People usually think about the Bible as a book with a fixed number of texts within its pages: 24 books in the Jewish version of the Bible; 66 for Protestants; 73 for Catholics; 81 if you’re Ethiopian Orthodox.
Writings that didn’t make it into the Bible, on the other hand, are often called “apocrypha,” a Greek term that refers to hidden or secret things. There are hundreds of apocryphal Jewish and Christian texts that, for one reason or another, were not included in different versions of the Bible. Some simply fell out of use. Some caused theological headaches for later Jews or Christians, and some were rejected because of their author – for supposedly not having really been written by an apostle, for instance. (When used with a capital “A,” Apocrypha refers to a handful of books included in the Catholic and Orthodox versions of the Old Testament, but not most Protestant ones.)
Just because a text was deemed apocryphal, however, does not mean that it was unpopular or lacked influence. Many texts that are treated as unimportant or unbiblical today were considered central at one time. As a scholar of early Christianity, some of my research centers on what was once an extremely well-read text, but one that most people today have never heard of: The Shepherd of Hermas.
The Shepherd of Hermas was written sometime between 70–140 C.E. and takes place on the road between Rome and Naples. Hermas, who is presented as the text’s author and narrator, has various encounters with two divine figures called the Church and the Shepherd, who give him commandments and visions that he is instructed to share with other believers.
The Shepherd is a sizable text – 114 chapters long – and substantial portions describe a vision of a tower under construction. The tower represents the church itself, in the sense of all Jesus’ followers, built out of stones that represent different types of believers. Some fit right in, others must be reshaped or recolored, and some are rejected altogether. For example, stones representing rich people or businessmen are urged to repent, while hospitable people are portrayed as properly shaped.
Other parts of the text are focused on how believers should manage their emotions, how to act ethically in the world and how to obey God’s will. The Shepherd urges self-control and fear of God, trying to instill obedience and avoid allowing emotions like fear or doubt to overcome believers.
My own research on the Shepherd focuses on how the text depicts believers as enslaved to God, as is true of some other early Christian literature as well. The writer imagines that God’s holy spirit is able to enter loyal believers’ bodies and possess them, urging them to do what God wills.
Notably, figures like Jesus and the apostles are virtually absent from the Shepherd. Instead, readers find a story about an otherwise unknown enslaved man named Hermas experiencing visions and talking with divine beings in the Italian countryside. Hermas is portrayed as a believer who doubts his own ability to accomplish what these two divine figures, the Church and Shepherd, expect of him, lamenting throughout how difficult it is to follow God’s commandments.
Given that the Shepherd is a long, rambling text that doesn’t explicitly mention Jesus, you might assume that it was only read by a small number of early Christian theologians. This, however, isn’t the case.
The Shepherd became one of the most popular texts among Christians for the first five centuries C.E. Even today, there are more surviving manuscripts of the Shepherd from antiquity than of any New Testament text except for the Gospels of Matthew and John.