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Chapter One "A Strange Man" Opposition Emerges at the Council of Saragossa
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Contextualizing the Council of Saragossa: The Evidence of Priscillian and Sulpicius Severus

The accounts of Priscillian and Sulpicius Severus provide an outline of the events that led to the convening of the Council of Saragossa. According to Priscillian's Letter to Damasus (c. 381), he and his companions had lived quiet lives dedicated to God for several years before the council:

After we had been renewed by the regeneration of the living bath and had cast off the filthy darkness of worldly acts, we had given ourselves


wholly to God; for we read that whoever loves anyone more than God cannot be his disciple. At that time, while some of us had already been chosen for God in the churches and others of us labored with our lives so that we would be chosen, we pursued the quiet of catholic peace.[1]

Priscillian's implicit characterization of himself as a layperson with episcopal ambitions serves an apologetic function in the later context of the Letter to Damasus . Nevertheless, he is probably accurate in claiming that his early zeal for the ascetic life was shared by a group of Spanish Christians, which included some who were "already chosen for God" (electi Deo ) in the clerical leadership of their communities.[2]

Severus' Chronicle (c. 403) supports Priscillian's picture of a network of Spanish ascetics that included both laypeople and clergy, and he supplies the names—Instantius and Salvianus—but not the sees of two of the bishops associated with Priscillian during the period before the council. Severus further reports that the first opposition to the ascetics came from Hyginus, bishop of Cordoba in the southern Spanish province of Baetica.[3] Hyginus is described as being "from the neighborhood" of Priscillian and his episcopal associates (ex vicino ),[4] and we furthermore know from Jerome that Tiberianus, one of Priscillian's early lay supporters, was a Baetican[5] —two possible indications that Priscillian and his friends were initially active in Baetica. However, subsequent events suggest that the three were more likely from the nearby western province of Lusitania, and Severus' narrative quickly shifts the scene to that province.

Severus relates that Hyginus sent a report to Bishop Hydatius, whose Lusitanian see of Merida was well connected with Cordoba by road.[6] This communication—the content of which remains unspecified—produced a vehement reaction on Hydatius' part.[7] "Provoking Instantius and his companions without measure and more than was necessary, he put a torch to the nascent fire, so that he irritated the evil ones rather than suppressing them."[8] Many struggles followed, as Severus summarizes all too briefly, before an episcopal meeting was convened at Saragossa at which "even Aquitanian bishops were present."[9] The reasons for convening the council in the northeastern province of Tarraconensis are unknown. Saragossa was well connected by road with most parts of Spain but was at some distance from the areas where the conflict raged most fiercely, and this may have been seen as advantageous for a successful resolution of the conflict.[10] The desire to include bishops from Aquitaine may also have been a factor: there are indications of close links between Aquitaine and northern Spain in this period.[11]

Attendance at the council was relatively low, with only twelve bishops present, no more than ten of them from Spain, in comparison with the nineteen Spanish bishops and twenty-four Spanish presbyters who had


gathered at the Council of Elvira (309) some seventy years earlier, or the nineteen Spanish bishops at the Council of Toledo twenty years later. The esteemed Aquitanian bishop Phoebadius of Agen heads the list of attendees in the council's Acts ,[12] probably owing to his seniority in years of consecration;[13] Phoebadius may also have presided over the council, since such documents typically name the presider first. The name of another Aquitanian, Delphinus, bishop of the prominent see of Bordeaux, is listed second; he was later to number among Priscillian's staunch opponents, perhaps in part because of his consternation at the success of Priscillian's ascetic teachings in his own congregation.[14] Little or nothing is known of the next four bishops listed: Euticius, Ampelius, Augentius (probably of Toledo), and Lucius. Ithacius, bishop of Ossonuba in Lusitania, emerges after the council as a violent opponent of Priscillian and a close ally of Hydatius. Splendonius and Valerius (probably of Saragossa) are otherwise unknown.[15] Symposius later joined Hyginus in supporting Priscillian and his friends[16] and is probably identical with the Galician bishop Symphosius whom the Acts of the Council of Toledo (400) describe as having left the Council of Saragossa after the first day.[17] Carterius is perhaps the Spanish bishop criticized for his second marriage, and, if so, he is not likely to have been a friend of censorious ascetics.[18] Hydatius of Merida, who may have summoned, if not presided over, the council, is the lastnamed attendee.[19]

Priscillian's friends Instantius and Salvianus did not attend the council; nor did Hyginus of Cordoba, who by this point had ceased to oppose Priscillian, receiving him in communion both before and after the council.[20] Severus implies that the council was perceived to be hostile to Priscillian from the start,[21] and it is likely that Priscillian's closest supporters stayed away from a meeting that they viewed as prejudiced by the accusations of Hydatius. However, we have seen that Symposius, known to have supported Priscillian immediately after the council, did attend for at least one day. Other bishops present may have had more conciliatory goals and more moderate positions than either Hydatius or Priscillian's active supporters.

Whatever the initial intentions and inclinations of the attending bishops may have been, Hydatius exerted considerable effort to turn the council against Priscillian. Priscillian reports that the bishop of Merida came to the council prepared with a memorandum, which evidently presented a program of Christian lifestyle and worship aimed at correcting the supposed abuses of Priscillian and his circle. Priscillian's language is vague and dismissive, whether owing to ignorance as to the precise contents of the document or to awareness of his own vulnerability to its criticisms. "I


know not what memorandum was given there by Hydatius," he writes to Damasus, "which laid out instruction as if for the life that should be led" (quod velut agendae vitae poneret disciplinam ).[22]

Priscillian then goes on to defend the ascetic discipline that he himself advocates. He first describes it in seemingly unobjectionable terms as the elimination of "the wicked habits and unseemly standards of life that actually fight against the faith of the God Christ." He next urges that neither those who reject all family ties, education, possessions, and worldly honors nor those who strive to live a life dedicated to God without fully renouncing their ties to the world should be opposed in their pursuit of a true Christian life.[23] Priscillian's defense suggests that Hydatius' memorandum sought to establish a definition of ascetic practice that excluded his own way of life. Hydatius may also have accused Priscillian of denying the possibility of salvation for more worldly Christians. If so, such an accusation was probably unfair. Priscillian endorses the possibility of salvation for ascetic and non-ascetic Christians alike, as well as the need for mutual toleration, not only when under attack by Hydatius, but also in less defensive contexts;[24] moreover, his sermons clearly address not an ascetic elite but a diverse congregation.[25] It is possible that Hydatius' memorandum on Christian life served somehow as a basis for the council's judgments,[26] which are directed toward the same goal of reorienting and controlling ascetic practice.

Hydatius probably arrived armed with another document, or set of documents, aimed at damaging the reputation of Priscillian. According to Priscillian, Hydatius attacked Priscillian and his followers at the council for reading apocryphal scriptures, and he urged the bishops gathered at Saragossa to "let what ought to be condemned be condemned, what is unnecessary not be read."[27] Later, in a work explicitly defending the reading of extracanonical interature, Priscillian mockingly rephrases Hydatius' inflammatory cry: "Condemn what I do not know, condemn what I do not read, condemn what I do not seek by pursuit of sluggish leisure!"[28] At some point around the time of the council, Hydatius collected a few of the apocryphal scriptures purportedly read by Priscillian and his companions, and it was perhaps at the council itself that he "brought them forth from his own cupboard and introduced them with calumnious tales," as Priscillian relates.[29] Since the published judgments of the council contain no prohibition of the use of apocrypha, Hydatius must have been unable to convince his fellow bishops to endorse such a ruling. Priscillian's defensiveness indicates, however, that Hydatius was not altogether unsuccessful in his attempt to use the issue of apocryphal literature to prejudice others against Priscillian and his circle.


In spite of Hydatius' efforts to turn the council against Priscillian, the bishops at Saragossa do not appear to have been prepared to attack Priscillian or his associates directly. On this point, we have not only the silence of the council's Acts but also Priscillian's explicit and repeated denials: "At the episcopal assembly in Saragossa, no one of us was held as a defendant; no one was accused, no one convicted, no one condemned; no crime was charged against our name or vow or manner of life; no one had to be summoned, or was even anxious that he or she would be summoned."[30] Priscillian refers to a letter written by Damasus of Rome urging that no one be condemned without a hearing. At the council, this letter "prevailed against the wicked," Priscillian assures Damasus,[31] indicating that some had indeed desired his condemnation and had perhaps very nearly achieved that goal.

Later accounts seem to contradict Priscillian's persistent denials of conciliar condemnation: the Acts of the Council of Toledo (400) refers to a judgment being made at Saragossa against certain persons,[32] and Severus reports quite specifically that Instantius, Salvianus, Elpidius, and Priscillian were condemned by vote of the council.[33] It is highly unlikely that Priscillian would lie about his own condemnation in a letter to the Roman bishop if such a condemnation had actually been issued. But there was probably real ambiguity in the situation, and this ambiguity could have been exploited in different ways by authors in different circumstances. It may have been widely known in the Spanish congregations that the council had been convened in a spirit of hostility to Priscillian and his supporters. Their practices had been the topic of discussion and had been judged negatively by some of the bishops present. Moreover, Priscillian and his associates were almost certainly the explicit target of at least some of the council's rulings; this may, in fact, be the only meaning of the reference in the Acts of the Council of Toledo . It has also been suggested that Priscillian and the three other prominent leaders of the group named by Severus—Elpidius, Instantius, and Salvianus—may subsequently have been excommunicated on the basis of those rulings.[34] If so, Priscillian conveniently suppressed this information in his letter to Damasus, while Severus, writing many years later, simply merged two originally separate rulings: the general judgments issued by the council and the personal excommunications that may have been enacted by an enforcing bishop like Hydatius.

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