Simon "Le Magicien": Actes 8,5-25 et L'accusation De Magie Contre Les Prophetes Thaumaturges Dans L'antiquite

By Gilbert, Gary | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Simon "Le Magicien": Actes 8,5-25 et L'accusation De Magie Contre Les Prophetes Thaumaturges Dans L'antiquite


Gilbert, Gary, Journal of Biblical Literature


Simon "Le Magicien".- Actes 8,5-25 et l'accusation de magie contre les prophetes thaumaturges dans l'antiquite, by Florent Heintz. CARB 39. Paris: Gabalda, 1997. Pp. vi + 179. F 225.00 (paper).

In discussing the encounter between Simon and Philip, Peter, and John recorded in Acts 8, Morton Smith once wrote, "This is a piece of Christian propaganda ... [whose] primary object is to show that the cult of Simon is inferior to that of Jesus" ("The Account of Simon Magus in Acts 8," in Harry Austryn Wolfson Jubilee Volume [Jerusalem: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1965] 2.735). More than thirty years later, Florent Heintz has set out to describe the nature and extent of the propaganda. Heintz presents us with a close reading of the Simon narrative (Acts 8:5-25), informed by comparisons to accusations of magic and sorcery which were well known in the Greek and Roman worlds. His analysis leads to two major conclusions. First, the author of Acts presents Simon as a "magician," drawing on rhetorical conventions used by ancient writers to defame miracle workers. Second, by recognizing how this passage has been constructed, we can separate history from invention and thereby acquire valuable information concerning Simon and the early Christian mission.

Heintz divides his study into five sections. In the first section, he reviews the portrayals of Simon found in early Christian writings and among modem exegetes. Heintz criticizes scholars who interpret the story of Simon through the lens of later patristic and apocryphal traditions, and rejects those interpretations which seek to understand the passage in light of Gnosticism (E. Haenchen), as depicting the defeat of satanic powers (S. Garrett), or as an apologetic strategy to deflect the charge of magic made against Christians (H. Conzelmann, S. Spencer).

The second section reviews how ancient texts constructed the charge of magic, particularly against miracle workers commonly referred to by modem scholars as divine men (theioi andres) and by Heintz as thaumaturgical. prophets. Heintz follows the lead of Alan Segal, John Gager, and others who argue that the imputation of "magic," far from identifying an objective set of beliefs and actions, reflects the author's attempt to defame individuals because of doctrinal differences, personal enmity, and religious rivalries, and to justify their own negative judgments against the religion of another individual or group. His detailed study (the book's index lists more than fifty Greek and Latin authors ranging chronologically from Hippocrates and Plato to Marcus Aurelius and Plotinus) illustrates the widespread use of such accusations and isolates the rhetorical traits that characterized these charges. In the hands of a skillful writer such as Lucian of Samosata, the accusation of magic becomes an anti-aretalogy; instead of exalting the prophet known for his or her piety and power, a contrary portrait attacks the prophet's character with charges of fraud, seduction, auto-deification, and cupidity.

In section 3, the longest of the book, Heintz submits his methodological approach to two test cases: Diodorus Siculus's depiction of Eunus of Apamea, leader of the second-century BCE Sicilian slave revolt, and Josephus's account of the Egyptian prophet. He shows how both writers composed their version of events using a combination of accurate information and malicious rhetoric. Employing pejorative terms (e.g., magos or terateia) and characteristics taken from the standard repertoire of invective, these accounts were meant to deny divine associations to the words and actions of a thaumaturgical prophet.

In the fourth section, Heintz returns to Acts in order to demonstrate how the author has painted Simon with a brush filled with the terms and attributes commonly associated with magicians. The narrator refers to Simon as someone who has been practicing magic and has attracted a large and ignorant crowd, deceiving them into thinking that he possesses divine powers. …

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