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A curious tradition is preserved in the Book of Popes concerning the Shepherd of Hermas and the Paschal controversy. The citation below is from G. Edmundson, The Church in Rome in the First Century, p. 211f., n. 2: “Duchesne, Lib. Pont. p. 58. The passage stands thus in the Felician Abridgement: ‘Pius, natione Italus, ex patre Rufino, frater Pastoris, de [continued p. 212 n.] civitate Aquileia, sedit ann. xviii, mens. iiii, dies iii. Fuit temporibus Antonii Pii a consulatu Clari et Severi. Sub huius episcopatu frater ipsius Hermis librum scripsit, in quo mandatum continetur quod praecepit angelus Domini cum venit ad eum in habitu pastoris, et praecepit ei ut sanctum Paschae die dominica celebraretur.’ The Cononian Abridgement omits frater ipsius …. There is no reference to the Easter controversy in The Shepherd.” The entry reads as follows in translation: “Pius, an Italian by nationality, whose father was Rufinus, and who was the brother of Pastor, from the city of Aquileia, presided [over the Church of Rome] 18 years, 4 months, 3 days. This was in the era of [the Emperor] Antoninus Pius, from the consulate of Clarus and Severus. In the time when he was Bishop, his brother [Pastor] wrote the Book of Hermas, in which is contained a Mandate which an Angel of the Lord instructed him [to observe] when he came to him in the dress of a Shepherd [Latin: pastor]; he also instructed him as to how the divinely sanctioned ordinance of Pascha [Passover] might be celebrated on the Lord’s Day.” Begging to differ with Mr. Edmundson, the following investigation will show where The Shepherd of Hermas touches on the Paschal controversy.

Hermas, Sim. V. 1-7: In the Shepherd’s parable of the servant and the vineyard (reproduced below), the master (God) returns (the Second Coming) to his vineyard (the Church) and rewards his servant (the incarnate Son of God) with joint inheritance alongside his own son (the Son of God qua Spirit) for tending the master’s vineyard with diligence, and the servant receives, a little while thereafter, extra congratulations for sharing out food sent to him from the master’s table amongst his fellow-servants. By the symbolism of the servant’s distribution of the master’s food, the Shepherd instructs Hermas as to the kind of fast he himself is required to perform. He tells Hermas that the real fast is SPIRITUAL, and that righteous and charitable behavior constitutes a true fast, whilst literal fasting is an additional and subsidiary free-will service to God. Accordingly he instructs Hermas to fast literally on the “day” of his “station”, and to fast spiritually at the same time, by distributing the food he otherwise would have eaten on that day to the needy. Hermas’ literal fast is the additional free-will service to God (like the servant’s distribution of food in the parable), complementing the spiritual fast (typed by the exemplary diligence of the servant), which is care for the poor.

What is the bearing of all this on the Paschal debate, which hinged on whether or not the Paschal fast should terminate on the “Lord’s Day”, or Easter Sunday? The eastern churchmen, by custom, but without obligation, broke their fast at the beginning of the Jewish Day of the Passover in the evening (the Jewish day beginning around 6 pm in the evening), whatever day of the week that happened to be in any given year, and celebrated a communion meal in remembrance of Jesus’ original Last Supper, which occurred precisely at that time. The bishops of the First Church of Rome held, on the other hand, that one must fast throughout the days leading up to Easter Sunday, including, if calendrically necessary, the day of the Jewish Passover itself, and on Easter Sunday, and on that day only, break the Paschal fast, as a festal celebration of the Resurrection. The rigid practice of the First Church of Rome was admitted, even by its advocate, the sectarian lawyer Tertullian, to be reminiscent of the obligatory fasting and mortification imposed on devotees of the pagans’ Great Mother Goddess, whose Spring festival was celebrated in Rome and elsewhere at that same time of year.

To discover how Hermas’ Similitude affected the Paschal controversy, it is necessary first to explain the symbolic meaning of Sunday, particularly Easter Sunday, in the Early Church. Originally, the “Lord’s Day”, “he hemera kuriake” in Greek, dies dominica in Latin, meant the Day of the Lord, so called by the Old Testament prophets, i.e., in New Testament terms, the Day of the Resurrection and the Second Coming of Jesus (already in the Book of Revelation 1. 10, in a passage where the representation of Jesus as Judge, and of His coming as with clouds, necessitate an eschatological interpretation). Now, in the Early Church, Sunday was a weekly, and Easter Sunday an annual, festal, re-enactment, or symbolic representation, of that great Day of the Resurrection, because it was on a Sunday, the first Sunday of the Passover (Easter) period, that Jesus rose from the dead. Hence Sunday, particularly Easter Sunday, also came to be referred to in the Early Church as “dies dominica”, the “Lord’s Day”.

Now, the Shepherd draws a comparison, in his parable, between that great, eschatological, Day of the Lord, on the one hand (i.e. the Day of the Second Coming and the Resurrection, when, according to the parable, the servant is rewarded and distributes his food as an act of compassion), and the “day” of Hermas’ fast, on the other, when Hermas must distribute, like the good servant, his food to the needy. On the basis of this comparison, around which the whole Similitude revolves, it can be concluded that the “day” of Hermas’ fast is actually, or, at least, could be held to be, the “dies dominica”, the Lord’s Day, or Easter Sunday, the annual type par excellence of the eschatological Day of the Lord. In other words, the Shepherd’s instruction permitted and regulated, or, could be held to have permitted and regulated, as a good and holy thing, fasting on Easter Sunday. This, of course, was anathema to the bishops of the First Church of Rome. It is noteworthy that the sectarian lawyer, Tertullian, who advocated the First Church of Rome’s Paschal practice, also vehemently denied the inspiration of the Shepherd of Hermas.

In view of the mention in the Book of Popes of both Hermas and his brother Pius in this connection, it is possible that the entry was originally intended to background a point of difference between the prophet and the bishop. The document, “The First Church of Rome”, explains how Pius separated from the fellowship of his brother Hermas which gathered at the Baths of Novatus at Santa Pudenziana and became bishop of the rival church at Santa Prassede. The church Pius joined welcomed in its ranks Gnostic teachers who combined pagan rituals and beliefs with a very diluted form of Christianity. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that one of the strongly-held dogmas of the church at Santa Prassede was the Easter fast, reminiscent, as it was, of the pagan mortifications practiced in the cult of the Great Mother. Significantly, the same Similitude of Hermas which contains the parable on fasting contains also a denial of the typical, dualistic, Gnostic, belief that the physical body is of no account (hence the Gnostics’ propensity for extreme asceticism and for ritual mortification of the flesh) and a rejection of the view that spirit is divorced from matter (Sim. V. 7).

To the first Christian converts at Rome, who will have been, in the main, Jews by nationality, and to their successors under the prophet Hermas at Santa Pudenziana, there was nothing unusual in fasting on Sunday. Sunday had no particular significance in the Old Testament, and to the original Jewish Christians it was simply the “first day of the week”. To certain Gnostic groups, however, who borrowed and adapted rituals from pagan cults, Sunday, particularly Sunday at the festival of the Spring Equinox (coinciding roughly with the time of the Jewish Passover) was sacred as the “day of the Sun-god”. That day had to be observed in a ritually specific manner. The sectarians at Santa Prassede justified their observance of Easter Sunday, which involved breaking an obligatory fast and eating a sacred meal, by citing the practice of the Apostle Peter. They claimed that he celebrated Easter Sunday by breaking his fast on that day. No evidence was forthcoming to substantiate this claim. Perhaps the only evidence in the canonical Scriptures was the reference in the Gospels to how Jesus on the Sunday of the resurrection requested some fish and honeycomb from Peter and the disciples and ate it in front of them as proof that He had a glorified, resurrected, but truly physical body. The mention of fish and honey could be held to be evidence that the Apostles broke their fast on that day. Even if that is true, it would not justify the obligatory, ritualistic, manner in which the church at Santa Prassede celebrated their eucharist on Easter Sunday. The Christians at Santa Pudenziana recognized the whole thing for what it was — a borrowing from the pagan cult of the Great Mother.

It was well before Hermas became pastor at Santa Pudenziana that the split occurred in the Church of Rome, and one of the ordained elders of the First Church, a man called Sixtus, crossed over to the Gnostics, becoming the first of a line of heretical bishops at Santa Prassede. (Immediately prior to this, the majority of Gentile believers at Santa Prassede had been won over by the Gnostic teacher Simon Magus.) Sixtus is called the son of “Pastor” in the Liber Pontificalis and was probably, therefore, the son of Hermas. The angel in Hermas’ vision had warned Hermas of the sorry spiritual state of his children and Sixtus confirmed the same by his defection to the Gnostics. Sixtus and the succeeding bishops at Santa Prassede adopted that group’s pagan Easter Sunday ritual, for which they claimed the authority of the Apostle Peter. The evidence for this is outlined in the document “The First Church of Rome”. Pius, a “brother” of Hermas, crossed over to the Gnostic church much later, and became a bishop there, following Sixtus’ example. Hermas, at the time a very elderly man, seems to have replaced Clement as pastor at Santa Pudenziana. Since Irenaeus specifically refers to Sixtus as the first of the bishops at Santa Prassede who practiced the Easter Sunday ritual, it can hardly be accidental that the Book of Popes mentions the Easter controversy in connection with Sixtus’ contemporary, Hermas.

This note in the Book of Popes may well hark back to the original incident which sparked off the schism of Sixtus, namely, a dispute centered around prophecies written up later in the Shepherd of Hermas. It can be imagined that there might be friction between the high-brow Sixtus, author of the pseudo-philosophical Sentences, and his father, the poor ex-slave, Hermas, author of the unintellectual Shepherd. Hermas’ earnest call for repentence and humility within his own family and the church and his rebuke of immoral practices might well have aggravated the situation. When Sixtus and Pius crossed over to the Gnostics, they had to face the allegation from the Christians at Santa Pudenziana that the Gnostic Easter Sunday ritual was of pagan origin. They countered this by pointing to the example and practice of the Apostle Peter, as they elaborated it from the simple Scriptural account of what happened on the Sunday of the resurrection. They argued, on the contrary, that Pastor Hermas at Santa Pudenziana was a heretic. The fasting issue in Hermas’ Similitude was seized on as proof that Hermas’ visions, accepted without question by the Christians at Santa Pudenziana, were spurious, the example of the Apostle Peter being held to demonstrate that the proper, and, indeed, only permissible, practice was to break the Paschal Fast on Easter Sunday.



CHAPTER 1 While fasting and sitting on a certain mountain, and giving thanks to the Lord for all His dealings with me, I see the Shepherd sitting down beside me, and saying, “Why have you come hither [so] early in the morning?” “Because, sir,” I answered, “I have a station.” “What is a station?” he asked. “I am fasting, sir,” I replied. “What is this fasting,” he continued, “which you are observing?” “As I have been accustomed, sir,” I reply, “so I fast.” “You do not know,” he says, “how to fast unto the Lord: this useless fasting which you observe to Him is of no value.” “Why, sir,” I answered, “do you say this?” “I say to you,” he continued, “that the fasting which you think you observe is not a fasting. But I will teach you what is a full and acceptable fasting to the Lord. Listen,” he continued: “God does not desire such an empty fasting. For fasting to God in this way you will do nothing for a righteous life; but offer to God a fasting of the following kind: Do no evil in your life, and serve the Lord with a pure heart: keep His commandments, walking in His precepts, and let no evil desire arise in your heart; and believe in God. If you do these things, and fear Him, and abstain from every evil thing, you will live unto God; and if you do these things, you will keep a great fast, and one acceptable before God.

CHAPTER 2 “Hear the Similitude which I am about to narrate to you relative to fasting. A certain man had a field and many slaves, and he planted a certain part of the field with a vineyard, and selecting a faithful and beloved and much valued slave, he called him to him, and said, ‘Take this vineyard which I have planted, and stake it until I come, and do nothing else to the vineyard; and attend to this order of mine, and you shall receive your freedom from me.’ And the master of the slave departed to a foreign country. And when he was gone, the slave took and staked the vineyard; and when he had finished the staking of the vines, he saw that the vineyard was full of weeds. He then reflected, saying, ‘I have kept this order of my master: I will dig up the rest of this vineyard, and it will be more beautiful when dug up; and being free of weeds, it will yield more fruit, not being choked by them.’ He took, therefore, and dug up the vineyard, and rooted out all the weeds that were in it. And that vineyard became very beautiful and fruitful, Having no weeds to choke it. And after a certain time the master of the slave and of the field returned, and entered into the vineyard. And seeing that the vines were suitably supported on stakes, and the ground, moreover, dug up, and all the weeds rooted out, and the vines fruitful, he was greatly pleased with the work of his slave. And calling his beloved son who was his heir, and his friends who were his councilors, he told them what orders he had given his slave, and what he had found performed. And they rejoiced along with the slave at the testimony which his master bore to him. And he said to them, ‘I promised this slave freedom if he obeyed the command which I gave him; and he has kept my command, and done besides a good work to the vineyard, and has pleased me exceedingly. In return, therefore, for the work which he has done, I wish to make him coheir with my son, because, having good thoughts, he did not neglect them, but carried them out.’ With this resolution of the master his son and friends were well pleased, viz., that the slave should be co-heir with the son. After a few days the master made a feast, and sent to his slave many dishes from his table. And the slave receiving the dishes that were sent him from his master, took of them what was sufficient for himself, and distributed the rest among his fellow-slaves. And his fellow-slaves rejoiced to receive the dishes, and began to pray for him, that he might find still greater favor with his master for having so treated them. His master heard all these things that were done, and was again greatly pleased with his conduct. And the master again calling together his friends and his son, reported to them the slave’s proceeding with regard to the dishes which he had sent him. And they were still more satisfied that the slave should become co-heir with his son.”

CHAPTER 3 I said to him, “Sir, I do not see the meaning of these Similitudes, nor am I able to comprehend them, unless you explain them to me.” “I will explain them all to you,” he said, “and whatever I shall mention in the course of our conversations I will show you. [Keep the commandments of the Lord, and you will be approved, and inscribed amongst the number of those who observe His commands.] And if you do any good beyond what is commanded by God, you will gain for yourself more abundant glory, and will be more honored by God than you would otherwise be. If, therefore, in keeping the commandments of God, you do, in addition, these services, you will have joy if you observe them according to my command.” I said to him, “Sir, whatsoever you enjoin upon me I will observe, for I know that you are with me.” “I will be with you,” he replied, “because you have such a desire for doing good; and I will be with all those,” he added, “who have such a desire. This fasting,” he continued, “is very good, provided the commandments of the Lord be observed. Thus, then, shall you observe the fasting which you intend to keep. First of all, be on your guard against every evil word, and every evil desire, and purify your heart from all the vanities of this world. If you guard against these things, your fasting will be perfect. And you will do also as follows. Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord. If you observe fasting, as I have commanded you, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God, and this fasting will be written down; and the service thus performed is noble, and sacred, and acceptable to the Lord. These things, therefore, shall you thus observe with your children, and all your house, and in observing them you will be blessed; and as many as hear these words and observe them shall be blessed; and whatsoever they ask of the Lord they shall receive.”

CHAPTER 4 I prayed him much that he would explain to me the Similitude of the field, and of the master of the vineyard, and of the slave who staked the vineyard, and of the stakes, and of the weeds that were plucked out of the vineyard, and of the son, and of the friends who were fellow-councilors, for I knew that all these things were a kind of parable. And he answered me, and said, “You are exceedingly persistent with your questions. You ought not,” he continued, “to ask any questions at all; for if it is needful to explain anything, it will be made known to you.” I said to him “Sir whatsoever you show me, and do not explain, I shall have seen to no purpose, not understanding its meaning. In like manner, also, if you speak parables to me, and do not unfold them, I shall have heard your words in vain.” And he answered me again, saying, “Every one who is the servant of God, and has his Lord in his heart, asks of Him understanding, and receives it, and opens up every parable; and the words of the Lord become known to him which are spoken in parables. But those who are weak and slothful in prayer, hesitate to ask anything from the Lord; but the Lord is full of compassion, and gives without fail to all who ask Him. But you, having been strengthened by the holy Angel, and having obtained from Him such intercession, and not being slothful, why do not you ask of the Lord understanding, and receive it from Him?” I said to him, “Sir, having you with me, I am necessitated to ask questions of you, for you show me all things, and converse with me; but if I were to see or hear these things without you, I would then ask the Lord to explain them.”

CHAPTER 5 “I said to you a little ago,” he answered, “that you were cunning and obstinate in asking explanations of the parables; but since you are so persistent, I shall unfold to you the meaning of the Similitudes of the field, and of all the others that follow, that you may make them known to every one. Hear now,” he said, “and understand them. The field is this world; and the Lord of the field is He who created, and perfected, and strengthened all things; [and the son is the Holy Spirit;] and the slave is the Son of God; and the vines are this people, whom He Himself planted; and the stakes are the holy angels of the Lord, who keep His people together; and the weeds that were plucked out of the vineyard are the iniquities of God’s servants; and the dishes which He sent Him from His table are the commandments which He gave His people through His Son; and the friends and fellow-councilors are the holy angels who were first created; and the Master’s absence from home is the time that remains until His appearing.” I said to him, “Sir, all these are great, and marvelous, and glorious things. Could I, therefore,” I continued, “understand them? No, nor could any other man, even if exceedingly wise. Moreover,” I added, “explain to me what I am about to ask you.” “Say what you wish,” he replied. “Why, sir,” I asked, “is the Son of God in the parable in the form of a slave?”

CHAPTER 6 “Hear,” he answered: “the Son of God is not in the form of a slave, but in great power and might.” “How so, sir?” I said; “I do not understand.” “Because,” he answered, “God planted the vineyard, that is to say, He created the people, and gave them to His Son; and the Son appointed His angels over them to keep them; and He Himself purged away their sins, having suffered many trials and undergone many labors, for no one is able to dig without labor and toil. He Himself, then, having purged away the sins of the people, showed them the paths of life by giving them the law which He received from His Father. [You see,” he said, “that He is the Lord of the people, having received all authority from His Father.] And why the Lord took His Son as councilor, and the glorious angels, regarding the heirship of the slave, listen. The holy, pre-existent Spirit, that created every creature, God made to dwell in flesh, which He chose. This flesh, accordingly, in which the Holy Spirit dwelt, was nobly subject to that Spirit, walking religiously and chastely, in no respect defiling the Spirit; and accordingly, after living excellently and purely, and after laboring and co-operating with the Spirit, and having in everything acted vigorously and courageously along with the Holy Spirit, He assumed it as a partner with it. For this conduct of the flesh pleased Him, because it was not defiled on the earth while having the Holy Spirit. He took, therefore, as fellowcouncilors His Son and the glorious angels, in order that this flesh, which had been subject to the body without a fault, might have some place of tabernacle, and that it might not appear that the reward [of its servitude had been lost], for the flesh that has been found without spot or defilement, in which the Holy Spirit dwelt, [will receive a reward]. You have now the explanation of this parable also.”

CHAPTER 7 “I rejoice, sir,” I said, “to hear this explanation.” “Hear,” again he replied: “Keep this flesh pure and stainless, that the Spirit which inhabits it may bear witness to it, and your flesh may be justified. See that the thought never arise in your mind that this flesh of yours is corruptible, and you misuse it by any act of defilement. If you defile your flesh, you will also defile the Holy Spirit; and if you defile your flesh [and spirit], you will not live.” “And if any one, sir,” I said, “has been hitherto ignorant, before he heard these words, how can such man be saved who has defiled his flesh?” “Respecting former sins of ignorance,” he said, “God alone is able to heal them, for to Him belongs all power. [But be on your guard now, and the all-powerful and compassionate God will heal former transgressions], if for the time to come you defile not your body nor your spirit; for both are common, and cannot be defiled, the one without the other: keep both therefore pure, and you will live unto God.”

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