Simon Magus

The Death of Simon Magus. By Unknown. 1493. From the Nuremberg Chronicle.
The Death of Simon Magus. By Unknown. 1493. From the Nuremberg Chronicle.
In the Faust story there are analogies to Biblical stories, but Faust hasn’t the right stuff. Of course, he’s only human and faithless. He’s like what Jesus would have been if Jesus was merely human – full of virtuous impulses, but also vice and sin and human failings.

Where Jesus battles against the temptations of the Devil, Faust goes looking for magic and quickly finds Mephistopheles, Faust’s Holy Spirit; his paraclete or spirit guide. When the adversarial angel suggests Job’s faith is weak, so does Goethe’s angel suggest Faust could be turned. Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd while Faust produces illusory grapes. Faust is just a magician.

While linking Faust to Jesus may be a stretch, there is a story in the Bible with elements of the Faust legend, with an antihero who is identified as a forerunner to Faust, and the antithesis of Jesus. The Simon Magus story is in Acts 8:9–13.

But first we should consider the sources of our information.

Everything we know about Simon Magus comes from his Christian enemies. Simon Magus was a leader of a competitor sect to the apostles who were spreading the word of Jesus. Simon may have been Gnostic. For many Gnostics, the serpent of the Garden of Eden who caused (false) God to expel Adam and Eve, was actually freeing them. They believed that humans were trapped on Earth by a false god and that Jesus had come to free them. Gnostics were wiped out by the Church, so we don’t get to hear their side.

According to the Christians, who hated and feared the Gnostic’s divisive interpretations of Christianity, Simon was so impressed by the miracles of the Holy Spirit that he offered Peter money to teach him the magic.

Christians do not do magic. Magic is falsehood, a quality of evil. Miracles come from God. Christians are anxious that people understand the difference between magic and miracles, and that Jesus wasn’t a simple magician. Neither was Peter. They performed miracles. Simon, they say, was a magician. Faust too.

All good Christians are appalled by the audacity of someone thinking that the One-True-Christian-God’s-Holy-Powers were available for any but the Worthy-and-Sanctified-True-Christian-Believer – and for sordid coin! The apostles were, too. Since then, among Christians, the term “simony” means sinful trade in spiritual gifts and offices.

Simon Magus in real life, as a rival to the Christian sect, may not have been as wicked a person as he is made out to be. We don’t get to hear his side. Perhaps he wanted the gift of the Holy Spirit to give it to all the world, freeing everyone, but Peter was keeping it for himself and his friends.

In Christianity, especially Catholicism (Faust was undoubtedly Protestant-ish, but so early in history he was a contemporary of Martin Luther), priests mediate between God and individuals. Personal enlightenment is not primary. For Gnostics, there were no priests and no apostles. Personal spiritual enlightenment was a goal for all believers. Simon may have been appalled that the apostles horded the gift of the Holy Spirit when it should have been given freely. If everyone had the power of the Holy Spirit, then maybe we could all be freed of the illusions that bind us.

Faust (in literature) is (often) moved by humanitarian impulses. He was a product of a centuries-long resurgence of Greek intellectualism that turned people’s thoughts to making life on Earth better, instead of concentrating on life after death. By their – and present-day – thinking, if someone did a Jesus-like act of charity or compassion, then God would overlook any necessary transgressions to get there. Faust had an impulse to do good, but God was unhelpful, so Faust looked to magic, and found Mephistopheles instead. But Faust is only human, and so much power in the hands of a foolish human is a dangerous thing.

In the eyes of Christians, Simon Magus was trying to get God’s secrets and power through corrupt means, and they are not available to unbelievers. Simon Magus and Faust both attempted to buy their way in, Simon through the apostle and Faust through Mephistopheles. Peter wouldn’t consider it.

Mephistopheles, on the other hand, wasn’t selling an ecclesiastical office. Mephistopheles simply did what Jesus and Peter did – he sold Faust what he wanted in return for his eternal soul and sundry services.

Simon was being altruistic. Jesus set the price for salvation – “through me,” he said. The apostles and then the Church chorused his endorsement, “through us,” they said. There was a price. You have to be Christian. You have to do it our way. Why not offer salvation to all who warrant it without requiring membership?

But no. Compliance included your accepting their priests as the intermediaries between you and God while not even understanding the Latin Mass or being able to acquire and read the Latin Bible. The Gnostics thought you needed to make a personal approach to God to become a Christ yourself. Early Christians and (around Faust’s time), early Protestants also rejected such a sacerdotal setup. They thought there was no call for it in the Bible.

Maybe Simon saw that the Christians were hording salvation to create offices for themselves and assumed that being good capitalists, they were open to offers; but the franchise was too valuable. Imagine Simon offering a bit of money to buy out a business that would be worth billions over the next two millennia! Simple Simon!

But the reality was that “Christianity” in its nascent state was a mess of different idea and beliefs and was in danger of spinning off in all directions at the cost of everyone’s souls. Do it wrong and you don’t get saved. That was probably clear to Faust. Throughout its history, Christians have feared that too many different ideas make Christianity unidentifiable and not a community. So a price of membership and duty of conformity seems reasonable, but as a condition for salvation? Free everyone!

Incidentally, Simon Magus is associated with a woman named Helen (in Simon’s theology, an emanation of God who was incarnated as Helen of Troy and a prostitute), and who herself figures in the Faust stories.