Simon Magus

views updated May 18 2018


A magician of Samaria converted to Christianity by philip the deacon (Acts 8.924). The title Magus, given him in tradition, is from the Greek μάγος (a loanword from Persian) meaning an astrologer, diviner, sorcerer. While μάγος is not found in the account in Acts, Luke writes that Simon was "practising magic" (μαγεύων) and that many were "bewitched" by his "sorceries" (μαγείαις). see magic.

The conversion of Samaria was a significant development in the early Church. It marked an important step in the fulfillment of the Lord's promise, "You will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and even to the very ends of the earth" (Acts 1.8). After the death of Stephen, which marked the beginning of a period of persecution for the Church, Philip preached the gospel to the samaritans with extraordinary success. This was impressive in view of the fact that the people of Samaria were much given over to sorcery under the leadership of a certain Simon, who had previously astounded everyone by his magical powers. Luke tells us that "Simon also himself believed, and after his baptism attached himself to Philip; and at the sight of the signs and exceedingly great miracles being wrought, he was amazed" (Acts 8.13).

When the Apostles in Jerusalem heard of Philip's success in preaching to the Samaritans, who were not regarded as belonging to the Jewish community, they sent Peter and John to them. On their arrival, "they laid hands on them, and they [the converts] received the Holy Spirit" (v. 17). When Simon saw that the Apostles had this special power, he offered Peter and John money so that they would give it to him also; they refused and judged him worthy of God's wrath (v. 20). Simon thereupon repented and asked their prayers that God might not punish him. The story of Simon's attempt to buy spiritual power has produced the word simony, traffic in sacred things.

From the NT we know nothing more of Simon Magus. Justin Martyr (2d Christian century) goes beyond the story in Acts, stating that Simon claimed to be a god and attracted many disciples in a false sect that endured until Justin's time (1 Apol. 26). After Justin, later writers, especially Irenaeus (Adversus Haereses 1.23), describe him as the founder of the Simonians, a gnostic sect, and as the archetype of heretics. Some even portray him as the Antichrist. Several legends are told of him in apocryphal literature, e.g., of his dispute with Peter and Paul before Nero, in which Simon, to prove his divinity, tries to fly to heaven but falls to his death (PseudoMarcellus).

Bibliography: É. amann, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot et. al. 1:499500. g. klein, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 3 6:3839.

[j. a. grassi]

Simon Magus

views updated May 23 2018


Simon Magus, the earliest Gnostic leader known to us, was a native of the Samaritan village of Gitta. He is first mentioned in Acts (8:425), where he appears as a wonder-worker who had gained a considerable following in Samaria and who sought to augment his stock in trade by purchasing the power of conferring the Holy Spirit from the apostles. The identity of the Simon of the book of Acts and the founder of the Gnostic sect has been questioned, but Irenaeus, among others, has no doubt of it. According to Hippolytus, Simon died in Rome when he failed, in an abortive attempt at a miracle, to rise from the pit in which he had been buried alive. In the pseudo-Clementine literature Simon serves as the target for veiled Jewish-Christian attacks on Paul and Marcion. According to Origen, in his time the Simonians numbered only thirty, but Eusebius, years later, still knew of their existence.

The Simonian theory is of special interest not only as one of the earliest Gnostic systems but also as providing an illustration of the ways in which such systems developed and were modified. Assessment of the evidence is complicated by the meagerness of our sources and by various problems of evaluation and interpretation, but in general we may distinguish three main stages. Simon himself appears to have been a "magician" of the common Hellenistic type, who claimed to be a divine incarnation. His teaching would be not so much Gnostic in the second-century sense (that is, the Gnosticism of the heretical Christian systems) but rather a form of syncretistic gnosis into which he sought to incorporate Christian elements. The accounts of Justin and Irenaeus introduce his companion, the ex-prostitute Helen, whom he declared to be the first conception (Ennoia ) of his mind, emanating from him like Athena from the head of Zeus. A notable feature here is the blending of biblical elements with elements from Homer and Greek mythology.

Descending to the lower regions, Ennoia generated the angels and powers by whom this world was made but was then detained by them and compelled to suffer a round of incarnations (thus she is, inter alia, Helen of Troy) until Simon himself came to redeem her. The problem here is to know how much can be credited to Simon himself and how much to reflection among his followers.

A third and more philosophical stage is represented by the "Great Affirmation" preserved by Hippolytus, which probably has nothing to do with the original Simon but may be the work of later disciples attributed, as was often the case, to the master himself. Here the primal ground of being is fire, from which emanate three pairs of "roots," or Powers, which are the origin of all existence: Mind and Thought, Voice and Name, Reason and Desire (text in W. Völker, Quellen zur Geschichte des christlichen Gnosis, Tübingen, 1932, pp. 3ff.). In this scheme, elements from Greek philosophy (Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle) are blended with biblical and Homeric elements into a thoroughly Gnostic system. It is of interest to note that Simonianism provides one of the sources of the later Faust legend.

See also Aristotle; Gnosticism; Heraclitus of Ephesus; Homer; Marcion; Origen; Plato.


general works

Grant, R. M. Gnosticism and Early Christianity, 70ff. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.

Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion, 103ff. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.

Leisegang, H. Die Gnosis, 60ff. Stuttgart, 1955.

Wilson, R. McL. The Gnostic Problem, 99ff. London: A.R. Mowbray, 1958.

specialized works

Casey, R. P. "Simon Magus." In The Beginnings of Christianity, edited by F. J. F. Jackson and Kirsopp Lake. Vol. V, 151ff. London, 1933.

Cerfaux, L. Receuil Cerfaux. 2 vols. Vol. I, 191ff. Gembloux, 1954.

Haenchen, E. "Gab es eine vorchristliche Gnosis?" Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 49 (1952): 316ff.

Haenchen, E. Die Apostelgeschichte, 250ff. Göttingen, 1959.

Hall, G. N. L. "Simon Magus." In Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings. Vol. XI, 514ff. Deals fairly extensively with the "Great Affirmation."

Headlam, A. C. "Simon Magus." In Dictionary of the Bible, edited by James Hastings. Vol. IV, 520ff. On p. 527 Headlam lists four points in the later Faust legend that point back to the legend of Simon Magus.

Lietzmann, H. "Simon Magus." In Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, edited by August Pauly and Georg Wissowa. 2nd series. Vol. III, Cols. 180ff.

R. McL. Wilson (1967)

Simon Magus (ca. 67 C.E.)

views updated Jun 08 2018

Simon Magus (ca. 67 C.E.)

Founder of the heterodox sect of Simonites, often identified with the sorcerer mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 8) who was said to have bewitched the people of Samaria and made them believe that he was possessed of divine power.

He was born in Samaria or Cyprus and was among the number of Samaritans who came to Philip for baptism after hearing him preach. Later, when Peter and John laid their hands on the new converts, so that they received the Holy Ghost, Simon offered the disciples money to procure a similar power. But Peter sternly rebuked him for seeking to buy the gift of God with money (a practice afterward called simony) and bade him pray that his evil thought might be forgiven, whereupon the already repentant Simon said, "Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me."

Though we are not told in detail the sorceries with which Simon was supposed to have bewitched the people of Samaria, certain early ecclesiastical writers have left a record of his doings. They claimed that he could make himself invisible when he pleased, assume the appearance of another person or of one of the lower animals, pass unharmed through fire, cause statues to come alive, make furniture move without any visible means of imparting motion, and perform many other miracles. In explanation of his desire to possess the apostles' power of working miracles, he is said to have affirmed that his sorceries took a great deal of time and trouble to perform, owing to the necessity for a multitude of magical rites and incantations, while the miracles of the apostles were accomplished easily and successfully by the mere utterance of a few words.

The adept from whom Simon was supposed to have learned the art of magic was Dositheus, who pretended to be the Messiah foretold by the prophets and who was contemporary with Christ. From this person Simon was said to have acquired a great store of occult erudition, and owed his power chiefly to the hysterical conditions into which he was capable of throwing himself. Through these, he was able to make himself look either old or young, returning at will to childhood or old age.

It seems that he had not been initiated into transcendental magic, but was merely consumed by a thirst for power over humanity and the mysteries of nature. Repulsed by the apostles, he is said to have undertaken pilgrimages, like them, in which he permitted himself to be worshiped by the mob. He declared that he himself was the manifestation of the Splendor of God, and that Helena, his Greek slave, was its reflection. Thus he imitated Christianity in the reverse sense, affirmed the eternal reign of evil and revolt, and was, in fact, an antichrist.

After a while, according to popular legend, he went to Rome, where he appeared before the Emperor Nero. He is said to have been decapitated by him; however, his head returned to his shoulders, and he was instituted by the tyrant as court sorcerer. Legend also states that St. Peter, alarmed at the spread of the doctrine of Simon in Rome, hurried there to combat it. When Nero was made aware of Peter's arrival, he imagined Peter to be a rival sorcerer and resolved to bring Simon and Peter together for his amusement.

An account ascribed to St. Clement states that upon the arrival of Peter, Simon flew gracefully through a window into the outside air. The apostle made a vehement prayer, whereupon the magician, with a loud cry, crashed to the earth and broke both his legs. Nero, greatly annoyed, immediately imprisoned the saint, and it is related that Simon died of his fall. He had, however, founded a distinct school, headed by Merrander, that promised immortality of soul and body to its followers.

In the mid-nineteenth century, a sect existed in France and the United States that credited the principles of this magician.

French scholar Jacques Lacarrière viewed Simon Magus as one of the precursors of Gnosticism.


Lacarrière, Jacques. The Gnostics. London: Owen, 1977. Reprint, San Francisco: City Lights, 1989.

Simon Magus

views updated May 23 2018

Simon Magus. An opponent of St Peter, later identified as a heresiarch (see HERESY). According to Acts 8. 9–24 he was a sorcerer known as ‘that Power of God which is called Great’, who practised in Samaria. His career is elaborated in the Clementine Homilies and Recognitions, and also in other legends from which, perhaps, that of Faust evolved.

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