My plan was to produce a series of posts on April DeConick’s new book, but I have fallen a little behind! The Gnostic New Age covers some fascinating ground, so I need to buck up and get on. In this post, I aim to cover the ground from the emergence of Gnosticism to Simon Magnus who plays an important role in her theory.
DeConick sees ancient religion as having three modes of interaction with the Gods. First, comes “servant spirituality”, where humans are the slaves and playthings of the Gods. In servant spirituality, religious duties consist of propitiating the Gods by offering them proper obedience, homage and sacrifice. The next development is “covenant spirituality” which is found uniquely in Judaism and marks the emergence of monotheism. The relationship between God and humankind has now changed, although only for the Jews. YHWH has entered into a covenant, or treaty, with his chosen people, Israel. The human side of the bargain was that the Jews had to obey the law of Moses. In return, YHWH would give them their land as a place of plenty, their security and abundant progeny. The problem was that the Law became vastly elaborated so that it was practically impossible to keep. The penalty for disobeying the law was death, although, in his mercy, YHWH substituted the death of a sacrificial animal for less grievous offences.
The third type is “ecstatic spirituality” in which devotees have an ecstatic or mystical relationship with God. (The Greek word ekstasis signifies an out of the body experience, and mystes indicates someone who has been initiated into the secret mysteries.) Ecstatic spirituality was surprisingly common in the Mediterranean world, but DeConick sees it as coming in particular from Mongolian influence. In Mongolia, shamans travelled in spirit to the underworld and ascended through the multi-layered heavens seeking knowledge.
The birth of Gnosticism
According to DeConick, Gnosticism emerged from ecstatic spirituality. As for where exactly this first took place, she suggests the cult of the God Atum in Heliopolis, Egypt. Atum is the single self-created God. He circles the world in the form of a serpent, and he is hermaphrodite, with his tail in the womb of his mouth. He comes into existence through an act of self-awareness, which is also the first act of creation. From Atum come forth two gendered beings made in his own image, Shu and Tevnut, who in turn produce Geb, the earth, and Nut, the sky. These latter two give birth in turn to Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys, so completing the first Ogdoad or eight-fold godhead.
The Greeks were fascinated by Egyptian religion, and Egypt became a prime destination for religious tourists. These Greek pilgrims brought their own philosophical way of thinking, including the theories of Plato which were to have an immense influence on Gnosticism. Indeed it was Plato who first coined the term Gnostic to describe a type of intuitive knowledge that he deemed to be superior to experiential knowledge. It was also Plato who used the word nous to represent the mind as the reasoning part of the psyche, which Plato saw as the divine part of a human being. In Gnosticism, the nous becomes pretty much interchangeable with the pneuma, the spirit.
To the Gnostic, this nous/pneuma is a fragment of the ultimate God that has become trapped in the lower world. The idea that the spiritual nature of humans is a spark of the divine has revolutionary consequences. The lower Gods were born from, or created by, the ultimate God. So if the human spiritual essence is part of this supreme God, then humans are greater than the lesser Gods who rule the visible world. It is this idea that perhaps can be said to form the essence of the gnostic approach to religion.
According to DeConick’s thesis, all these concepts are circulating and recombining at the beginning of the first century in Egypt, making up what she calls the “religious buffer”. A computer buffer is an element of memory used to store intermediary results and data. She sees the “religious buffer” as consisting not of electronic memory, but social memory. The concept is a nice one, but does it really tell us any more than the older expression that “the ideas were in the air”?
One person influenced by these new ideas was Philo in Alexandria. He attempted to reconcile Platonic ideas with the Jewish scriptures and was influenced by the new spirit of Gnosticism. As a good Jew, he could not accept that humans were part god, but he did believe that the breath of God entering into Adam made humans almost divine. Full-blown Gnosticism, according to DeConick, arrives with two groups, one pagan and one Jewish. The cult of Hermes Trismegistus, the thrice-great, originated in Egypt and was popular among pagans. And from the Jews, the Sethians emerged who claimed descent from Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. Both are examples of pre-Christian Gnostics.
This first section of the book is fascinating, and I learnt quite a few new things here. At times I did wonder how much evidence she has to support the picture she so confidently paints. But it is when she gets onto Simon Magus that things really get a little wild.
DeConick sees the cult of Simon Magus as starting in Samaria with Dositheus, a follower of John the Baptist. After the death of John, Dositheus forms a group of thirty including a woman called Luna (the astronomical symbolism is obvious!). Dositheus is the first “standing one”, but his role as leader is challenged by one of his pupils, Simon. This Simon has been educated in Alexandria and has magical powers. He is in love with Luna, but she belongs to whoever controls the group. So to win Luna, he challenges Dositheus by claiming that it is he, Simon, who is really the “standing one”. Dositheus picks up a stick and attempts to beat Simon, but the stick passes straight through his body as if it were smoke. Frightened, Dositheus retreats, leaving Simon and Luna to take over the group.
In most stories about Simon, his female companion is not called Luna but Helena. She is the Holy Spirit who has been trapped in the creation by the rebel angels. In the form of Helena, she descends onto the roof of a brothel in Tyre, and it is there that Simon finds her. In fact, Simon is YHWH manifest, the great power and the son of God. He has come to earth to find and free Helena. The two join together and marry.
Simon and Helena set up a priesthood to worship them as “God the Father” and “God the Mother”. They engage in ritual sexual intercourse as the “redemptive act”. And it is not just the two of them who have all the fun: “the catechism that the initiates underwent also involved sacred sexual practices within a consecrated space they called the Holy of Holies.”
The movement of Simon and Helena expands rapidly. They leave Samaria and travel to many cities including Rome where they come into conflict with Christian missionaries. In the stories that have come down to us these Christians view Simon as a powerful magician, but one who is always overcome finally by Peter. In a magical contest worthy of Harry Potter, a flying Simon is brought ignominiously crashing to earth by a curse from Peter.
But is it all true?
The story DeCornick tells is all very exciting, but is it as imaginary as the flying Simon? Her main sources are Irenaeus, Hippolytus and the Pseudo-Clementines. The earliest, Irenaeus, dates from c180 and the other two are third-century. So she is projecting these sources back 140-200 years. Given the gulf in time I do not see that we can treat these stories as literal accounts of events that happened in the mid-first century. But that is basically what she does!
There is one other source about Simon which is much earlier. DeConick deals with it only briefly, but it plays an important part in her theory that the Gospel of John originated with Simon’s movement. This is the story of Simon Magus attempting to buy the power of the spirit in Acts 8:9-24.
Simon is a magician practising his arts in Samaria, and called by his followers “a great one of God”. There is none of the lurid detail of the later stories and Helena is not even mentioned. When Philip comes to Samaria preaching Jesus, the Samaritans are converted, including even Simon. Later, Peter and John are sent to give the Samarians the Holy Spirit (we may wonder why Philip cannot do this!). Simon is so impressed that he offers Peter money if he will only give him the authority to give the spirit. Peter is horrified and tells him that destruction will come upon him because the gift of God cannot be bought with silver. Simon then begs forgiveness that his fate might be averted.
DeConick thinks that there is a kernel of truth in this story. She does not believe that Simon was converted to Christianity (otherwise the rest of her account would make no sense!) but she does believe that his followers in Samaria were converted and that this group eventually produced the Gospel of John.
Will the real Simon please stand
The stories are telling us something important. But I rather doubt that Simon Magus or Helena ever existed.
I think we can explain the Acts story as the result of a simple confusion. The author of Acts must have had two sources about the giving of the spirit to the Samaritans. In one of these, it is Peter who gives the spirit, and in the other, it is Simon who is called a Magus and a great one of God. In reality, these two sources are descriptions of the same event that have come down through two different channels. One has come through the Jesus movement, and the other is seen through the eyes of the Samaritans, but they both relate to the mission of Simon Peter. The author of Acts does not realise that the unfamiliar figure in the Samaritan story is actually the apostle and so makes Simon Magus a rival of Peter.
As for the later stories, as many others have pointed out there are close similarities between Simon and Jesus himself. There is even a story from Hippolytus in which Simon arranges to be buried in a grave in Rome, and predicts he will rise in three days. Sadly, he is buried there to this day.
I think these stories about Simon mostly go back to memories about the early Jesus movement which have become conflated with the Simon/Helena myth. The union of Simon and Helena would originally have been a spiritual union and not a physical marriage. It is not the union of two people, but of a person and the spirit, the mystery of the bridal chamber. The stories have been projected onto the imaginary Simon but go back to another pair, the shaman Mary and the spiritual Jesus. The holy of holies in which the marriage is celebrated is the temple, which in sources such as the Animal Apocalypse and the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah is called the tower, from which we get the title of the Magdalene. As explained in my book, The Rock and the Tower, it is the shaman Mary who is the temple of the spiritual Jesus. Gnosticism did not enter Christianity through Simon Magus; it was there from the very beginning.