« Prev § II. The Dispersion of the Christians. The… Next »

§ II. The Dispersion of the Christians. The Gospel in Samaria. Simon Magus. Philip and the Eunuch.

Persecution, by scattering the Christians, widened at once the field of their missionary activity and the range of their ideas. They went forth to encounter, for the first time, paganism—the eclectic paganism of that age, which united in its vague beliefs the East and the West. This niew adversary awaited them in one of the cities of Samaria, to which certain of their number had directed their steps. Samaria was not, indeed, actually a pagan country. Its inhabitants were the descendants of that mixed population, formed of the remnant of the ten tribes and of a colony of foreigners, transplanted by the order of Salmanasar.31312 Kings xvii, 24. Josephus, "Antiq.," Book XI, c. viii, 6. 65 When the Jews returned from Babylon, the Samaritans sought to take part in the rebuilding of the temple. Ezra iv, 1, 2. They were repelled with indignation. They then resolved to rear a temple to Jehovah on the Mount Gerizim.3232Josephus, "Antiq.," XII, c. i, 1. The Samaritans shared, like the Jews, in the consequences of the revolutions in Asia Minor. Their temple was destroyed by John Hyrcanus.3333Josephus, "Antiq.," XIII, c. ix. But Mount Gerizim continued still to be to them a holy place.3434Josephus, "Antiq.," XIII, c. xiv, 1. They ultimately fell under the dominion of the Romans, and underwent the same political fluctuations as their neighbors. Many causes nurtured the hatred between the two neighboring nations. The Samaritans were wont to repudiate any community of origin with the Jews when they found it their interest to do so. "The Samaritans," says the historian Josephus, "deny their Hebrew origin when the Jews are in distress, but as soon as any prosperity comes to them, they are eager to appeal to their common ancestry in Joseph and Manasseh."3535Εἰσὶ γὰρ τοιοῦτοι τὴν φύσιν, ἐν μέν ταῖς συμφοραῖς ὄντας τοὺς Ἰουδᾶιους ἀρνοῦνται συγγενεῖς ἔχειν. Josephus, "Antiq.," Book XI, c. vi. It is easy to understand what a leaven of bitterness such conduct would prove in the hearts of the Jews. These could not forget that, to purchase the favor of Antiochus Epiphanes in a time of pressing peril, the Samaritans had declared that their temple was dedicated to the deities of Greece, and that they themselves practiced Greek rites.3636τοῖς ελληνικοῖς ἔθεσιν αἱροῦνται χρώμενοι ζῆν, . Josephus, "Antiq.," Book XII, c. v, 5. They had, 66 however, in truth remained faithful to monotheism. As the great prophetic period had commenced just at the time of their separation from the Jews, they had been utter strangers to the whole of that magnificent development of the old covenant. They acknowledged the Pentateuch only, and, with the exception of a small minority, denied the resurrection of the dead.3737"Prophetis non credunt Samaritæ, resurrectionem mortuorum negant." (Origen, "In Numeros," Homily XXV, 1.) It appears, also, from Epiphanes, that the mysticism of the Essenes found some adherents among them.3838Epiphan., "Hæres," § 16. The Samaritans shared in some measure in the Jewish expectation of Messiah, (John iv, 25,) but their Messianic hopes were even more tainted with materialism than were those of the Jews, at least if we give credit to the few Samaritans who still live among the ruins of their country, and who appear to have faithfully kept the ancient traditions. According to them, Messiah is to reign over all nations, to restore the holy law, to rebuild the temple on Gerizim, and to insure the universal triumph of Moses.3939"Die Samariter. Ein Beitrag," by Joseph Grimm, 1854, p. 99. The facility with which the magician Simon fascinated the whole Samaritan people with his sorceries is another proof of the earthly nature of their hopes.

We need not here show, (for we have done so elsewhere,) that from the stand-point of natural religion, the magician was the sole Messiah, the only deliverer that could be looked for. For those who have deified nature, the last resource must be her hidden power; pagan dualism, not rising to the conception of moral evil, by conjuring away the effects of the noxious powers 67of nature. Magicians had, therefore, an important part to play in these times of religious transition and aspiration. The predominance of oriental ideas, the influence of the Jewish conception of Messiah, all combined to increase their ascendency in these lands. The Samaritans had already yielded to the influence of a false Messiah named Dositheus. The testimonies of Christian antiquity with regard to this man are incomplete and contradictory. According to the oldest witness, Origen, Dositheus, a contemporary of Jesus Christ, declared himself to be the expected Messiah, and even laid claim to the attribute of the Son of God.4040Ἔφασκεν ἑαυτὸν εἶναι, τον προφητευόμενον χριστὸν. Orig., "Comment in Johann," viii, 27. Καὶ αὐτος υἱος τοῦ θεοῦ. "Contra Celsus," vi, 17. It is quite possible that the impostor may have turned to account the impression produced by the Saviour's passing through Samaria. His influence appears to have been maintained for some time, but within a limited circle.4141Epiphanes gives us quite another notion. According to him ("Hæres.," 13) Dositheus was a Jew, the founder of the sect of the Sadducees, which passed into Samaria after receiving some check in Judæa; but he has evidently confounded the Dositheus of Origen with the Dositheus of the Talmud. (Grimm, "Die Samarit.," 117.) Simon gained a far wider popularity. Legend has borrowed his name, and has invested his history with absurd fables. He even becomes a wholly typical character in some writings of Judaizing heretics of the second century.4242In the "Clementines" and the "Recognitiones," Simon represents heresy in general, and primarily St. Paul, who to the Ebionites was the supreme heretic. Justin Martyr supposes him to have come to Rome, and regards him as the founder of a 68new worship, but his assertion is evidently based on an historic error.4343See Justin Martyr, "Apologia," edition of 1686, p. 69. Justin asserts that in his time the following inscription was to be read at Rome: "Simoni Deo Sancto." But it is now admitted that, instead of Simoni, the word is Semoni. Semo was the Sabine Hercules worshiped at Rome. Many modern theologians have concluded from these myths that the whole history of Simon was only a tissue of legends. But it contains positive facts, guarantied by the unanimous witness of the Fathers, and confirmed by the recently-discovered writings of Hippolytus. "Simon," we read in the "Philosophoumena," "was of Gitton, a village of Samaria. He was a skillful magician; he sought to pass for God."4444Μαγείας ἔμπειρος ὥν θεοποιῆσαι ἑαυτόν ἐπεχείρησε. "Philosoph.," p. 161, comp. with Justin Martyr, "Apol.," p. 69, and Irenæus, Book I, c. xxiii. We see by the testimony of the "Fathers," that Simon of Gitton cannot be confounded with Simon of Cyprus, also a magician, of whom Josephus speaks. "Antiq.," XX, c. vii, 2. He had with him a woman of dissolute life named Helena whom he had found at Tyre, and to whom he allotted a prominent part in his system.4545"Philosoph.," 174. As to this system—if a confused medley of incongruous ideas be worthy of such a name—we must distinguish between its original form and the modifications which it underwent after Simon became acquainted with Christianity. As these modifications, however, touched no essential principle, we may fairly seek for its primary idea, in the tolerably complete exposition of his doctrines, contained in the "Philosophoumena" of Hippolytus. We find there valuable fragments of a book, composed, if not by Simon, by one of his immediate 69disciples.4646Bunsen ("Hippolytus," vol. i, 43) proves the authenticity of these fragments, which are found in the "Philosophoumena," p. 163. St. Luke tells us that Simon was proclaimed by his followers to be "the great power of God."4747Οὗτός ἐστιν ἡ δύναμις τοῦ θεοῦ ἡ καλουμένη μεγάλη Acts viii, 10. The book to which his name is attached gives us the exact meaning of these words. Simon recognized a first, hidden, invisible principle, of which the world is the eternal manifestation.4848"Philosoph.," 163, 90. This first principle has two modes of manifestation: it reveals itself first as an active and spiritual, next as a passive and receptive principle. Dualism is thus at the outset clearly stated.4949Δύο εἰσὶ ταραφυάδες τῶν ὅλων αἰώνων ἀπὸ μιῦς ῥίης ἥτις ἐστὶ δύναμις. σιγὴ, ἀόρατος ἀκατάληπτος ὧν ἡ μία φὭίνεται ἄνωθεν ἥτις ἑστὶ μεγάλη δυναμις, ἄρσην. Ἡ δὲ ἑτέρα, ἐπίνοια μεγάλη θήλεια. "Philos.," 173, 60. The receptive or passive principle deteriorates perpetually, and finally becomes altogether materialized. The courtesan Helena was the personification of this principle. The mission of Simon the sorcerer was to effect her deliverance, which was to be that of all mankind. He pretended, himself, to represent the active and spiritual principle, and thus to incarnate the great power of God. This sketch of his doctrine will suffice for the present. We shall look at it again under the new and complex form which it assumes, when, by alliance with Christian ideas, it becomes heresy.5050"Philosoph.," 163, 85. Our exposition of the system of Simon differs at once from that of Neander, ("Pflanzung," i, 79,) and from that of Grimm, ("Samarit.," p. 156.) The former, who could not have any acquaintance with the "Philosophoumena," has too much identified that which Simon called "the great power of God," with the Word of Philo. The ideas of the magician are much more incoherent than those of the Alexandrine Gnostic. The system of emanation is far from being clearly expressed by him. On the other hand, we cannot share Grimm's opinion that Simon asserted himself to be the supreme and absolute deity. Grimm dwells, in the first place, on the testimony of Justin, who says that the Samaritans regarded him as the first god, ὡς τὸν πρῶτον θέον, (see Hippolytus, "Phil.," p. 161,) and on that of Irenæus, who affirms that Simon was worshiped under the name of Jupiter, ("Hæres.," i, 23.) But these testimonies simply signify that Simon declared himself to be the highest manifestation of the unknown God. We know that in the Greek Theogony Jupiter is not the first of the gods in date; he comes forth from Saturn, the ancient and primitive deity. Simon pretended to incarnate the first principle emerged from the potential fire, without likening himself to the potential fire itself. The passage in the "Philosophoumena," which we have already quoted, ("Phil.," p. 176, 60,) dispels all doubts in this respect. The "great power of God" is there clearly set forth as the male principle sprung from the eternal root of being. No doubt, in the pantheistic point of view, the eternal and potential principle is found in its manifestations. But the manifestation of a principle cannot be absolutely identified with the principle itself. There is between them a sort of hierarchy and subordination. 70We know enough of it to recognize in it the old Phoenician dualism, and the earliest features of Gnostic dualism. It contains the first rough, imperfect outline of the subtle doctrines which were destined to cause so much evil to the Church. The absurdity of the part which Simon allots to himself, the great indecorousness of that which he assigns to a courtesan, are less astonishing when we remember the country in which his strange system was conceived. This country was situated on the borders of that Phrygia which gave birth to the most infamous fables of paganism. Simon may be considered as pre-eminently the false Messiah. He held a doctrine of perdition, but this perdition was not the result of sin, since it was, like matter, eternal and fatal. Nor had salvation in his system any moral character; it consisted 71 only in subtle artifices, and the pretended Saviour was nothing but a magician. Thus, by diabolic art, the desire after redemption, so keenly alive at this period, was miserably cheated. Simon acquired a very great influence over the Samaritan people. He in a manner bewitched them.

It might be foreseen that the same vague aspiration which impelled the multitude eagerly to follow Simon, would make it attentive to the preaching of the Gospel. Such was the actual result when Philip, driven from Jerusalem by the persecution, preached Christ to the Samaritans, and confirmed his word by signs and wonders; the people at once forsook the impostor, and thronged to hear the word of truth.

Simon, like a cunning tactician, followed the multitude, in the hope of regaining his authority. He was baptized with his former adherents. The Apostles, who had remained at Jerusalem, hearing of the success of Philip's preaching, sent two of their number into this new and fruitful field of labor. They chose Peter and John, who up to this time had displayed the greatest activity in the primitive Church. This decision was most wise: Philip had very probably suggested it in his letters. The work was too wide and important for his unaided efforts; it was natural that those who had shown the greatest missionary zeal should come to his assistance. Peter and John, as soon as they arrive in Samaria, witness, in answer to their prayer, a descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Samaritan neophytes. The defenders of the hierarchy magnify this fact; but in order to raise it to the height of a principle and general 72rule, it is needful to show that during the whole apostolic period the Holy Ghost never chose any other medium than the Apostles or their immediate delegates. Now it is certain that the Holy Spirit was often given to the new converts without their concurrence.5151Is it not evident that the Ethiopian eunuch baptized by Philip received the Holy Ghost in the desert? The conversion of St. Paul was completed at Damascus, and it was Ananias who conferred the baptism upon him with the laying on of his hands, after the scales were fallen from his eyes, in token of the inward illumination which could be the work only of the Holy Spirit. Acts ix, 18. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and the grace of God is not confined to any official channel. If the Holy Spirit was not given to the Samaritans until after the arrival of Peter and John, we hold, with Neander, that the cause must have been a purely moral one. Their preaching rapidly developed the germ of the new life in the neophytes of Sychar, who had possibly at first embraced Christianity only in outward form. It is surely more honorable to the Apostles to suppose the results to have been wrought by the living power of their words, than by any outward and material act-the transmission of some mysterious, magnetic fluid from their persons. Such theories are truly derogatory, and lower the Apostles to the rank of the magicians, whose power they were come to destroy.

Simon betrayed in these circumstances the secret of his heart. By offering to buy the gift of God, he showed that he, like so many since his day, had confounded grace with magic; and it is just that the abominable traffic in holy things should bear his name. We see him for one moment trembling under 73the tremendous rebuke of the Apostle. But history shows us that his repentance had no root. He was the founder of the first heresy. Legend says that he came to Rome, and there ignominiously died. It is possible that in the great confluence of East and West he may have been found in that capital of the world where all creeds met, and all impostors left their track. But this sojourn of Simon at Rome is not verified by any authentic document. In him Christianity encountered the father of Gnosticism and of heresy. The numerous legends which cling around his name reveal the terror he inspired.5252In the "Act. Pauli et Petri," Simon dies, the victim of a rash challenge. He had promised to rise to heaven. St. Peter, with a word, made him fall to the earth crushed before the eyes of Nero. ("Act. Pauli et Petri," 33, Tischendorf edit.) According to the "Philosophoumena," he had himself shut up in a tomb at Rome, declaring that he would rise again the third day. "But," adds Hippolytus, "he remains there until now." "Philosoph.," p. 176.

The foundation of the Christian Church in Samaria had a very happy effect upon the growth and expansion of Christian thought. Not only did the Jews cherish the strongest antipathy to the Samaritans, but they had raised a barrier of legal prescriptions of extreme severity between themselves and their hated neighbors. The Gospels give us numerous proofs of this fact. The most injurious name which the enemies of Christ can find for him is that of a Samaritan. John viii, 48. The woman of Sychar is amazed that a Jew will dare to converse with her. John declares positively that the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans. John iv, 9. The Talmud shows that it is forbidden for an Israelite to break bread with a Samaritan: "He who takes the bread of a 74Samaritan is like him who eats the flesh of swine. No Israelite may receive a Samaritan as a proselyte; this accursed people shall have no part in the resurrection of the dead."5353Grimm, Die Samarit.," pp. 109, 110. Thus the Apostles, when they went to preach the Gospel in Samaria, must needs have risen above the most inveterate prejudices of their nation. It was a great step toward realizing the true breadth of Christianity. The preaching addressed to the Samaritans was to lead them, by a transition of the Saviour's own appointing, to carry the Gospel throughout the whole world. The primitive Church thus entered upon the path opened by Stephen, and his martyrdom bore its first-fruits.

Peter and John return to Jerusalem, while the Deacon Philip is called, by a new manifestation of the will of God, yet further to extend the field of Christian missions. It is not a Samaritan, but a pagan, whom he next instructs in the truth. In crossing the desert which leads to Gaza, a city of the ancient Philistines, he meets with a stranger, who, as he journeys, is reading in his chariot a portion of the Scriptures. He was an Ethiopian eunuch, a great dignitary of the court of Meroe, treasurer of the Queen.5454According to Pliny, the name of Candace was a dynastic name. ("Hist. Nat.," vi, 35.) This man, a pagan by birth, had taken a long journey to worship the true God in the temple at Jerusalem.5555Eusebius, "H. E.," ii, 1. The fact that he was reading the Scriptures cannot prove, as Olshausen asserts, that he was a Jew, for he might easily have them in the Greek version, then widely diffused. Whatever might have been his religious character, he could never, as a eunuch, have passed the door of the 75congregation of the people of God. Deut. xxiii, 1. He was, perhaps, only a proselyte of the gate. But his soul, full of holy aspiration, was already open to the Gospel. He was reading that sublime chapter, Isaiah liii, in which the sufferings of Messiah are depicted in traits so touching and so true. Philip, by a few words of explanation, removes all his doubts, and carries conviction home to his heart. He eagerly embraces the truth. He becomes without delay a disciple of Jesus Christ, and without any consideration of Jewish practice, he receives baptism. "He found more," eloquently says Jerome, "in the desert fountain of the Church than in the gilded temple of the synagogue."5656"Plus in deserto fonte Ecclesiæ reperuit quam in aurato synagogæ templo." (St. Jerome, "Eph.," ciii.) This scene, which was enacted far from human eyes in the depths of the desert solitude, is inimitably beautiful. It reveals the dispensation by which God seeks out in all places the soul which is seeking him, and leads his Church into full liberty by the exercise of his love.5757The old historians of the Church (Eusebius, "H. E.," ii, 1) attribute to the converted eunuch a great share in the mission carried on in his country. Ethiopia was not, however, won to the Church till the fourth century, by the preaching of Frumentius and Edesius. Still, it is possible the efforts of the eunuch may not have been fruitless.

« Prev § II. The Dispersion of the Christians. The… Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |