He was a sorcerer and a charlatan; he was demonized as the source of every heresy to trouble the Early Church; he loved the most beautiful woman in the world, and it is said he was the arch-enemy of the first pope. And he had his very own sin named after him.
But who was Simon Magus?
He appears very briefly in Acts chapter 6; a man named Simon in the city of Samaria who boasted great powers. He was one of many prophets and would-be messiahs who popped up in Palestine during the First Century. The text tells us that he practiced sorcery and had attracted a wide amount of attention in the region. He billed himself as “The Great Power” and people attributed his magic to divine power. Then Philip showed up.
Philip was a follower of Christ who, like many others, had fled the city of Jerusalem fleeing the attempts by the Temple authorities, (and by later convert Saul in particular), to suppress the Church. He was one of the seven deacons, chosen by the Twelve Apostles to perform administrative functions and organize the Church’s charitable mission while the Apostles themselves devoted their attention to teaching. (One of Jesus’ original disciples was also named Philip, but this seems to have been a different guy).
The name “Philip” is Greek, so perhaps he was a Greek convert to Judaism who had become a follower of Jesus. Or perhaps one of his parents was Greek and the other Jewish, as was the case with Paul’s student, Timothy. Or possibly Philip was just the name he went by among his Gentile friends.
Philip came to Samaria and began preaching the good news of the kingdom of God. The text tells us that many were baptized, both men and women, including Simon.
Was Simon sincere? The text tells us that he “believed and was baptized” and offers no judgment on this, although it does remark that Simon was impressed by the “signs and miracles” he saw Philip performing and that he followed Philip everywhere.
It seems very likely that Simon saw Philip’s message as The New Thing, and rather than denouncing it, as the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem did, he sought to latch onto it so he could incorporate it into his own schtick. Or perhaps he really was moved by Philip’s preaching, and his initial acceptance of the message was sincere.
The Apostles back at the Home Office in Jerusalem heard about Philip’s success, and sent Peter and John to take a look.
When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:15-17 NIV)
This deserves a little more attention. Frequently the Book of Acts refers to believers “receiving the Holy Spirit” but does not go into great detail about what this means. It was an intense, ecstatic religious experience in which the person felt full of spiritual power and excitement. In some cases, the text describes them speaking in different languages, “speaking in tongues.” The church tradition in which I grew up doesn’t like to talk a whole lot about this aspect of the Primitive Church, because we Lutherans tend to be wary about things like enthusiasm; but other churches, coming out of the Charismatic Movement and other churches of the Pentecostal tradition, make the expression of the Holy Spirit central to their worship.
Whatever the specifics, what Peter and John did had a noticeable effect on the Samaritan believers, and Simon was impressed. Afterwards, he came up to the apostles with a bag of cash and asked them how much it would cost to teach him the trick. Bad move, Simon.
Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I can see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” (Acts 8:20-23)
Did Simon repent? According to the text, he backs down, and contritely says “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.” (v.24) So maybe his heart was in the right place, but he just didn’t fully grasp the Gospel message. Lord knows that Peter certainly missed the point on more than one occasion during Jesus’ ministry.
Some historians have suggested that Simon was actually Paul of Tarsus and that the story in Acts 8 is based on disagreements the two had early on, but that the name was changed after the Pauline and Petrine factions of the Church resolved their differences. I don’t think I can buy that interpretation, though. The picture we get in Acts 8 of the opportunistic charlatan trying to buy magic powers jibes with neither fanatical Pharisee we get in Saul’s earliest appearances, nor the driven Apostle for Christ we see in the rest of Acts and in his epistles.
The Book of Acts makes no more mention of Simon and we have to turn to other sources to learn what happened next.
In his book Antiquities of the Jews, the Jewish historian Josephus makes mention of a sorcerer working for procurator Felix, the Roman administrator in Caesarea at about this time. Some Latin texts of his work call the sorcerer “Simon” and identify him with the Simon of Acts chapter 8; but the guy mentioned by Josephus was a Jew from Cyprus, not a Samaritan. Simon was not that uncommon a name; Peter’s name was originally Simon for that matter.
About a century later, the Early Christian writer and apologist Justin Martyr and later on Bishop Irenaeus added to the story of Simon Magus. Both men associated Simon with the Gnostics, a sect of Christianity which grew up during the Second Century and which the orthodox Church Fathers considered heretical.
I can’t really do much justice to the teachings of Gnosticsim, partially because their precise doctrines varied from branch to branch, and partially because they wrote very little that has come down to us, and much of what we know about them comes from hostile sources like Justin and Irenaeus. The Gnostics claimed to possess an oral tradition of Secret Knowledge derived from Christ himself in addition to the plain vanilla Gospel taught by the Mainstream Church. Among other things, they taught a form of dualism where Matter is inherently corrupt and on the Spirit is wholly good and that the only way a fleshly human can attain the Realm of Perfection is through the pursuit of gnosis, or knowledge.
According to Justin and Irenaus, Simon Magus was the founder of Gnosticism. Simon taught the existence of what he called the Ennoia, or the First Thought of God, a divine emanation which took on an existence of its own. This Ennoia became bound to a human form as a mortal woman of exceptional beauty, who was re-incarnated many times through history. Helen of Troy was one of her incarnations. Another was Simon’s girlfriend, who also happened to be named Helena.
It occurs to me that this might have been the origin of part of the mediaeval Faust legend, another dabbler in Dark Arts who desired the Helen whose face did launch a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Ilium.
The Church Fathers took a dim view of Simon’s girlfriend. The Third Century writer Hippolytus said that she was a prostitute from Tyre and that Simon made up the Ennoia story to justify shacking up with her. Oh, and that the Gnostics were big on Free Love. Damn Gnostic Hippies.
Simon also, it was said, taught that he himself embodied all three aspects of the Trinity, appearing to the Jews as the “Son of God,” mediating for sin; to the Samaritans as the “Father” and Creator; and to the Pagan world as the “Holy Spirit”.
He supposedly went to Rome, where he was opposed on several occasions by Peter. Finally, according to Hippolytus, Simon told his disciples to bury him alive, promising that he would rise from the dead on the third day. They did. But he didn’t.
The apochryphal Acts of Peter, written in the Second Century gives a different version of Simon’s death. It describes the running duels of Magic vs. Miracle between Simon the Sorcerer and Simon Peter in greater detail. In order to prove himself a god, Simon levitates high over the Forum in Rome. Peter prays that God stop him, and Simon plummets to his death. That pisses off the Emperor Nero, who had bet five bucks on the Magus, so much that out of spite he crucifies Peter upside-down.
That’s the ending that legend and popular tradition gives to Simon. But I prefer to leave him the way the Book of Acts does: apologizing for his foolish request and asking for forgiveness.