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Chapter Five "Gnostic" Priscillian Reinterpreted by Sulpicius Severus and Jerome
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Severus and Jerome both characterize Priscillian as a gnostic. This characterization appears to derive neither from historically reliable data nor from common dependence on an unreliable source like Ithacius' Apology . Rather, Severus' and Jerome's treatments of Priscillian result from their independent utilization of a shared heresiological tradition in the face of similar conflicts experienced in their roles as Christian ascetics and scholars. These conflicts are rooted in a clash between two distinct and often contradictory strategies of Christian self-definition that I have called "public" and "private." Both Severus and Jerome attempt to resolve their conflicts by harmonizing the two strategies of communal self-definition. The resulting inconsistencies and ambivalence in their views of gender and authority lend particular depth and complexity to their portrayals of Priscillian as a treacherous gnostic seducer.

Although Jerome was a presbyter and Severus may likewise have been ordained, both derived their authority in the Christian community primarily from their reputations as men of education, eloquence, and exemplary discipline. Like their equally well-educated pagan counterparts, they were at home in a social world structured by hierarchies of class and networks of patronage that were largely indifferent to distinctions of gender. However, both men had also been trained for public life, and Severus at least had enjoyed the fruits of a successful rhetorical career, so that even in their more private roles as Christian scholars, neither Severus nor Jerome altogether abandoned the publicly centered perspective from which elite male identity was almost inevitably defined in antiquity. Moreover, this public perspective likewise shaped the self-understanding of the church's official hierarchy, with which both men were at least tenuously identified. Severus and Jerome thus experienced internal tension as they attempted to assimilate divergent understandings of Christian community that often entailed conflicting definitions of authority and gender


roles. This internal tension was accentuated by external conflicts between Severus and anti-ascetic opponents among the Aquitanian clergy, and between Jerome and the clergy of Rome. In both cases, the ascetic scholars were perceived as subversive of the ecclesiastical order and were suspected of disregard for the authority of bishops and the privacy of women.

Both men responded to these conflicts in part through the shaping of their ascetic lives. In Rome, Jerome attempted to play the role of an independent teacher within the urban community; this experience proved disastrous, and he left the city to establish a cenobitic monastery in the safely distant setting of rural Palestine. As far as we know, Severus withdrew from urban life immediately upon embarking upon his ascetic career; his community at Primuliacum remained more closely modeled on the social structure of a traditional aristocratic household than did the Bethlehem communities led by Jerome and Paula. Through the elaboration of a novel understanding of Christian community, Severus and Jerome responded to conflict discursively as well as socially. Significantly, both men invoked a public rhetoric in order to defend and legitimate their own essentially private or informal authority. They argued first for the separation of the ascetic and urban Christian communities. By privatizing the ascetic community, they removed its leaders from direct competition with the publicly constituted authority of bishops, while implying—without concretizing—the structural subordination of the private ascetic community to the public episcopally led community. Following the example of classical discussions of household economy, they likewise transferred the political model to the private sphere, supporting the separation and subordination of women even in ascetic life; in this argument were the seeds for the reshaping of the male ascetic community as a miniature monastic "city" with its own ranks of official authority.

This proposal that the ascetic community properly possessed a separate but parallel hierarchy led to the establishment of an analogous relationship between the bishop or presbyter and the leader of the monastic community, facilitating their identification in a figure like Severus' exemplary Martin of Tours. While Jerome was more hesitant than Severus to identify the two roles so closely, he too urged clerical friends like Heliodorus and his nephew Nepotianus to buttress their clerical authority with the authority of a life of Christian asceticism.[175] But at the same time that it facilitated such analogies, the strict rhetorical and symbolic separation of monastery and urban congregation also contributed to continuing unclarity about the relative authority of the ascetic leader and the bishop. Severus and Jerome both remain ambivalent in their attitudes toward the clerical hierarchy. Jerome reveres the apostolic authority of ecclesiastical


office,[176] and he sides with Bishop Theophilus in his conflict with the Egyptian monks;[177] yet he locates his own authority as ascetic and scholar outside or above the authority of his presbyterial office, and at one point he even denies the right of Bishop John of Jerusalem to dictate in matters concerning his Bethlehem monastery.[178] Severus goes far in exalting Martin's authority as bishop, even dismissing Martin's pre-episcopal life from discussion in his Dialogues .[179] Yet the authority that so overwhelms Severus when he is in Martin's presence is not the authority of episcopal office but the authority of the holy saint, and Severus comments that Martin's authority was diminished when he became bishop and when he let himself become involved in episcopal politics.[180] In his critical discussion of Theophilus of Alexandria's opposition to the Origenist monks, Severus remarks that while some might think it wrong for monks to disobey bishops, he finds it worse for bishops to persecute monks.[181]

The application of the public-private model to the ascetic community also produced ambivalence regarding gender roles. There is a large gulf between both Severus' and Jerome's social experiences and their rhetorical emphasis on women's separation and subordination. Jerome vehemently endorses the separation and subordination of women, basing this stance on a traditional misogynistic view of female nature. Yet the intimacy and intensity of this man's relationships with women are virtually unsurpassed in the records of antiquity, and he appears to hold Marcella, Paula, Eustochium, and other female friends in the greatest respect.[182] Nor is it likely that these aristocratic matrons were as humble and compliant as Jerome frequently suggests. While we know less about Severus' interactions with ascetic women, his close relationship with Bassula and his connection with powerful and independent women like Therasia and Melania seem similarly at odds with his stringent rhetoric of women's separation and subordination.

The characterization of Priscillian as a gnostic represents a partial and complex response to the conflicts and ambivalence experienced by Severus and Jerome as they attempt to assimilate public and private understandings of Christian community. First, and most concretely, the use of a second-century heresiological category enables both authors to avoid the more immediately dangerous label of Manichaeism. Severus in particular has good reason to distance himself from labeling strategies that had seriously threatened his master Martin at the time of Priscillian's trial, and that may have threatened Severus as well. Jerome is likewise sensitive to the frequent false identification of orthodox ascetics as Manichaeans,[183] and he himself was accused of Manichaeism,[184] although the seriousness of the charges is unclear.


But even more significant than the avoidance of any reference to Manichaeism is the effectiveness of the label of gnosticism in negatively defining the social role of the orthodox ascetic scholar. In heresiological tradition, the gnostic is a supremely paradoxical figure, simultaneously insider and outsider, Christian and enemy, self and other. The label of gnostic connotes the intimacy of Severus' and Jerome's relation to the figure of Priscillian, who functions as an alter ego of sorts; the label thereby also captures the subtlety of their proposed refinements of authority roles. Severus expresses a grudging admiration for Priscillian and acknowledges a sense of kinship with the learned and aristocratic ascetic of his own portrayal, going so far as to hint that Priscillian might belong to the persecuted remnant of true Christians. Jerome is initially hesitant to condemn Priscillian at all and is subsequently reluctant to name Priscillian in his denunciation of "Spanish gnostics." Typically more volatile and extreme than Severus, he eventually condemns Priscillian explicitly and bitterly and places Priscillian's heresy at the culmination of the entire history of heretical seduction, but he never changes the basic outlines of his portrayal of Priscillian as a man who bears striking resemblance to himself.

The portrait of the gnostic as an insidious seducer serves as a focus of feared accusations and a projection of Severus' and Jerome's own vulnerabilities in the controversies in which they were involved. To this extent, their treatments of Priscillian may be compared with Priscillian's own condemnation of heresies in his Apology . Severus' portrait of Priscillian is strongly shaped by an awareness of his own susceptibility to the attacks of opponents like Vigilantius, who perceive him as a threat to the authority of the ecclesial hierarchy and the stability of episcopally led communities. Jerome likewise develops his portrait of Priscillian in the aftermath of charges of illicit sexual relations with Paula brought against him by a jealous and resentful Roman clergy. Both men constructed their portraits of Priscillian in order to dissociate themselves from them. The gnostic seducer is the heretic against whom their particular orthodoxies must be defined. They suggest that the true Christian ascetic and scholar can be distinguished from the heretic by his respect for the authority of bishops and the privacy of women—or, in other words, by his accommodation to the demands of a publicly centered ecclesiology.

The figure of the gnostic seducer is particularly appropriate for the development of a rhetoric for the control of women. Severus and Jerome must both resolve their internal ambivalence regarding the relative freedom and prominence of ascetic women and defend themselves in the face of external accusations of sexual promiscuity and the subversion of gender roles. Both authors use 2 Tim. 3:6–7—a scriptural passage virtually ig-


nored in the second- and third-century debates with the gnostics—in order to emphasize gender and sexuality in their portraits of Priscillian as a gnostic heretic. By condemning Priscillian as one who "enters into homes and captures little women," Severus and Jerome present themselves as defenders of the boundaries of the public male and private female spheres. By evoking the vulnerability of the "little women who are burdened with sins and led by shifting desires, always learning and never reaching knowledge of truth," they deny women's authority and capacity for independence and urge their separation and subordination even within the ascetic community.


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Chapter Five "Gnostic" Priscillian Reinterpreted by Sulpicius Severus and Jerome
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