Remember the story of Simon Magus? He was the magician in The Acts of the Apostles who tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit but was rebuked by Saint Peter. Early Church Fathers such as Iranaeus and Justyn Martyr identified Simon as the first Christian gnostic, the creator of a sect whose members believed salvation could be obtained through a secret body of knowledge handed onto them by Christ himself. Simon claimed to have possessed this knowledge and portrayed himself to be "the Son." He was a Samaritan and many of his countrymen confessed him to be their god.
What sort of magic did he practice? Saint Luke doesn't tell us directly in his narrative, but Simon was said to have been able to fly and claimed to be immortal. He succeeded in luring converts away from Christianity and even fooled the Roman Emperor Claudius Caesar into erecting a statue in his honor. It was from Simon Magus that we derive the term simony, the buying and selling of spirituality, a form of heresy condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, and an offense that earned Simon a place in the eighth circle of Hell in Dante's Inferno.
Jewish law in the Old Testament also forbad the practice of magic: "Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19:31).
Why study heresies that purportedly died out two millennia ago? Because pop culture is rife with gnosticism. We see it in novels like Christ the Lord Out of Egypt by Ann Rice, which depicts fictional scenes of Jesus' life based on gnostic gospels, and Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, a runway bestseller that seeks to supplant Church teaching by advancing the unfounded assumption that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had children. So what? many say. It's just a story. Because people often believe there's truth to a fictional story, especially a wildly-popular novel like Brown's. "The best fiction is far truer than any nonfiction," novelist William Faulkner used to say, and well he knew the ability of the storyteller to enrapture the people with literary card tricks.
One of the best ploys is to borrow authority from the Bible by claiming to have located some "lost" part of it, like the "gospel of Judas," an ancient manuscript discovered in Egypt and introduced to the world by National Geographic in 2006. This "gospel" offered what National Geographic termed "new insights into the disciple who betrayed Jesus." Religious scholar Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus, claimed this discovery would "turn Christianity on its ear." Unlike the canonical gospels, in which Judas Iscariot is portrayed as a traitor, the gnostic text depicts Judas acting at Jesus's request to hand him over to the authorities for crucifixion. "Come that I may teach you secrets no person has ever seen," Jesus tells Judas at one point in the story. Sounds authoritative … sort of. Hmm, what if that were true?
Thankfully, modern-day apologists exist to set the record straight; their response to resurgent gnosticism has been swift and severe. Many fine books have been written to counter The DaVinci Code's claims, like The DaVinci Hoax by Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel. And biblical scholar N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop and author of twelve books on Scripture, wrote a definitive refutation of the Judas gospel in which he acknowledged the manuscript's authenticity — not as lost scripture, but as the work of a Gnostic sect. Christianity has nothing to worry about. The Church's response to Gnosticism has remained consistent throughout the ages: Gnostic heretics reject the truth and promote falsehoods that lead the people astray.
Which is the point of Luke's story of Simon Magus in The Acts of the Apostles. He is purposefully ambiguous in his depiction of the sorcerer's tricks — he doesn't mention the type of wizardry Simon practices — but definitive in his focus on God's salvific action. Saint Jerome, in his sprawling biblical commentary, notes that Luke in Acts does not focus attention on Simon's magic but rather on the heresy itself, how the other Samaritans worshipped him. The Evangelist casts Simon in an adversarial role to be conquered by the Gospel.
A man named Simon used to practice magic in the city and astounded the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great. All of them, from the least to the greatest, paid attention to him, saying, "This man is the Power of God that is called Great." They paid attention to him because he had astounded him with his magic" (Acts 8:9-12).
The story of Simon is archetypal of the particular challenges First Century believers faced. As it happens, Saint Luke positions the account at a critical point in Church history: Stephen has just been martyred and his death sets off a new wave of severe persecution (led by Saul of Tarsus) that scatters the Holy Ones throughout Samaria and Judea. Philip the deacon is sent to minister in Samaria, where he is observed by Simon, who marvels at the power of Philip's preaching. He witnesses the "great joy in that city" brought about by gospel's ability to cure the sick and drive out demons and allows himself to be baptized. In fact, Simon doesn't just convert; Luke tells us that he becomes Philip's constant companion. His intentions, however, are nefarious: he only wants to be a Christian to obtain 'the power of God that is called great.' He sees the Holy Spirit as a commodity to increase his authority and hold more sway over the people. Dante held a place for him in his Inferno, along with priests who sold confessions.
Some time later, Peter and John arrive in Samaria, where they pray for the local Church, that the Father might send the Spirit, for as yet the Samaritans have only been baptized with water; they have not received the Holy Spirit (see Acts 8:16). When Simon sees that the Holy Spirit is conveyed by the laying on of hands, he offers Peter money, which sets off an altercation. As Luke often does throughout Acts, he draws up their confrontation in a dramatic scene:
"Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit," silver-tongued Simon says to Peter.
"May your money perish with you because you thought you could obtain God's gift with money!" Peter replies. "You have no share or part in this, because your heart is not right before God."
In Matthew, Jesus commissions the Twelve Apostles, entreating them to preach the message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, asking nothing in return. "Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give" (10:8b). Peter's response to Simon's heresy holds true to the words our Savior taught us: God alone is the owner and master of the Spirit; grace cannot be purchased; it can only be received as an unmerited gift.
What becomes of Simon Magus? Gnostic tradition holds he died at Rome after a final confrontation with Peter. According to "The Acts of Peter," an apocryphal text, a great spiritual battle ensues between them in the forum. Simon flies through the air until Peter's prayers sap him of his strength and he falls headlong to the ground, where he breaks his legs and thereupon the people rush in and stone him.