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Bible Dictionaries

A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

Simon Magus

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Simon (1) Magus, the subject of many legends and much speculation. It is important to discriminate carefully what is told of him by the different primary authorities.

The Simon of the Acts of the Apostles.—Behind all stories concerning Simon lies what is related Act_8:9-24 where we see Simon as a magician who exercised sorcery in Samaria with such success that the people universally accepted his claim to be "some great one," and accounted him "that power of God which is called great." We are further told that he was so impressed by the miracles wrought by Philip that he asked and obtained admission to Christian baptism; but that he subsequently betrayed the hollowness of his conversion by offering money to Peter to obtain the power of conferring the gift of the Holy Ghost. All subsequent accounts represent him as possessing magical power and coming personally into collision with Peter. The Acts say nothing as to his being a teacher of heretical doctrine; nor do they tell whether or not he broke off all connexion with the Christian society after his exposure by Peter.

The Simon of Justin Martyr .—When Justin Martyr wrote his Apology the Simonian sect appears to have been formidable, for he speaks four times of their founder Simon (Apol. i. 26, 56; ii. 15; Dial. 20), and undoubtedly identified him with the Simon of Acts. He states that he was a Samaritan, born at a village called Gitta; he describes him as a formidable magician, who came to Rome in the days of Claudius Caesar and made such an impression by his magical powers that he was honoured as a god, a statue being erected to him on the Tiber, between the two bridges, bearing the inscription "Simoni deo Sancto." Now in 1574 there was dug up in the place indicated by Justin, viz. the island in the Tiber, a marble fragment, apparently the base of a statue, bearing the inscription, "Semoni Santo Deo Fidio," with the name of the dedicator (see Gruter, Inscrip. Antiq. i. p. 95, n. 5). The coincidence is too remarkable to admit of any satisfactory explanation other than that Justin imagined a statue really dedicated to a Sabine deity (Ovid. Fasti , vi. 214) to have been in honour of the heretic Simon.

Justin further states that almost all the Samaritans, and some even of other nations, worshipped Simon, and acknowledged him as "the first God" ("above all principality, power, and dominion," Dial. 120), and that they held that a woman named Helena, formerly a prostitute, who went about with him, was his "first conception" ( ἔννοια πρώτη ). In connexion with Simon, Justin speaks of another Samaritan heretic, MENANDER, and states that he (Justin) had published a treatise against heresies. When Irenaeus (Haer. i. 23) deals with Simon and Menander, his coincidences with Justin are too numerous and striking to leave any doubt that he here uses the work of Justin as his authority, and we get the following additional particulars: Simon claimed to be himself the highest power, that is to say, the Father who is over all; he taught that he was the same who among the Jews appeared as Son, in Samaria descended as Father, in other nations had walked as the Holy Spirit. He was content to be called by whatever name men chose to assign to him. Helen was a prostitute whom he had redeemed at Tyre and led about with him, saying that she was the first conception of his mind, the mother of all, by whom he had in the beginning conceived the making of angels and archangels. Knowing thus his will, she had leaped away from him, descended to the lower regions, and generated angels and powers by whom this world was made. But this "Ennoea" was detained in these lower regions by her offspring, and not suffered to return to the Father of whom they were ignorant. In this account of Simon there is a large portion common to almost all forms of Gnostic myths, together with something special to this form. They have in common the place in the work of creation assigned to the female principle, the conception of the Deity; the ignorance of the rulers of this lower world with regard to the Supreme Power; the descent of the female ( Sophia ) into the lower regions, and her inability to return. Special to the Simonian tale is the identification of Simon himself with the Supreme, and of his consort Helena with the female principle, together with the doctrine of transmigration of souls, necessary to give these identifications a chance of acceptance, it not being credible that the male and female Supreme principles should first appear in the world at so late a stage in history.

It is possible that Justin's Simon was not identical with the contemporary of the Apostles, the name Simon being very common, and the Simon of the Acts being a century older than Justin. Moreover, Justin's Simon could hardly have carried his doctrine of transmigration of souls to the point of pretending that it was he himself who had appeared as Jesus of Nazareth, unless he had been born after our Lord's death. Hence it is the writer's opinion that the Simon described by Justin was his elder only by a generation; that he was a Gnostic teacher who had gained some followers at Samaria; and that Justin rashly identified him with the magician of the Acts of the Apostles.

The section on Simon in the Refutation of all Heresies , by Hippolytus, divides itself into two parts; the larger portion is founded on a work ascribed to Simon called the μεγάλη ἀπόφασις , which we do not hear of through any other source than Hippolytus. But towards the close of the art. on Simon there is a section which can be explained on the supposition that Hippolytus is drawing directly from the source used by Irenaeus, viz. the anti-heretical treatise of Justin. In connexion with this section must be considered the treatment of Simon in the lost earlier treatise of Hippolytus, which may be conjecturally gathered from the use made of it by Philaster and Epiphanius. Between these two there are verbal coincidences which prove that they are drawing from a common source. When this common matter is compared with the section in the Refutation , it is clear that Hippolytus was that source.

But one thing common to them was apparently not taken from Hippolytus. Both speak of the death of Simon, but apart from the section which contains the matter common to them and Hippolytus, and here they have no verbal coincidences. Both, however, know the story which became the received account of his death, viz. that to give the emperor a crowning proof of his magical skill he attempted to fly through the air, and, through the efficacy of the apostle's prayers, the demons who bore him were compelled to let him go, whereupon he perished miserably.

We may conclude that the story known to Philaster and Epiphanius, though earlier than the end of the 4th cent. when they wrote, is of later origin than the beginning of the 3rd cent. when Hippolytus wrote. That Hippolytus did not find his account of Simon's death in Justin may be concluded from the place it occupies in his narrative, where it is in a kind of appendix to what is borrowed from Justin; and also because this form of the story is unknown to all other writers.

The Simon of the Clementines .—The Clementines, like Justin, identify Simon of Gitta with the Simon of Acts; but there is every reason to believe that they were merely following Justin. Justin has evidently direct knowledge of the Simonians, and regards them as formidable heretics; but in the Clementines the doctrines which Justin gives as Simonian have no prominence; and the introduction of Simon is merely a literary contrivance to bring in the theological discussions in which the author is interested.

The Simon of 19th Cent. Criticism.—The Clementine writings were produced in Rome early in 3rd cent. by members of the Elkesaite sect one characteristic of which was hostility to Paul whom they refused to recognize as an apostle. Baur first drew attention to this characteristic in the Clementines and pointed out that in the disputations between Simon and Peter some of the claims Simon is represented as making (e.g. that of having seen our Lord though not in his lifetime yet subsequently in vision) were really the claims of Paul; and urged that Peter's refutation of Simon was in some places intended as a polemic against Paul. The passages are found only in the Clementine Homilies which may be regarded as one of the latest forms which these forgeries assumed. In the Clementine Recognitions there is abundance of anti-Paulism; but the idea does not appear to have occurred to the writer to dress up Paul under the mask of Simon. The idea started by Baur was pressed by his followers into the shape that wherever in ancient documents Simon Magus is mentioned Paul is meant. We are asked to believe that the Simon of Acts 8 was no real character but only a presentation of Paul. Simon claimed to be the power of God which is called Great; and Paul calls his gospel the power of God (Rom_1:16; 1Co_1:18) and claims that the power of Christ rested in himself (2Co_12:9) and that he lived by the power of God (13:4). In Acts 8 the power of bestowing the Holy Ghost which Philip does not appear to have exercised is clearly represented as the special prerogative of the apostles. When therefore Simon offered money for the power of conferring the Holy Ghost it was really to obtain the rank of apostle. We are therefore asked to detect here a covert account of the refusal of the elder apostles to admit Paul's claim to rank with them backed though it was by a gift of money for the poor saints in Jerusalem. Peter tells him that he has no lot in the matter i.e. no part in the lot of apostleship (see Act_1:17; Act_1:25); that he is still in the "gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity"—i.e. full of bitter hatred against Peter (Gal_2:11) and not observant of the Mosaic Law. We are not to be surprised that St. Luke Paulist though he was should assert in his history this libel on his master. He knew the story to be current among the Jewish disciples and wished to take the sting out of it by telling it in such a way as to represent Simon as a real person distinct from Paul. So having begun to speak of Paul in the beginning of c. viii. he interpolates the episode of Philip's adventures and does not return to speak of Paul until his reader's attention has been drawn off so as not to be likely to recognize Paul under the mask of Simon.

It is not necessary to spend much time in pulling to pieces speculations exhibiting so much ingenuity, but so wanting in common sense. If, by way of nickname, a public character is called by a name not his own, common sense tells us that that must be a name to which discreditable associations are already known to attach. If a revolutionary agitator is called Catiline, that is because the name of Catiline is already associated with reckless and treasonable designs. It would be silly to conclude from the modern use of the nickname that there never had been such a person as Catiline, and that the traditional story of him must be so interpreted as best to describe the modern character. Further, while obscure 3rd-cent. heretics, fearing the odium of assailing directly one held in veneration through the rest of the Christian world, might resort to disguise, Paul's opponents, in his lifetime, had no temptation to resort to oblique attacks: they could say what they pleased against Paul of Tarsus without needing to risk being unintelligible by speaking of Simon of Gitta.

Lipsius, whose account of his predecessors' speculations we have abridged from his art. "Simon," in Schenkel's Bibel-Lexikon, exercises his own ingenuity in dealing with the legendary history of Simon. The ingenuity which discovers Paul in the Simon of the Acts has, of course, a much easier task in finding him in the Simon of the legends. But since the history, as it has come down to us, leaves much to be desired as an intentional libel on Paul, we must modify the legends so as best to adapt them to this object, and must then believe we have thus recovered the original form of the legend. Thus, the Homilies represent the final disputation between Peter and Simon to have occurred at Laodicea; but we must believe that the original form laid it at Antioch, where took place the collision between Peter and Paul (Galatians 2 ). The Clementines represent Simon as going voluntarily to Rome; but the original must surely have represented him as taken there as a prisoner by the Roman authorities, and so on. It is needless to examine minutely speculations vitiated by such methods of investigation. The chronological order is—the historical personage comes first; then legends arise about him; then the use made of his name. The proper order of investigation is, therefore, first to ascertain what is historical about Simon before discussing his legends. Now, it cannot reasonably be doubted that Simon of Gitta is an historical personage. The heretical sect which claimed him for its founder was regarded by Justin Martyr as most formidable; he speaks of it as predominant in Samaria and not unknown elsewhere; probably he had met members of it at Rome. Its existence is testified by Hegesippus (Eus. iv. 22); Celsus (Orig. adv. Cels. v. 62), who states that some of them were called Heleniani; and Clement of Alexandria ( Strom. vii. 17), who states that one branch was called Eutychitae. It had become almost extinct in Origen's time, who doubts ( adv. Cels. i. 57) whether there were then 30 Simonians in the world; but we need not doubt its existence in Justin's time, nor the fact that it claimed Simon of Gitta as its founder. Writings in his name were in circulation, teste the Clementine Recognitions, and Epiphanius as confirming Hippolytus. The Simon of Acts is also a real person. If we read Acts 8 , which relates, the preaching of Philip, in connexion with c. xxi., which tells of several days spent by Luke in Philip's house, we have the simple explanation of the insertion of the former chapter, that Luke gladly included in his history a narrative of the early preaching of the gospel communicated by an eye-witness. We need not ascribe to Luke any more recondite motive for relating the incident than that he believed it had occurred. There is no evidence that this Samaritan magician had obtained elsewhere any great notoriety; and there is every reason to think that all later writers derive their knowledge from the Acts of the Apostles. We have already said that we believe Justin mistaken in identifying Simon of the Acts with Simon of Gitta, whom we take to have been a 2nd-cent. Gnostic teacher; but this identification is followed in the Clementines. In any case, we see that the whole manufacture of the latter story is later than Simon of Gitta, if not, as we believe, later than Justin Martyr. The anti-Paulists, therefore, who dressed Paul in the disguise of Simon, are more than a century later than any opponents Paul had in his lifetime, who, if they wished to fix a nickname on the apostle, were not likely to go to the Acts of the Apostles to look for one.


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Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Simon Magus'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. 1911.

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