Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Philip the Deacon

[Saint Philip the Deacon]Article

So much was the number of the faithful increased after the first sermons of Saint Peter, that the apostles being entirely taken up in the ministry of the word, it was judged proper to choose seven men, full of the spirit of God and of wisdom, to have care of the poor, under the name of deacons or ministers. Saint Philip is named the second in this catalogue, who, according to Saint Isidore of Pelusium, was a native of Cæsarea in Palestine. The deacons were not confined to what seemed to give birth to the institution; for at that time the divine mysteries were sometimes administered to the faithful at a supper, as appears from Saint Paul, though afterwards the apostles ordered that the blessed eucharist should only be received by persons fasting, as Saint Austin observes, and is clear from Tertullian and others. Only the priests could consecrate the holy mysteries; but deacons often delivered the cup. That the deacons were appointed to minister in the holy mysteries, (and this probably by an express order of Christ,) is manifest from the holy scriptures, and from the writings of the disciples of the apostles. In their first institution they were ordained by an imposition of hands with prayer. Saint Paul requires almost the same conditions in the deacons as in bishops or priests, and that they be tried before they be admitted into the ministry. Saint Ignatius, writing to the Trallians, calls the deacons, “the ministers of the mysteries of Jesus Christ.” And to the Smyrnæans he says: “Reverence the deacons as the precept of the Lord.” In his other epistles, he usually joins the deacons with the priests and bishops as sacred ministers in the church. Saint Cyprian calls deacons the ministers of the episcopacy, and of the church. The sacred functions in which deacons were employed, were: first, to minister to the priest at the sacrifice of the eucharist, as Saint Laurence testifies in his famous words to Pope Sixtus, recorded by Saint Ambrose. Secondly, to baptize in the absence of the priest. Thirdly, to preach the divine word. The holy deacon Saint Philip excelled so much in preaching the gospel, that he acquired the name of evangelist, by which he is distinguished in the Acts of the Apostles. After the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, the disciples being dispersed into several places, Saint Philip first carried the light of the gospel into Samaria. The people of that country listened with one accord to his discourses, and by seeing the miracles which he wrought in confirmation of the doctrine he delivered, great numbers were converted to the faith. For many who were possessed by unclean spirits were delivered, and others afflicted with palsies or lamenesses were healed.

At that time one Simon, surnamed the magician, made a great figure in Samaria. He was a native of Gitton in that country, and, before the arrival of Saint Philip, had acquired a great reputation in the city of Samaria, seducing the people, whom he had for a long time bewitched with his magical practices, as Saint Luke testifies, who adds: That they all gave ear to him from the least to the greatest, saying: This man is the power of God, which is called great. The infernal spirit sought to oppose these illusions and artifices to the true miracles of Christ; as he was suffered to assist the magicians of Pharaoh against Moses. But God, when he permits the devil to exert in such an extraordinary manner his natural strength and powers, always furnishes his servants with means of discerning and confounding the imposture. Accordingly the clear miracles wrought by Philip put the magician quite out of countenance. Being himself witness to them, and seeing the people run to Philip, to be baptized by him, he also believed, or pretended to believe; and being baptized, stuck close to Philip, hoping to attain to the power of effecting miracles like those which he saw him perform. The apostles at Jerusalem hearing of the conversion of Samaria, sent thither Saints Peter and John to confirm the converts by the imposition of hands, which sacrament only bishops could confer. With the grace of this sacrament at that time were usually conferred certain external gifts of the miraculous powers. Simon seeing these communicated to the laity by the imposition of the hands of the apostles, offered them money, saying: “Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I shall lay my hands he may receive the Holy Ghost.” But Saint Peter said to him: “Keep thy money to thyself to perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Do penance for this thy wickedness; and pray to God, if perhaps this thought of thy heart may be forgiven thee. For I see thou art in the gall of bitterness, and engaged in the bonds of iniquity.” Simon being in that evil disposition was incapable of receiving the gifts of the Holy Ghost, at least interior sanctifying grace. Nor did he sincerely seek this. However, fearing the threat of temporal evils, he answered: “Pray you for me to the Lord, that none of these things may come upon me.” From this crime of Simon, the sin of selling any spiritual thing for a temporal price, which both the law of nature and the positive divine law most severely condemn, is called simony; and to maintain that practice lawful is usually termed in the canon law the heresy of Simon Magus. We have no further account of this impostor in the holy scriptures, except that he and his disciples seemed marked out by Saint Paul and Saint Jude; and Saint James proved against them the necessity of good works to salvation. Saint Peter also draws their portrait in the most frightful colours. The fathers generally look upon the conversion of Simon to the faith as an act of hypocrisy, founded only in ambition and temporal views, and in the hope of purchasing the gifts of the Holy Ghost, which he ascribed to a superior art, magic. We learn from Saint Epiphanius, Saint Irenæus, Tertullian, Theodoret, and other fathers, that he afterwards pretended to be the Messias, and called himself the power of God, who was descended on earth to save men, and to re-establish the order of the universe, which he affirmed had been disturbed by the ambition of the angels striving which should be the first, and enslaving men under their government of the world. He said, that to hold man in their captivity, they had invented the law of good works, whereas he taught that faith alone sufficeth to salvation. He pretended that the world was created by angels, who afterwards revolted from God and usurped an undue power in it. Yet he ordered them to be honoured, and sacrifices to be offered to the Father by the mediation of these powers, not to beg their succour, but to appease them that they might not obstruct our designs on earth, nor hurt us after our death. This superstitious worship of the angels was a downright idolatry, and was condemned by Saint Paul. See on it Tertullian, Saint Epiphanius, and Theodoret. Simon rejected the Old Testament, saying it was framed by the angels, and that he was come to abolish it. Having purchased a beautiful prostitute at Tyre, he called her Helena, and said she was the first intelligence, and that the Father through her had created the angels. He often called himself the Holy Ghost; which name he sometimes gave also to Helena. He required divine honours to be paid to himself under the figure of Jupiter, and to Helena under that of Minerva. He denied free-will, and sowed the seeds of the abominations afterwards propagated by the Gnostics. His extravagant system was a medley formed from Paganism, and the Christian, Jewish, and Samaritan doctrines. He strove in all things to rival Christ. His journey to Rome will be mentioned in the life of Saint Peter. Saint Philip had the affliction amidst the spiritual success of his ministry, to see the hypocrisy of this monster, and the havoc of souls made by his impiety and blasphemies. Christ himself was pleased to suffer much contradiction in his doctrine, to teach his disciples patience and meekness under the like trials from the obstinacy of impenitent sinners. If their labours were always successful where would be the crown of their patience?

Saint Philip was probably still at Samaria, when an angel appearing to him, ordered him to go southward to a road that led from Jerusalem to Gaza. There he found an Ethiopian eunuch, one of the principal officers in the court of Queen Candace, and her high treasurer, who, being a Jew, had made a religious visit to the temple, and was then on his road homewards. Such was his affection to the sacred writings, that he was reading the prophecy of Isaiah as he was travelling in his chariot. The passage on which he was meditating happened to be that in which the prophet, speaking of the passion of Christ, says he was led like a sheep to the slaughter; that his humiliation was crowned, his ignominious condemnation being taken away by the glory of his resurrection; for who can explain his eternal generation, or the glorious resurrection of his humanity, which is as it were a second miraculous birth. Saint Philip expounded to him this text, which the eunuch did not understand, instructed him perfectly in the faith, and baptized him. After which the eunuch returning home full of joy, became the apostle and catechist of Ethiopia his country, as Saint Jerom assures us from Eusebius. The Abyssinians to this day regard him as their apostle. As for Saint Philip, when he had baptized his illustrious convert, he was conveyed by God to Azotus, where he published the gospel, and in all the other towns in his way to Cæsarea, the place of his ordinary residence. Twenty-four years afterwards Saint Paul, when he came thither in 58, lodged in his house. His four daughters were virgins and prophetesses. Saint Jerom says they preserved their virginity by vow, or at least out of devotion. The same father thinks their gift of prophecy was the recompense of their chastity. Saint Philip probably died at Cæsarea. It was the apostle Saint Philip who died at Hierapolis, whose death and daughters some have confounded with the deacon’s.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Philip the Deacon”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 4 June 2013. Web. 22 September 2021. <>