H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 13)

Simon Magus
Part 3—The doctrines

The principal sources for the doctrines of Simon Magus are two: Book VI (Chps 2-16) of the Refutation of All Heresies by Hippolytus, and the Pseudo-Clementine literature. Both documents are hostile to Simon and are full of tendentious material and obvious propaganda. Yet, though the Pseudo-Clementines are much longer, the précis of Hippolytus may be more rewarding as far as divining the gnostic doctrines ascribed to ‘Simon.’ Indeed, a careful analysis of Hippolytus’ description reveals a profound and coherent doctrine. The following attempts a brief outline of Simonian theology. It includes a good deal of ‘interpretation’ with which other scholars may disagree:

• First of all, Simon taught that man can perfect himself. We can infer this from various statements of Hippolytus, such as that Simon “attempted to deify himself” (Ref. VI.2). In turn, man reaching up to divinity (apotheosis) brings Simon Magus into the realm of Jewish ascent literature, merkabah mysticism, and recalls the OT figures Enoch (Gen 5:21–24) and Elijah (2 Kgs 2:3–9).

• Second, Simon believed that the way to perfection is through “intellectual apprehension of the Great Indefinite Power” (Ref. VI.4). This “apprehension” (AKA understanding, gnosis, enlightenment) is “the root of all things.” Such understanding can occur in this life (“realized eschatology”), in which case one who is “born of blood” is the “habitation” of gnosis. That understanding is an “indefinite power,” which Simon equates with “the root of the universe.”

This profound second point is very suggestive of Indian philosophy, particularly tat tvam asi “Thou art That.” For easy reference, the passage in Hippolytus reads as follows:

This is the treatise of a revelation of (the) voice and name by means of intellectual apprehension of the Great Indefinite Power. Wherefore it will be sealed, (and) kept secret, (and) hid, (and) will repose in the habitation, at the foundation of which lies the root of all things. And he asserts that this man who is born of blood is (the aforesaid) habitation, and that in him resides an indefinite power, which he affirms to be the root of the universe (Ref. VI.4).

We see that Simon also taught that the Great Invisible Power was hidden and secret—both hallmarks of gnosticism. Furthermore, it is quite remarkable that Simon’s above theology of the hidden “root of all things” resonates with numerous passages in noncanonical texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, where the doctrine in question is ascribed to Jesus:

Jesus says: “I am the light which is on them all. I am the All, and the All has gone out from me and the All has come back to me. Cleave the wood: I am there; lift the stone and you will find me there!” (GTh 77; Doresse translation.)

It is also noteworthy that this theology is the essence of what I have dubbed “Stage II Christology”—namely, that ‘Jesus’ is a spiritual entity that indwells the individual and empowers him/her. This, I maintain, was the Christology before the invention of Jesus of Nazareth in II CE. It is, in fact, the original gnostic Christian message of light/enlightenment (gnosis).

• Third, Simon seems to think that all materiality is “on fire.” His view (per Hippolytus and here paraphrased) is: “That which is secret is hidden in what is manifest and on fire; and that which is manifest and on fire derives its being from what is secret” (Ref. VI.4). This is, in fact, very Buddhist:

“Bhikkhus, all is burning. And what, bhikkhus, is the all that is burning? The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye contact is burning, and whatever feeling arises with eye contact as condition — whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant– that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of delusion; with sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair, I say.” (Sam.Nik. 35:28)

In Buddhism, to overcome the “fire of delusion” is to attain gnosis and “cooling”: Nirvana.

“The Standing One”

• Fourth, Simon equated the Great Indefinite Power that is hidden with that which “stood, stands, and will stand” (Ref. VI.7 et multi). This element of his doctrine is so prevalent that Simon is often referred to as “The Standing One”—thus transferring the doctrine to the person. In this we see, once again, how doctrine determines the contours of the literary character—which is one reason I call it a ‘cipher’ rather than an actual historical figure.

‘The Standing One’ conforms perfectly to Simon’s doctrine of the Hidden Indefinite Power, which is unchanging and immanent in all. Hippolytus offers further detail: “According to Simon, therefore, there exists that which is blessed and incorruptible in a latent condition in everyone—that is, potentially, not actually; and that this is He who stood, stands, and is to stand” (Ref. VI.12).

In the same passage Hippolytus also explains the meaning of ‘image’—a technical term in Gnosticism: “He is to stand above, beside the Blessed Indefinite Power, if he be fashioned into an image” (Ref. VI.12). Interpreted, this means that the human being will ‘stand’ with the divine (i.e. become divine) if he make himself an ‘habitation’ (see above) by incorporating the ‘Blessed Indefinite Power’ (i.e. by finding gnosis). That rare human being then becomes an ‘image’ of the divine and no longer a mere ‘likeness’ (another gnostic technical term).

It is clear that the Great Indefinite Power is spiritual and apart from matter. Yet spirit and matter form a syzygy, the one taking away from the other. For Simon, as mentioned above, the origin of matter (‘generation’) has to do with ‘fire’:

“And that, he says, the originating principle of the generation of things begotten is from fire, he discerns after some such method as the following. Of all things, (i.e.) of whatsoever there is a generation, the beginning of the desire of the generation is from fire. Wherefore the desire after mutable generation is denominated to be inflamed” (Ref. VI.12).

This is very Buddhist, where ‘fire’ = desire (tanha). For Simon, spirit is male, and matter is female, both deriving from the same root:

“For Simon expressly speaks of this in the Revelation after this manner: To you, then, I address the things which I speak, and (to you) I write what I write. The writing is this: there are two offshoots from all the Aeons, having neither beginning nor end, from one root. And this is a power, viz., Sige [ = “Silence”], (who is) invisible (and) incomprehensible. And one of these (offshoots) appears from above, which constitutes a great power, (the creative) Mind of the universe, which manages all things, (and is) a male. The other (offshoot), however, is from below, (and constitutes) a great Intelligence, and is a female which produces all things.” (Ref. VI.13)

The Father is understanding of the above duality, a transcendence of duality through gnosis. Thus, for Simon, the Father is hermaphrodite, neither male nor female:

“From whence, ranged in pairs opposite each other, they undergo conjugal union, and manifest an intermediate interval, namely, an incomprehensible air, which has neither beginning nor end. But in this is a Father who sustains all things, and nourishes things that have beginning and end. This is he who stood, stands, and will stand, being an hermaphrodite power.” (Ref. VI.13)

The Standing One, then, is the gnosis/Father that infuses all things and that transcends them. It is neither spirit nor matter, but is above the division of spirit and matter. It is unseen, eternal, and unchanging. It is without falsehood—Truth. When Simon characterizes this as sige (Gk. “silence”) we are approaching the apophatic tendencies of Buddhism (cf. suññata/shunyata = “emptiness”) and of some western mystics. H. Detering has recently written on this (here, pt. 3) in an essay concerning Basilides (fl. early II CE, Alexandria). It appears to me that the philosophy of Basilides is an elaboration of that attributed to Simon, and is probably later.

The most beautiful description of arriving at the goal (the Father) through emptying may be a pithy saying from the Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said: “The kingdom is like a certain woman who was carrying a [jar] full of meal. While she was walking [on the] road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke and the meal emptied out behind her [on] the road. She did not realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she arrived home, she set the jar down and found it empty”. (GTh 97)


Here, “arriving home” happens with an empty jar. It may strike the reader as curious that Simonian doctrine is reflected in words of Jesus. But we must recall that these words of Jesus (in the Gospel of Thomas) were rejected by the tradition—even as was Simonian doctrine. When we consider that the authentic, early Christian tradition was gnostic, then parallels not only with Jesus but also with John the Baptist emerge:

If, however, a tree continues alone, not producing fruit fully formed, it is utterly destroyed. For somewhere near, he says, is the axe (which is laid) at the roots of the tree. Every tree, he says, which does not produce good fruit, is hewn down and cast into fire” (Ref. VI.11).

The above words are attributed Simon Magus in the Pseudo-Clementines, to John the Baptist in the canonical gospels (Mt 3:10; Lk 3:9), and also to Jesus (Mt 7:19)—showing the confusion that existed in the early tradition over who was who. Not even the Church Fathers knew, for (as discussed in the previous post) we are not dealing with people at all, but with ciphers—with carriers of changing doctrine. For example, according to Epiphanius, Simon was not baptized by John the Baptist or by his disciple Dositheus (see above), but by an entirely different character: Philip. This effectively removed Simon one step further from the Baptist.

In the next post we continue our examination of Simonian doctrine, focussing on the important Old Testament roots of “stand.”

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