Magic and Early Christianity

One of my favorite Josephus passages is found in Antiquities 20.7.  The passage is about a magician named Simon (Atomus), who was recruited by the Judean procurator (Pontius Pilate’s later successor) Felix to persuade Agrippa I’s daughter Drusilla to marry him.

While Felix was procurator of Judea, he saw this Drusilla, and fell in love with her; for she did indeed exceed all other women in beauty; and he sent to her a person whose name was Simon one of his friends; a Jew he was, and by birth a Cypriot, and one who pretended to be a magician, and endeavored to persuade her to forsake her present husband, and marry him; and promised, that if she would not refuse him, he would make her a happy woman. Accordingly she acted ill, and because she was desirous to avoid her sister Bernice’s envy, for she was very ill treated by her on account of her beauty, was prevailed upon to transgress the laws of her forefathers, and to marry Felix.

Simon Magus attempting to buy the spirit from Peter

The interesting detail is that Simon is a magician.  As I’ve expressed in prior posts, Simon seems to have been the historical root of the person who later became known as Simon Magus in Acts 8, as well as later apocryphal texts.  Although Josephus’ Simon was used to construct the persona of the heretical Simon Magus, I do not think that the person within the Christian community who became known as Simon Magus was actually the same person as Felix’ friend Simon; rather, I think members of the Christian communities who invented these stories borrowed Josephus characters, perhaps as an anonymity device, or some other kooky element of the mystery cult.

Why a magician?

An intriguing question is:  why did Felix recruit a Cypriot Jewish magician to get Drusilla, a Jewish aristocrat, to fall in love with him?  One possible explanation is that Drusilla and Simon were both Jews, and therefore Simon might be able to provide a more cohesive answer as to why marrying Felix was theologically or socially acceptable.

But another answer, which I think is quite obvious, once you’ve grappled with the mindset of Iron Age Judeans, is that Felix wanted Simon to make love potions and/or cast magical incantations to convince Drusilla to marry him.  In that sense, the plan worked, because Drusilla did indeed marry Felix (chalk one up for magic!).  The two had a son named Marcus, and in 79CE, Marcus, Drusilla, and Pliny the Elder died in the Mount Vesuvius eruption.

This magical framework which Felix so unapologetically leveraged, also seemed to play a central role within the early Christian communities.

For example, Theudas, the person who I think underlies John the Baptist, was also called a magician by Josephus.

Carpocrates, who Irenaeus describes in Against Heresies i.25, also practiced magic and produced love potions.  Carpocrates, I surmise, was something of a synthesis between Cerinthus and the Ebionites – the core distinction between Cerinthus and the Ebionites was that the Ebionites believed Yahweh sent Jesus, where Cerinthus believed it was a higher God.  Carpocrates seems to have held a similar, albeit more Gnostic view (AH i.26.2), probably aligning more to a Cerinthian theology than an Ebionite one.

Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria indicate that Carpocrates used a version of the Gospel of Luke and at least one Pauline epistle, Romans.  Given these details, Carpocrates and Marcion have quite a lot in common; my conjecture is that Marcion emerged out of a Carpocratian tradition.

But there was another magic-practicing early Christian whom Irenaeus described in Against Heresies i.13, named Marcus (he shared the same name as Drusilla’s son, as well as Marcion).  Among other things, Irenaeus wrote:

Pretending to consecrate cups mixed with wine, and protracting to great length the word of invocation, he contrives to give them a purple and reddish colour, so that Charis, who is one of those that are superior to all things, should be thought to drop her own blood into that cup through means of his invocation

The 3 graces

The sore thumb sticking out of Irenaeus’ characterization of Marcus is that he was using “magic” to change the color of wine, and this wine was a blood representation…a distinctly Johannine (John) practice and/or invention, found notably in John 2:1-11.

A bit of subtext in Irenaeus’ description of Marcus is that wine infusions were common magical devices that were used on (specifically) women, so Irenaeus might very well have been using this description as a polemic, invoking references that would have elicited staunch responses from his readers.

If we speculate that John the Baptist was a representation of Theudas, this wine-conversion magic trick practiced by Marcus, in light of Simon and Theudas’ sorcery, indeed lends credence to the notion that Christianity hijacked the earlier John the Baptist cult, and replaced him with Jesus, particularly when one factors that Simon Magus fought with Dositheus for control of the John the Baptist cult, and that Valentinus, a key consumer of the Gospel of John (AH iii.11.7), received mystical instruction from Theudas, who was supposedly Paul’s disciple.

Another detail tucked within Irenaeus’ description of Marcus the magician is reference to Charis.  In Greek mythology, Charis was one of the goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, and fertility.

Given this reference, it is interesting so many Christian groups who had close connection to Marcionite communities also had similar Greek-themed women they revered.  For example, Apelles had Philume, and Simon Magus had Helen (of Troy).

According to Irenaeus, Marcus the magician had a penchant for seducing rich, beautiful women, taking their money, and making love potions.  One of Marcus’ more offensive acts was to seduce the wife of an Asian deacon, who had invited Marcus to stay in their home.  Marcus and the deacon’s wife then went around, traveling together, similar to Simon Magus and Helen.   This is also similar to claims Epiphanius made about Marcion seducing a virgin, which led to his excommunication. According to Clement of Alexandria, the Carpocratians also had something like communal marriages, where wives were shared among the community.

Though the polemical spirit of the early anti-heretical texts makes it difficult to glean truth out of the mountains of ad hominem, the similarities between several of the heretics certainly are interesting, and lends to various speculations; for instance, perhaps there were many fewer heretics than what was originally claimed, and Irenaeus duplicated and renamed them for some reason.  Another speculation is that these heretics and their surrounding communities were much more closely intertwined than what we might presume.

The similarities between Marcus the Magician, Simon Magus, Marcion, and Carpocrates (and even Paul) are quite striking.  If you factor in my speculation that John the Baptist was actually based on Theudas (who was also a magician), the cultural atmosphere in which these people lived becomes more evident.  But what it really looks like is that the most pervasive versions of Christianity were based on magical underpinnings.


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

8 thoughts on “Magic and Early Christianity”

  1. If Christians did not believe in “magic” that is things occurring by obviously non-natural processes, then they wouldn’t have believed in creation, Noah.s flood, the resurrection, etc., etc. Diseases were caused by demon possession and people were bewitched by the forces of evil all of the time.

    Interestingly, Christianity (at least U.S. variants) which was built upon magic (where’d those loaves and fishes come from?) currently eschews all magic as being from Satan. So, if it is Christian magic, then it is a miracle, but if it is not, it is satanic.


    1. Check out early Christian artwork which depicts Christ and the Apostles performing their miracles through wands, a la Harry Potter.


  2. Speaking of magicians, the three kings who brought gifts to baby Jesus are very likely magicians. In the original Greek of Matthew 2:7, wise men is actually “μάγους” meaning magicians or sorcerers (Strong’s 3097). If Simon Magus was a code name for Marcion, what magic tricks him and his lackeys are doing?

    Mark 16:9-20 is filled with magic tricks. Jesus wants his disciples to be like either David Blaine or be an Indian snake charmer.


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