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Simon Magus

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Simon Magus .—According to the testimony of St. Justin (“First Apolog.”, xxvi), whose statement as to this should probably be believed, Simon came from Gitta (in the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, II, xxii, called (Greek: Getthon) in the country of the Samaritans. At the outbreak of the persecution (c. 37 A.D.) of the early Christian community at Jerusalem that began with the martyrdom of St. Stephen, when Philip the Deacon went from Jerusalem to Samaria, Simon lived in the latter city. By his magic arts, because of which he was called “Magus”, and by his teachings in which he announced himself as the “great power of God“, he had made a name for himself and had won adherents. He listened to Philip’s sermons, was impressed by them, and like many of his countrymen was baptized and united with the community of believers in Christ. But, as was evident later, his conversion was not the result of the inner conviction of faith in Christ as the Redeemer, but rather from selfish motives, for he hoped to gain greater magical power and thus to increase his influence. For when the Apostles Peter and John came to Samaria to bestow on the believers baptized by Philip the outpouring of the Spirit which was accompanied by miraculous manifestations, Simon offered them money, desiring them to grant him what he regarded as magical power, so that he also by the laying on of hands could bestow the Holy Ghost, and thereby produce such miraculous results. Full of indignation at such an offer Peter rebuked him sharply, exhorted him to penance and conversion and warned him of the wickedness of his conduct. Under the influence of Peter’s rebuke Simon begged the Apostles to pray for him (Acts, viii, 9-29). However, according to the unanimous report of the authorities of the second century, he persisted in his false views. The ecclesiastical writers of the early Church universally represent him as the first heretic, the “Father of Heresies”.

Simon is not mentioned again in the writings of the New Testament. The account in the Acts of the Apostles is the sole authoritative report that we have about him. The statements of the writers of the second century concerning him are. largely legendary, and it is difficult or rather impossible to extract from them any historical fact the details of which are established with certainty. St. Justin of Rome (“First Apolog.”, xxvi, lvi; “Dialogus c. Tryphonem”, cxx) describes Simon as a man who, at the instigation of demons, claimed to be a god. Justin says further that Simon came to Rome during the reign of the Emperor Claudius and by his magic arts won many followers so that these erected on the island in the Tiber a statue to him as a divinity with the inscription “Simon the Holy God“. The statue, however, that Justin took for one dedicated to Simon was undoubtedly one of the old Sabine divinity Semo Sancus. Statues of this early god with similar inscriptions have been found on the island in the Tiber and elsewhere in Rome. It is plain that the interchange of e and i in the Roman characters led Justin or the Roman Christians before him, to look upon the statue of the early Sabine deity, of whom they knew nothing, as a statue of the magician. Whether Justin’s opinion that Simon Magus came to Rome rests only on the fact that he believed Roman followers had erected this statue to him, or whether he had other information on this point, cannot now be positively determined. His testimony cannot, therefore, be verified and so remains doubtful. The later anti-heretical writers, who report Simon’s residence at Rome, take Justin and the apocryphal Acts of Peter as their authority, so that their testimony is of no value. Simon brought with him, so Justin and other authorities state, a paramour from Tyre called Helena. He claimed that she was the first conception (tryout) whom he, as the “great power of God“, had freed from bondage.

Simon plays an important part in the “Pseudo-Clementines“. He appears here as the chief antagonist of the Apostle Peter, by whom he is everywhere, followed and opposed. The alleged magical arts of the magician and Peter’s efforts against him are described in a way that is absolutely imaginary. The entire account lacks all historical basis. In the “Philosophumena” of Hippolytus of Rome (vi, vii-xx), the doctrine of Simon and his followers is treated in detail. The work also relates circumstantially how Simon labored at Rome and won many by his magic arts, and how he attacked the Apostles Peter and Paul who opposed him. According to this account the reputation of the magician was greatly injured by the efforts of the two Apostles and the number of his followers became constantly smaller. He consequently left Rome and returned to his home at Gitta. In order to give his scholars there a proof of his higher nature and divine mission and thus regain his authority, he had a grave dug and permitted himself to be buried in it, after previously prophesying that after three days he would rise alive from it. But the promised resurrection did not take place; Simon died in the grave. The apocryphal Acts of St. Peter give an entirely different account of Simon’s conduct at Rome and of his death (Lipsius, “Die apokryphen Apostelgeschichten and Apostellegenden”, II, Pt. I (Brunswick, 1887). In this work also great stress is laid upon the struggle between Simon and the two Apostles Peter and Paul at Rome. By his magic arts Simon had also sought to win the Emperor Nero for himself, an attempt in which he had been thwarted by the Apostles. As proof of the truth of his doctrines Simon offered to ascend into the heavens before the eyes of Nero and the Roman populace; by magic he did rise in the air in the Roman Forum, but the prayers of the Apostles Peter and Paul caused him to fall, so that he was severely injured and shortly afterwards died miserably. Arnobius reports this alleged attempt to fly and the death of Simon with still other particulars (“Adv. nations”, ii, xii; cf. “Constit. Apost.” vi, ix). This legend led later to the erection of a church dedicated to the Apostles on the alleged spot of Simon’s fall near the Via Sacra above the Forum. The stones of the pavement on which the Apostles knelt in prayer and which are said to contain the impression of their knees, are now in the wall of the Church of Santa Francesca Romana.

All these narratives belong naturally to the do-main of legend. It is evident from them, however, that, according to the tradition of the second century, Simon Magus appeared as an opponent of Christian doctrine and of the Apostles, and as a heretic or rather as a false Messias of the Apostolic age. This view rests on the sole authoritative historical account of him, that given us by the Acts of the Apostles. It cannot be determined how far one or another detail of his later life, as given in essentially legendary form in the authorities of the second century and the following era, may be traced to historical tradition. Baur (“Die christl. Gnosis”, 310) and some of his adherents have denied the historical existence of Simon and his sect. This view, opposed to the account in the Book of Acts, and to the tradition of the second century, is now abandoned by all serious historians. Further this “legendary” Simon was made an essential link by the Tubingen School of Baur and his followers for historical evidence of the alleged “Petrine” and “Pauline” factions in the early Church, which had fought with one another and from whose union the Catholic Church arose. For the same reasons this school, especially Lipsius, assigns the labors of St. Peter at Rome, which it claims are first made known by these apocryphal writings, to the domain of legend. All these theories, however, are without basis and have been abandoned by serious historical scholars, even among non-Catholics (cf. Schmidt, “Petrus in Rom”, Lucerne, 1892). A developed system of doctrines is attributed to Simon and his followers in the anti-heretical writings of the early Church, especially in Irenaeus (“Adv. hoer.” I, xxiii; IV; VI, xxxiii), in the “Philosophumena” (VI, VII sq.), and in Epiphanius (“Hoer.”, XXII). The work “The Great Declaration” (Greek: `Apophasis megale) was also ascribed to Simon, and the “Pseudo-Clementines” also present his teaching in detail. How much of this system actually belonged to Simon cannot now be determined. Still his doctrine seems to have been a heathen Gnosticism, in which he proclaimed himself as the Standing One (Greek: estos), the principal emanation of the Deity and the Redeemer. According to Irenaeus he claimed to have appeared in Samaria as the Father, in Judea as the Son, and among the heathen as the Holy Ghost, a manifestation of the Eternal. He asserted that Helena, who went about with him, was the first conception of the Deity, the mother of all, by whom the Deity had created the angels and the mons. The cosmic forces had cast her into corporeal bonds, from which she was released by Simon as the great power. In morals Simon was probably Antinomian, an enemy of Old Testament law. His magi-cal arts were continued by his disciples; these led unbridled, licentious lives, in accordance with the principles which they had learned from their master. At any rate they called themselves Simonians, giving Simon Magus as their founder.


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