After the execution of Stephen, Luke tells us that a great persecution broke out in Jerusalem, presumably led by Saul and other Hellenistic Jews from the synagogue of the Freedmen. Philip, introduced in Acts 6 as a deacon, now functions as an evangelist in Samaria. Like Stephen, he appears to have been a leader among the Hellenists. He goes into the region of Samaria and has great success as an evangelist.
Among those who believe is a man named Simon, who is described as a magician (verses 9-13). Justin Martyr describes Simon as a source of a great deal of heresy in the early church. While it is impossible to confirm anything he says, Luke describes him here as a man who had functioned as a first century magician who used these skills to draw people to himself. A Magus could be a respectable class of scientific advisers to leaders, but often they were quacks and charlatans.
This appears to be what Simon is, since he is amazing people for a long time in the Samaritan town. In Simon’s case, he seems to have been able to perform a number of miracles by which he was able to gain a following among the Samaritans. Luke does not tell us what is motivation might have been, but there is a connection between magic and money in other contexts in Acts (13:6-8, 16:18-19, 19:14-19), so it is possible that Simon was functioning as a miracle worker in order to make money.
Keener points out a number of comparisons between Philip and Simon. Both work wonders and draw crowds. Simon is a “great power” (8:10) and Philip preforms “great powers” (8:13). Both amaze the Samaritans, Simon with magic (8:9, 11) and Philip with miracles (8:13). Simon, however, attempts to make himself something great, while Philip acts only “in the name of Jesus” (8:12,16). This is the first of several confrontations with magicians Luke describes in Acts. Paul will be opposed by Elymas, a Philippian slave girl is possessed by “the spirit of python” so that she acts as an oracle, and the Sons of Sceva attempt to cast out demons and are beaten, resulting in the burning of magical scrolls by some Ephesian Christians (Keener 2:1499).
Why is there an interest in magic in the book of Acts? One reason is the ancient world was obsessed with magic. Magic was an attempt to manipulate spirits and force them to act in ways religion did not (Keener: 2:1500). While moderns think of magic as a “trick” or an “illusion,” the ancients understood magic as a way of dealing with reality. Love potions and curses were available for purchase in places like Ephesus, fortune-tellers were in the marketplace to help you make decisions, and people bought charms and spells to protect them against evil spirits. If Philip the Evangelist did miracles, it would be very easy to confuse them with magical practices.
How does the story of Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8 function as a warning against magic? Or was the story intended to explain to Christians the source of the disciples’ power? Perhaps this is a good passage to think about application: Luke meant for his readers to understand something about the practice of magic in the first century, but how do we draw application to modern, western cultures where magic is not practiced? Is this a story which would be more quickly applied in an African environment than an American college campus?