Composed within the first Christian century by a Roman named Hermas, the Shepherd remains a mysterious and underestimated book to scholars and laypeople alike. Robert D. Heaton argues that early Christians mainly received the Shepherd positively and accepted it unproblematically alongside texts that would ultimately be canonized, requiring decisive actions to exclude it from the late-emerging collection of texts now known as the New Testament. Freshly evaluating the evidence for its popularity in patristic treatises, manuscript recoveries, and Christian material culture, Heaton propounds an interpretation of the Shepherd of Hermas as a book meant to guide his readers toward salvation. Ultimately, Heaton depicts the loss of the Shepherd from the closed catalogue of Christian scriptures as a deliberate constrictive move by the fourth-century Alexandrian bishop Athanasius, who found it useless for his political, theological, and ecclesiological objectives and instead characterized it as a book favored by his heretical enemies. While the book’s detractors succeeded in derailing its diffusion for centuries, the survival of the Shepherd today attests that many dissented from the church’s final judgment about Hermas’s text, which portends a version of early Christianity that was definitively overridden by devotion to Christ himself, rather than principally to his virtues.
Robert D. Heaton teaches New Testament, Christian Origins, and Early Christianity at Anderson University in Indiana.
List of Tables and Figures
A Note About Style
Introduction: Seeking the Lost Shepherd
Part I — Rise of the Shepherd: A Scripture and its Readers
Chapter One: The Shepherd of Hermas: Text, Context, and Interpretation
Chapter Two: Initial Christian Approval of the Shepherd: Known Figures and Anonymous Sources
Chapter Three: The Contested Usefulness of the Shepherd in the Third and Fourth Centuries
Chapter Four: Passing the Test? The Shepherd, Canonical “Criteria,” and Rationales for Exclusion
Part II — Fall of the Shepherd: A Canon and its Discontents
Chapter Five: Constrictive Trends Forging Fourth-Century Christianity
Chapter Six: Athanasius of Alexandria and the Four Constrictive Trends: His Novel "Rule of Scripture" and Hermas’s Scriptura Non Grata
Conclusion: Eight Primary Contributions of the Foregoing Study
About the Author
As a book that almost made into the New Testament, the Shepherd of Hermas provides a unique opportunity to study the process of canon formation in the early Church. Why did such a popular book end up excluded from the Christian Bible? Rob Heaton suggests that the answer lies not in the traditional criteria that scholars have developed to explain canonization. Instead, developments in heresiology, Christology, ecclesiastical organization, and concepts of prophecy rendered the Shepherd problematic for powerful bishops like Athanasius of Alexandria. This is a stimulating book filled with thought-provoking positions on several controversial questions.
Heaton’s work is an excellent addition to earlier works on the Shepherd of Hermas and his discussion of its context and use, along with the added tables are most helpful and he advances our understanding of this very popular book in early Christianity that was considered Christian Scripture for centuries. It will remain a standard work on this subject along with, and on par with, Osiek’s Hermeneia commentary. I heartily recommend it.
Here we have the first comprehensive account of why TheShepherd—enormously popular and widely read in the second and third centuries of the Common Era – fell from favor and was deemed heretical in the fourth, despite its lack of overt Christological interest. There are no obvious red flags (though its length does dwarf contemporaneous, early Christian writings). With an astonishingly-researched bibliography Heaton provides a likely rationale. In doing so, his analysis takes on a number of scholarly shibboleths about the history of the Christian canon of scripture and “canonicity” that can no longer bear scrutiny.
I am delighted that once again, the Shepherd is getting well-deserved attention, this time not only for itself but within the wider context of the canonical process of the first Christian centuries. Heaton raises in new ways old questions that have continued to be re-examined. He ably places this enigmatic text within the development of the early Christian “laboratory” and makes refreshing new contributions to our understanding of that development.
In this wide-ranging study, Rob Heaton carefully and expertly traverses centuries of early Christian history to explore the Shepherd’s original context, initial widespread reception, and final ecclesiastical dismissal. Heaton’s curiosity and erudition is on full display as he examines Hermas’ visionary text and its complex afterlife in popular and ecclesial circles. Careful examination of often overlooked material culture, obscure sermons, and scholarly theories that deserve renewed attention permeate the pages of this delightful monograph. The result is a bold challenge to prevailing assumptions about the process of canonization and a call for renewed attention to the Shepherd itself.