Random Bible Fact: Early Christian Manuscripts and the Shepherd of Hermas

Based on manuscript recoveries alone, the most popular books in second, third and early fourth-century Christianity[1] were as follows: the Book of Psalms, the Gospel according to John, the Gospel according to Matthew, and the non-canonical Shepherd of Hermas.

According to Larry Hurtado’s 2006 book The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, manuscript recoveries for biblical books in this period are as follows:

  • Psalms: 16-18 copies[2]
  • John: 11-15 copies
  • Matthew: 12 copies
  • The Shepherd of Hermas: 11 copies
  • Genesis and Exodus: 8 copies each
  • Luke and Acts: 7 copies each
  • Isaiah: 6 copies
  • Revelation: 5 copies[3]

A number of factors complicate matters here: very few books from the second century in particular survive complete and intact, whether from natural use and deterioration or deliberate destruction by the ruling Roman authorities during periods of local persecutions. Many of the manuscripts that survive are just a handful of pages or no more than a couple of verses or chapters. For the book of John in particular, scholars are unsure whether some of the pieces belonged to the same manuscript or represent distinct manuscripts. And finally, all of our conclusions related to this earliest period must be considered “temporary” or “in progress”: as Hurtado admits, “only about 1% of the estimated 500,000 manuscripts from this period” have been properly identified![4]

The popularity of John and Matthew in this early period is pretty understandable, given that the books were thought to have been written by the disciples of Jesus of those names. The book of Psalms might not have been your first guess at the most popular book in early Christianity, but its popularity is also sensible.

What might throw you off is the early popularity of the Shepherd of Hermas, a book that is now only really known among the scholarly community. Written in Rome in the mid-second century, the Shepherd of Hermas consists mostly of moral instructions delivered in the form of revelations from a shepherd-like character to the author, named Hermas. The book is exceptionally long—if it had made its way into the canon, it would be easily the longest book of the New Testament, and only exceeded in length in by the Old Testament books of Genesis and Jeremiah.[5] In the book, Hermas portrays himself as somewhat of a ditz—he must be given explanations about all of his visions by the shepherd—although he is genuinely interested in moral improvement and proper behavior.

So, why would a book like this eventually be regarded as non-canonical, in spite of its early popularity? In other words, why is the Shepherd not in the Bible? That discussion may feature as a “Random Bible Fact” in the future.


[1] Why this period, from roughly 100-320 CE? This is before Christianity became the entrenched state religion of the Roman Empire, before a rigid orthodoxy developed from the unifying vision of Emperor Constantine.

[2] Two copies of the Pslams retain the Tetragrammaton, or “Yahweh” in Hebrew characters, as the name of God, and therefore these may be Jewish manuscripts rather than Christian. Either way, the book of Psalms wins out as the most popular pre-Constantinian Christian book.

[3] These data come from Hurtado (2006), 19-28 (see especially, 19-21 and 23). His book includes an excellent appendix cataloging and detailing the precise contents of biblical and apocryphal books from this period.

[4] Hurtado (2006), 25.

[5] This is according to the stichometric list inserted into the sixth-century Codex Claromontanus, which lists the Shepherd at 4,000 lines, Genesis at 4,500, and Jeremiah at 4,050.

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Random Bible Fact: Acts 24:7

Because survey after survey finds that religious Americans are ignorant in various degrees about the contents of their Bibles, I’ve decided to start doing something about it now, before I accept that awesome tenured teaching position. Based off the success of a great Twitter feed I follow called @RandomSpaceFact, today I started @RandomBibleFact on a complete and total whim. Though I’m sure the feed will evolve over its lifetime, I’m presently thinking that it’ll cover facts both at the most basic level and more advanced topics, from textual criticism to translational details or possibly even interpretation. We’ll see!

What does that mean for my blog? Well, I want to keep the tweets manageable within the 140 character limit. Initially I had posted my first Random Bible Fact over the span of four tweets, and that’s just confusing. So when longer explanations are warranted, I’ll just craft a small blog post about it. This is probably a good habit for me to practice: I’ve always had a problem with concision. So without further ado, here’s Random Bible Fact #1…

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Acts 24:7 does not exist in most modern translations of the Bible (NRSV, RSV, NIV, etc.). Don’t believe me? Though this is not a complete accounting of all biblical translations, a good representative example would be the omissions of the verse at BibleHub. Most recent translations skip directly from verse 6 to verse 8.

This isn’t a 13th floor in a skyscraper thing, though—the verse has not been omitted out of superstition or anything like that. Versifications and chapter divisions as we know them were only added to the Bible in the Medieval period, and at that time, Acts 24:7 did exist. In fact, 24:7 survived long enough to make it into the King James Version, just as earlier it had been included in John Wycliffe’s Bible and other versions. 

The reason for inclusion or omission of 24:7 comes down to differences in the base Greek text of the New Testament from which English versions are translated. The King James Version was translated from what scholars today call the “Textus Receptus” (or Received Text), which it turns out is a fairly faulty version of the text as a whole, based largely off a single family of Greek manuscripts dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. The Textus Receptus contains a number of omissions and expansions, and this is one of them.

In chapter 24 of Acts, Paul appears before Felix for the first time in Caesarea, and one Tertullus is said to be the attorney prosecuting Paul’s case. The first substantive charges are brought against Paul in this passage: he is a fomenter of rebellion (verse 5) and a defiler of the Jerusalem temple (verse 6). Someone must have thought this prosecutorial opening statement was far too short and bereft of detail, for they expand the charges from rebellion against Jews to rebellion throughout the entire Roman Empire, and also supply Felix with additional narrative explanation saying why this case ostensibly fit for the Sanhedrin has been deemed fit for his jurisdiction.

Verse 24:7 (and the additional simultaneous additions) is attested in the so-called D-Text of Acts, but not in the earliest and best Greek manuscripts, such as Sinaiticus (4th century), Vaticanus (4th century), and Alexandrinus (5th century). It is therefore not included in modern scholarly versions of the Greek New Testament, and does not appear translated in the NRSV, NIV, RSV and many others. In some cases, verse 24:7 and its fellow D-Text variants receive a footnote to explain why the text has skipped from verse 6 to verse 8.