Simon Magus, also known as Simon the Sorcerer and Simon of Gitta, was a Samaritan gnostic who, according to ancient Christian accounts, allegedly asserted that he was an incarnation of God. In the various descriptions of his life, he was credited with all manner of arcane powers, including (most typically) the gift of flight. Though various early Christian writings such as the Acts of the Apostles mention him, there are no surviving writings from Simon Magus himself or from the members of his school. As such, it is difficult to judge the veracity of the charges laid against him.
Given its primarily derogatory meaning, "Simon Magus" and "Simonianism" also became generic terms used by ancient Christians as derogatory epithets for schismatics.
The figure of Simon appears prominently in the accounts of several early Christian authors, who regarded him as the first heretic. Indeed, these texts savagely denounced him, stating that he had the hubris to assert that his own divinity and to found a religious sect (Simonianism) based on that premise. As mentioned above, this means that virtually all of the surviving sources for the life and thought of Simon Magus are contained in the polemical treatises of the ancient Christian Orthodoxy, including the Acts of the Apostles, patristic works (such as the anti-heretical treatises written by Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Hippolytus), and the apocryphal Acts of Peter and Clementine literature.  This being said, small fragments of a work written by him (or by one of his later followers using his name), the Apophasis Megalé ("Great Pronouncement") are still extant, and seem to reveal a fairly well-developed Gnostic metaphysics. The patristic sources describe other Simonian treatises, including the The Four Quarters of the World and The Sermons of the Refuter, but these (and all other textual traces) are lost to us. In spite of these tantalizingly unattestable fragments, it must be emphasized that the Simon who has been transmitted through history is primarily a legendary caricature of a heretic, rather than an actual individual.
The story of Simon Magus is perhaps most instructive to modern readers for the light that it sheds on the early Christian world view. More specifically, it must be noted that all depictions of the conjurer, from the Acts onward, accept the existence of his magical powers without question. As such, their issue is a moral one, addressing Simon's alleged claims of divinity and his use of magic to lead Christians from the "righteous path," rather than a factual objection to the assertions that he could levitate, animate the dead, and transform his physical body. In this, it fits a common patristic paradigm, whereby the difference between magic (which is demonic) and miracles (which are angelic) is determined by the intentions of their respective practitioners: "Simon Magus used his magical powers to enhance his own status. He wanted to be revered as a God himself…. The apostles, on the other hand, used their powers only in recognition that they were simply vessels through which God's power flowed. It is in this latter form that magic acceptably enters Christian thought." As a result, Simon must be comprehended as part of a historical context where all religious figures (including the apostles, martyrs, and saints) were understood to possess superhuman abilities, and that his sin was not the practicing of such arts but his hubris in practicing them for his own gain.
The earliest depiction of Simon Magus can be found in the canonical Book of Acts, where he is described as a convert of Saint Philip. In contravention his supposed conversion, he then proceeds to offend the Apostles by attempting to exchange material wealth for the miraculous ability of transmitting the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands:
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, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, "This man is the divine power known as the Great Power." They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
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, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin."
Then Simon answered, "Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me" (Acts 8:9-24) (NIV).
The reviled sin of simony (paying for position and influence in the church, or, more broadly, "the buying or selling of sacred things") derives its name from that of the detested heretic.
The apocryphal Acts of Peter (ca. 150-200 C.E.) provides a deeper and more nuanced portrait of alleged conflict between Simon and the early Church Fathers. Unlike the scanty mention of Simon in the Book of Acts, this text delves into his boastful claims of divinity, the founding of his schismatic sect, and the (obviously legendary) circumstances of his demise.
The first mention of the masterful wizard in the Acts of Peter concerns his appearance before an assembly of Christian converts and his success in luring away from the orthodox path through his magical abilities:
Now after a few days there was a great commotion in the midst of the church, for some said that they had seen wonderful works done by a certain man whose name was Simon, and that he was at Aricia, and they added further that he said he was a great power of God and without God he did nothing. Is not this the Christ? but we believe in him whom Paul preached unto us; for by him have we seen the dead raised, and men Delivered from divers infirmities: but this man seeketh contention, we know it (or, but what this contention is, we know not) for there is no small stir made among us. Perchance also he will now enter into Rome; for yesterday they besought him with great acclamations, saying unto him: Thou art God in Italy, thou art the saviour of the Romans: haste quickly unto Rome. But he spake to the people with a shrill voice, saying: Tomorrow about the seventh hour ye shall see me fly over the gate of the city in the form (habit) wherein ye now see me speaking unto you. Therefore, brethren, if it seem good unto you, let us go and await carefully the issue of the matter. They all therefore ran together and came unto the gate. And when it was the seventh hour, behold suddenly a dust was seen in the sky afar off, like a smoke shining with rays stretching far from it. And when he drew near to the gate, suddenly he was not seen: and thereafter he appeared, standing in the midst of the people; whom they all worshipped, and took knowledge that he was the same that was seen of them the day before.
And the brethren were not a little offended among themselves, seeing, moreover, that Paul was not at Rome, neither Timotheus nor Barnabas, for they had been sent into Macedonia by Paul, and that there was no man to comfort us, to speak nothing of them that had but just become catechumens. And as Simon exalted himself yet more by the works which he did, and many of them daily called Paul a sorcerer, and others a deceiver, of so great a multitude that had been stablished in the faith all fell away save Narcissus the presbyter and two women in the lodging of the Bithynians, and four that could no longer go out of their house, but were shut up (day and night): these gave themselves unto prayer (by day and night), beseeching the Lord that Paul might return quickly, or some other that should visit his servants, because the devil had made them fall by his wickedness .
When evaluating the text from within its own historical context, its xenophobic fear of heretical sects becomes more intelligible. Indeed, it was an era of dogmatic and ideological flux, where theological positions were less important than charismatic leadership. As such, the author's prayer "that Paul might return quickly" is an understandable request, as the community of the faithful, lacking the saint's forceful influence, were quick to impute Christ-like powers to a contending philosophical school.
In the text's account, the magus's malevolent influence upon the faithful eventually goaded Peter into responding with his own miracles—such as giving a dog a human voice, exorcising a demon, and imparting new life into a dried sardine. Unlike Simon, however, Peter's miracles were all executed in Christ's name:
Following Peter's exceptional demonstration of miraculous ability, Simon found it necessary to indulge in even greater prodigious feats in an attempt to win back Peter's converts (and to convince the disciple that his faith was ill-founded). This incremental, supernatural "arms race" proved to be the mage's undoing.
The final chapters of the Acts describe the disciple and the magus agreeing to engage in a mystical contest whose prize would be the faith of the assembled Roman citizens. Though Simon, using his gift of flight to his advantage, makes initial inroads, he is then trumped by Peter, who prays for him to fall:
Some versions of the tale (which has been transmitted to the present in several iterations) claim that Saint Paul was also present during this spiritual contest. According to local folklore, the site of the Manichean conflict between the disciples and the heretic can still be identified by seeking a dented slab of marble in the courtyard, which is thought to have "melted" around the knees of the saints as they prayed for divine assistance. Also,, the Roman church of Santa Francesca Romana claims to have been built on the spot where Simon fell (a proposition that implies belief in this apocryphal legend).
Given that the text has passed through several different recensions, there currently exist a range of opinions concerning the resolution of the confrontation between Peter and Simon. While most accounts suggest that the wizard ultimately perishes, at least three variant explanations for his death have been forwarded: 1) Simon fell to his death following Peter's prayer; 2) he survived the fall but was stoned to death by the enraged (and disillusioned) crowd below; or, 3) he survived the fall and escaped from the enraged townsfolk relatively unscathed, but died having his shattered legs operated on by an incompetent surgeon.
Justin Martyr and Irenaeus recount the myth of Simon and Helene, which reportedly provided the metaphysical core of Simonian Gnosticism. According to this myth, God's first thought (his Ennoia (see Sophia)) was a female force that was responsible for the creation of the angels. Unfortunately, the angels rebelled against her out of jealousy, creating the physical world to be her prison and trapping her in the mortal body of a human female. Thereafter, she was entangled in an inescapable cycle of reincarnation (being rebord as Helen of Troy among many others), where each life saw her inexorably misused and shamed. This cycle culminated in the present, where she was finally reincarnated as Helene, a slave and prostitute in the Phoenician city of Tyre. Deciding to put an end to her suffering, God then descended (in the form of Simon Magus) to rescue his Ennoia. Once he redeemed Helene from slavery, the legendary wizard traveled about with her, proclaiming himself to be God and her to be the Ennoia, and promising that he would dissolve this unjust world the angels had made. This final claim provided both the eschatological and the soteriological underpinnings for Simonianism, as Simon decreed that those who trusted in him and Helene could return with them to the higher regions after his destruction of this realm.
The other notable development in Justin and Irenaeus's heresiologies is the suggestion that the Simonians worshiped Simon in the form of Zeus and Helene in the form of Athena. As proof, they claim that a statue to Simon was erected by Claudius Caesar with the inscription Simoni Deo Sancto, "To Simon the Holy God." While a sculpture was indeed unearthed on the island in question, it was inscribed to Semo Sancus, a Sabine deity, leading many to believe that Justin Martyr confused Semoni Sancus with Simon.
Origen's account, emerging several decade after that of Irenaeus, has certain one key difference with its predecessors: namely, it does not view Simon or Simonianism as threats. As such, it is comfortable discussing the limited number of adherents to these beliefs.
Hippolytus (in his Philosophumena) gives a much more doctrinally detailed account of Simonianism, which is said to include a metaphysical system of divine emanations. Given the doctrinal depth of this system, it seems likely that Hippolytus' report concerns a later, more developed form of Simonianism, and that the original doctrines of the group were simpler (as represented in the heresiologies of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus):
Regardless, the Hippolytan account is most notable for its extensive quotations from the Apophasis Megale, as the Simonian text has only been transmitted to the present in an indirect or incomplete manner. As such, Hippolytus provides one of the most direct (if not necessarily unbiased) avenues to the comprehension of historical Simonianism.
The different sources for information on Simon contain quite different pictures of him, so much so that it has been questioned whether they all refer to the same person. This issue is exemplified by the fact that the various accounts characterize and evaluate Simon quite differently, a fact that is cogently summarized by Mead:
According to some academics, Simon Magus may be a cypher for Paul of Tarsus, as, according to them, Paul had originally been detested by the church. According to this theory, the heretic's name was overtly (and retroactively) altered when Paul was rehabilitated by virtue of his reputed authorship of the Pauline Epistles. Though this suggestion appears radical at first glance, Simon Magus is sometimes described in apocryphal legends in terms that could fit Paul. Furthermore, while the Christian Orthodoxy frequently portrayed Marcion as having been a follower of Simon Magus, Marcion's extant writings fail to even mention the existence of Simon. Instead, he overtly identifies himself as a follower of Paul. This argument receives support from the fact that various extra-canonical works from the time (such as the Clementine Texts and the Apocalypse of Stephen) also describe Paul in extremely negative terms, frequently depicting him as arch villain and enemy of Christianity. Though each of these facts is circumstantial, they do provide an intriguing case in support of an equation between Paul and Simon.
In general, Simon Magus is most significant to modern readers for the insights that his various (derogatory) biographies provide into the mindset and world-view of an early Christian—a perspective that conflated spiritual insight with miraculous power, and incompatible doctrines (i.e. Gnosticism) with heresy.
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