|A Vridar reader, Chris S, recently expressed interest in my hypothesis that Christianity was Simonian in origin but pointed out that it would be helpful to have it laid out systematically in a post or series of posts. As it is, my proposals are scattered among random posts and comment threads. So this series will provide an overview of the hypothesis. I will first summarize the main ideas and then briefly defend them and show how they fit together.|
A Simonian Origin for Christianity
Status of the Hypothesis
I want to acknowledge up front that my hypothesis is not completely original. It builds on the identification of Paul as a reworked Simon of Samaria that has been argued by Hermann Detering in his The Falsified Paul and by Robert M. Price in his The Amazing Colossal Apostle.
And I want to be clear that my hypothesis is still a work in progress. There is much that I continue to mull over and much that needs to be added. I am aware too that it is speculative. But, as I see it, one of its strengths is that it draws from the earliest extant descriptions of the internal quarrels that plagued Christianity at its birth and can plausibly account for a remarkable number of the peculiarities in those records.
State of the Evidence: The Problem
The proto-orthodox claimed that their brand of Christianity was the original, and that their earliest Christian competitor, Simon, was the first who corrupted it. But there are good reasons to doubt their veracity. Their many known forgeries, false attributions, fabrications, plagiarisms, and falsifications are acknowledged even by mainstream scholars (see Bart Ehrman’s Forged for examples). Their one canonical attempt to write an account of primitive Christianity—the Acts of the Apostles—fails miserably to convince. It is widely recognized that its description of Paul and his relationship to the Jerusalem church is a deliberate misrepresentation.
And their claim to unbroken continuity with the Jerusalem church doesn’t add up.
If they were in existence earlier than the 130s, why is Justin their first known heresy-hunter? Justin names no predecessor for that function in the generation before him. Nor do Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus. Did the proto-orthodox have no one to stand up to Simon’s successors between 70 and 140 CE? They concede a continuous line of succession for heresy (Simon, Menander, Basilides and Satornilus), yet are at a loss to tell us who prior to Justin undertook to refute those heretics.
The Question to Investigate
So I think it is entirely justifiable to question whether the proto-orthodox were in fact the first Christians. Basically, what I am doing is taking the few bits of information they let slip about Simon of Samaria, and seeing whether the birth of Christianity makes more sense with him as its founder.
I am investigating whether it makes more sense to see proto-orthodoxy as a second-century reaction to a first-century Simonianism that had grown, developed, and branched out.
In summary form my hypothesis is this:
The Original Paul
Paul was originally a substitute name for Simon of Samaria. It was likely chosen by Simon’s later followers when, out of reverence for the given name of their founder, they began to use substitutes. In the early 130s the proto-orthodox took advantage of the multiplicity of names to create a Paul who was someone clearly distinct from Simon. They made the new Paul proto-orthodox.
The earliest parts of the original collection of Paulines were written between 50 CE and 130 CE by Simon of Samaria and his successor, Menander. Simonians were secretive, so the collection was likely intended for their use only. But by the early 130s some proto-orthodox Christians came to know of it and, by making certain additions and modifications, attempted to co-opt it for proto-orthodoxy.
The Vision of Isaiah
The original gospel that Simon/Paul embraced was the Vision of Isaiah, i.e., chapters 6 – 11 of the Ascension of Isaiah. It depicted a Son of God who descended to Judaea for a few hours and—in order to trick the powers that be into killing Him—transfigured himself to look like a man, then surreptitiously switched places with a messiah-wannabe who was being led away for crucifixion. No birth, no public ministry, no prolonged stay for the Son; just the kind of limited, particular task that we find disguised gods or angels performing in other Old Testament and intertestamental literature (e.g., Abraham and Lots’ heavenly visitors; the angel Raphael in Tobit). Then, after having returned to heaven, the Son appeared to certain chosen individuals, revealed to them the redemptive trick he had played, and commissioned them to tell others.
The First Gospel
The earliest written gospel that contained a public ministry for its central character was a Simonian allegory (that I will refer to as urMark) written sometime between 100 and 130 CE. That gospel’s public ministry was an allegorical portrayal of the apostolic career of Simon of Samaria. The allegory was intended to be a riddle that would be understood by Simonians, but befuddle “those outside” (Mk. 4:11). As a riddle, it was intentionally cryptic, giving enough hints for Simonians to recognize the real identity of the Jesus figure (i.e., Simon/Paul), but at the same time written in such a way that those outside would “look and see, but not perceive; hear and listen, but not understand” (Mk. 4:12). To the public ministry urMark joined the earlier Vision of Isaiah’s succinct myth about the crucified Son of God, for Simon claimed to be some kind of reincarnation of that Son. The seam that separates those two manifestations of the Son is the episode of the release of Jesus Barabbas in Mk. 15:15.
John the Baptist, James and the Synoptic Gospels
GMark, GMatthew, and GLuke were proto-orthodox reactions to urMark. Their authors solved the Simonian riddle and responded by attempting to turn it against the Simonians. They turned the tables by taking urMark’s allegorical Jesus and making him proto-orthodox. One of the principal ways they did this was by putting sayings (Q) about and by John the Baptist and his successor James into his mouth. The authors of the Synoptic gospels never belonged to the community of those two pillars. That community was long gone, a victim of the 66-70 CE war with Rome, by the time these three gospels were written in the 130s. They belonged to a group of Jewish proselytes or gentile God-fearers who had some knowledge of John the Baptist and James, and whose sympathies were with them rather than their heterodox competitor, Simon/Paul, who had broken with the pillars to start his own communities among the gentiles. The Synoptic authors, by manipulating urMark’s allegory in the way they did, created a riddle of their own, one that provided a kind of vindication to John. They made him speak again—through Jesus. He was made into a forerunner of… himself! John, in a sense, has indeed risen from the dead (Mk.6:16).
Allegory or History?
Although the proto-orthodox authors of the Synoptic Gospels knew they were rewriting a Simonian allegory, their works were probably received as history from the beginning. The misunderstanding was facilitated by the fact that belief in a Son of God who had descended to get crucified went back over a hundred years to the Vision of Isaiah. And the first gospel to possess a Jesus engaged in a public ministry (urMark) was an allegory about a figure (Simon of Samaria) that its author presumably viewed as historical. Once that gospel became public, Simonians would not have had a problem about speaking of “Jesus” as historical for, according to Irenaeus and Hippolytus, they had no problem using substitute names for Simon. And the proto-orthodox too would not have had a problem about referring to Jesus as historical as long as the doctrine he taught was one they approved of.
The Gospel of John
Finally, the gospel that underlies GJohn was written about a decade afterwards by the ex-Marcionite Apelles and his prophetess associate Philumena. It was turned into GJohn in the 150s. Apelles and Philumena no doubt accepted the Jesus story as historical. Its historical nature was confirmed to them, so they thought, by the phantasma who appeared to Philumena and was her source of new gospel information.
Before continuing on to a more detailed examination of the above scenario, I want to provide a list of the approximate dates I go by for the composition of certain books of the New Testament and writings of the Apostolic Fathers. I ask the reader for patience in regard to my defense of these dates. For now let it suffice to know that all of the below dates have already been proposed by at least a few bona fide scholars at one time or another. I will be happy once my scenario has been sufficiently presented to defend each of the dates specifically.
50 – 130 CE: The 10 principal Pauline letters
30 – 60 CE: A collection of sayings by and about John the Baptist and James; (Q, if you will)
Sometime between 100 – 130 CE : urMark (a Simonian allegory)
c. 130 CE: The Epistle to the Hebrews
130s: GMark, GMatthew, urLuke, and the earliest source underlying the Pseudo-Clementines
140s CE: 1Clement; the Gospel of Apelles; the Letters of Peregrinus (which, towards the end of the century, were converted into the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch)
150s CE: GLuke and Acts of the Apostles; GJohn (a reworked version of the Gospel of Apelles) and the Letters of John; the Pastoral Letters.
PAUL WAS SIMON
My hypothesis is that Paul was originally a substitute name for Simon of Samaria. It was likely chosen by Simon’s later followers when, out of reverence for the given name of their founder, they began to use substitutes. In the early 130s the proto-orthodox took advantage of the multiplicity of names to create a Paul who was someone clearly distinct from Simon. They made the new Paul proto-orthodox.
The case for identifying the proto-orthodox character Paul as a 2nd century sanitized reworking of the 1st century Simon has already been made in some detail by the biblical scholars Hermann Detering (in The Falsified Paul) and Robert M. Price (in The Amazing Colossal Apostle). So, in this part of the post I will just briefly present the combination of indicators that, in my opinion, point strongly to Paul as being a modified version of Simon.
1. In the Pseudo-Clementines, whose textual sources are held by many to date to the second century, there is no explicit mention of anyone named Paul. But Peter speaks of Simon of Samaria in a way that clearly identifies the man as Paul.
2. Both Simon and Paul were called apostles by some, and both are said to have had ministries to the gentiles that took them ultimately to Rome. Now Paul was a jealous man and the gentiles were his self-claimed domain. I expect there would have been serious competition between him and an intruder as supposedly notorious as Simon. Yet in the first and second century Christian literature there is not a single recorded confrontation between these two. Simon never faces off with Paul. But, curiously, they are each portrayed as having confrontations with Peter. On the one hand, Simon and Peter square off in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Pseudo-Clementines; on the other Paul confronts Peter at Antioch and confronts his party at Corinth. One explanation for this situation is that Peter had a running feud with one and the same individual who was at some point known by two different names.
3. There is a distinctive similarity in the key teachings of Simon and Paul regarding grace, the angels who instituted the Torah, and the reason for the works enjoined therein.
- According to Irenaeus, Simon taught that “men are saved by grace and not by just works.” Note how close this is to the words of Ephesians 2: 8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith… it is not from works.”
- And, again according to Irenaeus, the works that Simon dismissed were ones that were “decreed by the angels who made the world, and who desired by commandments of this kind to bring men into slavery.” This seems to jibe with the teaching of Galatians where certain works of the Law are said to have been ordained by stoicheia (element angels) in order to enslave men.
4. The teachings of both figures contain items that can be considered incipient or proto-gnostic. To the proto-orthodox heresy hunters Simon was the father of gnosticism and of heresy. But Tertullian also recognizes that Paul was the favorite apostle of the heretics. And many scholars have called attention to apparent gnostic terminology and ideas in the Paulines. Richard Reitzenstein, in his classic Hellenistic Mystery-Religions, goes so far as to say that Paul is perhaps “the greatest of all the gnostics” (p. 84).
Furthermore, many teachings of the earliest gnostics bear a family resemblance to those of Simon, yet they explicitly claim descent from Paul or one of his disciples. Irenaeus viewed this as deliberate deceit: “They do not confess the name of their master (Simon) in order all the more to seduce others, yet they do teach his doctrines” (Against Heresies 1, 27, 4). But another explanation for this anomaly is available. Hippolytus, in his description of Simonians, seems to say that the name “Simon” became a kind of sacred name to them, a name they avoided using. He records that some even used the name “Zeus” for him instead of “Simon” and that, if anyone failed to use the substitute nomenclature, he was evicted by them on the grounds of being “ignorant of the mysteries.” Irenaeus too concedes that Simon “was willing to be called by whatever name men call him” (Against Heresies, 1, 23, 1). So those who Irenaeus berates for not confessing a “Simon” as their master may have refrained from doing so out of reverence for his name.
But why “Paul” as a substitute name? That’s next.
5. The contrast between Simon who claimed to be “someone great” (Greek: megas) and Paul whose name means “small” (from the Latin: parvulus) seems more than coincidental. Simon, in the extant fragments of his Great Announcement (his apparently pre-Christian Apophasis Megale), claims, as in Acts 8:10, to be the Power of God that is called Great. And he explicitly says that “if its imaging be perfected and generated from an indivisible point, the small shall become great” (my emphasis). What makes this interesting is that in some manuscripts of Josephus, the account of Simon the magician (who may well be our Simon) contains the name Atomus, meaning “indivisible,” instead of Simon (Antiquities of the Jews 20.7.2).
Thus it seems plausible that Simon, already in his pre-Christian system, saw himself as transitioning in some way from smallness to greatness. He may have been short physically and attempted to compensate for that by claiming to be great in spiritual stature. Did the Megas also claim to be a magus? Probably not. Gerd Lüdemann has suggested that it was the author of Acts of the Apostles who demoted Simon to magician status (“The Acts of the Apostles and the Beginnings of Simonian Gnosis,” New Testament Studies 33, 1987). I suspect it happened earlier than that. Simon no doubt had enemies early on and the wordplay involved for them to turn the Megas into a magus seems simple and natural enough.
|It is simply inconceivable that Justin could have defended Christianity to a Jew for one hundred and forty two chapters, yet never once bring up the number one influential and early Christian with whom so many of them had a major problem.|
6. Another reason to see Paul as a variation of Simon is the failure of Justin to mention a Paul anywhere in his writings. Justin knew and wrote about Marcion, so Justin had to have known about Paul and his letters. Marcion was the great Paulinist. His whole religion revolved around Paul’s gospel and letters. So since Justin knew about Marcion, he also certainly knew about Paul. Yet he never names him.
To explain Justin’s glaring omission mainstream scholars sheepishly say he must have felt that Marcion’s advocacy of Paul had compromised the Apostle. But this solution just doesn’t hold up. And for at least two reasons.
- First, in Justin’s longest work—the Dialogue with Trypho—he discusses with a Jew practically every objection that Jews had to Christianity. And long before Marcion’s time Jews had objected to Paul and his teaching. From the beginning and right up to the present time Jews have had far more difficulty stomaching Paul than the Jesus of the Gospels. So to me it is simply inconceivable that Justin could have defended Christianity to a Jew for one hundred and forty two chapters, yet never once bring up the number one influential and early Christian with whom so many of them had a major problem. In such an extended mid-second century dialogue with a Jew, Justin must have brought up the matter of Paul, to defend him, explain him, or excuse him. The subject matter of the Dialogue called for it.
- Moreover, Justin several times brings up issues about which there is controversy among Christians. He is not embarrassed, for example, to let Trypho know that good Christians are divided about whether there will be a thousand year reign in Jerusalem. And he is not embarrassed to admit that there are bad Christians, Christian in name only, for they act immorally or even “teach doctrines that are in every way blasphemous, atheistic and foolish” (Dialogue 80). We know that Justin considered Marcion to be one of those bad Christians. So why not just denounce Marcion’s supposed distortion of Paul and defend the real Paul to Trypho? Paul was controversial from the beginning. If Marcion’s advocacy of him made him even more controversial, all the more reason for Justin to acknowledge it and, again, explain his position to Trypho. I see no good reason why Justin would have refrained from handling the controversial Paul just as he did other controverted matters: “Some say this, others say that. My own position is such and such.”
No, the far more likely explanation for Justin’s glaring omission is the interchangeability of Simon and Paul. That is to say, Justin did bring up the subject of Paul—and not just in his Dialogue with Trypho. He mentioned him in all three of his undisputed writings. And each time he disowned him without hesitation. But he disowned him under his original name: Simon (1st Apologia 56; 2nd Apologia 15; Dialogue with Trypho 120). And because he disowned him, any use he made of ideas from Simon/Paul’s letters was done without any acknowledgment of the source.
These then are some of my reasons for thinking that the 2nd century proto-orthodox Paul was formed from the 1st century heterodox Simon of Samaria. There are, of course, objections that can be raised to this identification. They will receive responses in the course of this series of posts. But there is an apparently obvious problem that should be addressed immediately: Simon is said to have made some outrageous claims, even after his embrace of belief in a crucified Son of God. He claimed to be the Son or highest power of God. It seems hard to believe that the person who wrote at least part of the Pauline letters could have made a claim like that.
In response, I would first point out that we do not know the manner in which Simon made his claim. According to the Pseudo-Clementines, Simon did not go around openly proclaiming himself the Son of God. He was discreet, even secretive. Peter says this:
You evidently, Simon, do not understand it, and yet you do not wish to confess your ignorance, and thus be proved not to be the Standing Son. For you hint at this, though you do not wish to state it plainly. And indeed, I who am not a prophet, but a disciple of the true Prophet, know well from the hints you have given what your wishes are. For you, though you do not understand even what is distinctly said, wish to call yourself Son in opposition to us. (Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, 18, 7, my emphasis)
So Simon could have made his claim in much the same manner that the Jesus figure does in GMark. The Markan Jesus does not go around preaching “I am the Son of God.” He dropped hints and then let people figure out on their own that he was the Son of God.
Did the author of the Paulines do the same? We can say this: He too was accused of having a secret gospel, of being deceptive, and of preaching himself. And he does at times say things that are at least open to being the kind of claim that Simon made. For instance, “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20); “But when [God]… was pleased to reveal his Son in me…” (Gal. 1:15-16); “In my flesh I fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions…” (Col. 1:24).
The mystery hidden for ages, but now revealed to the saints is this: “Christ in you” (Col. 1:27), which words can also be translated: “Christ among you.” Understood in the latter sense, the warnings of the gospel Jesus about those who will claim that the Son is back among us become relevant: “If they say, ‘He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For just as lightning comes from the east and is seen as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be.” (Mt. 24:26-27).
In addition, as Earl Doherty, in his Jesus: Neither God Nor Man has brought out so well:
When Paul speaks of his work as an apostle, there is no sense that he regards himself as building on the work of Jesus. It is Paul who has received from God “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-19); it is he whom God has qualified “to dispense the new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:5). Paul’s disregard for Jesus’ own ministry of reconciliation and dispensation of the new covenant is quite astonishing. He goes on to offer a parallel to Moses’ splendor in the giving of the old covenant (2 Cor. 3:7-11). Typically, it is not Jesus’ recent ministry he points to, but the splendor of his own ministry through the Spirit (pp. 49-50).
Finally, we need to remember that Paul himself acknowledges in one passage that there is something unutterable that he is keeping back:
I know a man in Christ who… was caught up to the third heaven… And I know that this person (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up into Paradise and heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter… About this person I will boast, but about myself I will not boast… (2 Cor. 12: 2-5).
What secret is Paul holding back? It is not that he has seen the risen Christ. He speaks about that openly. Nor that the risen Christ has made him an apostle, has given him the ministry of reconciliation, qualifying him to dispense the new covenant whose splendour surpasses that of Moses. He’s open about all that too. So what was his secret? Why tease his readers by telling them he has heard some words, but can’t tell them what they were? He must have known his followers would wonder. Was that perhaps his intent?
We may have a clue to the secret in that, after hearing the unutterable words, Paul receives an angel of Satan to harass him. And three times he begs God for relief from that angel. This is reminiscent of the gospel Jesus who, after hearing the words “You are my beloved Son,” is tempted three times by Satan. Could those be the secret words that Simon/Paul heard too?
In my opinion there are enough intriguing passages in the Pauline letters for us to legitimately wonder whether their author not only preached the crucified Son of God, but also intimated to his closest followers that he himself was “the Son who appeared to suffer in Judaea.” All Christians are “in Christ,” but Christ was in Paul in a special way. The next post will be about the collection of his letters.