Paul the Apostle, Simon Magus, and a Curious Gospel

Fall of Simon Magus, Benozzo Gozzoli (1461-1462)

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:

  1. Men are saved by grace, and not through righteousness (works under the law).
  2. The law was given by angels to bring men into bondage.
  3. The true God has finally made himself known unto men.
  4. 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?

15 thoughts on “Paul the Apostle, Simon Magus, and a Curious Gospel

  1. Note also that the Ebionite pseudo-Clementine literature (particularly the 17th Homily) condemn the teachings of Simon Magus in such a way that most scholars believe they are actually criticizing Paul, but using an acceptable opponent’s name instead. Joseph Verheyden’s “Demonization of the Opponent” even claims “The decision to associate Paul with Simon Magus is surprising since they have little in common.”

    So were Paul’s writings in Galatians influenced by the teachings of the historic Simon Magus? Or (more likely) were some gnostic teachings by Pauline students retrojected onto the historic enemy of Christianity, Simon Magus, whose actual teachings are unimportant? I’d be very curious to hear your views on what the pseudo-Clementines mean for your analysis here.

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    • Yeah, I didn’t mention the pseudo-Clementine literature because it’s quite late in comparison, even if it preserves early Ebionite traditions. It does, however, provide additional evidence of a connection between Paul and Simon Magus.

      I’m hesitant to draw conclusions without a lot more study. My suspicion is that the theology of Paul and the early Pauline churches was much more Gnostic-leaning than later church fathers were comfortable with, and blaming the heretical bits on Simon Magus was a way of rehabilitating Paul. I also think the Pauline epistles have a complicated history. A lot of changes to those letters were made between the time of Marcion and the time of Tertullian.

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  2. […] A post on the blog Is That In The Bible? pointed out some interesting parallels between the teaching of Simon Magus according to Irenaeus, and the teaching of Paul in Galatians. The question was then asked how much Paul and Simon Magus would have disagreed. It is also noteworthy that Simon is depicted in Acts as claiming to be a divine entity made flesh, despite Acts not depicting Jesus in that way. That claim by Simon is also mentioned by Irenaeus. […]

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  3. The ending of the story in Acts is a little ambiguous, but it would seem to end with Simon repenting and being reconciled with the church. I always thought it odd that later stories about him seemed to retcon this.

    Great blog, by the way! Stumbled on it yesterday and reading through it from the beginning now.🙂

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    • Thanks for the nice comment, Theo.

      Yeah, I agree that Simon seems to be penitent in the story of Acts; maybe the author didn’t know the later traditions that made Simon the teacher of Gnostic heresies. Alternatively, since Acts is already an ecumenical document reconciling Pauline and Petrine Christianity, maybe the author wanted to keep Simonians (if such a sect existed) in the fold as well.

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  4. I’d like to suggest an explanation.

    Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers says about Gal 3:19:

    “Ordained by angels.—The idea of angels having had a share in the giving of the Law appears in Deuteronomy 33:2 : “The Lord came from Sinai . . . He shined forth from mount Paran, and He came with ten thousands of saints.” For “saints” the LXX. substitutes, in the next verse, “angels.” Similar allusions are found at the end of St. Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:53): “Who have received the law by the disposition (as ordinances) of angels, and have not kept it;” and in Hebrews 2:2 : “If the word spoken by (through) angels was stedfast.” In this last instance, as in the present passage, the ministration of angels employed in it is quoted as showing the inferiority of the Law to the Gospel. In St. Stephen’s speech and in Josephus (Ant. xv. 5, 3) the same ministration is appealed to as enhancing the dignity of the Law. The different point of view is natural enough, according as the subject is regarded from the side of man or from the side of God.”

    The structure of the passage is more accurately suggesting that the ordination or proclamation of the Law was by angels, not the giving of the Law, as if they were responsible for it. The NASB and most translations render it as “through” angels: “Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made.” (Gal 3:19 NASB). This makes sense because of the proximity of the “proclamation” to the Greek preposition dia.

    Seems like Paul was referencing the Greek Septaugint and reflecting common language, rather than teaching that angels made men slaves. He never drew a direct connection. In Gal 3:22-23, the context is metaphorical of the power of sin, and doesn’t suggest anything deeper. If Simon wanted to start a heresy, he could’ve easily based it off of this by making the angels put men in bondage. Simon probably didn’t need to however, since that idea was probably commonplace. However, this does not seem to be the point Paul was making. He makes it clear in the book of Romans that our desires make us slaves to sin, not angels. In fact, as a whole, Paul was not very interested in the fantastic, but was incredibly logical and scholarly as opposed to the fancy of apocryphal writers.

    Some of your translations are obscure. The NASB translates Galatians 4:3 as: “So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world.”. This verse does not include the word “spirits” as in your translation. The Greek word pneuma (spirit) is not found in the text. The Greek word here for “elemental things” is stoicheion. It is true that the word can also mean “heavenly bodies”. However, compare verses 4:8-9, which you used: “However at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?”. I find it hard to believe that Paul is warning men not to turn back to “weak and worthless angels, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again”. He is warning them of enslaving themselves to things which are not God, the flesh, idols, false worship, the elementary things of the world. Paul constantly taught about being enslaved to the flesh, but never angels. Romans 6 is a whole chapter dedicated to the subject of slavery to sin, and it never mentions angels. It certainly would seem odd for Paul to be so silent about angels if his theology was based on them. He makes allusions at times, but it’s a stretch to say he ascribed to the fanciful superstitions of the day.

    Another note on Gal 4:8-9 is that the original text does not include an equivalent word to “beings” as the translation you gave included, the preposition tois is translated as “to those” and there is no object other than “which by nature are no gods”. Seems to me Paul was playing down the superstitions, not encouraging them. In fact, it is reminiscent of the language used to rebuke those who worship heavenly bodies. Deut. 17:3 says: “and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the heavenly host, which I have not commanded,”. In Acts 7:42 Stephen affirms this: “But God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, ‘IT WAS NOT TO ME THAT YOU OFFERED VICTIMS AND SACRIFICES FORTY YEARS IN THE WILDERNESS, WAS IT, O HOUSE OF ISRAEL?”. Interestingly enough, Stephen also used the reference to angels and the giving of the law.

    Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6: “Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.”. Here Paul clearly downplays any other “gods” and highlights the work of Christ in creation. This false worship was never attributed to actual beings, but to gods which were not gods at all. So when Paul says in Gal 4:8-9: “those which by nature are no gods”, he would be placing these angels in the same category of idol worship.

    Hebrews 1 puts angels in their place. Verse 14 says: “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?”. Doesn’t sound like they were putting men in bondage. Hebrews 2:2 also suggests that the Law was proclaimed or spoken by angels: “For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty,”. Never does he intimate however, that the Law was given by angels because they sought to put men in bondage.

    Also, a very important thing to note, is that God made all things through His Son, Jesus, not angels. So if this Simon Magus did start a heresy, he had a contorted view of the Scriptures and angels. As Paul wrote in Colossians 2:18: “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind,”. Here Paul places worship of angels among ecstatic worship that he defines as “unspiritual”. Notice he says “inflated without cause”. Paul gave no legitimacy to these things.

    Just some thoughts. BTW I found your analysis of Jude and 1 and 2 Peter to be spot on. I have felt that those books are out of sync with the NT as a whole for a while. Trying to make it fit theologically is a near impossible task.

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  5. I reread this today and realized you were using the NRSV translation. I usually study on BibleHub and it’s not available there so I used BibleGateway and found it. That “beings” reference in chapter 4 is really wild! I think you are on to something. Love your blog btw.

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  6. Here is a very interesting comment I saw on an article I read recently. Some interesting parallels once again related to someone in relation to Festus.

    “Paul is a freeman in the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:22).

    Here we have the freeman Pallas who was the brother of Festus (Acts 24, 25, 26) gets permissiojn from Nero to have a scribe write epistles in Greek to Jews that inflamed them and started the Jewish war (according to Josephus). However you look at this it’s also the start of Christianity. It looks like Nero actually and unwittingly started Christianity about 57 or 58 CE, then some 5 years {or so) later turned on Christians.

    Antiquities XX, 8, 9
    Now when Porcius Festus was sent as successor to Felix by Nero, the principal of the Jewish inhabitants of Cesarea went up to Rome to accuse Felix; and he had certainly been brought to punishment, unless Nero had yielded to the importunate solicitations of his brother Pallas, who was at that time had in the greatest honor by him. Two of the principal Syrians in Cesarea persuaded Burrhus, who was Nero’s tutor, and secretary for his Greek epistles, by giving him a great sum of money, to disannul that equality of the Jewish privileges of citizens which they hitherto enjoyed. So Burrhus, by his solicitations, obtained leave of the emperor that an epistle should be written to that purpose. This epistle became the occasion of the following miseries that befell our nation; for when the Jews of Cesarea were informed of the contents of this epistle to the Syrians, they were more disorderly than before, till a war was kindled.”

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  7. Hi Zach. That’s right, I’m using the NRSV, which provides (I think) a pretty good translation of some rather tricky and puzzling language.

    That passage from Antiquities is certainly interesting and never caught my attention before.

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    • Yeah I’m on board with the NRSV now (some Christians obviously hate it b/c of the virgin verse). Seems to me to cut through the bias of other translations. I am a former Christian/new agnostic who had stayed away from textual criticism until exploring it more recently. My first major departure from church doctrine was over hell, when I realized that the Bible didn’t teach it. The whole thing is a gigantic presumption. When I realized that the church was SO VERY WRONG on that issue I realized that 95% or so of Christian leaders either have no idea how to study the Bible historically and linguistically or are dishonest.

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  8. Just been introduced to your site, by Neil Godfrey of Vridar.org. You certainly have a lot of fascinating articles here, and I’m greatly enjoying them!
    This piece is a lovely and concise introduction to the problem of the relation between Simon Magus and Paul. But I wondered if you had had a chance to read Roger Parvus’ contributions on this subject, at Vridar (“A Simonian Origin for Christianity”)?

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