THE SHEPHERD OF HERMAS (1st-mid-2nd century) Two Questions about its instructions on denial and repentance


The Shepherd of Hermas was a widespread document among early Christians and it was included in the Codex Sinaiticus. It is an account by Hermas of visions of Christ in the form of a Shepherd. Origen believed that it was written during Clement’s papacy (88-99 AD), and the document says to have a “Clement” send copies abroad. But the Muratorian Fragment (c. 200 AD) says that the Shepherd of Hermas was written under the papacy of Pius I (in 140-155 AD), the brother of Hermas.

You can read the text here:

(Question 1) In Book I:2:3, Who is Maximus and what denial is the Shepherd talking about? Is the document giving permission to Maximus to deny Christ?

Blessed are all they who practise righteousness, for they shall never be destroyed. Now you will tell Maximus: Lo! tribulation cometh on. If it seemeth good to thee, deny again. The Lord is near to them who return unto Him

Christine Trevett in her 2016 article “I Have Heard from Some Teachers” (Studies in Church History vol 40) proposes that Maximus was someone who had denied the faith.

Maximus means “greatest”, and the ancient highest Roman pagan priest was called the Pontifex Maximus. Bp. Maximus of Jerusalem served as bishop in the late 2nd c. and Eusebius claimed that he wrote about the origin of evil and free will. Tertullian used this title for the Pope of Rome sarcastically. ("The ‘Pontifex Maximus,’ that is the ‘bishop of bishops,’ issues an edict: "I remit, to such as have discharged repentance, the sins both of adultery and of fornication.” On Modesty, c. 220 AD)
Eusebius in Church History VI:43 wrote that Maximus (whom Cyprian had called a persecuted Confessor in Epistula 50) had only temporarily left the Church with the 3rd c. antipope Novatian, who refused communion to Christians who lapsed and repented. Maximus was Pope of Alexandria in 264-282. Some consider Pope Marcellinus (served 296 – 304) to have apostasized, repented, and then been martyred.

(Question 2) Does the Shepherd of Hermas teach a heresy that Christians cannot successfully repent of severe sins committed after their baptism more than once? How does this strict rule compare with the instructions to Maximus to deny the faith?

Brian Fitzgerald writes about early Christians’ views on this topic in his essay “Adult Patristic Study - The Shepherd of Hermas”:

Is repentance possible after baptism? To the modern Christian such a question would seem odd since it is assumed that one may repent as often as necessary. The early Church did not assume this, hence the then common practice of delaying baptism until the approach of death.

Where have you heard about Christians commonly delaying baptism in the early Church until the converts were near death? The only time that comes to mind is Constantine the Great being baptized before death.

(Continued in the next message below.)

Forgiving sin and continual sins
Did early Christians fear falling into Mortal Sin so often as many do today?

According to the Unam Sanctam Catholicam website’s essay on the Shepherd of Hermas:

Some passages, such as 2.4.3 [“if any one… sins after that great and holy calling…” etc.], can easily be taken in a Donatist sense. When the Shepherd says that there is but one chance to repent after baptism, it is uncertain whether this is to be taken in the sense we expressed above (i.e., that it was common for the Sacrament of Penance to be administered only once, and after that, sins had to be atoned by extended durations of penitence) or rather in the absolute sense the Donatists inferred - that there is no repentance or penitence that can atone for certain serious sins committed after baptism.

The full passage in Mandate 4 to which the article refers goes:

And I said to him, “I should like to continue my questions.” “Speak on,” said he. And I said, “I heard, sir, some teachers maintain that there is no other repentance than that which takes place, when we descended into the water and received remission of our former sins.”

He said to me, “That was sound doctrine which you heard; for that is really the case. For he who has received remission of his sins ought not to sin any more, but to live in purity. Since, however, you inquire diligently into all things, I will point this also out to you, not as giving occasion for error to those who are to believe, or have lately believed, in the Lord. For those who have now believed, and those who are to believe, have not repentance for their sins; but they have remission of their previous sins. For to those who have been called before these days, the Lord has set repentance. For the Lord, knowing the heart, and foreknowing all things, knew the weakness of men and the manifold wiles of the devil, that he would inflict some evil on the servants of God, and would act wickedly towards them. The Lord, therefore, being merciful, has had mercy on the work of His hand, and has set repentance for them; and He has entrusted to me power over this repentance. And therefore I say to you, that if any one is tempted by the devil, and sins after that great and holy calling in which the Lord has called His people to everlasting life, he has opportunity to repent but once. But if he should sin frequently after this, and then repent, to such a man his repentance will be of no avail; for with difficulty will he live.”

(Continued in the next message)


Fitzgerald notes: “Hermas’ initial understanding is that there is one repentance, one baptism, and one remission of sins available to all. He even queries the Angel of Repentance concerning this issue.” Fitzgerald then quotes the passage that the Unam Sanctam website cited about repenting only once, and comments:

The discussion in Mandate Four… came later and indicates some development in Hermas’ thought, i.e., what happens in case of multiple acts of repentance.
Frequent alternations between sinning and repentance apparently render such occasions of repentance void. Yet where those who do not repent die, those who repent often might live, albeit with difficulty. … Although severely discouraged, repenting often might still save, if only barely. This last point is left rather vague, however.

Book II, Commandment 11 complains that there are non-heathen false prophets who frequently repent:

Don’t you think frequent repentance is actually a good thing?

The passage seems to be complaining about false prophets who present themselves as holy but actually doubt and frequently switch between sinning and repenting, thereby showing that they are not really holy.

Frequent Mortal Sin + Daily Mass + Family Watching

To summarize:
Question 1 is: Who is Maximus and what is his denial?
Question 2 is: Does the Shepherd teach the heresy that Christians cannot successfully repent of severe sins more than once?

The urge to fast after committing mortal sin

Quite frankly this document didn’t make it into the canon for a reason. Although it is an interesting document, I would not invest a lot of time in it. It has questionable theology regarding justification, and also takes a heterodox if not heretical view of Christology.


Hum. Donatism. This is the first I have heard of this. Was this a Catholic text? I know I was told when you repent of something you receive graces that help you in your situation. I believe that. Some things are hard to get over. I myself find myself when I repent, offering the same things over time. I had one priest my confessor and my pastor get angry. He said I was “committing the same sin”. Penances became more penal and more penal. I don’t know where he was coming from. I have another confessor too and he doesn’t do things that way.


Thanks for replying, Hodos. What do you think is its questionable theology about justification? The reasons that I found it important is that it is in Codex Sinaiticus and Jerome’s Vulgate, two of the most important, earliest Bibles, and it’s one of the few surviving texts by the official Church in Rome in the 1st-mid 2nd centuries AD next to I & II Clement.


This kind of thing isn’t that uncommon. So for example, you often find manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew with the Didache. All that means is that it was not uncommon for early Christians to group documents into Christian libraries to save money on papyrus (which wasn’t cheap). With regard to the Christology of the Shepherd of Hermas, the author seems to take on an adoptionist tone, basically stating that the Holy Spirit tabernacle in Jesus as a reward for his purity of life. Tertullian and other contemporary writers would have rejected this. Quite frankly it is a rather bizarre compilation of five supposed visions that don’t square with the theology of the NT.


Some modern people read the Shepherd to teach Adoptionism and that the 3rd person of the Trinity tabernacled in a purely human Jesus. But I think that this is a misreading and that the Shepherd is trying to paraphrase John 1 as I explained in my post here: The holy Spirit in the Shepherd of Hermas

Rom. 8:9 says that Christ’s “Spirit” is in the apostles, and 2 Cor. 3. talks about the Spirit of Christ working in people and uses the term “Spirit” to refer Christ’s Spirit:

  1. Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18. But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.

The Shepherd of Hermas (Section III.9.1) also explains that the holy “Spirit” is actually Christ.

John 1 talks about the pre-Creational, All-Creating Logos, (Christ) becoming flesh:

  1. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2. He was in the beginning with God. 3. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. … 14. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory…

So when the Shepherd of Hermas (Section III.6) says: “The holy, pre-existent Spirit, that created every creature, God made to dwell in flesh, which He [ie. God] chose.”
I take this to refer to Christ’s/Logos’ Spirit dwelling in flesh at the incarnation, not that the Holy Spirit dwelt at Christ at His baptism and only then did he become God. But some modern writers mistakenly think that this sentence about the “holy… Spirit” refers to the 3rd person of the Trinity (The Holy Spirit).


Have at it. As I said, it didn’t make it into the canon for reasons of authorship, date of composition, and it makes a number of statements that are at best confusing, and at worst heretical. If you find it useful, more power to you. Personally I find it a very convoluted read, and it makes sense to me why it was never widely accepted as canonical. In that regard, it isn’t that different for the Epistle of Barnabas which is probably actually more orthodox in its viewpoint, but just as hard to read.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit