On Simon and his Great Announcement

Christian Carl Josias von Bunsen

[Extracted from his Hippolytus and His Age, vol. 1, pp. 350-7.]


There were such works. As the principal book on Simon's doctrine, our author mentions the "Great Announcement, or Revelation", a Gnostic work, full of Pagan fables, decidedly anti-Judaic and antinomian, favouring impurity. The Simonians had mysteries bearing the same character. The Valentinians took their start from these tenets; although nobody will believe that the "Great Announcement," in which some verses of Empedocles are quoted, was Simon's work, any more than that the books of the St. Simonian sect of our days are by St. Simon. Still Simon appears throughout, not as a mere impostor, but as a man combining with Christianity certain metaphysical tenets, which were formed by his immediate followers into a system, based, like that of all the Gnostics, upon the assumption of the evil principle as one of the primary acting causes of the universe. The "Great Announcement," bearing Simon's name, represents therefore the system of the Simonians in the first generation after him. The root of all existence (says this book) is infinite, and abides in man, who serves as its dwelling-house. It is of a double nature, latent and manifest: the first comprehends all that can be thought. The word of God lives in man. From that original root, the hidden principle, spring three pairs of manifestations:

Mind and Thought;
Voice and Name;
Reasoning and Reflection.

The infinite power is in all these six roots, but potentially, not actually. In order not to perish, the infinite power must be typified, imaged; otherwise it becomes extinct: whereas, if thus actuated, it loses nothing by this manifestation. By a progressive manifestation, those six roots become three other pairs:

Heaven and Earth;
Sun and Moon;
Air and Water.

The infinite power working in all of them is called by a compound name: He who stands, has stood, will stand; a term dimly alluded to in the Clementine Homilies and Recognitions, which say, that Simon called himself Stans (the standing), and reminding us of Apocalypse, i. 8. Simon considered himself as in a special manner the manifestation of this infinite power: but we have already seen that this was, according to him, the general attribute of man when he had attained to knowledge, with a difference only in degree.

The author endeavoured to explain by his theory the six days of the creation, and to build upon it a whole cosmogonic system, for which he quotes the Pentateuch, the Psalms, and the Prophets. He also pretended to find proofs of his speculative system in St. Paul's writings, of which he quotes the First Epistle to the Corinthians. He tries likewise to show that the Greek mythology points to a similar theory. And here his mysterious Helen becomes the prominent figure. Helen is to him the successive incarnations of Beauty, dazzling the powers that work on the earth. Every body knows the story that Simon carried about a woman, whom he said to be the newly embodied Helen of Troy. He had bought her, a forlorn slave, at Tyre, and said (or is reported to have said, for we have no extracts to vouch for this), that she was human nature redeemed by him. But what our book seems to prove (in spite of the confusion between reports, anecdotes, and extracts) is, that he called the ideal Helen, not his paramour, the "forlorn sheep," and that he placed her in connection with the daughter of the Canaanitish woman, whom Christ healed in passing by Tyre (Matt. xv.). It may be true, that Simon said he was his Helen's Saviour, and that he himself had come to Tyre to loosen her from her fetters, he himself being "the power over all." It may be also true, that the Simonians worshipped two images, said to represent Simon and Helen, under the likeness of Jove and Minerva, and called them "Lord" and "Lady"; but our author himself is candid enough to add, they excluded from their sect any one who called those persons by the names of Simon and Helen. They considered it therefore clearly as a calumny. It may even be true, that the conduct of Simon and Helen was the cause or pretext of those scandalous orgies of the sect, of which our author gives us such shocking details. Indeed, it seems impossible to doubt, from the extracts here exhibited, that some of them (in his time) blasphemously and satanically abused the most sacred formularies of the ancient liturgy of the communion to designate and sanctify their horrible impurities, justifying their conduct by saying, they were redeemed, washed, emancipated, free, saved, not by their works, but by grace. But all this does not prove in any way that Simon said of himself, or that the Simonians said, he, Simon, had appeared to the Jews as the Son, to the Samaritans as the Father, and to the Gentiles as the Holy Spirit. For the account, of our author, though confused, the quotations from the "Great Announcement" being here interrupted by the traditional story of Simon and Helen, and the scandals connected with it, clearly proves that those words referred to Jesus, and not to Simon. For, after the exposition of the immoral principles of the Simonians, the extracts begin with sentences evidently relating to the life of Jesus. Having redeemed Helen, he thus vouchsafed salvation to mankind through his own intelligence (or by means of the knowledge he gave them of themselves). For the "angels having administered the world badly, in consequence of their love of power, Jesus came (Simon said) for the work of restoration, having been transformed, and made like to the principalities and powers, and to the angels. He thus appeared as a man, not being such, and seemed to suffer in Judea, although he did not really suffer, but was manifested to the Jews as the Son, in Samaria as the Father, among the other nations as the Holy Spirit. He allows men to call him by whichever name they please."

Now, how could Simon say of himself that he had suffered death in Judea? The whole account, therefore, refers to Jesus, and gives, originally at least, Simon's doctrine on the appearance, life, and sufferings of Christ. Thus that mysterious saying about the Son, Father, and Spirit, becomes intelligible. Jesus did call himself the Son in Judea. To the Samaritans he manifested the Father; and indeed in the words spoken to the Samaritan woman (St. John, iv. 21 23.), Jesus refers them to the Father, and the worship of the Father, and nothing is said about the Son. It is also quite intelligible how Simon could say, that Jesus appeared among the Gentiles as the Holy Spirit; for it was under the authority of the Holy Spirit, poured out upon them, and communicated by them, that the Apostles preached Jesus among the Gentiles.

Of this I feel quite sure. But I confess I cannot understand the meaning of the "lost sheep," an evident allusion to the Parable, in connection with Helen, except by assuming that Simon combined the account of the Canaanitish woman with his allegory of Humanity suffering in the form of Helen under the fetters of her mundane existence. The mother crying out for help for her daughter possessed by the evil spirit (Matt. xv. 22.), the Apostles requesting Jesus to redeem her (v. 23.), and his first saying that he was sent to "the lost sheep" (v. 24.) of Israel, were allegorized by Simon, as alluding to human nature in this life, and to the work of redemption, and then mythicized by reference to Helen of Troy, Helen of the mysteries, Helen of Stesichorus, and finally Helen at Tyre, first healed by Jesus, and later found in another shape by Simon, who became her Deliverer.

I may, therefore, state this as the result of our criticism on this passage. There is a confusion in Hippolytus account; but we can make out the truth, if we examine his words with care; whereas Irenaeus, whom Eusebius and Theodoret have merely transcribed, gave the whole story in such a mutilated shape, that he rendered it very questionable as a fact, and made a correct explanation impossible.

If, from the new facts we have before us, we look back to the present state of the discussions respecting this darkest of all points in early ecclesiastical history, we find that they militate, in many respects, against the hypotheses of the modern Tubingen school, Baur, Strauss, Schwegler, and others. First of all, I cannot consent to regard Simon himself as merely a mythical person, the mythological fiction of one of the great family of the sun, moon, and stars, and his Helen as Selene or Luna. Her bearing that name in the "Clementine Homilies," proves only that she was called so in the later stages of the Simonian heresy; which agrees with the whole character of the ingenious, but rather prolix novel, told in the Clementine Homilies and Recognitions. Simon of Gitta, the sorcerer of the Acts, appears to us, in what we hear of him from Hippolytus, as a real man, a sorcerer arid magnetizer of a very questionable moral character, but who, according to the testimony of the old fathers, was worshipped in Samaria as a prophet, and as the incarnation of the highest power, and who, for a time, startled the Romans, whether at Rome or in Asia is not certain. He was, further, a heretical Christian; he perverted the Gospel and the Jewish Scriptures; but he accepted them as revelations. Neander, therefore, has been wrong in striking him out of the list of heretics, as a person who had nothing to do with Christianity. Undoubtedly, like all the leading men of the Jewish and Pagan party of the time, who endeavoured to frame Christ and Christianity according to their philosophy, he had a speculative system of his own; but in this speculative system Christianity was not an accidental ingredient. On the contrary, Christ and the Gospels and their preaching gave the impulse to the speculations embodied under Simon s name, and Christ's person formed the centre of them. Simon himself, I believe, no more wrote a speculative book, than Pythagoras or Socrates did; but, as we know that Menander, his disciple, and the leader of his school, who lived and taught at Antioch, was a writer, and inculcated the Simonian doctrine, it seems to me reasonable to assume, that the "Great Announcement," or "Pronunciamiento" of the Simonians, although bearing Simon s name, was written by Menander, or at least by some cotemporary of his. For this book appears throughout as the representative of Simon's own opinions, and is mixed up with his life. Now, as Simon, the master, belonged to the Petrine and Pauline age, Menander and his book must belong to that of St. John, or to the time between the years 70 and 100; and it would be absurd to suppose, that a book written in Simon's own name, or at least generally considered as the representation of his personal system, should be later than Menander's exposition of the principles of that sect. Shortly, Menander's doctrinal work must have been this very "Announcement." Assuming this, what do we find in this book respecting the Gospel of St. John? I confess, the fourth chapter of this Gospel seems to me to be alluded to by the expression, that Jesus appeared to the Samaritans as the Father. If this supposition is correct, it would be a direct proof of the undoubted fact, that the book was not Simon's; for Simon cannot be supposed to have lived to the end of the first century, when the Gospel of St. John was written. Indeed, the uniform tradition is, that Paul and Peter outlived Simon; who must therefore have died before the year 65. If it be assumed that there was no allusion to the fourth Gospel in the "Great Announcement," this may be said to be in keeping with the pretension that it was Simon's book. A Pauline epistle (the first to the Corinthians), certainly is quoted in the extracts. This is very natural, for the same reason: a book purporting to be written by Simon might very well quote an epistle of St. Paul, although not a Gospel written between 90 and 100.

I must, on this occasion, return for a moment to the bearing of these new facts upon the prologue of St. John's Gospel. Whatever may be thought of the influence of Philonian speculations upon the evangelical doctrine concerning the Logos, and upon the wording of that apostolic prologue, I feel sure that the heretical speculations about the Logos could never have arisen but through the powerful effect produced in the Eastern world, from the centres of Jerusalem and of Antioch, by the unparalleled personality and history of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. The Logos, as God's eternal thought or consciousness of Himself, before all time, was known well enough to the Alexandrian Jews, even at the time of Christ's birth, as Philo's writings prove. But that the Logos was embodied in a real man, and had become personal, this, and this alone, was the all-pervading intellectual leaven which produced that wonderful fermentation in the Eastern world, and this fermentation became in the schools of the Gnostics an entirely cosmogonical and mythological process, through a constant and progressive hypostasis or personification of abstract notions, or, as it were, by a constant transformation of abstract neuters into mythological masculines.

This mythological process was the natural produce of the two elements alluded to. The one was the personality of Christ, and the other was the idea of the Logos, elevated into a moving principle, identified with the human mind. All mythology arose in a similar way, although we, being ignorant of the historical ingredient now, generally are not able to analyse the whole, and show in detail what portions are historical, and what ideal. But in this case we are enabled to prove what the historical element is, and show that it did not grow out of a myth but might, by connection with speculative ideas give rise to a myth. This purity of the historical element forms one of the distinguishing features of Christianity, as basis of a great civilisation.

The discovery of Hippolytus work throws also a new light upon an obscure point of the Ignatian controversy. We certainly must ascribe to pure Simonism, that is, to the Simonian heresy unmixed with Valentinianism, the system of Gnostic evolutions, of which Sige, Silence, is a primitive element. For in the extracts from the "Great Announcement" we find the following words, evidently the beginning of a solemn address and recapitulation: "To you then I say what I say, and write what I write. The writing is this. There are two offshoots accompanying all the aeons, having neither beginning nor end, from one root, which is power (potentia), Sige (Silence), invisible, incomprehensible. Of these two suckers, the one appears above, and this is the Great Power, the Mind of the Universe, directing all things, male: the other appears below, the Great Thought, female, producing all things. Hence, being thus ranged one against the other, they form a syzygia (a pair, copula), and make manifest the intermediate interval, the incomprehensible air, having neither beginning nor limit; and in this air is the Father, supporting all things, and nourishing that which has a beginning and end. He is He who stands, who has stood, and who will stand, being the male and female power, according to the infinite pre-existing power, which has neither beginning nor end, being in solitude. For the Thought, which was in solitude, coming forth from thence, became two. And He was one; for having the thought within himself, he was alone, not however the first, though pre-existing; but, being manifested by himself, he became the second. But neither was he called the Father, before she, the Thought, called him father."

This is not Valentinianism; but there is the principle of the pre-existing supreme power, Silence; the Word or the Thought had not yet appeared.

Now, what follows from this? That Ignatius, who certainly may have read the "Great Announcement" as well as he read St. John, might have alluded, to it in a letter to the Magnesians, if he ever wrote it. If, therefore, the text of the Seven Letters is (as I believe, with the most eminent critics of our age, that it is) the work of an impostor, who wrote after Ignatius death under his name, corrupting the genuine Three Letters, it is very natural that he should make Ignatius allude to a term which he may have known, but which certainly became much more powerful by Valentinus. But such a mention can no more prove, against good evidence to the contrary, that Ignatius did write that letter, than the allusion contained in it to the early Judaizing Sabbatarians and Doceta does. I have, in my "Letters on Ignatius," assumed these two heresies as possibly older than Ignatius death; and I now believe also that the term of Sige may be so.

If any further proof were required of Pearson s explanation of the Sige in the "Epistle to the Magnesians" being untenable, this passage would suffice. Feeling the difficulty about the Sige as a Valentinian term, Pearson resolved to deny altogether that Ignatius alluded to that term in this passage. According to him, the words, "the Eternal Word, not proceeding from Silence," mean that the Word which is eternal, did not appear (as the human word does) after there had been silence before. This is the argument of a special pleader, not of a historical critic, and it is as flimsy as it is unnecessary. The Sige is the Sige. She is preceding, not appearing. It is the Logos who appears; and according to the doctrine of Valentinus (which perhaps was founded upon a term of the Simonian school, stamped by Menander), this appearance of the Eternal Word proceeded from the Eternal Silence, that mysterious companion (quality) of the Ineffable, of the Eternal Thought, silentiously wrapped up in itself through eternities before the word of creation began to be spoken.

There is perhaps even a proof in our fragments that the Ignatian forger knew the "Great Announcement." In the 11th chapter of that fictitious epistle, "Letter to the Trallians," the passage about Sige, which I have just quoted from Simon's "Great Apophasis," seems to be alluded to by the words "offshoots" and "root," there used, with an apparent allusion to the heretical terminology, in an ironical sense.