Explore the Bible: Acts 8:9-24
The character of Simon the magician (called Simon Magus in early Christian literature) appears suddenly on the scene here in Acts 8, and just as quickly exits the Biblical narrative. Yet Simon gained a wide reputation among the early Christian writers as the father of Gnosticism and indeed many (if not all) heresies. We see a description of him in Rome attempting to lead people astray as early as the First Apology of Justin Martyr (chapter 26), where he is described as a wonder worker followed by many Samaritans and others. The early church father Irenaeus devotes several chapters of his Against Heresies to addressing Simon and his followers. Some apocryphal works describe multiple confrontations between Peter and Simon in Rome, with Peter always coming out on top. But how much of this early church tradition is true?
There is no doubt that writers like Justin and Irenaeus believed that they were reporting true accounts of Simon’s life and teaching. By the time of Irenaeus, a work purportedly by Simon, called The Great Declaration, was circulating among the Gnostics. Scholars who have studied this work see it as a precursor to what later became the school of the Gnostic teacher Valentinus, so it may have roots that go back much earlier. It seems likely that there was ahistorical Simon who was indeed a teacher of an early form of what later became known as Gnosticism. The question is, was this Simon the same as the Simon of the book of Acts?
As with many questions of this type, there is much debate, and some disagreement. Some believe that Simon, given his background and even his nickname, could certainly have become a leader of a heretical sect that took some of the teachings of Christianity and merged them with magical and philosophical ideas to create a new religion. Such a religion may well have prided itself on its own secret gnosis (from the Greek word for knowledge, and the term which gives us the name Gnotiscism), and attempted to promote itself as the true knowledge passed on by Jesus. The willingness of some scholars even today to find in Gnosticism a legitimate alternate form of Christianity shows us how powerful this draw can be.
Other scholars believe that the Simon who wrote and taught what we see in Justin and Irenaeus was a different person who probably lived somewhat later than the Simon of Acts. The story in Acts 8 led Christians to think of the two as the same person, so the later Simon was thought to be the one that Luke wrote about. Even with this idea, there is still thought to be an actual historical Simon. It is interesting that scholars who are skeptical that the teaching of the Gospels tells us anything true about Jesus are often willing to accept the 2nd century Great Declaration as the actual teaching of Simon!
I think it quite possible that Simon, whose belief in the apostles’ teaching appears in Acts to be little more than a belief in a more powerful magic than he knew, could well have taken a few elements of what Philip, Peter, and John taught and merged them with his own magical beliefs to form a religion of his own, perhaps even one that claimed to follow secret teachings of this Jesus. Such teaching could have been developed by his followers (and I don’t rule out that one could even have been a later Simon) and merged with the growing Gnostic trends that came from Greek philosophy, Christian terminology, and other first and second century influences.
The story of Simon in Acts 8 isn’t so much about who he was as it is about what he was: a man who failed to grasp the truth of the grace of God, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the power of the Spirit. Simon had some kind of belief, even going so far as to be baptized, but he clearly didn’t understand the core of the gospel, the free gift of salvation through Jesus and the free gift of the indwelling Spirit. Peter warned him, and gave him the opportunity to repent, but we never read that Simon did. The stories that rose about him in later Christian tradition suggest he never came to repentance. We must be sure that our “belief” isn’t just an outward show in church or in some habitual practices, but that we have truly come to know the life-giving freedom that comes in Christ through the message of the gospel.