The Myth

Simon lived in the early days of the Church, and first met its proponents when the mostly-Jewish first Christians were trying to spread their influence into Samaria, the area between Judaea and Galilee. The encounter was recorded in the Book of Acts:

But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God. And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries. But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done. Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost (for as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost. And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost. But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and theed Simon, and said, Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me.
Acts 8:9-24

Samaria at that time was a mixture of Hellenized Canaanites and an outcast Jewish sect who were reputed to combine Babylonian paganism with traditional Jewish observances. Their sacrifices were not accepted at Jerusalem, and they worshipped at Mount Gezerim, where Abraham sacrificed Isaac. The Good Samaritan described by Jesus was one of these.

The Simon described here may have come from any background, and probably incorporated elements from all cultures into his act. His offer is immortalized as the sin of simony.

Was the Simon of Acts the same as the one who, according to the early Church Fathers, toured the Samaritan countryside with Helena, a prostitute he had purchased in Tyre, proclaiming himself God the Father and she Sophia, his Divine Wisdom? She had, he said, been cast down to Earth by rebellious angels, passing through several incarnations (including Helen of Troy) until she experienced the ultimate degradation. From which he had rescued her and would soon return with her to the Eternal Light, together with any who accepted the grace he bestowed freely on all who could afford it.

And was this the same Simon who, according to equally reliable sources, flew one fine day through the skies above Rome, to the applause of Nero himself, before St. Peter cast him down to ignominy and death with the Power of a greater God than he? Or the one who infiltrated the family of St. Clement, then a Hellenized Jew, to deceive his father Faustos. (This story forms the basis for the later Faust legends.)

For the early Christians, all these Simons, legendary and otherwise, became merged into one demonic figure: Simon Magus, Father of Heresy. Many fantastic stories circulated about his villainies, which became the basis of a generally-accepted biography:

Born at Gittae in Samaria, Simon studies magic in Egypt, then returns to take over a cult begun by John the Baptist, travels with Helena, proclaims himself God, tries to buy the Holy Spirit from the Apostles, seduces the widow Eubula, swindles Faustos, but is at last driven into exile by St. Peter. He ends up in Rome, where he wins the favour of the Emperor Nero and is worshipped in his own temple. When Peter arrives in Rome as well, the two meet in an epic contest of magic. This culminates in Simon flying through the sky, only to be cast down by Peter’s superior powers. His legs are broken and he dies soon after. He promises to return from the grave, but does not. However, the myth he invented becomes the basis for Gnosticism, that other mix of Jewish scripture, Greek mythology and Egyptian mysticism which seriously rivalled its more successful cousin in the first centuries AD.

Extensive writings of this strange sect exist today, mostly from Egypt. Each contradicts the next, but the basic theory is as follows: the God of the Christians and Jews is in fact Ialdabaoth, a demonic creature born in error, who has created Earth and Man for its own evil purposes. In company with Its fellow Archons, the rulers of this Earth, It now delights in tormenting its inhabitants. It cast Its Mother (the First Thought of the unbegotten Father of Light, identified with Sophia) down to the horrors of Earth in a fit of jealousy, upon discovering that It was not the highest God. Only by rejecting It and all Its works, including one’s own body, can one know the Perfect Mind of the Mother of Wisdom. And only then can one free the particles of light which are the spirit from the dark prison of flesh, and thereby attain Oneness with the Father of Light. Later versions brought in Christ as well. As Sabaoth, the son of the evil Ialdabaoth, he had rebelled against his father and joined forces with the Children of Light.

The form that bodily rejection should take was a source of controversy. Some said, "The flesh is evil. Purge it." Others said, "The flesh is nothing. Indulge it." Gnostics were accused, often quite justifiably, of all manner of unnatural practices, which may account for some of their popularity. But the Powers of both light and dark were soon multiplied into splinter groups, each with its own fantastic and incomprehensible mythology, and Gnosticism as an organized faith (if it ever was one) disappeared in confusion before the much simpler message of Christ Risen. Still, neoGnostic cults continued to bedevil and influence Christianity for centuries, attracting believers and ruthless purges through the Middle Ages and beyond, and survive yet in small pockets of the Middle East. More recently, Simon has appeared in various books and films, played especially memorably by Jack Palance in the 1954 film The Silver Chalice.

I admit that my interpretations of selected passages of Scripture and other texts may be open to question. I can only reply that every conceivable creed, lifestyle and system of government can be, and has been, justified with reference to selected scriptures. Anyway, that’s how he wrote it, and I can only transmit it as faithfully as I can.

by Glendenning Cram