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Peter in Rome: Simon the Magician or the First Gnostic

One of the great villains of church history, at least according to his Christian detractors, is a shadowy figure referred to as Simon the magos (“magician”). Many readers may be familiar with his portrayal in the book of Acts where he is identified as a Samaritan who was adept in the practice of magic, is acclaimed by the crowds as the embodiment of a Great Power, is converted to the Jesus movement by Philip the Evangelist, and is rebuked by Peter when he tried to bribe Peter to attain his charismatic abilities (see Acts 8:9-24). Incidentally, this created the term “simony,” denoting the purchase of ecclesiastical power or offices. It may be surprising to turn to the heresiologists where Simon and his consort Helena of Tyre was remembered as the father of the so-called “gnostic” sects in all their diversity, or to the apocryphal Acts of Peter where Simon Peter and Simon Magus engage in a magical contest in Rome to see whose message was divinely authorized, or the Jewish Christian Pseudo-Clementines literature where the polemic targeting Simon Magus might also include the Apostle Paul in its sights (e.g. its criticisms of Simon’s visionary experiences or Peter’s letter about his “enemy” spreading lawless teachings among the Gentiles). The ancient texts about Simon Magus in the Church Fathers have been helpfully collected in this essay by G. R. S. Mead, though the scholarly commentary in the second half is outdated as it was written in the late nineteenth century and served an ideological purpose in transforming Simon into a proponent of Mead’s own religious philosophy of Theosophy. The Catholic scholar and apologist Taylor Marshall’s post “Simon Magus vs Simon Peter in Rome” explores the historicity of these traditions.

When we strip away the apocryphal legends about Simon’s magical abilities (e.g. flight!), the typical polemical insults used in antiquity to slander an opponent, and the representation of Simon’s thought as a crude parody of Christian doctrine (e.g. did Simon identify himself as the persons of the Trinity or attempt a resurrection miracle after being buried alive?), is there anything left about Simon’s person or message that is historically reliable? Was he some kind of ritual specialist who was believed to be possessed by a divine spirit and did he found a movement that was a serious rival to the apostles in Jerusalem? Can elements of the myth attributed to him – the supreme power, the first thought (the feminine Greek noun ennoia) that conceived other angelic beings, or the gnostic savior that delivered ennoia from the material world that the angelic powers had created to imprison her – be traced back to Simon? There is an extensive scholarly bibliography about Simon for those interested in pursuing such questions, but the main concern of this post is to discover how Peter ended up confronted the magician not only in Samaria but also in Rome itself.

The Christian philosopher Justin Martyr, who addressed his First Apology to the emperor Antonius Pius (ruled 138-161 CE) and his son Verisimmus, provides the crucial piece of evidence for the development of the tradition about Simon. A date between 150-154 CE for this apologetic work is supported by the reference to the prefecture of Felix in Egypt (ca. 148-154) in 1 Apology 39.3-4 and to Christ’s birth approximately 150 years ago in 1 Apology 46.1 (cf. P. Lorraine Buck, “Justin Martyr’s Apologies,” 55, 55n.45). 1 Apology 26 (cf. 56) recounts that Simon had spread his heresy in Rome and uses the existence of a statue between two bridges on the river Tiber as supporting evidence. He read the inscription as “to Simon the holy god” (simoni sancto deo), but a statue dedicated to the deity Semo Sancus was unearthed in 1574 with the inscription semoni sanco deo fidio sacrum (“to Semo Sancus Dius Fidius”). Was this the statue that Justin saw and misinterpreted in reference to Simon Magus? If so, this may have sparked the later legends of Simon Magus’s activities in the capital. Given the social memories of Peter in the capital as well, it is not surprising that we then encounter stories of the two old foes meeting again in Rome with the orthodox Apostle triumphing over the Arch-heretic near the foundations of the Roman church.

Here are some resources to learn more about Simon Magus:

  • Ferreiro, Alberto. Simon Magus in Patristic, Medieval and Early Modern Traditions. Leiden: Brill, 2005.
  • Haar, Stephen. Simon Magus: The First Gnostic? Berlin: De Gruyter, 2003.
  • Meeks, Wayne A. “Simon Magus in Recent Research.” Religious Studies Review 3 (1977): 137-142.
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