Philip the Evangelist and Simon Magus

This is the twenty-third entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This entry considers the beginning of the mission to Samaria and the introduction of Simon the magician.

For previous entries, please now go to the Complete Acts of the Apostle Commentary, where you can find links to each of the entries updated after each new blog post.

Advertisement

3. Contents:

D)  Persecutions of the “Hellenist” Jewish Christians and the First Mission outside of Jerusalem (6:1-8:40): Mission to Samaria and Simon the Magician (8:4-8:3):

4Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. 5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6 The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, 7 for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. 8 So there was great joy in that city. 9 Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 10 All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, "This man is the power of God that is called Great." 11 And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12 But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.  (NRSV)

This passage, which continues throughout Acts 8 in various ways, introduces “a new phase…as the Gospel moves beyond Jerusalem” (Carl R. Holladay, “Acts”in Harper Collins Bible Commentary, 997). The major figure in this section is Philip “earlier introduced as ‘one of the seven’ (6:5), later identified as an ‘evangelist’ living in Caesarea (21:8)” (Holladay, “Acts,” 997).  Richard Pervo notes that “judging from the references to him (and to his daughters), Philip was an important figure in early Christianity, as the relative prominence he receives in Acts attests” (Pervo, Acts, 205). And this is a genuine prominence which Philip has in Acts since he is not an Apostle, and many of the apostles have no role in the actual narrative.

Pervo wonders whether Luke has an actual source about Philip or whether he has created this narrative himself. He writes, “Luke may have had information about work in Samaria conducted by anonymous missionaries and attributed this to Philip. He would then have created, in effect, ‘the Acts of Philip’ in chap. 8. In support of this view is the anonymous character of those who began the Gentile mission in Antioch” (Pervo, Acts, 203). Pervo, though, thinks it preferable to propose that Luke had access to a source which described Philip’s missionary activity in Samaria, since the Philip section of 8:4-40 does not “fit with his {Luke’s} overall picture” in Acts and because “he must introduce apostles to ‘regularize’ the activity” of Philip (Pervo, Acts, 203).  In this section, for instance, and later in Acts 8, we notice that Peter follows after Philip and by so doing gives the mission of Philip “validity.” I agree with Pervo that Luke had access to a source regarding the missionary activity of Philip, for there would be no reason to create and attribute such a source to an otherwise marginal figure.

The Samaritan mission, it must also be stressed, does have an historical basis in Jesus’ own ministry since we find it in various forms in Luke 9, 10 and 17 and in John 4. Luke, though, does not present the Samaritans as the despised neighbors of the Jews. “If the narrator wishes Samaritans to be viewed as Jews, albeit deviant, he does not say so. Samaria is simply a place, with a city and villages” (Pervo, Acts, 203). And yet it is hard to believe that Luke knows nothing of the liminal status Samaritans had for Jews, neither Gentiles nor Jews. Part of his presentation might be stressing by silence that all people are welcome to hear the Gospel without restraint. As we will also see, Luke has another purpose, for “Luke portrays, via the Samaritan mission, the distinction between belief in Jesus and vulgar “magic” (Pervo, Acts, 204).

Luke sets the entire scene by showing us that the Gospel went to Samaria due to the prior persecution, writing, “now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (Acts 8:4). “The verse implies that all of the refugees became evangelists,” but “this generalization exposes the Lucan view of persecution as the motor that drives mission” (Pervo, Acts, 205). Not only is this a Lucan theme, however, but it does indeed indicate much of the spread of the Gospel in the ancient Roman Empire, even if not all of it. There is a simple statement of fact, which indicates that Philip “went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them” (Acts 8:5). Simple and straightforward.

A problem, not major but grammatical, is that Luke indicates Samaria is a city and not a region. Carl Holladay says, “The ‘city of Samaria’ where he proclaimed Christ may have been either Sebaste or Shechem” (Holladay, “Acts,” 997). Pervo thinks that Luke might actually have thought Samaria was a city, which is backed up by Acts 8:25 where he describes only towns and villages elsewhere in Samaria. The real issue is that in the broad schema “Samaria stands between ‘Judea and the ends of the earth’” (Pervo, Acts, 205). It is a fascinating series of episodes in its own right, but Samaria is also a way to get us to the center of the world: Rome.  

Nevertheless, the Samaritans are not just a stopgap, but an example of eager acceptance of the Gospel. Luke writes, “The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured” (Acts 8:6-7). Philip manifests the same power as do the apostles. Indeed, the “power to exorcise unclean spirits…now extends beyond the apostles (Acts 5:16) to Philip, as does the power to heal the lame…” (Holladay, “Acts,”997). Anyone proclaiming Christ’s message in Acts must show evidence of this power. “The miracles (sêmeia) were both a part of his message and confirmation of its validity.” (Pervo, Acts, 205-06).

We also find that the Samaritans respond to the message of Christ as one. In Acts 7:57, just prior to this passage, the council charges Stephen “all together” (homothymadon), which is a sign of their unity, as shown by a number of passages (Acts 2:46, 4:24, 5:12) and scholars (Pervo, Acts, 198; Johnson, Acts, 140). Here in Acts 8:6, the crowds listen “all together” or “with one accord” (homothymadon), which is a sign of their eagerness, but also a subtle denunciation of the Jewish authorities’ unwillingness to listen to Stephen. The Samaritans hear the message in unity, while the council persecuted Stephen in unity. For Samaria, it leads to a simple result: “So there was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:8).

There seems to be no tension in this account, until we are introduced to Simon, traditionally known as Simon Magus by the Church fathers.  But so much of this passage is understood in light of what will come in Acts and in the later tradition. Initially, it seems Simon is simply swayed by Philip’s words and deeds. Luke says of him, “Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, ‘This man is the power of God that is called Great.’ And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic” (Acts 8:9-11).

Holladay says, for instance, that “This first encounter with magic (cf. 13:6-12; 19:18-19) exemplifies both the gospel’s triumph over popular religion and the corrupting power of greed” (Holladay, “Acts,” 997), but truly there is no evidence of this in this passage. Where is the “corrupting power of greed” here? It might be closer to the mark to say, “Philip proclaimed Christ, whereas Simon proclaimed…Simon” (Pervo, Acts, 205-06), but even that is not exactly apparent in this initial encounter.

We read so much through the lens of what came later. “The tradition that attributes to Simon the founding of a religious movement in Samaria and traces his influence to Rome (Acts 8; Justin 1 Apol. 26.1-3) may be historically valid. Everything else is open to dispute” (Pervo, Acts, 206). The literature on this topic is immense and cannot be entered into here, but check out Richard Pervo’s commentary for a short survey of the literature. He says of Simon’s figure in the ancient Christian literature, “Simon had a strong impact, and the efforts to degrade him indicate that he was a formidable rival of the early Christian movement” (Pervo, Acts, 207). Pervo sees Simon as more of a theologian than magician, partly on the basis of the description of him as “the power of God that is called Great,” which he says is a phrase “not characteristic of either magicians or those described as charlatans” (Pervo, Acts, 207).  But as Pervo says, everything beyond the bare facts “is open to dispute” (Pervo, Acts, 206).

For instance, in Greek, magus could refer to an Iranian priest, or somone who had knowledge of the divine, or “a practitioner of ‘magic,’” or “a deceiver or seducer” (see the descriptions in full at Pervo, Acts, 207). In Matthew 2 what we know as the “wise men” are described with the term magus, so it is not inherently a negative term, even in an early Christian setting. The fact that Simon is called amagus does not necessarily mark him as a charlatan. Even more, the entire distinction between “magic” and “religion” is a fraught one in the context of both ancient and modern study.

Yet, we must insist that at first “the narrator does not characterize Simon as a false prophet or a blasphemer, nor does the text suggest he is making a good living from his practice” (Pervo, Acts, 209). He is called “the power of God that is called Great” not by himself, but by his followers (Acts 8:10). But he is called “the power of God” by his followers and that is something reserved in early Christian thought not for human beings, even those like Philip who performs miracles, but for God. So, it will soon come to pass, that Simon, who awed unsuspecting Samaritans, will be awed by Philip’s God.

When the Samaritans “believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place” (Acts 8:12-13).  Simon is now “reduced to the status of a convert” (Pervo, Acts, 210) and someone who spends all of his time in Philip’s presence.  

It is only now that we can ask: but there is already a fly in the ointment? Why did Simon convert? Was it because of great miracles and signs by Philip? Greater powers than he knew? “The narrative has described an implicit competition in which the public tested the words of two teachers by their respective deeds” (Pervo, Acts, 210-11). Yet, it seems that Simon himself has acknowledged in that implicit competition that his own power was found wanting and he has chosen Philip’s God as victor. There is only a hint, at the most, though, of what is to come next.

Next entry, the Apostles go to Samaria and more of Simon of Samaria.

John W. Martens

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies

I encourage you to “Like” Biblejunkies on Facebook.

This entry is cross-posted at Biblejunkies

 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

“The Senate proposal is fundamentally flawed as written and requires amendment,” said Bishop Frank J. Dewane in a Nov. 22 letter to senators.
Pope Francis greets people at the “Regional Hub,” a government-run processing center for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, in Bologna, Italy, Oct. 1. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)
Although he named no countries, Vatican observers believe he is referring especially to political leaders in several western and eastern European countries.
Gerard O’ConnellNovember 24, 2017
For Thanksgiving, we give you an inside look into what Jesuit basketball teams to watch out for this season.
Olga SeguraNovember 24, 2017
Images: CNS/Composite: America
On Nov. 11, the Catholic Church lost a moral titan in the long struggle for racial equality and justice in the United States.
Shannen Dee WilliamsNovember 22, 2017