What sort of view do we get from the Shepherd of Hermas concerning women? Perhaps this is a question you have not pondered, since it is quite possible that you have (like Hermas) never thought to ask what an obscure writing  in ancient history has to say about women. Yet the Shepherd of Hermas does have some very intriguing things to say about women, and as such it is worthwhile to ponder the view of women in this book and see what it has to say about early Christianity. In examining this, let us note that all of the Apostolic Fathers are, in fact, Apostolic Fathers. We have no writings by early Christian women, whether in the New Testament nor in the extrabiblical literature. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the Shepherd of Hermas has a great deal to say about women in ways that are very intriguing, so let us turn to that subject now.
The first mention of women in the Shepherd of Hermas comes when the following is said about Hermas’ wife: “But make known these words to all your children, and to your wife, who is to be your sister. For she does not restrain her tongue, with which she commits iniquity; but, upon hearing these words, she will control herself, and will obtain mercy (18).” This suggests that Hermas and his family were being considered as rather imperfect people like most believers, but were considered to be sisters–and thus on a position of at least relative equality–and capable of being persuaded by the speaking of God or of holy angels, as occurs frequently in this volume. The fact that wives are to be considered as sisters in Christ can be taken as a positive picture, for we see that women are not treated as chattel, nor are spoken of as “little” sisters, but are rather considered as peers within the conception of the Church as a family. Whatever may be said against this book, then, it does not come from a misogynistic worldview, at any rate.
The Church is viewed as an old woman not long afterward, and what is said here is somewhat striking as well: “”Who do you think that old woman is from whom you received the book?” And I said, “The Sybil.” “You are in a mistake,” says he; “it is not the Sibyl.” “Who is it then?” say I. And he said, “It is the Church?” And I said to him, “Why then is she an old woman?” “Because,” said he, “she was created first of all. On this account she is old. And for her sake was the world made (19).”” Here we see a picture of a wise woman who is said to be the Church, and Hermas wonders, as we would, why she is portrayed as old. The fact that the Church is said to be the first creation of all suggests that the conception of the church in the Shepherd of Hermas is a broad one. For the Church to be the first thing created, it would have to include the angels and would likely include the believers of old, something that is far beyond the conception of the church according to most people even today.
A third discussion of women is highly intriguing and, sadly, a bit fragmentary: “Moreover, I sent you these virgins, that they might dwell with you. For I saw that they were courteous to you. You will therefore have them as assistants, that you may be the better able to keep his commands (104).” This reference underscores a great deal of the difference in the mindset between the ancient world and today. If, today, a married man was to have a large amount of female assistants, who were courteous and friendly to him, it would be the a cause for great scandal. For the friendliness of the virgins is noted as follows: “”You will sleep with us,” they replied, “as a brother, and not as a husband, for you are our brother, and for the time to come we intend to abide with you, for we love you exceedingly (87-88)!”” The material goes on like this, including kisses (of what kind the text does not specify) as well as playing with each other innocently like children and even sleeping with them without doing anything but praying. This is not the sort of risk most women would tend to take with most men, nor a risk that most men would likely take with women in our present evil age where everything would be read the wrong way. Matters were apparently different then, though.
As one might expect, though, there are also women of an evil sort portrayed in the Shepherd of Hermas: “After a certain time, however, they were persuaded by the women whom you saw clothed in black, and having their shoulders exposed and their hear disheveled, and beautiful in appearance. Having seen these women, they desired to have them, and clothed themselves with their strength, and put off the strength of the virgins. These, accordingly, were rejected from the house of God, and were given over to these women (90).” Here we see women portrayed as temptresses, attempting to lure people out of the safety of God’s Church and into sexual immorality. Such a portrait is not so different from our own time, and the question of the extent to which women tempt men or men lust after women (for this passage looks at both of these elements) is still a contentious one which is difficult to determine fairly and justly.
So we see that the Shepherd of Hermas has a variety of conceptions about women. We see a wife whose life is not entirely blameless but who is expected to control herself upon hearing a divinely inspired warning delivered through her husband, who is her brother in Christ. We see the Church portrayed not as a bride as we might expect from biblical symbolism but rather as an old woman who has been in existence from the first creation–presumably of the angels. We see women portrayed as playful young women in whose innocence they kiss a man and sleep beside him without any fear, whether because they correctly intuit him to be a decent man or because they are so innocent and naive that they do not imagine him to be of any threat to them. In contrast to these three positive portrayals of women, though, we have women portrayed as behaving in a way to incite lust, into whose hands those who lust after them have been delivered. One wonders if this is not a particularly apropos warning for our own time when lust often delivers us into powers and problems we did not conceive of.
To what extent do we view this portrayal of women as positive or negative? Speaking as a man, I do not know what other readers see in these portrayals. Does a wife want to be viewed as a sister to her husband if both are believers, as should be the case? What regard and respect do we have for the Church as an elderly woman? Do we consider ourselves in the Church as being fellow brethren with the angels? How uncomfortable would we feel if we were surrounded by innocent and playful young women who seemed totally oblivious to anything untoward going on in their somewhat aggressive friendliness? To what extent do we view fallen women as tempting others to destruction or rather as victims of the aggressive lust of the men they are entangled with? Do we have hard and fast judgments in such matters or does it depend on the facts of particular situations? In all of these cases, the Shepherd of Hermas provides an opportunity for readers to question the view of early Christianity toward women, and for readers to confront their own answers to these and other questions.
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