The Shepherd of Hermas is a fascinating work, which likely dates to around the first half of the second century. It was very popular among the Christians from this era, as well as for later generations — there are more manuscripts of this text preserved than there are for many New Testament documents, Revelation, for example. Scholars today see this long text as a window into second century Christian piety, much in the line of texts like the Didache and The Epistle of Barnabas. Despite the difficulties of this diverse text, most scholars believe it to come from a single author, or at least was brought together by a redactor who was comfortable with its many convoluted portions. Its basic structure reads like apocalyptic pronouncements as well as teaching discourses, including many parables which are followed by explanations. In addition to this, the author is given many visions, which are interpreted by angels which permeate the narrative, and also offers ethical commandments. This early Christian prophetic-apocalyptic text has received much treatment and varied interpretations among scholars, most seeing a markedly “low” Christology elucidated by the author, based primarily on interpretations of the fifth Similitude.
Because of the length of Hermas and the variety of topics it deals with, we will confine ourselves to a discussion of the fifth Similitude, while still receiving input from the work as a whole. The context of the passage as a whole is a parable meant to explain to Hermas what a true fast (living out a pure, obedient, fearful faith toward God) entails. In the parable, the Shepherd — the primary angel who interacts with Hermas throughout — tells of a landowner who has a beloved son and a faithful servant. Because of the servant’s faithfulness, he is made a joint heir by the landowner with his son. The angel says that this applies to fasting in that the obedient person will be lavished on by God for such obedience. The angel also gives a second, allegorical, interpretation of the parable, which is where many of the Christological components seem to rise to the fore. The field possessed by the landowner signifies the world, which the landowner (God) created. The son of the landowner is the Holy Spirit, and the servant is Jesus, who has labored and yielded much produce (Christians) as well as purified the produce (removing the “weeds” of the sins of the saints). The field is hemmed in by fences, which are angels of the Lord who protect and guide creation. The works of the servant is met with the rejoicing of the landowner, who makes him an heir with his son, and a feast (signifying the Church community and the commandments given to them) is held.
Still confused by some of the symbols employed by the Shepherd, Hermas inquires into the reasons why the Son of God (how the author denotes Jesus is being spoken of, not to be confused here with the symbol of the son who stands for the Holy Spirit) appeared in the story in the guise of a servant. This, the angel says, signifies Jesus’ role in salvation: obedience has lead to lordship, and the authority and ability to forgive sins. The Similitude then concludes with with an exhortation to live a pure life — a life of fasting — worthy of salvation.
To clear the air, I would also like to add some remarks on the text as a whole, as I hold that a proper understanding of Hermas as a whole is the key to interpreting this confusing passage. The charge of adoptionism stems from losing sight of the purpose of this passage (right living) has and the assumptions behind its claims about the divine. What I mean by this last point is that, when one approaches this text with a trinitarian mindset one will find this text to be bordering on the heretical. Charles Gieschen has brought the binitarian nature of this this text to the forefront. Throughout Hermas, we can see many unique relationships between angels and other divine and semi-divine beings; indeed the Son of God and the Holy Spirit are often equated and even identified with one another. So, when we approach the text as it beckons us to, we can see the emphasis is Pneumatological and Ecclesiological (in that the feast stands for benefits God gives to the Christian community), not Christological. Indeed, Larry Hurtado, in his incomparable study on devotion to Jesus in the Early Church, notes that when this passage speaks of “flesh” it does not so to elucidate a truth about Jesus, but rather to offer incentive for Christians to live virtuous lives. I would also like to note that in the ninth Similitude, many of the connections which we have observed here are drawn out more explicitly, for it is there that the author deals with Christology directly, going so far as to call the Son of God a preexistent entity. To conclude, Hermas is certainly a confusing text, whose Christology is anything but straightforward, but the narrative as a whole precludes adoptionist Christology.
While contrarian at times, Michael Bird's Jesus the Eternal Son largely stands within the bounds of the history of interpretation. His central thesis is that mature adoptionism did not arise until the late second century. In addition to an in-depth analysis of Mark, Bird also offers an interpretation of the Shepherd of Hermas which runs counter to many interpretations. But how does his work square up with what we observed in our own analysis above? For the Shepherd of Hermas we can see that Bird gives a relatively fair treatment of the text and the secondary literature. He also rightly draws the reader’s attention to the fact that, other issues aside, the final product of Hermas did not see the fifth Similitude as a large enough contradiction to the rest of work’s message about Jesus to need excluding. However, Bird can be faulted for neglecting to interact with Hermas as a whole, only doing so when it is of the utmost relevance to his argument (something that he is honest about — a large scale analysis was not his intent). He also sees an emphasis on soteriology whereas he ought to see a focus on Pneumatology and Ecclesiology.