Simon Magus (Greek Σίμων ὁ μάγος), also known as Simon the Sorcerer and Simon of Gitta, was a Samaritan proto-Gnostic and traditional founder of the Simonians in the first century A.D. His only Biblical reference is in and prominently in several apocryphal and heresiological accounts of early Christian writers, some of whom regarded him as the source of all heresies, particularly St. Justin who wrote about Simon about one hundred years after his life.
Simon Magus has been portrayed as both student and teacher of Dositheus, with followers who revered him as the Great Power of God. There were later accusations by Christians that he was a demon in human form, and he was specifically said to possess the ability to levitate and fly at will. The fantastic stories of Simon the Sorcerer persisted into the Middle Ages, becoming a possible inspiration for the Faustbuch, and Goethe's Faust.
Almost all of the surviving sources for the life and thought of Simon Magus are contained in works from ancient Christian writers: in the Acts of the Apostles, in patristic works (Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Hippolytus of Rome, Epiphanius of Salamis), and in the apocryphal Acts of Peter, early Clementine literature, and the Epistle of the Apostles.
There are small fragments of a work written by him (or by one of his later followers), the Apophasis Megale, or Great Declaration. He is also supposed to have written several treatises, two of which bear the titles The Four Quarters of the World and The Sermons of the Refuter, but these are lost to us.
Josephus mentions a magician named Simon in his writings as being involved with the procurator Felix, King Agrippa II and his sister Drusilla, where Felix has Simon convince Drusilla to marry him instead of the man she was engaged to. Some scholars have considered the two to be identical, although this is not generally accepted, as the Simon of Josephus is a Jew rather than a Samaritan.
Acts of the Apostles
The different sources for information on Simon contain quite different pictures of him, so much so that it has been questioned whether they all refer to the same person. Assuming all references are to the same person, as some (but by no means all) of the Church fathers did, the earliest reference to him is the canonical Acts of the Apostles, verses 8:9-24.
But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the Great Power of God. And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries.
Acts tells of a person named Simon Magus practicing magic in the city of Sebaste in Samaria, being (supposedly) converted to Christianity by Philip the Evangelist, but then trying to offer money to the Apostles in exchange for miraculous abilities, specifically the power of laying on of hands. The sin of simony, or paying for position and influence in the church, is named for Simon. Verse 6.19 of the Apostolic Constitutions also accuses him of antinomianism.
In Peter denounces Simon's attitude, and declares, "May your money perish with you!",
The Clementine Recognitions and Homilies give an account of Simon Magus and some of his teachings in regards to the Simonians. They are of uncertain date and authorship, and seem to have been worked over by several hands in the interest of diverse forms of belief.
Simon was a Samaritan, and a native of Gitta. The name of his father was Antonius, that of his mother Rachel. He studied Greek literature in Alexandria, and, having in addition to this great power in magic, became so ambitious that he wished to be considered a highest power, higher even than the God who created the world. And sometimes he "darkly hinted" that he himself was Christ, calling himself the Standing One. Which name he used to indicate that he would stand for ever, and had no cause in him for bodily decay. He did not believe that the God who created the world was the highest, nor that the dead would rise. He denied Jerusalem, and introduced Mount Gerizim in its stead. In place of the Christ of the Christians he proclaimed himself; and the Law he allegorized in accordance with his own preconceptions. He did indeed preach righteousness and judgment to come: but this was merely a bait for the unwary.
There was one John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of Jesus in accordance with the law of parity; and as Jesus had twelve Apostles, bearing the number of the twelve solar months, so had he thirty leading men, making up the monthly tale of the moon. One of these thirty leading men was a woman called Helen, and the first and most esteemed by John was Simon. But on the death of John he was away in Egypt for the practice of magic, and one Dositheus, by spreading a false report of Simon's death, succeeded in installing himself as head of the sect. Simon on coming back thought it better to dissemble, and, pretending friendship for Dositheus, accepted the second place. Soon, however, he began to hint to the thirty that Dositheus was not as well acquainted as he might be with the doctrines of the school.
Dositheus, when he perceived that Simon was depreciating him, fearing lest his reputation among men might be obscured (for he himself was supposed to be the Standing One), moved with rage, when they met as usual at the school, seized a rod, and began to beat Simon; but suddenly the rod seemed to pass through his body, as if it had been smoke. On which Dositheus, being astonished, says to him, ‘Tell me if thou art the Standing One, that I may adore thee.’ And when Simon answered that he was, then Dositheus, perceiving that he himself was not the Standing One, fell down and worshipped him, and gave up his own place as chief to Simon, ordering all the rank of thirty men to obey him; himself taking the inferior place which Simon formerly occupied. Not long after this he died.
The encounter between both Dositheus and Simon Magus was the beginnings of the sect of Simonians. The narrative goes on to say that Simon, having fallen in love with Helen, took her about with him, saying that she had come down into the world from the highest heavens, and was his mistress, inasmuch as she was Sophia, the Mother of All. It was for her sake, he said, that the Greeks and Barbarians fought the Trojan War, deluding themselves with an image of truth, for the real being was then present with the First God. By such specious allegories and Greek myths Simon deceived many, while at the same time he astounded them by his magic. A description is given of how he made a familiar spirit for himself by conjuring the soul out of a boy and keeping his image in his bedroom, and many instances of his feats of magic are given.
Myth of Simon and Helen
Justin Martyr (in his Apologies, and in a lost work against heresies, which Irenaeus used as his main source) and Irenaeus (Adversus Haereses) are the first to recount the myth of Simon and Helen, which became the center of Simonian doctrine. Epiphanius also makes Simon speak in the first person in several places in his Panarion, and the inference is that he is quoting from a version of it, though perhaps not verbatim. Here, Helen is given different origins:
In the beginning God had his first thought, his Ennoia, which was female, and that thought was to create the angels. The First Thought then descended into the lower regions and created the angels. But the angels rebelled against her out of jealousy and created the world as her prison, imprisoning her in a female body. Thereafter, she was reincarnated many times, each time being shamed. Her many reincarnations included Helen of Troy; among others, and she finally was reincarnated as Helen, a slave and prostitute in the Phoenician city of Tyre. God then descended in the form of Simon Magus, to rescue his Ennoia, and to confer salvation upon men through knowledge of himself.
For as the angels were mismanaging the world, owing to their individual lust for rule, he had come to set things straight, and had descended under a changed form, likening himself to the Principalities and Powers through whom he passed, so that among men he appeared as a man, though he was not a man, and was thought to have suffered in Judaea, though he had not suffered.
"But in each heaven I changed my form," says he, "in accordance with the form of those who were in each heaven, that I might escape the notice of my angelic powers and come down to the Thought, who is none other than her who is also called Prunikos and Holy Ghost, through whom I created the angels, while the angels created the world and men."
But the prophets had delivered their prophecies under the inspiration of the world-creating angels: wherefore those who had their hope in him and in Helen minded them no more, and, as being free, did what they pleased; for men were saved according to his grace, but not according to just works. For works were not just by nature, but only by convention, in accordance with the enactments of the world-creating angels, who by precepts of this kind sought to bring men into slavery. Wherefore he promised that the world should be dissolved, and that those who were his should be freed from the dominion of the world-creators.
Upon the story of "the lost sheep," Hippolytus (in his Philosophumena) comments as follows.
But the liar was enamoured of this wench, whose name was Helen, and had bought her and had her to wife, and it was out of respect for his disciples that he invented this fairy-tale.
Simoni Deo Sancto
Justin and Irenaeus also record several other pieces of information: After being cast out by the Apostles he came to Rome where, having joined to himself a profligate woman of the name of Helen, he gave out that it was he who appeared among the Jews as the Son, in Samaria as the Father and among other nations as the Holy Spirit. He performed such miracles by magic acts during the reign of Claudius that he was regarded as a god and honored with a statue on the island in the Tiber which the two bridges cross, with the inscription Simoni Deo Sancto, "To Simon the Holy God". However, in the 1500s, a statue was unearthed on the island in question, inscribed to Semo Sancus, a Sabine deity, leading most scholars to believe that Justin Martyr confused Semoni Sancus with Simon.
Hippolytus gives a much more doctrinally detailed account of Simonianism, including a system of divine emanations and interpretations of the Old Testament, with extensive quotations from the Apophasis Megale. Some believe that Hippolytus' account is of a later, more developed form of Simonianism, and that the original doctrines of the group were simpler, close to the account given by Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (this account however is also included in Hippolytus' work).
Hippolytus says the free love doctrine was held by them in its purest form, and speaks in language similar to that of Irenaeus about the variety of magic arts practiced by the Simonians, and also of their having images of Simon and Helen under the forms of Zeus and Athena. But he also adds, "if any one, on seeing the images either of Simon or Helen, shall call them by those names, he is cast out, as showing ignorance of the mysteries."
Epiphanius writes that there were some Simonians still in existence in his day (c. A.D. 367), but he speaks of them as almost extinct. Gitta, he says, had sunk from a town into a village. Epiphanius further charges Simon with having tried to wrest the words of St. Paul about the armour of God (Ephesians 6:14-16) into agreement with his own identification of the Ennoia with Athena. He tells us also that he gave barbaric names to the "principalities and powers," and that he was the beginning of the Gnostics. The Law, according to him, was not of God, but of "the sinister power." The same was the case with the prophets, and it was death to believe in the Old Testament.
The apocryphal Acts of Peter gives a legendary tale of Simon Magus' death. Simon is performing magic in the Forum, and in order to prove himself to be a god, he levitates up into the air above the Forum. The apostle Peter prays to God to stop his flying, and he stops mid-air and falls into a place called the Sacra Via (meaning, Holy Way), breaking his legs "in three parts". The previously non-hostile crowd then stones him. Now gravely injured, he had some people carry him on a bed at night from Rome to Ariccia, and was brought from there to Terracina to a person named Castor, who on accusations of sorcery was banished from Rome. The Acts then continue to say that he died "while being sorely cut by two physicians".
Another apocryphal document, the Acts of Peter and Paul gives a slightly different version of the above incident, which was shown in the context of a debate in front of the Emperor Nero. In this version, Paul the Apostle is present along with Peter, Simon levitates from a high wooden tower made upon his request, and dies "divided into four parts" due to the fall. Peter and Paul were then put in prison by Nero while ordering Simon's body be kept carefully for three days (thinking he would rise again).
Cyril of Jerusalem (346 CE) in the sixth of his Catechetical Lectures prefaces his history of the Manichaeans by a brief account of earlier heresies: Simon Magus, he says, had given out that he was going to be translated to heaven, and was actually careening through the air in a chariot drawn by demons when Peter and Paul knelt down and prayed, and their prayers brought him to earth a mangled corpse.
The church of Santa Francesca Romana claims to have been built on the spot in question (thus claiming that Simon Magus could indeed fly). Within the Church is a dented slab of marble that purports to bear the imprints of the knees of Peter and Paul during their prayer.
Hippolytus gives a very different version of Simon's death. Reduced to despair, he says, by the curse laid upon him by Peter, he embarked on the career that has been described:
Until he came to Rome also and fell foul of the Apostles. Peter withstood him on many occasions. At last he came [...] and began to teach sitting under a plane tree. When he was on the point of being shown up, he said, in order to gain time, that if he were buried alive he would rise again on the third day. So he bade that a tomb should be dug by his disciples and that he should be buried in it. Now they did what they were ordered, but he remained there until now: for he was not the Christ.
According to radical critic Hermann Detering, Simon Magus may be a proxy for Paul of Tarsus, with Paul originally been detested by the church, and the name changed when Paul was rehabilitated by virtue of forged Epistles correcting the genuine ones.[clarification needed]
Notably, Simon Magus is sometimes described in apocryphal legends in terms that would fit Paul, most significantly in the previously mentioned Clementine Recognitions and Homilies. It is contended that the common source of these documents may be as early as the 1st century, and must have consisted in a polemic against Paul, emanating from the Jewish side of Christianity. Paul being thus identified with Simon, it was argued that Simon's visit to Rome had no other basis than Paul's presence there, and, further, that the tradition of Peter's residence in Rome rests on the assumed necessity of his resisting the arch-enemy of Judaism there as elsewhere. Thus the idea of Peter at Rome really originated with the Ebionites, but it was afterwards taken up by the Catholic Church, and then Paul was associated with Peter in opposition to Simon, who had originally been himself.
The enmity between Peter and Simon is clearly shown. Simon's magical powers are juxtaposed with Peter's powers in order to express Peter's authority over Simon through the power of prayer; and in the 17th Homily, the identification of Paul with Simon Magus is effected. Simon is there made to maintain that he has a better knowledge of the mind of Jesus than the disciples, who had seen and conversed with Him in person. His reason for this strange assertion is that visions are superior to waking reality, as divine is superior to human. Peter has much to say in reply to this, but the passage which mainly concerns us is as follows:
But can any one be educated for teaching by vision? And if you shall say, "It is possible," why did the Teacher remain and converse with waking men for a whole year? And how can we believe you even as to the fact that he appeared to you? And how can he have appeared to you seeing that your sentiments are opposed to his teaching? But if you were seen and taught by him for a single hour, and so became an apostle, then preach his words, expound his meaning, love his apostles, fight not with me who had converse with him. For it is against a solid rock, the foundation-stone of the Church, that you have opposed yourself in opposing me. If you were not an adversary, you would not be slandering me and reviling the preaching that is given through me, in order that, as I heard myself in person from the Lord, when I speak I may not be believed, as though forsooth it were I who was condemned and I who was reprobate. Or, if you call me condemned, you are accusing God who revealed the Christ to me, and are inveighing against Him who called me blessed on the ground of the revelation. But if indeed you truly wish to work along with the truth, learn first from us what we learnt from Him, and when you have become a disciple of truth, become our fellow-workman.
Here we have the advantage, rare in ecclesiastical history, of hearing the other side. The above is unmistakably the voice of those early Christians who hated Paul, or at all events an echo of that voice. But how late an echo it would be hazardous to decide.
There are other features in the portrait which remind us strongly of Marcion. For the first thing which we learn from the Homilies about Simon's opinions is that he denied that God was just. By "God" he meant the Creator. But he undertakes to prove from Scripture that there is a higher God, who really possesses the perfections which are falsely ascribed to the lower. On these grounds Peter complains that, when he was setting out for the Gentiles to convert them from their worship of many gods upon earth, the Evil Power had sent Simon before him to make them believe that there were many gods in heaven.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, on the other hand, argues for a very late date to be assigned to the Clementines. The great pagan antagonist of the 3rd century was the Neo-Platonic philosopher, Porphyry, and his disciple Iamblichus was the chief restorer and defender of the old gods. The doctrines and practices repelled are the theurgy and magic, astrology and mantic, miracles and claims to union with the Divinity, which characterized the Neo-Platonism of 320-30. Consequently, Simon and his disciples may represent not Paul or Marcion, but Iamblichus.
- Simon Magus in popular culture
- List of messiah claimants
- Saints and levitation
- http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13797b.htm Catholic Encyclopedia article on Simon Magus
- http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08580c.htm Catholic Encyclopedia article on St. Justin Martyr
- Sometimes with Mug Ruith. MacKillop, James (1998). Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. London: Oxford. ISBN 0-19-860967-1.
- "Surely few admirers of Marlowe's and Goethe's plays have an inkling that their hero is the descendant of a gnostic sectary, and that the beautiful Helen called up by his art was once the fallen Thought of God through whose raising mankind was to be saved." Jonas, Hans (1958). The Gnostic Religion. p. 111. See also: Palmer, Philip Mason; Robert Pattison More (1936). The Sources of the Faust Tradition: From Simon Magus to Lessing.
- Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews xx. 7, § 2
- Hilgenfeld, Ketzergeschichte, p. 170; Albert, Die Ersten Fünfzehn Jahre der Christlichen Kirche, p. 114, Münster, 1900; Waitz, in Zeitschrift für Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, v. 128
- ANF07. Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily | Christian Classics Ethereal Library
- Clementine Homilies, ii. 23
- Clementine Recognitions, ii. 11
- Epiphanius, Panarion, 58 A
- Epiphanius, Panarion, 56 C, D
- Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies, 6, 19
- The Acts of Peter
- CHURCH FATHERS: The Acts of Peter and Paul
- Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies, 6, 15
- Hermann Detering, The Dutch Radical Approach to the Pauline Epistles
- See also: F C Baur, A. Hilgenfeld, Hermann Detering, "The Falsified Paul: Early Christianity in the Twilight" - 1995 (translated into English in 2003), and J.R.Porter, The Lost Bible, pg 230.
- xvii. 5, 14
- ii. 14
- iii. so, 38
- e.g. iii. 3, 9, 59
- Chapman, John. "Clementines." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Simon Magus
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Simon Magus
- Simon Magus in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
- David R. Cartlidge, The Fall and Rise of Simon Magus, Bible Review, Vol 21, No. 4, Fall 2005, Pages 24–36.
- Francis Legge, Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity, From 330 B.C. to 330 A.D. (1914), reprinted in two volumes bound as one, University Books New York, 1964. LC Catalog 64-24125.
- G. R. S. Mead, Simon Magus
- Ported, J.R., The Lost Bible
- Detering, H., The Falsified Paul (1995/2003)
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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