Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Priscillian, the heretic bishop

Priscillian was a theologian, a layman, and later ordained as bishop of Ávila, in Galicia. He lived and taught in the fourth century AD.  In 385, at Trier, he was tortured and beheaded, making him the first person in the history of Christianity to be executed after having been accused of heresy.  He was responsible for the founding of a group of followers continued in Hispania and Gaul, and possibly beyond.  Prior to the arrival of the figure that is Priscillian, heresy and the threat of Gnosticism is not something that seems to have had any significant impact the foundation and growth of the early church in Spain.  Iberian Christians seem to have been largely unaffected by unorthodox strains of Christianity, and the propagation of mystery schools and/or alternative strands of Christianity does not seem to have reached Iberia, unlike other areas, such as Egypt and Syria.  Celibacy amongst some of the followers, including clergy members, seems to have been of more concern than heresy which appears to have been more or less non-existent.  There is prevalent anti-Antisemitism, with Christians being discouraged from eating with Jews, parents being excommunicated for five years for marrying their daughters to Jews but not to a pagan husband (although the practice is discouraged).  The only concern in relation to a “heretical rising” seems to relate to not all Christian feast days being adhered to.

The first threat of heretical matters comes to Spain at the end of the 350s, an apparent threat of Arianism having affected various bishops including one in Spain.  In short, Arianism extolled the belief that Jesus Christ, as “God the son”, was on an inferior level to “God the father” as the former was merely a creation of the latter.  This caused Arius to be denounced in 325, at the First Council of Nicea; however, as Arius and his followers held a profound influence in Alexandria, a centre of culture, diverse ideas and learning, as well as a sea port; allowing his ideas and doctrines were adopted and spread around the Mediterranean. 

Priscillian’s origins and background are obscure.   He appears to have been of high standing and education, cultured, charismatic and influential.   Sulpicius Severus, an ecclesiastical writer from Aquitaine, reports that Priscillian was “a man of noble birth, of great riches, bold, restless, eloquent learned through much reading”.   In the 370s, he first comes to light after having set up an ascetic movement, encouraging spiritual study amongst those baptized in order to greater understand the importance of devotion to God alone, yet understanding the evil in the world and of Satan.  The theology behind Priscillian’s teachings appear to have come from the teachings of Helpidius, a rhetorician and follower of an Egyptian Gnostic teacher, Marcus.  Marcus himself was a follower of Manes, from whom the teachings of the Manichees arose.

The Priscillianists (Priscillian’s followers) were required to be celibate, refuting marriage and procreation; to be vegetarian;  and to practice voluntary poverty.  His movement and teachings seem to have proved widespread, seemingly starting in Baetica and Lusitania, moving up through Galicia, and up into Aquitaine.  Galicia was on the main trading routes from Egypt and the Mediterranean, and as well as trading, new ideas and teachings would have found keen followers along the way. Priscillian himself appears to have been receptive to such ideas, incorporating some of them into his own doctrines.   Amongst those who chose to follow Priscillian’s movement were two bishops, Salvianus and Instantius.  The movement seems to have caused concern to Hyginus and Hydatius, the bishop of Cordova and Merida respectively; having approached Pope Damasus, and through discussions with other bishops, a synod was called and summoned together twelve bishops from both Iberia and Aquitaine.  This council was held at Saragossa in 380.

The synod decided to create new regulations from which one might determine an idea as to how Priscillian was encouraging his followers to practice their faith.  Amongst these regulations were the banning of fasting on Sundays, communion could only be taken in church and not in one’s home, and women being forbidden from associating with men during the time of prayer.  Furthermore, it was stated that were an individual to be excommunicated by one bishop, he could not seek refuge in the church of another. 

However Priscillian and the bishops didn’t attend the synod, resulting in their condemnation and excommunication.  So as to enforce the decrees, and promulgate the condemnation of these practices, the synod chose to appoint Ithacius, bishop of Ossonuba, as their delegated representative.  Sulpicus states that he was an unpleasant individual, a marked contrast to Priscillian and his ideals, being impudent, violent, extravagant and a glutton.  Together with Hydatius, the two bishops were to prove to be Priscillian’s strongest opponents to his ideology, doctrines and followers.  Soon after the council, some of Pricillianists decided to approach Hydatius as a form of reconciliation, however  were severely rebuked and rebuffed .  Understandably upset and offended, the excommunicated bishops decided to ordain and consecrated Priscillian as bishop of the see of Avilá.  This action enraged Hydatius further, who appealed to the emperor Gratian, and set about rebuking Priscillian and his followers as pseudo-bishops, accusing them of being heretics  (specifically as Manicheans.)  Gratian appears supported this plan of action and suggested the excommunication of Priscillian and his followers.  However, undefeated, Priscillian and his two fellow bishops set out to Rome to appeal to the Pope and to gain his support.  En route to Rome, in Milan, Priscillian and his followers were refused an audience by the bishop Ambrose; however they gained the support of Macedonius, magister officiorum, and opponent of Ambrose.   Through Macedonius’ intervention, a rescript revoking the offices of Priscillian and Instantius [Salvian having died in the interim] was reversed, and the two bishops were restored to their ecclesiastical offices in Spain.   Hydatius subsequently disappeared, and Ithacius fled to Gaul.

Following an uprising in Britain a few years later, and the murder of Gratian in Paris in 383, Maximus was appointed emperor. Upon his arrival in Gaul, Ithacius came out of hiding and appealed to the new emperor for action against the Priscillianists.  Maximus agreed, allowing a synod to be summoned in Bordeaux.  Priscillian appealed to the bishops that his case and trial be held before a civil magistrate rather than at an ecclesiastical trial.  This was agreed and the case was heard at Treves, and presided over by the praefector Evodius.  At the trial, Priscillian and his followers were accused of engaging in sorcery, and of heresy [ie. teaching Manichaen  doctrines].  It seems highly likely that such confessions were extracted from Priscillian and his followers under torture;  as the accusation magic and sorcery were the most difficult to refute.  Additional charges were levied, with Priscillian accused of praying naked, invoking magic rites, and to meeting with “evil women”.  These “evil women” were without doubt some of the women whom Priscillian counted amongst his chief followers, the most celebrated being Egeria.

As a result of these accusations of the crimes of sorcery and heresy, Priscillian and five of his followers sentenced to death.  A second trial was heard before the emperor, Maximus, who confirmed the sentence and Priscillian and a number of his followers were subsequently beheaded. For the others, lighter sentences were given, resulting in either fines or exile.

Soon after the executions, at the behest of St. Martin, the Pope Sicarius asked for the documents which surrounded the trial.  The documents started that the accused had been practicing Manichaens, and with sorcery, emphasis placed on the heresy as being the reason behind their executions.  This emphasis was reiterated as legally Maximus could confiscate the property of the accused men.  In the memoirs of St. Martin of Tours, it is reported that St. Martin himself had pleaded with Maximus not to execute the condemned.  Furthermore, it is reported that other leading clerics in the church were horrified by events in Trier.  St Ambrose appears to have been sufficiently appalled in these events; inasmuch as he refused to associate with the bishops who sought to have the followers of Priscillian executed, subsequent to the execution of their charismatic leader.

The emperor then sought to annihilate the entire movement and its followers in Spain and in Aquitaine, by using armed force.  St Martin of Tours endeavored to stop this from taking place, dissuading Maximus as such actions would only bring about further trouble for himself and his rule. Ithacius was repudiated for his actions, and both his and his actions were censured by the Pope.  St. Ambrose broke off communication with Ithacius who was subsequently deposed soon after by the bishops in Spain, and Idatius was forced to resign his office.

A few years later, Maximus was executed himself by the emperor Theodosius the Great, and once more the teachings of Priscillian seem to entertain were well received and increased in popularity for reasons which cannot be determined with definite certainty.  This resurgence in popularity lead to Priscillian’s body being returned to Spain, and being buried in great splendour;  leading to Priscillian being venerated as having died a martyr’s death.

St. Jerome wrote of Priscillian stating that he was an author of “many works” however he does not cite nor name any of the works.  St. Jerome was probably secretary to Pope Damasus and may well have been acquainted with Priscillian, the bishops Salvian and Instantius, and their followers.  It is only in the fifth century, some 20 years after the death of Priscillian that Jerome condemns him, not having done so in his previous writings.  In his condemnation reference is made to Priscillian as being a Manichee; he and his followers are seeking perfection and knowledge.  Accusations are placed against them of immorality, associating with women at night and practicing magic, and invoking pagan rituals of fertility.  

It appeared for many years that the sole surviving and extant works of Priscillian were his summary of the doctrines of St. Paul.  However, in 1885, writings from 384 AD, believed to be his or those of a close follower, were recovered in the Würzburg library, in a codex written during the fifth or sixth century.  The codex contains a selection of writings, under catalogued under the headings of the “Würzburg Tractates”. These appear to have been with almost certainty written by Priscillian, or at least, his close followers.  Among the ideas contained within the tractates is a heavy Manichean/Gnostic approach, in particular towards the conflict between the soul and the body, and the difference between the Elect in the church, and those striving to be counted amongst the Elect.  The writer or writers discuss a journey made to visit the pope, Damasus,  refuting the charge which are being made against him and those in his group.  There is, however, running through the tractates, a vehement condemnation of Manichaen teachings and thinking, as well as refuting the charge of magic.  It has been suggested that the tractates are written by different hands, either Priscillian or his followers, however the writing style in various tractates doesn’t appear to be that of an educated high born man.  So there exists the possibility that some of the writings are that of the bishop Instantius.

In addition, Priscillian’s teachings appear to make his followers adhere to the various tenets of the Judaic tradition, rather than those that the Christian church fathers officiated, such as observing the Sabbath on a Saturday.  He also allowed women to worship alongside men. Perhaps most surprising is the suggestion that Jesus had a twin brother, Judas Thomas.  The name Thomas itself means "twin" in Armaic, and the "title" Judas Thomas is given, that of Didymos, again means "twin", in Greek. Edessa, which Egeria had visited in her travels, was a major centre for teaching Thomasine thought and . A significant aspect and perhaps relevant of the surviving works attributed to Thomas is that he was the [twin] brother of Jesus Christ; the opening lines of the Gospel of Thomas being:

"These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke, and Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down".

Subsequent to the trial and events in Trier, writers do make fleeting reference to the Priscillianist teachings, but it is essential to recall that these are written by detractors, having no wish to demonstrate sympathy nor empathy to the cause of a man (and followers) condemned on charges of sorcery and heresy.  Filastrius, a bishop of Brescia, a contemporary of Priscillian and writing whilst the latter was still alive, his following was reaching its peak in terms of popularity, wrote of a sect in northern Spain who discourage marriage, eating food and are heavily reliant on Gnostic and Manichaen teachings.  Another source making reference to Priscillianist teachings are located within the writings of Orosius, student and correspondent of Augustine of Hippo.   Orosius' first work was titled Consultatio sive commonitorium ad Augustinum de errore Priscillianistarum et Originistarum [trans. Warnings and Reminders by Augustine aginst the errors of the Priscilliants and Origenasts].  The ideology behind the work is immediately apparent even before the reader has the opportunity to read a line. It appears, however, that Orosius himself had once been tainted by the Priscillianist teachings; much like Augustine states in his Confessions that had "fallen in with the Manichees" for nice years in his youth, prior to converting to Christianity.  

According to Orosius, Priscillian makes reference to both the Old Testament as well as the New Testament for his teachings.  Orosius states that, according to a letter by Priscillian that "The first wisdom is to understand the nature of the divine virtues in the types of the souls (and to understand) the composition of the body, in which the heavens and earth and all the powers of the world seem to be joined together; to overcome these relations is the duty of the saints. The patriarchs hold the first circle and the divine bond of sending souls into the flesh - a bond fabricated by the consent of the angels and God and all the souls. Those opposite have the work of formal welfare . . ."  However, the rest of the letter is lost and impossible to reconstruct.  The letter seems to suggest that Priscillian employed Manichaen theology in regard to the nature of the soul and the body, and their opposition to one another.  Augustine mirrors the same thoughts as Orosius when corresponding with Spanish bishops, again condemning Priscillian and his teachings. Orosius was later to write a detraction against all pagans, and to dedicate the work to Saint Augustine, and whose behest he probably wrote the work. 

Priscillian’s teaching and ideas continued to the cause of consternation for a number of leading clerics and officials over the fifth century, however by the start of the sixth century, the sect seems to have either died out, or more likely significantly diminished in size and possibly disappeared underground.  From the evidence, there is an increasing likelihood that Priscillian and his teachings were far from being as heretical and unorthodox as claimed, however that his theology did contain principles and ideas that were very much steeped in Manichaen-Gnostic thought, and ideology.  These ideas may well have come from the influence of the prevalent Manichaen teachings in circulation, but also from the discoveries made by Egeria during her travels to the East, including Jerusalem, Edessa, and Mesopotamia.  Egeria appears to have made Priscillian aware of further books and teachings in existence outside of the 27 books declared suitable for the Canon.  Those books selected to make up the accepted Canon that make up the New Testament were only made a few years prior to Priscillian’s death.  Therefore, it seems likely that some if not many of the newly declared “heretical texts” were still in circulation.  The voyages of Egeria are recorded in a fragmentary eleventh century codex; her quest for knowledge for her mentor would appear to have brought to his attention books such as The Acts of Thomas, and the Apocryphon of John, long thought lost until a copy was found in Egypt in 1945 at Nag Hamaadi.  Furthermore, it seems highly likely that Priscillian would have been exposed to if not a good understanding of astrology, being a learned and well read individual. Astrology was considered by orthodox Christians to be a dangerous science.  The theory behind such fears being that were the stars in fact responsible for the predetermination of a man’s life and conduct, he might be no longer responsible for the sins and acts he committed.

It has been suggested, not least by Henry Chadwick, an eminent and respected Oxford professor in his work Priscillian of Avilá: The Occult and the Charismatic in the Early Church [Oxford 1976] that Santiago de Compostela [in Galicia] is in fact the burial place of Priscillian; not St. James as claimed.   St. James, brother of Jesus, is of relatively minor significance in the New Testament (though his role might actually have been deliberately understated), mentioned briefly in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles. Only one letter exists in the New Testament that is attributed to him.  An apocryphal “Gnostic” gospel (entitled the Apocryphon of James) exists, as does an Infancy gospel (however the fullest version is found in a codex dating from the tenth century.)  Yet, despite James being relatively obscure in nature, one of the most important sites for Christian pilgrimage remains Santiago de Cospetela. 

During the construction of the existing cathedral, an important discovery took place.  The recording of the date of this discovery is not noted.  It would appear that the discovery occurred between 818 and 842: it is not possible to be more specific than that.  The discovery was a sarcophagus, made during excavations beneath the nave of the existing cathedral. 

More recent excavations conducted in the 1940s and 1950s have uncovered baths dating from the third to fourth century as well as a necropolis of further graves, dating from the fourth and fifth centuries through to the start of early seventh century. These excavations were apparently badly conducted, and equally badly recorded and findings published.  The burials lacked grave goods, inscriptions or graffiti, and were aligned on an east-west  orientation, facing Jerusalem.  These are believed to contain the remains of early Spanish Christians, buried in the proximity of the mausoleum of a venerated, established holy man, which had been previously uncovered in the nineteenth century.   The phenomenon of burying followers in close proximity to the resting place of their leader is not an unusual occurrence.  The structure dates from c. 400 and it seems likely to be recall an early Christian cella memoriae or martyrium.   The foundations of a rectangular stone enclosure measuring 6.4 metres (E-W) by 4.7 metres (N-S).  The enclosure was divided internally into two parts, unequal in size, by a partition wall running North-South.  In the centre of this partition was an aperture giving access from the smaller western chamber into the larger eastern one. The eastern chamber is paved with a Roman /early post Roman mosaic, the western in brick tiles.  The western chamber appears to be an atrium leading to a special, holy place.  Located at the centre of the eastern chamber is a pit, rectangular in size and lined with stucco and covered with slabs of marble.  No human remains were found therein.  It is impossible, without an inscription to the identity of the holy man once interred in this mausoleum, but there is a strong and persuasive suggestion that it could indeed have been Priscillian.  Without evidence this cannot be proved either way, but would be a most ironic and perverse twist of fate, if, indeed within this most venerated shrine, were housed the mortal remains of the first heretic executed, perhaps unjustly, by the secular authorities.

The modern cathedral at Santiago de Compostela -
is this the burial place of Priscillian?

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