The early church fathers had it in for Simon Magus. In Acts, Simon declares himself to be “something great” but responds humbly after he is rebuked and cursed by Peter (Acts 8:9, 24). One generation later, the early church writers were accusing him of being the father of all Christian heresies.
Justin Martyr (c. 150), one of the first great defenders of the faith, claimed that Simon had declared himself to be God. Justin reported that the Samaritans called Simon “god above all gods” and that he had seen a statue the Romans erected to Simon Magus in Rome. (Curiously, a statue was discovered in Rome, in about 1575, which was inscribed SEMONI SANCO DEO. The inscription is actually to an Etruscan god, Sanco Deo. Justin may have seen this statue and misread the inscription as SIMONI DEO SANCTO, “to the sacred god, Simon.”) Further, Simon had rescued a prostitute named Helen (or Helena), and she was now not only his companion, but the Magus claimed she was the “first thought” that he, the god above gods, had generated. And he was a teacher of Menander and Marcion (two early, well-known Christian heretics).1
In relatively rapid order, other of the most well-known early church theologians took Simon to task, claiming that he was the founder of all Gnostic heresies.2 According to Jerome and Augustine (in the fifth and sixth centuries), Simon’s ideas were so repugnant that they had greatly contributed to the persecution of Christians.
It is not entirely clear how the brash but repentant figure from Acts metamorphosed into the heretic hated by the church fathers.3 The disconnect is such that some scholars have suggested there may have been two Simons from Samaria.4
Simon Magus is, therefore, a frustration to modern historians; the quest for the “historical Simon Magus,” as Wayne Meeks puts it, “is even less promising than the quest for the historical Jesus.”5 The question of whether Simon Magus founded the greatest heresy of the time, Gnosticism, is also at a stalemate.6
Certain elements of Simon’s story, as told by the church fathers, do correspond with known Gnostic beliefs. For example, according to Hippolytus, Simon claimed that his consort, Helen, was an embodiment or reincarnation of Helen of Troy. (This tied in to Simon’s claim that Helen was the “first thought” from his divine head, for Helen of Troy was, in Greek legend, connected with Pallas Athena, who was born from the head of Zeus.) In a cosmic catastrophe, Simon’s consort had participated in the unfortunate creation of the tangible world. Helen was attacked by the demons involved in the creation, however, and was forced to move from human body to human body until she wound up in a brothel. From there, Simon, as the supreme god above all gods, had rescued her.
This creation story is consistent with a central tenet of many full-blown Gnostic theologies: This world is so horrible that a loving supreme god could not have had a hand in its creation. Humans are part of the truly divine world, but they are trapped by their bodies in the created world and this entrapment has blotted out their knowledge of who they truly are. Therefore, the only salvation is the knowledge (gnosis) of one’s true origin.
The church fathers insisted that Simon and his disciples held obscene rites that involved incest and every other sexual perversion imaginable. Such behavior is not inconsistent with Gnosticism, at least according to its opponents. If, as the Gnostics claim, we are strangers trapped in evil bodies in a totally corrupt world, we can express our disdain for creation in two ways: We can be ascetics who deny bodily drives, or we can be libertines who indulge in harmful excess. In either way, we show our contempt of the body.
Although Simon may well have had Gnostic tendencies, it is unlikely that he was the father of Gnosticism. The study of the diverse collection of Gnostic documents discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, indicates that Gnosticism was not a unified phenomenon. The early history of Christianity is the story of a tremendous variety of types of the faith; Gnosticism, as part of this foundation, was similarly diverse. There were both pagan and Jewish pre-Christian forms of religion and philosophy that we can with good grounds call “Gnostic.”7 Despite what the church fathers say, one man, however magical, cannot be blamed for it all.—D.R.C.