Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 24: Priscillian of Avila


Among the letters falsely attributed to Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage (executed in 258), there is one – emanating from Novatian’s partisans, that is to say, from the Christians loyal to the New Prophecy and hostile to the lapsi – that attested to the presence in Spain of Christian communities of the Montanist tendency, the ardor of which Novatian had revived in the fire of imperial persecution.

In 254, an African council convened under the aegis of Cyprian provided its support to the Novatians who, in Lerida, León and Astorga, rejected the ministers suspected of abjuration during Decius’ repressions.

Thus, with the Constantinian turn, the Catholic ecclesial faction that had acceded to power universally recognized the authority of the perjured priests and collaborators. (See the example of Bishop Caecilian, the enemy of Donatus in Carthage.) A century later, Bishop Pacianus of Barcelona denounced penitential discipline and the rigor of the priest or bishop named Sympronianus.[1]

Priscillian’s intervention was evidence of the persistence of a Christian tradition with which Catholicism confirmed its break because of its political aims. The execution of Priscillian put a bloody mark on an archaic Christianity that had been sacrificed to national security [la raison d’Etat].

Through the unanswerable argument of the sword, Catholicism cut itself off from a Christianity that did not cease to haunt it during the long funeral procession of the Vaudois, Apostolics, Flagellants, and Spiritual Franciscans, right up to the emergence of a Reformation in which the spirits of Montanus and Tertullian were reincarnated in the founding fathers of modern capitalism.

Born around 340 to a well-to-do and probably senatorial Roman family that lived in Gallaecia, Priscillian was in his thirties when he joined a Christian current that was traditionally ascetic, millenarian and always on the look-out for the second coming of the Christ.

Priscillian soon clashed with the representatives of Rome and the new tendency. Among the clerical functionaries of the emperor, two dignitaries – Ithacius, Bishop of Ossonoba (Faro) and his metropolitan, Hydatius of Emerita Augusta (Merida) – accused Priscillian of imposing upon his followers an oath of loyalty to him. These functionaries inflamed the Council of Saragossa, which in 380 brought together twenty-six bishops from Spain and Portugal, and two from South Gaul. What was the exact accusation? That Priscillian, well versed in biblical exegeses, referred to texts other than the canonical ones, which had only been recently imposed. But the progress of Manichaeism, the great religion in competition with Catholicism, offered the “Romans” the occasion to have recourse to the amalgam, which was an ordinary ingredient in such polemics. Priscillian, a perfect ascetic, declared himself in favor of celibacy for the priests. It didn’t take more than that [for his enemies] to associate him with the disciples of Mani, against whom the neo-Novatian had, it so happens, never ceased to struggle.

That same year, Priscillian was chosen to be the Bishop of Avila. This angered Hydatius, who obtained, in quick succession, the support of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan and a future saint, and an imperial ruling that ordered the deposition of Priscillian and the banishment of the [other] “pseudo-Bishops and Manicheans.”

Soon afterwards, Priscillian, two friendly bishops and three women from his congregation went to Rome via Aquitaine to plead their case and prove their religious orthodoxy. They expressed the wish to be judged, not by a civilian tribunal, but ecclesiastic authorities. In Milan, Ambrose refused to give them an audience. Addressing themselves to Macedonius, Ambrose’s adversary, they managed – through his intervention – to meet with Emperor Gratian, who was originally from Spain. Gratian was convinced by their arguments and restored Priscillian and his friend, Bishop Instantius, to their positions.

Ithacius reacted by going to Trier, where he reported the affair to Gratian. But, in August 380, Gratian was assassinated by a rival, another Spaniard, Magnus Maximus, who was acclaimed “Augustus,” although legitimate recognition of him was refused, which abandoned him to the uncertainties of usurpation.

Pressed by the desire to reconcile the sympathies of a unitary and Roman Church, Magnus Maximus took hold of the trial like it was a political tool and convened a synod in Bordeaux so as to settle the question by a veritable pontifical sovereignty. His hatred of Gratian enjoined him to demonstrate that, unlike his predecessor, he would tolerate neither polytheism nor heresy. Priscillian, summoned to Trier with his friends, confronted the bishops of Spain and Gaul, who had previously been favorable to the decisions of Maximus.

With the exception (one says) of Martin of Tours, all [of the members of the synod] condemned the Bishop of Avila, who – in his combat against the Manicheans – had reproached them for their recourse to magic and was now [in his turn] accused of Manichaeism and sorcery. Tortured, he confessed his magical powers, his role in demonic assemblies, and his custom of praying in the nude. The repressive tradition of the Church attempted to identify in the popular imagination Manichaeism and, later on, Valdeism, with rites of sorcery, which easily kindled the pyres of fear and hatred.

The iniquity of the trial of Priscillian aroused the reprobation of Martin of Tours and, perhaps, that of Siricius (whose timid power aspired to the recognition of the pontifical title). A second chance given to Priscillian was abruptly ended by the decapitation in Trier between 385 and 387 of the six people charged with “magic and immorality.” Received with indignation by the Christian communities, the news elicited a few belated regrets from Ambrose of Milan. The remains of Priscillian, repatriated to Gallaecia around 396, were the objects of a veneration usually reserved for martyrs of the faith.

As the death of their leader did not weaken the Priscillians, Emperor Honorius issued the ruling of 408 against them. In 561 or 563, the Council of Braga judged it useful to anathematize seventeen “errors” imputed to Priscillian.

It is difficult to disentangle the Priscillian doctrine from the calumnies that the Church has intermixed with it over the centuries. Its basis derived from the Christianity that was dominant from the second half of the Second Century to the end of the Fourth, and that the Church condemned under the names Montanism, Encratism, Novatianism and Origenism. Thus Priscillianism was unacquainted with the compiled gospels, which had been canonically enriched with arguments hostile to Arius and ascetic rigor. Priscillianism brought together clerics and lay people in assemblies in which asceticism and the cult of virginity were exalted. If one can judge from the similar state of the Pietist congregations of the Seventeenth Century, it is probable that ecstasies, illuminations, prophecies and other forms of religious hysteria common to Puritanism were manifested in Priscillianism.

Neither Spain nor the working-class strata of Christianity had [yet] adopted the Nicene conception of the trinity. “Long after Nicaea, a very archaic view and a similar experience of the Trinity continued to be dominant.”[2]

According to Priscillian, Christian asceticism partook of the presence of the Christ-God. As in the prescriptions of Tertullian, one dreamed of exhausting the body in order to make the Spirit within it grow. As with Justin arguing against Trypho, the Christ was nothing other than the divine Logos. The presence of God resulted more from a personal experience than rational reflection. Revelation of the God-Christ permitted mankind to attain the state of perfection through the exercise of rigor. And Priscillian spoke of a nova nativitas, a new birth. Was it not his heritage that was welcomed by Spanish Catholicism, which – from Dominique to Queipo de Llano, passing through Ignatius and Loyola, and [through the] genius loci,[3] Theresa of Avila – furbished the weapons against life known as Viva la muerte[4] and Perinde ac cadaver?[5]

Must one exclude the recourse to astrology, if not magic, from a teaching that was founded on the imitation of the Christ and that conferred “quies, libertas, unitas”?[6]

“The Priscillianist heretics,” Pope Gregory stated, “think that all men are born under a conjunction of stars. And, to help their error, they appeal to the fact that a new star appeared when Our Lord showed himself in the flesh.”[7] Perhaps the notion of a new birth gave rise to astrological speculations that were similar to those made by Bardaisan of Edessa. As for magic, its practice was fairly widespread in the Christian milieus, as was attested by the abraxas or talismans on which the Christ replaced Seth, Ophis, Mithra, Serapis or Abrasax. The cult of the saints itself made use of the invocations in which the sign of the cross was substituted for the song of the [seven] vowels and gestures that translated diverse expressions.

To recognize Priscillian as the first victim of [Catholic] orthodoxy and the [universal] jurisdiction adopted in matters of heresy – which has been the customary way that the historians have seen him – is to forget the massacres of the Arians and the Donatists. The novelty of the death of Priscillian in fact resided in the iniquity of the trial and the arguments made against the accused. In fact, at Trier, the curtain was raised on a long series of staged events in which the accused – condemned in advance by the judgment of the Church – passed under the parodic sign of “justice” and entered into the flaming circle of expiatory sacrifice by which the clergy imposed the dogma of their purity and divine power upon the sinners.


[1] H. Chadwick, Priscillian of Avila: The Occult and the Charismatic in the Early Church, Oxford, 1976.

[2] A. J. M. Goosen, Achtergronden van Priscillianus’ christelijike ascese, Nimegue, 1976, p. 401.

[3] Translator: Latin for “the spirit of the place.”

[4] Translator: “Long live death” was the slogan of the Spanish fascists in the 1930s.

[5] Translator: a shortening of perinde ac si cadaver essent, Latin for “as obedient as a corpse,” a Jesuitical slogan of Ignatius: “Let everyone persuade himself that those who live under obedience must let themselves be led and ruled by divine providence through their superiors, as if they were a corpse which allows itself to be carried here and there and treated in any way.”

[6] Translator: Latin for “rest, freedom, unity.”

[7] Gregory the Great, cited in Dictionnaire d’histoire et de géographie ecclésiastique (Priscillian).


(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. Footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

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