Preferred Citation: Burrus, Virginia. The Making of a Heretic: Gender, Authority, and the Priscillianist Controversy. Berkeley:  University of California,  c1995 1995.




A text, "once issued, can never be recalled," Sulpicius Severus wisely observed, and I am tempted, if not to abstain altogether from publishing this monograph, at least to defer doing so. By holding on to these pages a bit longer, I might not so much tell a different or better tale as give a better account of why the tale is worth telling in the first place. With Jerome, I have continued to ask, "Why speak of Priscillian, who was condemned by the secular sword and by the whole world?" In the course of the long gestation of this project, new answers have emerged for me, without entirely displacing previous responses.

Despite my confessed hesitance, I am also unquestionably relieved to be delivered of the burden of this work. The comparison of texts to children, of writing to labor, is by no means novel—it was already a rhetorical commonplace in late antiquity. The metaphor may, however, claim particular suitability in this case. The account of the Priscillianist controversy was conceived simultaneously with my first child, James, and written in the form of a doctoral dissertation during his infancy. The dissertation manuscript then travelled with me from West Coast to East, at which point I was again pregnant; and the journey also led to my own birth as a professional scholar, entering upon a first academic appointment. The revising of the dissertation into something recognizable as a book took place during the infancy of my second child, Mary, and, as it seems to me now, may represent not simply the maturing of an old work but also the overlaying of a second, new work upon the first.

For better or for worse, this text does not articulate a single, monologic


perspective: one voice, for example, situates itself in the trajectory of social history; another explores the history of theology; still another drifts toward the analysis of discursive practices sometimes associated with the "cultural poetics" of the "new historicism." Aware that I have not succeeded altogether in harmonizing the multiple voices, I nevertheless hope to have struck a few resonant chords. I hope, too, that I have managed to tell a good story, without producing a deceptively tidy account.

This book is the offspring of a feminist scholar, but to what extent is it a feminist text? Tracing the threads from which late-ancient constructions of gender were woven, I quickly found myself entangled in altogether unexpected issues: finally, this study is "about," not women or gender, but rather the controversy over Priscillian. If gender and authority are prominent among the issues at stake in the disputes surrounding Priscillian and his followers, the documented preoccupation with these two issues points, I suggest, to three factors that crucially shaped the late-fourth-century Priscillianist controversy: the late-ancient construction of orthodoxy and heresy; the divergence between public and private perspectives on Christian community; and the conflict between accommodating and alienated stances toward the world. I not only attempt to address certain gaps and weaknesses in current Priscillianist scholarship by suggesting new interpretive frameworks; I also modify the dominant source theory first proposed by E.-Ch. Babut in 1909. Finally, too, I offer different or more detailed interpretations of recently discovered or previously neglected texts, such as the Acts of the Council of Saragossa , Priscillian's Apology , the Acts of the Council of Toledo , and a recently discovered letter from Consentius to Augustine.

It has not been my intention to examine all the texts dealing with Priscillianism or to offer an exhaustive account of the movement and its detractors; here the works of Benedikt Vollman and Henry Chadwick will probably remain standard for some time. Nor, obviously, does this study investigate similar controversies in the late-ancient Christian world, although it may be of relevance to them to the extent that the phenomena I describe, including both the strategies of labeling and the conflicts over gender, authority, and understandings of Christian community, were broadly characteristic of late-ancient Christianity. Elizabeth Clark's The Origenist Controversy , a study of the "cultural construction" of another late-fourth-century Christian debate, which appeared as I revised this manuscript for publication, illumines many areas of overlap among the contemporary disputes about Priscillianism, Origenism, and Pelagianism, while also persuading us to attend more closely to the nuances of these anthropological, ecclesiological, and cosmological controversies, so often


overshadowed as a result of the privileged status traditionally granted the "high" trinitarian and christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries.

First and foremost among the various midwiving communities that have sustained my work is my Bay Area dissertation committee, made up of Rebecca Lyman, Marty Stortz, Susanna Elm, and Robert Gregg; I am particularly grateful to Rebecca, who has been a faithful friend, an infinitely tactful and tolerant mentor, and an unsurpassed partner in scholarly conversation for a decade now, as we have shared our passion for lateancient Christianity and sought to unravel the tangled constructions of orthodoxy and heresy. Special thanks are also owed to Ray Van Dam of the University of Michigan, who very generously agreed to long-distance mentorship of a feminist church history student from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley; his critical, thorough, and frequently skeptical responses to the dissertation saved me from various errors of mistranslation and interpretive misjudgment. Finally, I must acknowledge my daily companions in the San Francisco flat where I wrote the initial drafts of this text, including Soraya Merlos and two very little boys, one of them my son. Soraya not only made it possible for me to work on the dissertation without the constant distraction of childcare; she also taught me much about the disciplined, prayerful, Bible-centered spirituality of the small Christian communities that gather in the private space of somebody's living room or garage—and occasionally (in the densely packed living conditions of San Francisco's Mission District) provoke the neighbor's hostility with overimpassioned hymn singing or other disturbing displays of religious zeal.

On the East Coast, new study circles emerged to provide the context for revisions. I am grateful to colleagues and graduate students at Drew University who read parts of the manuscript, to the Theological School there for its financial support of my research, and to Peter Brown, a most welcoming neighbor at nearby Princeton. Extralocal networks have likewise continued to enrich my work: Harry Maier, Patricia Cox Miller, Mark Vessey, and Dan Williams all offered extremely helpful readings of portions of the manuscript; and I have also received extraordinarily respectful and provocative critiques from the University of California Press and its readers, including not only the series editor, Peter Brown, but also Liz Clark and Philip Rousseau. Finally, my husband, Bob Kelly, has accompanied me on this journey from dissertation to book, from studenthood to professorship, from West to East Coast; for this least "Priscillianist" of my sustaining relationships, I give thanks.


Preferred Citation: Burrus, Virginia. The Making of a Heretic: Gender, Authority, and the Priscillianist Controversy. Berkeley:  University of California,  c1995 1995.