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What reasons are there to think that the Shepherd of Hermas was a literal vision or was fictional?

Discussion in 'The Ancient Way - Eastern Orthodox' started by rakovsky, Jun 17, 2019.

  1. rakovsky

    rakovsky Newbie

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    Do you believe that Hermas was (A) simply narrating actual visions, wherein divine beings appeared to come and talk to him, or (B) deliberately created and composed his "Shepherd" as part of a literary genre of apocalyptic "revelatory visions" in expectation of nearing End Times (eg. that the Second Coming would occur in the 2nd c. AD)?

    Taken at face value, the Shepherd of Hermas appears to simply narrate (A) the author Hermas' real visions, which were supernatural experiences wherein Jesus, in the form of a Shepherd, along with angels and spirits, appeared and talked with Hermas. In writings in history, there are literal narratives of real visions, such as when people relate what they have dreamt the night before, so one logical option exists that the Shepherd falls into the category of a recording real vision. The writing was included in several of the earliest Biblical Church text collections, was respected by some early Church fathers, and even today some people believe that it at least includes a core of real visions by the author, although the text was eventually considered to be apocrypha by the Church and put outside the Biblical canon.

    On the other hand, in accordance with option (B) there was a literary genre in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD of apocalyptic visionary literature. Church writers of the time period and since have considered that a major portion of that apocalyptic literature was spurious or fictional (for lack of a better term), deliberately thought up and composed by authors in the early centuries, rather than being literal narrations of real-life visions. Some Church writers at the time, as well as Orthodox and other Christian writers since then, have either considered the Shepherd of Hermas to be among the fictional narratives, or else noted respectfully the views of Christians who considered the Shepherd of Hermas to be spurious.

    There are actually quite a number of apocalyptic first to second century writings describing meetings with Jesus or angels, some of the accounts perhaps being spurious narratives thought up by the author. Here I will list some, with their potential dates of writing first:
    • 90-150 AD. Apocalypse of Peter (Accepted by Clement Alexandrine, not counted genuine by Eusebius)
    • 90-218 AD. 4 Esdras (Vulgate numbering) / 2 Esdras (Protestant numbering)
    • 100-400 AD. Gospel of Bartholomew / The Questions of Bartholomew (Rejected by Gelasian Decree.)
    • 1st - 2nd c. Testament of Abraham
    • 1st - early 3rd c. Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah
    • 1st c. - 380 Testament of Isaac
    • 2nd-3rd c. Testament of Jacob
    • 100-400 Testament of Adam (maybe gnostic or Encratitic. Differs from canonical story, making Cain's jealousy to be over his sister)
    • 100-500 Apocalypse of Sedrach
    • 100-Late 7th c. Greek Apocalypse of Ezra
    • 1st century AD. - 300 AD. 3 Baruch
    A famous example of apocalyptic literature that was a deliberate composition thought up in modern times is the medieval Italian author Dante's Divine Comedy, a series of visions of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. I think that Dante wrote his story based on earlier apocalyptic literature like The Apocalypse of Peter and the Book of Revelation.

    The New World Encyclopedia notes about the Shepherd of Hermas that, "Though Clement of Alexandria constantly quotes with reverence a work that seems to him to be very useful, and inspired; yet he repeatedly apologizes, when he has occasion to quote it, on the ground that 'many people despise it.'"

    I read that at one time Tertullian respected the Shepherd of Hermas and another time rejected it. Tertullian wrote to Callixtus I, "I would admit your argument, if the writing of the Shepherd... were not judged by every council of the Churches, even of your own Churches, among the apocryphal and false."

    Rutherford H. Platt wrote in his book "Lost Books of the Bible", "Jerome, notwithstanding this, and that he applauded it in his catalogue of writers, in his comments upon it afterwards, terms it apocryphal and foolish."

    Eusebius in the fourth century characterized the Shepherd of Hermas among the books that he called "Notha", meaning "spurious", "illegitimate", or "false" in Greek, but he also noted, "it has been publicly read in churches" and that some writers treated it respectfully. The writers don't get into what they believe is spurious or despised about it, but one can think that false/spurious means that the books is not what it purports to be. ie. the Shepherd purports to be one Hermas' real vision of Jesus, but it isn't actually by Hermas or else it isn't a real vision.

    In his study on the Shepherd of Hermas, Brian FItzgerald, an Orthodox Christian writer, asks why the Shepherd was written:
    https://www.st-philip.net/files/Fitzgerald Patristic series/shepherd_of_hermas.pdf

    To me, the passage in the Study above suggests that The Shepherd of Hermas belongs to the category of fictional writings where an author uses the genre of visionary stories in order to send a message to the Church, like Dante tried to send to the public of his own time with the Divine Comedy. If a First or Second Century Christian writer like Hermas actually had visions of Christ in the form of a Shepherd in which the Shepherd actually told him to write down the visions and send them to the Churches, then there would not really be a need for modern theologians to consider possible motives for Hermas' writing. If the writing was non-fictional and a series of narratives, then the motive would be obvious: Christ told the author to write down the visions and send them to the Churches, and so the author would have simply done exactly what Christ instructed him to do, ie. write it down.

    Besides the Orthodox writers' comments above, another thing that makes me think that The Shepherd of Hermas might not be a literal account of a real vision, but rather is a deliberate attempt to use the genre of visionary literature, is its length and detail. The book is so long that it took me several days to read. Scholars think that it was added to over time because it is so long. Furthermore, the detail is so great, with specific instructions and rules on many topics like chastity and how to discern true prophets, that it looks like the author thoughtfully composed the book, rather than sitting down and transcribing it all from memory. For it to be a literal narrative of a real set of visions, then the author would need to have a very powerful memory for him to remember and then put down all his visions in detail, or else he would have to be writing and transcribing the visions at the same time that he was having them. Or he could use a combination of memory and transcription. But such a powerful memory seems strange to me, and it also seems strange to imagine that he was in such a clear state of mind that he could transcribe the visions at the same time as his mind was experiencing this supernatural or paranormal visionary state. I suppose though that his powerful abilities in remembering or transcribing the visions could be ascribed to miraculous powerful gifts. But it just seems more likely that a person would tend to write such a very long, detailed account for a fictional composition than memorizing or simultaneously transcribing literal visions in such length and detail.

    One Orthodox writer suggested to me that the core of the Shepherd is a real vision, but that, as some scholars suggest, other people added their own passages to it later. However, even if one supposes that the early part of the document is original, then the early part is so long and detailed that even the early part appears to me to resemble a deliberate composition thought up by the author rather than a recollection of dreams or visions.
     
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  2. ArmyMatt

    ArmyMatt Regular Member Supporter

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    I'd say A, but maybe recorded and written down with a little bit of B's influence.
     
  3. rakovsky

    rakovsky Newbie

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    What makes you go for mostly A?
    Is it because it teaches morality, has descriptions of Jesus, and feels uplifting?
     
  4. ArmyMatt

    ArmyMatt Regular Member Supporter

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    no, because I see no evidence to deny that it was at least based on an actual vision someone had.
     
  5. rakovsky

    rakovsky Newbie

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    I think that there is evidence that it's not a real vision, but the evidence isn't conclusive for me that it is not based on a real vision.

    One piece of circumstantial evidence is that we have plenty of apocalyptic writings from that period and since then that many in the Church have reasonably considered spurious and false, ("notha" as Eusebius called them). The Apocalypse of Peter, the Questions of Bartholomew, and others that I listed might not be really by Bartholomew or Peter. And if those are not really the visions of Bartholomew or Peter, then it makes sense that someone who knew that he/she was not those two people wrote up the visions and knowingly mis-ascribed them to those two figures. In turn, a person who knowingly misascribed the writings is quite capable and maybe even inclined to not just invent the attributions to the apostles, but maybe even inclined to invent the whole set of "visions".

    But like I said, this argument and set of evidence appears circumstantial. Even supposing that the author misascribed the writings or knowingly invented some of the visions, he could still have heard them from other people and then put them down in his own work.
     
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2019
  6. ArmyMatt

    ArmyMatt Regular Member Supporter

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    it could also be, like some of St Paul's writings, that the vision was had and then dictated to someone else, which means it wouldn't be mis-ascribed.
     
  7. rakovsky

    rakovsky Newbie

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    Sure. If Hermas wrote down the visions as he had them or later, or dictated them to someone during the visions or later, or if he told them to people and they got handed down in oral tradition and then written down by someone, they would not be mis-ascribed. I find appealing your suggestion that the basis was a real 1st-2nd century vision on which the rest of the narrative was added.

    Arguments that it was based on invented stories include:
    • There was a literary genre of apocalyptic writings involving visions of Jesus, such as the Questions of Bartholomew, so the author could have drafted a story in the style of this genre.
    • The text is so long and detailed with so many "Books"(Volumes) and chapters that it doesn't look like something that the author wrote down as he received the visions nor remembered afterwards. It took me days (maybe a week to read it all). I guess he could take drugs over a week and sketch down what he saw during his drug induced hallucinations, but the early Christians generally aren't considered drug users. Visions generally don't last for such a long time that a person can write down so much. Besides, while one is in a visionary state, their mind would tend not be coherent enough to write down so much, and after they awaken from their state, their mind would tend not to remember so much detail at such length.
    • Clement Alexandrine noted that many despised it, Tertullian said that every council called it apocryphal and false, Eusebius listed it as "notha"(spurious or false). If the text were spurious, false, and if the Christians who despised it were correct, then the author composed a text of a narrative that is false, ie what is narrated did not actually occur.
    • The text has enough features, like the Shepherd's instructions to Maximus to "deny again" after announcing that tribulation is coming on, reminiscient of the voice in Martin Scorsese's Silence telling the priest to step on a Jesus portrait in order to avoid persecution, that could make a reader question whether the Shepherd is actually Jesus or if the text instead is the author's own message that is out of step with Christianity and mis-representing itself as Jesus' message.
    • The Muratorian Canon says that it was written "very recently" by Hermas the brother of Pope Pius I during the latter's term (140-155 AD). Yet in The Shepherd, the Shepherd instructs Hermas to have Clement send copies of the Shepherd's commands abroad, because, as he says, this is Clement's duty. This apparently refers to Pope Clement, who served in the end of the 1st century. So it seems to me that the text in this place is attempting to mis-ascribe itself to the end of the 1st century. Maybe, as the Catholic Encyclopedia suggests, it is also trying to mis-attribute itself to the Christian Hermas of Rome to whom Paul referred in one of his letters. A person who knowingly misattributes his text would seem to have dishonesty or fiction as a key feature of his authorship, and making up a narrative of visions would accord with such a feature. Craig Truglia writes about the writer's mis-attribution of the text on the Orth.Christian Theology website:
    • As Truglia notes above, the narrator even admits in the text that he has an extreme habit of lying. Truglia could be referring to this passage about the narrator's confession to the Shepherd of dishonesty:
      Further, the writer has the Shepherd in the story claim that the narrator's past lies can become worthy of credit, which is in effect an attempt by the narrator to make a justification of lies. On the other hand, someone who supports the narrative in the text could try to counterargue that in the passage above, the Shepherd told the narrator to stop his lying and that the admission of the narrator's dishonesty only refers to his past habits.
    • The Contents are arranged in three "Books" (volumes), titled: I. Visions, II. Commandments/Mandates, and III. Similitudes. The Greek word for Similitudes is Parabolai (ΠΑΡΑΒΟΛΑΙ), meaning "Parables". Parables in the Bible are stories that are similar to real events, but did not actually happen. This could suggest that the events and visions depicted are really parables and did not actually occur, nor were literally envisioned.
    It seems like even if all those arguments above were correct, it could still have been based directly on a real first to second century vision. Conceivably, Pope Pius could have had a brother named after the first century Hermas, and the brother could have had a dream about Jesus in the form of a Shepherd and then composed a far longer narrative based on it.
     
    Last edited: Jun 20, 2019
  8. Newtheran

    Newtheran Well-Known Member

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    I was curious after reading your post, looked it up, and skimmed through it.

    Honestly, it has the feel of the Book of Mormon to me, doesn't really read like scripture.
     
  9. Lukaris

    Lukaris Orthodox Christian Supporter

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    I know that St. Athanasius quotes from the Shepherd in his writing: On the Incarnation & calls it “helpful.” There seems to much value to the Shepherd but it must be read carefully.

    An example of something valuable in the Shepherd is Similitude 7 which is identifiable to what St, Paul says in Acts of the Apostles 26:20 (which is the summary in my hard copy translation). The Similitudes: Shepherd of Hermas:Similitudes
     
  10. ArmyMatt

    ArmyMatt Regular Member Supporter

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    you're right that it's not Scripture, but that doesn't mean it's not theologically true or correct.
     
  11. rakovsky

    rakovsky Newbie

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    I agree that the Shepherd is important as a once-widespread Christian writing.
    On the other hand, if you think that Similtude 7's teachings are valuable, Lukaris, then I invite you to have a look at Question #2 in my thread about Similitude 7: THE SHEPHERD OF HERMAS (1st-2nd Cent.) 2 Questions on Praying in Grief & Collective Guilt
     
  12. Lukaris

    Lukaris Orthodox Christian Supporter

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    You are right Similitude 7 seems to stress too much that the household must suffer vexations for their repentance to be acceptable. Especially when the Shepherd says that they do repent & they must still necessarily suffer? That would seem to be more of a random circumstance than something required.

    It has been a long time since I read the Shepherd & I read through Similitude 7 too fast. Yet other parts are really good for ex. Command #5 in the Commands (Book 2) is valuable as an early Christian expression of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit ( see: CHURCH FATHERS: The Shepherd of Hermas, Book II.

    Please forgive my error.
     
  13. rakovsky

    rakovsky Newbie

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    Thanks for replying about Similitude 7, Lukaris. In case you think that Book II has a good understanding of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, then consider the question that I asked on the Catholic Answers forum about this:
    In particular, what do you think about the Shepherd's claim that divine spirits (eg. the Holy Spirit) speak freely, but that a nondivine spirit only speaks when it is asked?
    https://forums.catholic.com/t/the-s...estion-on-divine-vs-non-divine-spirits/555234

    I have a quite long line of issues like this that I am not sure about or don't understand that came up from my reading of the text, which I am putting below chronologically and welcome you to answer if you like. My goal in raising the issues isn't so much to undermine the text, but to at least grasp the issues, since I could be misreading the passage or the author could be right about some of the issues after all.
    1. In Book I:2:3, the Shepherd apparently tells Maximus to "deny again" if it seems good, because tribulation is coming. What do you think about those instructions?
    2. In Book I, Vision 4, Chapters 1-2, the Church in the form of a woman says that Hermas escaped harm because he didn’t doubt in the presence of the beast, but that those hear and despise the woman’s words in the document would be better off not having been born. Yet plenty of Church fathers took a skeptical view of the document, as I cited earlier in the thread.
    3. In Book II, Commandment IV, Chapter I, the Shepherd demands that husbands divorce their wives if the latter repeatedly commit adultery, and he says that the above-mentioned aggrieved ex-husbands commit adultery if they remarry, in contradiction to Matthew 19:9. In Book II, Commandment IV, Chapter I, he says that Christian wives acting like pagans is a form of adultery too, and so the husband should live apart from such wives.
    4. In Book II, 4.3, the Shepherd apparently says that Christians cannot successfully repent of sins committed after their baptism more than once. Is that correct?
    5. Book II, Commandment 9: Those who waver in their heart or are doubtful-minded won't receive any of their petitions, whereas those complete in the faith "receive, because they ask without wavering, nothing doubting." Aren't there many cases where doubters receive and those who have full faith don't?
    6. Book II, Commandment 9: He says that “doubtful-mindedness is an earthly spirit from the devil". But aren't doubt and discernment important tools in addressing faith issues, so that one will doubt false prophets and false messages instead of presumptively trusting false messages dressed up in a holy guise?
    7. Book II, Commandment 10: the Shepherd says that the prayers of sorrowful people don't reach God.
    8. In Book II, Command 11, the Shepherd claims that while Divine Spirits speak freely, the non-divine ones only speak when asked. Is this correct?
    9. Book II, Commandment 11: the Shepherd complains that there are non-pagan false prophets who frequently repent. But isn't frequent repentance okay?
    10. In Book II, Commandment 12, the Shepherd says that people must obey all of the commandments that he is giving and not break them, or else they won't be saved. Is it realistic to expect that people will always be able to follow all of them (eg. not to become sorrowful), such that they won't need to repent? I remember reading in Paul's epistles that the Law brings death because it's not realistic that someone will succeed in keeping all its rules, and that this is why we need to follow Christ. But I can't find the place in the epistles now, so maybe I am mis-remembering it.
    11. Book III, Similitude 7, which we discussed, the Shepherd talks about the angel afflicting the innocent narrator for his household's sins, and about the necessity of punishing the fully repentant.
    12. In Book III, Similitude 9, the Shepherd says if a person persists in getting mixed up in much and various businesses (ie. economic affairs) without repentance, they will be delivered to the women in black raiment, among whom "the first is Unbelief, the second Impurity, the third Disobedience, and the fourth Deceit" - who will kill such a person.
     
    Last edited: Jun 27, 2019
  14. Lukaris

    Lukaris Orthodox Christian Supporter

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    I will see what I can do; I reread command 5 & it seems to be a sound preaching telling us to cultivate patience & avoid anger so the Holy Spirit will dwell in us.

    The aspect of the head of a household sinning & the consequences on his household seems fuzzy. Perhaps these are terms particular to ancient Roman society?
     
  15. rakovsky

    rakovsky Newbie

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    Sure. Typically the sections (like Command 5) of the Shepherd besides those that I listed (like Commands 4 and 9) sounded orthodox.

    You ask:
    I never heard of a Roman pagan idea that the only way to punish Rome's households would only ever be to punish their heads. I would have to invent an explanation, like the household was fully instilled in the self-denial/callousness of Stoicism, with the exception of their care of their head.
     
    Last edited: Jun 22, 2019
  16. rakovsky

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    Lukaris and Fr. Matt,
    How would you address the teaching in Similitude VII, wherein the fully repentant are still punished?
    It reminds me of the Catholic thinking about Purgatory, where the faithful penitent undergo punishment to be cleansed of their sins. On the other hand, I kind of remember reading in the Russian theologian Lopuhin or another writer about people whose sins had been absolved still undergoing punishment for some other reason, like as the natural consequence of their actions. By comparison, in the secular criminal "justice" system, repentance is a mitigating factor, but usually doesn't serve to void convicts' punishments.

    In Similitude VII, Hermas tells the Shepherd that his family is repentant:
     
  17. ArmyMatt

    ArmyMatt Regular Member Supporter

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    even after we repent, we still have to deal with the aftermath of our sins.
     
  18. rakovsky

    rakovsky Newbie

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    That is true as a practical reality. But the Shepherd is talking about the affliction as a punishment.
    I should have quoted the preceding verses, in which the angel of punishment is afflicting Hermas as the head of his household for his family's sins.
    Here is the passage leading up to what I quoted above:
    The idea seems strange to me wherein a divine angel of punishment afflicts the fully repentant.
     
  19. ArmyMatt

    ArmyMatt Regular Member Supporter

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    well, it is a weird text, but that's not something unheard of in Church history, especially since the guy afflicted is still alive.

    sometimes the sincerely repentant are afflicted to keep them humble.
     
  20. rakovsky

    rakovsky Newbie

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    I wish I still had that commentary passage by Lopuhin about this. As best as I remember, Lopuhin said that when Christians repent, what is removed is the guilt of the sin that they committed in violation of the covenant that leads to their spiritual death, the death that Paul talked about in referring to how violating the Law leads to spiritual death in the Last Judgment. But Lopuhin wrote that other punishment afflictions are still in force and not removed by the absolution. One category that he gave was the natural negative effects of the sin (eg. having a crashed car as a result of drunken driving). But he gave some other category that I wasn't really fully comfortable with. Maybe it was the concept of purgative punishment that teaches the person. It kind of reminded me of the criminal justice system though. I read some Old Testament verse, I think it was about David, where David is told that he would still incur punishment despite his repentance due tot he fact that his sin (maybe it was taking the census or killing Uriah) had brought God into disrepute in the eyes of other people.

    One example that comes to mind is how infants are born without the personal guilt of original sin, but that they still suffer as a result of it. another example that comes to mind about the principle of punishing the repentant is how in the Old Testament, David repented of his sin of killing Uriah, and so God decided not to kill David as punishment, but He still (effectively) killed David's infant as punishment.
    Fr. John Breck seems to write the opposite:
    I suppose that based on the passage above, one could say that the punishment is "a pedagogical tool to aid us in a quest for holiness or sanctification", although Fr. Breck doesn't directly say that - rather he is talking about penance construed as "punishment". I am not sure that penance is really best construed of as "punishment". A person feels good about giving charity to the poor as penance, but doesn't feel good about sitting in prison.
     
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2019
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