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Epistles of Clement | Shepherd of Hermas | Didache |
Three very early Christian books that almost made it into the Bible

Epistles of Clement | Shepherd of Hermas | Didache is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 53, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Clement’s letter, Hermas’s angelic vision, and a manual called the Didache were probably used by Christians who didn’t yet have the Gospels

Epistles of Clement | Shepherd of Hermas | Didache - Three very early Christian books that almost made it into the Bible

Epistles of Clement | Shepherd of Hermas | Didache - Three very early Christian books that almost made it into the Bible
Like the pastoral letters and books circulating in the early centuries of Christianity, the first art produced by Christians depicted the comforting aspects of Jesus’ ministry–not surprising in an age of persecution. The miracle stories and portrayals of Christ as a youthful Good Shepherd were often painted onto the rough walls of catacombs. This fresco in the catacombs of Domitilla in Rome dates from the second century.

Some were just silly–recounting fabulous stories, for example, about the Baby Jesus playfully molding live sparrows out of mud. Some were considered dangerously erroneous and were therefore rejected by a majority of Christian communities. Some were known only in copies of copies, fragmentary and variable, their originals long lost. For whatever reasons, any number of ancient Judeo-Christian documents never made it into the anthology now known as the Holy Bible. Most were easily dismissed. For a few of the books that would be excluded, however, the call was very close.

Three such works in particular stand out: the Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Didache (meaning “Teaching” and pronounced DID-a-kay). All were written late in the first century or very early in the second. Clement’s letter and the Didache, in fact, are among the oldest surviving works of Christian literature not included in the Bible.

Opened now only by historians and theology students if at all, the three contain little that is not included in the books that did become the New Testament. Yet each of them sheds its own light on Christian life in the late first and early second centuries. What’s more, by the very fact that they could be omitted they demonstrate that there was a wealth of material available from which the biblical compilers could pick and choose. In short, assembling the New Testament was hardly a matter of having to scrounge up any little scrap that could be found.

The exact date of Clement’s letter is controversial, ranging from as early as about a.d. 68 to not much later than about a.d. 97. Its author apparently spent time with Paul at Philippi in a.d. 57 (Paul mentions a Clement in Phil. 4:3), and perhaps traveled to Corinth as well. After Paul and Peter and most of the other apostles were martyred, Clement was a logical choice to govern the church at Rome, and he was selected to do just that. He had read Paul’s letters of instruction to the early churches, and when that troublesome church at Corinth erupted in yet another scandal, he wrote to it, just as Paul had done. Though Clement’s letter does not contain his name, historians are just about unanimous in ascribing it to him. For centuries it was incomplete, but a full manuscript was discovered in 1875.

Clement chastised the Corinthians for kicking out some of their leaders, whose sermons they found wearisome, to make room for newer preachers–and for providing no retirement benefits to those they expelled. He also said that church services should be held at scheduled times and that planning and order was important–he suggested emulating the discipline of the Roman legions, and he urged loyalty to the empire and recommended praying for its rulers. He sharply rejected erotic art, instructing the Corinthians that morality was more important than aesthetics. And his text indicates that the doctrine of the Trinity, God in three persons, was held by Christians from its earliest days.

Clement also figures in the Shepherd of Hermas, in which he appears as a prominent member of the church in Rome. Hermas is a descriptive narrative, a lengthy allegorical work attributed to the brother of Pius I (bishop of Rome from 140 to 155). Because it was written in Greek, it may have been better known among the Eastern Christians than in the Western church. When it appeared is a matter of much debate, with the year 160 given as the outside date, and the latter part of the first century the earliest.

Hermas depicts a series of revelations experienced by a slave who lived in Rome. The “pastor” is an angel, dressed in shepherd’s garb, whose mission is to instruct the slave in the Christian way. The angel provides five visions, twelve “mandates,” and ten parables or “similitudes,” all stressing the importance of repenting from sin and adhering strictly to the Christian moral code and precepts.

Hermas, while popular in the early church, eventually came to be regarded as useful but not inspired. Tertullian, a follower of the rigid Montanist doctrine, rejected it in disgust for what he saw as its wrongheaded belief that Christians could be forgiven if they committed serious sins after baptism. He called it “The Shepherd of the Adulterers.” Nineteenth-century researchers revived scholarly interest in it–pointing out that, whatever its content, it was as much a work of historical importance as the paintings in the catacombs.

As for the Didache, it’s a handbook of sorts, a manual in Christianity for those who lacked access to copies of the Gospels or Paul’s Epistles. It begins by stating the case:

There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways. The way of life is this: First of all, thou shalt love the God that made thee; secondly, thy neighbor as thyself. And all things whatsoever thou wouldst not have befall thyself, neither do thou unto another. . . .
But the way of death is this: First of all, it is evil and full of a curse; murders, adulteries, lusts, fornications, thefts, idolatries, magical arts, witchcrafts, plunderings, false witnessings, hypocrisies, doubleness of heart, treachery, pride, malice, stubbornness, covetousness, foul-speaking, jealousy, boldness, exaltation, boastfulness.

These words, and the rest of the book’s sixteen chapters, were written by the Twelve Apostles themselves, the Didache claims. Some historians suggest that it was a product of the first Apostolic Council, held in a.d. 50 (Acts 15:6). Like Clement’s epistle, it was lost for many centuries. Rediscovered in a library in Constantinople in 1873, it consists of moral instruction, including guidelines for prayer, worship, baptism, fasting, and the communion service or Eucharist. Abortion opponents cite its explicit–and historically very early–condemnation of the practice: “Do not kill children, either by abortion or after birth.” It is also one of the first texts, if not the very first, to add to the Lord’s Prayer a doxology: “for thine is the power and the glory until all ages.”
None of these three books is read much in modern times. As examples of the earliest Christian literature, however, their value is incalculable. Primitive and problematical they may be, but they open another window, from a perspective outside the New Testament, onto the lives of the first of those who were drawn to the person and teachings of Jesus Christ.

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