Lesson #348: Simon Magus and Goethe’s Faust

As you may have picked up at some point (possibly because I expressly said it), many of my problems with religion lie in the idea that you’re supposed to believe a whole slew of things for which there is absolutely no historical evidence. But sometimes, there is evidence, which is why, whatever trouble I may have with faith, I have never fully abandoned religion as a subject to learn.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with Goethe’s story Faust (and if you’re not, I’d ask what library-less island you’ve been living on your whole life) at least enough to understand that it’s a story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly riches.*

Here’s an interesting note: the character of Faust is based on Simon Magus, who apparently referred to himself as Faustus (the favoured one). Here’s a more interesting note if you’ve been following this blog at all: Simon Magus is the man for whom simony is named.

Biblically, Simon shows up in the eighth chapter of Acts. He’s portrayed as a wizard (okay, a sorcerer, but that makes me think of Mickey Mouse and sentient brooms) who has fooled people into believing in his power. He follows Philip around for a bit before running into Peter and John in Samaria and attempting to buy aspostle-ship.** For their part, those two chastise Simon rather severely before heading back to Jerusalem.

Here’s the thing…Simon is not a one-off Biblical character who shows up in order to act out some sort of morality play. He’s kind of everywhere and kind of a big deal. Irenaeus (whom I know best from a grad school paper I wrote on the canonical portrayal of Judas Iscariot in the early Church), Hippolytus, and our friend Epiphanius (last seen discrediting the position of the desposyni), among others, all discuss Simon as a heretic. ***

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus suggests that after his failed purchase, Simon made a bit of a habit of presenting himself as God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in different places throughout the Near East and Rome (which I’m sure went over spectacularly). He notes, in Book I, Chapter 23, section 2, that Simon is the one “from whom all the heresies took their origin.” Simon hung out with a prostitute from Tyre called Helen, whom he claimed — as God, one expects — was the first creation of his mind and it was she who created the world.  In a fun twist I didn’t see coming, Irenaeus explicitly says of Helen that she transmigrated between bodies including occupying, for a time, “Helen, on whose account the Trojan War arose.”****

This is not the only reference to Simon’s Helen and Menelaeus/Paris’ Helen being one and the same. Tertullianus says in De Anima that, “she became also that Helen who proved so fatal to Priam.” (see Section II, point iv. of the G. R. S. Mead’s essay, “Simon Magus: An Essay on the Founder of Simonianism Based on the Ancient Sources”, below)

Fun fact while we’re on the subject, more or less, of Simon’s delusions of godliness, according to Justinus Martyr’s Apologia, he went to Rome in the time of Claudius (who was the fourth Emperor of the Roman Empire and ruled between 41 and 54 BCE and whose name I can never hear without thinking “Mom, tell me more about Livia.” “She killed everybody off so her son Tiberius could inherit the throne. Just like Nixon.”) and was so convincing at being a God, the nebulous “they” erected a statue to him.

Anyway, on to Hippolytus. Hippolytus presents something of a rant against Simon Magus in Refutatio Omnium Haeresium. It’s a very philosophical rant on why Simon isn’g God, but it’s very “modern academic” in its approach, which amuses me. It’s a very well-structured argument, but it reads like a graduate paper. Hippolytus goes on at length about the metaphysical error in Simon’s understanding of God (and to some degree the tautological errors inherent in the magic). (see section II, point v. of the essay)

Epiphanius’ Contra Hæreses identifies Simon’s birthplace for us, Gittha. I don’t, however, seem to be able to find any record for where that was on a map apart from Samaria, which is like saying that a town is in Alberta and leaving it to you to figure out where, exactly. It turns out, though, that with a bit of digging I was able to find out that Gittha (or Gitta) was not popular among the orthodox Jews because it was a hotbed for healers and magicians.***** Anyway, to Epiphanius’ credit he mentioned that Gittha was a city during Simon’s time, but says that it “still exists as a village today”, which would have been sometime in the early to mid 4th century. The problem, if you can call it that, with Epiphanius’ accounts of Simon is that by the time he was writing, a whole slew of scholars had gone before him and he was essentially retelling their work for a newer audience.

All of the passages I’ve noted can be read in this excellent essay. Also, see Klauck’s Magic and Paganism in Early Christianity: The World of the Acts of the Apostles. Read basic background on Simon here.

*I’d encourage you to read it.

**Or at the very least the “ability” to impart the Holy Spirit to converts. Although what kept him from doing it without sanction, I don’t know.

***Simon also appears in the Apocryphal texts Acts of Peter and Epistle of the Apostles, which portray him as a sorcerer with the ability to levitate and fly. That’s really more Harry Potter than historical source, so there will be no discussion here

****This is also in Book 1, Chapter 23, section 2. See Section II, point ii. of the essay.

*****That link  has an interesting take on the attitude of the early Christian writers towards our mischievous friend, Simon, including that while none of the writers denied that any of the miracles he was performing were things that happened, they were pretty adamant that because these things could only be done through Jesus Christ, Simon was clearly a heretic. Solid, if imperfect, logic.  This position, incidentally, is supported by Klauck’s work.

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One thought on “Lesson #348: Simon Magus and Goethe’s Faust

  1. Glen Cram says:

    In fact Simon did not refer to himself as Faustus, though this is a common error in later commentaries. In the dubious Clementine Homilies, Faustus was one of his followers, the father of the supposed author. In the end, Simon put his own face on Faustus to deceive Peter and escape his righteous justice. So Simon was the Mephisto of the story, though the Helen connection is certainly part of his mythos. If you are interested, you can read an even more dubious version of these events in some readings from my own novel in progress, The Acts of Simon Magus in the First Century AD: http://simonmagus.com/readings/the-whore-of-tyre/ and http://simonmagus.com/readings/passion-sophia/

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