Jerusalem witch trials: John’s magician of immortality

John’s Gospel provides readers with an eschatological vision that is both peculiar and revolutionary. If the Synoptic Gospels evoke an eschatology of imminence, the Gospel of John evokes an eschatology of immanence. If in the Synoptic traditions God’s kingdom arrives in power “before some standing here [should] taste death,” in the Johannine tradition God’s kingdom, and indeed, eternal life itself, is immediately available to the one who believes Jesus is God’s son. Whoever keeps the divine word, John’s Jesus remarks, will “never see death” (John 8:51).

Scholars tend to characterize this shift from eschatological imminence to eschatological immanence as the “realization” of the eschaton.1 God’s kingdom and the resurrection life are in this way no longer events to eagerly await, but are already here because Jesus himself is “the resurrection and the life [of the eschaton]” (11:24-25, cf. 5:25). Whether by faith or by spirit, therefore, he who possesses Jesus inhabits the age to come.

The historical circumstances that gave rise to this eschatological program—John’s uniquely-realized apocalyptic vison—are uncertain. On the one hand, the delay of the parousia may have played a role. Faced with growing disappointment in light of heightened anticipation, the Johannine community may have sought to reinterpret their eschatological hopes in new and mystical ways.

Other explanations, on the other hand, emphasize the ways in which the Synoptic traditions present Jesus’ ministry as itself the inauguration of God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus appears to have believed, for instance, that his exorcistic power over demons represented, in a sense, the advent of the kingdom: “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). Interpreters might also find a kind of realized eschatological outlook in Jesus’ kingdom-meals—the end-times messianic banquet celebrated in the here and now. The Johannine community may have preserved and developed this aspect of the Jesus-tradition more systematically than other groups.

Heretical magicians

The works of the early Christian heresiologists present another solution to the puzzle of John’s peculiar eschatology. In his The History of the Church, for instance, Eusebius crafts a genealogy of the heretical (i.e. gnostic) sects that grew up alongside the true church. He begins with the infamous Simon Magus of Samaria and his successor Menander of Samaria. The “diabolical activity” of these two men, Eusebius claims, attempted to “discredit the great mystery of [Christian] piety as magic” being that they were “sorcerers who falsely assumed the name Christian” (Church History III.26).2 In early Christian polemic, moreover, Simon was viewed not only as a false Christian but as an imposter Christ and counterfeit god (cf. Acts 8:10). According to Irenaeus, for example, Simon taught “that he appeared among the Jews as the Son, but descended in Samaria as the Father, and came to other nations in the character of the Holy Spirit” (Against Heresies I.23.I). For anti-gnostic Christians like Eusebius and Irenaeus, Simon was a compelling threat to orthodoxy—a wolf amassing followers and, indeed worshipers, throughout Samaria, Antioch, and Rome by means of demon-empowered sorcery (Justin Martyr 1 Apology 26, cf. Acts 8:9).

Simon’s student Menander, for his part, continued to imperil the true faith. He taught that he was sent from the heavenly realm as “savior for the deliverance of men” and he convinced many people of this “by the demons operating in him” (i.e. by miraculous signs) (Against Heresies I.23.5, 1 Apology 26). Beyond making a mockery of God’s true miracles, Menander also put forward a fraudulent baptism that he claimed was necessary for “salvation” (Tertullian Against All Heresies I).

Most striking of all for our purposes, however, Menander promised his followers eternal life.

[Menander] persuaded those who adhered to him that they should never die, and even now there are some living who hold this opinion of his.

[Menander’s] disciples obtain the resurrection by being baptized into him, and can die no more, but remain in the possession of immortal youth.

1 Apology 26, Against Heresies I.23.5

Fittingly, Eusebius concludes his discussion of Simon and Menander like so: “[Through them the Devil tried to] shred the ecclesiastical doctrines concerning the immortality of the soul and resurrection from the dead” (Church History III.26). From early on then, the proto-orthodox churches represented by Justin, Irenaeus, and Eusebius, and these proto-gnostic sects represented by Simon and Menander fought for theological primacy in the syncretistic world of Roman religion—each cult playing off the other. The issue of life after death, or rather, of life that transcends death, was a prime point of contention and, ironically, of agreement.

Jesus the true magician

Assuming that Simon Magus operated during the life of the apostles, Menander was likely active in the latter half of the first century, during the time in which John’s Gospel was being written, compiled, and disseminated. As a popular philosopher and wonderworker whose doctrines and rituals were sometimes conflated with those of the early church, Menander and his disciples may have posed a grave threat to certain Christian communities, deceptively drawing believers away from true religion. John’s Gospel then, with its idiosyncratic language regarding escape from death,3 may represent a response to and, indeed, an adoption of the magical and mystical teachings of false-prophets like Menander. It was Jesus, not the Samaritans Simon and Menander, John argued, who could truly provide immortality to the faithful. Jesus was the true magician—he alone one could grant everlasting life to the dead and, more importantly, to the living.

Thus, guided by the spirit of this risen Jesus and aided by a flexible Jewish apocalypticism, the general resurrection of the dead, normally reserved for the last day, became an outpouring of eternal life among the living. Provoked by Menander and his Faustian rite, the Johannine churches outmaneuvered the magicians of Samaria.

Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not come under judgment. Indeed, he has crossed over from death to life.

This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.

If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death… ‘You say that anyone who keeps Your word will never taste death.’

Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

John 5:24, 6:50-51, 8:51-52, 11:26

Jesus the witch

It within this context that the accusations made against Jesus at the festival in Jerusalem— that he is a Samaritan and has a demon (John 8:48)—are particularly intriguing. Since Jesus has just claimed that he hears from God (8:39-47), his enemies, in good polemical fashion, attribute this supposedly divine voice to a demon. Jesus, they say, works for Satan, not for God. He speaks with the Devil’s tongue. He “has a demon.”

Yet this demon-possessing false-prophet is also a “Samaritan” according to the Jews. By this they mean that he is, namely, a magician like Simon, Menander, and the others who ascended from the accursed land of Samaria. Just as Menander proffered immortality in exchange for fealty to his demonic doctrine at the close of the first century, so too, so it seems, does Jesus: “Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death” (8:51).

Decried a witch, Israel’s true magician—God’s very son—passes through Jerusalem unwelcome.

Medea Rejuvenating Aeson
Domenicus van Wijnen


1—It seems that this realized Johannine eschatology prominent in the Gospel has not replaced but rather supplemented an imminent apocalyptic fervor. The writer of first Johannine epistle, for instance, views his time as the “final hour” before the coming of the Lord (1 John 2:18).

2—Translations of Eusebius from Jeremy M. Schott’s The History of the Church: A New Translation.

3—And perhaps its cosmic christology (e.g. John 1:1-3).

4 thoughts on “Jerusalem witch trials: John’s magician of immortality

  1. This is interesting. I think the first explanation, the delay of the Kingdom, isn’t a separate issue as much as created the conditions for the other explanations. Because the Kingdom was delayed, the early Christians had to come up with new theories and they merged popular ideas of the age.

    Second, I’m interested in more detail about how Simon and Menander shredded the doctrines of immortality and the soul. I think early Christians believed that God would set up a permanent earthly kingdom led by the Messiah and High Priest, and that is what was taught by Jesus and Paul. When that didn’t happen, the church came up with new explanations. The idea of souls going to heaven was developed much later than the New Testament was written. Could you expound on what you mean by the comment about Simon and Menander.

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    1. I’m not so sure the idea of the immortal soul living in heaven is so recent. It seems like some particularly Hellenized Jews might have believed something similar already (e.g. Philo, 4 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon).

      But I think Eusebius is already committed to a kind of immortal soul doctrine and so must claim that Simon and Menander stole the idea from Jesus. Whereas, in reality, Johannine Christianity and the proto-gnostics may have been in dialogue with each other, developing the idea in conjunction, if antagonistically.

      In terms of how the later Christians characterize them (which provides very limited information), Simon and Menander offered esoteric heavenly knowledge as a means of salvation—conceived as freedom from this world, the one made by angels (Against Heresies I.23.3). Menander probably offered soul-immortality (akin to the Johannine Jesus) but the early Christians characterized it as a crude eternal youth. Simon is predominantly criticized by in large for deifying himself and Menander for giving eternal life.

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  2. Perhaps the logic of Lk 11:20 is similar to that of Jn 9:30-32 and 11:41-42 — the fact that YHWH hears Jesus and consistently grants his requests is proof that Jesus is from YHWH, and that, by implication, his prophetic utterances are communications from YHWH.
    On that reading, Jesus might be saying, ‘the fact that YHWH consistently drives out demons at my word is evidence that I am from YHWH, a true prophet. And I have prophesied that the Kingdom is imminent. You have the exorcisms as YHWH’s testimony that my testimony is true.”

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