Persians: Heresy-hunters on Simon Magus and other Magians (second-third centuries CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Heresy-hunters on Simon Magus and other Magians (second-third centuries CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 1, 2023,

Ancient authors: Justin Martyr, First Apology 26 (link) and Dialogue with Trypho 120; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.23 and 1.25 (link); Anonymous (pseudo-Hippolytus), Refutation of All Heresies 6.20 (link).

Comments: The passages about Simon the Magian from the “church fathers” gathered in this post share in common a negative perception of foreign wisdom. They would not fit in our category of “barbarian wisdom” (category four to your right), then, even though they may be seen as a contrary response to that trend. In particular, in different ways they use Magian wisdom and practice – ultimately imagined to come from the east, from Persia (see Pliny the Elder at this link) –  as a key tool in refuting and foreignizing apparent internal opponents (sects or heresies) associated with the Jesus movements. They do so by building on the story in the Acts of the Apostles (link). Irenaeus himself deploys the Magian label on other occasions, including in his earlier discussion of Marcus, a follower of Valentinus (link).

Simon the Magian was also to be a recurring character in novelistic literature produced by Jesus adherents, including the Acts of Peter and the Pseudo-Clementines, so we’ll see him again (link coming soon).

Source of translations: Justin Martyr translation by Harland; A. Roberts and W. Rambaut, “Irenaeus, Against Heresies,” in The Writings of Irenaeus, 2 volumes, Ante-Nicene Christian Library volumes 5 and 9 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1868-1869), public domain, adapted by Harland; J.H. McMahon, The Refutation of All Heresies by Hippolytus, 2 vols., Ante-Nicene Christian Library 6–7 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1868), public domain, adapted by Harland with reference to the Greek text as published M.D. Litwa, Refutation of All Heresies (Atlanta, Georgia: SBL Press, 2016).


Justin Martyr (ca. 150 CE)

[Simon and a supposed statue of him at Rome]

(First Apology 26) In the third place, we wish to say that, after the ascent of Christ into heaven, the lower spirits (daimones; or: demons) put forward certain men who claimed to be gods. These men were not only being followed by you [ostensibly the Roman emperor] but even considered worthy of honours. There was a certain Simon, a Samaritan from the village called Gitta, who through the technique of lower spirits working in him performed powerful actions of a Magian kind (magika) in your royal city of Rome in the time of emperor Claudius. Simon was also considered a god, and was also honoured by you as a god with a statue which was set up in the Tiber River on the island called “Between Two Bridges” with this inscription in Latin: “To Simon, the holy god.” Almost all the Samarians (Samareis; or: Samaritans) and even other peoples (ethnē) from other regions bow down to worship him and call him the “first God.” They also call a certain woman named Helena – who was his traveling companion at that time and had previously been in a brothel in Tyre in Phoenicia – the “first Thought” generated from him.

We also know that a certain Menander – also a Samarian of the village of Kapparetaia, a disciple of Simon, and likewise inspired by the lower spirits – deceived many by his Magian skill while he was at Antioch. He even convinced his followers that they would never die. There are still some alive today who, inspired by him, believe this.

Then there is a certain Marcion from Pontos [i.e. from Sinope on the southeastern coast of the Black Sea] who still teaches his disciples to believe in another and greater god than the creator [cf. Tertullian – link]. Assisted by the lower spirits, Marcion has caused every descent group (genos) of men to say slanderous things, to deny that God is the creator of the universe, and to proclaim another god to be greater and to have done greater things.

All those who follow these men are called “Christians,” as we have said, just as those who do not share the same opinions share among philosophers the name of “philosophy.” We do not know whether they are guilty of those disgraceful and legendary actions: overturning the lamp, unrestrained sexual mixing, and eating human flesh [i.e. rumours about Jesus adherents that circulated, with Justin implying they may be true about these opponents but not Jesus adherents generally]. However, we do know that you neither pursue nor kill them, at least not for their opinions. There is a writing by us against all the heresies that have arisen which, if you wish to read, we will supply it to you.

[Subsequent reference to Simon the Magian]

(Dialogue with Trypho 120) In saying these things, I am only thinking of telling the truth and I do not have any fear of doing so, even if you were to immediately tear me in pieces. For nor was I afraid of anyone from my own descent group (genos), I mean among Samarians [or: Samaritans] when I wrote an address to Caesar. I said that they were led astray in believing Simon the Magian (Magos) when he was among their descent group and in placing him above “every ruler, authority and power” [Letter to the Ephesians 1:21].


Irenaeus, Against Heresies (ca. 180 CE)

[Previous references to Simon the Magian]

(Against Heresies 1.23.1-5) Simon the Samaritan was that Magian about whom Luke, the disciple and follower of the apostles, said:

“Now a certain man named Simon had been in the city practicing Magian skill and astonishing the people of Samaria, saying he was someone great. They were all paying attention to him, from the lowly to the powerful, saying, ‘This man is the power of God that is called “Great.”‘ And they were paying attention to him because for a long time he had astonished them with his Magian knowledge (mageia)” [Acts of the Apostles 8:9-11 – link to full passage].

This Simon, then, imitated belief. He assumed that the apostles themselves performed their cures by Magian skill (magica) and not by the power of God. When the apostles laid their hands on those who believed in God through Jesus Christ – who was announced by them and those people were filled with the holy spirit – Simon suspected that the apostles were doing this through some greater Magian knowledge (magica scientia). He offered money to the apostles, thinking that he might also receive this power of granting the holy spirit on whomever he wanted. Peter replied:

“May your silver be destroyed along with you, because you thought you could acquire the gift of God by means of money! You have no part or share in this matter, because your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and ask the Lord if perhaps the intent of your heart may be forgiven you! For I see you are in a state of bitter envy and bound by injustice” [Acts of the Apostles 8].

Not putting any more faith in God, Simon then prepared to eagerly contend against the apostles so that he himself might seem to be an amazing being. He applied himself with still greater enthusiasm to the study of the entire Magian body of knowledge, that he might the better amaze and convince the crowds.

That was his procedure in the reign of Claudius Caesar, by whom also he is said to have been honoured with a statue, on account of his Magian skill (magica) [Irenaeus is likely dependent on Justin here]. This man, then, was glorified by many as if he was a god. He also taught that he himself was the one who appeared among the Judeans as the Son, but descended in Samaria as the Father while he came to other descent groups (gentes) in the character of the holy spirit. To be brief, he represented himself as being the greatest of all powers, that is, the Being who is the Father over all, and he allowed himself to be called by whatever title people addressed him with.

Now this Simon the Samaritan, from whom all sorts of heresies derive their origin, formed his sect out of the following materials . . . [omitted extensive outline of Simon’s supposed teachings which sound an awful like an attempt by Irenaeus to characterize Simon’s teaching as the origins of other “knowledge”-based systems].

So, then, the mystic priests belonging to this sect both lead sexually unrestrained lives and practise Magian activity (mageia), each one to the extent of his ability. They employ exorcisms and incantation, as well as love-potions and charms, along with the so-called “familiar spirits (paredroi)” and “dream-senders (oneiropompoi).” They eagerly practice whatever other curious skills there are.

They also have an image of Simon fashioned after the likeness of Jupiter, and another of Helena in the shape of Minerva. They worship these images. They have a name for themselves that is derived from Simon, the author of these most impious opinions, from whom the “falsely called knowledge” [1 Timothy 6:20] originated, as they are called “Simonians,” as one can learn from their own assertions.

[Menander the Samaritan as Magian successor]

The successor of this man was Menander, also a Samaritan by birth. He also was a perfect adept in the practice of Magian skills (magiae). He affirms that the primary Power continues unknown to all, but that he himself is the person who has been sent forth from the presence of the invisible beings as a saviour for the deliverance of human beings. The world was made by angels, whom, like Simon, he maintains to have been produced by Thought (Ennoia). By means of that Magian knowledge (magica scientia) which he teaches, Menander also provides, as he claims, “knowledge” to this effect: that one may overcome those very angels that made the world. For his disciples obtain the resurrection by being baptized into him, and can die no more, but remain in the possession of immortal youth. . . [omitted chapter on Saturninus and Basilides].

[Karpokrates / Carpocrates and Magian practices]

(25.1-5) Furthermore, Karpokrates and his followers maintain that the world and the things which are in it were created by Angels greatly inferior to the unbegotten Father. They also hold that Jesus was the son of Joseph, and was just like other men, with the exception that he differed from them in this respect, that in so far as his soul was firm and pure, he perfectly remembered those things which he had witnessed within the sphere of the unbegotten God. On this account, a power descended upon him from the Father, that by means of it he might escape from the creators of the world. . . [omitted details of Karpokrates supposed teachings].

They also practise Magian skills (technai . . . magikai), including incantations, love-potions, spells to gain favours, familiar spirits and dream-senders, and the rest of the evil techniques. They declare that they possess power to rule over the Rulers and Makers of this world even in the present. Not only over them, but also over all things that are made in this world. These men, even as the peoples (ethnē; traditionally rendered Gentiles), have been sent forth by Satan to bring dishonour upon the assembly. Their aim is that, in one way or another, people hearing the things which they speak and imagining that we all are the way they claim may turn away their ears from the preaching of the truth. Or, again, their aim is that, seeing the things they practise, people may speak evil about all of us who have in fact no fellowship with them, either in teaching or in morals or in our daily behaviours. But they [followers of Karpokrates] lead a sexually unrestrained life and, to conceal their impious teachings, they abuse the name [of Christ], as a means of hiding their wickedness. . . [omitted further details on their supposed unrestrained and impious behaviour and teaching].


Anonymous (a.k.a. pseudo-Hippolytos), Refutation of All Heresies (ca. 220 CE)

[Omitted extensive outline of the supposed allegorical approach and ideological system of Simon, based in part on Irenaeus’s claims but with the anonymous author here also claiming Simon’s system was derivative of the Greek philosopher Empedokles] . . . (6.20) So the disciples of Simon perform Magian skills (mageia), resort to incantations, employ love-potions and charms, and dispatch so-called dream-sending lower spirits (daimones; or: demons) for the purpose of confusing whomever they want. But they also employ those so-called “familiar spirits” (paredroi). “They also have an image of Simon fashioned after the likeness of Jupiter, and another of Helena in the shape of Minerva. They worship these images” [Irenaeus, Against All Heresies 1.23.4]. Now they call the one “Lord” and the other “Lady.” If any one among them sees the images of Simon and Helen and calls them “Simon and Helen,” he is thrown out as being ignorant of the mysteries. Tricking many in Samaria by his Magian skills, Simon was refuted by the apostles and was cursed, just like it is written in the Acts [chapter 8, above]. But he renounced the faith and later attempted these practices.

Travelling as far as Rome, he clashed with the apostles. Peter repeatedly opposed Simon as he tricked many by his Magian skills. In the end, this man went to Gitta [his homeland in Samaria], instructing others while sitting under a plane-tree. Finally, when he was about to be refuted after a delayed time, he stated that, if he was buried alive, he would rise on the third day. Accordingly, after ordering a trench to be dug by his disciples, he directed himself to be buried there. They, then, executed the injunction given. However, he remained in that grave until this day, for he was not the Christ.

This is the man, and this constitutes the mythical system advanced by Simon. Valentinus got his starting-point for his teaching from this but using different names. For everyone agrees that the “aeons” of Valentinus – that is, mind, truth, word, life, human, and church – are the six roots of Simon: mind, thought, voice, name, reasoning, and conception. . . [omitted discussion of Valentinus’ supposed derivative mythical system].

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