This now is the final guest post by David Litwa, one of the most prolific scholars of New Testament and Early Christianity over the past ten years.  David was a graduate student at Duke some years ago and took a couple of my PhD seminars over at UNC.  He is now at Boston College.  (See:  M. David Litwa – School of Theology and Ministry – Boston College (bc.edu)

All of these posts are tantalizing introductions to (three different) books he has written for a general audience.  This one is about one of the most infamous figures from the early church.  But is his infamy deserved?  Let us know what you think!

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With Simon of Samaria, we enter the maelstrom, a Charybdis of confused and cacophonous incriminations, slanderous stories, and inimical innuendo. It seems that the man Simon existed—as much as any other figure in recorded history—but he has long since been swallowed in the abyss of myth and countermyth.

Anti-Simon stories and reports begin to appear in the early to mid-second century CE. In the echo chamber of heresiological discourse, Simonian belief and practice is presented in increasingly wild ways. Since Simon became known as the head of the gnostic hydra and “the father of heresies,” a welter of stereotypical traits (sexual license, radical dualism, self-deification, and so on) were gradually attributed to him and to his heirs. This means that every report about Simon and on Simonian Christianity is riddled with slander, fictions, and clichés.Anti-Simon stories and reports begin to appear in the early to mid-second century CE. In the echo chamber of heresiological discourse, Simonian belief and practice is presented in increasingly wild ways.

Trapped in the maze of these reports, readers’ minds are so baited by presuppositions and hostile frameworks that it is hard to picture Simon as anything but a villain. He has been hounded and scapegoated so many times,  readers can hardly form a positive ethical judgment of him. Even among scholars, he is called a “sorcerer” and, with apparent tongue in cheek, “the bad Samaritan.” In heresiology, he is the antihero to Peter, antichristian, antichrist, opposite of everything good, noble, and worthy. He is symbolized, according to the Acts of Peter by a dancing, enslaved, Ethiopian woman—the lowest member of the ancient social hierarchy topped by the free, noble male.

It would seem that nothing remains of the Simonians beyond the roaring waves of rumors, rants, and hostile reports. As most scholars opine, the only surviving accounts of Simon’s life and teachings have been written by his opponents and critics. As perduring as this judgment has been, I hold it to be incorrect.

There is a red thread allowing us to break through the labyrinth of heresiology, since an independent account of Simonian thought survives. I refer to the document called The Great Declaration. This fragmentary work is cited by the Refutator (the anonymous author of the Refutation of All Heresies) in the early third century CE.

Surprising as it seems, a full-length study on Simon starting with a Simonian source has never been done. Beginning with such a source allows us to hear a different tune running below the cacophony of heresiological indictments. That being said, heresiology cannot be avoided, since it makes up the lion’s share of data. Our task, then, is to read heresiology critically and carefully, so as not to perpetuate its frameworks, schemas, and assumptions. For too long, the friends, foes, and even fair-minded scholars of Simon have needlessly assented to the heresiologists when other ways of conceptualizing and framing the data are available.

A good example of (tacitly) reinscribing heresiological discourse is the near ubiquitous perpetuation of the epithet invented by them. I refer to the title “Simon Magus.” To the heresy writers, “magus” was not a compliment. It meant “quack,” “deceiver,” and “charlatan”; it was associated with greed and various kinds of vice. If we hypothesize that Simon was the better sort of (Persian) magus, we need actual evidence of Simon’s (Persian or Persian-inspired) practice along with his own act of self-identification—and this we do not have.

In my book, Simon of Samaria and the Simonians, I call Simon by the name of the region to which he has the closest ties: Samaria. The name appears in Irenaeus (Samarites). It is possible to translate Simon Samarites by “Simon the Samaritan.” In my view, however, this would be hazardous, since only a late and fictional source (the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies) suggests that Simon held any special regard for the sacred mountain of the Samaritans, Mount Gerizim. In early sources, Simon is never said to have engaged in Samaritan cultic practices or holidays. He may well have read the Torah as a sacred book, but not the Samaritan version specifically. He and his followers did not reject the authority of the Hebrew prophets. Of course there were Samaritans in the province of Samaria. But the urban center of Samaria at the time, the city of Sebaste, was predominately Gentile. Samaria as a whole during Simon’s time was ethnically and religiously diverse. We simply cannot assume, then, that Simon was a Samaritan.

In my view, Simon was neither a magus nor a gnostic. He was a religious leader in Samaria who became a Christian sometime in the mid-30s CE. We can extrapolate that he used his leadership skills to manage a Christian group in Samaria by the late 30s or early 40s. Perhaps he performed wonders before or after his conversion, or both. Like Paul and several other early Christian leaders, Simon possibly came to Rome in the 40s or 50s. It is not certain that he established a movement which survived him. How he died is unknown. Stories of him being buried alive or shot down by apostolic prayer are polemical legends first appearing in the late second century.

My purpose in Simon of Samaria is not to rein in anyone’s imagination, but to focus it with a basically sympathetic and historical portrait of Simon and the Simonian movement(s), based on reliable sources. I sift every known tradition from the second to the fourth century CE, trying my best to check individual doctrinal elements and practices against the most reliable Simonian sources.

I intentionally seek to weaken confidence in heresiological sources (in particular, novelistic ones). Although I strip Simon of his title “(first) gnostic,” he remains a true knower of wild and worthwhile lore. And even though I deprive Simon of his epithet “Magus,” every bit of his magic remains. In the end, it is not so much about “the historical Simon,” but the capacity of Simon’s myth to form ancient Christian communities in Alexandria, Palestine, Rome, and perhaps other places. My book decisively moves the reader from Simon to the Simonians, from Simon’s myth to the people who made it.


Dr. M. David Litwa (MDiv, Emory University; ThM, Duke University; PhD, University of Virginia, 2013) is a scholar of ancient Mediterranean religions with a focus on the New Testament and early Christianity.

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3 Comments

  1. charrua June 25, 2024 at 2:22 pm

    Is it Acts 8:9 te first reference to Simon Magus?

    This would explain the link to Samaria.

    • HunterC3 July 12, 2024 at 8:00 pm

      I highly doubt. How could Acts, written between 60-100 AD, know about Simon?

      • charrua July 18, 2024 at 4:30 pm

        Read the article,Dr Litwa propósition is that the historical Simon lead a Christian group in Samaria circa 40 Ad

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