The dehumanization of Simon Magus

In my previous discussions on grimoires (here and here), the focus was primarily on Old Testament pseudepigrapha such as the books of Enoch and The Testament of Solomon, both of which influenced the angelology and demonology for my Los Nefilim series. The Key of Solomon, probably the most well known of grimoires, was allegedly translated from Hebrew; although, according to Owen Davies in Grimoires: A history of magic books, "there is no substantive evidence for a Hebrew version [of The Key of Solomon] before the seventeenth century."

Likewise, there are enough Christian references in both The Testament of Solomon and The Key of Solomon to raise doubts that either of the documents were ever originally Jewish, much less authored by Solomon. However, I would argue that this is not a case of seventeenth century cultural appropriation.

When examining grimoires, it is essential to remember that Christianity began as a Jewish Reform movement before the end of the Second Temple period in 70 A.D. when the Jews were seeking the promised Messiah that would conquer the Romans and return Jerusalem to Jewish rule. Unfortunately, the prophet of this reform movement, Jesus of Nazareth, left no written records.

However, a Pharisee convert to Christianity, Paul of Tarsus, left many letters written to the early Christian churches, detailing the meaning of Christianity as he understood the young religion. These early Christians placed a large emphasis on textual documents with the predominant literary form of the New Testament comprised of letters (Erhman 180); twenty-one of the twenty-seven documents that embody the New Testament are of letters or epistles. Of these twenty-one, fourteen of these letters are attributed to Paul as he attempts to address several concerns of the early Christian communities. (Metzger 204) The major issue that split the Jewish Christians from Paul and his Gentile converts was the question of Gentile conversion to Judaism, or should Gentile converts to Christianity be required to adhere to Mosaic Law? (Ehrman 97)

Over time Paul's interpretation of Jesus's teachings took precedence over Peter's, which in turn created different sects of the youthful religion. Each of these sects carried forward the original teachings and added their own embellishments to the emerging Christian doctrine. The bottom line is the early Christians didn't appropriate Jewish beliefs insomuch as they carried their own Jewish traditions into a new religion. The usage of Jewish texts and prophecies in Christianity is actually more syncretic than appropriated.

The reason this is important is because as Christianity struggled to define itself, it also had to define what it was not, or how it differed from rabbinical Judaism. The psychological dynamics of early Christianity’s need to establish itself as a community different from Judaism utilized "three distinctive forms of anti-Jewish polemic ... the Christology polemic, supersessionist polemic, and defamatory polemic." (Kille 293) The first two of these polemics, Jesus as the Messiah and the New Covenant/Testament between God and Christians, are reiterated throughout Christian literature establishing the theological differences between Christianity and Judaism. However, when the question of Jewish traditions continued to intrude on the early churches, Christian literature and sermons slid into the third, and most dangerous of these polemics, the defamatory polemic that dehumanizes Jews (Kille 293), or as will be discussed in our case here: Simon Magus.

Simon was, in all probability, a very real person. Josephus mentions a magician named Simon in The Antiquities of the Jews (20:7:2) as a friend of Claudius Felix, procurator of Judea in 52-58 A.D.. The Simon of Josephus's history was born in Cyprus and did claim to be a magician. His power was such that when Felix fell in love with the beautiful Drusilla, he hired Simon to persuade Drusilla to forsake her husband and marry him. Whether Simon accomplished this act through magical means or not is not mentioned.

There is some dispute over whether this particular Simon was the same Simon Magus mentioned in Acts 8:9-8:24. The footnotes of my copy of The Works of Josephus (translated by William Whiston) discount Simon of Cyprus as the infamous Magus in Acts. Whiston's argument is that in The Antiquities of the Jews (20:7:2) Josephus calls Simon of Cyprus a Jew whereas the anonymous author of Acts 8:9-8:24 describes Simon Magus as being a Samaritan. This is an important distinction, because the Samaritans observe a form of Judaism that accepts only its own ancient version of the Pentateuch as Scripture.

While Samaritanism is related to rabbinical Judaism, the two groups do not consider themselves the same. The Samaritans believe that they practice a pure form of Judaism that was observed during the pre-Babylonian captivity, whereas they see rabbinical Judaism as an amended religion, which was brought back from the Babylonian captivity.

The anonymous author of Acts might not have realized the religious differences and merely distinguished Simon Magus based on a geographical basis; although I find that hard to believe. More likely, s/he was attempting to divorce Simon from any association with rabbinical Judaism, and by later extension, with Christianity as well. We'll see why in a moment.

First let's look at Acts 8:9-8:24 (NRSV), where we're told:

9 Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 10 All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11 And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12 But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.
14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16 (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17 Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! 21 You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” 24 Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”

It seems here that Simon repented of his greed and asked for the apostles' forgiveness and blessing. So why did the early Christians seek to slander Simon Magus's reputation?

Acts 8:9-8:11 gives the answer: Simon practiced magic and alluded to his own greatness, much as Jesus did. Nor was Simon Magus a charlatan, because according to the author of Acts, "All of them, from the least to the greatest," meaning the people of Samaria, "listened to him eagerly, saying, 'This man is the power of God that is called Great.' And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic."

Of course people often said the same things about Jesus. Therefore, in order to protect the sanctity of Jesus's miracles, a thorough attack had to be launched on Simon Magus's power in order to distinguish the two. This is where Kille's defamatory polemic comes into play. Remember: in order to validate one philosophy, it becomes imperative to show how the other failed in logic or was false. Without the ability to fall back on either the Christology or supersessionist polemics to explain the differences between the miracles worked by Jesus and Simon Magus, Christian detractors seized the defamatory polemic.

Thus began a gradual form of character assassination that started in Acts and continued through the centuries. One of the early church fathers, Justin Martyr, was one of the first to besmirch Simon's reputation, nor was he the last. Each tale about Simon Magus became more malignant in the telling. Christians seeking to differentiate Jesus's "good" magic versus Simon's "evil" conjurations spread rumors that Simon used "semen and menstrual blood in his incantations." (Davies 16) Of course, the sexual connotations of semen and menstrual blood were seen by early Christians as vile, especially in contrast to Jesus's application of his own saliva to the eyes and ears to cure the blind and deaf, which was holy and clean, because Jesus was God's son, or so the argument went. 

Sometime during the second century, Simon is said to have founded the Simonian Gnostics, a sect that was denounced by Orthodox Christians because the Simonian Gnostics were said to be "addicted to magic." At some point during the fourth and fifth centuries, Simon Magus's reputation grew from a magician engaging in dark spells and leading a Gnostic sect to becoming "the father of all heresies." Each tale grew wilder than the last until, by the medieval period, Davies is able to cite apocryphal accounts that claim Simon possessed "the demonic ability to fly, his conjuring up of vicious dogs to attack the apostle Simon Peter, and his ability to render himself invisible." (Davies 16)

On the other hand, great care was taken by the New Testament authors to guard Jesus's reputation so that he wouldn't be placed in the same category as a magician such as Simon. This was achieved by relying on Old Testament prophecies for the Messiah to cultivate the appropriate origin story for Jesus. By being cast as the promised Messiah and as a son of God, Jesus's sanctity was cited as the motivation for his miracles. Therefore, Jesus was always presented as humble and sought to help others while Simon Magus was spoken of in terms of derision due to his arrogance and base motivations. Jesus followed the dictates of rabbinical Judaism whereas Simon Magus was a Samaritan, and so on. 

So what does all of this have to do with grimoires?

Recall that Enoch, Moses, and Solomon were all known for the written forms of their occult knowledge. Because they authored numerous texts, it was equally valid to assume that they also wrote secret texts of more arcane knowledge. All three were recognized by both Christians and Jews as being wise, pious, and learned, with a heavy emphasis on pious.

This is in direct contrast with Simon Magus, who is portrayed as arrogant, evil, and vain. Given Simon Magus's medieval reputation, one would believe that a grimoire of his magic might have appeared sometime in the seventeenth century. However, the only magic book Davies found that can be linked to Simon Magus was the Book of Simon the Magician, a copy of which was owned by the German abbot Trihemius (1462-1516). Davies also located a reference to Simon Magus's magic in "a Hebrew manuscript entitled The Book of the Key of Solomon (Sepher Maphteah Shelomoh), which dates to no earlier than the late seventeenth or eighteenth century and was probably translated from Italian," and "contains a Satanic conjuration called 'The Operation of Simon Magus'." (Davies 17)

Compare these meager references with the proliferation of various books and texts attributed to Enoch, Moses, and Solomon--all of whom were seen as devout followers of God and the angels. For example, Enoch went up through the levels of Heaven and met the angels; God spoke directly to Moses; and Solomon was granted God's favor and a magic ring, which gave him dominion over the demons. The grimoires of these figures tend to exemplify the nature of good over evil through God's glory, along with wisdom regarding the spiritual world.

Remember also what I said at the beginning of this rather lengthy post, regarding the fact that The Testament of Solomon and The Key of Solomon might have been authored by Christians. Since, by the seventeenth century, Simon Magus had been dehumanized as the antithesis of Jesus--who was called a son of David, thereby linking him to Solomon through genealogical lines--any book by Simon Magus could "only be a work of evil, and therefore indefensible by those magicians who believed they were acknowledging the glory of God through their rituals and invocations." (Davies 17)

Likewise, while there are enough Christian references in both The Testament of Solomon and The Key of Solomon to raise doubts that either of the documents were ever originally Jewish, much less authored by Solomon, these grimoires did contain references to both rabbinical Judaism and Christianity. Given his Samaritan background, Simon Magus could not possibly have authored a text that fell into line with the rabbinical Jewish/Christian texts that the seventeenth century magicians utilized.

Was there really a grimoire written by Simon Magus? Probably not. Aside from the reference to Book of Simon the Magician there is very little evidence that seventeenth magicians relied on any grimoires by Simon Magus. Furthermore, there is even less evidence that Simon Magus actually authored any books whatsoever, so that any seventeenth century grimoires attributed to Magus were most likely the same as the grimoires attributed to Solomon--fabrications authored by sixteenth and seventeenth magicians that combined rabbinical Judaism with Christian beliefs to form the fabled grimoires of old.

Works Cited

Davies, Owen. Grimoires: a history of magic books. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: the battles for scripture and the faiths we never knew. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephus, Flavius (trans. William Whiston). The Works of Josephus: new updated edition. MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008.

Kille, D. Andrew. "Unconsciously Poisoning the Roots: Psychological Dynamics of the Bible in Jewish/Christian Conflict." Pastoral Psychology, 53, no. 4 (March 2005).

Metzger, Bruce M. and Murphy, Roland E., eds. The New Oxford annotated Bible with the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical Books. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.