One of the most notorious arch-heretics of early Christianity was an enigmatic figure known as Simon Magus (Simon the Magician) or Simon of Samaria. In case you’re not familiar with him, here’s a brief run-down on what various texts say about him:
- According to Josephus (Antiquities XX.7 §2), there was a Cypriot named Simon who pretended to be a magician, and he was a personal friend of Felix, the procurator of Judea (52–58). Acting on behalf of his friend, Simon persuaded the beautiful Drusilla, the sister of king Agrippa II, to leave her husband and marry Felix.
- In Acts 8, there is a character named Simon who has bewitched the people of Samaria with his magic. He converts to Christianity at the preaching of the evangelist Philip, but is rebuked by Peter for trying to purchase Peter and John’s spiritual abilities with money.
- Justin Martyr (First Apology I.26) wrote of a Samaritan named Simon who was venerated by some as a god in Rome and elsewhere because of his magic. He speaks of Simon teaching “wicked and deceitful doctrine.” (Second Apology XV) Justin Martyr does not seem to be aware of the story in Acts.
- Irenaeus, writing sometime later, ties together Simon from Acts with Justin Martyr’s deceitful teacher Simon. He describes Simon as the founder of a heretical Christian sect.
- The apocryphal Acts of Peter describes Simon as a magician who was deceiving the people of Rome with his sorcery. He was confronted and refuted by Peter, and during a magic act in which Simon flew through the air above Rome, Peter’s prayer caused him to fall and mortally injure himself. This creative tale seems to derive some details from Justin Martyr’s brief account. (Another character in the story is Agrippa the prefect of Rome, which is curious since there never was a prefect by that name. Literary influence from Josephus?)
- Later Christian heresiologists followed in the footsteps of Irenaeus to denounce a variety of Gnostic sects and doctrines described as “Simonian” and attributed to teachers who had been pupils of Simon Magus.
Just what was Simon Magus’s “wicked and deceitful doctrine”, that apparently inspired heretical Gnostic sects and prompted numerous patristic writers to expend so much energy and ink refuting it? I was struck by an observation Robert M. Price made in The Amazing Colossal Apostle (p. 213) and had to look at the original texts for myself.
According to Irenaeus, our earliest witness to Simon’s doctrine (Against Heresies I.23.3), Simon based his sect on the following teaching:
Now this Simon of Samaria, from whom all sorts of heresies derive their origin, formed his sect out of the following materials: … men are saved through grace, and not on account of their own righteous works. For such deeds are not righteous in the nature of things, but by mere accident, just as those angels who made the world, have thought fit to constitute them, seeking, by means of such precepts, to bring men into bondage. On this account, he pledged himself that the world should be dissolved, and that those who are his should be freed from the rule of them who made the world.
What’s curious is that this is almost exactly the same gospel that Paul teaches in Galatians, particularly in chapters 2–4.
I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. (2.21)
Why then the law? … it was ordained through angels by a mediator. (3.19)
But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin… before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. (3.22-23)
…while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. (4.3)
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? (4.8-9)
So both Simon Magus and Paul seem to be basing their gospel on the following:
- Men are saved by grace, and not through righteousness (works under the law).
- The law was given by angels to bring men into bondage.
- The true God has finally made himself known unto men.
- Now people can be freed from the bondage of the law and the “elemental spirits that were not gods” (Paul) or “them who made the world” (Simon), which works out to the same thing in Gnostic theology.
(This is very likely not the way Paul’s gospel was explained to you in church, but there it is, in black and white, in Galatians.)
It’s also interesting to note that Irenaeus occasionally quotes passages from Paul’s letters, including Galatians, but not the specific verses that describe Paul’s doctrine about the bondage of the law, angels, and elemental spirits. Irenaeus also quotes Galatians 4.4 (“God sent his Son, born of a woman”) several times — a verse that New Testament scholar J.C. O’Neill has said cannot be by the same author as 4.1–3 and 4.8–10 (The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, p. 56).
What did the historical Simon Magus (if he existed) really teach, and how much would Paul have disagreed with him?