Shepherd of Hermas on Divorce

Divorce is a pretty thorny issue for Christians, to say the least. I see that on my Christian dating site, which has a lot of divorced members. I wonder how they justify seeking another mate, when the New Testament has strong words against divorce and remarriage (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12). They usually respond to that question in one of two ways (sometimes both):

1. Their spouse cheated on them, and Jesus allows divorce in cases of sexual immorality (see Matthew 19:9).

2. Their spouse was an unbeliever who did not want to live with them. In that case, the Christian marriage partner is “unbound” (I Corinthians 7:15).

For many Christians, the dissolution of the marriage means that the parties are free to marry someone else.

II Hermas 4 (second century C.E.) appears to comment on this issue. Hermes asks a divine messenger if a Christian man sins by living with a loose wife. The messenger responds that the man is not guilty if he’s unaware that his wife’s playing around. If he does know about it, however, and the wife chooses not to repent, then he participates in adultery by staying married to her, so he must put her away. At the same time, if he marries another woman, then he commits adultery. If his ex-wife repents of her adulterous behavior, the husband has to take her back, but he can’t do so again and again. If a woman worships idols, the man is to put her away, especially if she’s not repentant. But the man cannot remarry because there’s always the chance that the woman might repent. And this law applies to both men and women, meaning that men can’t cheat on their wives.

Here are some thoughts:

1. It’s amazing that this law requires the man to put away his adulterous wife, or to take her back. I remember hearing Garner Ted Armstrong comment on Jesus’ commands, and he said that the man had a choice: if he found his wife in bed with another man, he could either forgive her, or he could put her away. The ball was in his court. The Shepherd of Hermas, however, says that the man doesn’t have a choice: there are rules about what he should do.

2. As far as I can see, Shepherd of Hermas doesn’t allow remarriage to someone else after a divorce. After all, the offending spouse may change, so the offended should always be ready to take him or her back. Should this influence our interpretation of the New Testament? I think it’s relevant, since it’s how early Christians understood the divorce command, and they were closer to the historical context of Jesus than we are. At the same time, I don’t know if this is the only view on divorce and remarriage in early Christianity.

3. A man couldn’t take his wife back more than once. After all, if he has to do that, then she’s probably not repentant, since she keeps doing the same sin over and over. I have problems with this, since how will a man know that a woman won’t sin against him in the future? He’s not a fortune teller! Also, didn’t Jesus tell us to forgive seventy-times-seven (Matthew 18:21-22)?

But I can somewhat see the Shepherd’s point. I can envision a wife beater or adulterer continually telling his wife that he’s so sorry and it won’t happen again, but it does–over and over. Is she supposed to put up with that? Shouldn’t there be proof in the pudding that repentance has occurred?

4. On adultery, Christianity is more egalitarian than Judaism. The Hebrew religion allowed men to have multiple wives, while women could only sleep with their one husband. Judaism allowed a man to divorce his wife, but not vice versa (even though some rules enabled a woman to compel her husband to divorce her). In this arrangement, adultery was a one way street: the woman committed adultery by sleeping around, but the man didn’t. But Jesus gives a different command: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” (Mark 10:11). For Jesus, a man had to be faithful to his wife. And that’s the rule the Shepherd of Hermas takes up.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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9 Responses to Shepherd of Hermas on Divorce

  1. FT says:

    Again, get Richard J. Foster's book Money, Sex and Power. He takes a humane view on D & R. He states that Jesus was condemning the attitude of men at that particular time, throwing away their own wives like property, not to start a new legalism.


  2. James Pate says:

    That’s also Brad Young’s view: whoever divorces his wife, in order to marry another, commits adultery.


  3. More Christ Like says:

    Les McFall has an interested way to deal with the exception clause in Matthew 19:9. He has written a 43 page paper that reviews the changes in the Greek made by Erasmus that effect the way Matthew 19:9 has been translated. I reviewed McFall’s paper at Except For Fornication Clause of Matthew 19:9. I would love to hear some feedback on this position.


  4. James Pate says:

    Thanks, More Christ Like. I’ll probably take a look at it this weekend.


  5. James Pate says:

    Hi More Christ Like. Does the ei really affect the meaning? Without it, Jesus says whoever divorces a woman not for fornication and marries another commits adultery. It still looks like an exception clause, even without the ei.

    At the same time, there are issues to confront, such as the Vulgate’s translation (which you mention) and the Shepherd of Hermas’ position, which doesn’t seem to allow remarriage.


  6. Greg. says:

    Hi James and all posters. Re divorce and the shepard of Hermas I feel there is a point that you all miss. The shepard of hermas is not scripture and should not be consulted as such. It is a false book in regards to the things of God and should not be consulted on any matters to do with the thins of the Lord. The comment that the writer and readers were more closer to Jesus time has absolutely no bearing on the issue or any issues concerning life in Christ.The holy spirit teaches us all things in all ages to those that have the spirit.

    Incidently, I read whilst researching tis book that itself and the books of Enoch are elements of suggested reading in some freemason circles.



  7. James Pate says:

    Hi Greg. Thanks for writing! The Shepherd of Hermes was part of some canonical lists, and it was used for edification even when it was omitted from the canon. Do I think it’s Scripture? No, but I think it’s good to see what early Christians believed. Why should we dismiss the second century, while accepting the insights of the modern age as if they’re infallible? Isn’t there value in consulting a source closer to the time–to at least see what it has to say?


  8. Holden says:

    The Shepherd of Hermas was not an early Christian work but the work of a false prophet. Here is the deal. We have the bible today as God meant it to be. If you agree with this, then why on earth would some guy have angelic visions that ADD to the word of God? The bible is all we need to figure out the truth. As 1 Corinthians 13:10 says, “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.” The bible is perfect and all that we need; the so-called “visions” of Hermas need to be thrown out, for they only offer a colored view of what the bible says. God even states in Matthew 7:15 “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Here are the facts:

    The Bible is perfect.
    The Bible is all we need to find the truth.
    The book “Shepherd of Hermas” or “The Good Shepherd” is uninspired.
    “Shepherd of Hermas” teaches things which are contrary and beyond what the bible says.
    You, even in your writing, disagree with some statements made in “The Shepherd of Hermas.”
    Hermas, or whoever wrote the book, is a false prophet.
    Game over.

    The “Shepherd of Hermas” seems to give us a colored view of the bible which is unscriptural and ultimately, the work of Satan. I could care less if this book gives us some type of insight into how the early church worked, for many early Christians still held on to Jewish traditions. Additionally, uninspired works (no matter how you look at it) can always be tweaked by Satan to make the bible appear as though it says something which it really doesn’t.

    Please correct me if I am wrong, for I am a Christian who is willing to challenge his beliefs and listen to the opinions of other Christians.


  9. Ioni Omni says:

    Ioni Omni is speaking again. I totally agree that NOTHING but the Bible is needed for instruction. It is true that people have corrupted The Word….namely, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witness members, but you can depend on God to instruct you. [Psa 32:8 “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” Even if you read a corrupt version of the The Word, the Truth will be revealed to you.
    Today is Halloween, and I shutter to think about what the early ‘Church Fathers’ did to ‘Christianize’ the people. Paganism abounds in the organized church today….all organized bodies. I go into some depth on this subject at: Ioni Omni
    Speaks, I will address the ‘Christmas’ holidays soon. God has to be
    grieving over what false prophets have done.
    Ioni Omni


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