The Sensational Sorcerer of Samaria


In early Christianity, a common scapegoat was someone called Simon Magus. He was identified as the founder of Gnosticism, a false Messiah, and sometimes even the father of all heresies. So who was Simon Magus really? It’s a bit difficult to tell, since most of the writers who described him obviously had in for him, and might well have distorted the details. In addition, there are a few different Simons who are often considered the same guy, but there isn’t any clear evidence for this. There are extant writings that are often attributed to Simon, and they are metaphysical in nature. As is typical of such writings, they contain a lot of blather about stuff like bisexual fire and primeval man being divided into two genders by jealous angels (shades of Plato there), and upper and lower powers. He also apparently taught that there are many different people who have been avatars of God, and that true salvation lay in escaping from the physical realm.

One of the few things on which the sources seem to agree is that Simon was a Samaritan. He was thought to have been a student of the Samaritan religious leader Dositheos, who in turn was rumored to have been an associate of John the Baptist. In fact, one legend has it that both Dositheos AND Simon were disciples of John who battled for leadership after the Baptist’s death. Simon eventually became quite adept at magic, being able to levitate, turn into animals, and stand in fire without being harmed. He considered himself an incarnation of the male aspect of God, while his wife Helen was the avatar of the female aspect. Popular belief holds that she was a prostitute from Tyre, and Simon identified her as a reincarnation of Helen of Troy. Some stories also say that Simon was part of Nero’s court. The reports in the Book of Acts (assuming this was the same Simon, as many of the Church Fathers did) say that he was baptized by Philip, but fell out of favor with the apostles when he offered to buy the power of healing through touch (hence the term “simony”).

Peter in particular became an enemy of his, and the apocryphal Acts of Peter tells of a contest between the two of them at the Roman Forum. Simon used his power to fly through the air, and Peter prayed to God to strike him down, resulting in the death of the Magus. Way to love your enemies, Peter! Some accounts of the same tale say that the fall just made him break his legs, but either way it doesn’t say much for Peter’s sense of Christian love.

If these accounts of Simon are at least based in truth, it would appear that he accepted Christianity in the same way some modern metaphysical cults and liberal religions do. That is, they think Jesus was really an incarnation of God, just not the ONLY one. Was the Magus really the founder of Gnostic Christianity? Probably not. He did hold some Gnostic ideas, but they were hardly original with him. In fact, there’s a school of thought that Christianity was fully intended to be a Gnostic belief system by Jesus himself, and it was only later that the orthodox Christian leaders sought to discredit this by attributing this teaching to a known enemy of the apostles. There are even some critics who think that, before Paul’s teachings came to be embraced by the church, some of the stories of Simon originally referred to Paul. What’s interesting here is that, by naming Simon as the leader of various heretical schools, the early Christians made Simon a much more important historical figure than he probably really was. There doesn’t seem to have been much that really distinguished his cult from others of the time, but the orthodox church taught that it influenced pretty much any Christian sect with which they disagreed. I’m sure Simon would be proud to know that his infamy has lived on.

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12 Responses to The Sensational Sorcerer of Samaria

  1. vilajunkie says:

    It’s gets even more confusing when one (at least) of the Twelve Apostles was named Simon at some point. Was he in any way related to Simon Magus? Or didn’t he change his name specifically because of the incident with Simon Magus (you know, tainted association by name with the wrong guy)?

    Also, there’s a prophet/profit joke to made in there somewhere, but I’m afraid mine would be too convoluted to make sense. I think simony is one of those sins that’s fallen out of favor or supposedly doesn’t apply to Protestants (like divorce being totally OK in the Anglican Church but controversial with the Roman Catholic Church). But I don’t see why it can’t apply to Christians today, with all the faith healing going around among anti-modern medicine sects.

    • Nathan says:

      Peter’s original name was Simon, so the opponents would have had the same name. The name was based on Simeon, one of the original twelve tribes of Israel, so it’s not too surprising that it was common. From what I remember, the Bible usually refers to Simon Peter as just Peter after Jesus’ death, hence dating to before the conflict with the Magus, but I guess there’s no way to tell for sure what name he typically used at any given time.

  2. Glen Cram says:

    I am myself completing a historical fantasy novel, The Acts of Simon Magus, about the topics described here: the rise of Simon as magician, his creation of Gnosticism as a personal cult, and fall at the hands of his enemies the apostles, while examining the events and characters responsible for the rise of Christianity and its consequences for the world. See my draft Indiegogo page at http://simonmagus.com/indiegogo I’d be grateful for any comments and suggestions!

    • Nathan says:

      Looks like a pretty interesting idea, and I like the mixture of different sources involved. The switching back and forth from old-fashioned to modern speech is kind of weird, but could work if you played it up for humor.

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