There are some books that one reads for enjoyment, and there are other books that one reads because they are historically or culturally significant, and though there are some fortunate books where both of these are the case (which is what makes something a Great Book), The Shepherd of Hermas  clearly qualifies as the second sort of work. It is difficult to imagine many people reading this book and gaining a great deal of pleasure out of it. That said, it is also likely that many people would be able to write a book like this one. Although I am admittedly biased in that view, I think it is not a coincidence that my view of the book as a pleasure to read and my belief that the level of literary competence shown in this book is generally accessible are what they are. I come to the Shepherd of Hermas and other books like it with two background that are highly relevant. The first is that I have a deep scholarly interest in the New Testament and early Christianity. The second is that I am a prolific reader of self-published materials, and this book, if it had been written in the contemporary period, would like reside in that level of quality.
This is no insult to Hermas, who was as freed slave whose brother happened to be one of the early bishops of Rome. Hermas does not present himself in a dishonest fashion. His visions show him to have been a freedman of no great intellectual skills, but he was literate, even if not the quickest draw in the Western Church. Indeed, the Shepherd of Hermas itself points out Hermas’ somewhat slow realization of spiritual matters: “The Shepherd said to me, “Have you asked me everything?” And I replied, “Yes, sir.” “Why did you not ask me about the shape of the stones that were put into the building, that I might explain to you why we filled up the shapes?” And I said, “I forgot, sir.” “Hear now, then,” he said, “about this also (103).”” Clearly, the Shepherd of Hermas is not a text that is self-consciously literary in any sort of elevated sense. The author was aware that he was literate but not particularly literary and he is unpretentious about it. He had a message, possibly from a dream or from his own imagination, and he wrote it out as best as he could, and the result was the sort of work that one would find in contemporary times from someone who was literate and conscientious but not an elegant or sophisticated writer. There are far worse things that can be said about someone than that they are literate but not sophisticated and elegant, and one thinks that the author would not have been insulted in being viewed so.
Nevertheless, the fact that the author is not particularly elegant does have literary consequences in making this book much less pleasant to read. For one, as is common among people who are not familiar with literature, the author does not structure his work in a particularly skillful way. This is a book divided into commandments and similitudes, but the contents tend to blend into each other such that there is a great deal of similarity between both sections. In addition, there is a great deal of repetition among the various sections. The author also likewise feels it necessary to explain things over and over again in a great deal of tedious, even mind-numbing detail, to the point that the work is far less fun to read than it would be otherwise. Yet this is precisely what we would expect from someone whose grasp of literature was somewhat shaky, who had to work very hard to understand things in his own mind and go over them over and over again. We can write with no greater elegance of style than we think with, and if we do not understand something in a sophisticated way, neither can we, apart from any supernatural gift (which Hermas, alas, did not have) express ourselves beyond our intellectual competence. It was probably enough for the readers of the time that Hermas was able to write at all at length, as this was probably not a particularly common interest or skill at this time. The skill of creating elegant and well-written books in the present age is by no means a widespread one.
In some ways, the lack of literary skill speaks highly of the sincerity of the author. After all, the Shepherd of Hermas, for all of its shortcomings, is a work that is easier to appreciate by far than that of the Epistle of Barnabas. Hermas, for example, speaks rather straightforwardly of the need to fear God and obey His commandments: “”Fear,” said he, “the Lord, and keep is commandments. For if you keep the commandments of God, you will be powerful in every action and every one of your actions will be incomparable. For, fearing the Lord, you will do all things well. This is the fear which you ought to have, that you may be saved (43).”” Although this is not worded in an elegant fashion, it is a sentiment that we can wholeheartedly endorse. Indeed, the keeping of God’s commandments is a frequent matter of reflection for Hermas, something which we can appreciate, as when the following is written: “And your former sins will be forgiven, if you keep my commandments (39).” When we are looking to take God’s word at its word and apply it in our lives, it is often better to take that word seriously and not to attempt too sophisticated an approach to it, lest we seek to justify our disobedience as the act of some kind of higher understanding of God’s Scripture, as is the case with so many.
We are left, therefore, with a mixed impression of the Shepherd of Hermas as literature. On the one hand, the work is by no means an elegant one, and the author himself openly admits that he is not sophisticated in his understanding or able to ask all of the needful questions concerning what he is describing for the reader. If these shortcomings remind us a great deal of the writing that is produced at present, we may see that Hermas, although he was brother to an early Pope, was by no means as well-educated as a member of the Christian elite would be at present. Indeed, he would probably have been somewhat similar to the authors we see of works of similar literary skill, be they self-published writings by ordinary members in the United States or books by believers in foreign countries whose familiarity with contemporary Christian literature is likely to be very limited. Given, though, the author’s obvious favor towards obeying God’s commandments, this simplicity of style is by no means a serious problem, since the author comes to God’s word as someone looking to obey it rather than as someone who thinks himself clever enough to judge it, as is so often the case among scholars at present.
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