The work was certainly popular in the churches of the second and third centuries. Take for example Irenaeus. In his theological text, Against Heresies, he quotes directly from The Shepherd, writing “Rightly, then, the Scripture says: ‘First of all, believe that God is one, who created and finished all things and made all things to exist out of what did not exist, and containing all things but alone is uncontained’.”3 Irenaeus’s word for what I have translated as “Scripture” here - ἡ γραφή - is used almost exclusively in his surviving writing to denote biblical texts, and the quote above is followed by passages from Malachi, Ephesians and Matthew. Whilst this is by no means conclusive as to whether Irenaeus considered The Shepherd to be canonical, it at the very least illustrates the respect this text commanded in his mind. The second-century theologian, Clement of Alexandria, is another to have held the work in high regard, repeatedly citing the “revelations” given to “the Shepherd” and offering loose quotations of the text.4 The Shepherd was clearly a significant work for many early Christians, but I believe we can be confident that our Bibles are not lacking from its omission.
Let’s look at four reasons why The Shepherd didn’t make it into the Bible.
Early canonical lists omit it
The earliest surviving list of New Testament works does not include The Shepherd. The second-century Muratorian Canon does mention the work by name, but makes its view clear. “The Shepherd, moreover, did Hermas write very recently in our times in the city of Rome…therefore it ought to be read, but it cannot be made public in the Church to the people, nor placed among the prophets…nor among the apostles.” This early canon list holds to the view that The Shepherd was a helpful work, but a recent reflection on Scriptural truth, not Scripture itself.
Origen, in his third-century discussion on canon in his commentary on Joshua made no mention of The Shepherd, even though he explicitly highlighted several works that were disputed by churches in his own day.5 Despite describing it elsewhere as “divinely inspired” he clearly sees a reason to exclude the work as extra-biblical and therefore not warranting a place in the discussion of the canon. Fourth-century Church historian, Eusebius likewise considered the work spurious. He listed it alongside the Didache, another early Christian text, and the Epistle of Barnabas as orthodox works, but outside of the canon, and repeated the idea that they ought not to be read in formal church meetings (echoing the Muratorian Canon).
The work was used to support early heretical teachings
Though orthodox in its theology, and with many helpful reflections on offer to the reader, the work was nonetheless linked to some early heretical movements. It soon became linked with the second-century heresy of adoptionism. Theodotus of Byzantium was a notable propagator of this heretical teaching at the end of the second century, instructing his followers that Jesus was born like any other man, before the “Christ” came upon him in the Spirit at his baptism. Leaning on misunderstandings of texts such as Hebrews 1:5, Theodotus’s view was popular among some early Christian groups. The Shepherd was a favourite work for the adoptionists, and they argued wrongly that it displayed a low view of Jesus which supported their teachings. The followers of Theodotus, and the popular gnostic teacher Valentinus, all looked to The Shepherd to support their heretical views, and this all contributed further to a negative view of the work.
Questions around authorship challenged its place
The confusion around The Shepherd’s authorship is not a modern question. Eusebius’ designation of the work as fictitious reflected early concerns about the identity (or lack of one) of the author. Little is known about Hermas and his role in the life of the church in Rome and this ambiguity plagued the reception of the text. Though The Shepherd was for a long time considered a helpful, orthodox Christian work, the lack of confidence in its origins contributed to a lower view. Given apostolic authorship (or a close relationship with an apostle) became a criterion for canon inclusion, the work was always readily recognised as belonging to a different, lesser category.
Key figures in the early church considered it helpful but not authoritative
The Shepherd was widely read in the early church and extensively copied. We have a number of surviving early manuscripts, and with at least eleven fragmentary manuscripts from the second and third centuries, it is one of the most well attested early Christian texts. Indeed, the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest surviving and most complete early copies of the Bible includes The Shepherd as an additional work alongside the Epistle of Barnabas (not as canonical—but important enough to be included after the books of the New Testament). It was well respected, and yet early figures such as Clement and Irenaeus give us little indication that they considered the work authoritative.
As we have explored already, Irenaeus’s use of γραφή in his introduction of a short quote from The Shepherd has led some to suggest he considered it Scripture, yet he offers no further indication in any of his works that it ought to be accorded this status, and this isolated use of the word offers little by way of conclusive proof. Clement, who used the work regularly in his surviving writings never labels it Scripture, and for a man who enjoyed quoting all manner of texts, his literary signposting is often incredibly revealing.
For the vast majority of early Christian authors, the work was valuable but not authoritative. It was not recognised as having been written by an apostle or one of their close contacts, and it was known to have been written after the apostolic age. In other words, the early church recognised that it was a helpful work, and respected it, but did not recognise it as Scripture.