Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pseudo-apostolic succession

I’m going to quote some passages from a standard monograph on Simon Magus. The following features caught my eye:

1.It’s striking to see the historical license which church fathers took in their accounts of Simon Magus and his “successors.” One church father introduces a narrative about Simon and subsequent developments, then other church fathers embroider the narrative. What we see here is a process of rampant legendary embellishment.

2.Beyond that general trend is something more specific: a concerted effort to contrive a symmetrical parallel between apostolic succession and pseudo-apostolic succession. In both cases, church fathers seem to be working with genealogical paradigm in which truth and error each has its own dynastic pedigree. You can trace truth and error back through their respective family trees to archetypal/prototypal figures–where the heresiarch is equivalent to the founding patriarch of a far-flung clan.

But the question this inevitably raises is that if church fathers took such historical liberties in forging nonexistent links in a chain-of-custody reaching back from miscellaneous heresies in their own time and place to Simon Magus, then it’s hard to put much stock in lines of apostolic succession. Why think the ostensible lineage connecting the episcopate to an apostolic see is any more credible than their fanciful efforts to fill in the gaps allegedly connecting Simon Magus to the heresy du jour?

“What is indisputable is that the Church Fathers and anonymous writers, with Irenaeus of Lyons as a major turning point, began adapting the canonical Simon Magus to fashion him in new creative ways. For example, he became the spiritual father of all the Gnostic sects, he became an unrepentant opponent of the apostle Peter and later of Paul as well, he had extraordinary powers, and he died violently in Rome during a climatic confrontation with Peter and Paul in the presence of the Emperor Nero and throngs of admirers, A. Ferreiro, Simon Magus in Patristic, Medieval, and Early Modern Traditions (Brill Academic Pub, 2005), 3.

“Chapter three brings together the most important testimony of the Church Fathers, from Justin Martyr to Vincent of Lerins who presented Simon Magus as the prototype heretic who founded all of the Gnostic sects through a pseudo-apostolic succession. The commentary is found within the attempt by the Fathers to establish the legitimate succession of the Catholic bishops founded upon the apostles,” ibid. 4.

“In the 133 Letter written to Ctesiphon, approximately in 415, Jerome launched an attack against Priscillianists in section four. Jerome utilized mainly typology to associate Priscillian with the previous major heresies going ultimately back to the ‘Father’ of Christian heresy, Simon Magus…Vincent, on the other hand, used the Gnostic ‘type’ in a more restrained manner than Jerome. Simon’s alleged successor Nicolas of Antioch, who supposedly founded the Nicolaitan sect, was accused mainly of sexual libertarianism…I decided to include this essay because Simon and Nicolas appear together in every heresiological list as the two foundational ‘fathers’ of Gnosticism and by extension of all Christian heresies,” ibid. 4-5.

“If there is one single area of research on Simon Magus that has solicited significant scholarly attention, it has been within the field of Gnostic studies. Irenaeus in his Against Heresies claimed that Simon Magus had not only founded the Gnostic sect of the Simonians, but was also the spiritual ‘father’ of all of Gnosticism in general. This claim by Irenaeus became the catalyst that moved modern scholars to embark upon the quest to confirm the ‘historical’ links between the Simon Magus in the Acts of the Apostles and the sect of the Simonians who allegedly continued to perpetuate his teachings. The belief by patristic writers that Simon Magus had established Gnosticism became widespread as evidenced by the detailed references in the writings of Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Hippolytus, Against all Heresies, the Constitutions of the Apostles, the Pseudo-Clementines, and the Panarion by Epiphanius of Salamis. Wayne Meeks, in a recent historiographical essay, has noted that the efforts by modern scholars to confirm the connections between the canonical Simon Magus and any form of Gnosticism, and specifically the Simonians has come to a dead end,” ibid. 10-12.

“Fortunately, not all scholarly inquiry has come to an end on this topic. There is another area of research regarding Simon Magus and Gnosticism that is deserving of attention. As patristic writers attempted to create typological bridges between the canonical Magus and Gnosticism they did not all create an identical ‘type.’” Ibid. 12.

“Simon Magus as founder of a pseudo-apostolic succession derives principally from the anti-Gnostic polemic and is once again another instance of a tradition wholly independent of the Acts of the Apostles and the apocryphal legends. The same anti-Gnostic writers who created the fascinating portraits of Simon Magus and Helena likewise engendered the idea of a false apostolic succession paralleling and in direct opposition to the legitimate one established by Simon Peter. This concept persisted very strongly in the fourth and fifth centuries and is expanded in the works of Jerome and Vincent of Lerins. I have demonstrated in previous studies how both Church Fathers elaborated the notion of a Simon Magus pseudo-succession that continued well beyond Gnostic successors. Jerome, in what is perhaps his most creative exegesis, suggested a female pseudo-succession stemming from Helena and paralleling the male line initiated by Simon Magus. Writers such as Augustine, Filastrius of Brescia, Isidore of Seville and others mediated various forms of this concept to the Middle Ages,” ibid. 19.

“The persistent attempt by the Church Fathers, especially Irenaeus and Clement, to establish the legitimacy of an apostolic succession was matched by their effort to demonstrate the existence of a parallel pseudo-apostolic succession among the Gnostics. Irenaeus was principally driven in his rigorous rebuke of Gnostics to argue that Simon Magus founded the sect from whom all other Gnostics derived their inspiration. He clamed that the Simonians of his day, founded by Simon Magus, in turn inspired the sect of Menander. In fact, Irenaeus precisely labeled Menander a ‘successor’ of Simon Magus. In this significant work of heresiology, which became the model for all future works in this genre, Irenaeus made a case for the legitimate succession of bishops form the apostles, in particular Simon Peter,” 43.

“Two major elements of the Simon Magus type were bequeathed by Irenaeus and Clement: the belief that Simon Magus inspired/founded the Gnostic sects and that he had a female collaborator named Helena. The Church Fathers who occupied themselves with the question of the origin of heresy adopted wholesale this tradition while introducing their own emendations here and there,” ibid. 44.

“The Greek and Latin Fathers of the fourth century and beyond expanded this tradition even more. Cyril of Jerusalem called Simon Magus ‘inventor of all heresy’–an echo of Irenaeus–and proceeded in generic fashion to mention the Gnostic sects…Gregory Nazianzus warned that many doctrines ‘sprang from them’–the Gnostics, Simon Magus included, implying a succession. Epiphanius of Salamis in Panarion represents the culmination of all this earlier teaching among the Greek Fathers of the fourth century…On the succession question, Epiphanius linked Simon Magus with the Menandrians, Saturnilians, and Basilidians, with the strong implication that this constituted an ongoing succession originating with Simon Magus. John of Damascus expanded the list of Gnostic groups directly linked to Simon Magus, to include the Basilidians…We gain a better perspective of how this tradition from the second to fourth centuries among the Greek Fathers influenced the Church and its thinking about apostolic succession in light of what Jerome and Vincent of Lerins received, adapted, and perpetuated in the fifth century as is shown below,” ibid. 45.

“Vincent provided the precise language to express the succession of heretics from Simon. Like Jerome, he extended the idea of pseudo-apostolic succession far beyond any of the earlier writers, such as Epiphanius of Salamis who limited the successors of Simon Magus to the Gnostics. The emphasis in this section by Vincent is the primacy and centrality of apostolic authority. In the concluding chapters Vincent accused heretics of opposing the Holy See at Rome, specifically the pontiffs of Sixtus and Celestine, the successors of St. Peter. To add an extra touch of authority Vincent mentioned the ‘blessed Apostle Paul’ (Comm. 33.1-4. 1.24. p194). Peter and Paul, together, formed an overwhelming source of authority that vindicated Petrine primacy and apostolic succession, respectively…A crucial element in Vincent’s thought was his reference to a ‘secret and continuous succession [Continua et occulta successione manauit [Comm. 24.10. 43-44 p181] of heretics,” ibid. 52.


  1. This makes sense given that I've posted in various places what D.W. O'Connor said in his work "Peter in Rome".

    The oldest papal succession list is from Hegesippus, who wrote in or around 166. Of course we only have the writings of Hegesippus because some of them are preserved by Eusebius. Hegesippus “claims to have compiled himself” the list of the bishops of Rome. That is, it was not a historical document; it did not exist prior to his arrival there. The reason he compiled it “was purely practical:

    Hegesippus mentions that while he was at Corinth, he noticed that the Corinthians had remained in the true doctrine until Primus. Heresy was widespread at Rome, however, under Marcion, Basilides, and Valentinus. Therefore, Hegesippus wished to draw up a bishops’ list to be used in combating these heresies. By demonstrating the authorized channel through which the true doctrine had come down to the present (probably to the period of Eleutherus) from Peter and Paul, he hoped the Roman succession would serve as ‘a guarantee of the unbroken transmission of the original faith.’ (27-28)

    O’Connor goes on to say that the names for the list were supplied “with reasonable accuracy” from the memories of those still living.

  2. The Catholic historian Paul Johnson, in his 1976 work “History of Christianity”:

    By the third century, lists of bishops, each of whom had consecrated his successor, and which went back to the original founding of the see by one or the other of the apostles, had been collected or manufactured by most of the great cities of the empire and were reproduced by Eusebius…

    Eusebius presents the lists as evidence that orthodoxy had a continuous tradition from the earliest times in all the great Episcopal sees and that all the heretical movements were subsequent aberrations from the mainline of Christianity.

    Looking behind the lists, however, a different picture emerges. In Edessa, on the edge of the Syrian desert, the proofs of the early establishment of Christianity were forgeries, almost certainly manufactured under Bishop Kune, the first orthodox Bishop.

    In Egypt, Orthodoxy was not established until the time of Bishop Demetrius, 189-231, who set up a number of other sees and manufactured a genealogical tree for his own bishopric of Alexandria, which traces the foundation through ten mythical predecessors back to Mark, and so to Peter and Jesus.

    Even in Antioch, where both Peter and Paul had been active, there seems to have been confusion until the end of the second century. Antioch completely lost their list; “When Eusebius’s chief source for his Episcopal lists, Julius Africanus, tried to compile one for Antioch, he found only six names to cover the same period of time as twelve in Rome and ten in Alexandria.
    (Paul Johnson, "History of Christianity," pgs 52-53).

  3. Some things?

    One, is there any record of his mentor/s?

    Two, did I read correctly that Simon is the same guy in both incidents, Peter's and Paul's in Acts?

    Three, can it be safely assumed his ethnicity is Jewish?

    In any event, my eye is caught now too! grrrrrr.

    Is there no end to knowledge and learning?

  4. Steve,is that the A. Ferreiro I'm guessing it is? I was once at that little school by the canal.

  5. Wenatchee,

    Yes, same dude. In fact, he was my Medieval history prof.

    I see that you and I both attended SPU.

  6. I'm now pretty sure we met at the Skeptics Cadre long, long ago when Jeff was an agnostic trying to come up with a more interesting way to comply with the chapel requirements while getting his computer science degree. :-) My memory may be fuzzy but I think you and I got to hear the "rational objectivist" spiel of some Ayn Rand fans back then and hear a certain ex-professor expound the value of panentheism.