A printed image painted with color showing Simon Magus attacked by Angels

Ten Reliable Sources To Learn About Simon Magus

Simony

Noun: using money to buy office or privileges in the church 

Simony is named after Simon Magus (Magus, the Magician or Sorcerer). He is only mentioned briefly in the New Testament, where he tries to buy the power of the Holy Spirit from the apostles. The dictionary definition implies a limited role in early Christianity, as an opponent of the apostles. 

It is worth considering how he is remembered in Christianity. Dante placed him in the eighth circle of hell, in a sub-circle for his followers- Simonists or Simoniacs.

O Simon Magus! O his sad disciples!
Rapacious ones, who take the things of God,
that ought to be the brides of Righteousness,
and make them fornicate for gold and silver!

Inferno, Canto XIX

Circle 8 is full of ditches or moats, which Dante calls malebolge, evil pouches. The damned are placed head downwards with fire burning the soles of their feet. It is a powerful image and draws on centuries of Christian polemic. 

Simon came to experience a rich afterlife in ancient Christian literature. He was clearly an important figure within Early Christainity, although as we will see, it is hard to know whether the stories which have accrued around him are based on historical “fact” or fiction.

These ten sources will tell you about Simon Magus, but are they reliable? That is a question you must answer.

Painting showing Dante and Virgil on a chip attacked by writhing souls
The Barque of Dante by Eugène Delacroix

1. New Testament

Simon is introduced to us in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, where we are told he “used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria”. His followers, “the people” say of him “This man is the great power of God”.

When the apostle Philip preached in Samaria and he converted and baptised many people there including Simon. When Peter and John heard of this, they also traveled to Samaria and began baptising the people there with an alternative method:

And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.

But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.

Acts 8:18-20

A lot is going on in this passage – not least the two seperate forms of baptism – and seperate claims for spiritual authority. It is clear from this passage that Simon is a figure of some importance and power in the community in Samaria. It is also clear that there is some form of connection between him and the [other] apostles. 

Nowadays, many scholars might focus on the conflict between Phillip on the one hand and Peter and John on the other.

Samaria had an ambiguous relationship to Judaism, which is too complex to recount in detail here. Samaritans worshipped God on Mount Gerizim (in Samaria) rather than in Jerusalem. This was anathemata to the Jews, who were meant to only have the one temple.

Although the word Samaritan might make you think of caring people, for many people of the time it would be a curse word. The moral of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is that everyone is your neighbour even those you think are beyond the pale. Samaritans still exist, but have suffered terrible persecution especially during the late Roman period under Justinian. 

The passage suggests there was some interchange between the religions of the two groups during this time. 

Nucci,_Avanzino_-_Petrus'_Auseinandersetzung_mit_Simon_Magus_-_1620
Peter’s argument with Simon Magus – Avanzino Nucci

2. Josephus

Simon was described by several authors in the first two or three centuries of the Common Era.

The Jewish historian Josephus may describe a figure identifiable with Simon in his History of the Jews. A Jewish magician is sent by the Roman governor Felix to ensure that the Princess Drusilla (niece of Herod Agrippa) marries him. 

Paul_before_Felix
Paul before Felx and Drusilla. Engraving by William Hogarth

3. Justin Martyr 

Justin Martyr might be considered the first major Christian writer outside the New Testament and extra canonical books. A “searcher”, he converted to Christianity after experimenting with other forms of philosophy. He became a travelling teacher, settling in Rome during the reign of Antoninus Pius. He was executed during the reign of Marcus Aureloius.

In about 150 CE, he wrote of Simon Magus, saying:

“There was a Samaritan, Simon, a native of the village called Gitto, who in the reign of Claudius Cæsar, and in your royal city of Rome, did mighty acts of magic, by virtue of the art of the devils operating in him. […] And almost all the Samaritans, and a few even of other nations, worship him, and acknowledge him as the first god; and a woman, Helena, who went about with him at that time, and had formerly been a prostitute, they say is the first idea generated by him”.

Justin Martyr, the First Apology, Chapter 26

Two apostles challenge the heretic
The Apostles Paul and Peter confront Simon Magus before Nero by Filippino Lippi.

4. Irenaeus

Irenaeus was a Greek speaking Christian writer and bishop of Lyon in Roman Gaul. He claimed to have been taught by a man who was taught by the apostle John. He was the first hereselogist or cataloguer of hereseries. 

He describes how Simon Magnus taught that Helen was “First Thought” and also “Mother of All”. This associates her with Eve. The terms are also used in the Nag Hammadi codices, the mysterious gnostic texts, some of which may have been first written at the same time that Irenaeus was alive.

Irenaeus aimed to strengthen his own position in the community at Lyon by discrediting other teachers claiming to be Christian.

Ruins of a Roman temple
Ancient Theatre of Fourvière in Lyon

5. Hippolytus

A Greek speaking Christian who may have catalogued Heresies, little is known about Hippoyluttus. Even early Christian writers put theirs hands up. St Jerome wrote “Hippolytus, bishop of some church (the name of the city I have not been able to learn)”.

According to Hippolytus, Simon had a developed theology which is almost Platonic and made up of three pairs: Mind and Intelligence, Voice and Name, Ratiocination and Reflection. It’s pretty heady stuff and possibly suggests that the Simonians were an important trend within the early Christianities.

Hippolyuts draws on Iraenus’ account of his teaching, but has an alternative ending.

[He] stated that, if he were buried alive, he would rise the third day. And accordingly, having ordered a trench to be dug by his disciples, he directed himself to be interred there. They, then, executed the injunction given; whereas he remained (in that grave) until this day, for he was not the Christ.

Book VI, Chapter 15

Simonian_Aeonology
Illustration of the Simonian philosophy

6. Eusebius

Eusebius was the first Church historian. A contemporary of Constantine the Great, his historical work follows a narrative in which a pure form of Christianity preached by Christ and taught by his apostles and their followers is corrupted by heretics.

Although he follows closely the account given by Justin and Ireneaus, Eusebius also calls Simon “the author of all heresy”. He accuses Simon’s followers of idolism towards statues of him and Helena.

There is perhaps a hint in Eusebius about the followers of Simon:

But those matters which they keep more secret than these, in regard to which they say that one upon first hearing them would be astonished, and, to use one of the written phrases in vogue among them, would be confounded, are in truth full of amazing things, and of madness and folly, being of such a sort that it is impossible not only to commit them to writing, but also for modest men even to utter them with the lips on account of their excessive baseness and lewdness.

Eusebius, Church History, Book II.13.7

Sylvester_I_and_Constantine
Pope Sylvester I and Emperor Constantine by unknown medieval artist

7. Epiphanius 

Epiphanius wrote a book about heresies called the Medicine Chest (literally Bread Basket or Panarian in Greek). He describes a heresy and then ways of countering its arguments, which he likens to remedies for poisons. He describes each heresy as a poisonous animal. Simonianism is “like the snake-like filth of the aborted issue which is hatched from the infertile eggs of asps and other vipers”.

80 heresies exactly are listed in his book, which begin with pre-Christian beliefs or philosophies. The total list has an almost apocalyptic nature. The 80th heresey is the final one which Christ warned of.

Simonianism is the 21st heresy, although Epiphanius says it was the first post-Christian sect. He draws on earlier accounts, but adds scurilious details. He says that Simon’s relationship with Helen was sexual. She was the Helen of the Trojan war.

while privately having an unnatural relationship with his paramour, the charlatan was teaching his disciples stories for their amusement and calling himself the supreme power of God, if you please!

And he had the nerve to call the whore who was his partner the Holy Spirit, and said that he had come down on her account.

Ephiphanius, Panarion 21

The supreme power resembles the passage in Acts, but the real anger is directed towards Helen for her (presumed) sexual immorality and feminity.

He also accuses the followers of Simon of sexual immortality.

He instituted mysteries consisting of dirt and, to put it politely, the fluids and flow from bodies – men’s through seminal emission and women’s through the regular menses, which are gathered as mysteries by a most indecent method of collection.

Ephiphanius, Panarion 21

How likely this was actually a mystery is hard to tell. It’s the kind of attack with a long history.

He writes that there were still some followers of Simon is his own time.

A printed image painted with color showing Simon Magus attacked by Angels
Death of Simon Magus in the Nurenberg Chronicle

8. The Pseudepigraphical Acts

In the Acts of Peter, Simon Magus challenges St Peter to a contest of powers. He levitates in the air and comes a cropper when Peter prays to God to stop him.

A similar story is told in the Acts of Peter and Paul, but here Paul is present. The emperor Nero even takes the body of Simon to see if it will rise again.

These texts inspired many of the images of Simon Magus which were created during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. 

main-image
Saint Peter and Simon Magus, by Benozzo Gozzoli

9. Psuedo-Clementine Literature 

The most interesting of the apocryphal stories surrounding Simon Magus are however the Pseudo-Clementine literature. These tell the legendary story of Clement, an early bishop of Rome. There are actually two sets of texts: the homilies (which recount Clement’s life, including his conversion by Paul) and the Recognitions, a ten-volume story of his life. In his adventures with Peter, Clementine witnesses his struggles with Simon Magus. 

It has been suggested that Simon Magus at points can actually be identified with Paul. Bart Ehrman even calls him a “cipher” for Paul. He argues that there was an early doctrinal struggle between the two important leaders which can be inferred by Paul’s letters.

In one attack on Simon in Homily 17, Peter attacks the spiritual basis for Paul’s authority:

And how did He appear to you, when you entertain opinions contrary to His teaching? […] if, indeed, you really wish to work in the cause of truth, learn first of all from us what we have learned from Him, and, becoming a disciple of the truth, become a fellow-worker with us.

Clementine’s Homily 17.19

Print with Angels on right
Simon Magus attempting to fly as Saints Peter and Paul, Emperor Nero, and two soldiers look on, from a series of 15 plates, depicting Raphael’s works for the Vatican stanze and the Sistine Chapel tapestries 1650–70 Pietro Santi Bartoli

10. Thunder, Perfect Mind

Does anything then survive from Simon’s own mouth? Perhaps.

A short text found in the Nag Hammadi codices, Thunder, Perfect Mind does not really fit neatly with the other Nag Hammadi texts which show some (disputed) similarities with each other.

Thunder, Perfect Mind is a first person speech spoken by a female figure who has been identified with Sophia (the personification of wisdom) and Eve (the first female). The text may be partly influenced by the praise hymns to Isis, found across the Greco-Roman world.

The speaker uses paradoxical terms about herself:

I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the
virgin. I am <the mother>
and the daughter. 

MacRae Translation

Some scholars have even identified the female speaker with the woman Helen and the paradoxical terms in which she describes herself. The text even uses the Greek loanword for female prostitute (T-ΠΟΡΝH, te porne). The French Canadian scholar Poirier also identifies “Great Power” as Simonian, from its use in the New Testament account. 

Without more contextual evidence it is hard to be sure and there is also a slight danger of circular reasoning, but if it is Simonian it presents the otherwise maligned figure of Helen as a powerful and transcendent woman.

Apocalypse_of_Peter
Apocalypse of Peter from Nag Hammadi

Summary

This article promised ten reliable sources but they are only really reliable about how some writers saw Simon and wanted others to see him.

Most of these ancient sources reveal much more about the concerns of Christian leaders in the first centuries of the common era. This period saw groupings, beliefs and theologies coalesce around important leaders. 

How far the beliefs that later Christian writers linked to followers of Simon were actually preached by a historical Simon Magus are ultimately hard to pin down. Beliefs develop over time, as do legends and Simon is certainly a legend.

What sources, if any, do you think are reliable?

Continue reading “Ten Reliable Sources To Learn About Simon Magus”