From Academic Kids

Priscillian of Avila (died 385) was a Spanish theologian and the founder of a party which advocated strong asceticism. He was the first person in the history of Christianity to be executed for heresy. His party, in spite of severe persecution for heresy, continued to subsist in Spain and in Gaul until after the middle of the 6th century.

He was a wealthy layman who had devoted his life to study. He was an ascetic mystic and regarded the Christian life as continual intercourse with God. His favourite idea is that which St Paul had expressed in the words "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God?" and he argued that to make himself a fit habitation for the divine a man must, besides holding the Catholic faith and doing works of love, renounce marriage and 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.

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 Spain and the south of France, where mystic asceticism has repeatedly been carried to extremes that the political mainstream has denounced as "heretical."

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. Slavery is abolished in Jesus Christ, and gender differences also, ideas that did not go down well anywhere in Christendom. The charismatic gifts of all believers are equally affirmed. Study of scripture is urged. Like all 4th century Christians, Priscillian placed considerable weight on works later considered apocrypha.

Priscillian and his sympathizers included many women, who were welcomed as equals of men. They were organised into bands of spiritales and abstinentes, like the Cathari of later days, indignantly refusing the compromise which by this time the Church had established in the matter. This explains some the charge of Manichaeism 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) that the Catholic Church has levelled against critics in every age.

Among the more prominent of Priscillian's friends were two bishops, named Instantius and Salvianus, and Hyginus of Cordova also joined the party; but, through the exertions of Idacius of Emerita, the leading Priscillianists, who had failed to appear before the synod of Spanish and Aquitanian bishops to which they had been summoned, were excommunicated at Zaragoza in October 380. Meanwhile, however, Priscillian was made bishop of Ávila, and the orthodox party found it necessary to appeal to the emperor (Gratian), who issued an edict threatening the sectarian leaders with banishment. Priscillian, Instantius and Salvianus succeeded, however, in procuring the withdrawal of Gratian's edict, and the attempted arrest of Ithacius of Ossonuba.

On the murder of Gratian in Paris and the accession of Magnus Maximus (383) Ithacius fled to Treves, and in consequence of his representations a synod was 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 Treves in 385, the first Christians martyred by Christians. The first instance of the application of the Theodosian law against heretics had the approval of the synod which met at Treves in the same year, but Ambrose of Milan and Martin of Tours can claim to have reduced the persecution. It has since been claimed that his execution was strongly protested by his former opponents in the church, Ambrose of Milan, Martin of Tours, and the pope, largely on the jurisdictional grounds of bringing an ecclesiastical case before a civil tribunal, not a precedent they wished to see followed.

The heresy, notwithstanding the severe measures taken against it, continued to spread in France as well as in Spain; 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 Marseilles, and the metropolitans of Vienne and Narbonensis Secunda were also followers of the rigorous 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 held stong hold long aftyer 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; and seven centuries later the Church began to burn, the Cathari by thousands because they took a similar view of the Christian life."

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 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. "They contain nothing that is not orthodox and commonplace, nothing that Jerome might not have written," and go far to justify the description of Priscillian as "the first martyr burned by a Spanish Inquisition". Unsympathetic historians and folk tradition have built upon facts like these what is known as the "Black Legend" of alleged Spanish fanaticism.

Priscillian was long honored as a martyr, not heretic, especially in Galicia, where his body was reverentially returned from Triers. Some claim that the remains found in the 8th century at the site rededicated to Santiago de Compostela that even today are a place of pilgrimage belong not to Saint James the Great but to Priscillian.

External links

This entry adapts some information originally from the 1911 EncyclopediaПрисцилиан de:Priscillian


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