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Priscillian (died 385) was a theologian after whom the ascetic movement Priscillianism is named. He founded a group that, in spite of persecution, continued in Hispania and Gaul until the late 6th century. He became bishop of Ávila in 380. Tractates by Priscillian and close followers, which had seemed lost, were discovered in 1885 and published in 1889.
The principal and almost contemporary source for the career of Priscillian is the Gallic chronicler Sulpicius Severus, who characterized him (Chronica II.46) as noble and rich, a layman who had devoted his life to study, and was vain of his classical pagan education. He was a senator who, in about 370, initiated a movement in favour of asceticism. His favourite idea was Saint Paul`s "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God?" (I Corinthians 6:19), and he argued that, to make oneself a fit habitation for the divine, one must not only hold the Catholic faith and do works of love, but must also renounce marriage and earthly honour, and practise a hard asceticism.
Priscillian formed an ascetic community who studied the Bible, but also apocryphal books. His followers, who were won over by his eloquence and his severely ascetic example, included the bishops Instantius and Salvianus.
According to Priscillian, apostles, prophets, and "doctors" (Latin for "teachers") are the divinely appointed orders of the Church, preeminence being due the doctors, among whom Priscillian reckoned himself. The "spiritual" comprehend and judge all things, being "children of wisdom and light"; and the distinction between flesh and spirit, darkness and light, Moses and Christ, and the "prince of this world" and Christ, are emphasised. In asceticism Priscillian distinguished three degrees, though he did not deny hope of pardon to those who were unable to attain full perfection. The perfect in body, mind, and spirit were celibate, or, if married, continent. Certain practices of the Priscillianists are known through the condemnatory canons issued by the 580 synod, such as receiving the Eucharist in the church but eating it at home or in the conventicle. women joining with men during the time of prayer; fasting even on Sunday; meditating at home or in the mountains instead of attending church during Lent.
His notable opponents in Hispania were Hyginus, bishop of Cordoba, and Idatius (Hydatius), bishop of Mérida. They accused Priscillian's teachings of being gnostic in nature. Through his intolerant severity Idatius promoted rather than prevented the spread of the sect. Idatius convened a synod held at Zaragoza in 380. Ten bishops were present at this synod from Spain, and two from Aquitaine. Although neither Priscillian nor any of his followers attended, he wrote in reply his third tract justifying the reading of apocryphal literature, without denying that their contents were partly spurious.
The synod excommunicated the leading Priscillianists, and forbade bishops to shelter excommunicated persons. It forbade assumption of the title of "doctor", and forbade clerics from becoming monks on the motivation of a more perfect life; women were not to be given the title of "virgins" until they had reached the age of forty.
In the immediate aftermath of the synod, Priscillian was elected bishop of Ávila, and was consecrated by Instantius and Salvianus. Priscillian was now a suffragan of Ithacius of Ossonuba, the metropolitan bishop of Lusitania, whom he attempted to oust, but who then obtained from the emperor Gratian an edict against "false bishops and Manichees". This was a threat against the Priscillianists, since the Roman Empire had banned Manichaeism long before it legalized Christianity. Consequently, the three bishops, Instantius, Salvianus and Priscillian, went in person to Rome, to present their case before Pope Damasus I, himself a native of Hispania. Neither the Pope nor Ambrose, bishop of Milan, where the emperor resided, granted them an audience. Salvianus died in Rome, but through the intervention of Macedonius, the imperial magister officiorum and an enemy of Ambrose, they succeeded in procuring the withdrawal of Gratian's edict, and an order for the arrest of Ithacius. Instantius and Priscillian, returning to Spain, regained their sees and churches.
A sudden change occurred in 383, when the governor of Britain, Magnus Maximus, rebelled against Gratian, who marched against him but was assassinated. Maximus was recognized as emperor of Britain, Gaul and Spain, and made Trier his residence. There Ithacius presented his case against Priscillian, and Maximus ordered the arrest of Priscillian and Instantius and their trial by a synod at Bordeaux in 384. Instantius was deposed, but Priscillian, unfortunately for him, appealed to the emperor. Maximus, a Spaniard by birth, treated the matter not as one of ecclesiastical rivalry but as one of morality and society. He is also said to have wished to enrich his treasury by confiscation of the property of the condemned. At Trier, Priscillian was tried by a secular court on criminal charges that included sorcery, a capital offence. Ithacius was his chief accuser. Priscillian was condemned and, with six of his companions, executed in 385.
Pope Siricius, Ambrose of Milan, and Martin of Tours protested against the execution, largely on the jurisdictional grounds that an ecclesiastical case should not be decided by a civil tribunal, and worked to reduce the persecution. Pope Siricius censured not only Ithacius but the emperor himself. On receiving information from Maximus, he excommunicated Ithacius and his associates. On an official visit to Trier, Ambrose refused to give any recognition to Itacius, "not wishing to have anything to do with bishops who had sent heretics to their death". Before the trial, Martin had obtained from Maximus a promise not to apply a death penalty. After the execution, Martin broke off relations with the bishop of Trier and all others associated with the enquiries and the trial, and restored communion only when the emperor promised to stop the persecution of the Priscillianists.
Maximus was killed in his attempted invasion of Italy in 388. Under the new ruler, Ithacius and Idacius were deposed and exiled. The remains of Priscillian were brought from Trier to Spain, where he was honoured as a martyr, especially in the west of the country, where Priscillianism did not die out until the second half of the 6th century.
The heresy, notwithstanding the severe measures taken against it, continued to spread in Gaul as well as in Hispania; in 412 Lazarus, bishop of Aix-en-Provence, and Herod, bishop of Arles, were expelled from their sees on a charge of Manichaeism. Proculus, the metropolitan of Marseille, and the metropolitans of Vienne and Narbonensis Secunda were also followers of the rigorist tradition for which Priscillian had died.
Something was done for its repression by a synod held by Turibius of Astorga in 446, and by that of Toledo in 447; as an openly professed creed it had to be declared heretical once more by the second synod of Braga in 563, a sign that Priscillianist asceticism was still strong long after his execution. "The official church," says F. C. Conybeare, "had to respect the ascetic spirit to the extent of enjoining celibacy upon its priests, and of recognizing, or rather immuring, such of the laity as desired to live out the old ascetic ideal. But the official teaching of Rome would not allow it to be the ideal and duty of every Christian. Priscillian perished for insisting that it was such."
The long prevalent estimation of Priscillian as a heretic and Manichaean rested upon Augustine, Turibius of Astorga, Leo the Great and Orosius (who quotes a fragment of a letter of Priscillian's), although at the Council of Toledo in 400, fifteen years after Priscillian's death, when his case was reviewed, the most serious charge that could be brought was the error of language involved in a misrendering of the word innascibilis ("unbegettable").
It is not always easy to separate the genuine assertions of Priscillian himself from those ascribed to him by his enemies, nor from the later developments taken by groups who were labelled Priscillianist. Priscillian casts a long shadow in the north of Hispania and the south of Gaul, where mystic asceticism has repeatedly been carried to extremes that the political mainstream has denounced as heretical.
Priscillian was long honored as a martyr, not heretic, especially in Gallaecia (modern Galicia and northern Portugal), where his body was reverentially returned from Trier. Some claim that the remains found in the 8th century at the site rededicated to Saint James the Great – Santiago de Compostela – which even today are a place of pilgrimage, belong not to the apostle James but to Priscillian.
Some writings by Priscillian were accounted orthodox and were not burned. For instance he divided the Pauline epistles (including the Epistle to the Hebrews) into a series of texts on their theological points and wrote an introduction to each section. These canons survived in a form edited by Peregrinus. They contain a strong call to a life of personal piety and asceticism, including celibacy and abstinence from meat and wine. The charismatic gifts of all believers are equally affirmed. Study of scripture is urged. Priscillian placed considerable weight on apocryphal books, not as being inspired but as helpful in discerning truth and error. It was long thought that all the writings of the heretic himself had perished, but in 1885, Georg Schepss discovered at the University of Würzburg eleven genuine tracts, published in the Vienna Corpus 1886. Though they bear Priscillian's name, four describing Priscillian's trial appear to have been written by a close follower.
According to Raymond Brown's introduction of his edition Epistle of John, the source of the Comma Johanneum, a brief interpolation in the First Epistle of John, known since the fourth century, appears to be the Latin Liber Apologeticus by Priscillian.
The modern assessment of Priscillian is summed up in Cambridge professor Henry Chadwick's Priscillian of Avila: The Occult and the Charismatic in the Early Church, (Oxford University Press) 1975.
Conti, Marco, "Priscillian of Avila: The Complete Works". Oxford Early Christian Texts. Copyright 2010. (ISBN 978-0-19-956737-9)
Burrus, Virginia, The Making of a Heretic: Gender, Authority, and the Priscillianist Controversy, U. of California Press, 1995.
McKenna, Stephen, "Priscillianism and Pagan Survivals in Spain" in Paganism and Pagan Survivals in Spain up to the Fall of the Visigothic Kingdom. The present account depends on this thoroughly cited chapter.
Saunders, Tracy, Pilgrimage to Heresy (iUniverse, 2007) - in Spanish: Peregrinos de la Herejía (Bóveda 2009) - offers a fictionalised version of the events in Priscillian's story and furthers the suggestion put forth by Prof. Henry Chadwick that Priscillian may be the occupant in the tomb in Santiago de Compostela