The Bible and Beyond Podcast Episode

Simon Magus: Who Is He in the Bible?

Is Simon Magus unfairly vilified in the Bible?
Dr. M. David Litwa

Dr. M. David Litwa

An Interview with Dr. M. David Litwa

The strange story of Simon in the Bible illustrates the uncomfortable truth that Christianity seems to reinvent itself when it defines itself in opposition to its perceived enemies.

In this biblical account, Simon (later called Simon Magus) appears to have been repenting properly from his mistake of offering to pay for the spiritual instructions, when Peter lashed out at him harshly. Litwa thinks the Acts of the Apostles was written many decades after the struggle between Simon of Samaria and Peter, and the author of Acts appears to have used a document known as “Simon and the Great Declaration,” for a source.

This earlier Simonian document, written by Simon’s followers, refers to him as Simon Christ, concurring with Simon’s own declaration of his equality with Christ. Such a move would have put him in direct competition with Peter and in opposition to the objectives of the author of Acts to position Peter as the head of the Christian movement.

So, the Acts author alters the intent of the original text, and paints Simon as a heretic rather than a successful and faithful follower of Christ, to reinforce Peter’s primacy among the apostles.

The unfortunate result of this move is that it has obscured the valuable teaching of Simon through his “Great Declaration” which explains the spiritual meaning Simon found in the first chapter of Genesis and why that matters to followers of Jesus.

Moreover, some later texts that extend the vilified image of Simon have become well-known and are now taken as historically tenable by many Christian followers. The highly fictionalized story of Simon and Peter performing fantastic competitive acts of healing and cursing in Rome, from the Acts of Peter, sounds like simply rehashing the debatable account put forth in the Acts of the Apostles, misleading contemporary readers, perpetuating false history, and obscuring a useful link to original Christian thinking.

Dr. M. David Litwa works at Boston College with an academic focus on New Testament Abstracts. He has written numerous books, articles and book chapters, and his forthcoming book (highlighted in today’s podcast) is Simon of Samaria and the Simonians: Contours of an Early Christian Movement (T&T Clark). He has served as an organizer with the North American Patristics Society and a referee with the Journal of Early Christian Studies, and he participates in the Society of Biblical Literature. He provides public access to his prolific research via Patreon.

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