« Prev Chapter XV. Movements Parallel to Christianity,… Next »



Christianity was now really established. In the history of religions it is always the first years which are most difficult to traverse. When once a faith has borne up against the hard trials, which every new institution has to endure, its future is assured. More clever than the other sectaries of the same date, Epenians, Baptists, partizans of John the Gaulonite, which simply came out of the Jewish world, and perished with it, the founders of Christianity, with a singular clearness of sight, cast themselves very early into the great world, and took their place in it. The scantiness of the references to the Christians, which are to be found in Josephus, in the Talmud, and in the Greek and Latin writers, ought not to be surprising. Josephus has reached us through Christian copyists, who have suppressed all that was 142disagreeable to their faith. It is easy to believe that he spoke at greater length of Jesus and of the Christians than he does in the version which has come down to us. The Talmud has in the same way undergone in the Middle Ages many retrenchments and alterations since its first publication. The Christian censure was exercised with severity upon its text, and a host of unhappy Jews were burned for having been found in possession of a book containing passages which were considered blasphemous. It is not astonishing that the Greek and Latin writers occupied themselves but little with a movement which they could not understand, and which took place in a world which was closed to them, Christianity in their eyes lost itself in the depths of Judaism; it was a family quarrel in the bosom of an abject race; what was the use of troubling about it? The two or three passages in which Tacitus or Suetonius speaks of the Christians prove that, in spite of being outside the circle of everyday affairs, the new sect was already a very considerable fact, since, from one or two glimpses, we see it across the cloud of general inattention, picture itself with sufficient clearness.

The circumstance that Christianity was not an isolated movement has contributed not a little towards the effacement of its outlines in the history of the Jewish world in the first century of our era. Philo, at the moment at which we have arrived, has finished his career—a career consecrated to the love of the good. The sect of Judas, the Gaulonite, still existed. The agitator had for continuers of his idea, his sons James, Simon, and Menahem, Simon and James were crucified by order of the renegade procurator, Tiberius Alexander. Menahem will play an important part in the final catastrophe of the nation. In the year 44 an enthusiast, named Theudas, arose announcing the approaching deliverance, and invited the mob to follow him into the desert, promising, like another Joshua, to make them pass dryshod over Jordan, this passage being, according 143to his explanation, the true baptism to initiate his believers into the Kingdom of God. More than four hundred souls followed him. (Acts v., 36.) The procurator Cuspius Fadius, sent cavalry against him, dispersed his force, and killed him. Some years earlier all Samaria had been moved by the voice of a fanatic, who pretended to have had a revelation of the site of Garizim, where Moses had hidden the holy instruments of worship. Pilate had repressed this movement with great vigour. Peace was at an end in Jerusalem. After the arrival of the procurator Vontidius Cumanus (48), disturbances were incessant. Excitement was pushed to such a point that life there became impossible; the most insignificant circumstances brought about an explosion. Everywhere was felt a strange fermentation, a sort of mysterious trouble. Imposters multiplied everywhere. The frightful scourge of the zealots (Kenaim), or assassins, began to appear. Scoundrels, armed with daggers, glided into the crowds, struck their victims, and were the first to shriek “Murder.” Hardly a day passed without the report of an assassination of this kind. An extraordinary terror prevailed. Josephus represents the crimes of the zealots as sheer wickedness, but it is indubitable that fanaticism mixed itself with them. It was in defence of the Law that these wretches took up the dagger. Whoever neglected to fulfil one of its ordinances, found his sentence pronounced, and immediately executed. They thought in this way to accomplish a work, the most meritorious and agreeable to God.

Dreams like that of Theudas were everywhere renewed. Persons, pretending to be inspired, stirred up the people, and led them out into the desert, under pretence of showing to them, by manifest signs that God was about to deliver them. The Roman authorities exterminated these agitators and their dupes by thousands. A Jew of Egypt, who came to Jerusalem about the year 56, was skilful enough to draw after him 30,000 144persons, amongst whom wore 4,000 zealots. From the desert he wished to take them to Mount Olivet, whence, he said, they might see the walls of Jerusalem fall at the sound of his voice alone. Felix, who was then procurator, marched against him, and dispersed his band. The Egyptian escaped, and was seen no more. But as in an unhealthy body one malady follows another, we very soon afterwards come upon mixed bodies of robbers and magicians, who openly urged the people to rebel against the Romans, threatening those who continued to obey them with death. Under this pretext they killed the rich, pillaged their goods, burned the villages, and filled all Jewry with marks of their fury. A frightful war announced itself. A general spirit of confusion prevailed, and men’s minds were in a state not far removed from madness.

It is not impossible that Theudas had a certain after-thought of imitation, as regards Jesus and John the. Baptist. This imitation, at least, is evidently betrayed in Simon of Gitton, if the Christian traditions as to this personage are in any way worthy of credence. We have already met him in connexion with the Apostles apropos of the first mission of Philip to Samaria. It was under the reign of Claudius that he arrived at celebrity. His miracles passed as constant, and everybody in Samaria looked upon him as a supernatural personage.

His miracles, however, were not the only foundation of his reputation. He added to them a doctrine which we can hardly judge of, since the work attributed to him, and entitled the Great Exposition, has reached us only by extracts, and is probably only a very modified expression of his ideas. Simon, during his stay in Alexandria, appears to have drawn from his studies of Greek philosophy, a system of syncretic philosophy, and of allegorical exegesis, resembling that of Philo. The system had its greatness. Sometimes it recalls the Jewish Cabala, sometimes the Pantheistic theories of Indian philosophy; looked at from a certain standpoint 145it appears to bear the impress of Buddhism and Parseeism. At the head of all things is “He who is, who has been, and who will be”; that is to say, the Samaritan Jahveh, understood, according to the etymological value of his name. The Eternal Being, alone, self-engendered, increasing himself; magnifying himself, finding in himself father, mother, sister, wife, and son. In the breast of that infinite being, every power exists from and to eternity; all things pass into action and reality by the conscience of man, by reason, language, and science. The world explains itself, it may be by a hierarchy of abstract principles, analogous to the Æons of gnosticism and the sephirotic tree of the Cabala, or by an angelic system, which appears to have been borrowed from the beliefs of Persia Sometimes these abstractions are presented as translations of physical and physiological facts. At other times the “Divine powers,” considered as separate substances, are realized as successive incarnations, sometimes feminine, sometimes masculine, whose end is the deliverance of the persons concerned from the bondage of matter. The first of these powers is that which is called, by way of especial distinction, “the Great,” and which is the intelligence of this world, the universal Providence. It is masculine, and Simon passed as being its incarnation. By its side is the feminine Syzygy, “the Great Thought.” Accustomed to clothe its theories with a strange symbolism, and to imagine allegorical interpretations for the ancient, sacred, and profane texts, Simon, or the author of the Great Exposition, gave to that Divine virtue the name of “Helen,” signifying thereby that it was the object of universal pursuit, the eternal cause of dispute amongst men, she who avenges herself on her enemies by blinding them, just at the moment when they consent to sing the Palinode; a grotesque theme which, ill-understood or distorted by design, gave rise amongst the Fathers of the Church to the most puerile legends. The knowledge of Greek literature which the author of 146the Great Exposition possessed, is in any case very remarkable. He maintained that, when properly understood, the Pagan writings sufficed for the knowledge of all things. His large eclecticism embraced all the revelations, and sought to establish all truth in a single order.

At the basis of his system there is much analogy with that of Valentin, and with the doctrines as to the Divine persons which are found in the fourth Gospel, in Philo and on the Targums. The “Metatrône,” which the Jews placed by the side of the Divinity, and almost in its breast, has a strong resemblance to the “Great Power.” In the theology of the Samaritans may be found a “Great Angel,” chief of the others, and of the class of manifestations or “divine virtues,” like those which the Jewish Cabala figures on its side. It appears certain then that Simon, of Gitton, was a kind of theosophist of the race of Philo and the Cabalists. It is possible that he approached Christianity for the moment, but he certainly did not definitely embrace it.

Whether he really borrowed something from the disciples of Jesus is very difficult to decide. If the Great Exposition is his in any degree, it must be admitted that in many points he went beyond Christian ideas, and that upon others he adopted them very freely. It would seem that he attempted eclecticism like that which Mahomet practised later on, and that he endeavoured to found his religious character upon the preliminary acceptance of the divine mission of John and of Jesus. He wanted to be in a mystical communion with them. He maintained, it is said, that it was he, Simon, who appeared to the Samaritans as Father, to the Jews the visible crucifixion of the Son, to the Gentiles, by the infusion of the Holy Ghost. He thus prepared the way, it would seem, for the doctrines of the docetes. He said that it was he who had suffered in Judea in the person of Jesus, but that that suffering had only been apparent. His pretension to be the Divinity itself, and 147to cause himself to be adored as such had probably been exaggerated by the Christians who sought only to render him hateful.

It will be seen besides that the doctrine of the Great Exposition is that of almost all the Gnostic writers; if Simon really professed the doctrines, it was with good reason that the fathers of the Church made him the founder of Gnosticism. We believe that the Great Exposition has only a relative authenticity, and that it really is to the doctrine of Simon—to compare small things with great—what the Fourth Gospel is to the mind of Jesus; that it goes back to the first years of the second century, that is to say, to the period when the theosophic ideas of the Logos definitely gained the ascendency. These ideas, the germ of which we shall find in the Christian Church about the year 60, might however have been known to Simon, whose career we may reason-ably extend to the end of the century.

The idea which we form to ourselves of this enigmatical personage is then that of a kind of plagiarist of Christianity. Counterfeiting appears to have been a constant habit amongst the Samaritans. Just as they had always imitated the Judaism of Jerusalem, their sectaries had also copied Christianity in their ways, their gnoxis, their theosophic speculations, their Cabala. But was Simon a respectable imitator, who only failed of success, or an immoral and profligate conjuror using for his own advantage a doctrine of shreds and patches picked up here and there? This is a question which will probably never be answered. Simon thus maintains in history an utterly false position; he walks upon a light rope where hesitation is impossible; in this order, there is no middle path between a ridiculous fall and the most miraculous success.

We shall again have to occupy ourselves with Simon, and to enquire if the legends as to his stay in Rome are in any way founded on truth. It is certain that the Samarian sect lasted until the third century; that it had 148churches at Antioch, perhaps even at Rome, that Menanda, and Capharatea, and Cleobius, continued the doctrine of Simon, or rather imitated his part of theurgist with a more or less present remembrance of Jesus and of his apostles. Simon and his disciples were greatly esteemed amongst their co-religionists. Sects of the same time, parallel to Christianity and more or less borrowed from Gnosticism, did not cease to spring up amongst the Samaritans until their quasi destruction by Justinian. The fate of that sort of little religion was to receive the rebound of everything that went on around it, without producing anything at all original.

Amongst the Christians, the memory of Simon of Gitton was an abomination. These illusions, which were so much like their own, irritated them. To have successfully rivalled the apostles was unpardonable. It was asserted that the miracles of Simon and of his disciples were the work of the devil, and they applied to the Samaritan theosophist the title of the “Magician,” which the faithful took in very bad part. All the Christian legends of Simon bear the marks of a concentrated wrath. He was credited with the maxims of quietisms, and with the excess which are usually supposed to be its consequence. He was considered to be the father of every error, the first heresiarch. Christians amused themselves by telling laughable stories of him and of his defeats by the apostle Peter. They attributed his approach towards Christianity to the vilest of motives. They were so preoccupied with his name that they fancied they read It in inscriptions which he had not written. The symbolism in which he had enveloped his ideas was interpreted in the most grotesque fashion. The “Helen,” whom he identified with the “Highest Intelligence,” became a prostitute whom he had bought in the market at Tyre. His very name was hated almost as much as that of Judas, and, taken as synonym of “anti-apostle,” became the last insult and as it were a proverbial word 149to describe a professional impostor, an adversary of the the truth whom it was desirable to indicate with mystery. He was the first enemy of Christianity, or rather the first personage whom Christianity treated as such. It is enough to say that neither pious frauds nor calumnies were spared to defame it. Criticism in such a case will hardly attempt a rehabilitation, the contradictory documents are wanting. All that can be done is to point out the similarity of the traditions, and the determined disparagement which is to be remarked in them.

But criticism, at least, should not forget to mention in connexion with the Samaritan theurgist a coincidence which is perhaps not altogether fortuitous. In a story of the historian Josephus, a Jewish magician named Simon, born in Cyprus, plays the part of pander to Felix. The circumstances of this tale do not fit in with those of Simon of Gitton well enough for him to be made responsible for the acts of a person who could have nothing in common with him, but a name then borne by thousands of men, and a pretension to supernatural powers, which he unhappily shared with a host of his contemporaries.

« Prev Chapter XV. Movements Parallel to Christianity,… Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection