Brandon's Notepad

June 28, 2011

The Shepherd of Hermas

Home > My Research > Christianity > Early Church Fathers > The Shepherd of Hermas


The Shepherd (or The Pastor, Poimen, Ποιμήν) by Hermas was written in the first or early second century that was considered canonical by many Christians and was mentioned in the writings of several Church Fathers. It is an allegorical work that records the visions given to Hermas by the Church personified. It may be (at least partially) autobiographical.


Hermas is believed to have been a Christian living in Rome. The date of authorship is in question, because he:

  • May be the same Hermas (or Hermes) mentioned by St. Paul in Romans 16:14 (~A.D. 50s)
  • References Pope St. Clement I (or Clemens) in his second vision (~A.D. 90s)
  • Is called a contemporary relative of Pope St. Pius I by external sources (~A.D. 140s)


The Shepherd contains three major sections: five visions, twelve mandates (or commandments), and ten parables (or similitudes).


The Visions
Hermas records five visions given to him by God and recounts what was revealed to him in each.

  1. Hermas begins the story by explaining that he was sold by his father to a woman (Rhode), whom, after his freedom was granted, he loved as a sister, having but one brief lustful thought in his heart. In a vision, the heavens opened and the woman appears, telling him that she has been called to accuse him for his wicked thought with which he sinned against her, for even an evil desire is a sin. She tells him to pray for God to heal the sins of him and his household. Contemplating this, he then meets an old woman who tells him that, though it is a sin for the righteous to have evil thoughts, God is far more angry on account of the sins of his household. She then reads to him from a book that contains harsh words for heathens and apostates, and glorifying God, reminding the reader that he has much in store for those who keep his commandments in faith. When she is finished, so is removed to the east in a chair carried by four young men, attended by two others.

  2. A year later, Hermas has a second vision of the old woman. He agrees to transcribe her book for the elect, but as soon as he was finished, the book was snatched away from him. After fifteen days of prayer and fasting, the meaning of the writing was revealed to him. His wife and sons have sinned greatly, but will repent and be saved when they’ve heard the words revealed to Hermas. Hermas will be saved by his simplicity and self-control, should he remain steadfast. The number of days that the saints may repent is fixed, but not the days that the heathen may be saved. Hermas is to tell Maximus of the coming great tribulation. Those who endure and who do not deny the Lord will be happy; also, the Lord is near those who return to him (c.f. Eldad Modat). A young man then reveals to him that the old woman is the Church (not the Sibyl as he had presumed). Hermas is instructed to write two books, one for Clemens and the other for Grapte, for it is a message for the presbyters.

  3. The old woman arranged to meet Hermas in the country in the fifth hour to reveal what he should know. At the place, he found an ivory seat and the old woman did not appear until he began confessing his sins to God. She instructed him to pray for righteousness within his household instead, told her six attendants to go and build, and then told Hermas to sit on her left, the right reserved for those who have already pleased God and are sanctified. She explains that the left is for those who share in the same gifts and promises but who must be cleansed before that may sit with the sanctified.

    Then, she showed him the vision that she had promised, a host of young men led by her six attendants who were building a mighty tower from square stones. Some were from the depths (the water?) and were perfect, whereas others were from the earth and had defects, some being altered or even cast away unused. She tries to leave, but Hermas presses her for understanding. She reveals that the tower is her, the Church. It is built on the water that saves mankind and is supported by the invisible power of the Lord. The young men are the holy angels and the six attendants are the greatest amongst them. The different kinds of stones are the saints and the sinners, ranging from the polished and tight-fitting ones being the clergy who act in unity and the stones cast away being those not saved due to their sins. Some stones are found acceptable and others are set aside for a time for various reasons until they become useful for building. The pivotal message in this vision is that repentance and salvation are still possible for those stones cast away, though their repentance must be heartfelt and their ultimate dwelling still outside of the tower. The woman points out seven women: Faith, Self-restraint, Simplicity, Guilelessness, Chastity, Intelligence, and Love. Each is the daughter of the prior. Hermas is chastised for asking if the end had come, for it was clear that he didn’t understand – the tower had not yet been finished. He is commanded to share the vision given to him.

    Hermas yearned to know why the woman appeared very old to him in the first vision and progressively younger in the others that followed. After praying for this to be revealed and fasting, a young man appeared to him and explained that the age of the woman, that is the Church, was a reflection of his strength in spirit.s

  4. Another twenty days pass. In this vision, Hermas is confronted by a whale-like beast with fiery locusts in its mouth and four colors upon its head. Hermas places his trust in the Lord and is not harmed. Beyond the beast, he meets the woman, this tim young and dressed in white. She tells him that the beast he saw was a type of the tribulation to come. She explains the colors to be four ages of the world: black is the current darkness, red the perishing of the world by blood and fire, gold is what remains after the test, and white the purity of eternal life.

  5. In the last vision, Hermas is visited by an angelic figure dressed like a shepherd who was sent to dwell with him for the remainder of his life and deliver to him the commandments of the Lord.

The Mandates (Commandments)
The Shepherd gives these commandments to Hermas. The numbering of these commandments as twelve is misleading, as they are multifaceted. Commandment four, for example, spans four chapters, each a paragraph, and covers aspects of both Matrimony and Baptism.

  1. Have faith in and fear God. Exercise self-control and put on righteousness.
  2. Do not partake in slander. Give to the needy in simplicity.
  3. Walk in truth always. Hermas confesses to concealing the truth in the past and is told that since his has now heard the commandment, he must be truthful going forward.
  4. Thoughts of adultery and fornication are great sins. It is acceptable to put away (i.e. divorce) an adulterous wife, but to then marry another is adultery. The repentant wife should be taken back, but not frequently. This applies in reverse too – men and women should be treated the same way. To marry again after the death of a spouse is not a sin, but it is better to remain unmarried. Repentance is wisdom. Some taught that Baptism (“when we descended into the water and received remission of our former sins”) was the only time of repentance, but the Shepherd tells Hermas that has one more opportunity to repent after that. [Perhaps the practice of sacramental confession had not yet been discerned by the Church or was unknown to Hermas. The resolution to “go and sin no more” is expressed here.]
  5. Patience provides a pure place for the Holy Spirit to dwell, aiding in the works of righteousness. In contrast, anger pollutes patience and prepares a home for the devil. Anger does not sway those full of faith, but drives the Holy Spirit from those who doubt leaving such men in a “state of anarchy”.
  6. Walk the straight path of righteousness. Two angels dwell with every man: one of righteousness and one of iniquity. Trust the former and part ways with the latter.
  7. Fear the Lord and not the devil. The one who has power is feared and his work performed by those who fear him.
  8. The restraint of evil is righteous, but the restraint of good is a great sin. Examples of good works are listed.
  9. Pray over all things and with confidence. Doubt, which is from the devil, is a lack of faith, which is from God.
  10. Grief from doubt “crushes out” the Holy Spirit, but grief that results from the actions arising from anger leads to repentance and salvation. It is best to drive away grief altogether by eliminating both doubt and anger.
  11. False prophets ruin the minds of the doubters who become idolaters. True prophets are meek and humble, speaking only when and what God wishes them to speak. False prophets are proud and talkative, speaking only when they have something to gain.
  12. Cherish good and chaste desires over wicked and evil ones. Avoid covetousness and practice righteousness, virtue, truth, faith, meekness, etc.

The angel tells Hermas to walk in these commandments and to preach them. Hermas questions whether or not the men are able to keep the commandments for their difficulty and the angel exposes his doubt.

The Parables (Similitudes)

  1. There is no purpose in gathering possessions beyond necessity in this city (the world), for you will be cast out for not obeying its laws (death). It is better to purchase property (afflicted souls) like that found in your native city (Heaven). Do not covet, but do the work of God and be saved.
  2. The elm tree (the rich), which does not produce fruit, supports the vine (the poor), which allows it to not just produce fruit (intercessions), but to do so abundantly. In this way, both the rich and the poor do God’s work as partners, giving back to God through love what was given to them.
  3. In winter, green trees (living) and withered trees (dead) look alike. This life is winter to the righteous.
  4. In summer, the dead trees do not produce fruit or leaves and are burned. The next life is summer to the righteous.
  5. A slave (the Son of God) was put in charge of a field (the world) with a vineyard (the people) and was told by his master (the creator, God the Father) to stake it (place Holy Angels in it to keep the people together) while he was away (until the end of the age). He also weeded (removed sins from) the vineyard to please the master with its beauty. His obedience gained the slave his freedom, but the good he performed prompted the master to make him a co-heir with his own son (the Holy Spirit) as well. The master sent to the slave many dishes (the commandments of Christ) from his table, and the slave shared the leftovers with his fellow slaves, which also pleased the master. Fasting in itself is not true fasting; instead, true fasting is avoiding sin, servicing the Lord, keeping his commandments, walking in his ways, and believing. Therefore, for a fast to be true, the money saved through this self-sacrifice should be given to someone in want. It is explained that Christ is not in the form of a slave, but of a powerful ruler. To sin is to defile the flesh, and thus, the Holy Spirit that dwells within.
  6. In a vision, Hermas is shown two other shepherds. The first tends to sheep that feed in luxury, some of which skip around merrily. This is “the angel of luxury and deceit” and the skipping sheep represent men who have been deceived and have “freed” themselves from God. The second, savage in appearance and wielding a whip, mercilessly tortures the sheep given to him by the first shepherd. This is the just “angel of punishment”. The sheep are tangled in thorns and given no rest. The angel explains that the torture is temporal punishment for evil deeds, and once administered, the sheep are given to him for proper instruction and the sheep (i.e. men) learn to walk in the ways of the Lord with pure hearts. The punishment is not equal to the sin in duration, for torture imparts powerful memories. All acts that a man performs with pleasure are luxurious and invite punishment, except good works which can satisfy a man and yet be to his benefit. They who live in harmful luxury and do not repent are ultimately punished with death.
  7. Hermas is told that he will be punished at the hands of the other shepherd for the sins of his family as he is the head of the household. Foreknowledge of the punishment is a blessing, as it is assurance that the Lord finds Hermas worthy of proper instruction.
  8. Hermas was shown the people of God standing under a willow tree, being given pruned branches from it by an angel. When summoned, they returned the branches to the angel in various states (about twelve) ranging from withered to green and fruitful. The people who brought back branches bearing fruit were crowned, and all who returned green branches were clothed in white and allowed to enter the tower. The remaining branches, all withered in some way, were planted by the shepherd to see if they grow (willows are very forgiving plants). After a few days, the planted branches were inspected, and based on the results some men were let into the tower while others were given dwellings in the walls around the tower, and yet others were lost altogether. The tree is revealed to be the “Law” that is the Son of God, and the angel to be Michael, who has been placed in charge of God’s people. Those who were allowed to enter the tower were they who had suffered or been afflicted, or at least maintained pure hearts.
  9. Hermas, having been strengthened by the Holy Spirit, was visited by the angel of repentance so that he may be instructed more perfectly. He was taken to Arcadia, to a hill on a plain surrounded by twelve mountains. The mountains varied in vegetation and appearance. In the plain was a large rectangular pillar, larger than the mountains and hewn from old white rock with a gate guarded by twelve virgins. Many large men, led by six distinguished men, came to build a tower upon the stone. Ten shiny rectangular stones ascended from a pit and were taken through the gate and given to the men by the virgins to become the foundation of the tower. The three layers of stone that followed were built from an increasing number of stones, first twenty-five, then thirty-five, and then forty. Then colored stones were brought from the mountains and they became white when used to build the wall. Some stones were found unsuitable by the six leaders and were taken away and returned to their places of origin. The men rested after a time and the master for whom the tower was being built arrived to examine it. He tapped each stone thrice with a rod, revealing deformities and flaws in many. These were replaced by rectangular and circular stones found in a place where the master instructed them to look. The master instructed the Shepherd to clean the stones that had been replaced, and to discard any that could not be cleaned. Assisted by the virgins and twelve other women dresses in black, the Shepherd amended all of the stones that he could and they were added back into the tower. When the tower was complete, the stones fit together seamlessly such that the tower appeared to have been hewn out of the rock at its base. The tower was then cleaned and the grounds swept. As the Shepherd rested, Hermas stayed with the virgins, praying without ceasing and feasting on the words of the Lord.

    The Shepherd then explains the vision to Hermas. The large white rock is the Son of God. He is old for he existed before creation, though the gate in the rock is new, and through it men (the stones) enter the kingdom of God. The master is also the Son of God and the men building the tower — the Church — are his angels. The virgins are holy spirits, the powers of the Son of God. Four (named Faith, Continence, Power & Patience) are more powerful than the rest (Simplicity, Innocence, Purity, Cheerfulness, Truth, Understanding, Harmony, Love) Bearing the name of the Son of God is vital, but the stones must be carried into the tower by his powers. Conversely, the women in black are temptresses, and they carry away inferfect stones, though they who are not tempted and return to the ways of the virgins are added back to the tower. Four of these women (Unbelief, Incontinence, Disobedience & Deceit) are also more powerful than their followers (Sorrow, Wickedness, Wantonness, Anger, Falsehood, Folly, Backbiting & Hatred). The four layers of stones were righteous men, prophets and ministers, and apostles and teachers of the Son of God who never left the company of the spirits and one another. The stones ascended from the pit because they were obliged to ascend through water, sealed with the name of the Son of God and by the preaching of the Apostles and the teachers. The mountains are the twelve tribes living thoughout the world which vary in understanding (color) until they were preached the Son of God and become alike in understanding (white). Some revert to their old ways and are then returned to their former places, some ultimately rejected, for the chastisement for wickedness is worse for those who know God than for those who have not known him. The tower (the Church) is purified when stones such as these are rejected. During the repair process, the Shepherd had filled in the cracks on certain stones so that the stones’ surfaces could be levelled. These stones are the men who had heard the Shepherd’s message and repented.

    The Shepherd concludes with a plea of repentance. “Heal yourselves, therefore, while the tower is still building.”

  10. The messenger who had delivered Hermas to the Shepherd returned, knowledgable of Hermas’ progress, to confirm that he desired to stay under the protection of the Shepherd. Upon Hermas’ confirmation, he is assigned several virgins to assist him in life, but was warned that they would depart from his house should he do anything to defile it. Before departing, the angel urges Hermas to live in the commandments given to him and to make them known to others. From the version found on New Advent (edited for clarity):

    “Whoever [walks] in these commandments, shall have life, and will be happy in his life; [thus,] enjoin all, who are able to act rightly, not to cease well-doing; for, to practice good works is useful to them. […] Whoever, therefore, rescues a soul […] from [suffering], will gain for himself great joy. [But he who] knows a calamity of this kind afflicting a man, and does not save him, commits a great sin, and becomes guilty of his blood. Do good works, therefore, you who have received good from the Lord; lest, while you delay to do them, the building of the tower be finished, and you be rejected from the edifice: there is now no other tower a-building. For on your account was the work of building suspended. Unless, then, you make haste to do rightly, the tower will be completed, and you will be excluded.”

Notes & Observations

  • Originally written in Greek. Only full extants in Latin.
  • More popular in the West; hence why more Latin copies were made.
  • On the similitudes:
    • The first similitude echos the message in Matthew 6. Do not store up earthly treasures that can be destroyed or stolen (vv19-21), but seek first the kingdom and righteousness (v33).
    • The second similitude brings to mind the Beatitudes (Mt 5). In particular, the poor in spirit will have the kingdom (v3) and the merciful will be shown mercy (v7). It also touches on how difficult it is for the rich to enter Heaven (Mt 19:16-28), for the rich are distracted by their wealth (Mt 6:21)
    • The third and fourth similitudes are commensurate with the teachings of Jesus on knowing the good by their fruits (Mt 7:19-20; Mt 12:33), and also the parable of the sower (Mt 13:1-23) in which only some seed produces.
    • The fifth similitude is a bit harder to digest. It is similar to several Biblical parables, but not exactly the same; for example, one might interpret the weeds as sinful people (Mt 13:24-30), but in this case is a reference only to the sins themselves.
    • Referring to the Holy Spirit as the “son” sends a mixed message, true enough, but at a deeper level it also shows that the trinitarian nature of God had not yet been fully discerned, implying that both the Son and the Spirit came forth from the Creator, instead of the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son (qui ex Pater Filioque procedit; Nicene Creed).
    • The representation of the commandments of Christ as dishes coming from the table of the Father and being shared with the other slaves introduces a few issues. First, the people of God are already represented as vines; so, who are the other slaves supposed to represent? The angel explains this in the fifth chapter, that they also represent the people. Similarly, the stakes represent the holy angels, but so do the friends of the son (i.e. the Spirit). This is a bit confusing and may indicate that the parable is overreaching, trying to explain too much.
    • One should probably call to mind that the commandments given to the people by God through Jesus were commandments to love God and neighbor (Mt 22:36-40); otherwise, this similitude could be misinterpreted in a number of ways. For example, one may the tempted to interpret the sharing of the dishes simply as the preaching of the Gospel or as adherence to the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic Law.
    • Instructing the Philippians in humility, St. Paul explains how Jesus humbled himself, taking the form of a slave, and so was exalted by the Father. (Phil 2:5-11) The sixth chapter of the fifth Similitude expresses this very idea when the angel explains to Hermas in the context of the parable.
    • The last two chapters expose more about the early understanding about God’s nature. The Spirit is described as pre-existent and involved in creation; however, in discussing that Christ is not a slave, but glorified, it states that the flesh was created as a kind of tabernacle in which the Spirit may dwell, and that the one without spot or defilement works as a partner with the Spirit. This seems to imply that the Son was created, rather than being co-eternal with the Father and the Spirit. If the “flesh” is not meant to refer to the man Jesus, but simply to the matter, then the flesh here is animated by the Spirit, possibly inferring that these two persons of the Trinity are really only one. Still, the notion that the one of flesh works with the Spirit, “co-operates” if you will, implies that they are separate wills.
    • If the above point is not in regard to the Son at all, but to the remainder of mankind, then this is commensurate with Church teaching. We receive the Spirit at Baptism and become a temple for it. Moreover, if we cooperate with God and become partners with him in our works, then we bear witness to him, find favor with him, and be saved. Conversely, if we defile our bodies with sin, the Spirit cannot dwell within and we will not live, a condition we call mortal sin. This last paragraph also expresses (more implicitly than I present here) the error that God can/will forgive sins committed in ignorance, but that the informed believer must not sin for they will not be forgiven sinful acts of an informed will — the reason that led many Christians to postpone Baptism until their deathbeds in ages to come.
    • In the first chapter regarding the sixth similitude, the angel makes a great statement that expresses the essence of metanoia and illustrates the powerful role of faith and works in the life of the believer. From the version found on New Advent:

      “Why are you in doubt about the commandments which I gave you? They are excellent: have no doubt about them at all, but put on faith in the Lord, and you will walk in them, for I will strengthen you in them. These commandments are beneficial to those who intend to repent: for if they do not walk in them, their repentance is in vain. You, therefore, who repent cast away the wickedness of this world which wears you out; and by putting on all the virtues of a holy life, you will be able to keep these commandments, and will no longer add to the number of your sins. Walk, therefore, in these commandments of mine, and you will live unto God.”

    • Similitude six is also good illustration of the Church’s understanding of temporal punishment. In the parable, the torture for sin takes place completely in a man’s lifetime and the rational concept of Purgatory is not evident; however, the ideas that a proportionate amount of punishment is required to remedy a day’s worth of sin and that refusal to repent earns one death (in the eternal sense) are clear.
    • The seventh similitude embraces the idea that salvation is a communal affair, not an individual one. When one part of Christ’s Body suffers, the whole Body suffers.
    • The eighth similitude is long and somewhat complicated. It is similar to the parables of the tenants (Mt 25) and the minas (Lk 19), and Galatians 6:7-8 could easily be cited as the synopsis. Any of the various passages about knowing the faithful by their fruits (e.g. Mt 7:15-20) come to mind immediately as well.
    • Thirty-three chapters long, similitude nine is the longest and most complicated. It is, however, a very rich explanation of the Catholic idea of salvation and the symbolism of rock/stone is pervasive. The foundation of the tower is, of course, the Son of God. There is a healthy amount of discussion regarding the rejection of stones by the builders — that is to say, of people by the angels — which mirrors somewhat the rejection of cornerstone, Jesus, by the builders, the Jews. [Is 28:16; Ps 118:22; Mt 21:42-43; Acts 4:11; 1 Pt 2:4-10; etc.] Indeed, the Lord will be the one rejecting stones in judgment.
    • The fourth tier of stones included the Apostles, which of course included Peter. Christ’s words, “and on this rock I will build my Church,” take on new vibrance with this story as a backdrop. [Mt 16:18] Though one could argue that Peter was only one amongst forty such stones described, it does solidify that the Early Church placed primary importance on the teachings of the Apostles and their successors.
    • Some of the stones taken through the gate were rejected, either by the builders or my the master, but are saved to be cleansed. This is the strongest image in the text supporting the concept of Purgatory.
    • The Shepherd is instructed to care for the rejected stones by the master, and he does so with haste in fear that the master might return suddenly and find him negligent in his duty. Likewise, the tower is cleaned so that the master may not return to find it unacceptable. This imagery is used in the New Testament with regard to the Second Coming of Christ. [Mk 13:32-37; Mt 24:45-49; etc.]
    • Note how closely the names of the virgins, the “powers of the Son of God”, resemble the seven Heavenly and three Theological Virtues. Likewise, the names of the women in black resemble the Seven Deadly Vices.
    • Chapters 19 through 29 describe in detail the twelve mountains first mentioned in Chapter 17. That detail has been omitted here, but a few general observations are valuable. The stones from the black mountain would not change color and were not found suitable for inclusion in the tower. These are apostates and blasphemers, and though repentance is a possibility, it is unlikely. Conversely, the stones from the white mountain were all accepted, including the stones from the mountain’s root. These are innocents. The mountains in between vary by their vegetation, ranging from thorns and thistles to fruit, the symbolism fairly consistent with Scripture (e.g. parable of the sower, Mark 4). This is not a reference to the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
    • That the stones ascending from the pit were obliged to ascend through the water is symbolic of Baptism.
    • In the second chapter of the ninth similitude, the Shepherd tells Hermas to stop trying to figure things out and to simply accept the vision, which can be explained afterward. This is an exercise of faith and a testimony to how far God’s understanding is above ours. The scene also adds to the character development, even this late in the text.
    • Similarly, at the end of the ninth similitude, the Shepherd asks Hermas if he had any more questions and reminded him of something about which he did not ask. Hermas confessed that he had forgotten to ask. Perhaps it is just the translation or the imputation of a modern tone, but the Shepherd’s question comes of as snarky and Hermas’ reply as somewhat flippant. This exposes their personalities, making it easier to relate to the characters.
    • The tenth similitude isn’t really a parable, but more of a conclusion to the story.
    • The angel assigned some of the virgins to Hermas as aides. Based on what was revealed in the ninth similitude, this means that Hermas was graced with virtues which are the powers of the Son of God. That these graces would depart his house should he act improperly is strikingly similar to the Church’s teaching that God’s grace is no longer poured out on one who has fallen into mortal sin (except, of course, the actual grace required to repent).
    • The angel’s final warning expresses the need, not just to avoid wrongdoing, but to continue well-doing. This is essentially and expression of the Church’s teaching on the necessity of both faith and works.



Blog at

%d bloggers like this: