(1) And Saul was consenting unto his death.—The word seems carefully chosen to convey the fact that he did not himself take part in stoning, but contented himself with guiding and directing the murder. He “kept the garments” of the witnesses who flung the stones (Acts 22:20). The statement came, we can scarcely doubt, from St. Paul’s own lips, and in his use of the same word in the passage just referred to, and in Romans 1:32, we may see an indication that he had learnt to see that his guilt in so doing was greater, and not less, than that of the actual murderers.
There was a great persecution against the church.—It is clear that this involved much suffering, imprisonment, as in Acts 8:3, perhaps the spoiling of men’s goods, the being made “a gazing stock by reproaches and afflictions” (Hebrews 10:33-34). In St. James’s description of the sufferings of the brethren (James 2:6-7), we may see at once the measure of the violence of the persecution, and the prominence in it (though Saul, the Pharisee, was for the time the chief leader) of the priesthood and the rich Sadducean aristocracy.
Throughout the regions of Judæa and Samaria.—Jerusalem was naturally the chief scene of the persecution, and the neighbouring towns, Hebron, and Gaza, and Lydda, and Joppa, became places of refuge. It was probably to this influx of believers in Christ that we may trace the existence of Christian communities in the two latter cities. (See Notes on Acts 9:32; Acts 9:36.) The choice of Samaria was, perhaps, suggested by the hatred of that people to the Jews. Those who were fleeing from a persecution set on foot by the priests and rulers of Jerusalem were almost ipso facto sure of a welcome in Neapolis and other cities. But the choice of this as a place of refuge indicated that the barriers of the old antipathy were already in part broken down. What seemed the pressure of circumstances was leading indirectly to the fulfilment of our Lord’s commands, that the disciples should be witnesses in Samaria as well as in Judæa (Acts 1:8). It seems probable, as already suggested (see Note on Acts 7:16), that there was some point of contact between the Seven, of whom Stephen was the chief, and that region.
Except the apostles.—The sequel of the history suggests two reasons for their remaining. (1) The Twelve had learnt the lesson which their Master had taught them, “that the hireling fleeth because he is an hireling” (John 10:13), and would not desert their post. A tradition is recorded by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. vi. 5, § 43) and Eusebius (Hist. v. 13), that the Lord had commanded the Apostles to remain for twelve years in Jerusalem lest any should say “We have not heard,” and after that date to go forth into the world. (2) The persecution which was now raging seems to have been directed specially against those who taught with Stephen, that the “customs” on which the Pharisees laid so much stress should pass away. The Apostles had not as yet proclaimed that truth; had, perhaps, not as yet been led to it. They were conspicuous as worshippers in the Temple, kept themselves from all that was common and unclean (Acts 10:14), held aloof from fellowship with the Gentiles (Acts 10:28). They may well have been protected by the favour and reverence with which the great body of the people still looked on them, and so have been less exposed than the Seven had been to the violence of the storm. It was probable, in the nature of the case, that the Hellenistic disciples, who had been represented by Stephen, should suffer more than others. It was from them that the next great step in the expansion of the Church in due course came.
And made great lamentation over him.—The act was every way significant. Commonly, one who had been stoned to death on the charge of blasphemy would have had no funereal honours. He would have been buried “with the burial of an ass” (Jeremiah 22:19). The public lamentation on the part of men conspicuous for their devout zeal for the Law, was therefore of the nature of a protest, probably on the part of the more moderate section of the Pharisees, such as Joseph, Nicodemus, and Gamaliel, against what would seem to them the unnatural coalition between the Sadducean priesthood and the ultra-zealot section of their own party.
Preaching the word.—Better, preaching the glad tidings of the word.
Preached Christ.—The verb is not the same as in Acts 8:4, and is the word used for “preaching” or “proclaiming.” The tense implies continued action, extending, it may be, over weeks or months. We find in John 4:25 that the expectation of the Messiah was as strong among the Samaritans as among the Jews, and Philip’s work therefore was to proclaim that the long-expected One had come, and that the Resurrection was the crowning proof that He was the Christ the Son of God. The readiness with which the proclamation was accepted shows that in spite of the adverse influence which had come into play since our Lord had taught there, the work then done had not been in vain.
Hearing and seeing the miracles which he did.—Better, the signs, as being closer, here as elsewhere, to the force of the Greek. It is remarkable that they had believed in the first instance without any other sign than the person and the teaching of the Lord Jesus. Miracles came not as the foundation, but for the strengthening of their faith; perhaps also as a corrective to the adverse influence of which we are so soon to hear.
Used sorcery.—Literally, was practising magic. On the history of the Greek word magos and our “magic,” as derived from it, see Note on Matthew 2:1. Our “sorcerer” comes, through the French sorcier, from the Latin sortitor, a caster of lots (sortes) for the purposes of divination. Later legends enter fully into the various forms of sorcery of which Simon made use. (See below.)
Bewitched the people of Samaria.—Literally, threw them into the state of trance or ecstasy; set them beside themselves, or out of their wits. The structure of the sentence shows that the “city” is not identical with Samaria, and that the latter name is used, as elsewhere, for the region.
Giving out that himself was some great one.—The next verse defines the nature of the claim more clearly. The cry of the people that he was “the great power of God,” was, we may well believe, the echo of his own boast. He claimed to be, in some undefined way, an Incarnation of Divine Power. The very name had appeared in our Lord’s teaching when He spoke of Himself as sitting on the right hand of “the Power of God,” as an equivalent for the Father (Luke 22:69).
This man is the great power of God.—The better MSS. give, “This is the Power of God that is called great.” The word “Powers” was used by the Samaritans of the angels or hosts of God, and they probably recognised Simon as one of these and as of special pre-eminence.
They were baptized, both men and women.—The tense points, not to one great act, but to the continual succession of converts who were thus admitted. We think of the woman of Samaria, of John 4:7, and wonder whether she was one of them.
And wondered.—The verb is the same as that rendered “bewitched” in Acts 8:9; Acts 8:11. The tables were turned. The magician yielded to a spell mightier than his own, and was, in his turn, as one beside himself with amazement. The difference between Simon and the believing Samaritans is, in this matter, suggestive. His faith rested on outward miracles. With them the miracles did but serve to confirm a faith which rested on the “prophetic word” as spoken by the Son of Man (John 4:42).
The word of God is characteristically used by St. Luke, as in his Gospel, for the whole sum and substance of the gospel of Christ. (Comp. Luke 5:1; Luke 8:11; Luke 8:21.)
Because thou hast thought . . . .—Better, because thou thoughtest. The speaker looks at the thought historically, as at the moment when it rose up in the sorcerer’s mind. The Greek verb has a transitive not a passive sense, thou thoughtest to acquire the gift of God by money. Not so, Peter must have remembered, had he acquired that gift. The very word which he uses is that which our Lord had spoken to him and his brother Apostles, “Freely” (i.e., as a gift) “ye have received” (Matthew 10:8).
Thy heart is not right in the sight of God.—“Straight” or “right” is used, as in Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, for “straightforward,” not in the secondary sense of “being as it ought to be.” The word is not of frequent occurrence in the New Testament, but, like so many of the spoken words of St. Peter, meets us again as coming from his pen (2 Peter 2:15).
Pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart . . . .—The better MSS. give “Lord” instead of “God,” either in the Old Testament sense of the word or with special reference to the Lord Jesus. The “if perhaps,” in the Greek, as in the English, implies a latent doubt. Did the thought come across the mind of the Apostle that the sin of Simon came very near that “sin against the Holy Ghost which hath never forgiveness” (Matthew 12:31)? The use of such words by the chief of the Apostles, after the apparent concession of a plenary power in John 20:23, are terribly suggestive. He neither forgives nor condemns, but bids the offender turn to the Searcher of hearts and pray for forgiveness. Had he seen repentance, he might have said, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” Had he seen a conscience utterly dead, he might have closed the door of hope. As it is, he stands midway between hope and fear, and, keeping silence, leaves judgment to the Judge.
At this point Simon disappears from the history of the Acts, and this seems accordingly the right place for stating briefly the later traditions as to his history. In those traditions he occupies a far more prominent position than in St. Luke’s narrative, and becomes, as it has been said, the “hero of the romance of heresy,” as given in the Homilies and Recognitions of the Pseudo-Clement. Born at Gittom, in Samaria (Justin, Apol. i. 26), he received his education at Alexandria, and picked up the language of a mystic Gnosticism from Dositheus (Hom. ii. c. 22; Constt. Apost. vi. 8). He had for a short time been a disciple of the Baptist (Hom. c. 23). He murdered a boy that the soul of his victim might become his familiar spirit, and give him insight into the future (Hom. ii. c. 26; Recogn. ii. 9). He carried about with him a woman of great beauty, of the name of Luna or Helena, whom he represented as a kind of incarnation of the Wisdom or Thought of God (Justin, Apol. i. 6; Hom. ii. c. 25; Euseb. Hist. ii. 13). He identified himself with the promised Paraclete and the Christ, and took the name of “He who stands,” as indicating divine power (Recogn. ii. 7). He boasted that he could turn himself and others into the form of brute beasts; that he could cause statues to speak (Hom. iv. c. 4; Recogn. ii. 9, iii. 6). His life was one of ostentatious luxury. He was accompanied by the two sons of the Syro-Phœnician woman of Mark 7:26 (Hom. i. 19). After the episode related in the Acts, he went down to Cæsarea, and Peter was then sent thither by James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, to confront and hold a disputation with him on various points of doctrine. From Cæsarea he made his way to Tyre and Tripolis, and thence to Rome, and was there worshipped by his followers, so that an altar was seen there by Justin with an inscription, “SIMONI DEO SANCTO” (Apol. i. 56). Peter followed him, and in the reign of Claudius the two met, once more face to face, in the imperial city. According to one legend, he offered to prove his divinity by flying in the air. trusting that the demons whom he employed would support him; but, through the power of the prayers of Peter, he fell down, and had his bones broken, and then committed suicide (Constt. Apost. ii. 14; 6:9). Another represents him as buried alive at his own request, in order that he might show his power by rising on the third day from the dead, and so meeting his death (Irenæus, Adv. Hær. vi. 20).
In the midst of all this chaos of fantastic fables, we have, perhaps, one grain of fact in Justin’s assertion that he had seen the altar above referred to. An altar was discovered at Rome in 1574, on the island in the Tiber, with the inscription “SEMONI SANCO DEO FIDIO.” Archæologists, however, agree in thinking that this was dedicated to the Sabine Hercules, who was known as SEMO SANCUS, and it has been thought by many writers that Justin may have seen this or some like altar, and, in his ignorance of Italian mythology, have imagined that it was consecrated to the Sorcerer of Samaria. His statement is repeated by Tertullian (Apol. c. 13) and Irenæus (i. 20). Of the three names in the inscription, Semo (probably connected with Semen as the God of Harvest, or as Semihomo) appears by itself in the Hymn of the Fratres Arvales, and in connection with Sancus and Fidius (probably connected with Fides, and so employed in the formula of asseveration, medius fidius) in Ovid, Fast. vi. 213; Livy, viii. 20; 32:1.
The curtain falls at the close of this drama on the Christians of Samaria, and we know but little of their after history. The one glimpse of them which we get is, however, of very special interest. When Paul and Barnabas after their first missionary journey went up to Jerusalem, they passed “through Phenico and Samaria” (Acts 15:3). St. Paul also had conquered the antagonism that divided the Jew, and, above all, the Pharisee, from the Samaritan. The Samaritans heard with joy of that conversion of the Gentiles which showed that old barriers and walls of partition were broken down. Many, we may believe, would elect to take their stand on the ground of the freedom of the gospel rather than on any claim to Jewish descent or the observance of the Jewish Law. Others, however, we know, adhered to that Law with a rigorous tenacity, and left their creed and ritual, their Gerizim worship and their sacred Books, as an inheritance to be handed down from century to century, even to the present day. The whole nation suffered severely in the wars with Rome under Vespasian, and Sychem was taken and destroyed, a new city being built by the emperor on the ruins—a Roman city with Temples dedicated to Roman gods—to which, as perpetuating the name of his house and lineage, he gave the name of Flavia Neapolis (= New Town), which survives in the modern Nablous. In the early history of the Church there attaches to that city the interest of having been the birthplace of the martyr Justin, and of the heretic Dositheus. In one of the Simon legends, as stated above, the latter appears as the instructor of the sorcerer, but this is probably a distortion of his real history.
Which is desert.—Literally, as in a separate sentence, This (or It) is desert. There is nothing to show whether this was intended to appear as part of the angel’s bidding, or as a parenthetical note added by St. Luke, nor whether the pronoun refers to the “way” or to the “city.” If we assume the latter, we may think of it as written after the city had been laid waste during the Jewish war (A.D. 65). On the former hypothesis, it points to a less frequented route than that from Jerusalem through Ramleh to Gaza, which led through Hebron and then through the Southern or Negeb country. On the whole, the latter seems most to commend itself, and on this view we may see in it part of the instruction which Philip reported as coming, whether in dream or vision or voice we are not told, from the angel of the Lord. He was to go in faith to the less frequented, less promising route from Jerusalem to Gaza, apparently without passing himself through the Holy City, and so to intercept the traveller whose history was to become so memorable.
Under Candace queen of the Ethiopians.—The quantity of the second syllable is uncertain, but the analogy of Canăce is in favour of its being short. The knowledge of the student of Strabo (Strabo, xvii. p. 820) may, perhaps, be traced in the description. He mentions a Queen of Meroè, in Ethiopia, bearing the name of Candace. The occurrence of the same name in Plin. iv. 35, Dion.-Cass. liv. 5, indicates that it was, like Pharaoh, a dynastic name or title. Eusebius (Hist. ii. 1) states that in his time (circ. A.D. 430) the region was still under the rule of a queen, according to the custom of the country.
Who had the charge of all her treasure.—The Greek word for treasure is Gaza, a word of Persian origin, which about this time had come into use both among Greek and Latin writers (Cicero, de Off. ii. 22). The LXX. translators employ it in Ezra 5:17; Ezra 6:1; Ezra 7:21; Isaiah 39:2. Aristotle (Hist. Plant. viii. 11) is the first Greek writer in whom we find it naturalised. It is not found elsewhere in the New Testament, but a compound form appears as denoting the treasury of the Temple in Luke 21:1. The coincidence between this Gaza and the name of the town is at least suggestive of the thought that St. Luke saw in it a nomen et omen. The man came from one Gaza, and was going to another; and he, like the man in the parable of Matthew 13:44, found a treasure which he had not looked for, but which came to him as the reward of his diligently seeking.
Had come to Jerusalem for to worship.—The act itself, even prior to the eunuch’s conversion by Philip, was a fulfilment of the hope of the prophet Zephaniah cited above. Whether of Jewish origin or incorporated as a “proselyte of righteousness,” he belonged to “the daughter of the dispersed,” and so long a journey by a man in so high a position was in itself a notable event. He came seeking, we must believe, for light and wisdom, and they were given him beyond his expectations.
He was led as a sheep to the slaughter.—We may venture, taking as our guide the statement in Acts 8:35 that Philip “preached unto him Jesus,” to represent to ourselves the method of interpretation which would be given of each clause. In 1 Peter 2:23 we find the outlines of such a method. The story of the Passion would be told; the silent patience of the Sufferer; His previous life and work; the proofs which both had given that He was none other than that which He claimed to be—the Christ, the Son of God.
Who shall declare his generation?—The Hebrew noun may mean, as in Psalm 14:5, the men of a given period, or those sharing a common character. The words have, however, been very variously taken: (1) “Who shall declare the number of those who share His life, and are, as it were, sprung from Him”—i.e., Who can count His faithful disciples? (2) “Who shall declare the wickedness of the crooked and perverse generation in which He lived?” (3) “Who, as far as His generation went, were wise enough to consider?” Assuming, as before, that it was the LXX. that Philip explained, the second of these seems preferable, as corresponding with the frequent use of the word “generation” with condemnatory epithets attached to it both by our Lord Himself (Matthew 12:39-42; Matthew 16:4; Matthew 17:17) and His Apostles (Acts 2:40; Philippians 2:15). The sense which some commentators have affixed to it, “Who shall declare His duration?” “Who shall set limits to the life of Him who is One with the Eternal?” or, as others, “Who shall declare the mystery of His mode of birth?”—i.e., of the Incarnation—are, it is believed, untenable as regards the Hebrew, and yet more so as regards the Greek.
For his life is taken from the earth.—The Hebrew admits of no other meaning than that the Sufferer was hurried to a violent death. The fact that in being thus taken from the earth the Sufferer was exalted to heaven, though true in itself, cannot be found in the words.
We are not concerned here with a detailed explanation, either of the words that precede, or those that follow, the passage quoted in Isaiah 53, but it is difficult to think of Philip as not taking in context as well as text, and unfolding in full, not only the fact of the Passion, but its atoning and redeeming power, as set forth in the prophet’s marvellous prediction.
And preached unto him Jesus.—The sequel shows that the teaching must have included, not only an interpretation of the prophecy as fulfilled in Christ, but instruction as to the outward condition of admission to the society of the disciples. The eunuch hears enough to make him eager for the baptism which was to bring with it so great a blessing.
Went on his way rejoicing.—A remarkable various-reading runs: “The Holy Spirit fell on the eunuch, and an angel of the Lord caught away Philip;” but it does not appear to be more than a conjectural emendation. Joy at the new-found truth prevailed, we must believe, over any sorrow at the disappearance of the preacher. Eusebius (Hist. ii. 1) speaks of him as returning to his native country, and there preaching “the knowledge of the God of the universe and the life-giving abode of the Saviour with men,” and so fulfilling the words that “Ethiopia should stretch forth her hands unto God” (Psalm 68:31); but it does not appear that he was acquainted with any historical facts. It is, perhaps, not without significance in connection with this history, that the Ethiopian Church has been throughout its history the most strongly Jewish in its worship and tone of thought ‘of all Christian communities (Stanley, Eastern Church, p. 12).
He preached in all the cities.—The route which Philip would naturally take on this journey led through Lydda and Joppa, and we may probably trace the effect of his labours in the appearance in Acts 9:32; Acts 9:36, of organised and apparently flourishing Christian societies in both these towns.
Till he came to Cæsarea.—The historical importance of the city, lying on the line of the great road from Tyre to Egypt, dates, as its name shows, from the Roman period. As described by Strabo, it was known only as Strato’s Tower, with a landing place for ships. It rose to magnificence, however, under Herod the Great, who built theatres, amphitheatres, and temples, and constructed a harbour as large as the Piræus at Athens. In honour of his imperial patron he named it Cæsarea Sebaste (the latter word meaning Augusta) (Jos. Ant. xvi. 5, § 1). It became, after the deposition of Archelaus, the official residence of the Roman Procurator, and is, as the sequel shows, prominent in the early history of the Church. Tacitus (Hist. ii. 79) speaks of it as the chief city—the caput of Judæa. It appears from Acts 21:8 that Philip took up his abode there and made it the head-quarters of his work as an evangelist. In ecclesiastical history it became famous as the scene for a time of the labours of the great Origen, and as the home of the historian-bishop Eusebius.