“But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one. To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God. And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries.” [Acts viii. 9 – 12]
Simon Magus, also known as Simon the Sorcerer or Simon the Magician, has long been condemned by Christians for being “the first Gnostic” and “father of all heretics”. From his name is derived the word “simony”; being the sin of paying for position or influence within the Church, or for religious favours. However, it is important to note that Simon was a Christian, having been baptized by the apostle Philip. Following his conversion, he often accompanied Philip, however his opinions most substantially differed from those of his adversary, Simon Peter, with each refuting the other’s views. Simon was to accuse Peter of finding “foolish people [who] will agree with you, indeed come to love you, for you teach what is customary with them, but they will curse me, for I proclaim something new and unheard of.”
Indeed, it was these differing attitudes and views would ultimately contribute to Simon Magus’ downfall and condemnation through the centuries; starting with the author of Acts and subsequent early Church historians onwards. However, from the various surviving sources, the reader is able to learn more about Simon and his views and perhaps better understand the man, and his conflicts with Peter and the evolving Christian faith. It is important to realise and appreciate that these remaining sources detailing Simon’s life, behavior and beliefs are those of his detractors, primarily anti-heretical texts, but also the Acts of the Apostles; all intent on portraying Simon in a negative fashion. Amongst those writers to speak of Simon are Justin Martyr [quoted in Eusebius], Hippolytus, Clement in his Homilies and Recognitions, etc. In addition, there are recollections in apocryphal texts, not found in the Canon, such as the Acts of Peter, and the Epistle of the Apostles.
Simon was of Samarian origin, from a village called Gitta, born of Antonius and Rachel. He was a follower of John the Baptist, indeed he is identified as being one of his chief disciples. Amongst this group of disciples was a woman, Helen, who was later to become Simon’s companion (although it is also written that Simon first encountered her “standing on a roof” [an Eastern metaphor for prostitution] ) in the Phoenician city of Tyre. Simon was undertaking his studies into both medicine and magic in Alexandria when John the Baptist was executed. Upon Simon's return from Egypt, he took the title of “the Standing One”, and the cult which he was to form already lay dormant. However, in an aspiration that the Baptist had declined and refuted, Simon chose to suggest and imply that he was an equal to Jesus Christ. Through this proclamation, Simon thereafter was viewed by some as being a “competitor” or “rival” to Christ. These suggestions, and Simonian teachings, only came to the fore following the Baptist’s demise. However, it might be questioned whether Simon truly saw himself as divine, or whether this was merely Simon employing theatrical methods in order to convey his message. Or simply a misinterpretation of the connotations behind the term "Messiah", either by Simon, his followers, or subsequent detractors.
The companionship that Simon Magus enjoyed and entertained with Helen was another element in his subsequent condemnation. The two were later to be dubbed by their detractors as "the harlot" and "the usurper", or "the wretch". However, it is rather telling that Simon’s travels and preachings with Helen echo those of Christ, who himself was accompanied by another reformed prostitute, Mary Magdalene, who may or may not have been his spouse. If Simon did indeed see himself as Messiah or God, he would have seen Helen as being his divine consort. Simon's teachings were to proclaim that Helen was the embodiment of the first “Thought” [or Ennoia] of his “Mind” [or Nous], and Mother of All. In addition, Helen was the embodiment of Wisdom [Sophia], desecrated and corrupted, having been trapped by the world of matter; much like a prostitute, and all the greater need for her to be saved. This idea of the salvation of a “lost sheep” was indeed to be prevalent in all Gnostic teachings. Helen’s past as a prostitute, her previous "incarnations" including allegedly that of Helen of Troy, and her being venerated as a divine mother figure might well have been considered a further [if not the ultimate] outrage to early Christians. Simon, however, wasn’t seeking to shock his audience of followers, but to demonstrate how the soul can be lost, misguided and abused by others. Through divine consciousness and the casting off the shackles of matter, Simon sought to teach that there was redemption and hope for the soul. This transcendence and reaching of an enlightened state would echo throughout the later teachings of the Gnostics, ultimately through to the Cathars in the late 12th century; many years after the death of both Simon and Helen and supposed complete suppression of their doctrine.
Early Church writers state that both Simon and Helen believed themselves to be divine, resulting in their being denounced as lunatics. As a result of this denunciation, all of Simon’s doctrines and ideas could be dismissed and discredited. Furthermore, Simon Magus' beliefs stated that two counterparts existed to every soul; having been placed in separate bodies, one being male and the other female. Most sects and religious groups required celibacy of their members, this ascetic stance doesn’t seem to have been to have part of Simon’s theology. Once again, this outlook would probably seemed scandalous to other sects and early writers; so further exaggeration was employed thus discrediting Simon's belief and those of his followers. What was in fact, most probably, natural sexual union between men and women was exaggerated to the degree of all manner of debauchery and perversion.
Simon is claimed to have possessed magical powers and abilities, dismissed as "false miracles", and was employed by the Roman emperor [some sources state Claudius, others Nero] as court magician. These feats included levitation, an ability to create gold, the transformation of stones into bread. These powers were unquestionably exaggerated, not to venerate Simon, but to depreciate his doctrines. In addition, Simon's condemnation for offering Peter money to teach him the secret of transmitting the Holy Ghost, appalled the apostle so much he accused Simon of wickedness. Simon was behaving in true Hellenic tradition, whereby it was considered common practice to offer money in return for sharing ideas and secrets.
It is reported that Simon came to the end of his days in differing ways depending upon the source material. The most frequently reported demise being that Simon was performing magic in the Roman forum. In order that he might to prove his divinity to the assembled crowd, Simon levitated above the forum, however his adversary Peter prayed to God to stop the performance of this "false miracle". So, midflight, Simon fell downwards to the Via Sacra where he broke his leg (or his body) in three places. The spectators watching Simon then turned hostile and denounced him, stoning him as he lay wounded. Despite this assault, Simon was rescued by his followers, and died later the same evening, in the house of Castor, himself denounced as a sorcerer.
This popular apocryphal tale lead to representations of Simon Magus as a winged demon, falling to the ground to his doom (see illustration below). However, in alternative version of events, Hippolytus tells of how Simon chose to end his days preaching under a plane tree. His arguments with Peter had reached a climax and, so as to bide time, he instructed his followers to bury him alive so that he might rise from the dead on the third day. His followers carried out his request, however Simon's resurrection, and was left in his tomb, presumably where he died.
One of the most vehemently anti-Gnostic and early church writers, Irenaeus, states that Simon claimed to have come guaranteeing salvation to men through gnosis [knowledge], as the Angels were mismanaging the world, each desiring sovereignty over it. Simon believed that it was under the influence of such Angels that the Old Testament Scriptures had come to be written, therefore the Scriptures should no longer be considered valid or relevant. His belief was in that of a new order; a dissolution of the existing states and world “for righteous actions are not according to nature, but from accident, in the manner that the Angels who made the world have laid it down, by such precepts enslaving men”.
Simon is condemned in the [lost] writings Justin Martyr as having founded a sect [presumably referring to Simonism] whereby he was specifically worshipped as a divine being, and was honoured by his worshippers with a statue in Rome, located on an island in the Tiber. In July 1574, a life-size and altar was uncovered on the Isle of the Tiber seemingly the one refered to by Justin. The statue is in fact dedicated to Semo Sanctis, a Sabine deity of marriage, hospitality and contracts. An inscription found on the altar would appear to have been misread, having been inscribed Semoni Sanco Deo and not Simoni Deo Sancto as reported. It cannot be certain whether this was a simple error on the part of Justin, or deception to further discredit Simon and his teachings.
The Acts of Peter, an apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, is quite possibly the most virulent in content relating to the Simon's denunciation, whee he is made the focus of much scorn and derision; being rejected by many in Rome for his doctrines and attempts at miracle working. Despite the Acts of Peter not being present in the current New Testament and largely unheard of today; important details are contained therein, such as the tradition of Peter being crucified head down. Peter felt himself choosing this method of execution believing himself unworthy of dying in the same manner as that of Jesus Christ.
Simoniasm seems to have developed following the death of John the Baptist, from the group of his disciples which Simon led following his return from Alexandria. Simonianism and its doctrine were probably heavily influenced by Hellenism and Hebraism; these teachings and ideas were doubtless due to Simon’s studies of Jewish-Arabic medicine in Alexandria coupled with his reading and studies of the Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus of Ephesus. Much like Simon, Heraclitus was also condemned by Hippolytus. The writings and teachings of Heraclitus were condemned, together with other Academics and Pro-Socratics, as having anticipated subsequent heretics for their teachings and ideas, as well as for his obscurity for he is unable to condemn him as a heretic. Heraclitus is further condemned for leading individuals such as Noetus away from the teachings of Christ. Ancient philosophers and their ideas were dismissed by the early church fathers as heretic and pagan, whereas Simon seems to have tried to incorporate these ideas into his doctrines and teachings. This interpolation of ideas may well have contributed to Simon’s subsequent tarnished reputation and condemnation as a heretic. Intriguingly, the Hebrew philosopher and contemporary of Simon, Philo of Alexandria [c. 20BC – c50AD], utilised elements of Stoicism and Platonism in his writings and thoughts, as well as incorporating the idea of the Logos, a principle teaching of Heraclitus. The Simonian sect flourished and continued long after Simon’s death, in parts of Asia Minor, Syria and even in Rome before seemingly petering out in the 4th century AD.
The Simonians themselves were denounced and accused of using love potions and magic, and for engaging in immoral sexual practices proclaiming that sex corresponded to perfect love. Eusebius considers them to be the most immoral and depraved of all. The suggestion of their apparent worship of Simon and his consort Helen corresponded with the worship of Simon as the sun, and Helen as the moon, can be dismissed. Other writers suggested that the cults of Zeus and Athene were linked to the worshiping practices of the Simonians; again these allegations appear ill-founded, likely to be either hearsay or misinterpretation, whether deliberate or otherwise is uncertain.
Simon’s doctrine and teachings included two treatises called The Four Quarters of the World and The Sermons of the Refuter, both of which have been lost, as is his doctrine The Great Declaration [Apopaphis Megale]. This doctrine is discussed in Hippolytus, containing elements similar to the doctrines of an early Gnostic teacher, Valentinus, again which are sadly lost to us. Contained therein are elements of Hellenism, as well as Stoic and Aristotolean physics as well. Simon’s philosophy taught that fire was the first principle of all things, drawing on the teachings of Heraclitus the Obscure. This first principle was a “Boundless power”, which dwelt in Man, and that this fire was an intelligent being. From this being sprung six roots; Mind, Voice, Reason, Reflection, Name, and Thought. The seventh power was the spirit of God. The Garden of Eden was seen as being the womb, and the umbilical cord interpreted as being the rivers leading out of the Garden (as listed in the second book of Genesis).
Simon’s teachings suggested that there was an active force in nature, as well as the physical world, and taking both male and female forms. Matter was eternal, and, in line with the teachings of some of the Gnostic schools of thought, that it was a foolish, evil god who ruled over it. His dogma included the rejection of the teachings of the prophets, the scriptures, and the God of the Old Testament. The train of thought entertained by Simon was more philosophical, tied in specifically with those philosophies of the Greeks; and these ideas which clashed severely with those of the Jews as much as the early Christians. Simon appears to have endeavored to merge the two schools of thought, rather than creating conflict of interest and ideas. The Greeks were considerably further advanced than their contemporaries, on subjects as diverse science and philosophy, in particular the Christians, led by Peter and by Paul. The Christians preference being that of employing rational thinking, and this advanced thought process could well lead to a "devaluing" of the message the early church fathers sought to propagate. This undermining of the Christian message fueled the necessity to depreciate the more advanced ideas being taught by Simon Magus and his sect of followers.
As previously stated, Simon’s teachings were to continue following his death; amongst his followers were a number of charismatic individuals, such as Saturninus, Dositheos and Menander, all of whom were themselves in turn denounced as being heretics. Dositheos was of Samaritan origin, and may initially have taught Simon himself. Like his student, Dositheos is also reputed to have known John the Baptist. Menander was responsible for the founding of another sect called the Menandrians, whereby he declared himself to be another Messiah, another redeemer figure. Menander’s teachings included the ideas that men received immortality and resurrection through baptism, furthering suggestions made by Simon in the creation of the world was by angels, sent by the Ennoia.