Simon Magus

© 2006 Dr. Barbara Thiering

The main consequence of the pesher is to show that there were other political figures associated with Jesus, many having greater influence and power than Jesus had in his time. The more pseudonyms that the person had the greater his stature.

There can be no doubt, when all the sources are taken together, that Simon Magus was the towering figure in the time of Jesus. From being the close confidant and rescuer of Jesus, fighting with him against the corrupting influence of Agrippa I , Simon became, in the schism that resulted in the formation of the Christian party, its Antichrist. His chief opponent was Peter, who caused his death.

One element in his downfall was the intellectual brilliance that degenerated into fraud. It was Simon Magus who was the original of Dr Faust. Supremely gifted, master of all the sciences known at the time – medicine, mathematics, astronomy, law – he despised the ignorant masses and found financial profit by tricking them with fake miracles. He had thus sold his soul to the devil, as Goethe’s play and Gounod’s opera depict him.

Simon figures in major sources of the period. A full account is found in the Clementine literature. Justin Martyr shows that he led a cult on the Tiber Island in Rome claiming to be an incarnation of God, while his mistress Helena was said to be the divine Thought of God. Eusebius gives him considerable space, while denouncing him as utterly evil for the secret sexual license of his following. As Simon of Cyrene, he appears in the Nag Hammadi documents.

The book of Acts mentions him by name, in Acts 8, in a scene where he is denounced by Peter. It is surely to the shame of scholarship that generations of theologians have been told that Simon Magus did not exist, or was invented, or imported from later legend into the unreliable book of Acts. It was not nice to allow Christians to suspect that he could have had anything to do with the foundation of the Christian Church.

The account of the “resurrection” given by the pesher shows that Simon was its major instrument. It was he who was the main target of Pilate’s crucifixions – Jesus was only the third man. The two “thieves”- Simon Magus and Judas Iscariot - were political militants who had led an insurrection against the Roman occupation, as illustrated in the brutal conduct of Pontius Pilate. Simon hung on the central cross, Judas on the second one on the east, and Jesus on the third one for the least important, on the west.

A conspiracy formed by Antipas Herod deceived Pilate into believing that if he flouted the Jewish sabbath rule he would be in more trouble with Rome than he already was. A law said that a hanged man must not stay on the gibbet overnight, and this was especially the case for Friday night, the beginning of the sabbath. Its strict form began Friday at 3 pm. Pilate ordered that the method of execution should be changed from hanging to burial alive. He was directed to a convenient pair of caves, down from the end of the Qumran esplanade where the crucifixions took place.

One of the caves could be used as a dungeon, totally blocked, so that men left inside it would eventually suffocate. The two main criminals, Simon and Judas, were to be thrown there, their legs broken so that they could not reach up to remove the blocking stone above their heads.

By 3 pm on Friday Jesus on the third cross had drunk from a cup of poison in an attempt at suicide. Less robust than the militants, he had fallen into despair at the treachery that had put him there. Born into the community of ascetics, Jesus had spent parts of his childhood and youth with his family in Rome, and like other Jews in Rome had found its laws and culture attractive. He had Gentiles among his closest friends. His lack of enthusiasm for militancy caused him to be suspected by his associates, although he had been born into the position of a potential king. When they had the chance, his enemies denounced him to Pilate as one of the triarchy of militants, replacing Barabbas who was actually the third leader. A further act of treachery by a priest, Jonathan Annas, who was in agreement with him politically but jealous of his religious leadership arranged for the cup of poison to be brought up to his lips, to help him to suicide before the pain became too great. An added sedative sent him quickly into unconsciousness, and he collapsed.

His closest Gentile friend, John Mark, saw his opportunity. He sent the message to Pilate that Jesus was already dead, although it was unlikely that a man could die after only 6 hours on the cross. Crucifixion was a cruel method of execution because it took many days to die. With other friends keeping Pilate out of the way, the unconscious Jesus was carried down to the group of caves. Jesus was placed in a cave with windows, adjoining the dungeon. One of its uses was to be a hospital for the sick.

Simon Magus had the medical skills needed to ensure the expulsion of the poison from Jesus’ body before it had time to take effect. A strong purgative could be used, in the form of large quantities of aloe juice. A container with almost a hundredweight of aloe leaves was placed in the cave, together with myrrh, a soothing ointment. The help of the two guards was enlisted, with the assistance of a bribe. They had been posted there to guard Simon and Judas, and they had a personal sympathy with the innocent Jesus. They carried Simon on a stretcher up a shaft from the opened dungeon and down into Jesus’ cave. Sitting beside Jesus’ head, as he could do even though his legs were broken, Simon administered the purgative, and after several hours brought Jesus back to consciousness.

Within the long-standing ascetic community there were constant struggles for the papacy, which had been established in the time of Herod the Great in the 1st century BC. The present issue was between Jerusalem and the Diaspora, where many Jews lived without feeling any particular allegiance to Jerusalem and its temple. Simon Magus, a Samaritan, was a member of the party of the Diaspora, and had already illustrated his outstanding leadership qualities. The huge membership that had been gained in the Diaspora, where mission had been going on for more than a century, included many who believed in miracles. The gnostics from the ascetic schools educated those who were capable of it in the critical scientific thought of the times, treating the uneducated as “babes”. Their teachers reached them through claims to miracles which for some became an incentive to enquiry that could introduce them to studies that would bring them to maturity.

Simon was already practiced in such teaching devices. Alone in the hospital cave – as he had arranged- he watched Jesus recovering through his medical skills, and seized his opportunity. When his mistress Helena arrived at the caves, he told her to spread the news that he had brought about a miracle, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. His acceptance as Pope by the Diaspora party was ensured.

Pilate and his troops had left the scene, and on the Saturday evening after the sabbath ended, a council of the leaders was held, determining that Simon and Jesus should remain in the Qumran monastery, hiding in its secret rooms until the danger of re-arrest was past. Simon had to spend months recovering from his broken legs. Jesus could walk, and may well have visited him frequently.

Jesus knew of Simon’s claim to have raised him from the dead, and he knew also that there had been no resurrection. The two men were close allies, but at the same time Jesus had always opposed Simon’s manipulativeness. Yet he understood the intellectual difference between the educated gnostics and the illiterate “babes”. During the next six months the plan was conceived of writing a double-layered history, which for superficial hearers would present moral truths in a supernatural context, but for insiders familiar with the scientific method and knowledge of the ascetic schools would tell what had actually happened.

It was seen as the work proceeded that a new scripture was evolving, replacing the obsolete Old Testament which many Diaspora Jews rejected. For such Jews, the pesher technique – illustrated in documents found at Qumran – was a way of dealing with the text of the Old Testament so as to remove its apparent difficulties. The theory of pesher suggested the double layer, with its method of relying on the special meanings of apparently vague and general words.

Jesus spent his recovery period engaged in inspired creativity, assisted by the Gentiles John Mark and Philip. By 37 AD he had finished the Gospel of John. Other leaders such as Peter with Mark and Matthew Annas came into the production of further gospels, and Jesus worked with Luke to write Luke’s gospel. All four were finished by 50 AD.

But by that time there had been such a serious breach between the following of Jesus, led by Peter and Paul, and the following of Simon Magus, that there was a decisive schism. Jesus’ party, increasingly dominated by Gentiles, adopted the name Christian, and formally founded a new mission on January 1, 44 AD. Simon’s party had bases in Damascus, Caesarea, and Rome itself, where they continued a rival mission in opposition to that of the Christians. A major factor in the schism was the timid character of the youthful Agrippa II, who had succeeded to the Herod kingship when his father Agrippa I was assassinated. His tutor had been Paul who was able to influence him to make Christianity the religion of his court.

The death of Simon was brought about by Peter and the Christians in Rome shortly before 64 AD. The story given in the Acts of Peter looks so ludicrous that biblical scholars have dismissed it as sheer invention from much later. But when Simon’s trickery, known from other records, is brought into it, it is accounted for as a piece of counter-trickery by Peter.

Photo VV

Photo VV. Francesca Romana Church.
Built on the ancient oratory that was constructed by Pope Paul I in Rome near the Colosseum on the place in which Simon Magus died.

“And lo and behold, he (Simon) was carried up into the air, and everyone saw him all over Rome passing over its temples and in hills; while the faithful looked towards Peter. And Peter, seeing the incredible sight, cried out to the Lord Jesus Christ, 'Let this man do what he undertook, and all who have believed on thee shall now be overthrown, and the signs and wonders which thou gavest them through me shall be disbelieved. Make haste, Lord, with thy grace; and let him fall down from this height, and be crippled, but not die; but let him be disabled and break his leg in three places!' And he fell down from that height and broke his leg in three places. Then they stoned him and went to their own homes; but from that time they all believed in Peter.”

A little detective work would suggest that Simon on a platform had caused himself to be hoisted up by pulleys to a height between towers where onlookers, trying to see him, were dazzled by the sun. His long robes covered the platform so that he appeared to fly. The pulleys, hoisting him higher, made it appear that he was flying above temples and hills seen behind him. The Christians only had to sabotage his act by overpowering the concealed men holding the pulleys, so that he crashed down and broke his leg. Subsequently, when he was taken for medical attention, other enemies arranged that he was put to death.

This history, like a great deal of the record of the Jewish ascetic community in the first two centuries AD, was deliberately and consciously suppressed by writers such as Eusebius. By the time that Christianity had been seen by pagans under Constantine as a worthy new religion, the Jews had come under such stigma with their failed revolts against the Romans that the origins of Christianity from their ascetic communities could not be admitted. It is primarily due to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls that the missing links have come to light.


Simon Magus (the magician) Acts 8:9, The Clementines, The Acts of Peter, Eusebius)