The Holy Bible is the world’s most prominent book, having been read by billions throughout history and reaching far to every corner of the world. In fact, it is also the number one best seller, with over five billion copies sold and distributed.
However, the Bible and specifically the New Testament we have all come to know and love was not always the same as we read today. During the infancy of the Church, the New Testament was gradually developed as early Church fathers agreed upon which texts to include during the canonization process. Most don’t know about the book that came close to being an official part of the Bible, The Shepherd of Hermas.
The Shepherd of Hermas, sometimes just called The Shepherd, was a religious literary text written sometime in the late first century to mid second century. The exact time it was written is debated amongst historians along with its authorship; however, it is traditionally identified as being written by the brother of Pope Pius I whose papacy began the year 140 and ended in 155. Evidence for this is found in the Muratorian fragment, which is possibly the oldest known copy of a list containing the books of the New Testament.
“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.” – Muratorian fragment
The Shepherd is divided into three sections: the first section describes five visions, the second section presents twelve mandates, and the last section is composed of ten parables. In the story, Hermas speaks about his life and development of his Catholic virtues as a freed slave.
The story revolves around Hermas who was sold into slavery to a woman named Rhoda. Sometime after being given his freedom by Rhoda, their paths cross again and he begins to love her as a sister.
Hermas has a vision in which Rhoda is his accuser in Heaven, on account of an unchaste thought he had of her while being married. In this vision, an elderly woman helps by telling him to do penance as well as do right by the sins of his people. I
In another vision, Hermas is visited by an angel of repentance in the form of a shepherd who delivers laws and mandates that became pivotal in the establishment of early Catholic ethics and virtues.
The Shepherd of Hermas was a very popular text among early Christians and read by many. Some Church Fathers, like Saint Irenaeus even considered it part of the Bible. It is even included in the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the earliest full copies of the New Testament.
Eventually, it fell out of favor during the early decades of the third century. Tertullian, known as a father of Latin theology said regarding the Shepherd that “I would admit your argument, if the writing of the Shepherd had deserved to be included in the Divine Instrument, and if it were not judged by every council of the Churches, even of your own Churches, among the apocryphal and false,” when Pope Callixtus I quoted it as having scriptural authority.
Read the English translation of the Shepherd of Hermas here.