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Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Supernatural Evil in the Apostolic Fathers (9): The Shepherd of Hermas

The work known as The Shepherd of Hermas (henceforth Hermas) is easily the longest of the Apostolic Fathers corpus. Shepherd is the title on some manuscripts, and the author identifies himself as Hermas. The text is divided into three main sections: the Visions, Mandates, and Similitudes.1 Hermas is generally believed to have been written in central Italy, probably Rome.2 The inconsistent structural pattern in the work previously led scholars to posit multiple authors,3 but today the consensus is that Hermas was written by a single author, albeit over an extended period of time, probably extending from the end of the first century through to the mid-second century.4 As Verheyden explains:
The author of SH likes to take up a restricted set of topics time and again, looking at them from different angles and perspectives and introducing slight variations, as a way of imprinting the message onto the audience.5
Although Hermas 'contains features of an apocalypse' such as mediating divine messages received from angels,6 the main purpose of the work is pastoral.7 The main themes discussed within it are sin and repentance, the Church, and how one becomes and remains a member thereof.8

In terms of supernatural evil in Hermas, there are two distinctive aspects to consider: the devil, and demons or spirits. It is noteworthy that all of the references to such entities occur in the Mandates and Similitudes (the great majority in the Mandates), and none in the Visions, which are regarded as the earliest portion of the work. In fact, the relative silence on the spirit world in the Visions as compared to the other two sections is not limited to evil but extends also to angels, the word pneuma and 'holy spirit' in particular.9 Moreover, one detects no antagonism toward belief in the spirit world (good or evil) in the Visions. Thus, there is no reason to argue from the Visions' silence on the devil and demons that the author underwent a radical shift in worldview during the decades between the penning of the Visions and the Mandates.10 Perhaps he did not consider his understanding of such topics adequate to write about them at the time Visions was written.11 More likely, his pastoral purposes at the time of writing the Visions simply did not call for such language.12

The devil

Hermas refers to the devil at least 23 times, and possibly as many as 34.13 The author provides very little variation in terminology, almost always using the term ho diabolos which, of course, is well known to us from the New Testament.

The devil in Hermas is 'mythologically portrayed as an external agent of evil',14 i.e. 'the traditional role of Satan basically stands unaltered.'15 The author does not provide any details about the devil for their own sake; he simply assumes that his audience knows what he means by ho diabolos. However, from the way that Hermas refers to the devil it is obvious that a supernatural, personal being is in view.

In HermMan 4.3-4.6 the devil is is said to tempt people by devising 'intricate plots' (poluplokian).16 In HermMan 5.1.3 the devil's character is contrasted with the Lord's. In HermMan 7.2-3 and 12.6.1-4 Hermas instructs the reader not to fear the devil because he has no power compared to the Lord's. Only his works are to be feared. These last three passages all reflect the cosmic dualism which occurs frequently in NT passages about the devil.17 In HermMan 11.1-3, a false prophet can speak some true words because 'the devil fills him with his own spirit, to see if he can dash one of the upright.'18 This clearly implies that the devil has supernatural power. In HermMan 12.5.4 he 'comes against all the slaves of God to put them to the test' and is able to enter and dominate those who are partly empty.19

Two additional terms in Hermas which may refer to the devil deserve attention. The 'two angels' motif in HermMan 6.2.1-10 is probably dependent on the Two Ways tradition.20 Some scholars think Hermas intends the 'angel of wickedness' (who is contrasted with the 'angel of righteousness' here as opposing influences on human conduct) to be identified with the devil himself.21 The author does not explicitly divulge the relationship between the angel of wickedness and the devil. However, one notes that the adjectives used for the two angels in HermMan 6.2.3-6.2.4 (oxucholos, 'irascible', and trupheros, 'sensitive') are the same as those used of the devil and the holy spirit in HermMan 5.1.3. However, in HermMan 5.1, the devil's counterpart is the Lord while the holy spirit's counterpart is 'another, evil spirit'. This may suggest that the 'angel of righteousness' is the holy spirit,22 while the 'angel of wickedness' is an evil spirit from the devil, and not the devil himself. The 'two angels' motif also seems to be influenced by the concepts of the good and evil inclination within a person which are prominent in rabbinic thought. As Gokey notes, here we are 'face to face with the role of the devil in the psychology of sin'.23 It is necessary to emphasize that the 'two inclinations', 'two ways' and 'two angels' do not represent competing, contradictory views of good and evil:
Two-way paraenetic theology has roots in both Greek and Jewish moral traditions. It externalizes the same idea that the teaching on the two kinds of indwelling spirits internalizes. While the question of different sources must be examined, it is not a question of different concepts or worldviews; all arise from an anthropological dualism that ascribes the experience of good and evil to external causality.24
In the Similitudes there is a similitude which contrasts two cities (HermSim 1.1-11). 'This city' is contrasted with 'your own city.' The laws of the two cities are also contrasted, and 'the master of this city' (ho despotēs tēs poleōs tautēs) is contrasted with 'the Lord.' The Lord's counterpart is also referred to as 'the ruler of this city' (ho kurios tēs poleōs tautēs) and 'the ruler of this country' (ho kurios tēs chōras tautēs) (HermSim 1.3-6). To whom does the ruler of this city refer? Three interpretations are offered in the literature: (1) the devil,25 (2) Rome or the Roman emperor,26 or (3) no allegorical referent is intended.27 Which interpretation is correct? In favour of the ruler being the Roman emperor, the likelihood that the provenance of The Shepherd is Rome means such a sense would fit the historical setting of the author: his own literal city had a well-known ruler and laws. However, a closer reading of the text favours the first interpretation. The reference to 'leave this city and go to your own' (HermSim 1.6) appears to refer to martyrdom. Thus the notion of 'leaving this city' does not refer to literal migration, but death. Consequently, when the lord of this city intends to 'banish you for not adhering to his law', banishment means killing. This suggests that the language is allegorical rather than literal. Since Satan is commonly depicted in early Christian texts as a ruler and as responsible for persecution and martyrdom of Christians, he is the most likely candidate for the lord/despot who seeks to 'banish' (kill) the Christians. Moreover, while the idea of the devil having 'laws' in contrast to those of God may seem odd, it would not be foreign to Hermas since HermMan 12.4.5-6 contrasts the Lord's commandments with 'the commandments of the devil'.

Before turning to demonology, one last point is needed about the literary-traditional background to The Shepherd's Satanology. Readers familiar with the New Testament will immediately recognize the similarity of the following language to James 4:7:
The devil can cause only fear, but his fear has no force. And so do not fear him, and he will flee from you… If then you resist him, once he is conquered he will flee from you in humiliation. (HermMan 12.4.7-12.5.2)28
Seitz argued that this and other close parallels between The Shepherd, James 4:5-9a, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,29 suggest that all three depend on some unknown 'scriptural' source.30 This would imply that The Shepherd's Satanology was similar to that of James and thus compatible at least one strand of New Testament tradition.


The Shepherd contains rather frequent references to evil spirits or demons.31 The most distinctive feature of Hermas' demonology is the identification of specific vices with evil spirits or demons. For example:
'Slander is evil, a restless demon, never at peace but always living in dissension. And so, abstain from it and you will always be in good standing with all.' (HermMand 2.3)32
 'For insolence and empty confidence are a great demon' (HermSim 9.22.3)33
'And so, avoid irascibility, which is the most wicked spirit.' (HermMan 5.2.8)34
There is obviously an internalization of dualistic forces here, as we saw with the two angels motif. The question is, does Hermas conceive of these 'demons' as personal beings who retain a separate existence, or as abstractions? In other words, has Hermas (1) demythologized demons by identifying them with vices, or (2) mythologized vices by identifying them with demons? In contemporary English, when we say that someone 'overcame his demons' we mean that s/he dealt with addiction or other personal battles. Hence, view (1) may accord better with our modern sensibilities, but it would be anachronistic to assume on this basis that Hermas understood demons the same way. Gokey reminds us that 'The personal and evil character of the word daimonion is very clear from its Jewish usage', although 'There is some ambiguity in the case of pneuma'.35 Similarly, Osiek states:
The world of Hermas is inhabited by many spirits, both good and evil… by hosts of intermediary spirits, as was common in popular Greco-Roman and Jewish cosmology of the time.36
While acknowledging that certain characters in The Shepherd may have originally been intended allegorically, she warns that 'To try to distinguish sharply between allegorical figures, spirits, and angels is to do violence to the elusive nature of the imagery'.37 On HermMan 5.1.2 specifically, Osiek comments:
Verse 2 is central to the teaching on the discernment of spirits: to be under the control of an evil spirit does not have to mean the dramatic signs of demon possession, for it can happen in everyday affairs. Yet the language is forceful: the evil spirit tries to push its way in (paremballei) if it can.38
She similarly notes concerning HermMan 11.3 how 'The wordplay on emptiness is consonant with the spatial language used elsewhere about spirit possession, especially 5.1.3, 2.5'.39 All of this leads her to conclude that Hermas projects social struggles 'into the cosmic realm, where divine and demonic power battle for control of human beings.'40

Hence, although Hermas appears to have internalized demonology, this is not to say that his worldview is non-mythological. The abundant evidence for his belief in a personal, supernatural devil suggests that his 'demons' and 'spirits' also retain a personal, external character despite their integration with anthropological categories.


  • 1 We will use the standard abbreviations HermVis, HermMan and HermSim to refer to passages within these sections. Note that the Mandates are sometimes referred to as the Commandments, and the Similitudes are sometimes referred to as the Parables.
  • 2 Osiek, C. (1999). Shepherd of Hermas. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, p. 18.
  • 3 ibid., p. 13.
  • 4 ibid., p. 20.
  • 5 Verheyden, J. (2006). The Shepherd of Hermas. The Expository Times, 117(10), 397-401. Here p. 398.
  • 6 ibid.
  • 7 ibid., p. 401.
  • 8 ibid., p. 399.
  • 9 Moser observes that forms of angelos occur 9 times in the Visions compared with 20 in the Mandates and 47 in the Similitudes. Similarly, forms of pneuma occur 9 times in the Visions compared with 58 in the Mandates and 39 in the Similitudes. Specifically, the 'holy spirit' is mentioned ten times in the Mandates and nine times in the Similitudes but never in the Visions. (Moser, M.B. (2005). Teacher of Holiness: The Holy Spirit in Origen’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Piscataway: Gorgias Press, p. 37 n. 40.)
  • 10 Osiek remarks on the 'thematic unity of the book in spite of some divergences' (op. cit., p. 10).
  • 11 We have seen from Ignatius' comment in Trallians 5.1-2 that angelology and related topics were regarded as unsuitable for immature believers.
  • 12 Joly remarks on Hermas' silence on the devil outside the Mandates, 'Le mot diabolos n’apparaît que dans les Préceptes. C’est peut-être qu’Hermas ne parle pas, ne sent pas le besoin de parler du diable ailleurs' (Joly, R. (1967). Hermas et le Pasteur. Vigiliae Christianae, 21(4), 201-218. Here p. 214).
  • 13 The sure references are HermMan 4.3.4, 4.3.6, 5.1.3, 7.2 (twice), 7.3, 9.9, 9.11, 11.3, 11.17, 12.2.2, 12.4.6 (twice), 12.4.7, 12.5.1, 12.5.2 (twice), 12.5.4, 12.6.1, 12.6.2 (twice), 12.6.4, HermSim 9.31.2 (this last passage survives only in a Latin version). The debatable references (either on text-critical or exegetical grounds) are six references to 'the angel of wickedness' in HermMan 6.2.1-6.2.10, a possible second reference to the devil in HermMan 7.3 (text-critically questionable: see Ehrman, B. (2003). (Ed. & trans.). The Apostolic Fathers (Vol. 2). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 267); references to 'the lord of this city' and two similar expressions in HermSim 1.3-1.6, and a reference to the devil in HermSim 8.3.6 (text-critically questionable: see Ehrman, op. cit., p. 365 and Holmes, M.W. (2007). The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. Grand Rapids: Baker, p. 604).
  • 14 Boyd, J.W. (1975). Satan and Māra: Christian and Buddhist Symbols of Evil. Leiden: Brill, p. 61.
  • 15 Boyd, op. cit., p. 51. Gokey concurs that Hermas' beliefs about Satan are orthodox (Gokey, Gokey, F.X. (1961). The Terminology for the Devil and Evil Spirits in the Apostolic Fathers. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, p. 128).
  • 16 Note the similarity to the language of 1 Clement 51.1 and 2 Clement 18.2 - both documents which, like Hermas, are generally associated with Rome.
  • 17 E.g. Matt. 13:36-43; John 8:44; Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 6:15; Jas 4:7; 1 John 3:10; 4:4; Rev. 12:7-9.
  • 18 A similar idea is found in Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 82.2-3, and is arguably presupposed in Didache 11.7-12 as well, as was argued in the previous post in this series.
  • 19 This is reminiscent of the saying of Jesus about the restless unclean spirit in Luke 11:24-26.
  • 20 Osiek, op. cit., pp. 32, 123. See discussion of the Two Ways tradition in the previous post on the Didache.
  • 21 Boyd, op. cit., p. 33; Gokey, op. cit., p. 133 n. 8. Russell thinks the angel of wickedness is either the devil or a manifestation of him (Russell, J.B. (1981/1987). Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Russell, J.B. (1987). Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 43). Osiek (op. cit., pp. 123-124) appears not to make this identification.
  • 22 Note that the Ascension of Isaiah, a Christian apocalypse which probably predates the Mandates, explicitly calls the holy spirit an angel.
  • 23 Gokey, op. cit., pp. 121-123.
  • 24 Osiek, op. cit., p. 123.
  • 25 Gokey, op. cit., pp. 131, 174 n. 100; Brox, N. (1991). Der Hirt des Hermas. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht; Van Oort, J. (1991). Jerusalem and Babylon: A Study into Augustine’s City of God and the sources of his doctrine of the two cities. Leiden: Brill, p. 309; Hill, C.E. (2001). Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 95. Hill writes, 'The despot of "this" city is instead the "ruler of this age" who seeks to draw Christians away to follow his laws - according to Mand. 12.4.6 it is the devil, not the emperor, who has bitter and licentious commandments that are to be forsaken. This is substantiated as well by the close connection in the passage before us between living by the laws of "this" city and accumulating worldly possessions to the neglect of spiritual ones, an unnatural connection if the laws of "this" city are merely the laws of Rome.'
  • 26 Koscheski, J. (2011). The Earliest Christian War: Second- and Third-Century Martyrdom and the Creation of Cosmic Warriors. Journal of Religious Ethics, 39(1), pp. 100-124.
  • 27 Osiek, op. cit., pp. 158-159 regards the passage as a sustained metaphor or allegory, and initially suggests that the lord of the city refers either to the Roman emperor or the devil. However, she goes on to suggest that this point in the story 'is more parable than allegory, so that a strict correspondence of every character need not be found.' She thinks Hermas' optimism about the presence of God's spirit in the world precludes the implication 'that the devil controls the world.' Nevertheless, as she sees the issue of martyrdom behind this passage and the reference to the devil in HermSim 8.3.6 (ibid., p. 204), her argument is not consistent at this point.
  • 28 Ehrman, op. cit., p. 301. All translations herein are from Ehrman unless otherwise indicated.
  • 29 E.g. Testament of Dan 5.1; Testament of Naphtali 8.4.
  • 30 Seitz, O.J.F. (1944). Relationship of the Shepherd of Hermas to the Epistle of James. Journal of Biblical Literature, 63(2), 131-140. Here p. 138. Seitz conjectured that the source used by these writers is the same unknown source quoted (pertaining to double-mindedness) in 1 Clement 23.3-4 and 2 Clement 11.2-4. Allison argues at length that the source behind 1 Clement 23.3-4, 2 Clement 11.2-4 and James 4:5 is the apocryphon of Eldad and Modad (Allison, D.C. (2011). Eldad and Modad. Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, 21(2), 99-131). This view is shared by Bauckham (Bauckham, R. (2010). The Jewish World around the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic) with respect to all three texts and by Hagner (Hagner, D.A. (1973). The Use of the Old and New Testaments in Clement of Rome. Leiden: Brill) and Donfried (Donfried, K.P. (1974). The Setting of Second Clement in Early Christianity. Leiden: Brill.) with respect to 1 Clement 23.3-4 and 2 Clement 11.2-4.
  • 31 According to Bucur (Bucur, B.G. (2007). The Son of God and the Angelomorphic Holy Spirit: A Rereading of the Shepherd’s Christology. Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, 98, 120-142. Here p. 122), 'angel' and 'spirit' are interchangeable terms for this author. Osiek (op. cit., p. 32) similarly states concerning the Two Ways tradition, 'The distinction between spirits and angels in this context is a fine one, if it exists at all.'
  • 32 Ehrman, op. cit., p. 239.
  • 33 ibid., p. 443.
  • 34 ibid., p. 261.
  • 35 Gokey, op. cit., p. 126.
  • 36 Osiek, op. cit., pp. 31, 33. In this vein, the contrast between the holy spirit and evil spirits that one finds in HermMan 5.2.5-5.2.8 suggests that the evil spirits are more than abstractions, since the holy spirit is never merely an abstraction in early Christian thought.
  • 37 ibid., p. 34.
  • 38 ibid., p. 120.
  • 39 ibid., p. 142.
  • 40 ibid., p. 126.

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