other authors of the time as standing on the margins of the Canon."2

This appears to be a pretty strong case. However, while on the surface one can understand why people would jump to such a conclusion, the facts actually point the other way. On closer examination, it is clear that the book was highly valued by early Christians but was carefully distinguished from canonical scripture and was not publically read or preached upon in the churches as authentic biblical revelation.

In Early Canon Lists

Several early Christian lists of canonical books directly discussed The Shepherd's relationship to the canon was. The "Muratorian Canon", a 2nd century listing of the New Testament books from not long after The Shepherd first began circulating explains:

"But Hermas wrote the Shepherd very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, while bishop Pius, his brother, was occupying the chair of the church of the city of Rome. And therefore it ought indeed to be read, but it cannot be read publically to the people of the church either among the prophets, whose number is complete, or among the apostles, for it is after [their] time." Muratorian Canon3

In other words, the Shepherd is from a respected source, and it is worth reading, but it is not part of the Old or New Testaments. It is valuable, but it does not possess biblical authority. It is not scripture.

Eusebius, a 4th century Christian historian and theologian, identified the book in a category often translated “spurious,” listing it alongside books like the “Didache” and the “Epistle of Barnabas.” He explained that such books were generally considered orthodox and useful, but were not to be regarded as inspired or read in formal church gatherings. He not only distinguished these books from true scripture but also from the “disputed” books that were considered scripture by some but were not yet accepted as scripture by all churches at that time (such as 2nd Peter and 3rd John). He places The Shepherd in a third category this is useful but definitely not scripture.4 He thus demonstrates that, while these books were popular among Christians, they were not considered Holy Scripture. This wasn't even a dispute where some considered it scripture and others didn't. There was simply no discussion of The Shepherd being part of the Canon.

This is also confirmed in a 4th century letter of Athanasius of Alexandria. After listing the 27 books of the New Testament “without hesitation,” Athanasius went on to write that, "There are books other than these that are not, on the one hand, included in the canon, but that have nonetheless been distinguished by the fathers as books to be read to those who have recently come to the faith and who wish to be instructed in the word of piety.” Shepherd of Hermas was again placed in this category, along with the Didache and others.5

The fact that these books are considered beneficial to read to recent converts may well be the reason that they were bound in Codex Sinaiticus after the New Testament. Since owning one's own personal Bible was not common in this era, the volume probably represented something more like what we would think of today as a local church library. It contained the scriptures for public reading and teaching, but also other useful books for the ministers of the church to use in discipleship, devotional reading, and study.

Irenaeus and The Shepherd

It is often said that one of the most prominent 2nd century Christian apologists and theologians, Irenaeus of Lyons, directly refers to The Shepherd as scripture. A typical translation of what Irenaeus wrote would be something like:

"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. Rightly also has Malachi said among the prophets: “Is it not one God who hath established us? Have we not all one Father?” In accordance with this, too, does the apostle say, “There is one God, the Father, who is above all, and in us all.” Likewise does the Lord also say: “All things are delivered to Me by My Father;” manifestly by Him who made all things; for He did not deliver to Him the things of another, but His own," (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 10, Section 2)

While neither Hermas not his book are mentioned here by name, the first quote in the series is from The Shepherd and is preceded by the words "the scripture declared, which says..." Translated this way, it seems to us that Irenaeus is plainly calling The Shepherd "scripture" as we would understand that term today. The Greek word translated here, however, is "graphe," which means "writing." It is often used to mean "scripture" in the technical sense, but is also often used of any written document. For example, Irenaeus prays regarding his own book that God would, "give to every reader of this book [graphe] to know Thee, that Thou art God alone, to be strengthened in Thee, and to avoid every heretical, and godless, and impious doctrine."6 Irenaeus calls his own book a "graphe", but no one believes that he thought his own book should be part of the canon. So we have to ask the question: is Irenaeus calling The Shepherd "Scripture" in the technical sense or is he using "graphe" in a more general sense.

It is often pointed out that the citation is in a series that also includes Malachi, Ephesians, and Matthew, and therefore it must mean "Scripture," but if we look closer at how each of these quotes is cited, we get a different picture. The entire group is not called "graphe" here. Only "The Shepherd" is cited as "the scripture" or "the writing." When Malachi is cited, he says, "Rightly also has Malachi said among the prophets..." Malachi is cited by name and listed as being "among the prophets..." Ephesians is likewise cited as, "In accordance with this, too, does the apostle say..." Ephesians is not called a "scripture" or as a "writing," but as the words of the apostle. Again, when Matthew is cited, the formula Irenaeus uses here is, "Likewise does the Lord also say..." If "graphe" here meant scripture, it would apply to all these citations. They would ALL be scripture. Instead, Irenaeus cites four different authorities on the matter: the writing, the prophets, the apostle, and the Lord. Irenaeus seems to be citing escalating levels of authority. His argument goes something like:

  1. A trusted book says this.

  2. What's more, the prophets of the old covenant said this.

  3. Even more, the apostles of Jesus taught this.

  4. In fact, Jesus Himself taught this.

It is an argument escalating from least to greatest in the minds of the hearers. Implicitly, then, Irenaeus is indicating that Hermas is trustworthy, but is not on the level of the prophets, the apostles, or the Lord. Given what we have read in other early sources, this seems consistent with the perspective widely held by the early church: that the shepherd was a good, useful, and trustworthy book but was not on the level of canonical Holy Scripture. At any rate, the fact that the word "graphe" is used here in no way demands that Irenaeus regarded the Shepherd as scripture. Even if it could be shown that, against the testimony of other early sources, Irenaeus did regard The Shepherd as scripture, that would by no means be grounds to say that the book really is canonical. It is useful to note, however, that Irenaeus probably did not regard the book that way at all. His statement fits well within the perspective of the other writers we have already looked at.

The 3rd Century Alexandrian Fathers

It is also often noted that famed early Christian teachers like Clement of Alexandria and Origen quoted and paraphrased from The Shepherd very often and in a quite positive light. What is often ignored in this is that Origen also directly discussed the subject of the canon, including listing the 27 books of the New Testament, and even discussed which ones were still disputed by some churches in his day. Origen never once even so much as mentions The Shepherd as a possibility in these contexts. He is clear what he and his readers believe the canon to be, and Hermas is not part of it. That The Shepherd was popular among Christians of Alexandria where these men taught is unquestionable. As we saw above, the later Alexandrian leader, Athanasius, would even recommend the book as useful reading for new converts even though it was not inspired scripture. Likewise, Clement and Origen cite this book the way a modern preacher might cite the words of Martin Luther or passionately quote lines from a well-known hymn like Amazing Grace. These are sources that the pastor and his congregation both respect, trust, and resonate with even though they don't believe them to be infallible or part of the Canon of the New Testament.

Tertullian

Tertullian (late 2nd/early 3rd century) was one of the early church fathers who was most open to the idea of the continuation of prophetic gifts and divine revelation through the Spirit. If there was anyone who was going to accept The Shepherd as being divine revelation on par with scripture, one would expect Tertullian to be on board. He was not. In fact, more than once Tertullian was rather harsh on his opponents who would occasionally defend their positions with a citation of the Shepherd without actually backing the position with Canonical Scripture.7 This scenario again fits perfectly well with the situation described plainly in the texts above. The Shepherd was a widely read and highly respected book among early Christians but was not considered to be part of the biblical canon. It is useful to note that Tertullian was a writer of the Latin west. When we add this to the writers we have already looked at from both North Africa and the Greek-speaking east, we get a pretty clear picture that this was the situation throughout the Christian world.

Conclusion

Of all the books that people claim "should be in the Bible," the Shepherd of Hermas probably has the strongest case of any of them. Yet even here, we see plainly and clearly that The Shepherd, while popular and considered quite useful by the early church, was never really a contender for a spot in the New Testament. That is not an insult to the book. It was never supposed to be scripture. It is no insult to Amazing Grace that we don't add it to the book of Psalms. It is no insult to Martin Luther that we don't add his sermons to the New Testament alongside Paul's letters. The church has always found certain writings useful, but Scripture consists only of those books that were infallibly inspired by the Holy Spirit of God, and we can be confident that our Bible isn't missing any.

  • 1. Larry Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006) 23
  • 2. Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2003) 251
  • 3. ibid, 333
  • 4. ibid, 338
  • 5. ibid, 340
  • 6. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 10, section 4
  • 7. see, for example, Tertullian, On Modesty, Chapter X