Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Simon Magus and Philip the Deacon

Reading N°8 in the History of the Catholic Church

Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

St. Stephen's persecutors triumphed. Being now rid of him whom they considered their most formidable opponent, they hoped easily to get the upper hand over the others by terrifying them. The procurator had let the murder of Stephen take place; and when it was over, he raised no protest. They felt, therefore, that they might go ahead. After Stephen's death, "there was raised a great persecution against the Church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all dispersed through the countries of Judea and Samaria, except the Apostles."[1]

But these wretched designs were thwarted. An event took place which, with the regularity of a law, would be repeated in the course of the centuries: the violent dispersion of the Christians occasioned a more rapid diffusion of Christianity. Philip the deacon's evangelization of Samaria, and the conversion of Saul, the future Apostle of the Gentiles, were the first fruits of Stephen's martyrdom.

Map of Ancient Samaria
(click to enlarge)
The province of Samaria, located in the middle of Palestine between Galilee and Judea, was inhabited by a mixed population, made up of the remnants of the ancient kingdom of Israel (destroyed by Salmanasar in 721) and Assyrian colonists who were brought in by the conqueror.[2] These alien colonists in their new abode preserved the form of worship of their former country. Some time afterwards, the Samaritans, alarmed by a plague which they considered to be a vengeance of the god of the country whom the new inhabitants had disregarded, had recourse to one of the former Israelite priests transported to Assyria to teach them the worship of Yahweh. This priest made his residence at Bethel. But each of the ethnic groups, while adopting the worship of Yahweh, continued to worship the gods of its home land. Thus, Samaria had a multitude of cults, and each town had its own religion.[3] The religion of the country was, therefore, a corrupted Judaism mingled with paganism. When the Jews returned from captivity, their refusal to accept the help of the Samaritans in the rebuilding of the Temple accentuated the unfriendly feeling between Samaria and the other two provinces. It is probably to this period that we must refer the worship on Garizim, the rival of Jerusalem. From the Gospel we know that, in the time of Christ, a sharp hostility existed between the Jews and the Samaritans.[4] Yet Jesus spoke of them in terms of gentle mercy,[5] and before His Ascension into Heaven, He expressed His desire that the evangelization of Samaria should be undertaken after that of Jerusalem and Judea, but before that of the countries of the Gentiles.[6]

About the year 33, at the time of St. Stephen's martyrdom, the people of Samaria were greatly stirred by the proselytism of a man who, exploiting the religious unrest of a people ever prompt to welcome new envoys of the divinity, proclaimed himself to be a superhuman being.[7] His name was Simon. He was born in the village of Gitta, near Sichem,[8] and was reputed to be an extraordinary magician. If we accept the testimony of the Clementine Homilies,[9] Simon was brought up in Egypt, where he became familiar with those vague and pretentious theories toward which Alexandrian Judaism was tending and which were later formulated in the different Gnostic sects.

By the strangeness of his imaginings, the prestige of his sorcery, and the boldness of his declarations, this man exercised a kind of fascination over the masses. And the people said: "This man is the power of God, which is called great."[10] St. Jerome relates that Simon used to say to his listeners:
I am the word of God, I am Beauty, I am Consolation, I am the All-powerful, I am the All of God.[11]
Saint Philip
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
When Philip, the second of the seven deacons, left Jerusalem, he went to Sebaste[12] to preach the Gospel. In that district, refractory to the Jerusalem authorities, he was assured of escaping the persecution of the Jewish priests. The deacons, in consequence of their dispersion, were freed from the material cares of the community, which until then had constituted their chief duties, and now devoted themselves to the ministry of preaching. Our missioner soon found himself confronted by Simon the Magician.

We know very little about Philip. It would seem that he was born at Caesarea.[13] His four daughters assisted him in his ministry by instructing the neophytes. They also seem to have had an important part in the charitable works of that early period. Philip had received the gift of miracles in an unusual way. His name seems to indicate a Hellenist origin, which would have facilitated his relations with peoples who were alien to Judea. Philip cured so great a number of possessed persons, paralytics, cripples, and infirm of all sorts, that many Samaritans asked for Christian Baptism. Simon himself asked for and received this initiation into the faith of Christ.

The deacons were authorized to baptize, but not to give the Holy Ghost. This latter power was reserved to the Apostles. They soon learned of the success which God bestowed on Philip's preaching and thought the time had come for conferring on the new Christians the complement of the sacramental graces received by those who were initiated into the faith of Christ. Peter and John went into the midst of the young Christian group of Sebaste and imposed hands upon each member of the new community, conferring the Holy Ghost on them.

There is reason to suppose that the outpouring of spiritual graces which was ordinarily produced at Jerusalem upon the newly confirmed was repeated in Samaria with particular splendor. A holy enthusiasm seized upon those who had just received the grace of the Spirit. Words were powerless to express the holy joy that filled their hearts, the ecstasy that raised their souls toward mystical contemplation. The expression on their faces, the incomplete phrases that died on their lips, and their unfinished gestures, left no doubt as to the efficacy of the sacramental rite.[14] Those who were present could not resist the impression of a presence and a particular action of God in their midst.

St. Peter's Confrontation with Simon Magus
Avanzino Nucci (1552-1629)
Simon was a witness to these moving scenes. The wretch, whose conversion may not have been free from ulterior motives, then experienced in his heart the worst temptation of his life. He yielded to it, boldly came to St. Peter, offered him money, and said: "Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I shall lay my hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost." The first of the popes now found himself face to face with the first heresiarch. The Acts of the Apostles records his admirable reply:
Keep thy money to perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.[15]
The magician bowed and pretended to be sorry. Soon, however, we see him going about the world, unrepentant and rebellious, followed by a wretched woman, Helena, whom he called "the Eternal Thought," whom he pretended to "deliver," and whom he made a partner in his works of sorcery. Later on an entire theologico-philosophical system was attributed to him. Probably this is merely a synthesis, made by his disciples, of the ideas he spread, and perhaps intended simply to cover the immorality of his conduct.

According to this system, Simon held that the principle of all things is a spiritual, eternal and invisible fire. From this first principle emanated lower spirits, in a gradation more and more material - the eons. It was their function to create and preserve the world. These spirits keep in captivity the eternal Thought of God, whose work they are. Who will deliver this divine Ennoia? Simon, the Standing One, the Word, the great Power of God; and his whole mission will be to labor for this deliverance.[16] If these be really Simon's ideas, all the fancies of Gnosticism had their germs in the head of this innovator.

This wicked man, who, almost immediately after the Savior's death, thus withstood the Church, was crafty and violent, intelligent and depraved, attacking both discipline and faith. He left a deep and sad memory in the first generations of Christians, who attributed to him a mass of crimes and adventures, wonderful and sinister.[17] His name survives in the language of the Church; she gives the name "simony" to the crime of trafficking ill spiritual things.

The evangelization of Samaria was a great step in the spread of Christianity. The Church had passed the confines of the Jewish world and was soon to receive a pagan into its ranks. The honor of this conversion belongs also to the deacon Philip.

The man who was the subject of this new conquest belonged to that category of foreigners who, though not being circumcised nor binding themselves to the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, felt the profound influence of Jewish monotheism. They were usually called proselytes or "men fearing God." They were free from the superstitions of idolatry and from belief in the abstract divinity of the philosophers, and were accustomed to adore the true, personal, living God in the Temple at Jerusalem. This man was an officer of the queen of Ethiopia. He was returning home from a pilgrimage to the Holy City, driving in his chariot along the road which skirts the Mediterranean coast. Philip, impelled by the Spirit of God, approached him and heard him reading the prophet Isaias. He said to the eunuch: "Thinkest thou that thou understandest what thou readest?" To this the eunuch answered: "How can I unless some man show me?" Philip then sat beside him in the chariot and, interpreting the text of Isaias, announced Jesus Christ to him. As they went on their way, they came to a body of water.
The eunuch said: "See, here is water; what doth hinder me from being baptized?" And Philip said: "If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest." And he, answering, said: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God."
Philip then went clown into the water with him and baptized him.[18]

The Baptism of the Eunuch
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

In this scene, so vividly reported in the Acts of the Apostles, we perceive the method followed for the initiation of men of good will into the Church. An inner grace and good example impelled them to pray and to read the Scriptures; but there must be a minister of God to interpret the divine words for them, to instruct them, and, after being assured of their sufficient instruction and of their faith, to baptize them.

Did the newly baptized eunuch bring about any conversions in Ethiopia? We have no evidence on this subject. We only know that Philip preached Jesus, while going from Azotus to Caesarea, in the almost pagan cities of the ancient country of the Philistines. But he seems to have turned only to men of the Jewish race or to strangers who, like the officer of Candace, adored the God of Israel: these latter were known as "proselytes of the gate."


[1] Acts 8:1.
[2] Cf. 4 Kings 17:5; 18:9; 1 Esedras 4:10.
[3] Cf. 4 Kings 17: 21-41; Vigouroux, La Bible et les découvertes modernes, III, 575-586.
[4] John 4:9; 8:48.
[5] John 4; Luke 10.
[6] Acts 1:8.
[7] Acts 8:9.
[8] St. Justin, Apol., I, 26.
[9] Homilies, II, 22.
[10] Acts 8:10.
[11] St. Jerome, In Matth., 24:5.
[12] This was the ancient Samaria, capital of the province of that name. The name Sebaste, or Augusta, was given to it in memory of Augustus, who had bestowed it on Herod.
[13] From the Acts of the Apostles (21: 8 f.) we know that later he dwelt at Caesarea with his four daughters.
[14] Referring to these facts, a Protestant author writes: "Therein we see the sacramental and magical idea that has ever since predominated in the Catholic Church." (Monnier, Notion de l'apostolat, p. 170.) In those events we see rather the notion of sacramental efficacy, ex opere operato, which thus is traceable to the earliest beginnings of Christianity.
[15] Acts 8:20.
[16] This system is developed in The Great Announcement, curious fragments of which are preserved in the Philosophumena, IV, vii; VI, vi ff.; X, viii.
[17] Fanciful details about Simon Magus are to be found in the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions and in the Clementine Homilies. More trustworthy information is contained in Hegesippus, quoted by Eusebius, IV, xxii; in St. Justin, First Apology, 31 and 56; Dialogue with Trypho, 70; St. Irenaeus, Adv. haereses, I, 22 f.; Tertullian, De anima, 34; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, II; VII, 17; and the Philosophumena, VI, 7-20.
[18] Acts 8:26-40.


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