Mead on Simon Magus

(Extracted from his Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, pp. 164-74)


"SIMON MAGUS," as we have already said, is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, a document of the New Testament collection, said not to be quoted prior to 177 A.D. Irenaeus and his successors repeat the Acts legend. Justin Martyr (c. 150) speaks of a certain Simon of Gitta whom nearly all the Samaritans regarded with the greatest reverence; this Simon, he said, claimed to be an incarnation of the "Great Power," and had many followers. Justin, however, makes no reference to the Acts story, and so some have assumed two Simons, but this does not seem to be necessary. The Justin account is the nucleus of the huge Simonian legend which was mainly developed by the cycle of Pseudo-Clementine literature of the third century, based on the second century Circuits of Peter.

Hippolytus alone, at the beginning of the third [165] century, has preserved a few scraps from the extensive literature of the "Simonians"; the bishop of Portus quotes from a work entitled The Great Announcement, and so we are able to form some idea of one of the systems of these Gnostics. The scheme of the Gnosis contained in this document, so far from presenting a crude form, or mere germ, of Gnostic doctrine, hands on to us a highly developed phase of Gnostic tradition, which, though not so elaborated as the Valentinian system, nevertheless is almost as mature as the Barbelo scheme, referred to so cursorily by Irenaeus, and now partly recovered in the newly-discovered Gospel of Mary.

In the earliest times to which Catholic Christians subsequently traced the origin of their traditions, there were, as we know from various sources, numerous movements in and about Palestine of a prophetical and reformatory nature, many prophets and teachers of ethical, mystical, religio-philosophical, and Gnostic doctrines. The Ebionite communities found themselves in conflict with the followers of these teachers on many points, and Ebionite tradition handed on a garbled account of these doctrinal conflicts. Above all things, the Ebionites were in bitterest strife with the Pauline churches. Later on General Christianity set itself to work to reconcile the Petrine and Pauline differences, principally by the Acts document; and in course of time Ebionite tradition was also edited by the light of the new view, and the name of Simon substituted for the great "heretic" with whom the Ebionites had striven. And so the modified Ebionite tradition, which was [166] presumably first committed to writing in the Circuits of Peter, gradually evolved a romance, in which the conflicts between Simon Peter the Ebionite, and
Simon the Magician, are graphically pourtrayed, the magical arts of the Samaritan are foiled, and his false theology is exposed, by the doughty champion of the
"Poor Men." The latest recension of this cycle of romance gave the whole a Roman setting, and so we find Simon finally routed by Peter at Rome (to suit the legend of the Roman Church that Peter had come to Rome), but in earlier recensions Peter does not travel beyond the East, and Simon is finally routed at Antioch.

A close inspection of the Pseudo-Clementine literature reveals a number of literary deposits or strata of legend, one of which is of a very remarkable nature. Baur was the first to point this out, and his followers in the Tubingen school elaborated his views into the theory that Simon Magus is simply the legendary symbol for Paul. The remarkable similarity of the doctrinal points at issue in both the Petro-Simonian and Petro-Pauline controversies cannot be denied, and the scholarly reputation of the Tubingen school puts out of court mere a priori impossibility. Although, of course, it would not be prudent to take the extreme view that wherever Simon Magus is mentioned, Paul is meant, nevertheless we may not unclearly distinguish this identity in at least one of the strata of the legend.

The "Simonian" systems, as described by the Fathers, reveal the main features of the Gnosis: the Father over all, the Logos-idea, the aeon-world, [167] or ideal universe, its emanation, and its positive and negative aspects represented as pairs or syzygies; the world-soul represented as the thought or female aspect of the Logos; the descent of the soul; the creation of the sensible world by the builders; the doctrines of reincarnation, redemption, etc.

The main characteristic of the "Simonians" is said to have been the practice of "magic," which "Simon" is reported to have learned in Egypt, and which gave rise to most of the fantastic stories invented by their opponents. But it is very probable that the title Magus covers much more than the story of the Samaritan wonder-worker, and puts us in touch with a Gnostic link with Persia and the Magi; and indeed the fire-symbolism used in the MS. quoted from by Hippolytus amply confirms this hypothesis.

In other respects the "Simonian" Gnosis was on similar lines to the Barbelo-Gnostic and Basilido-Valentinian developments; this is to be clearly seen in the fragments of The Great Announcement preserved by Hippolytus.

The rest of the "Simonian" literature has perished; one of their chief documents, however, was a book called The Four Quarters of the World, and another famous treatise contained a number of controversial points (Refutatorii Sermones) ascribed to "Simon," which submitted the idea of the God of the Old Testament to a searching criticism, especially dealing with the serpent-legend in Genesis.

The main symbolism, which the evolvers of the [168] Simon-legend parodied into the myth of Simon and Helen, appears to have been sidereal; thus the Logos
and his Thought, the World-soul, were symbolized as the Sun (Simon) and Moon (Selene, Helen); so with the microcosm, Helen was the human soul fallen into
matter and Simon the mind which brings about her redemption. Moreover one of the systems appears to have attempted to interpret the Trojan legend and myth of Helen in a spiritual and psychological fashion.

This is interesting as showing an attempt to invoke the authority of the popular Greek "Bible," the cycle of Homeric legend, in support of Gnostic ideas. It was the extension of the method of the Jewish allegorizers into the domain of Greek mythology.

The detractors of the "Simonians," among the Church Fathers, however, evolved the legend, that Helen was a prostitute whom Simon had picked up at Tyre. The name of this city presumably led Baur to suggest that the Simon (Sun) and Helen (Moon) terminology is connected with the Phoenician cult of the sun and moon deities which was still practised in that ancient city. Doubtless the old Phoenician and Syrian ideas of cosmogony were familiar to many students of religion at that period, but we need not be too precise in matters so obscure.

Irenaeus gives the following outline of the system he ascribes to the "Simonians." It is the dramatic myth of the Logos and the World-soul, the Sophia, or Wisdom. Irenaeus, however, would have it that it was the personal claim of Simon concerning [169] Helen; he evidently bases himself on a MS. in which the Christ, as the Logos, is represented as speaking in the first person, and we shall there fore endeavour to restore it partially to its original form.

"Wisdom was the first Conception (or Thought) of My Mind, the Mother of All, by whom in the beginning I conceived in My Mind the making of the Angels and Archangels. This Thought leaping forth from Me, and knowing what was the will of her Father, descended to the lower regions and generated the Angels and Powers, by whom also the world was made. And after she had generated them, she was detained by them through envy, for they did not wish to be thought the progeny of any other. As for Myself, I am entirely unknown to them.

"And Thought," continues Irenaeus, summarising from the MS., "was made prisoner by the Powers and Angels that had been emanated by her. And she suffered every kind of indignity at their hands, to prevent her reascending to her Father, even to being imprisoned in the human body and transmigrating into other female [?] bodies, as from one vessel into another. ... So she, transmigrating from body to body, and thereby also continually undergoing indignity, last of all even stood for hire in a brothel ; and she was the lost sheep.

"Wherefore, also, am I come to take her away for the first time, and free her from her bonds; to make sure salvation to men by My Gnosis.

"For as the Angels," writes the Church Father, [170] "were mismanaging the world, since each of them desired the sovereignty, He had come to set matters right; and He had descended, transforming Himself and being made like to the Powers and Principalities and Angels; so that He appeared to men as a man, although He was not a man; and was thought to have suffered in Judea, although He did not really suffer. The prophets, moreover, had spoken their prophecies under the inspiration of the Angels who made the world."

All of these doctrines proceeded from circles who believed in the mystical Christ, and are common to many other systems; if Irenaeus had only told us the history of the document which he was summarizing and glossing, if he had but copied it verbally, how much labour would he have saved posterity ! True, he may have been copying from Justin's controversial writings, and Justin had already done some of the summarizing and commenting; but in any case a single paragraph of the original would have given us a better ground on which to form a judgment than all the paraphrazing and rhetoric of these two ancient worthies who so cordially detested the Gnostics.

Fortunately Hippolytus, who came later, is more correct in his quotations, and occasionally copies verbally portions of the MSS. which had come into his hands. One of these he erroneously attributes to "Simon" himself, presumably because he considered it the oldest Gnostic MS. in his possession; most critics, however, consider it a later form of the Gnosis than the system summarized by Irenaeus, but there is nothing to warrant this assumption. By this time [171] the legend that "Simon" was the first heretic had become "history" for the heresiologists, and no doubt Hippolytus felt himself fully justified in ascribing the contents of the MS. to one whom he supposed to be the oldest leader of the Gnosis.

The title of the MS. was The Great Announcement, probably a synonym for The Gospel, in the Basilidian sense of the term; and it opened with the following words: "This is the Writing of the Revelation of Voice-and-Name from Thought, the Great Power, the Boundless. Wherefore shall it be sealed, hidden, concealed, laid in the Dwelling of which the Universal Root is the Foundation."

The Dwelling is said to be man, the temple of the Holy Spirit. The symbol of the Boundless Power and Universal Root was Fire. Fire was conceived as being of a twofold nature the concealed and the manifested; the concealed parts of the Fire are hidden in the manifested, and the manifested produced by the concealed. The manifested side of the Fire has all things in itself which a man can perceive of things visible, or which he unconsciously fails to perceive; whereas the concealed side is everything which one can conceive as intelligible, even though it escape sensation, or which a man fails to conceive.

Before we come to the direct quotation, however, Hippolytus treats us to a lengthy summary of the Gnostic exposition before him, from which we may take the following as representing the thought of the writer of the MS. less erroneously than the rest.

"Of all things that are concealed and manifested, [172] the Fire which is above the heavens is the treasure-house, as it were a great Tree from which all flesh is nourished. The manifested side of the Fire is the trunk, branches, leaves, and the outside bark. All these parts of the great Tree are set on fire from the all-devouring flame of the Fire and destroyed. But the fruit of the Tree, if its imaging has been perfected and it takes shape of itself, is placed in the store-house (or treasure), and not cast into the Fire. For the fruit is produced to be placed in the store-house, but the husk to be committed to the Fire; that is to say, the trunk, which is generated not for its own sake but for that of the fruit."

This symbolism is of great interest as revealing points of contact with the "Trees" and "Treasures" of the elaborate systems recoverable from the Coptic Gnostic works, and also with the line of tradition of the Chaldaean and Zoroastrian Logia, which were the favourite study of so many of the later Platonic school. The fruit of the Fire-tree and the "Flower of Fire" are the symbols of (among other things) the man immortal, the garnered spiritual consciousness of the man-plant; but the full interpretation of this graphic symbolism would include both the genesis of the cosmos and the divinizing of man.

Man (teaches the Gnosis we are endeavouring to recover from Hippolytus) is subject to generation and suffering so long as he remains in potentiality; but, once that his "imaging forth" is accomplished, he becomes like unto God, and, freed from the bonds of suffering and birth, he attains perfection. But to our [173] quotation from The Great Announcement, taken apparently from the very beginning of the treatise, immediately following the superscription:

"To you, therefore, I say what I say, and write what I write. And the writing is this:

"Of the universal ons there are two growths, without beginning or end, springing from one The Root, which is the Power Silence invisible, inapprehensible. Of these one appears from above, which is the Great Power, the Universal Mind, ordering all things, male; and the other from below, the Great Thought (or Conception), female, producing all things.

"Hence matching each other, they unite and manifest the Middle Space, incomprehensible Air [Spirit], without beginning or end. In this [Air] is the [second] Father who sustains and nourishes all things which have beginning and end.

"This [Father] is He who has stood, stands and will stand, a male-female power, like the pre-existing Boundless Power, which has neither beginning nor end, existing in oneness. It was from this Boundless Power that Thought, which had previously been hidden in oneness, first proceeded and became twain.

"He [the Boundless] was one; having her in Himself, He was alone. Yet was He not first, though pre-existing, for it was only when He was manifested to Himself from Himself that there was a second. Nor was He called Father before [Thought] called Him Father.

"As, therefore, producing Himself by Himself, He manifested to Himself His own Thought, so [174] also His manifested Thought did not make the [manifested the second] Father, but contemplating Him hid him that is, His power in herself and is male-female, Power and Thought.

"Hence they match each other, being one; for there is no difference between Power and Thought. From the things above is discovered Power, and from those below Thought.

"Thus it comes to pass that that which is manifested from them, though one, is found to be two, male-female, having the female in itself. Equally so is Mind in Thought; they really are one, but when separated from each other they appear as two."

So much for The Great Announcement of "Simon." That some document may yet be discovered which will throw fresh light on the subject is not an impossibility; in the meantime we can reserve our judgment, and regard all positive statements that "Simon" was the "first-born son of Satan" as foreign to the question.