An earlier post discussed ancient critics of Christianity who vigorously expressed their doubts about the factual reliability of the Gospels, the character of the Apostles, and the discernment of their Christian audience. We couldn’t find an example, however, of an argument based on the possibility that Jesus never existed.
Some modern apologists would explain that this is because there never was any example. “The argument that Jesus never existed, …was not one that the enemies of Christianity in the ancient world ever used,” James Carleton Paget, a Cambridge academic flatly assured his readers (link).
It turns out, however, that an ancient patristic author wrote that there was a Christian group who taught that the proto-orthodox Jesus was an enchantment devised by a First Century magician. According to this magican’s followers, he was the real historical figure whose words and deeds inspired Christianity, not Jesus. Jesus was a thing of smoke and mirrors, or maybe not even that.
Simon and his followers
The earliest Christian mention of Simon, a magician, is in the canonical Acts 8:9-24 (link). We are not told where Simon is from, but we learn that soon after Jesus’ ministry and death, Simon was already established as a popular religious figure in the city of Samaria. Local people called their magical Simon the “Power of God.”
A missionary from Jerusalem, Deacon Philip, preached “good news of the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.” Philip, too, performed miracles. He baptized many in Samaria, including Simon. When Peter and John visited from Jerusalem, Simon offered them money for the privilege of conveying the Holy Spirit. Peter cursed Simon. Simon’s reply is unclear, and there the story ends.
In his First Apology, chapter 26 (link) written in about 150 CE, Justin Martyr portrays Simon as still famous and making magic during the reign of Claudius (41-54 CE). Justin’s Simon promoted a woman named Helen, while Simon was acclaimed by “almost all” in Samaria as the “First God.” Justin presents Simon as the earliest in a line of heretics that eventually led to Marcion, a proto-Gnostic figure active in Justin’s time. Justin may have given more details of Simon’s teachings in a book about heresies which has not survived.
Justin’s reliability is marred, however, by attributing to Simon a doubtful Roman adventure. Justin apparently misread a Roman inscription, a dedication to the god Semo Sanco that Justin mistook as a reference to holy Simon.
Further detailed allegations about Simon’s teaching and magical career survive in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies 1.23.1 (link), written in about 180 CE. The claim that interests us is that Simon “taught that it was himself who appeared among the Jews as the Son.” Not Jesus, then, but Simon launched the church, or so Simon said.
In the next section, 1.23.2 (link), Irenaeus says that Simon taught that an expression associated with Jesus, “lost sheep,” actually refers to Helen. Simon came to Earth to liberate Helen from her succession of burdensome natural lives. In 1.23.3 (link), Irenaeus says that Simon taught that he performed feats usually ascribed to Jesus, that Simon
…had descended, transfigured and assimilated to powers and principalities and angels, so that he might appear among men to be a man, while yet he was not a man; and that thus he was thought to have suffered in Judaea, when he had not suffered.
Irenaeus concludes his main remarks about Simon in 1.23.4 (link) with a description of his followers, the Simonians. They are magicians who lead immoral lives. Among their magical arts are both exorcisms and the use of familiar spirits, a combination Jesus was accused of in the canonical gospels. Irenaeus later repeats Justin’s belief that Simon and his movement were the root of all later heresies (1.27.4 link).
Origen, writing from Palestine about seventy years after Irenaeus, estimates that there were only a few Simonians still active in the middle Third Century. Origen also tells us that Celsus, who wrote at about the same time as Irenaeus, knew “of the existence of certain Simonians who worship Helene, or Helenus, as their teacher, and are called Helenians.” (Against Celsus 5.62 link). Celsus is thus a probable non-Christian witness to a Simonian movement active in the Second Century who corroborates the role of a Helen figure in it.
Irenaeus’ account of Simon and his later followers is recommended by Eusebius (Church History 2.13.5 link) writing in about 325 CE. Cyril of Jerusalem, who wrote shortly after Eusebius in about 350 (Sixth Catechetical Lecture 14 link), says outright that Simonians taught that Christ Jesus was Simon himself, not in real flesh but in seeming.
Cyril is clearer about the use of Jesus’ name and title than his predecessors, but his portrayal of Simon is consistent with theirs. Irenaeus’ Simon was substantially Jesus Christ in word and deed, but he “allowed himself to be called by whatsoever title men were pleased to address him.” (Against Heresies 1.23.1 link).
If Cyril is correct, then Simonians taught that there was no historical Jesus, only a glamour cast by the historical Simon. In the opinion of this patristic author, some enemies of Christianity in the ancient world taught that Jesus never existed.
Scriptural graffiti and Celsus’ argument
In addition to explicit mentions of Simonians, we would expect that a historical movement might leave unsigned “traces” of itself in other writings. They are not strong evidence of historicity in themselves, but it would be odd if there were no candidates for anonymous mention or reference if there really were an organized vocal minority denying the factual foundations of proto-orthodoxy throughout the apostolic, gospel and patristic periods. Conversely, a viable hypothesis that there was such a group might aid the interpretation of some ambiguous writings by clarifying the set of alternative possibilities.
For example, Paul wrote to his Corinthians about somebody who “preaches a different Jesus whom we didn’t preach” (2 Corinthians 11:4 link). What did this anonymous antagonist preach? Did Paul mean a Christian origins story without his Jesus, but with someone else?
In the Gospel of John chapter 8 (link), Jesus is bluntly asked whether he is a Samaritan who has a demon (8:48 link), a neat summation of what Cyril of Jerusalem says the Simonians taught. Cyril (in the passage cited earlier, Sixth Catechetical Lecture section 14 link) believed that the author of the Fourth Gospel knew about the Simonians and wrote about them outside the Gospel. That is, after a verse saying that “even now many antichrists have arisen,” the epsitle 1 John 2:19 (link) goes on to say,
They went out from us, but they didn’t belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have continued with us.
The Gospel of John‘s Jesus denies the demon part of the question put to him, but his case may have been undercut shortly afterwards when the crowd turned uglier.
Therefore they took up stones to throw at him, but Jesus was hidden, and went out of the temple, having gone through the midst of them, and so passed by. (8:59 link)
Hidden, while a hostile crowd looked right at him talking to them, and while hidden, he went through the midst of them to escape? OK, but it is a passage that Simonians might easily have used to their advantage, showing a Jesus who in some sense wasn’t fully there, and who doesn’t deny being Samaritan, either.
In the counterapologetic literature, Celsus, writing in about 180 CE, is quoted by Origen (Against Celsus 6.11 link),
If these (meaning the Christians) bring forward this person, and others, again, a different individual (as the Christ), while the common and ready cry of all parties is, ‘Believe, if you will be saved, or else begone,’ what shall those do who are in earnest about their salvation?
Celsus refers to two different persons as candidates for the focus of Christian worship, both with followers active when Celsus wrote this. As already discussed, Celsus knew of some Simonians.
The factual case for Simon in the late Second Century wasn’t much inferior to the facts alleged for his contemporary, Jesus. Celsus would hear from Jesus’ own advocates testimony to Simon’s popularity, his power over demons and his reputation for impressive magical results.
The point is not whether you, a modern reader, would be persuaded by Simon’s followers to credit Simon with the deeds you grew up hearing that Jesus did. The point is whether an unaligned ancient might find the Simonian story competitive in credibility with the incompatible proto-orthodox story.
If so, then what shall those do who seek salvation? Whose followers to believe? Celsus has a suggestion.
Shall they cast the dice, in order to divine whither they may betake themselves, and whom they shall join?
Now that’s an argument, from an enemy of Christianity in the ancient world. To the extent that the argument might refer to the Simonians, it uses what would have been, according to the ancient friends of Christianity, a persistent, well-known and influential source of teaching that Jesus never existed.
The image of the bas relief from the Toulouse basilica is an enhanced detail of a photograph by Pierre Selim, who has generously donated his work for public use.