bishop of Ávila(died 385), a theologian from Roman Gallaecia(in the Iberian Peninsula), was the first person in the history of Christianityto be executed for heresy(though the civil charges were for the practice of magic). He founded an ascetic group that, in spite of persecution, continued to subsist in Hispania and Gauluntil the later 6th century. Tractates by Priscillian and close followers, which had seemed certainly lost, were recovered 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, vain of his classical pagan education, already being looked on with misgivings (see Gregory of Tours). He was an ascetic mystic and regarded the Christian life as continual intercourse with God. His favourite idea was Saint Paul`s "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God?" ( I Corinthians6:19) and he argued that to make himself a fit habitation for the divine a man must, besides holding the Catholicfaith and doing works of love, renounce marriageand earthly honour, and practise a hard asceticism. It was on the question of continence in, if not renunciation of, marriage, that he came into conflict with the authorities, and his influence among growing numbers of followers threatened the authority of the church when the bishops Instantius and Salvian were won over by his eloquence and his severely ascetic example.
His notable opponents in Hispania were Hyginus, bishop of Cordoba, and Hydatius, bishop of Mérida. Their complaint to
Pope Damasus I(also from Hispania) resulted in a synod held at Saragossain 380, in the absence of Priscillian or any of his followers. The canons issued by the synod shed light on Priscillian's practices, by condemnation. That is, much of what was forbidden was condemned because the Priscillians were practicing it. Women were forbidden to join with men during the time of prayer; fastingon Sunday was condemned; no one was to retreat at home or in the mountains during Lent; the Eucharistwas to be taken in church and not brought home; excommunicated persons were not to be sheltered by bishops; a cleric was forbidden to become a monk on the motivation of a more perfect life; no one was to assume the title "doctor" (Latin for teacher); women were not to be accounted "virgins" until they had reached the age of forty.
Through the exertions of Hydatius of Emerita, the leading Priscillianists, who had failed to appear before the synod of Hispanic and Aquitanian bishops to which they had been summoned, were excommunicated at Saragossa in October 380, according to Sulpicius, a conclusion that was emphatically denied in a letter to Damasus, "Liber ad Damasum episcopum" (McKenna, note 14).
Among the more prominent of Priscillian's friends were two bishops, Instantius and Salvianus; Hyginus of Cordova also joined the party. After a Priscillianist delegation to Hydatius was turned away, they appointed Priscillian bishop of
Ávila, and the orthodox party found it necessary to appeal to the emperor Gratianus, who issued an edict threatening the sectarian leaders with banishment. Consequently, the three bishops, Instantius, Salvianus and Priscillian, went in person to Rome, to present their case before Damasus. But neither the Pope nor Ambrose, bishop of Milan, 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 Gratianus' edict, and the attempted arrest of Ithacius of Ossonuba.
On the murder of Emperor Gratianus in Lyon and the accession, at Trier (Trèves, in Germany) at least, of the usurper
Magnus Maximus(383), Ithacius fled to Trier, and in consequence of his representations a new synodwas held (384) at Bordeaux, where Instantius was deposed. Priscillian appealed to the emperor, with the unexpected result that, with six of his companions, he was beheaded at Trier in 385, the first Christian heretics to be put to death by Christians. This act had the approval of the synod which met at Trier in the same year, but Ambrose of Milan, Pope Siriciusand Martin of Toursprotested against Priscillian's execution, largely on the jurisdictional grounds that an ecclesiastical case should not be decided by a civil tribunal, and worked to reduce the persecution.
Priscillian's contemporary following
Priscillian and his sympathizers included many women, who were welcomed as equals of men. They were organised into bands of "spirituales" and "abstinentes". This insistence on celibacy explains the charge of
Manichaeismsome levelled against Priscillian (even Jerome, for his talk of the "sordes nuptiarum", had been similarly accused, and to escape popular indignation had retired to Bethlehem). To this charge was added the accusation of magic and licentious orgies (a particularly preposterous charge, given the nature of Priscillian's doctrines).
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 Vienneand 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
Bragain 563, a sign that Priscillianist asceticism was still strong long after his execution. "The official church," says F. C. Conybeare, "had to respect the asceticspirit 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 asceticideal. 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
Manichaeanrested 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.
Writings and rediscovery
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 the deuterocanonical booksof the Bible, not as being inspired but as helpful in discerning truth and error; [ [http://mb-soft.com/believe/txc/priscill.htm mb-soft.com] ] however several of the books were considered to be genuine and inspired [. [http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12429b.htm "Catholic Encyclopedia"] ]
It was long thought that all the writings of the "heretic" himself had perished, but in 1885,
Georg Schepssdiscovered at the University of Würzburgeleven genuine tracts, published in the Vienna Corpus1886. 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 interpolationin 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. [Saunders, Tracy Saunders' fictionalised, "Pilgrimage to Heresy", (iUniverse 2007) is based largely upon Chadwick's book and the above-mentioned "Liber Apologeticus". ]
Fletcher, Richard A., "St. James' Catapult: The Life and Times of Diego Gelmirez", Chapter 1 and passim: Galicia, online at http://libro.uca.edu/sjc/sjc.htm which offers a historical and geographical background to the building of the cathedral in Compostela, andBurras, Virginia, "The Making of a Heretic", 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" [http://libro.uca.edu/mckenna/pagan3.htm on-line] The present account depends on this thoroughly cited chapter.
* [http://mb-soft.com/believe/txc/priscill.htm Analysis of Priscillian and Priscillianism]
*"This entry adapts some information originally from the
1911 Encyclopedia Britannica."
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