A Few More Thoughts
A few months back Neil asked me if I had any further thoughts regarding my hypothesis about a Simonian origin for Christianity. In March of 2019 I had revised it. I am happy to report that four years later I am still quite comfortable with the revision. To me it seems to best account for the many peculiarities of the New Testament and plausibly explains much that can be gleaned from the writings of the earliest heresy hunters. This post is just a summary with a few additional thoughts on the subject.
All Things to All
As I laid out in the series, the Simonians appear to have regularly co-opted the religious beliefs of others and twisted them to serve their own purposes. This involved injecting the object of their belief—Simon Megas—into the storylines of other religions and giving him the prominent role therein. Thus they, for example, made Zeus into Simon under another name, and Athena into Helen, Simon’s consort. Similarly, they apparently claimed that their Simon was the mysterious figure whose hidden descent was described in the Vision of Isaiah (chapters 6-11 of the Ascension of Isaiah). The main storyline of that writing is an ancient one, going back, as Richard Carrier points out in his book On the Historicity of Jesus (pp. 45-47), to the Descent of Inanna. But it too was modified along Simonian lines and dragged into their orbit. Most famously, the Simonians claimed that a Jesus who had suffered in Judaea was actually their unrecognized Simon. In short, the Simonians seem to have wanted their Simon to be all things to all men, and so gave free rein to their proclivity for appropriating and modifying the beliefs of everyone else.
The Gospel of Proto-Mark
I think that our Gospel according to Mark is a proto-orthodox reworking of an earlier Simonian version in which the Simonians were again doing their thing. I will refer to the earlier text as Proto-Mark, although it may well be the same as the mysterious Secret Mark. In it the beliefs of a group of Jews about a crucified and supposedly resurrected Jew named Jesus underwent Simonization. If I had to name its author, I would choose Basilides of Alexandria, whom even the heresy hunters acknowledge as the author of an early albeit heretical gospel. He is at the right time, the right place, had the right skills, and–most importantly—had the right mindset: delight in secrecy and enigma. This was the man who, according to Irenaeus, said “Not many can know these [teachings], but one in a thousand, and two in ten thousand,” and “Know everyone, but let none know you.”
Mark owes its enigmatic nature to Proto-Mark. That is, its Simonian author intended it to be understood only by his fellow Simonians. Its “mysteries” (Mk 4:11) were deliberately hidden from those “outside” (Mk 3:32 & 4:11). The key needed for understanding the text was Simonian belief, and that was disclosed only to the initiated. There was indeed an identification secret in Proto-Mark, but I doubt it was the so-called messianic secret. The correct answer to “Who then is this whom even the wind and seas obey?” (Mk 4:41) is Simon Megas. Only later, after the Bar Kochba revolt, or whenever the proto-orthodox became aware of the text and decided to adopt and sanitize it, was the necessary changeover to a messianic secret made.
The Pauline Letters
In regard to the Pauline letters: I still see Paul as the author of some original bare-bones letters. The bulk of the letters as we now have them, however, was likely composed by a circle of Saturnilians, a community founded by the Simonian Saturnilus of Antioch. It may even be that much of the material originally had Simon in view, and that Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus, Lord Jesus, and so on were substituted when it was decided to pass the whole off as Pauline. Who was it who combined Paul’s letters with the Simonian material and formed them into a collection? My guess would be Cerdo of Syria “originating from the Simonians” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1,27,1) He is from the neighborhood of Saturnilus and is the earliest figure named in connection with the letter collection. And he it would be who likely brought them to Rome shortly after the end of the Bar Kochba revolt. “Cerdo, who preceded Marcion, also joined the Roman church and declared his faith publicly, in the time of Hyginus… then he went on in this way: at one time teaching in secret, at another declaring his faith publicly, at another he was convicted of mischievous teaching and expelled from the Christian community” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4,11).
Enter the Historical Jesus
Now, if the above scenario is basically correct, notice the upgrade that Jesus the Jew received at the hands of the Simonians. He went from being a crucified and supposedly resurrected Jew, likely connected in some way with the Kingdom of God movement of John the Baptizer, to being someone of godlike stature. Many have wondered: How did Jesus become God? I think the correct response is: The Simonians did it. Simon was a godlike figure to them, and by their presentation of a Simonized Jesus in Proto-Mark and the doctored Pauline letters, they effectively raised Jesus to divine status. And more remarkable still is that the proto-orthodox ended up liking and accepting the idea of a divine Jesus. They couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge the Simonian role in all of this, but they wanted to retain the upgraded Jesus and went looking in the Old Testament for texts to justify it. That is what we see time and again in the writings of Justin, especially in his Dialogue with Trypho. He scours the Old Testament to find texts that can justify seeing Jesus as God.
The proto-orthodox appear to have been Gentile God-fearers who, for one reason or another, greatly admired the Hebrew Scriptures. And this is why, although they liked the godlike features of the Simonian Jesus, they could not just embrace Simonianism outright. Simon, for his adepts, was the Great Power of God, but that God was not the Jewish one. Simon was the Power of a God far above theirs. And the Simonized Jesus was not really Jewish. He had come into our world by way of a Jewish mother but was not really born of her (See ch. 11 of the Vision of Isaiah). So, the task facing the proto-orthodox was to keep as much as they could of this new Jesus but pull him back somewhat to his Jewish roots.
The Place of John the Baptist
They also apparently wanted to pull him back to his roots in the Kingdom of God movement of John the Baptizer. Proto-Mark had turned Jesus into a preacher in order to put enigmatic Simonian doctrine on his lips. Because of its enigmatic nature much of this was allowed to stand. But to compensate, on the same lips the proto-orthodox now placed teaching that, historically, was that of John. Clare K. Rothschild has pointed out how “current models of Q suggest that, at some early stage in its undoubtedly complex pre-history, Q existed as a source containing Baptist traditions exclusively” (Baptist Traditions and Q, p. 3). And she noted how “Despite the paucity of evidence in the NT about John, all of the major themes of Q can be connected to his few traditions…. (1) the announcement of the coming kingdom…; (2) eschatological warnings…; (3) pronouncement of punishment on this generation and its leaders…; (4) rejection of traditional family structures…; (5) the rigors of an itinerant, wilderness lifestyle…; (6) warnings of persecution…; and (7) wisdom sayings. (Baptist Traditions and Q, p. 98). If Q existed, this seems to me the most plausible explanation for it.
Who, and When?
I doubt that combining the Simonized Jesus with the historical one was the work of only one person. I have proposed Cerdo as responsible for collecting and doctoring the letters of Paul. I have no respectable guesses about who revised Proto-Mark and turned it into Mark. My sense, though, is that these things were done at about the same time, shortly after the end of the Bar Kochba revolt. That is when I would place too the two replacement gospels (Mathew and Luke) which were attempted. These all ended up taking their place alongside each other, but I would not be surprised if originally each was constructed as a standalone solution to the Proto-Mark problem. Notice, however, that all three retain a lot of Proto-Mark and, by doing so, the result is a Jesus who was still in large part Simonian.
Finally, regarding Marcion: I still think he was an honest man but he was late to the party. He was correct in accusing the proto-orthodox of interpolations, but he didn’t realize that he was two stages removed from the real Jesus. Removing the proto-orthodox revisions would have just brought him back to the Simonian version of Jesus, not to the historical person.
Latest posts by Roger Parvus (see all)
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32 thoughts on “A Simonian Origin for Christianity? — A few more thoughts”
I see no progress trying to replace Jesus, the Christ for Simon, the Magician. Both were not historical fugures as human but literary characters.
Yes, but as Richard Carrier has pointed out: “The historicity of this Simon has been questioned, but the historicity of his worship as a divine being has not” (On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 71). That is, no one has questioned the historical existence of the worshippers of Simon (the Simonians).
I’m not sure what you mean by “progress”? I think it would be progress if it could be determined which group – the proto-orthodox or the Simonians – came first and influenced the other.
Hi Roger, I note great similarities between your view and the scenario proposed by Prosper Alfaric, “Social Origins of Christianity”. The latter thinks that Simonians existed, but not Simon Magus. He alao thinks that Canonical Mark is a reaction against Simonian legends. The only important difference is that Alfaric is mythicist. He thinks that the crucifixion is part of what you call a “Satornilian” addition (he uses the term “Syrian”). The original Jesuans of Palestina believed that Jesus had been immolated, not crucified, since the crucifixion doesn’t allow a large effusion of blood purifying. Hence a not-crucified only immolated Jesus is probably not-historical.
I haven’t read “Social Origins of Christianity”, but I intend to. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. But in the meantime, regarding the historicist/mythicist issue, I can’t say that I am fully convinced one way or the other. I do now lean more historicist than when I began to write the Simonian series, mainly because the Pauline silence seemed to me such a big problem for historicity. My changed view of the letters resolved that for me. A minimal historical Jesus is, correspondingly, more plausible to me than it was. By minimal I mean someone who at most was known for a few supposed healings and got himself crucified for causing some kind of ruckus in the Temple. His biggest asset was that he had a few admiring friends who were given to visions and able to convince some others about their vision of a resurrected Jesus. I can see how such a Jesus could have passed under the historical radar for a while until the group of those who believed in his resurrection became significant enough to be noticed.
But note that, in itself, my Simonian hypothesis doesn’t directly have anything to say about the historicist/mythicist issue. The Simonians played with beliefs. Studying this may be able to show us what their target groups believed but doesn’t really show us whether the beliefs of those groups have reference to a historical figure or not.
So when you ask about the crucifixion, I think the original group of Jews in question believed that their Jesus had been crucified. Or put another way, I don’t think the Simonians were the ones who brought crucifixion into my proposed Proto-Mark. For the Simonians the crucifixion was part of the beliefs they took over and had to give a Simonian explanation for. They dealt with it either docetically or by means of the Basilidean switcheroo. Had you asked them, “Was Jesus crucified?”, I think they would have answered something like: “He appeared to be, but really wasn’t. Because we Simonians know what really happened.” Likewise, to the question “Was Jesus a Jew?” Their answer would be: “He appeared to be, but really wasn’t.”
For them, it was largely about giving a Simonian explanation for appearances (docetism).
I should also explain what I mean above by the “Basilidean switcheroo”, for those who are unfamiliar with my shorthand. According to Irenaeus, Basilides claimed that Jesus, after being sentenced to crucifixion, actually avoided that fate by switching places with Simon of Cyrene. The switch was unnoticed because Jesus, using his divine power, took on the appearance of the Cyrenian who, in turn, took on the appearance of Jesus. Now it just so happens that right at Mk 15:22 there is a confusing pronoun transition. Most would say it is just due to carelessness, but I suspect it is a trace left over from Simonian Proto-Mark and was somehow overlooked by the proto-orthodox reviser. Note that such a switcheroo also accounts better for the cry of despair at Mk 15:34.
In my original Simonian series I proposed that Irenaeus must have misunderstood what Basilides was claiming. For how could the crucifixion be salvific if Jesus did not actually undergo it? But I now think Irenaeus was right. For the Simonians salvation was freedom from the spirit rulers of this world. These rulers had failed to give Jesus the divine honor that was his due as Simon Megas. In itself that failure may have been enough to merit their downfall. But in addition, they had attempted to get him crucified. The mere attempt was enough, and the lack of success did not diminish their guilt. Even the failure to recognize his true identity doesn’t get them off the hook. “And there was much sorrow there as they said, ‘How did our Lord descend upon us, and we did not notice the glory that was upon him, which we (now) see was upon him from the sixth heaven” (Ascension of Isaiah 11:24). Not does it matter that Simon, by coming incognito, had in effect tricked the spirit rulers. What matters is that they failed to measure up when he was in their midst as Jesus, and for that failure they lost any legitimate authority they had over mankind. “Therefore those who have set their hope on Simon and Helen pay no further attention to them” (that is, to the angels who made the world, including the god of the Jews) “and do what they wish as free agents”. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1,23,3)
Roger, you write:
The bulk of the letters as we now have them, however, was likely composed by a circle of Saturnilians, a community founded by the Simonian Saturnilus of Antioch.
It would be interesting to know how you deal with the possibility (considered a probability by Alfaric) that also the crucifixion itself, and not only the other “mystical” portions, was introduced by Saturnilians in the Pauline epistles. Isn’t also the crucifixion rather celestial in Paul? I mean: surely not described as a mere cruxifixion.
I haven’t read “Social Origins of Christianity”. Do you know if it is available online?
Hi Roger, another question: do you think that the mention of Pilate is part of the Simonian riddle (called proto-Mark)?
A reason to think so is that Dositheus was said to be the teacher of the Magus, dethronized by the latter by magic arts. Now, I am seeing that in Internet many people identify Dositheus with the Samaritan false prophet killed by Pilate. Do you think that Dositheus was the historical Jesus? Also he was a disciple of John the Baptist. Also he posed as “a Prophet like Moses”, i.e. a Joshua redivivus. Is the Simonian co-optation of only the Dositheus’s legacy more expected than well two Simonian co-optations (of both the Samaritan Dositheus and the Jewish Jesus)?
The early records don’t tell us much about either the Dositheans or about Simonian activity in Samaria. That means we are pretty much reduced to almost pure speculation. So, when you ask if the Simonians tried to inject their Simon into the beliefs of the Dositheans, all I can say is that it would fit their apparent proclivities. As to how they might have gone about it, I don’t know. Irenaeus says the claim was that Simon “would descend in Samaria as Father” (Against Heresies 1,23,1). But was this “Father” figure part of Dosithean belief, or did Irenaeus have some other group in mind? I don’t know. It is possible, I guess, that Dositheans believed their founder had been visited and instructed by a heavenly figure they called “Father” and that Simonians countered with: “Yes, but your Father was our Simon.” It would be like telling the Mormons, “The Moroni who instructed your Joseph Smith was actually our Simon under another name.” Remember, Simon “was willing to be called whatever men call him” (Against Heresies 1,23,1).
I haven’t read “Social Origins of Christianity”. Do you know if it is available online?
Hi Roger, the Alfaric’s book has been published posthumous. Already Neil had realized the affinities with your view. I have digitalized it, so if you would like, I may send you in a file zip the various chapters in txt.
I have also digitized it. I will upload it to archive.org where it can also be downloaded.
Thank you for the offer, Giuseppe, but I have obtained a copy and hopefully will be able to read it before too long.
In the first of your comments above you wrote that Alfaric “thinks that Canonical Mark is a reaction against Simonian legends”. I haven’t been able to find that in his book. Which page is it on?
Hi Roger, I had quoted the entire paragraph here.
In addition, Alfaric writes about Simonians in the pages 118-120.
Alfaric resumes his point, with more and more details, about the Simonian influence on the epistles and on the Gospel tradition (in particular, the Temptation story) here:
CHRISTIANISME ET GNOSTICISME
Revue Historique, T. 145, Fasc. 1 (1924), pp. 42-54 (13 pages)
Where Alfaric diverges from you about the presence of the crucifixion in the original belief of the Pillars (and the historical Paul), as I wrote, is in p. 155-158.
As you have noted in the article above on jstor, Alfaric is very close to conclude that the same idea of 4 Canonical gospels was a reaction to the Simonian gospel called “Book of the Four Angles of the World”. Wasn’t Irenaeus doing a similar argument? Coincidence?
The link you provided (to pages 120-125 of the book) give Alfaric’s views on the Gospel of the Nazarenes. You do realize, right, that the Gospel of the Nazarenes is not the same as canonical Mark?
But anyway…., Alfaric’s proposal that the community that used the Gospel of the Nazarenes was in rivalry with early Simonians is believable. I see that Gospel as Jewish, probably written in the 50s or 60s of the Common Era, some 20 to 30 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. That was plenty of time for the accretions and development Jesus displays in that Gospel, especially since the community was apparently given to visions about their resurrected Jesus.
But Alfaric’s position is otherwise quite different from mine. He sees Christianity as coming in a straight line (“en ligne droite” p. 359) from Judaism. What I am proposing is that it did not. There was an alien Simonian intrusion into the Jewish beliefs about Jesus. It turned the still-human Jesus of a group of Jews (or Nazarenes, if you wish) into a preexistent divine Jesus. That was a step too far for most Jews, both then and now.
How did Jesus become a preexistent God? I think the Simonians did it. It was not some kind of “straight line” natural development from Judaism.
Hi Roger, thanks for the clarifications (I assume that if Alfaric thinks that the first gospel (for him, the Gospel of Nazarenes) is anti-simonian, then logically also all the others are anti-simonian gospels). Some questions:
1) Why do you think that the Gospel of Nazarenes was written in 60 CE, when you think that the simonian proto-Mark preceded it and was written in 100 CE or even more late (if it postdated even Revelation) ?
2) Sure that you have not read nothing of interesting (about Simonian influence on Paul and the gospels, in particular the Temptation story) in the article on jstor I have linked above?
3) the more interesting question, for me: what do you think about Dositheus? Was there really the case that Simon Magus usurped the role of both Dositheus and Jesus? Doesn’t Occam’s Razor require that the Magus dethronized only one of two contemporary figures ? (I follow Etienne Nodet who identifies Dositheus with the Samaritan false prophet slain by Pilate).
Thanks a lot for any answer, especially to the last point (3).
Sorry to be That Guy but the link is bad in “In March of 2019 I had revised it.”
Thanks. Don’t be sorry. Fixed now.
How does “Judas of Simon” fit in?
Zeus is Simon alright. He is symbolized by Simon Peter. That’s why he is the foundation. Roman Provenance. He is not the only one, though.
Roger, have you changed your reading of any Pauline passages since 2019? I’m wondering just how “bare bones” they originally were before the interpolations, in your view.
I think that, with the exception of Romans, they were very bare-bones. Probably along the lines of typical practical short letters, like the two collection letters in 2 Corinthians (2 cor. 8 and 2 Cor. 9) and Philemon.
Even a letter like 1 Corinthians could have only a short authentic kernel, say, up to 1 Cor 1-17a in which Paul admonished them to stop squabbling. But that would have been all the opening the Simonian interpolator needed to fill out the rest of the letter with various instructions that Saturnilus had given his community over the years. Or that Simon, “present in spirit” (1 Cor. 5:3) had given over the years through Saturnilus. Or that Cerdo worked into the text to pass it off as Pauline. And remember the proto-orthodox would have ultimately had their own say when they sanitized the letter collection for proto-orthodox consumption.
For Romans I am inclined to allow a bit more length, maybe 3 or 4 chapters worth or authentic material. It seems more cut out as a circular than a letter. It is now addressed to Roman Christians but was probably intended more generally for any Gentile Godfearers who already knew of the Jewish Reign of God movement and its resurrected Jesus. It lays out for them Paul’s claim that they can be part of the Reign of God without becoming Jews, just by believing in Jesus. And it tackles a likely objection they might have: How come most Jews are not going along with this? Today Paul would make this into a pamphlet or brochure and put his phone number and email on it for further details.
I also really liked your work on the origins of Christianity. I can’t really agree on one thing: the portrayal of Jesus. In my opinion, no one portrayed Jesus, only the Son and the Christ. So when Paul says the word Son or Christ, neither of them is associated with Jesus. The word Jesus is nothing but a fraud.
In Paul’s teaching, the key figure of the Son (dismissed by God) has a body that looks similar to sinful flesh, so it is not modeled after the historical Jesus, nor is it about the historical Jesus. We do not know the name of this Son, Paul never names him.
The Son in this narrative is not a real (flesh and blood) man, but a spiritual entity in a human-like state/form (Rom 8:3; Phil2: 6-8). How can anyone accept the boy’s blood if he doesn’t have it? This is the question.
According to Bart Ehrman, I would be right if Isaiah’s ascension (Ascensio Isaiae) had originated a little earlier. In the first century. Because he considers Paul in the 1st century to be authentic.
It is interesting, in relation to this theory, that Mark’s Gospel has at least four people named Simon – Simon Peter (Simon who Jesus himself “surnames Peter”), “Simon the Cananite” (another disciple), Simon the Leper and Simon of Cyrene. All of these could have symbolic meanings, but if the first Gospel was originally produced by Simonians, why did they not treat the name “Simon” as a nominum sacrum?” Mark is not only casual with it, but downright profligate.
I doubt that it was the sound of the name Simon that mattered. What mattered would have been who the name referred to.
As you may know, Catholics bow their head when they say the name Jesus referring to their Lord. But Hispanic Catholics don’t bow their head when the tell their kid, Jesus, to clean his room. Maybe Simonians did something similar, bending their knee (Philippians 2:20) whenever their use of the name Simon was in reference to their Lord.
By the way, I still suspect there is intentional enigmatic wordplay going on at Mk 4:3 and 9:7. Simonians claimed that their Simon’s name was given to him because he heeded his Father’s command to go down and rescue us. The name comes from the Hebrew word for “hear” but in the sense of “heed”, that is, “hear and obey”. So, how should we understand the verses “Heed a sower went out to sow” (Mk 4:3) and “This is my beloved Son Heed Him” (Mk 9:7)? In these instances is “Heed” a command; something which in English we follow with a period or exclamation mark? Or is it a noun, intended to identify for the initiated who the sower and the beloved Son are?
I probably should have included the following within the post itself:
Up until recently I have been content to leave the dating of the three synoptic gospels floating somewhere in the dark CE 70 – 135 window. I am now inclined to date all three to shortly after the Bar Kochba revolt. Neil’s posts about Thomas Witulski’s redating of the book of Revelation has led me to think that later rather than sooner is the most likely spot for messianic fever. For years I had mulled over some other posts by Neil regarding how little evidence there is of popular messianic expectation at the time of Jesus. For me his posts on Witulski’s book was the clincher.
But what about Mark’s expectation of the imminent arrival of the Reign of God? Doesn’t that indicate that Mark must have been written within a generation of Jesus?
I don’t think so. Not if I am right about there being a Simonian Proto-Mark of which Mark is a proto-orthodox reworking. Proto-Mark, even if it was written far more than a generation after Jesus, would have had no problem putting on his lips a prophecy about the imminent Reign of God. For Simonians understood “Reign of God” differently from the Jews. And their Jesus was actually Simon Megas incognito. And his prophecy came true. In the Simonian sense. That is, the spirit rulers of this world – including the God of the Jews – were defeated by Simon. Those who believe in Simon now belong to his Father, the highest God.
When the proto-orthodox set about revising Proto-Mark they would have had to decide what to do with the prophecy of its Jesus. They decided to let it stand and just give it their own interpretation. For them the Reign of God that Jesus prophesied would be the church they were in the process of founding around CE 140 but which they claimed went back to Jesus himself. “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it”. (Mt. 16:18)
For ease of reference I’ve added links to the posts you mentioned.