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Chapter Two "Manichaean" Charge and Countercharge in Priscillian's Tractates
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Conflict at Merida and the Rescript Against "Pseudobishops and Manichaeans": The Letter to Damasus

The second of the Würzburg tractates is a letter addressed to Damasus, bishop of Rome, by a group of Spanish bishops who seek to be exonerated from the charges of Manichaeism and "pseudo-episcopacy" by means of which Hydatius of Merida has threatened them with exile. Severus supplies us with the names of the three Spanish bishops who travelled to Rome to appeal for the support of Bishop Damasus: Priscillian, Instantius, and Salvianus.[7] It seems certain that the letter discovered in the Würzburg corpus represents a defense of the orthodoxy and episcopacy of these three bishops. Priscillian is the most likely candidate for the actual authorship, since the defense of his own ordination plays a central role.[8] He takes the opportunity in the letter not only to present his own orthodox profession of faith but also to give a narrative account of the conflict in Merida that led to the forced departure of the three bishops. The Letter to Damasus is thus an extremely valuable source for the reconstruction of the early stages of the conflict between Priscillian's circle and Hydatius and his supporters.

Although the letter provides us with a firsthand report of events written soon after those events occurred, the report is hardly unbiased. In tracing the process by which the label of Manichaeism was first made to "stick" to Priscillian and his companions, we must therefore contend with the ambiguities of an apologetic work that seeks to conceal as well as to reveal. Although he cannot, like Severus,[9] simply omit reference to the sensitive charge of Manichaeism, Priscillian has strong reasons to suppress certain aspects of the process that led to his being successfully la-


beled a Manichaean. In the Letter to Damasus , he attempts to hide the role he and his companions played in provoking the conflict that eventually resulted in their condemnation as Manichaeans. He also takes great pains to sever the continuity between events at the Council of Saragossa and those that took place soon afterwards at Merida. In both cases, Priscillian's rhetorical strategy obscures the context and significance of the imperial rescript. A critical examination of the relevant portions of the Letter to Damasus will therefore be necessary in order to untangle the chain of events leading from Saragossa to the imperial rescript.

Priscillian begins his account of the events following the Council of Saragossa by emphasizing, not only the orthodoxy and virtue, but also the peaceable intentions of his own circle. After the council, he and his companions wished merely to pursue their lives of simplicity and piety without disturbance, he claims.[10] They had remained in communion with Hydatius, and Hydatius had brought back no report against them from the Council of Saragossa. Nevertheless, Hydatius was subsequently driven by an irrational hostility, indeed a "madness," to disrupt the peace.[11] It was a local squabble that led to his unjustified and isolated resentment of Priscillian and his companions, Priscillian explains. But his account of that local squabble calls into question his initial characterization of Hydatius' antagonism as both unexpected and unprovoked.

Hydatius was denounced in his own church by one of his presbyters shortly after his return from the Council of Saragossa, Priscillian says. Subsequently, "certain people of our churches" circulated a libellus containing even more damaging attacks on Hydatius. As a result of these two sets of accusations, some of the Meridan clergy withdrew from Hydatius' communion until he could be cleared.[12] Earlier in the letter, Priscillian succinctly summarizes the causes of the controversy: "conflicts arose out of necessary reproof or envy of our way of life or the power of the most recent times."[13] "Necessary reproof" (necessaria redargutione ) probably refers to these criticisms directed against Hydatius in the period immediately following the Council of Saragossa, if not also before; "envy of our way of life" (aemulatione vitae ) seems to indicate Hydatius' opposition to Priscillian's asceticism; and the apocalyptic phrase "the power of the most recent times" (novissimi temporis potestate ) must refer to the imperial intervention eventually solicited by Hydatius. Nowhere, however, does Priscillian indicate the nature of the charges brought against Hydatius, whether because he cannot expect Damasus to be sympathetic to those charges, or because he fears to reveal his own close involvement.[14] Their seriousness is nevertheless underlined by Priscillian's suggestion at the end of the letter that Hydatius still fears that the accusations will resurface.[15]


When the dispute arose, "we assembled," writes Priscillian.[16] Since, as we shall see, it is unlikely that Priscillian had already been ordained, the episcopal "we," strictly speaking, must refer only to Instantius and Salvianus, although Priscillian may also have been present at their meeting; here, as elsewhere in this account, Priscillian is deliberately obscuring the timing and circumstances of his ordination. Priscillian presents the bishops as neutral mediators, but both their alacrity in gathering and their subsequent actions suggest rather that they were themselves interested participants in the Meridan dispute.[17] Priscillian's friends not only met but also appealed to their episcopal allies Hyginus and Symposius; these in turn suggested that they call a council to reestablish peace in the churches.[18]

Symposius' response, which is cited by Priscillian, reveals that the Meridan conflict was not merely an isolated schism among local clergy, as Priscillian initially implies. First, it seems that a number of laypeople were among those in Merida who had criticized Hydatius and subsequently been excommunicated. Symposius offers the opinion that these Meridan laypeople could be received by other bishops on the witness of their orthodox profession of faith, "if Hydatius were suspected by them."[19] If the phrase "if Hydatius were suspected by them" indicates that charges brought against him had called into question Hydatius' status as bishop, Symposius is directly undermining Hydatius' authority in the face of the fifth judgment of the Council of Saragossa.[20] Second, it appears that there was a close connection between the Council of Saragossa and what transpired in Merida thereafter, although the exact nature of this connection can no longer be reconstructed. Symposius, who was present at the council, responds to questions about the council and assures Instantius, Salvianus, and their friends that no one was condemned at Saragossa.[21] Perhaps it was Hydatius' failure to secure an official condemnation of the ascetics in his congregation that had emboldened them to challenge him directly following the council. Under attack, Hydatius may have begun to make claims about the council's hostile stance toward the ascetics that alarmed Priscillian's supporters.

In spite of their colleagues' advice that a new council be convened, Instantius and Salvianus decided to proceed to Merida for a personal interview with Hydatius. They may sincerely have hoped to attain a peaceful resolution of the dispute, as Priscillian claims.[22] However, it is more likely that Priscillian's episcopal friends went to Merida with the intention of influencing—if not forcing—events in their own favor without submitting to the uncertainties and ambiguities of a conciliar process.[23] From


Priscillian's defensive language, it is clear that they were accused by their opponents of initiating disputes, of wrongdoing, and of insubordination. They may have wished to intimidate Hydatius into capitulation by a dramatic show of episcopal support for the dissident Meridan laity and clergy. Priscillian mentions that while in Merida, the bishops received a confession of faith from the Meridan laity, "which we could not reject because it was catholic." Whatever the real intentions of the episcopal delegation, peace was not the result of their visit. As the company of Instantius and Salvianus approached the presbytery of Merida, a hostile crowd barred their way and beat them with sticks. Priscillian's brief but vivid description of the scene hints at the deep division running through all levels of the local Christian community and the intense hostility that characterized both sides by this point.[24]

Upon returning from Merida, the visiting bishops hastened to write to "nearly all" their fellow bishops, Priscillian reports. They must have felt some urgent need to control the manner in which the story of the Meridan confrontation circulated. But evidently this was not the only urgent matter. Priscillian reports that in addition to their account of events at Merida, the bishops submitted to their colleagues the Meridan laity's profession of faith; "nor did we pass over in silence the fact that many of them were sought for the episcopacy after their profession." The reply to their letter, as cited by Priscillian, underlines the significance of this hitherto unmentioned reference to the proposed ordination of some of the Meridan laity. The unnamed episcopal respondent reiterates the need for a council to resolve the dispute at Merida and adds specifically that "the profession held should be believed, and just as the dedication of a bishop occurs in a bishop, so the choice of candidacy occurs in the people"—a cautiously worded confirmation of the potential eligibility of the dissident Meridan laity for ordination to the episcopacy.[25]

Priscillian himself was probably among the Meridan laity who were in conflict with their bishop and whose orthodoxy and eligibility for the episcopacy was of such great concern to Instantius and Salvianus and their supporters.[26] Priscillian's defense of the Meridan laity in the Letter to Damasus therefore represents a subtly contrived defense of his own episcopacy, for he himself acknowledges in the letter that "a bishop who as a layperson deserved formerly to be condemned can be deposed."[27] Without openly calling attention to challenges raised in reference to his own ordination or even referring explicitly to the circumstances of that ordination, he carefully documents the steps by which the Meridan laity were received as orthodox, in spite of their excommunication and condemna-


tion by their own bishop following the fifth judgment of the Council of Saragossa. And Priscillian makes it clear that respected bishops judged those laypeople worthy of the episcopacy.

Sulpicius Severus reports that Instantius and Salvianus appointed Priscillian bishop of Avila sometime shortly after the Council of Saragossa and suggests that it was this act that led Hydatius and his ally Ithacius to "press more keenly" and approach the civil authorities for a decree banishing their opponents from the Spanish communities.[28] Priscillian's own account is less direct but also confirms the close link between his ordination and Hydatius' request for an imperial rescript. Immediately after recording the episcopal support for the potential ordination of some of the Meridan laity, Priscillian introduces the topic of the rescript: "hence, being more afraid than was necessary, he produced requests falsely and, weaving a tale of the events, with our names concealed, he sought a rescript against pseudo-bishops and Manichaeans and of course obtained it, because everyone who heard of pseudo-bishops and Manichaeans hated them."[29] Priscillian must have been ordained shortly after the violent confrontation in Merida, and his ordination appears to have further destabilized the situation in Merida and the surrounding communities. By ordaining Priscillian to the episcopacy, Instantius and Salvianus not only removed him from the sphere of authority of a hostile bishop but also increased the number of their own episcopal supporters. Hydatius must have felt seriously threatened, and his fear may have been more justified than Priscillian admits.[30]

With the balance of power turned against him locally, Hydatius sought support further afield, appealing to "secular judges," as Severus puts it.[31] This was not such an unlikely step, although it came to be viewed with disapproval in the light of a later and rather different act of secular intervention in the controversy.[32] Heretics in general and Manichaeans in particular had been outlawed by imperial decree: their leaders were subject to fines or banishment, and their meeting places could be confiscated.[33] Priscillian reports that Hydatius succeeded in gaining the sympathies of Ambrose, in a context suggesting that this took place as Hydatius was seeking the rescript.[34] Severus' account first mentions Ambrose's opposition in relation to Priscillian's later visit to Milan;[35] however, it is possible that the bishop of Milan also played a role earlier in helping Hydatius obtain from Gratian either an order for the Spanish enforcement of standing laws against heretics or Manichaeans or, as both Priscillian and Sulpicius Severus seem to suggest, a new rescript specially tailored to the Spanish situation.[36] Perhaps Gratian's pronouncement authorized Hydatius to identify the guilty parties.[37] Priscillian reports that when the rescript was


issued, Hydatius "rushed against all Christians, calling even Hyginus a heretic along with us."[38]

It must have been immediately clear to Priscillian and his companions that resistance to the enforcement of an imperial rescript would be of no avail on a local level. Sulpicius Severus and Priscillian agree that the bishops left their churches voluntarily, not waiting for a formal sentence of exile and deposition. "We entrusted our churches to God, and we have given you their letters of communion, conveyed with the signature of all the clergy and people," Priscillian writes to Damasus. Subsequently, Priscillian insists on his readiness to submit to public trial in language suggesting that he has been accused of avoiding just such a trial, an accusation that may not be far from the truth; it may, thus, be misleading to speak of either the "exile" or the "deposition" of the three bishops at this point.[39] In Severus' words, "the gnostics despaired of their own affairs, not daring to dispute the judgment, and those who were bishops appeared to leave voluntarily; fear dispersed others."[40] Priscillian, Instantius, and Salvianus then set out for Italy to seek the support of the bishops of Milan and Rome and to defend their case before the imperial court.[41]

Priscillian's letter to the bishop of Rome is a defense of his own orthodoxy and the orthodoxy of the other two bishops who had been threatened with exile. His proof of orthodoxy proceeds in part according to convention: he offers a catholic profession of faith and a condemnation of acknowledged heresies, focusing in this case above all on the Manichaeans. In addition, he includes a less conventional item in his apologetic letter—namely, a defense of the use of the apocrypha. Priscillian's use of the apocrypha appears to have constituted his greatest vulnerability to the accusations of Manichaeism, and the charge of reading heretical scriptures must have been extensively exploited by Hydatius. We have seen that he raised the issue of apocryphal literature at the Council of Saragossa, and the order in which Priscillian introduces his defense in the Letter to Damasus suggests that the use of the apocrypha was a major topic of discussion in the subsequent conflict at Merida as well.[42] Priscillian was the author of a separate treatise devoted to the defense of the use of the apocrypha, and this may have been composed during or shortly after the events at Merida.[43]

Priscillian is also very concerned in this letter to persuade Damasus that he was not condemned by the Council of Saragossa.[44] This was a crucial part of his defense before the bishop of Rome. He and his episcopal friends had never been judged heretical by an episcopal assembly or through any formal heresy process, which would have required the presence of the defendants, according to Damasus himself.[45] They had been


condemned only by the irresponsible accusations of one bishop, whose own episcopal status had been questioned. Thus, Priscillian insists, in the eyes of the church, he and his associates were still orthodox and their episcopacy was valid. Gratian's rescript could not legitimately be used against them.

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Chapter Two "Manichaean" Charge and Countercharge in Priscillian's Tractates
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