LEGENDS OF THE AGED SIMEON

This attractive icon represents Simeon Bogopriimets (Симеон Богоприимец), “Simeon the God-Receiver.” Like a number of icon saints, he is both a biblical and an apocryphal figure.

His origin is in the account of the child Jesus brought to the Temple by his parents in Luke 2:25-32:

25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.

26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.

27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,

28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,

29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:

30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

I have left this excerpt in its King James English, because lines 29-32 have become very well known in that form. They are still used, for example, in the Lutheran liturgy.

So we know Simeon is seen as a righteous man miraculously kept alive until the time when he would meet Jesus. First we should note that this gives us part of Simeon’s usual title in icons, Pravednuiy, meaning “Righteous.” Second, we should keep in mind that when information was lacking, Christian tradition would just make up events and details to add interest and importance to a story.

In the case of Simeon, he was given the “backstory” that he was one of the 72 scholars given the task of translating the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek by authority of the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II Philadelphos, according to the Letter of Aristeas (generally considered a fictional work). The story relates that the librarian of the great Library at Alexandria asked Ptolemy to have the Old Testament translated. Ptolemy sent envoys to Jerusalem, and 72 scholars were chosen and brought back to Egypt to do the work, six from each of the Twelve Tribes. Supposedly they finished their translation in 72 days.

According to tradition, during the translation Simeon was working on the Book of Isaiah. When he came to Isaiah 7:14, he read this:

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Simeon was puzzled, and decided that “virgin” must be a scribal error. He was just about to correct the word to “woman” when an angel suddenly appeared and held back Simeon’s writing hand, telling him “You shall see these words fulfilled; you shall not die until you see Christ the Lord born of a pure and spotless Virgin.” This was long before the birth of Jesus, but miraculously Simeon was said to have remained alive until finally he saw the child Jesus when his parents Joseph and Mary brought him to the Jerusalem temple. Having finally seen Jesus, Simeon died. Dmitriy Rostovskiy, the Russian Orthodox saint and hagiographer, wrote that at death Simeon was a remarkable 360 years old.

Paradoxically, the old Hebrew texts (as we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls) DID say “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14, not “virgin” as the Greek Septuagint translation, which became the authoritative text for Greek Orthodoxy, would have it. But of course the notion of Mary’s virginity became a very important doctrinal matter in Eastern Orthodoxy, and stories like this were created to support the dogma.

Because Simeon “received” the child Jesus in the Temple, he is called “Simeon the God-Receiver,” Jesus being considered God in Eastern Orthodox doctrine.

According to the apocryphal Protoevangelion of James, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Herod sent assassins to look for the child John the Forerunner (the Baptist). When they approached John’s father Zacharias in the Temple, they asked where his son was, but Zacharias said he did not know. So they killed him. When his death was discovered, Simeon was chosen to replace Zacharias as priest.

There is another tradition relating that when Simeon was traveling back from Egypt to Jerusalem, he threw his ring into a river, saying that if he could not find it, then the prophecy of Isaiah was not valid. But the next day he bought a fish, and found his ring inside it. This, of course, is very much like the story found in the History of Herodotus, written c. 445 B.C.E:


When Polycrates read this letter, and perceived that the advice of Amasis was good, he considered carefully with himself which of the treasures that he had in store it would grieve him most to lose. After much thought he made up his mind that it was a signet-ring which he was wont to wear, an emerald set in gold, the workmanship of Theodore, son of Telecles, a Samian. So he determined to throw this away; and, manning a penteconter, he went on board, and bade the sailors put out into the open sea. When he was now a long way from the island, he took the ring from his finger, and, in the sight of all those who were on board, flung it into the deep. This done, he returned home, and gave vent to his sorrow.

Now it happened five or six days afterwards that a fisherman caught a fish so large and beautiful that he thought it well deserved to be made a present of to the king. So he took it with him to the gate of the palace, and said that he wanted to see Polycrates. Then Polycrates allowed him to come in, and the fisherman gave him the fish with these words following- “Sir king, when I took this prize, I thought I would not carry it to market, though I am a poor man who live by my trade. I said to myself, it is worthy of Polycrates and his greatness; and so I brought it here to give it to you.” The speech pleased the king, who thus spoke in reply:- “Thou didst right well, friend, and I am doubly indebted, both for the gift, and for the speech. Come now, and sup with me.” So the fisherman went home, esteeming it a high honour that he had been asked to sup with the king. Meanwhile the servants, on cutting open the fish, found the signet of their master in its belly. No sooner did they see it than they seized upon it, and hastening to Polycrates with great joy, restored it to him, and told him in what way it had been found.

As you can see, the study of icons can lead one far afield. As I often say, one can tug on any one thread in the study of icons, and it connects to countless other nearly and distantly related topics.

It is worth noting that the abstraction of the human form found in this icon has become what one generally thinks of as the typical appearance of a Russian icon. But many people do not realize that this “typically Russian” manner of abstraction was actually kept alive, from the middle of the 17th century onward, by the Old Believers who separated from the main body of the Russian Orthodox Church, and who were often severely persecuted for it. Countless icons that today are considered products of the Russian Orthodox State Church over the period of some three centuries were really created in the icon workshops of the Old Believers.

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