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

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

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

In 380, the Council of Saragossa sought to control ascetic practice and to heighten the importance of the episcopally led liturgy for the identity of the Christian community. The council's Acts leave open the possibility that ascetics like Priscillian might remain part of the publicly defined congregations of Spain. However, the fundamental differences that split the Spanish churches could not be so easily resolved. Some six years after the Saragossan bishops dispersed,[1] two of their number testified for the prosecution in a civil trial at Trier that led to the executions of Priscillian, Felicissimus, Armenius, Euchrotia, and Latronianus. Between Saragossa and Trier, conciliar debate had given way to the uncompromising language of exclusionary labels, the brutal violence of mobs wielding sticks and stones, and the harsh finality of the imperial sword.

Sulpicius Severus' Chronicle is our primary source for reconstructing the chain of events of the years 380 to 386: the conflict in Merida immediately following the Council of Saragossa, Priscillian's ordination as bishop of Avila, the departure and subsequent return of Priscillian and two episcopal associates, the summoning of bishops Priscillian and Instantius to a council at Bordeaux, the civil trial of Priscillian at Trier, and the execution of Priscillian and several followers. In a chronological presentation shaped by the literary conventions and political interests of classical historiography, Severus focuses on the high reaches of the ecclesiastical and imperial


hierarchies. His account highlights the significance of personal ambition and competition in driving the events of the Priscillianist controversy and enables us to trace with particular clarity the formation of networks of alliance and opposition between various bishops and imperial officials. We thereby observe the process by which a local dispute was transformed into an ecclesiastical controversy in which two emperors and the most influential bishops of the Latin-speaking world were ultimately forced to take part.[2]

Priscillian's works are much less complete in chronological scope and certainly less susceptible to chronological organization than Severus' historical account. However, for the stage of the controversy immediately following the Council of Saragossa, they provide valuable perspectives that are missing from Severus' narrative. As Raymond Van Dam has emphasized, it was not only the leaders who shaped the Priscillianist controversy but also "the desires and aspirations of the people who joined them."[3] While "the people" for the most part remain submerged in Severus' narrative, Priscillian's report on the conflict at Merida in his Letter to Damasus provides a glimpse of the social dynamics of the local communities that shaped both the leaders and the conflicts between those leaders.[4] In addition, Priscillian's Apology and his Book on the Faith and the Apocrypha shed still more light on the process of labeling by which the faction that supported Bishop Hydatius attempted to undercut Priscillian's authority and thereby to resolve the dispute.[5] At the same time, these apologetic works illumine Priscillian's view of the differing understandings of community and authority that seem to have been at the heart of the conflict at both Saragossa and Merida, giving new insight into Priscillian's self-understanding and his own strategies of rhetorical combat. Priscillian presents himself as an authoritative Christian teacher and interpreter of scripture who has been unjustly assailed by an uneducated and contentious bishop; the learned exegete complains that "untaught madness presses, ignorant insanity drives us out," and describes his opponents as "schismatics" who "pursue domestic enmities under the name of religion."[6] Priscillian's writings also, however, suggest that the controversy was not merely about authority but also involved significant differences in theological perspective that were closely entangled with the divergent understandings of authority. The sermons preserved in the Würzburg corpus complement the evidence of the Apology , providing a broader perspective on Priscillian's thought and thereby aiding us in situating the cosmological aspect of this controversy in the history of late fourth-century Christian thought.

The Priscillianist tractates stand at the center of inquiry and thereby


provide this chapter's textual unity. In addition, the labeling strategies of Priscillian's opponents continue to organize the chronological investigation. The testimony of Priscillian, complemented by Severus and other hostile sources, indicates that a series of distinct, yet overlapping, labels was invoked in the period between the Council of Saragossa and Priscillian's death. Manichaeism, sorcery, and sexual immorality figured prominently among the negative associations that contributed to a growing public perception that Priscillian and his companions were dangerous and fundamentally alien to the Christian community. It was the accusation of Manichaeism that seems to have dominated the earliest phase of the conflict that developed following the Council of Saragossa, beginning with Hydatius' initial struggles to discredit a rival who was eroding his support both locally and abroad, and reaching the peak of effectiveness when Hydatius forced Priscillian to leave Spain under threat of deposition and exile. The label was persuasively applied in a context in which Priscillian's asceticism, his eclectic reading habits, his preoccupation with demonology and dualistic cosmology, and his predilection for small-group meetings lent plausibility to Hydatius' damaging suggestion that the "false bishop" was a Manichaean merely masquerading as an orthodox Christian. Furthermore, the charge of Manichaeism was particularly effective as part of a continuing rhetorical strategy to represent Priscillian's circle as private and therefore subversive, since the Manichaeans were commonly associated with secretive and seditious behavior. And, finally, the use of a label implying marginality even to the category of heresy itself had sinister implications. Priscillian's own writings reflect the marginal location of Manichaeism on the late ancient Christian map of the "other": situated somewhere between the more intimate enmity of the heretic and the absolutized alterity of the magician, the label of Manichaeism ultimately mediated the slide from charges of heresy to the more deadly accusation of sorcery.

This chapter traces the first act in the dramatic chain of events that led from Saragossa to the sword, using the writings of Priscillian as a window from which to gaze upon the scene of Spanish controversy in the period from Hydatius' return to Merida to Priscillian's forced departure from Avila—the period in which the label of Manichaeism seems to have been crucial to the representation of Priscillian as "heretical other." The first and largest task of the chapter is to reconstruct the disputes at Merida immediately following the Council of Saragossa, relying primarily on Priscillian's Letter to Damasus and his Apology , secondarily on the Book on the Faith and the Apocrypha . While the Letter to Damasus has been used in previous studies of the early controversy surrounding Priscillian, the


value of the Apology for the historical reconstruction the social and cosmological conflicts of this period has not yet been fully exploited; here, in particular, fresh insights may be gained. In addition, Priscillian's sermons, less directly influenced by apologetic concerns, will give a different angle on the more controversial aspects of Priscillian's thought, which, far from being simply subsumable under the category of Manichaeism, may be seen to play a distinctive role in the history of the late-fourth-century resurgence and suppression of cosmological reflection and debate. With the introduction of a more purely theological dimension to this controversy, a new layer is added to the ongoing account of the social conflict and rhetorical strategies of mediation already begun with the initial reading of the Acts of the Council of Saragossa .

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.

Priscillian's Defense

Among the Würzburg tractates is a second major apologetic work attributed to Priscillian or a close associate of his: the so-called Apology .[46] Unlike the Letter to Damasus , this document is difficult to place within the framework of the chronology of the Priscillianist controversy and includes little narrative material. It is, therefore, of less use in reconstructing the sequence of events that led to the ultimate execution of Priscillian and his followers. However, the Apology is of great help in interpreting the content of the accusations brought against Priscillian's circle in Spain in the early stages of the controversy. Whereas the Letter to Damasus glosses over the unsavory charges circulating in the Lusitanian communities, it is precisely the purpose of the Apology to respond in detail to a series of accusations brought against the Spanish ascetics. Whereas the Letter to Damasus is a carefully constructed appeal addressed to a powerful bishop distant from the heart of the conflict, the Apology was intended for an audience of local bishops. Whereas the tone of the Letter to Damasus is sober and controlled and its language replete with legal terminology, the Apology is a spirited and loosely organized work that interweaves exegesis with preacherly exhortation, and passionate anathemas with fervent professions of faith. If the Letter to Damasus provides the characters and basic plot for the early stages of the Priscillianist controversy, the Apology supplies the dialogue.

Determining the exact circumstances of composition of the Apology is difficult.[47] Scholars have argued that it was written by Priscillian or one of his companions before the Council of Saragossa,[48] at the request of some Spanish bishops immediately following the conflict at Merida,[49] as part of the defensive campaign following the rescript of Gratian, or for the Council of Bordeaux;[50] in other words, the document has been dated to almost every stage of the Priscillianist controversy and its authorship attributed to various members of Priscillian's circle. The most likely context for the Apology is, however, the conflict at Merida after the Council of Saragossa and before Priscillian's ordination, and the most likely author is Priscillian himself.[51] The treatise was therefore probably composed earlier than the Letter to Damasus and may be the work referred to at the end of that letter,


where Priscillian appeals to "what we have written against the Manichaeans."[52] A date before the Council of Saragossa is possible but more difficult to support since, as we shall see, the Apology replies to charges of Manichaeism as well as charges of sorcery raised by Ithacius of Ossonuba, and there is no evidence that Ithacius was an active part of the opposition to the Priscillianist circle or that explicit charges of Manichaeism or sorcery were raised before the council. A later date is also possible, but much less likely than a date before Priscillian's ordination and Gratian's rescript, since the Apology seems to have been written by a layperson, makes no reference at all to the quasi-legal issues that are of such great concern in the Letter to Damasus , and is generally more confident and combative in tone.

Like the Letter to Damasus , the Apology is written on behalf of a group by an individual—presumably Priscillian—who seems naturally to assume the role of leader or spokesperson for the group. The author's sense of identity emerges most clearly in the introduction, where he offers his personal credentials. While protesting that "it is not proper to boast of what we have been," he nevertheless emphasizes his former social status and education: "We were not placed in such an obscure position in regard to the world or called so foolish that faith in Christ and the knowledge of belief could bring death to us rather than salvation."[53] Compare Severus' statement that Priscillian was wealthy, well-educated, and of noble birth.[54] In the Apology , these worldly credentials are transformed through their apparent rejection into the ascetic authority of one who has been converted in baptism to a "road" of life mapped out by the catholic creed and consisting of total surrender to Christ. Priscillian expresses a reluctance to respond to the bishops' request that he "go through each item" in defending his own orthodoxy: how could one with his credentials not "condemn the silly dogmas of the heretics"? This professed reluctance has a rhetorical function, but also appears to reflect a real ambivalence on the author's part. On the one hand, he clearly feels that his ascetic life and his past professions of orthodox belief, which are not secret but "established in the light of faith," grant him a certain authority and freedom. On the other hand, he acknowledges that scripture calls him to give witness whenever requested, both for the further perfecting of his own faith and for the sake of those who might sin through their mistaken opposition to him.[55]

In the end, Priscillian agrees to comply with the "most blessed bishops"; he indicates that they leave him little choice. Undertaking to condemn a series of errors of which he and his associates have been accused, Priscillian hopes thereby to persuade the bishops of the falseness of those accusations. Indeed, he announces that he will take the opportunity, not


only to respond to the specific items with which he has been presented, but also to "speak more broadly" in professing his faith and opposing heresy.[56] The large number of errors condemned in the Apology supports the impression that Priscillian does indeed "speak more broadly": while many of these condemnations function as a direct defense against actual accusations, others are included to serve more complicated rhetorical purposes or arise out of interests unrelated to the controversy at hand. A brief overview of the document will provide a sense of its structure in relation to the apologetic purpose of Priscillian's condemnation of heresies, while also allowing us to identify and explore more fully those condemnations that seem most certain to reflect actual accusations against Priscillian and his circle.

Priscillian's introductory remarks include a condemnation of the "Binionites," those who divide Christ from God.[57] All the tractates place great stress on the unity of Christ and God, and Priscillian may well have created the Binionites—who appear only in his writings—as a fitting counterpart to his own highly unitive theology.[58] At any rate, he never suggests that he has been charged with this heresy. Priscillian next moves to the main body of his work, opening with four relatively brief condemnations of heresies that may likewise have little or nothing to do with the controversy between Priscillian's circle and their opponents: the Patripassian heresy, the Novatian heresy, the heresy of those who deny that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, and the Nicolaitans.[59] Priscillian's strong emphasis on the unity of God does, in fact, leave him somewhat vulnerable to the accusations of Patripassianism (an error Priscillian does not even seem to understand) and Docetism, and both of these were doctrinal errors associated with Manichaeism,[60] of which he was certainly accused. The possible charge of Novatianism—which Priscillian describes as a heresy characterized by multiple baptisms—may reflect disagreements between Priscillian's circle and their opponents on the subject of baptism.[61] Finally, the brief reference to the Nicolaitans may reflect charges of immorality being levied against Priscillian and his circle. Nevertheless, the connection between these four anathemas and the accusations actually brought against Priscillian and his associates is never made explicit and must therefore remain uncertain.[62]

Most of the weight of Priscillian's anathematizing efforts in the Apology falls on the next four errors condemned: worship of animals, worship of gentile gods, worship of demons, and Manichaeism. The errors of animal-, idol-, and demon-worship are treated at great length, and here finally Priscillian makes it clear that in each case the errors condemned represent actual accusations brought against his circle. The condemnation


of the followers of Mani is more concise, but quite violent; in both respects it anticipates the condemnation of sorcery later in the work, where Priscillian again makes it quite clear that he is responding to an actual charge, even naming his accuser. Between the condemnations of Mani and of sorcery, Priscillian inserts a catalogue of ten heresies, including some (but not all) of the heresies already condemned, as well as several not previously mentioned; this list again does not seem to represent a response to actual charges against Priscillian but rather functions rhetorically to suggest the inclusiveness of Priscillian's condemnation of heresy, to deflect attention from the heresies of which Priscillian and his circle were actually being accused, and to separate all the foregoing condemnations from the discussion of the terrible accusation of sorcery that follows.

Priscillian's closing remarks include a positive profession of his own orthodox belief and a discussion of the criteria by which one distinguishes orthodoxy and heresy. Embedded in the statement of his own orthodoxy is a final condemnation of those who are led by an overly "carnal" interpretation of scripture to consider God masculo-feminine. These heretics also deny the Resurrection and take demons (Armaziel, Mariame, Joel, Balsamus, Barbilos) to be God. The subsequent discussion of how to distinguish orthodox and heretical teaching appears to engage one of Priscillian's favorite topics, as well as to respond to a point on which he has been attacked. Priscillian gives a brief treatment of his distinctive views concerning the canon, the apocrypha, prophecy, and revelation, in the course of which he condemns those who add a fifth gospel to the canon—an error of which he has also been accused.

This overview of the Apology suggests, then, that the condemnations that represent direct responses to actual accusations include the anathemas aimed against worshippers of animals, gentile gods, and demons, the condemnation of the followers of Mani, the anathematization of sorcerers, and the objection to the addition of a fifth gospel to the canon. The first and most lengthy of these is the condemnation of those who worship animals, which opens as follows: "Let the one be anathema who, upon reading about griffins, eagles, asses, elephants, serpents, and unnecessary beasts, has been captured by the emptiness of confused respect and constructed, as it were, a mystery of divine religion—though their works and abominableness of form are the nature of the demons, not the truth of the divine glories."[63] Priscillian here vehemently denounces exegetes who identify certain scriptural animals as symbols of God or the sacraments, implying that such exegetes thereby condone the worship of animals.[64] He insists that any scriptural mention of animals or fabulous beasts must instead be understood as a reference to demonic powers and moral vice:


"We have renounced what we have renounced in the devil, and that is what is called a wild animal."[65] The interpreter who fails to recognize this meaning confuses demons with God and evil with virtue and thereby condemns him or herself. "The prophets wanted all that was put in their visions to be read by all and, having been understood, to be avoided; and therefore the hearts of those who investigated those things and did not understand rightly what it was that they read have been given to the beast and their flesh will be devoured," Priscillian explains, citing the apocalyptic visions of bestial adversaries described in Daniel and Revelation.[66] Those who interpret scriptural beasts correctly, on the other hand, are enabled to attain the virtue of the true Christian and ascetic: "The one who understands the natures of beasts that have been described in parables may reject the things of this world and purify the character defects in him or herself."[67]

In defending his position, Priscillian is able to marshal an impressive, if also somewhat tedious, number of scriptural passages mentioning animals or fabulous beasts. He presents himself self-consciously as an authoritative interpreter of scripture who is called to the interpretive task by the canon itself, which urges him to "search the scriptures" (cf. John 5.39)[68] and to strive to understand the "turns of speech and the interpretation of parables" (cf. Wisd. of Sol. 8.8 and Ecclus. 39.2–3),[69] since "the law is spiritual" (cf. Rom. 7.14) and "all prophecy requires interpretation" (cf. 2 Peter 1.20).[70] If scripture calls him to his task, it is the God Christ who empowers him: "we have the God Christ in our minds as guide, through whom even if we should think otherwise, these things will also be revealed to us."[71] Priscillian is clearly satisfied that his long labor to interpret the scriptural references to animals has produced fruit, and his words reflect both confidence and inflexibility on a topic crucial to his exegetical defense of asceticism.

It is unlikely that either the idiosyncrasy or the intolerance of Priscillian's exegetical stance would have been enough to provoke an accusation of heresy, much less of animal-worship. The explanation for his accusers' hostile response lies, I suggest, in Priscillian's probable use of gnostic apocrypha to interpret canonical references to animals. His emphasis on his own authority as interpreter hints that the use of apocrypha may here be at stake, since it recalls similar language in his Book on the Faith and the Apocrypha , in which he twice cites John's exhortation to "search the scriptures" and concludes that the scriptures themselves command him to study even noncanonical texts in his search for knowledge of God.[72] Moreover, we shall see that elsewhere in the Apology , Priscillian identifies scriptural beasts both with the seven planetary gods and with demons called


by the gnostic names Saclas, Nebroel, Samael, Belzebuth, Nasbodeus, and Belial.[73] A gnostic work like the Apocryphon of John would have suggested precisely such an identification: according to this work, the lustful chief archon Yaltabaoth, also known as Saclas or Samael, has the form of a lionfaced serpent; in addition, six of the seven planetary "powers" of Yaltabaoth take bestial shapes, bearing the faces of lion, donkey, hyena, serpent, dragon, monkey, and fire, respectively; and, finally, the two archons Yave and Eloim, produced through the adulterous union of the chief archon and Eve, have the faces of cat and bear.[74] Salvation in the gnostic text hinges on the recognition that the bestial archons are not gods but ignorant and despicable demons whose rule drags humanity down under the weight of temporality, immorality, and animal nature. If some such form of gnostic cosmology does indeed influence Priscillian's interpretation of the canonical scriptures, it is not surprising that he considers the question of the true identity of scriptural beasts to be crucial to salvation.

Priscillian's symbolic interpretation of scriptural animals in relation to a text like the Apocryphon of John by no means implies his acceptance of a distinctly gnostic cosmology and mythological schema. Nevertheless, his use of gnostic apocrypha must have caused some alarm and given rise to the accusation that Priscillian regarded the scriptural beasts as divine powers. When asked to respond to this accusation, Priscillian suggests that it is not he but his "schismatic" opponents who worship animals—or rather, who fail to reject what the animals clearly symbolize—when they refuse to acknowledge the demonic significance of scriptural beasts. "Let no one attribute to us the understanding of his or her own perversity," he admonishes.[75]

Having concluded his lengthy discussion of the proper interpretation of animals in scripture, Priscillian moves on to consider the "idolatrous images, Saturn, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, and the other gods of the gentiles" that have been "produced" in the accusations of his opponents. Priscillian expresses astonishment that "even in these things the faithfulness of our profession is questioned." However, this protest is preceded by an elaborate set of qualifying clauses that refer to a time when Priscillian "lived indifferent to God and uninstructed in the faith through the scriptures," "took delight in dealings of mundane foolishness," and—significantly—was educated in works of classical literature that included allusions to the pagan gods. In this way Priscillian suggests, but does not explicitly state, that such readings took place only in the distant past, and he furthermore insists that even when he read these works, he "recognized that these things were against our faith" and both "disparaged the gods of the gentiles" and "laughed at the worldly foolishness and misfor-


tunes of those whose works we nevertheless read for the sake of education." Despite his disclaimers, Priscillian seems to be aware that his readings in pagan literature leave him vulnerable to accusations of idolatry, and his language allows for the possibility that such readings were not confined to his youth.[76]

It is probably no accident that Priscillian's initial mention of only five gentile gods—Saturn, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Mars—deflects attention from the astrological associations of the deities he denounces. In fact, he is most acutely interested in two deities he does not immediately mention—the sun and moon—and in the seven gods who correspond to the seven days of the week and the seven planetary spheres. Important to Priscillian's condemnation is the construction of an opposition between temporal existence, which is under the control of demons and the seven planetary gods, on the one hand, and the life of the ascetic Christian, who is liberated by the immortal God Christ from these bonds of temporal existence, on the other. The following passage is excerpted from a lengthier section in which Priscillian denounces each of the seven planetary gods in turn, contrasting the bondage of the temporal deities with the freedom of the eternal God Christ.

Let those whose dwelling is the fire of Gehenna say that the sun is their god, and let those who do not want the God Christ to be their foundation confess themselves the sun's elements: for us, all things which are under the sun are futile and the presumption of a perverse wind, since we know that the sun will die with the world. Let those who, having been led about by every wind of doctrine, determine to observe the days and the seasons and the years and the months confess that the moon is god in their evil deeds; let those who have pleased themselves with the adulterous Mars and who in their addiction are bound by the fornications of the desire of the flesh, say that Mars is their god. . . . However, for us, the Christ Jesus is God, who when we had died from our sins, made us alive with him, forgiving all our sins and destroying the bond that was against us, that was opposed to the decrees, and abolished it, nailing it to the cross; he exposed the principalities and powers to ridicule confidently, triumphing over them in himself.[77]

As was the case with his passionate condemnation of animal worshippers, it is difficult to imagine that Priscillian is insincere in this condemnation of the worshippers of planetary deities. The very passion of his denunciation offers a clue to the origin of the accusation that he himself worshipped the planetary deities. Like animals, the seven planetary gods—and particularly the sun and moon—seem to have played a prominent role in Priscillian's scriptural support for asceticism. Through the life of Christian dis-


cipline, he argues, men and women are freed from the bonds of the temporal realm symbolized by the dominance of the beastly rulers of the planetary spheres. Priscillian's eclectic reading habits and his development of the negative symbolism of the planetary powers must have provided the basis for his opponents' claim that he considered the seven planetary gods divine.

Later detractors were to maintain that Priscillian, like Mani, indulged in elaborate astrological speculations. Orosius not only accused Priscillian of astrological speculation but also supported his accusation with a citation from a purported letter of Priscillian's.[78] This claim is neither proved nor disproved by Priscillian's Apology or by his other works. On one level, Priscillian simply takes for granted the cosmology of his day.[79] On another level, we have seen that he uses this cosmology symbolically to express the profound disjunction between the bonds of the temporal world and the free reign of the God Christ. But in the end, Priscillian challenges the validity of traditional cosmic piety altogether, emphasizing that sun and moon are in fact neither divine nor powerful, good nor evil, but are merely part of the order of God's creation, as their visible mutability clearly reveals. In the passage cited above and at two other places in his works, Priscillian invokes Ecclus. 17.31 to underline this point: "What is brighter than the sun? Yet its light will fail."[80] And in the Tractate on Exodus , Priscillian offers the examples of solar and lunar eclipses and of the monthly waxing and waning of the moon as evidence of the created nature of sun and moon: "All that shrinks or grows—sun of day, moon of night—is not the rule of our captivity, but the working order of nature."[81] These somewhat divergent and even contradictory tendencies within Priscillian's own works are typical of Christian attitudes toward astrology and do not in themselves place Priscillian outside the mainstream;[82] in addition, a certain productive inconsistency, or rather multiplicity, of interpretations is completely in keeping with Priscillian's flexible and multilayered exegetical method.

As we have seen, Priscillian's condemnation of idolatry identifies the sun, moon, and other gentile gods, not only with the idols prohibited in scripture, but also with the animals and demons already described in the previous section. The continuity provided by the equation of the pagan gods, scriptural beasts, and demons extends into the next section, in which Priscillian anathematizes "those who worship Saclas, Nebroel, Samael, Belzebuth, Nasbodeus, Belial, and all such, because they are demons, by the unfruitful sanctification of religious ceremonies, or who say that they should be worshipped. . . . For whatever shapes, forms, or names the devil


changes himself into, we know that he can be nothing else but the devil . . . whether he is regarded as a beast . . . or a serpent or a dragon, we know that he is the devil."[83]

Evidently, some of Priscillian's opponents had requested that Priscillian respond to "the individual things that have been written" about creation in a certain apocryphal text, which Priscillian had probably been accused of reading.[84] This text seems to resemble portions of the Apocryphon of John[85] —which we have seen also contains striking bestial representations of the archons of the planetary spheres—and extant accounts of the Manichaean creation myth.[86] It includes the story of the chief archon Saclas' seduction of Eve and the subsequent birth of Cain and Lamech, and perhaps also the creation of Adam and Eve through the union of the archons Saclas and Nebroel.

In Priscillian's discussion of scriptural beasts, one glimpses how he may have used apocryphal scriptures as an aid to the interpretation of canonical texts. Here, on the other hand, he uses canonical texts in order to control his reading of an apocryphal text. Priscillian begins by affirming that those who worship demons are "rightly related to the earthly Adam" and rightly identified as the product of Eve's intercourse with the demon Saclas. Instead of rejecting the apocryphal creation story outright, Priscillian moves to offer an explicitly canonical interpretation. First, he identifies the unfaithful Eve of the apocryphal text with the allegorical representation of Israel as the unfaithful wife of God in the canonical prophets. Next, he complements the apocryphal account of Eve's adultery with the canonical affirmation that she will return to her rightful husband and God through childbearing. Finally, Priscillian avoids a literal interpretation of childbearing by further equating Eve with the mother church whose children are identified by their good works. Thus, in retelling the apocryphal creation story, Priscillian does not reject the dualism of the gnostic-Manichaean myth that pits the archons of the world against the heavenly pleroma and attributes the creation of humanity to a joint effort of heavenly agents and evil archons; but he gives that dualism a symbolic and predominately moral interpretation, affirming that "we are the creation of God in our good works." Furthermore, insists Priscillian, having been created by the God Christ, humanity was worthy to be his temple. He then invokes canonical scripture again in order to anathematize the one who denies the fleshly existence or the real suffering of the crucified Christ, thus rejecting the materialist or essentialist cosmological dualism commonly attributed to the Manichaeans.[87]

Priscillian's use of apocryphal scriptures is defended briefly in both the Letter to Damasus and the Apology and at length in his Book on the Faith


and the Apocrypha . He points out that the canonical scriptures contain many allusions to extracanonical texts, and that some of these are explicitly given prophetic authority. In this manner, the canon is continually pointing beyond itself, Priscillian argues; it not only allows but mandates the reading of extracanonical works.[88] Many apocryphal works have, however, been interpolated by heretics, as is the case with passages reflecting a docetic christology: "The schismastics or heretics, falsifying scriptures and inserting their own unfruitful interpretation into the divine discourses, mix false lies with catholic truths."[89] Apocryphal texts must, therefore, be interpreted in relation to the canon—"Moses, the gospels, or the prophets."[90] While Priscillian acknowledges that certain texts "ought not be committed to inexperienced ears,"[91] he does not doubt the ability of a skilled exegete like himself to separate the wheat from the tares. Moreover, to fail to read the interpolated texts, according to Priscillian, is to play into the hands of the devil, who "introduced his own words among the holy for the very reason that, if it were not under a careful reaper, the grain would die with the tares and he would make the good perish with the very bad."[92]

Following his condemnation of the worshippers of demons, Priscillian offers a brief but harsh condemnation of the Manichaeans:

Let the one who does not condemn Mani and his works, doctrines, and principles be anathema. If it could be done, we would punish their turpitudes in particular with the sword and send them to the lower world and whatever is worse than Gehenna and sleepless torment, where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not perish. Their evil deeds have been exposed by divine judgment, so that the impurity would not be concealed, as well as by secular judgments. For besides those things that they asserted by erring perceptions, they considered the sun and moon, governors of the whole world, to be gods, although it is written, "What is brighter than the sun, and it will fail?" They magnified the follies of their miserable sacrileges to such an extent that they said that they dedicated their minds, which were crushed by blindness, more piously whenever they bound them more execrably.[93]

The reference to the importance of the sun and moon in Manichaean cult and myth links this passage with Priscillian's earlier denunciation of sun- and moon-worshippers. However, his tone here is considerably harsher. By invoking the threat of the imperial sword, Priscillian distinguishes the Manichaeans from other heretics and associates them instead with the nefarious crimes of sorcerers.[94] He implicitly endorses the right of the secular courts to judge the Manichaeans, like sorcerers, although he elsewhere expresses the conviction that matters of religion should be judged by the


church alone.[95] He recommends death for Manichaeans as well as sorcerers, despite the fact that no imperial law after Diocletian's rescript had threatened the Manichaeans with death, while sorcerers were typically threatened with capital punishment.[96] In the Letter to Damasus , Priscillian expresses still more clearly his conviction that the Manichaeans are completely alien to the Christian community, having passed beyond even the pale of heresy: "The Manichaeans are no longer heretics, but idolaters, sorcerers, and slaves of the sun and moon."[97]

The severe condemnation of Mani and his disciples—in which Priscillian never directly acknowledges that he is responding to an accusation—is followed by the summary catalogue of heresies discussed above.[98] Priscillian then launches into a response to the allegation of sorcery made by Bishop Ithacius. Ithacius' accusation is a "new saying," notes Priscillian, not only recent but of unprecedented gravity: something so terrible had never before been proposed "by any heretical author." While Priscillian's rhetorical sophistication should not be underestimated, there is a ring of sincerity in the horror expressed in his response to the charge of sorcery. His ears have been polluted by merely listening to Ithacius' charge, and Ithacius himself is worthy of condemnation—indeed, of punishment with the sword—simply for speaking of such things.[99]

The specific magical acts of which Ithacius accused Priscillian included consecrating the firstfruits of crops with magical enchantments and consecrating an ointment with curses to sun and moon, "with which it will fail."[100] Chadwick has suggested that this latter phrase refers to the unguent decreasing with a solar eclipse or the moon's waning through some sort of sympathetic magic. The curses were probably understood to have an apotropaic effect. In the passage immediately following his citation of Ithacius' accusation, Priscillian denounces those who believe that what is of rock, horn, or stone is a god, who are satisfied with rain from the devil, and who worship bestial demons.[101] Chadwick infers from this that the unguent of Ithacius' accusation was to be poured over a holy stone representing some god or demon—a well-documented practice—and that the purpose of the ritual was to ensure good weather for the crops.[102]

Chadwick's speculative proposal that Ithacius accused Priscillian specifically of taking part in fertility rituals related to securing good weather is plausible. But it is highly unlikely that Priscillian participated in such rituals, as he goes on to suggest. Chadwick bases this suggestion on the relative mildness of Ithacius' charge, the likelihood that ancient Christian bishops were occasionally called upon to attend such peasant rituals, and the fact that he finds other hints in the tractates that Priscillian dabbled in magical practices.[103] This last point is the most serious, but also the most


poorly founded. Chadwick claims, for example, that Priscillian was proud of the possession of a magical amulet bearing the picture of a lion and the name of God inscribed in several languages. But he bases this claim on a dubious interpretation of an exegetical passage in which Priscillian interweaves the reference to a name inscribed on a white stone in Rev. 2.17 with the reference to the title "King of kings and Lord of lords" in 1 Tim. 6.15 in order to emphasize that Christ alone is God; Priscillian goes on from this point to illustrate the metaphorical character of scriptural descriptions of God as "lion" or "deer."[104] Nor is there any evidence that Priscillian held nocturnal meetings, or was even accused of doing so at this point, although Severus does record that Priscillian confessed several years later, perhaps under torture, to holding nocturnal meetings with women.[105] Although some bishops probably did attend or even preside over peasant rituals, Priscillian's polarized view of the fundamental opposition between the God Christ and the virtuous Christians, on the one hand, and the demons and their immoral worshippers, on the other, argues in favor of the sincerity of his horrified response to Ithacius' charge that he trafficked with demons.

As for Chadwick's argument that the seeming mildness of the accusation implies its accuracy, one could just as easily claim that Ithacius was constrained by his very lack of evidence. At a stage in which the conflict was still largely local and most of his audience knew Priscillian personally, it would be difficult for Ithacius to fabricate lies that had no basis whatsoever in Priscillian's teaching or practice or in current public perceptions of Priscillian. There are indications that Ithacius' charges of sorcery at this point were closely intertwined with the accusations of Manichaeism that were also circulating. As part of his condemnation of sorcery, Priscillian denounces those who believe that rain comes from the devil[106] —a common Manichaean notion.[107] There may also be some connection between Priscillian's use of Ecclus. 7.31 to demonstrate the falseness of Manichaean veneration for the sun and moon—"What is brighter than the sun? And it will fail" (et hic deficiet )[108] —and Ithacius' accusation that Priscillian teaches that an ointment should be consecrated to the sun and moon, "with which it will fail" (cum quibus deficiet ).[109]

As noted above, Priscillian's final condemnations of errors occur in the concluding section of the Apology . Just as in his introductory remarks, he denounces the heresy that appears to him the most contemptible—the error of the "Binionites"—here, it seems, he again removes himself partially from the context of the accusations brought against him and gives his own opinion of what is most reprehensible in the apocryphal scriptures he has read. It is not the doctrine of demons or even of creation that Priscillian


finds most problematic in these writings, although that is evidently what he has been asked to denounce. Rather, it is the false understanding of God on which he here focuses. Seeming not to know to which heresy to attribute the apocryphal scriptures that he reads, Priscillian remarks vaguely that the "unfortunate" err in ascribing to God a "masculo-feminine" nature based on an overly literal interpretation of Gen. 1.27–28. As is often the case, a salvific reading of scripture is at the heart of the issue for Priscillian: "For them, therefore, may all that they read be a confusion; for us, may it be reckoned as knowledge to understand what is written and to know the power of the living word."[110]

The heretics further err in referring to Armaziel, Mariame, Joel, Balsamus, and Barbilos as God; there is only one God, insists Priscillian, and that is the Christ Jesus, as scripture makes clear. Priscillian goes on to describe his own method for distinguishing truth and falsehood or orthodoxy and heresy in extracanonical writings: whoever condemns worldly sins, prophesies or preaches about the God Christ, and teaches in agreement with the canonical scriptures and the catholic faith is to be honored; whoever condones sin, denies that Jesus is God, or contradicts "Moses, the gospels, or the prophets" is anathema. Given the importance of canon in his thought, Priscillian is appalled at the "odium" attributed to his circle of "fabricating or confessing some fifth gospel beyond the fourth gospel."[111]

If one now steps back to observe the different fragments in the Apology's mosaic of condemnations, a discernible pattern emerges. Priscillian seems to have given an important place in his theology to demons embodying the worldly vices rejected by the true—that is, ascetic—Christian. The multiplicity of demons (who were, however, all ultimately identifiable with the one devil) was opposed to the oneness of Christ God. Their bondedness and fragmentation in the divisions of time was contrasted with the freedom and unity of the eternal God Christ. Priscillian almost certainly used apocryphal scriptures and probably also pagan literature to undergird his explication of the demonic forces, although he always interpreted all texts in light of the canonical scriptures. He presents himself as a man who derives his authority from his inspired interpretation of books. His persistent preoccupation with demons and the breadth of readings to which his quest for knowledge led him seem to have provided the excuse for accusations of Manichaeism and magic, both popularly connected with secret books as well as demons.

Priscillian evidently responded to an itemized list that contained the following accusations: interpreting the animals of canonical scripture as gnostic demons; identifying the sun and moon and planetary gods as di-


vine powers; and reading heretical apocrypha and endorsing their cosmology, including their distinctive presentations of the archons, creation, and the docetic Christ. Priscillian refutes each of these accusations and caps his refutations with a violent condemnation of Mani. The nature and position of this condemnation indicate that Priscillian is attempting somewhat delicately both to separate Mani from the controversial points already discussed, and to acknowledge that these points have become controversial in large part because of the claim that they imply that he is a Manichaean. The same delicacy is apparent in Priscillian's positioning of the accusation of magical practices relating to the sun and moon. The charges of sorcery and Manichaeism often went hand in hand, and it is evident that this is Priscillian's view: he condemns both Manichaeans and sorcerers with singular violence to execution by the sword. However, by inserting a summary catalogue of heresies before his condemnation of sorcery, he also attempts to separate the sorcery accusation from the previous charges, which culminate in the accusation of Manichaeism. Whereas he seems implicitly to acknowledge some grounds for discussion on the questions of interpretation of scriptural beasts and the sun and moon and the heretical interpolations in apocryphal scriptures, he is appalled at the fabrication of charges of sorcery that implicate him in actual dealings with the abhorred demons.

Cosmology and the Ascetic Body: Priscillian's Sermons

Hydatius' cry of "Manichaeism!" cannot be read as a straightforward description of Priscillian's beliefs or ecclesiastical loyalties; nor should Priscillian's elaborate protestations of his own anti-Manichaean orthodoxy be too lightly dismissed as mere defensive rhetoric. Nevertheless, the question may be raised: when all is said and done, was Priscillian not "really" a Manichaean, as evidenced above all by his cosmological speculations? The answer, I think, is no; yet still some further exploration of the relationship of Priscillian's thought to Manichaeism may prove fruitful, if properly contextualized. When we are able to see Manichaeism as only one solution to a set of cosmological and ascetical problems that pressed themselves more broadly upon the consciousness of late-fourth-century theologians, the spiritual and intellectual context shaped by these pressures becomes clearer. In other words, Manichaeism rightly draws our attention, not because it provided the direct source for Priscillian's thought, but rather because it is peculiarly revealing of the pressures to which Priscillian and other theologians of his time also responded.


The theological as well as political context of the late-fourth-century churches had been fundamentally shaped by the Arian controversy, which in turn had been influenced, not only by imperial patronage and the rise of the ascetic movement, but also by a profound religious "paradigm shift" involving both a perceived narrowing of human access to the divine and a polarization of divine and earthly power.[112] In a period in which an orthodox affirmation of absolute divine transcendence had finally been securely established, it became increasingly evident that the new trinitarian orthodoxy implied a radical disruption of pre-Nicene cosmological frameworks. What was the status of the created order, in the wake of the shift from a mediating Word to a fully transcendent Son? And where was the human being located in relation to the nearly unbridgeable chasm that now opened up between creation and the divine Creator? With the discarding of the fluid and connective Middle Platonic "ladder of being," the salvific communion of divinity and creation became imaginable only through the paradox of the Incarnation, not infrequently conceived of as an act of divine violence that threatened to shatter the integrity of the cosmos itself. Responding to the pressures of such cosmological questions, the late-third-century followers of Mani had already embraced the notion of a fractured cosmos, coherently enough also positing a parallel fracturing of transcendent power figured in the opposition of God and devil, or the principles of Light and Darkness. The Manichaeans had furthermore placed the human being precisely at the site of the cosmic fissure, insisting on the original and essential "divinity" of the human soul and the original and essential "earthliness" of the body in which that divine soul was imprisoned, and from which it must ultimately be liberated through the body's destruction. For most late-ancient thinkers, including Priscillian, this Manichaean solution represented a clear and precise boundary stone marking one point of departure from the realm of legitimate cosmological speculation: such a radical and essentialist dualism could not be tolerated. Indeed, from a Christian point of view, Manichaeism could be constructed as the negative mirror-image of an orthodoxy that affirmed creation. But the sharp dualism of the Manichaean thought-world also functioned more ambiguously, not merely repelling, but also tugging at the imaginations of fourth-century writers like Priscillian by resolving with chilling and compelling clarity the very cosmological questions that those Christian thinkers were likewise asking.[113]

The late fourth century appears, then, to have been a period of Christian intellectual history marked by a preoccupation with certain dualistically framed cosmological questions that emerged with renewed persistence as the trinitarian debates subsided. However, such a description is


not yet sufficiently precise. Elizabeth Clark has rightly pointed out that "the broad cosmic vision" characteristic of the earlier gnostic debates, and above all of the thought of Origen, had shrunk considerably by the time of the Origenist controversy with which her study is concerned.[114] Clark's account of the debates surrounding the figure of Origen highlights the late-fourth-century resurgence of theodicy and "questions concerning the worth of the material world, human freedom in relation to divine benevolence, sin and forgiveness"; her study also points to the widespread interest among late-fourth-century Christian authors in combating astrological determinism.[115] Clark's work thus underlines the significance for late antiquity of issues traditionally framed in cosmological terms, while also reflecting the hesitancy of theologians of the period to address cosmology head-on. Indeed, I would sharpen the point still further: both the Origenist and Priscillianist controversies provide evidence that cosmology itself had come to be construed as a risky topic of discussion by the late fourth century. However urgent the implicit cosmological concerns of the period, they remained, paradoxically, for the most part submerged or redirected.[116] Clark attributes the late-fourth-century shrinkage of cosmological vision, first, to an increasingly rigid definition of theological orthodoxy and, second, to the relocation of previous cosmological issues within the narrower framework of the human person.[117] This last point is important, for the study of the Origenist controversy suggests that constructions of the human body came to carry most of the weight of theological concerns precisely within a late-fourth-century ecclesiastical context defined above all by eucharistic and ascetic praxis.[118] It is intriguing that Clark's identification of the "practical" issues that pressed to the fore in the debates of the Origenist controversy aligns so closely with the conflicting emphases on eucharistic and ascetic practices already noted in the Acts of the Council of Saragossa . But equally resonant with this analysis of the Priscillianist controversy is the suggestion that issues traditionally framed in broad cosmological terms are most often refracted through the prism of the human body in the writings of late-fourth-century theologians. We shall see that the human body figures centrally in the sermons preserved among the tractates of Priscillian, in which the body constitutes both the site of the proposed ascetic practices and the ambiguous vehicle of cosmological assertions. The worldview that emerges from the sermons is consistent with that of the Apology , where Priscillian must respond to attacks on his most explicitly cosmological teachings. Yet the sermons' strongly anthropocentric tendency to ground cosmology in the human person locates these works even more comfortably within the late-fourth-century context.

"The body that is corrupted makes the soul heavy, and the earthly


habitation drags down the mind that thinks many things" (Wisd. of Sol. 9.15).[119] This passage, cited at three crucial points in Priscillian's sermons, attracts to itself many of the complexities and ambiguities of Priscillian's thought on the body and the cosmos. It therefore provides a convenient point of entry into the exegetical homilies of a theologian whose fluid and elaborately intertextual method of exposition does not easily lend itself to a systematic summary. First appearing in the so-called Tractate on Genesis , the passage is there cited in the context of an attack on false readings of the creation story, an attack intriguingly juxtaposed with Priscillian's response in the Apology to the charge that he himself taught falsely about creation under the influence of heretical apocrypha. Here it is Priscillian who complains that certain heretics judge the nature of the world to be evil, in direct contradiction to the canonical account. "Ascribing the making of their own body to the devil," they deny their corporality in such a way as to elude responsibility for their evil acts; they indulge their bodily desires, ignorantly "supposing that their corporeal sin is no concern to the divine disposition."[120] It is at this point that Priscillian invokes the authority of the Wisdom passage, suggesting that the heretics' error lies in a failure to understand the divinely established unity of the human person or to take seriously the implications of the embodiment of the soul. On this reading, the seemingly dualistic Wisdom passage actually resists a radically dualistic anthropology: it is precisely the capacity of the body to make the soul heavy, or the ability of the "earthly habitation" to drag the mind down, which indicates to Priscillian the close linkage of body and soul or mind.

Having thus rebuked those who denigrate the body and the earthly creation, Priscillian goes on to criticize "others" who fall into the seemingly opposed error of divinizing certain aspects of the cosmos: "Thinking that the sun and moon, lights established for the service of human beings, are gods, they assign the power of the elements to the principles of the world."[121] In fact, the "others" whom Priscillian here has in mind are probably the same Manichaeans he has just attacked. Utilizing a common rhetorical ploy, he has split his opposition into polarized extremes and thereby created an impression of multiple errors in relation to which his own position appears as a single moderate and mediating solution: his is not a mind that "thinks many things" but one that perceives the unity of truth. Yet beyond the rhetorical purposes of bifurcation, Priscillian also here introduces a second point of real dissonance between his teaching and Manichaean thought: for while the Manichaeans, who maintain that divine and earthly material mingle in the conflicted cosmos, can claim literally to see not only the devil but also God in every blade of grass, Pris-


cillian insists on the relative inferiority of all materiality to an incorporeal and invisible God. He agrees with the Manichaeans that humanity is linked to and resonant with the order of the cosmos, but rejects the particulars of this Manichaean teaching when he insists on both the hierarchical superiority of the human being and the finitude of the cosmos. Scornful of those who give too much honor to the sun, Priscillian points out that they thereby reveal that they "do not know that all that is visible will perish in the end established by God." It is furthermore absurd to claim that human beings might serve some part of the cosmos, he observes, since the entire cosmos itself was divinely ordered for the salvation of human beings: "the darkness was illumined and the nature of creation was contrived so that the numerical divisions into seasons and days would offer a habitation for the human being laboring in the work of Christ." With his reference to the earthly "habitation" of the human being, Priscillian returns us again to the Wisdom passage, here offering a still more positive reading of the body-cosmos created by God as an appropriate workplace for humanity.[122]

A slightly different interpretation of the Wisdom passage emerges in the Tractate on Exodus . Here, the rhetorical context is no longer shaped primarily by the need to combat Manichaean teachings, and Priscillian emphasizes, not the close link between soul and body, but rather the problematic status of the body itself. Acknowledging that the "nature of the body" was made by the hand of God, he returns again to the Genesis account of creation, where he notes that however divine the "hand" that creates, it nevertheless grasps "mud," a detail suggesting the body's association with a problematic "earthly birth" and a fall into temporality that dulls the "divine birth" of human beings "with the traps of earthly habitation." Again, it is the mention of the "earthly habitation" that leads directly to Wisd. of Sol. 9.15: "The body that is corrupted weighs down the soul, and the earthly habitation presses down on the mind that thinks many things."[123] Contrasting metaphors of birth—divine versus earthly, virginal versus corrupt, baptismal versus physical—here and elsewhere underline the dualism of soul and body invoked in the Wisdom passage. Yet at the same time Priscillian's very preoccupation with birth—a highly corporeal metaphor—also resists any unambiguous devaluation of corporality, and indeed he immediately goes on to contrast the image of the "body that is corrupted" not with the soul—as we might expect, and as the Wisdom passage invites—but with the body whose nature is "purified [castigata ] through the law of the Old Testament and offered to the tabernacle of God" in the New Testament.[124] This "purified" or "clarified" (clarificatus ) body,[125] represented by both the unblemished sheep of the paschal offering—ostensibly the main topic of this sermon—and the flesh of


Christ affixed to the cross, "owes nothing now to the days and seasons," having died to sin and been resurrected in new life, as Paul teaches.[126] Salvation lies, then, not so much in the loosing of mind or soul from an imprisoning body as in the transformation of a dim earthly body to a dazzling heavenly body.[127] In spite of his rejection of the Manichaeans' material dualism, Priscillian may not, after all, be so far from a position that envisions the resolution of the cosmic conflict taking place in the obliteration of a material body of Darkness by a material body of Light. But here again, he shares still more with orthodox ascetics of the period than with the Manichaeans.

The third and perhaps most strongly dualistic reading of the Wisdom passage occurs in Priscillian's treatment of the first psalm, in a homily that sounds the psalm's warning to avoid "the counsel of the impious," "the way of the sinners," and the "seat of pestilence." Priscillian reminds his readers again why such "discipline of life" is necessary: the human being is the "dwelling place of Christ" and must "prepare a home worthy of such a dweller." Secular ambition, desire, and greed are particularly to be shunned. Discipline can be achieved, he insists, but only because we have been "reborn into salvation. . . of mercy not of nature," through baptismal rebirth escaping the natural "birth of the flesh" that confines humanity with the "vices of the evil world." In this context, the Wisdom passage recalls the dangers of the fleshly or earthly birth: "the body that is corrupted makes the soul heavy, and the earthly habitation drags down the mind that thinks many things." Priscillian goes on to identify the "earthly habitation" explicitly with greed, anger, and other sinful—but not necessarily physical—impulses; it represents "our subjugation, and its own corruption," serving as the site of diabolical attack and therefore as the source of its own undoing. The "earthly habitation" is the Pauline "flesh." But as both Isaiah and First Peter remind us, "all flesh is as grass": it withers.[128]

As this last reading of the Wisdom passage most dramatically illustrates, on one level Priscillian shares with the Manichaeans—and indeed, one could easily argue, with most theologians of his time—a profoundly dualistic framework of anthropological and cosmological thought. He implies that the body tends toward corruption and can therefore be saved only against its nature; and at several points he seems to envision the eschaton as involving not so much the salvation of bodies as the final liberation of minds from bodies, arguing in much the same vein as his Origenist contemporary Evagrius. If dualistic, Priscillian's cosmology is not, however, distinctly Manichaean; he works rather within a late-Platonic framework that rejects both essentialist dualisms and materialist conceptions of


divinity. Whereas the Manichaeans radically oppose a material divinity with a material devil and thereby place the divine stuff of souls in conflict with the earthly stuff of flesh, Priscillian relegates all materiality to an earthly realm that, however fallen, is still the creation of God; materiality itself is thereby made more problematic, in comparison with the Manichaean view, while the category of earthliness becomes redeemable, if not yet redeemed.

But on another level, Priscillian's works raise the question of the value of even the categories of "dualism" and "Platonism" for locating Priscillian's thought, or indeed the thought of many of his contemporaries. For Priscillian, like both the Manichaeans and more orthodox ascetic Christians, seems to be distancing himself significantly from the traditional Platonic mind-body dualism, as he slides from language that opposes a mind to a body into language that compares a body to a body, language in which not only the terms of the dualism but even the dualism itself begins to dissolve.[129] In Priscillian's writings, "mind" and "body" are not so much divisions of the human being as alternative ciphers for the unified ascetic "self," which is pulled by conflicting impulses, and it is finally not the destruction of the body but its transformation that fascinates Priscillian. That a battle was being waged both within and outside the human person was not to be denied: for Priscillian, as for other ascetics of the period, the cosmic struggle provides the context for the microcosmic ascetic endeavor in which metaphors not only of strife but also of violence have their place. But Priscillian seems to suggest that in the final victory of the God Christ, the visible, earthly realm will not so much cease to exist as cease to resist, ultimately becoming fully transparent to the invisible divine truths: words will then unlock their hidden meaning, while purified bodies will fully reveal the nakedness of souls. That this salvific transformation is already beginning to take place in the moment of the text is one source of Priscillian's audacious confidence. Invoking the image of the dazzling heavenly body, he boldly urges his readers to prepare in themselves "the heaven and earth of the Lord" (emphasis added), "so that when the evening of ignorance dissolves . . . and when the darkness of the corruptible body has been purified and the light of the divine spirit has been placed in you, you may be called the day of the Lord! . . . Made the Sabbath of the Lord and keeping holiday from all acts of the world, you may owe nothing to the world but may rest in Christ."[130]

Just as Priscillian's anti-public rhetoric finally functions to dissolve distinctions between public and private, so too his anti-worldly dualism finally functions to dissolve distinctions between body and mind, earth


and heaven. If he is not at home in this body or world, Priscillian—like many of his ascetic counterparts—is very much at home in the body and world that are already beginning to be.


Putting this examination of Priscillian's thought back into the social context elucidated in my preceding analysis of the Meridan conflict gives a more complete picture. It becomes more comprehensible both how and why Hydatius came to expel Priscillian and his supporters from the Lusitanian churches as Manichaeans and false bishops. The conflict in Merida between Hydatius and Priscillian takes the shape of a competition between an intellectually conservative bishop with a strong sense of the public authority of his own office and a learned ascetic teacher who prides himself on his ability to interpret texts that illumine the nature and seriousness of the Christian battle against worldly demons. In terms that seem to echo the teachings of Origen,[131] Priscillian suggests that the guidance of an expert exegete is required if one is to follow the tortuous scriptural path to salvation; and he raises serious doubts as to whether Bishop Hydatius, described as "lazy" and "untaught," can provide such guidance. Hydatius, in turn, suggests that Priscillian has already strayed from the salvific path of orthodoxy by indulging in extracanonical readings and heretical cosmological speculations undertaken in the secrecy of private meetings. For both men, texts are of central importance.

Far from dispelling fears of a subversive privacy, Priscillian's writings highlight the private construction of the authority of one who has given up worldly position in order to pursue the higher goals of study and reflection. His self-conscious identity as a man of great learning is nowhere clearer than in those works where he begins, following standard rhetorical technique, by seemingly distancing himself from the role of the scholar or rhetorician. The fragmentary introduction to Priscillian's Book on the Faith and the Apocrypha , for example, contains a dramatic condemnation of "book-learning," identified as "the author of scandal, the food of schism, the nourishment of heresy, the model of a crime committed"; yet Priscillian goes on to impress the reader with his own knowledge of written texts, confidently appealing for support to "the careful investigator of the scriptures," suggesting that he himself has not only investigated everything which is said in the canonical books but also gone on to peruse extracanonical texts, scornfully contrasting his opponents' lack of education with his own learning, and finally acknowledging in a more pastoral, if


equally condescending, vein that not all have the experience to distinguish truth from falsehood in noncanonical texts.[132] Priscillian follows a similar rhetorical strategy of self-presentation in a work preserved outside the Würzburg corpus, the Canons of the Letters of the Apostle Paul . In the prologue to the Pauline Canons , Priscillian disowns the "cunning eloquence of the orator" and "syllogisms of slippery dialectic," only to assert that his own rhetoric exhibits the power of "pure truth," a truth that reflects the fruits of a "shrewd investigation into the divine scriptures," by which he may claim to have cracked open their hidden content, modestly presenting the entirety of Paul's thought distilled and systematized into ninety pithy canons to be used against "heretics."[133] For Priscillian, claiming of the authorial voice is an elaborate—and indeed endless—renunciation of public position, which is in turn paradoxically productive of the enhanced authority of the scholar who publicly advertises his own privacy.

Real differences in doctrine accompanied these conflicting strategies and competing claims to authority, not least because the theological stances of Hydatius and Priscillian provided the undergirding for their different claims to authority. Priscillian's opponents seem to have been most disturbed by his attempts to grapple exegetically with the oppressive forces of evil and immorality, which he identified symbolically in the figures of cosmic beasts, planetary powers, or demons; and it is no accident that it was precisely through his special expertise in the avoidance of the treacherous ways of the world that Priscillian legitimated his own role as ascetic teacher. In the figure of Priscillian, one observes how the emerging emphasis on demonology in late ancient Christian cosmology "transformed society itself as well as the nature of leadership, because men who were able to find demons and force them to reveal their true selves had tapped into a new source of authority."[134] "Beloved in God," Priscillian addresses his congregation in Avila, "we have been appointed to free your minds, which are besieged within the narrow paths of human weakness, sending you into new light, as it were, through the religious exhortation of our teaching."[135]

The conflict between Priscillian and Hydatius could not easily be resolved, since there was no clear consensus in the Spanish churches on the disputed issues of either doctrine or authority, and since both individuals had significant support in Merida and the outlying communities. In the absence of overwhelming popular support for one party, both resorted to the use of labels that were not precisely accurate but were at least generally agreed to be worthy of condemnation. Some attempt was made to attack Hydatius, whom Priscillian seems to refer to as a "schismatic," but Priscillian's account masks the content of the accusations. We are able to see


more clearly the process of labeling as it affected Priscillian and his circle. By pointing to real differences in reading habits, which reflected differing sources and understandings of authority, and divergent attitudes toward the "world," which shaped cosmology as well as ascetic lifestyle, Hydatius was able to identify his rivals as detested Manichaeans.

Unable to resolve the conflict at home, both parties soon appealed to neighboring bishops. Hydatius was supported by Ithacius, who seems to have been primarily responsible for the emphasis on a second, closely related labeling strategy, the accusation of sorcery. Priscillian was supported by Instantius and Salvianus, who buttressed his position by consecrating him to the episcopacy, as well as by Elpidius,[136] Tiberianus,[137] Asarbus,[138] and other influential laypeople.[139] Such was the strength of both sides and the fierceness of the antagonism that the conflict would not be resolved until still broader circles of powerful men and women had been drawn into the web of alliance and opposition.


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

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