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Simon Magus

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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A personage frequently mentioned in the history of primitive Christianity. According to Acts 8:9-23, he was greatly fearedthroughout Samaria on account of his magic powers; but he permitted himself to be baptized, and wished to purchase the gift of the Holy Ghost, being cursed by Peter for this presumptuousness. In spite of the definiteness of the statements regarding him, the historicity of Simon has been doubted by many critics, especially by Baur and his school, who held that he was a caricature of the "Apostle of the Gentiles." Such a view must, however, be regarded as a grave critical aberration (Harnack, "Dogmengeschichte," 1st ed., 1:179, note 1).

The early Christian Clementine "Recognitiones" (-) represent Simon as a Jewish magician instead of a Samaritan, stating that he was a member of a Jewish household in Cæsarea, and that, when pursued by Peter, he fled to Judea. Mention is made, moreover, of a magician named Simon who lived in this very city of Cæsarea about the year 40 of the common era (Josephus, "Ant." 20:7, § 2); so that some scholars consider the two to be identical (Hilgenfeld, "Ketzergeschichte," p. 170; Albert, "Die Ersten Fünfzehn Jahre der Christlichen Kirche," p. 114, Münster, 1900; Waitz, in "Zeitschrift für Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft," 5:128). This view can hardly be correct, however, although the notice, like other similar ones, serves to show that there were such magicians even among the Jews. The most reliable sources, including Justin Martyr, who was a Samaritan by birth, call Simon a native of Cæsarea; and, in harmony with this statement, the same authorities regard him as a pupil of Dositheus, the Samaritan heresiarch (but see DOSITHEUS). Simon was, furthermore, regarded by all the Church Fathers as the great heretic from whose school and teaching sprang all the later motley heresies of Christianity; and inasmuch as his system contained Gnostic teaching, Gnosticism itself was ascribed to him, and a Gnostic figure was seen in his alleged wife Helena.

Claims Messiahship.

In reality, however, Simon seems at first to have asserted merely that he was a Messiah, though later he claimed that he was a god. The following passage of Irenæus ("Adv. Hæreses," 1:23, § 1) clearly defines his teaching: "He was worshiped by many as a god, and seemed to himself to be one; for among the Jews he appeared as the Son [thus identifying himself with Jesus], in Samaria as the Father, and among other peoples as the Holy Ghost" (comp. "Philosophumena," 6:19; Tertullian, "De Anima,"; Epiphanius, "Panarium." 21:1; "Acta Petri et Pauli," in Lipsius, "Apocryphische Apostelgeschichten und Apostellegenden," , part 1, pp. 30, 301). Simon is also said to have commanded that a grave be dug for him, from which he was to arise in three days; but this, it is declared, he did not do ("Philosophumena," quoted as from Hippolytus, 6:20). These traits characterize him as the Christ of the Samaritans, and at the same time show him as a most striking antithesis to the Christ of the Christians. If, as is stated, besides declaring that God is unknowable and is not the creator of the world, but inexpressible, ineffable, and self-created (αὐτογένεθλον; "Constitutiones Apostolicæ," 6:10, in Migne, "Patrologia Græca," 1:933), he taught that He is not the father of Christ, his teaching diverges widely from the Christian doctrine, although it must be borne in mind that this statement is at variance with all other accounts.

Favored by the Jews.

In their opposition to Christianity the Jews may have felt a certain sympathy with the teachings of Simon, thus accounting for the legends which term them his disciples. When, in his flight from Peter, Simon went to Rome and wished to prove his divinity by flying through the air, the Jews are said to have been his partizans; and when he fell wounded to the earth, and was taken to Aricia, a small town near Rome where his grave is yet shown, Jews are alleged to have escorted him thither; and their descendants lived there until 1600. A later authority declares that the aerial battle with Peter took place on a Sabbath on which the faithful were holding a "proseuche" (synagogal assembly) and keeping a fast especially on account of their teacher Simon (Glycas, "Annales," ed. Bonn, 1:236,439). While it is true that the Christians were as yet little differentiated from the Jews, and that the "faithful" might equally well have been Christians, yet the fast (the Romans believed that the Jews fasted on the Sabbath), e., the rest from work, is characteristically Jewish. The story of this flight to Rome, whether legendary or historic, must have been well known to the Jews, since the remarkable "Toledot Yeshu" tells of a similar aerial battle that took place between Jesus and the champion of the Jews (Krauss, "Das Leben Jesu nach Jüdischen Quellen," p. 179 et passim); and this same legend shows that the Jews regarded Simon as one of their own number. The fall of Simon Magus was customarily represented by the Byzantines in their illustrations of Psalm = Hebr. (Strzygowski, "Bilder des Griechischen Physiologus," p. 89, Leipsic, 1889). Zacuto ("Yuḥasin," ed. London, p. 244) also mentions Simon Magus; and his name occurs in a Samaritan chronicle recently published ("R. E. J." 45:230).

S. Kr.

Simon Magus was the founder of a Gnostic sect. In Acts 8:9-13 he is represented as having been held in awe by the Samaritans as the manifestation of the hidden power of God, and as being called by them "The Great One." He is said to have allowed himself to be baptized by the apostle Philip; but, owing to his greediness, he relapsed into sorcery. While this story is legendary, Justin relates ("Apologia," 1:26,56) that he was born in Gitta, a Samaritan village, and that he traveled together with a woman named Helena, whom he declared to be the "First Intelligence," he himself claiming to be the first manifestation of the hidden power of God. He went to Rome and performed miracles before the emperor Claudius; and the people erected statues to him. The legendary character of this story has been proved by the fact that the statue said to have been erected to him with the inscription "Semoni Sancto Deo Fidio" has been discovered, and it proves to have been dedicated to an ancient Roman deity.

More authentic facts regarding Simon Magus are contained in Hippolytus' "Refutatio Heresiarum," 6:7-20, where extracts are given from a workascribed to Simon and entitled "The Great Revelation." In this work an elaborate Gnostic system of the emanation of the Deity is presented, describing the unfolding of the world in six pairs, male and female, in the upper and lower regions, among which also the sun and the moon ("Selene") play a part and in which he himself is "the standing one; he who stands, has stood, and will stand." His stay at Rome, where he attracted attention by his miracles, and his contest with Peter are mentioned in this work and in all the patristic writings of the early centuries. He is said to have had a celestial chariot upon which he was seen flying through the air. He could not, however, withstand the superior magic powers of Peter, and fell from the chariot, breaking his legs (Syriac "Didascalia," 1:18; Arnobius, "Contra Gentes," 2:12). He raised the souls of prophets from Hades (Tertullian, "De Anima," xxxiv).

The most elaborate legendary story is told of him, especially with reference to his contest with Peter, in the Clementine writings, where there is an occasional blending of the character and utterances of Simon Magus with those of Paul. Certain characteristic expressions, however, are found there which point to historic facts. He calls himself the manifested power of the great hidden Deity ("Hel Kisai" = "Elkesai" in Gnostic lore; "Recognitiones," 1:72, 2:37; comp. "the one who will stand [abide] forever"; "Recognitiones," 2:7, 3:11; "Homilies," 2:24); his spouse Helena (or Selene = "the Moon") is the mother Wisdom, one with the highest Deity, who came down to earth under that name ("Recognitiones," 2:8-9,39; "Homilies," 2:23).

The existence of the sect of Simonians called after Simon and related to the other Samaritan sect called after Dositheus, certainly proves the historicity of his existence against the critics who declare him to be a fictitious person and "Simon" to be the pseudonym of Paul. It is remarkable, moreover, that a magician by the name of Simon is mentioned by Josephus as having lived at the very same time as Simon Magus of the Church literature. Felix, appointed governor of Judea by the emperor Claudius between the years 52 and 60, had fallen in love with Drusilla, sister of King Agrippa and wife of King Azizus of Emesa; and he sent Simon, a Jew born in Cyprus and a friend of his who was known for his magical skill, to use incantations (compare the love incantation in Deissman's "Bibelstudien," 1895, p. 21, and Blau, "Das Altjüdische Zauberwesen," 1898, pp. 96-117) to alienate her affection from her husband and to turn it to Felix. In this way the governor succeeded in obtaining Drusilla's consent to marry him ("Ant." 20:7, § 2). The only difficulty in identifying this Simon with the other lies in the statement of Josephus that the magician was born in Cyprus. The charges brought against the sect of the Simonians are of such a nature as would point to seductions brought about by witchcraft as well as by Gnostic teachings leading to sexual impurity.

  • Fabricius, Codex Apocryphus Novi Testamenti, 2:411;
  • Hilgenfeld, Ketzergesch. des Urchristenthums, pp. 163-180, Leipsic, 1884;
  • Hastings, Dict. Bible, 4:520;
  • Lugano, Le Memorie Leggendarie di Simon Mago, in Nuovo Bulletino di Archeologia Cristiana, 6:56, Rome, 1900;
  • H. Waitz, Simon Magus in der Altchristlichen Literatur, in Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, 1904, 5:121-143;
  • Harnack, Gesch. der Altchristlichen Literatur bis Eusebius, 1:153 et seq., Leipsic, 1893.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Simon Magus'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​s/simon-magus.html. 1901.
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