Simon Magus was labeled “the father of all heretics” by Irenaeus in the Preface of his “Against Heresies, III.” This view was also adopted by Eusebius in his “Ecclesiastical History” and Simon was said to be the “first author of heresy” by the Early Christian Church.
Whether Simon Magus deserves these titles is still presently debateable. Today as then, in the first century AD, most orthodox Christians would say Simon is worthy of such titles, because as it shall be shown Simon started the religion of Gnosticism, and particularly the sect of Simonians.
But, his activities must be examined and judged with caution because they are neither described by his followers nor himself but by his enemies the early Church Fathers and writers whose purpose it was to only present the official view of the Church.
It can be acknowledged that for Simon to be described with such distaste must have meant he was a great irritant to Church leaders. It is only from these negative references to the man that one gains an oblique picture of his personality.
Simon bears the surname of Magus, it is not clear whether this was his real name or it was self-imposed. Magus means “worker of magic.” This further hinders an objective judgment of the man because the word magic eludes a rational definition.
Simon was called a sorcerer as well as a magician. Caution must be exerted here too, for it will be recalled that the Three Wise Men who visited Jesus at the manger were also referred to as magicians or magi. (See Magus) According to the first biblical description of Simon in the Book of Acts he was referred to as a wise man. The Samaritans said of him, “This man is that power of God which is Great,” a judgment which is only acclaimed to few men.
This man also was called an “uncanny magician.” His contemporaries sensed that Simon possessed abilities above the ordinary man. It was said that he “amazed the nation of Samaria.”
>From this brief description one sees that Simon had a great ability to arouse amazement in men. It is also a sign of spirituality both within the magician himself and his ability to inflame it in others. Magic was still believed in by most of the ancient world. Even the early Christians still believed in the magic of the universe, but as they became more involved in the Church they became skeptical of magical powers within men and eventually thought them sinful.
Also according to the Book of Acts Simon was Christianized by being baptized by the disciple Philip. Philip himself testified to this. Whether Simon’s conception of Christianity differed from the rest of the apostles no one can be certain. Today such a difference would not matter with the various views on Christianity. But, in the first century such a difference would be taken very seriously and make fellow Christians turn away from Simon.
Within the sketchy history that is available it seems that Simon had previous ties to Christians as well. He had come from Getthon in Samaria, where he attended a religious school founded by Dositheos after the death of John the Baptist. Simon afterwards studied Arabic-Jewish magical medicine in Alexandria.
It is from this latter fact that the third-century Church Father Hippolytus inferred that Simon had been relatively close to the philosopher called “dark Heraclitus.” Hippolytus claimed that Simon taught the principle of the universe was an Infinite Force. Hippolytus even quoted Simon as writing: “This is the book of revelation of the voice and the name by knowledge of the great Infinite Force. Therefore it will be sealed, hidden, veiled, and placed in the space where the roots of the universe are found.”
There is no certainty that Simon uttered and wrote these words or any part of the work eventually called the “Great Annunciation.” However, what is definitely evident is the work has Hellenistic overtones. Phrases which are throughout the book such as “roots of the earth” bear a strong sound of the writings of Empedocles.
The extracts that Hippolytus quotes were taken from an edition of the work which was possessed by second-century Simonians and showed much influence of Greek philosophy. This, however, is no evidence that Simon did not author the work because his followers displayed that Simon was a student of Hellenistic culture.
This Hellenistic influence on Simon appears to have initiated the beginning of his troubles with the Christians, namely Peter. It was in Samaria that the two men first met. The apostles Peter and John, according to Acts 8:9-24, had come there to preach. They also performed the ceremony of the laying on of hands to bless and heal the sick. Simon witnessed the ceremony and was deeply intrigued by its power. Some accounts say he was obsessed with the desire to possess this power.
Desperately wanting the power Simon offered to give Peter money for it saying, “Give me this power, that any on whom I lay my hands shall receive the Holy Spirit.”
Simon’s request shocked and angered the apostles. They dared not think that anyone would dare buy such a holy power.
Peter rebuked him with, “May your silver parish with you because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart be forgiven. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.”
Simon humbly replied, “Pray for me to the Lord that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”
But, the stigma had been imprinted by Peter. Still, to the this day, Simon’s name is synonymous with “simony,” meaning to buy or sell a church office.
What had occurred here is just another incident among many which have occurred throughout the history of the Christian Church, the church official was right and the outsider was wrong. Only Peter’s intentions are clearly expressed in the Bible, not Simon’s. One is left with the remaining impression that Simon was only trying to buy a holy power with money.
The question is, but, was he? Was this Simon’s real intention for offering money for the power of the laying on of hands? Yes, is the only answer concerning most Bible readers. Simon committed a grave sin by trying to buy a great, holy power with money–the impression left by Peter. But this seems not to be an accurate presentation of the entire incident when all the circumstances are examined.
First, the characters involved must be examined. At least three apostles were involved: Philip, who claimed to have baptized Simon, John and Peter. Peter was the one whom Christ had appointed to build his church. Before becoming an apostle Peter was a fisherman, presumably without much education. It also might be assumed the apostles were zealous about their new power of laying on of hands for people to presumably receive the Holy Spirit. They had received the gift on Pentecost Sunday and this incident occurred not long thereafter. Men within a zealous frame of mind are not akin to critical thinking.
On the other side of the incident was Simon, an outsider, and probably a Samaritan. At the time Samaritans were not too liked by the Hebrews. But Simon was also educated having been known to attend a religious school founded by Dositheos. He also had studied Arabic-Jewish magical medicine, and is thought to have been a student of Hellenistic culture. It should also be remembered this man had been said to be “…that power of God which is Great.”
In recognizing all of these facts Simon does not appear to be a man who would view the power exhibited by the apostles lightly and just want to buy it to possess it for his own use. No, under critical examination and with the knowledge that Simon had some previous training under Dositheos, a disciple of John the Baptist, it seems that the opposite might be true, that Simon recognized the importance of the holy power which the apostles possessed. He saw that it was valuable, and being familiar with Hellenistic custom of offering to pay compensation for what is considered a shared secret, Simon offered Peter money for this wonderful power. Peter, being unfamiliar with the Hellenistic custom, mistook Simon’s honest gesture. Thereafter Simon became an outcast in the eyes of all Christians.
Although Simon has always been held as a traitor and an immoral man by Christians, the rebuke of Peter did not stop him from becoming the founder of Gnosticism. His alleged immorality not only stemmed from his attempt to buy the holy power but also from his later conduct which was misinterpreted and confused by his adversaries.
While continuing earning his living as a magician he is said to have practiced making himself invisible, levitating himself and changing himself into an animal by metamorphosis. But what caused the largest criticism from his enemies was his association with an alleged prostitute.
Some said he conjured this woman up. Others claimed she was a prostitute from Tyre. Other said she was a shameless slut whom he had lured away from Dositheos and taken for himself. Whoever this mysterious woman was Simon called her Helen of Troy.
This is significant for it leads to Simon’s further teachings in Gnosticism. He referred Helen as his Idea. Within Helen, Simon saw the Spirit of God. His vision came to have a double meaning as Gnosticism grew. To the Gnostics the true God had a feminine part which was called the Spirit, which Helen had represented. Therefore, the Gnostics held that there was a Mother God, at times referred to as the Wisdom of God or Sophia. It should be noted, too, that because of their concept of a Mother God the Gnostics were a very difficult sect for the Christians to destroy.
The second meaning derived from Simon’s vision of the Spirit of God within Helen established the central tenet of Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that the Spirit of God was trapped in all matter, especially man. This act of entrapment was accomplished by the Demiurge during the creation of the world.
Before leaving this subject of the Gnostics’ concept of the Spirit of God, it might be noted that the assumption of the Spirit possessing a feminine gender was not totally unfounded. In the Old Testament written in Hebrew the Spirit of God is referred to as “ruwach” having a feminine gender. Simon who had studied Arabic-Jewish magical medicine and probably some Hebrew scriptures, as well as being acquainted with the Hellenistic culture including their pantheon of gods and goddesses such as Athena and Aphrodite probably thought the Spirit of God was feminine.
The rumors of Simon’s immorality spread as Gnosticism grew. What was called immoral by their adversaries was not immoral to the Gnostics who believed the Demiurge, a false god and often referred to as the Christian God, had created the world and trapped the Spirit of the true God in it. The Gnostics divided into two main divisions each having several sects. The first division practiced total abstinence of all sexual activities. Marriage was permitted but sexual intercourse was strictly forbidden. The reasoning for this was not to propagate. The people wanted to eliminate all flesh as quickly as possible so to free the true Spirit.
The second or other division of the Gnostics had the same goal, not to propagate themselves, but their methods of achieving this was completely opposite. This was considered the libertine side of Gnosticism which Simon was mostly associated with. The Gnostics, according to their enemies, practiced every kind of sexual diversion.
According to his enemies Simon founded a religion that allowed sinful practices. “Their secret priests therefore served the lust of the senses and practiced magic with all their might, employ conjurations and spells, concoct love potions and methods of seduction, and engage in dream-interpretation and dark prestidigitator’s arts. They also have a stature of Simon in the manner of Zeus and one of Helen in the manner of Minerva, and worship them. They call themselves Simonians, after the author of this accused heresy. What is falsely called Gnosis took its beginnings from him, and can be learned from their own statements.”
But Simon had friends too, among them was the Emperor Nero. Nero was impressed with Simon and made him the court magician. Simon was clever, his feats included moving heavy furniture without touching it (psychokinesis) and passing through fire unharmed. Many say he was an illusionist.
Once Simon told one of Nero’s guards he had decapitated himself and came back from the dead when actually he cut off a ram’s head.
Simon might be called a folk hero of his day, perhaps the father of all folk heroes as he was alluded to as the father of all heretics. As his fame increased so did the stories about him. Truth from fiction became inseparable. This was as the enemy wanted, there was only one truth, the Church’s word.
Among the stories about Simon are two which concern his final encounters with Peter. These incidents are alleged to have happened while both men were in Rome. Peter is said to have been preaching there. In the first incident Simon allegedly told his followers to bury him alive in a grave and on the third day he would arise again. His followers supposedly dug a grave and buried him. When he failed to raised on the third day his enemies claimed that was proof that he was not the risen Messiah.
This incident is important in that it may well be seen as a piece of antagonistic propaganda. Simon’s followers were the Simonians who believed him to be the first God. To be able to discredit Simon in such a manner as in the above incident was a big benefit to the early Christians.
The second incident directly involves a confrontation between Simon and Peter. It may be thought of as the Christian description of the demise of Simon. It occurred atop of the Roman forum. It was a challenge to see which man truly possessed the power of God. Simon said if he could levitate above the city then he truly possessed the power. As Simon made ready for his flight Peter knelt in prayer, praying that God would not permit such a thing to happen. As scripture has it Simon plunged to earth, and Peter’s pray was answered.
Only the true Christian believer can honestly be sure that God answered Peter’s prayer and caused Simon to fall to the ground. Although fiction, which seems allowable since most of what we know about Simon Magus seems to be fabrication spread by his adversaries, in her novel “The Illusionist” Anita Mason renders an explanation as to how Simon levitated. Simon knew there was a slumbering fire in the center of his body. Through practices of fasting, incantations, and breathing techniques he willed this fire to help him do certain things, one was to levitate.
During the process of levitation the heat consumed his body turning his flesh and bones into a finer substance. His body seemed to become a glowing lamp from which a beam of light came out which he road. After performing this and other acts Simon became very tired and often slept for days.
Although this is a fictitious description of Simon’s ability to levitate one thing seems certain, if the man did levitate it required a great amount of concentration. This conclusion is drawn from what is known about magic, the will and belief must be within the magician.
With the above in mind, the events atop of the Roman forum might be viewed differently. According to the author Nero was also there with Simon and Peter, and most probably some of his attendants as well. When Simon was making ready to levitate, perhaps even at the moment of his ascent something distracted his concentration. Can anyone be certain God caused such a distraction which is a common human failing?
What happened to Simon Magus, as well as Gnoticism, might well be summed up in the author’s final conclusions: “The sect (Christianity) had to transplant or die. It did both. The successful transplant bore–many say–no relation to the native growth: it was a devilish impersonation. The voices of these critics soon faded into oblivion. Down through centuries, oblivion overtook most of the enemies of the sect. Occasionally the process had to be helped. There were many methods, of which a tampering with history was the mildest and in the long run the most effective.”
And, “The sect justified its defensive measures by the importance of the message it taught. To maintain that message intact, it must survive. When critics inquired into the truth of the message, it pointed to its survival as proof of the veracity of its teaching. The argument was pleasingly economical. If the entire structure rested, as it eventually did, on a mythologizing of history, the sect might have remarked with perfect truth that it was quite impossible to know what really happened and that any version of history is a myth in any case.”
The early Christians thought themselves the true believers, thinking they held strictly to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and anyone not holding strictly to these teachings was looked upon as their enemy. The strict adherence to their belief was not the only reason for their stringency. At first these people were scattered in small and isolated groups or colonies throughout the Roman Empire. They were fearful. They were pagans who would not worship the Roman gods. They were fearful of any outside influence which might undermine their zealously held belief. This lasted until the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity on his death bed.
Before the Emperor’s conversion, out of fear, threats to their belief were often met with strong reactions. Simon seemed to present such a threat and Peter reacted as he did. After the Emperor’s conversion such strong reactions continued to build the Christian Church into what it is today. The Christians seemed to forget the tortures they experienced as pagans, and treated others not of their belief in a like manner. The Church seemed also to forget its leader’s loving words which he spoke to the children, “Let them come unto me,” and perhaps others as well; meaning he desired everyone to love him freely and in their own way.
Perhaps if it had not been for the misunderstanding between Simon and Peter the world would have never known Gnosticism spawned by the alleged “father of all heretics,” nor the word simony; but instead there would be a Saint Simon Magus and a different Christianity. If to some this sounds preposterous let them contemplate the life of Saint Joan of Arc who was burned as a witch. A.G.H.