At present, however, I have simply been led to mention him, that thou mightest know that all those who in any way corrupt the truth, and injuriously affect the preaching of the Church, are the disciples and successors of Simon Magus of Samaria
Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 1 Chapter 27
Irenaeus’ words reveal a strong anti-Simon view, particularly considering Irenaeus wrote over 100 years after Simon would have died.
This polemic appears to have originated in the New Testament, which depicts hostility between Jerusalem Christians and Samaritans, specifically in the Gospel of Matthew 10:5, where Jesus instructs his apostles to avoid Samaria:
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go onto the road of the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.
Decades after Matthew was written, the Gospel of John (John 4) eased Jerusalem-Samaria tensions via Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman. But to the sect which produced the Gospel of Matthew (presumably the Ebionites, and later the Nazarenes, who added the virgin birth), the Samaritans were bad news.
The semi-fictional Simon Magus, described in Acts of the Apostles 8:9-24, personifies this anti-Samaritan sentiment. Simon, a Samaritan magician who attempted to buy access to apostolic privilege from John and Peter, lays the proverbial seed for his later heresies.
Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria…Simon himself believed and was baptized…
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria…When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
Peter answered: “May your money perish with you…”
Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”
This same Simon appears as an historical character in Josephus’ Antiquities 20.7:
At the time when Felix was procurator of Judaea, he beheld her; and, inasmuch as she surpassed all other women in beauty, he conceived a passion for the lady. He sent to her one of his friends,e a Cyprian Jew named Simon, who pretended to be a magician, in an effort to persuade her to leave her husband and to marry Felix
The million dollar question of course is: did the author of Acts know the person they referenced, or were these Josephus references simply part of their encryption? My suspicion is the latter, which puts me on the opposite side of very knowledgeable scholars, such as Robert Eisenman.
In Acts of the Apostles, John and Peter were sent to Samaria to investigate the magical goings on there. Simon tried to buy into the inner circle, and Peter rebuked him.
This exchange between Peter, John, and Simon bears a striking resemblance to an encounter Paul described in his Epistle to the Galatians (Gal 2:10):
All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.
Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem…I went in response to a revelation…As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism…James, Cephas[c]and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me…When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy
Josephus’ claim that Simon “pretended to be a magician” was no doubt intended as a swipe against Simon; it was in this spirit that early Christian authors borrowed this marginal charlatan for use as their “father of all heresies”. To reiterate, my conjecture is that the name Simon Magus was used as an encryption for someone else; this Josephus encryption mechanism was common among early Christian writers, and can be found in The Gospel of Mark, Revelation, and Acts of the Apostles. I elaborate on this motif in Jesus Christ and Jesus ben Ananias.
A positions I hold which puts me in a minority, even among mythicists, is that I think this conflict between Paul and Peter is historically rooted in the fight between Marcion, the Syrians, and the Ebionites. In other words, Marcion of Sinope, Paul of Tarsus, and Simon Magus of Samaria can be isolated to the same historical person. The implication is that Christianity’s early Jew-Gentile conflict was not occurring in the 40s and 50s, as history remembers. It was occurring in the 120s or 130s.
Consider the passage in Galatians 2:6, where Paul quips that he does not care whether those pillars were held in high esteem, and that God does not show favoritism.
But as for the highly esteemed, whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism. For those leaders added nothing to my message.
Contrast that with the Syrian Gospel of Thomas (saying #12), where Jesus says:
Wherever you have come, you will go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being
To Paul, God does not show favoritism; in contrast, the Syrian Thomasite sentiment was that the heavens and earth were created for James.
Paul (Marcion) was frustrated with “men from James” (the Ebionites – “remember the poor”) in Galatians 2:10-12, because Peter’s time in Jerusalem affected his view on the Jewish law, which led to his own hypocrisy.
When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles.
Paul’s frustration with Cephas, as a result of Ebionite influence led him to call an eminent Christian a hypocrite! One possible reason for Paul’s curious audacity to oppose Jesus’ original apostle was because he knew Peter was not actually at Jesus’ side (presumably because he knew Jesus never existed).
The fictional obfuscation, Simon Magus, was demonized in numerous early Christian texts. The first polemic waged against him was by Justin Martyr in his 1st apology (C 140-155):
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.
The Acts of Peter went so far as to say that Simon Magus could fly:
And already on the morrow a great multitude assembled at the Sacred Way to see him flying. And Peter came unto the place, having seen a vision (or, to see the sight), that he might convict him in this also; for when Simon entered into Rome, he amazed the multitudes by flying
Considering all the negative energy spent on Simon in Acts of Peter, the author must have found it gratifying to kill him at the end:
But Simon in his affliction found some to carry him by night on a bed from Rome unto Aricia; and he abode there a space, and was brought thence unto Terracina to one Castor that was banished from Rome upon an accusation of sorcery. And there he was sorely cut, and so Simon the angel of Satan came to his end.
In his first apology, Justin Martyr exposed confusion at what he thought was a statue erected on behalf of Simon Magus:
He was considered a god, and as a god was honoured by you with a statue, which statue was erected on the river Tiber, between the two bridges, and bore this inscription, in the language of Rome:— Simoni Deo Sancto, To Simon the holy God. And almost all the Samaritans, and a few even of other nations, worship him, and acknowledge him as the first god
The irony of Justin’s emperor-scolding is that the statue he referenced was erected on behalf of the Roman God Semo Sancus, the God of Honesty and Oaths; the same statue was found at the bottom of the Tiber River in the 16th century.
After his reference to Simon Magus, Justin made reference to Marcion of Sinope:
And there is Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even at this day alive, and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater than the Creator. And he, by the aid of the devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies, and to deny that God is the maker of this universe, and to assert that some other being, greater than He, has done greater works. All who take their opinions from these men, are, as we before said, called Christians
It seems to me that chronological placement of the heretics within the heresy hunters’ writings is often important. In the case of Justin Martyr, my suspicion is that Marcion was placed after Simon Magus (and Menander) because Justin meant to convey that Marcion was a direct inheritor of their philosophy.
The Pseudo-Clementine literature also made an oblivious reference to Justin’s error about the statue in Rome:
I [Simon Magus] shall be worshipped as God; I shall have divine honours publicly assigned to me, so that an image of me shall be set up, and I shall be worshipped and adored as God
The same Pseudo-Clementine text had a violent confrontation between Simon and Peter, in which Simon claimed to be God and literally opposed Peter to his face. Peter emphatically defended “acts” (within the Jewish law).
Therefore before all things let us inquire into this, what or in what manner we must act that we may merit to obtain eternal life
Simon responded with several blatant references specifically to the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 10:34), scolding Peter for his adherence to the text:
Then Simon said: “Do not you see, O simpleton, that in pleading for peace you act in opposition to your Master, and that what you propose is not suitable to him who promises that he will overthrow ignorance? Or, if you are right in asking peace from the audience, then your Master was wrong in saying, `I have not come to send peace on earth, but a sword.’
As I proposed in The Brother of the Lord, the likely version 1 writers of Matthew (ie Gospel of the Hebrews) were the Ebionites*, who can also be found in Galatians as the “men from James”; they were also referenced by the pillars’ direction to “remember the poor”, as Ebion translates to poor.
* Irenaeus wrote that the Ebionites exclusively used the Gospel of Matthew (AH i.26), which in my mind makes them the most likely candidate for authorship. The Ebionites lacked a virgin birth story; that appears to have been later added by the Nazarenes
The Pseudo-Clementine text, like the story of Simon in Acts of the Apostles, bears resemblance to Paul’s Galatians, in the sense that Peter is a chief advocate, and is arguing on behalf of acts, as opposed to his counterpart, who put faith above acts.
One of the Details which lends to the underlying myth of Simon Magus is this reference to Helena, who Simon masqueraded as Helen of Troy.
Having redeemed from slavery at Tyre, a city of Phœnicia, a certain woman named Helena, he was in the habit of carrying her about with him, declaring that this woman was the first conception of his mind, the mother of all, by whom, in the beginning, he conceived in his mind [the thought] of forming angels and archangels
In Greek mythology, Helen was the daughter of Zeus, who met Helen’s mother after being chased by an eagle (Zeus was at the time temporarily transformed into a swan). Helen’s brothers were supposedly Castor and Pollux, who are represented in the Gospels as James and John, sons of Zebedee.
There is an interesting parallel in the heresy hunter Hippolytus’ reference to 2nd century Marcionite, Apelles. Appeles had a companion named Philumene. In the myth of Philomela, the title character and her antagonist were transformed into birds. Both Philomela and Helen were kidnapped in their stories. I discuss this Philumene parallel in this post (Christianity and the Myth of Philomela).
Kidnapping was a theme in another parallel story, the myth of Demeter and Persephone. I discuss Christianity’s relationship to Demeter, Persephone and the Eleusinian mystery religion in another post (Christian Origins: The Out-of-Turkey theory).
The strong link to Greek mythology leads me to suspect these references to the heretics’ companions were elements of the original Christian mysteries, which tapped into a much more complex Hellenistic myth.
There is another interesting link between Simon Magus and Marcion of Sinope.
Despite geographical distance between Marcion’s home of Pontus and Simon’s locale of Samaria, the link between Simon and Marcion is evident in Tertullian’s characterization of Marcion, and his attempt to buy influence with the apostles:
Marcion himself once believed it, when in the first warmth of faith he contributed money to the Catholic church, which along with himself was afterwards rejected, when he fell away from our truth into his own heresy
Like Simon Magus, Marcion tried to buy influence, presumably among the 2nd or 3rd generation Johannines (John), but this attempt at influence was met with hostility, probably because the church was starting to outgrow Marcion and his particular brand of Docetism, which proposed Jesus was not flesh at all, but rather, was a phantom who appeared to be a man, and was sent by an alien God who was above Abraham’s God. The men from James, as referenced in Galatians, might very well have influenced early Christianity enough such that a synthesis was required. The synthesis appears to be the position that Jesus Christ was born via divine insemination, which transferred the pre-existing Logos into the material realm.
In such a context, this Matthew-derived theology attempted to replace the earlier Mark position, which posited that the spirit descended upon the Jesus-man in the form of a dove, and left as Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21). Matthew put the spirit of God into Jesus from his conception; this appears to be a forerunner to John’s Logos, where the spirit existed “in the beginning”.
The exchange between Peter and Paul in Galatians 2 might be re-interpreted in the 11th Mandate of the Shepherd of Hermas:
In the first place, that man who seems to have a spirit exalts himself, and desires to have a chief place, and straight-way he is impudent and shameless and talkative and conversant in many luxuries and in many other deceits and receives money for his prophesying, and if he receives not, he prophesies not. Now can a divine Spirit receive money and prophesy? It is not possible for a prophet of God to do this, but the spirit of such prophets is earthly.
In the next place, it never approaches an assembly of righteous men; but avoids them, and cleaves to the doubtful-minded and empty, and prophesies to them in corners, and deceives them, speaking all things in emptiness to gratify their desires; for they too are empty whom it answers. For the empty vessel placed together with the empty is not broken, but they agree one with the other.
But when he comes into an assembly full of righteous men who have a Spirit of deity, and intercession is made from them, that man is emptied, and the earthly spirit flees from him in fear, and that man is struck dumb and is altogether broken in pieces, being unable to utter a word.
There is nothing shocking to assert that there were internal struggles within the early Christian “church”. But when historical characters are plugged in, and realistic timelines are considered, what the secular and internal evidence reveals, particularly in light of the harsh polemic against Simon Magus, is that the real history underlying Christianity’s traditional fairy tales are much more interesting, and much more revealing of deception, than the typical observer would ever imagine.