According to Hippolytus, the third century CE Christian writer, a certain Simon of Samaria had himself buried alive by his followers, with the promise to rise on the third day; yet he remained in the grave because he was not the Christ.1
Even though Simon was unable to rise from the dead, he has continued to enliven the imaginations of those who investigate the beginnings of Christianity. He has been the focus of controversy since the second century CE when Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, identified him as the "father of all heresies." From that time until the nineteenth century there is almost unanimous testimony that Simon was the first individual to be called a Gnostic, and that Simonianism was the earliest form of Gnosticism.
Modern historical criticism cannot claim such a consensus of opinion. In fact, conclusions about Simon range from agreeing with the assessment of Irenaeus to denying Simon's existence. These contradictory opinions reflect the nature of surviving primary sources and the fact that in modern research the person of Simon has been only a secondary concern in the quest for answers to larger questions.
This thesis first re-examines the literary portraits of Simon of Samaria (chapters 2-3) through the background debates of scholarship concerning the historical reliability of Acts, and the nature and origin of Gnosticism. Then a chronological approach to the agreed primary sources critically analyses reports about Simon. Particular attention is given to the possible contribution of "magic" and the history of the "Magoi" in both the development of Gnosticism, and the perceptions and descriptions concerning Simon.
Reports about Simon in early Christian literature were undoubtedly fuelled by the reported encounter between the disciple Simon Peter and the so-called "magician" Simon in the New Testament book of Acts. The story-teller Luke initially avoids negative statements about Simon, but as his narrative unfolds in Acts 8 it is clear that Simon is not described as a hero; in fact, Simon's reported claims and title most probably would have first struck Christians as rivalling those of Jesus Christ. The reputation of Simon is examined (chapter 4) and claimed links between Simon and other practitioners of arcane arts are discussed in three separate analyses of texts from the book of Acts.
Previous scholarship can largely be divided into one of two camps that hold mutually exclusive conclusions about Simon; namely, either he was a Gnostic hero discredited and demoted by the author of Acts as a Samaritan magician, or an ordinary magician who was later elevated and revered as a divine figure. Claims about Simon being the first Gnostic are examined (chapter 5) together with a discussion of issues surrounding the use of terminology such as Gnosis and Gnosticism. Arguments are presented for the earliest descriptions of Simon as "magician" and "Gnostic" being complementary rather than contradictory assessments. Several fragments from reports about Simon in the writings of Justin, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus are critically examined as a prelude to providing an answer to the focal question: "Simon Magus: First Gnostic?"
The study concludes in agreement with modem estimations of "identity". The identity of Simon never existed as some inherent quality - always presenting the same face to researchers in every generation - but was generated in interaction with others, through the simultaneous contribution of a complex mix of cultural, sociological, psychological, and geographical factors. The question of Simon's identity is approached from three perspectives (chapter 6): from the Messina definition of Gnosticism; the viewpoint of the Christian Heresiologists; and, from a select number of reconstructed original traditions of Simon.
Was Simon the first Gnostic? The thesis outlines why a simple "yes" or "no" answer regrettably cannot be given. From the viewpoint of Messina, Simon can be seen as a pre-Gnostic in terms of the definition. From the viewpoint of the Heresiologists, Simon can be seen as a heretic and a practitioner of ancient magic, who was influenced by Greek philosophy and entertained certain nascent Gnostic ideas. From the viewpoint of reconstructed traditions, Simon would not have rejected the idea of being called a Gnostic; at least not in the original sense of the word.
1HIPPOLYTUS, Ref. VI 20,3.