2022-04-07

Trying to make sense of Simon Magus

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by Neil Godfrey

I have always found the account of Simon Magus in the Acts of the Apostles empty of any real significance. It contains nothing to advance the plot. The “magician” wants to buy a bottle of holy spirit from Peter so he can perform miracles, he says, but that leaves me cold: it lacks any sense of psychological realism even by ancient novelistic standards; and besides, I was a baptized member of a church who also had the holy spirit and it didn’t let me do miracles, so what was going on here?

To refresh your memories, here’s the scene: Acts 8:9-25 (NIV)

9 Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, 10 and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” 11 They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. 12 But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.

14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

18 When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money 19 and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

20 Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! 21 You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. 23 For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”

24 Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”

I have read Hermann Detering’s and Robert Price’s proposals that second century “proto-orthodox” authors created Simon Magus as a fictional embodiment of the unorthodox side of the “real Paul” at a time when Paul was at the centre of theological disputes. My response to that argument has been to regard such a hypothesis as a curious possibility but nothing more. More to the point for me has been that, quite apart from any purported association with Paul, it has been all too easy to think of Simon Magus as a lampoon-like fiction: he is oafish enough to offer money for spiritual goods, has beside him a woman who is both an ex-prostitute and an “Ideal Creative Thought” of his mind, and in later stories he flies through the air until Peter causes him to fall ignominiously to earth.

How could anyone take such a figure seriously? Certainly not as a historical reality!

Jan Bremmer

But something pulled me up when I was reading Jan N. Bremmer‘s 2020 article “Simon Magus: The Invention and Reception of a Magician in a Christian Context“. His initial point is to “elucidate the gradual emergence of the main features of Simon Magus in the course of late antiquity” and to this end he begins,

The invention of the figure of Simon Magus started in the canonical Acts of the Apostles. In Chapter 8 of the Acts . . . [followed by a quotation of Acts 8:9-13] (p. 248)

Okay…. but there’s a wrinkle in there somewhere. On the next page Bremmer writes,

Our next sighting of Simon is in the First Apology of Justin (1.26.2-3, ed. Munier), dated to the early 150s:

Here was a certain Simon, a Samaritan, and a native of the village called Githon, who in the reign of Claudius Caesar, and in your royal city of Rome, did mighty acts of magic (δυνάμεις ποιήσας μαγικής ) with the aid of the demons operating in him. He was considered a god, and as a god was honoured by you with a statue, which was erected on the river Tiber, between the two bridges, with this Latin inscription: Simoni Deo Sancto (Σίμωνι δεῳ σάγκτῳ). And almost all the Samaritans, and even a few who belonged to other peoples, confess him as the first god and worship him; and a certain Helena, who accompanied him at that time, and had formerly been standing on the roof (i.e., had been a prostitute), they say is the first idea generated by him.

[note: “By curious chance, a statue was pulled from the Tiber in 1574 with the inscription SEMONI SANCO DEO FIDIO SACRUM. It is obvious, as has often been recognised, that Justin’s reference to a statue of Simon is based on a misinterpretation of a statue of Semo, an old Sabine god.”]

No, something is amiss there. Justin clearly had no knowledge of our canonical Acts of the Apostles. He knows nothing of Paul. In his mind it is the twelve apostles (the same twelve whom Jesus appeared to after his resurrection — leaving no room for a lost and replaced Judas) who took the message to all the gentiles. And his account of Simon Magus betrays no awareness of anything in Acts 8.

Jan Bremmer also acknowledges the possibility, even plausibility, of a date later than the early second century:

I realise that the date of the canonical Acts of the Apostles is debated and might even be later than Marcion but no evidence has yet been produced to date it after Irenaeus; cf. Gregory 2003.  (Bremmer, p. 247)

Gregory in Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period Before Irenaeus concludes nothing more definite than that our earliest evidence for knowledge of Acts comes with Irenaeus in the late second century (p. 349)

In years past I posted often on Acts of the Apostles and the one conclusion that has endured in my mind is that Acts could not have been written before the middle of the second century. The arguments of those such as Joseph Tyson and the Acts Seminar have posited a date in the early second century, 120s-130s,  but that date is the earliest possible date that the data allows. There is no reason it could not be dated a few decades later. But even if we accept the 120s-130s, it was surely written in isolation from Justin who knew nothing of it.

Now when we compare the two accounts of this Simon, the one in Acts and the one by Justin, it is the latter account, Justin’s, that reads with more “realism” than the sparse and strange narrative in Acts. The Acts narrative, as I said, adds nothing to the plot. Today’s readers have to assume that its author was addressing an audience who had some knowledge of this Simon figure that has long been lost to us. The Acts portrayal tells those readers that Simon was greedy to maintain power and influence in the church and crass enough to think money could buy his way into the ranks of the apostles.

Why did the author of Acts tell this story? One would expect that the episode would be followed up at some point with Simon’s fate or other kinds of influence somewhere — at least something to indicate to readers why he was introduced in the first place.

But there is another strange detail: the conclusion,

24 Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”

It was Peter Busch who drew my attention to the potential significance of the openness of this ending in his discussion on another aspect of Acts:

The story thus outlines a conflict, but its ending remains curiously open: A final reader signal in Acta 8:24 suggests Simon’s submission to apostolic authorities, the conflict is not stylised as completely irreconcilable. So it is all right, an early recipient of the story might infer, for contemporaries with “magical” backgrounds to turn to Christianity – but they have to submit to the apostles.
(translation from “Magie und das Neue Testament” , p. 70)

What an inconclusive way to conclude a story. Did Peter pray for Simon as requested? Did Simon struggle in fear that he would be cast out by the Christian leaders and try to become a serious penitent? We don’t know. We are left wondering — at least those of us who are far removed from the time Acts was written. 

Acts of the Apostles leaves the door open for Simon to repent. It left him with some suggestion that he seemed to want to repent. It certainly left him acknowledging that the church of Peter was “the place to be”.

Return to the account by Justin. Justin leaves his readers in no doubt that this Simon had no place within the Christian fold. Justin’s focus is on the demonic power behind the miracles and some basic outline of his teachings and beliefs of his followers, most of whom are Samaritans.

Justin, however, did not know the Acts of the Apostles. For Justin, Simon was a spiritual loss, — worse, a spiritual threat (or at least some sort of rival) to fellow Christians in his day.

Now Acts was obviously written for a Christ-following audience and was written at the earliest around the same period that Justin lived and wrote, possibly later. Yet Acts does not leave Simon Magus damned. It leaves his future salvation in limbo. Why?

One theme in common among many critical studies of Acts of the Apostles is that the work is a “catholicizing” effort. It creates a unified picture of what were more likely disputing factions within the early world of Christianity. Paul is made to look more like Peter and Peter is given the role of opening up the gospel to the gentiles. Other evidence, especially the epistles of Paul, would have us think otherwise: that there were heated disputes between Paul and Peter over the law and requirements of the mission to the gentiles. Acts, though, commences with a picture of idyllic unity: all converts lived harmoniously as one and shared all their possessions;  disputes arise as if from nowhere but are resolved by prayer and consultation and in perfect submission of all parties to the will of God.

Is this spirit and theme of ideal unity the reason the same author left the door open for Simon Magus? Was the author holding out an invitation for Christians who saw themselves as followers of Simon Magus? Was he telling them that “in fact” their hero did not want to be separated from the fold?

Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”

I can’t say that was what was in the author’s mind but it would explain why he introduced the story so awkwardly and without any expressed relevance to the overall narrative.

It so, then one must ask if the author of Acts knew about the type of person about whom Justin writes. If Acts was a harmonizing narrative its author would hardly want to accuse Simon bluntly of consorting with demons as Justin did. It makes sense that the author of Acts knew of the character that Justin writes about and sought to present a historical scenario that made Simon naively “dumb” and want to avoid the fate Peter pronounced. Peter is pictured as seeing through to Simon’s heart, however. Not his demon-empowered miracles, not his attachment to the compromised “Helen”, but the fact that his heart was “not right”, “bitter” and “captive to sin”, were the faults Peter found; yet rather than consign him immediately to hell Peter gave him a command to repent. The reader is left to infer that Simon did not repent but that he was not so totally lost that he could not acknowledge that God was just and Peter was right.

I think Jan Bremmer is mistaken with his trajectory of the story of Simon Magus in early Christianity.

https://www.wikiwand.com/de/Simon_Magus

I think it is more likely that the Simon Magus that Justin knew came first and that this was the Simon Magus known to the author of Acts. The Simon Magus of Acts followed knowledge of the Simon we find in Justin’s First Apology. Later we encounter more lurid mythical accounts of this Simon as he attempts to take on Peter in miracle-working contests but we’ll leave those stories for another discussion.

Our canonical author chose not to confront Simon’s followers in his own day with the image of Justin’s devilish figure. In Acts he appears to be doomed to a certain fate but at the same time there is room for a change of heart and that, I suspect, was enough in the author’s mind to leave a door open for even Simonian followers to be “restored” to the “right faith”.

We are discussing sources that were written in the second century or 90 to 120 years after the time of emperor Claudius in which they placed Simon Magus. Was he a historical figure? Without “hard evidence” we cannot be certain. As I mentioned in the opening I have always held Simon Magus at arm’s length, as something of a curiosity that I was never quite sure how to handle. Nonetheless, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, his historicity does have some explanatory power. “Church Fathers” did address “Simonian heresies” that adherents traced back to Simon and it does appear that Justin and the author of Acts treated him as having had a real history.

Reading about Simon Magus has opened up for me more literature that promises to bring me up to date on what we know about various types of wandering religious-philosopher type personalities in this era, many of whom were reputed to be miracle workers. I am interested in following up this environment to learn what light it might shed on the later stories of the twelve apostles — and Paul — evangelizing the known world. Whether later “orthodox” authors managed to split the Magus character into two opposing figures, Simon and Paul, is something I have not considered deeply enough to say at this point.


Bremmer, Jan N. “Simon Magus: The Invention and Reception of a Magician in a Christian Context.” Religion in the Roman Empire 5, no. 2 (2019): 246. https://doi.org/10.1628/rre-2019-0014.

Busch, Peter. “Magie und das Neue Testament.” In Ägyptische Magie und ihre Umwelt, edited by Andrea Jördens, 69–81. Philippika 80. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2015.

Gregory, Andrew F. The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period Before Irenaeus: Looking for Luke in the Second Century. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament. 2. Reihe 169. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.


 

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “Trying to make sense of Simon Magus”

  1. I guess I read that passage from Acts slightly differently, I assume the “miracle” that Simon tried to purchase was the ability bestow the Holy Spirit itself, i.e. its bestowal was probably accompanied by fits of ecstasy and glossolalia. That would be a good investment.

    1. Yet the preceding verses set up a context of miracles of exorcisms and healings:

      6 And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 And there was great joy in that city.</blockquote?

      I think therefore that the narrative leads us to think of that sort of miracle.

        1. No. The text narrative and context lead us to think of the other kinds of miracles. There is nothing there to suggest tongues or ecstasies. It’s real stuff: raising the dead, restoring paralytics.

          1. I’m not sure that the first readers of Acts would have categorized “real miracles” the same way. And there’s this line that seems to say explicitly that what Simon wanted was precisely the ability to bestow the Holy Spirit.

            Acts 8:8 “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

            But it’s a minor point, thanks for your article.

  2. My take on the Simon Magus question: Start with the historical fact, that there were “Simonians” late 2nd CE. Identify Justin Martyr’s and Acts’ Simon Magus as the Christian hearsay version of the Simonians’ founder figure Simon, with Justin Martyr’s Simon Magus being an attestation of Simonians in existence mid-2nd CE.

    So far so good. These 2nd CE Simonians are gnostics as defined by orthodox Christians as non-orthodox. Therefore the Simonian founder-figure Simon must also in orthodox historiography be a heretic and unorthodox from the beginning, not “Christian”, hence the Acts portrayal of the Simonians’ Simon negatively.

    However, there is a problem with the Acts 8 portrayal for it portrays Simon as a Christian leader (baptized by Philip) before the story tells the reader he no longer was. Did the Simonians regard themselves and their founder as Christian? Well, yes, according to the heresiologists, they said they were Christians, it was the heresiologists who decided that they weren’t. The complaint was that the Simonians claimed to be Christians even though the orthodox church called them “Simonians”. Incidentally, any 2nd CE Simonian texts–which the orthodox saw as teaching gnostic ideas, should be no more presumed genuine or informative of an historical Simonians-founder Simon than any other 2nd CE pseudepigraphic literature written in the name of 1st CE claimed founder figures.

    I realized a while ago that it looks like the Simonians’ Simon, and the Christian Gospels’ Simon Peter, stem from the same origin, but which went in separate trajectories and developed their legendary differences secondarily in the process of the legendizings. There was no distinction originally between these two Simons. Furthermore, both of these legendary Simons, who reflect legendizing of the same Simon in origin, makes good sense as both identified with Simon bar Giora, who would be an historical figure of the right time and name and historical plausibility to have had followers claiming his authority and identity in legendary form after the disaster of 70 CE and Simon’s execution in Rome in 71. Christians claim Simon as the chief founding apostle, and the Simonians understood themselves to be Christians with their Simon as a founder. It is a doublet phenomenon from a common origin. Acts is a 2nd CE text which retrojects that doublet into Acts 8 setting both legendized Simons into that 1st CE fictional setting, Acts 8 reflecting 2nd CE historiography and reflecting 2nd CE portrayals of Simons.

    All the rest, the magician legends, the gnostic ideas, the Christian Simon Peter, are phenomena in 2nd CE texts stemming from the legendizing of the charismatic figure who had real popular support at the time of the First Revolt, Simon bar Giora. As for the historical Simon prior to the legendizing, one can find references to him in Josephus, the Roman historians, and in Galatians among the genuine Paul letters according to what I believe is the correct dating of the genuine Paul letters to ca. 80 CE. All of these–Josephus, the Roman historians, and Galatians–reflect the historical Simon prior to the legendization, the leader of the Revolt who had significant popular support. What happened to that popular support when Simon was executed? It may have been transformed, not disappeared, analogous to what became of popular support of followers of Jesus in Galilee (also to be dated to the time of the First Revolt), living on in the worlds of story, legend, and religion after their deaths.

    1. Thanks for that, Greg. Yes, it is hard to dismiss the apparent likelihood of Simon Peter and Simon Magus having a common origin in Simon X.

      But the proposed Simon-Paul identity only adds to some sort of conundrum.

      Detering cites Hilgenfeld who suggests Simon was an earlier name for Paul! (I’m waiting for that source to arrive by interlibrary loan just to further tie my head in knots.)

      — Who are the Roman historians you refer to?

      1. Yeah,
        Paul = Simon Magus
        seems more likely than
        Peter = Simon Magus.
        A Samaritan would likely have a grudge against the normative Jews, as Paul did.
        Peter=Paul seems more like multiple personality disorder.

      2. I meant Dio Cassius and Tacitus referring to Simon bar Giora. Dio Cassius, Roman History 66.7 (“Bargiora”). Tacitus, Histories 5.12 (“Simon”).

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