John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: October 17

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: October 17

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Simon Magus


The Simon who is dismissed from sacred history with the facts which last evening passed under our notice, is taken up by ecclesiastical history and tradition, in which he figures by the name of Simon Magus. According to this source of information, his contact with Christianity, and the acquaintance he had formed with its principles, were turned to account for the advancement of his own objects, by a new system of delusion in which some of its elements were, in a more distorted shape, incorporated with something of the later Judaism, and something of the mythic philosophy of the East.

According to Justin Martyr, Simon was a native of Gitton in Samaria; and this agrees very well with the circumstance of our finding him pursuing his practice among the Samaritans. There is a tradition that he had studied at Alexandria; and those who are acquainted with the dreamy theology of the Alexandrian schools will think this not unlikely, though we have no very certain evidence of the fact. Josephus speaks of a Simon Magus who was high in the confidence of the Roman governor Felix, and the subservient minister of his will. Neander supposes him to have been the same as this Simon. But to this it is reasonably objected that Josephus makes his Simon a native of Cyprus by birth; whereas Justin, who was himself a native of Shechem in Samaria, and had every opportunity of knowing the native country of Simon, declares him to have been a Samaritan, and could have no possible interest in misrepresenting the truth. Besides, Felix lived too late to allow it to be supposed that Simon Magus could still be actively engaged in those regions where he was procurator; for Simon seems to have early left the East, and to have betaken himself to Rome, the rendezvous for all deceivers of this kind. This Justin affirms; but what he does say, in his First Apology, is so interesting, and has excited so much discussion, that we may give it entire.

“After the return of Christ to heaven, the demons put forth certain men, calling themselves gods; who not only were not persecuted, but honored by you. Such was Simon, a certain Samaritan, who, during the reign of Claudius Caesar, having performed magical works, through the art and power of demons, in your imperial city of Rome, was accounted a god, and has been honored by you with a statue as a god, which statue has been erected by you in an island in the Tiber, between the two bridges, with this inscription in Latin—Simone Deo Sancto; and almost all the Samaritans, and a few also among other nations, acknowledge and worship him as the First God.”

Recurring to the subject afterwards, Justin says: “As I have before said, Simon being with you in the imperial city of Rome, during the reign of Claudius Caesar, he so astonished and deluded the sacred senate and the Roman people as to be accounted a god, and to be honored with a statue, as the other gods are honored by you. Whence I beg that you [the emperor, or the emperor and the Caesars] would make the sacred senate and your people acquainted with this our supplication; so that if any one be entangled in his doctrines, he may learn the truth, and be able to escape from error. And if it be your pleasure, let the statue be destroyed.”

This statement has been repeated by several of the fathers; but it has of late been generally supposed that Justin was misled in this by his imperfect acquaintance with the Latin language and mythology, and mistook a statue to the Sabine deity, Sermo Sancus, for one to Simon—a conclusion which has been conceived to be much confirmed by a piece of marble having been found in an islet of the Tiber, actually bearing the inscription (possibly, it was thought, the very same that Justin saw), Semoni Sanco Deo Fidio Sacrum.

The late learned Dr. Burton, however, in his work on the Heresies of the Apostolic Age, urged some reasons against the supposed certainty that Justin had been mistaken; and more lately, Professor Norton of New York has so investigated the subject, as to leave strong grounds for doubt whether Justin’s story may not have been too readily set aside. Justin, at the distance of a hundred years, may have been in some error as to the circumstances attending the erection of the statue, and nothing more need be understood than that it was set up with the sanction of the emperor—in whose reign, indeed, it is known that a decree was issued which rendered it impossible that a public statue should be erected without that sanction. It is, however, little likely that Justin should have committed a blunder so egregious as to what he had actually seen; and if he had, it is still less likely but that it would have been pointed out, before presentation, by some friend capable of correcting the error in a public document like the Apology, in which the whole body of the Christians were interested. Or if it had been presented with this blunder in the laughter and derision of the enemies of Christianity, at the ignorance of the apologist, must have made the fact known, and would effectually have prevented its being repeated for two hundred years by others, to some of whom it is almost certain that the mistake, if any existed, must have become known. Besides, the inscription on the marble is less likely, than seems at first view, to have been thus mistaken by a man even more ignorant than Justin is, upon this hypothesis, unjustly supposed to have been; for the words cited are followed by others expressing the name (Sextus Pompeius) and titles of the person by whom it was dedicated. It is far from extraordinary that there should be two inscriptions, one to Semo Sancus, and an other to Simon in this place. We know the city swarmed with statues and inscriptions; and Semo Sancus was an ancient well-known god, who had a temple on the Quirinal Hill, and to whom there were several inscriptions in the city. Three besides this one have actually been found, and more are probably buried in the soil; and this reduces the singularity of the coincidence that one should be found in the same island of the Tiber where Justin saw the statue of Simon. With regard to the fact of its existence, with which alone we are concerned, there is no difficulty in supposing it to have been erected at Rome by some of Simon’s followers; nor is there anything to render it improbable that they might have obtained liberty to set up a statue of his in Rome exposed to public view. The deification of contemporaries after death was common in that age. The examples of it in the apotheoses of the Roman emperors, and of those to whom they extended the honor, must be familiar to every one. There is a more affecting illustration of the common conceptions concerning it, in the intention of Cicero to deify his beloved daughter Tullia. and to erect a temple to her memory. Similar honors are said to have been rendered at Parium to Alexander the Paphlagonian and to Peregrinus Proteus, impostors of the same class with Simon; and at Troas to a certain Neryllinus, of whom we know nothing except that he was probably of like character. The more noted charlatan Apollonius of Tyana was also regarded as a god, and thought worthy to have temples built for his worship. But it is indeed quite unnecessary to adduce these facts, since there is no reasonable question that Simon was adored as a god, or as God, by his followers, and therefore no reason to doubt that they might have erected a statue to him with the inscription recorded.

Eusebius reports that Simon continued at Rome in the enjoyment of great reputation until the reign of Nero, when his popularity was seriously endangered by the arrival of Peter; and later writers give a wonderful legend of his destruction at the prayer of the apostle, joined to that of Paul, when, in a last violent effort to sustain his drooping credit, he attempted to fly, with the pretence of ascending to heaven as Christ had done. If he did this, it scarcely needed any miracle that he should fall to the ground and break both his legs, as he is reported to have done. It is added that he was carried to Brindes, where, being overwhelmed with shame and grief at his defeat and disaster, he committed suicide by casting himself from the roof of the house in which he lodged. This may perhaps be connected with the anecdote which we find in Seutonius of a man who attempted to fly in presence of the emperor Nero, but who fell to the ground with such violence that his blood spurted up to the gallery in which the emperor sat.

As reported to us, the doctrines taught by Simon resembled those of the Gnostics, of which remarkable sect he is indeed described as the founder; and the accounts which are given of his later pretensions, however extravagant they appear, correspond with the intimation of the sacred historian, that even before his acquaintance with Christianity, he “gave himself out to be some great one,” and led the Samaritans to regard him as “the great power of God.” It appears, then, that eventually, when he had digested his views into something of a system, he claimed to be nothing less than the incarnate God, and as such became an object of worship to his followers. His deity consisted of certain Aeons, or persons, all of which, collectively and severally, he declared to be manifested in himself. Hence he professed to appear as the Father in respect to the Samaritans, as the Son in respect to the Jews, and as the Holy Ghost in respect to all other religions; but that it was indifferent to him by which of these names he was called. According to Jerome, he declared of himself: “I am the Word of God; I am the Perfection of God; I am the Comforter; I am the Almighty; I am the whole Essence of God.” he taught no doctrine of atonement and denied the resurrection of the body, but admitted the future existence, if not the immortality, of the soul. He did not require purity of life; but taught that actions were in themselves indifferent, and that the distinction of actions as good or evil was a delusion taught by the angels to bring men into subjection. He carried about with him a beautiful female named Helena, whom he set forth as the first Idea of Deity, and who, in consequence, was also worshipped by his followers. These blasphemous and pernicious tenets sufficiently indicate the character of his teaching; but it may be doubtful how much of this is to be literally interpreted, or how much to be viewed in the light of the highly allegorical character of all Eastern teaching in his day; and to which, therefore, the beautiful simplicity of the Christian system and teaching, presents the most striking and effectual contrast. The only certain thing is, that Simon was a great impostor, although he may also to some extent have been a self-deceiver.