Who Built the Idolatrous Synagogues?
In the three centuries before Constantine, both mainline Christian authorities and those of Rabbinic Judaism equally and unitedly (in this case) condemned the people who were establishing synagogues or churches showing mixed pagan beliefs with biblical themes and with making pagan designs on various funerary artifacts found over the Roman world. As we will come to see, it is the Christian authorities who say more about such people because they were more of a menace to Christian teaching than to Rabbinic Judaism (just why will be explained later). And while Professor Goodenough did not see what he thought might be classified as "Christian" art in the artifacts he catalogued (except at the small church in Dura Europos), he surmised that all the specimens that he recorded were probably "Jewish." He was actually wrong in his identification of the peoples who originated such things. His early training caused him to misjudge the evidence.
Goodenough started his academic career by concentrating on the teachings of Philo the Alexandrian Jew who lived in the time of Christ. He reasoned that Philo gave the impetus for later Jews to adopt Hellenistic ways (that is, to use Greco-Roman pagan ideas in their everyday religious beliefs and practices). Goodenough surmised that the majority of Jews after C.E. 70 blended their interpretation of Scripture with pagan motifs into their religious services and into their daily way of living. But Goodenough (as brilliant as he was and deserving great praise for his work) was wrong in his identification. It wasn’t Philo who lived at the time of Jesus who gave the incentive for all of the paganistic artifacts in some of the synagogues and burial grounds found around the Mediterranean basin. The blame goes to another person who also lived at the time of Jesus, and, incidentally, who was a contemporary of Philo. That man is singled out in the New Testament as the originator of the first heresy to afflict the Christian community.
Just who was this person? According to all early Christian authorities the person who started the mischief was a man whose people consistently honored and adored the symbols of the Tabernacle of Moses (the Menorah, the Torah shrine, etc.) while regularly mixing these scriptural themes with pagan ideas and theologies. That man, according to all early Christian scholars before the time of Constantine was a Samaritan by the name of Simon Magus. If Goodenough would have substituted all his references to Philo with the name "Simon Magus" as the originator of this so-called paganistic "Judaism" from the first to the sixth centuries, he would have provided the key that would have identified the people who manufactured much of those pagan artifacts. Those people are indeed The People That History Forgot. And who are they? They are principally the Samaritans ― especially those who followed one of their own countrymen called Simon Magus and his successors into the theological teaching called “Gnosticism.”
There were countless people in the Roman world who got caught up into the heretical movement of Gnosticism which flourished from the second to the fourth centuries of our era. Indeed, they composed a voluminous amount of literature to back up their various teachings and they were influential in many parts of the Roman world.
The Importance of the Samaritans
All the mainline (or "orthodox") Christian authorities for the first four centuries claim that the major heresy that afflicted the whole world with error started with the activities of the man called Simon Magus, a Samaritan. The sources unitedly state that Simon began his career by trying to buy an apostleship from the apostle Peter when he saw the extraordinary powers displayed by the apostles that accompanied their preaching (Acts 8:5–25). He was rebuked by Peter but, according to the Christian historians, he then started on a campaign (with a woman named Helen whom he met in Tyre) that brought them international fame. He went to Rome in the time of Claudius (C.E. 41–54) and did such miraculous things by sorcery that the Romans called him a god and erected a statue to him. Though the manner and place of his death varies in the records (and a further encounter with the apostle Peter was supposed to have been his downfall), his exploits became so influential and famous according to early Christian scholars that Simon Magus was reckoned the originator of all heresies that flourished under the name "Gnosticism" from the first to the fourth centuries (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.xxiii.2).
The chief characteristic of this Simon Magus was his attempt to develop a one-world religion with himself and his companion Helen as the main objects of worship. He was the first person in history to adopt a Trinitarian concept of the Godhead. He taught that he was the Son of God to the Jews (and he adopted some Jewish ways to win over the Jews), while he claimed to be the Father to his own people the Samaritans. To the Gentiles he taught that he was the Holy Spirit (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.xxiii.1). What he did was to blend the various beliefs of the Jews, the Samaritans and the various Gentiles religions into a syncretic doctrinal belief that was designed to unite the world into a single universal (catholic) religion. Simon Magus was unable to accomplish his goal in the 1st century, but he was succeeded by others who tried to do the same thing. He was followed by a fellow Samaritan by the name of Menander, and alongside him emerged two other men by the names of Saturninus and Basilides. They all began to teach variant doctrines under the common name of "Gnosticism." Other men soon followed in their footsteps. Among them was a very important man from Pontus in Asia Minor named Marcion. He was a contemporary of Justin Martyr. The Christian writer Irenaeus wrote extensively against this Marcion and against Gnosticism itself in the middle and late 2nd century.
Remarkably, Irenaeus stated that all the Gnostics mentioned above (whom he categorized as heretics and not a part of true Christianity) met in synagogues [I am emphasizing this point in bold letters]. He referred to them as a separate group from real Christians and Jews. To Irenaeus, the three groups worshiping God were Christians, Jews and Gnostics, though he censures the latter two as not being consistent in their teachings. Note particularly that the various Gnostic sects were meeting in synagogues.
[the things taken] from his creation. But the Jews do not offer thus: for their hands are full of blood; for they have not received the Word, through whom it is offered to God. Nor, again, do any of the synagogues of the heretics [the Gnostics] offer this."
"The Church alone offers this pure oblation to the Creator, offering to Him, with giving of thanks
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV. xviii.4, underline emphasis mine
The places where the various Gnostic groups assembled to perform their eucharistic rites (which Irenaeus was talking about) were in places called "synagogues." This certainly means the buildings they used for worship. There is archaeological evidence that the word "synagogue" was early used by the Gnostics for the name of the building where they assembled. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, states:
"Incontestably the most interesting example is that the Marcionites could call their buildings for worship synagogues cf. the inscription found in Deir Ali (Lebaba) south-east of Damascus [which records a building as a] Synagogue of the Marcionites,"
article "Synagogue," vol.Vll, p.840, underline emphasis mine
And in the Gnostic work that is titled the "Acts of Philip," several times the word "synagogue" refers to the building where the Gnostic people worshiped (ibid., p.841).
And why shouldn’t these people have met in synagogues? The people that gave rise to the heresy of Simon Magus and his successors were the Samaritans who commonly assembled for worship in buildings they called synagogues. As a matter of fact, Justin Martyr who was himself a Samaritan stated in the middle of the 2nd century that almost all the Samaritans went over to believing that Simon Magus was a god and they were in Justin’s time giving heed to his teachings.
"Nearly all the Samaritans, but few among the rest of the nations, confess him [Simon Magus] to be the first god and worship him."
Justin Martyr, Apology, I.26
This is clear contemporary evidence (from no less than a Samaritan himself born about six miles from the birthplace of Simon Magus) that the Samaritan people on the whole were confessing the Gnostic teachings of Simon Magus. This would necessarily mean that Simon’s teachings were being entertained and advocated in the synagogues of the Samaritans. And, of course, Samaritan people would (like the Jews) prefer to call their places of assembly "synagogues," especially in their own homeland or in other regions of their diaspora.
The reason I have high-lighted with bold letters the matter of the Gnostic sects meeting in synagogues is the fact that this is not normally recognized in scholarly circles. It is often assumed, because most Gnostic groups had Christian beliefs associated with them, that the Gnostics would have called their meeting places ekkiesias (churches) and not synagogues. But the contemporary evidence from Irenaeus and other sources show that Gnostics were conducting their meetings in synagogues (even though ekklesia and synagogue meant practically the same thing in this early period). This shows that any archaeological discovery of an ancient synagogue should not automatically justify the conclusion that the synagogue was a mainline Jewish building. It could very well be a Samaritan synagogue, or even a Gnostic synagogue. This is the point I am trying to make.
Who Were the Samaritans ?
The Samaritans who at first lived primarily in central Palestine (between Judea and Galilee) claimed to be descendants of the Ten Tribes of the Israelites who resided in the country before the Assyrians took them captive in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E. They later came back to Palestine, according to them, and settled in the area around Samaria and Shechem. The Bible, however, records that they were basically made up of five Babylonian tribes who worshiped five national deities and that they had mixed their pagan idolatrous doctrines with the teachings of the Old Testament (2 Kings 17:24–41). The Jewish historian Josephus called them basically Gentiles but they customarily stated they were kin to the Jews when the Jews obtained honors from Gentile rulers, but they would also call themselves Gentiles when the Jews had reverses in fortune. Even Justin Martyr who was himself a Samaritan said in his dialogue with Trypho the Jew that he and the Samaritans were actually Gentiles though they often claimed to be of Israelite origin. Justin said "us Gentiles" in referring to the Samaritan nation of whom he was a part (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, cxxii).
The language of Scripture attests with scarcely a doubt that the Samaritans after the 6th century B.C.E. were indeed Gentiles and not Israelites from the Northern Tribes. It states: "Israel was carried away" (2 Kings 17:6, 23), and other nations were placed "in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel" (2 Kings 17:24). There is no mention whatever, as in the case of the somewhat parallel destruction of the kingdom of Judah, of "the poor of the land being left to be vine-dressers and husbandman" (2 Kings 25:12). It was not an unusual thing for eastern monarchs at this time to take every person from their homeland. One could cite Herodotus (iii, 149): "The Persians dragged Samos, and delivered it up to Syloson, stripped of all its men" and again (iv, 31) Herodotus stated they did the same with other island populations. The Assyrian records from the 9th to the 7th centuries B.C.E. give several instances where the Assyrian monarchs removed people from their homelands and settled people from Assyria, Elam and even Arabia in their lands (Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 276 col. A, 285B, 286A,B, 288A, 290B, 291A, 293A 294B). In some cases it was a stripping of the land of its entire native people and replacing them with loyal allies of the Assyrians.
This is one of the principal reasons the Jewish people normally referred to these Samaritans of later times as being Cuthians ― primarily originating from the old priestly city of Cutha a short distance north and east of Babylon and reportedly built by Cush the grandson of Noah just after the Flood. And though the Samaritans did adopt much of the Mosaic law as the basis of their religion (and it was common in times when the Samaritans and Jews were friendly with one another for certain “righteous” Samaritans to be allowed entrance to the Temple precincts in Jerusalem ― see Josephus, Antiquities, xviii, 30), they nonetheless were recognized by most Jews as being Gentiles who sometimes kept the Mosaic law but were also motivated by many teachings which emanated from the central place of their origin, Cutha in Mesopotamia.
Most of the Jews in the 1st century considered many Samaritans to be lax in their observance of the Mosaic law and consequently they would have little to do with the Samaritans in a religious sense. The Samaritan woman that Jesus met at the well said, "The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans" (John 4:9). Indeed, Jesus gave an allegorical interpretation concerning this relationship by involving the life of the Samaritan woman. He said, "You have had five husbands; and he whom you now have is not your husband" (John 4:18). This statement not only described the situation of the woman herself, but any Samaritan interpreting Christ’s statement allegorically would have recognized that the "five husbands" of the woman represented the "five gods" that the Samaritans brought to Samaria from Babylon and that the woman now with no husband meant that the Samaritan worship of God (as far as Jesus was concerned) was without a proper marriage covenant. In other words, the Samaritan people were not in a proper covenant relationship with God as were the Jews. Jesus told the woman "salvation is of the Jews." In the view of Jesus, Jerusalem was the center of God’s religion and it was not Samaria.
The reason for the negative attitude of Jesus and the Jews generally to Samaritan teachings was because the Samaritans had corrupted the religion of the Holy Scriptures by mixing their paganistic teachings and idolatry into the mainstream of their religious society. The Samaritans commonly combined paganism with teachings from the Bible. They customarily displayed biblical items in their synagogues. This is shown in the remains of what are considered two Samaritan synagogues in Goodenough’s pictures number 661 and 663 in volume three of his illustrations. Both these synagogues displayed Menorahs on their mosaic floors which, as we will come to see, was not allowed in ordinary Jewish synagogues or in Jewish homes in this early period.
But Samaritans also did one other thing besides using biblical symbols like the Menorah. They were also used to blending pagan symbols (even pagan gods) with their biblical symbols. As evidence for this, there are the coins minted by Herod in his first three years when he governed from Samaria — in the heartland of the Samaritans. On them were depicted pagan ceremonial vessels such as the tripod and lebes-symbols of the worship of Apollo along with their Temple dedicated to YHVH which was located at Mount Gerizim. (See the article by Y. Meshorer, "Jewish Numismatics" in Kraft & Nicholsburg, eds., Early Judaism and its Modern Interpreters, p.213.) These Herodian coins are unlike those at the time which were associated with Jerusalem. The Jerusalem coins showed no pagan designs. And later in the 3rd century of our era, three coins were found at Neapolis in Samaria. These later coins reveal the continuation of pagan themes among the Samaritans. One of these coins showed a Roman goddess, another a Decan (one of the 36 deities in astrology), and the third displayed Zeus and a scene of what appears to be the binding of Isaac (a biblical theme). See Y. Meshorer, Eretz-Israel, XIX (1987), pp.92–96 in Hebrew.
These coins with pagan motifs found at the prime cities of the Samaritans both before and after the time of Jesus show that the Samaritans continued to mix pagan deities with biblical themes. It makes the statement of Justin Martyr in the middle of the 2nd century entirely understandable when he said that nearly all the Samaritans had gone over to Simon Magus whose activities encouraged such syncretic teachings.
And what were some of those teachings that Simon Magus introduced? Here is what Irenaeus recorded about those who followed Simon Magus [words in brackets mine]:
"They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world; that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They also have other modes of honoring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles."
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.25.6
But who was this "Christ" that these followers of Simon Magus were depicting and claiming to be followers of the Holy Scriptures? It was Simon Magus himself.
"He [Simon Magus] was glorified by many as a god; and he taught that it was he himself who, forsooth, appeared among the Jews as the Son, while in Samaria he descended as the Father, and the rest of the world he came as the Holy Spirit. That he was the highest power, to wit, the Father over all, and that he allowed himself to be called by whatever name men pleased."
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.23.1
At first these followers of Simon Magus were called Simonians, but they deliberately began to designate themselves by other names (no longer Simonians) and finally became known generally as "Gnostics."
"They [the Gnostics] also have an image of Simon made in the likeness of Jupiter [Zeus, with long hair and a beard like modern Christianity portrays Jesus], and of Helen in that of Minerva [Greek: Athena, the Virgin Lady] and they worship the statues."
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.23.4
By the 3rd century, these Gnostics had abandoned their connection to Simon Magus and Helen and began to call themselves by more respectable names that people in the world would accept. Origen said there were few in his day calling themselves Simonians (Against Celsus, vi.11). The fact is, the name "Simonian" was too limited to Simon Magus himself and even Simon wanted his followers to call him (and themselves) by more august names. They preferred to be denominated by the names of the chief pagan gods and goddesses, but with one difference. They also wanted to be called "Christians” ― Christians who were supposedly knowledgeable of what were the deep and profound truths of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They accepted the Holy Spirit as being a person (like modern day Catholics and Protestants) but to them that person was the man Simon Magus.
Both Simon and Helen told their followers (and this was perpetuated by their several successors) that anyone really knowing the deepness of the mysteries would recognize Simon and Helen as the chief deities and not merely the human Simon and the human Helen. Hippolytus who lived in the same period of Origin had these comments to make about the "Simonians" who did not want to be called by the simple name of Simon.
"They have a statue of Simon in the form of Zeus, and one of Helen in the form of Athena [the Virgin], which they worship, calling the former Lord and the latter Lady. And if any among them on seeing the images, calls them by the name Simon or Helen, he is cast out as one ignorant of the mysteries."
Hippolytus, Philosophumena, VI.20
By the 3rd century, the Gnostics who followed the teachings of Simon and Helen distanced themselves from being called Simonians and took up the better name "Christians" (but they reckoned themselves as "Christians" who understood all the mysteries, including those of the pagan religions). To many Gnostics, Simon had become Zeus (or YHVH) and Helen became Minerva (the Virgin Lady who merged into the image of Mary, the Mother of Christ). Helios the Sun god was another form of Zeus (as well as the Egyptian god Sarapis).
With the advent of Constantine in the 4th century, he accepted a form of Christianity but at the same time he identified the God of his worship with Helios the Sun god — which he continued to place on his coins long after his conversion to Christianity. It is with Constantine and his family that we see a flood of pagan images and doctrines beginning to be inaugurated into what was then being called the "orthodox Catholic Church." The principles advocated by Simon Magus and Samaritanism took over control of the state religion now being called Christianity.
Note that after the time of Constantine, the Christian authorities finally adopted the portrait of Jesus as we in the modern world know him ― with flowing long hair down to his shoulders (like the hair of women ― see a pejorative reference to such grooming in Revelation 9:8) and having a beard. This grooming with long hair is precisely how the ancients portrayed Zeus (and his Egyptian variant, Sarapis). Note the picture of Sarapis below. This is how Simon Magus was being portrayed by the Gnostics and later how even "orthodox Christianity" began to display Jesus.
With the time of Constantine a new type of JESUS began to be portrayed among the Christian population of the Roman Empire. They took the style of grooming which was typical of the pagan gods and adopted it as their "JESUS." The above drawing is from a bust in the British Museum or Sarapis, the Egyptian version or Zeus (the chief of the Gentile gods). See reference Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, article "Coma."
In the first three centuries of Christian teaching, it was the Gnostics (who had their origin from the Samaritans) who were blending paganistic ideas and idolatrous images with those from the Holy Scriptures. Actually, the Samaritans consistently mixed paganism with biblical themes. It is only logical that they must have been doing this in their buildings for worship — which the Samaritans called synagogues. With this information, we are getting closer to identifying The People That History Forgot.
Click here to order the print version of: The People That History Forgot
© 1976-2014 Associates for Scriptural Knowledge - ASK is supported by freewill contributions