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

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


Jerome, like Sulpicius Severus, came from a relatively wealthy family and was trained in classical literature and rhetoric in preparation for a government career. He had not yet achieved any great worldly success when, circa 370, he turned aside to devote himself to an ascetic life. Ending a


temporary sojourn in Trier, Jerome returned to his native Stridon in the company of his friend Bonosus. In the nearby city of Aquileia,[138] Jerome and Bonosus encountered a growing and enthusiastic circle of Christian ascetics. They attached themselves to the ascetic household of the presbyter Chromatius, a household that included Chromatius' mother, sisters, and brother, the deacon Eusebius, as well as the archdeacon Jovinus and Jerome's friend Rufinus.[139] Jerome and Bonosus also formed ties with a broader network of ascetics in Aquileia and nearby towns,[140] and it was probably at Aquileia that Jerome met the wealthy Antiochene presbyter Evagrius.[141]

The restless Jerome did not remain long in Aquileia. By 374, after extensive travel in the east, he had reached Antioch, where he resided for a time in the household of Evagrius. Convinced at this point that anchoritic asceticism represented the holiest form of Christian life, Jerome soon packed up his library and took up residence among the monks of the Syrian desert. Involvement in the bitter theological controversies of the east drove Jerome back to the cities: first to Antioch, then to Constantinople, and finally, in 382, to Rome.[142] His three years in Rome were marked by close and productive relationships with patrons, above all the ascetic Bishop Damasus and the aristocratic widows Marcella and Paula. Although he had been ordained presbyter while in Antioch,[143] Jerome's position in Rome appears to have been based on his reputation as a scholar and his connection with powerful patrons rather than on any official standing as a member of the clergy.[144]

It was at Rome that Jerome must have first learned about Priscillian, who had recently submitted his unsuccessful petition to Damasus. Jerome's impressions of Priscillian at this point were probably mixed, perhaps reflecting Damasus' own ambivalent response; as we have seen, Jerome still hesitated to pass judgment on Priscillian when he wrote On Famous Men some ten years later. But it was also at Rome that Jerome became involved in controversies that crystallized the attitudes that ultimately shaped his much later and more vicious characterizations of Priscillian.[145] Although he had the support of the bishop, Jerome's incautious criticisms of the clergy and his uncompromising advocacy of the ascetic life provoked considerable opposition from within the Roman church.[146] In this context, Jerome defended himself from charges of social subversion in part by launching his own attack on undisciplined and promiscuous ascetics. The immediate success of this strategy was limited: after Damasus' death in late 384, Jerome was effectively run out of town, facing official charges of sexual immorality as well as rumors of sorcery and possibly Manichaeism.[147]


If Jerome did not succeed in preserving his informal position of authority in Rome, he nevertheless produced a provocative body of literature and a doctrinal platform for an ascetic elitism that proved extraordinarily influential. Jerome's famous Letter to Eustochium , written in Rome in 384, gives forceful expression to his opinions on asceticism and on the closely related issues of gender and authority in the Christian community.[148] As Jerome points out, the letter is not primarily a treatise in praise of female virginity, but rather a set of guidelines for the difficult task of preserving female virginity.[149] Again and again, Jerome exhorts the young virgin to guard her chastity by maintaining her privacy. Eustochium is to stay at home, foregoing even visits to the martyrs' tombs.[150] In her virginal sanctity, she should not be exposed to the profane gaze of the public eye. Taking her lesson from the Song of Songs , Eustochium should not seek Christ vainly in the streets but should await her "bridegroom" in the privacy of her bedroom. She should avoid the publicity even of a reputation for virtue, taking care that her ascetic accomplishments remain secret. She should refuse all social intercourse with worldly women, choosing her few female companions from among similarly sober-minded ascetics and shunning ostentatious monks, flattering clergy, and even overly gregarious virgins and widows. Proper subordination is a part of the restriction to the private sphere, and Jerome urges the young girl to obey her parents—and also, implicitly, her male mentor, Jerome.[151]

Jerome complements his positive exhortations to Eustochium with negative examples of the paths to be avoided. The letter begins with a caustic description of false or fallen virgins. Spiritual virginity may be lost even by a thought, Jerome warns; but many of the fallen are not only spiritual but literal prostitutes, using drugs to abort their pregnancies and thus maintain the lying semblance of virginity. These false virgins can be recognized by their self-indulgent lives, ostentatious public appearances, and irrepressible sociability. Among the worst offenders are the agapetae , women living in spiritual partnership with men who are bound to them by neither blood nor marriage.[152] The male counterparts of the false virgins are found among both ascetics and clergy. Men claiming to be monks drape themselves with chains and proudly exhibit their womanish uncut hair, bare feet, and rough clothing; but like the false teachers of 2 Tim. 3.6–7, they merely offer the appearance of virtue in order to make their way into homes and deceive noble women. Some clergy likewise use their ecclesiastical office to insinuate themselves into the homes—indeed the very bedrooms—of wealthy married women, Jerome warns. Effeminate in appearance and moral character, these men can be recognized by their fastidious dress, perfumed bodies, curled hair, jewelry, and affected gait.[153]


In this series of negative examples offered to the virgin Eustochium, Jerome condemns both men and women who violate the boundaries of public male and private female spheres in order to indulge their "feminine" sexuality. He suggests that sexuality is to be identified not only with female nature but also with heresy, insisting that there can be no true virgins among the heretics: "Virgins such as are said to be among the various heresies and among the followers of the vile Manichaeus must be considered not virgins but prostitutes."[154] This careful opposition of femininity, sexuality, and heresy, on the one hand, and masculinity, chastity, and orthodoxy, on the other, functions rhetorically to control Eustochium's behavior, while encouraging her to be constantly vigilant in protecting her vow. She is not to be accorded the freedom of those women who live without the restraint of either husband or ecclesiastical supervisor.[155]

It is apparent that Jerome's letter to Eustochium functions as a personal defense of his life in Rome as well as a means to advise and control a female ascetic. By his own account, Jerome was frequently surrounded by virgins with whom he enjoyed a relationship of familial intimacy.[156] "I often discussed the divine books with some of them, in so far as I was able. Reading gave rise to constant presence, constant presence created familiarity, and familiarity produced trust."[157] The appropriateness of such familylike relations between ascetic men and women was not universally acknowledged. In a letter in which he presents himself publicly as the aristocratic Eustochium's spiritual advisor, Jerome must, therefore, fend off suspicions of impropriety. He accomplishes this in part by his vehement denunciations of the monks and clergy who "seduce" the women of the Roman nobility. By implied contrast with these deceivers, Jerome suggests that he himself is modest and sober in demeanor, disciplined and austere in his manner of life, and above all respectful of the boundaries that separate male and female and public and private spheres.

Jerome appears curiously unable, however, to augment this negatively inferred self-portrait with an explicit, positive self-presentation. When he offers Eustochium his typology of monastic patterns, he finds no place for men who pursue asceticism in an informal and urban context.[158] Full of praise for both cenobitic and anchoritic lifestyles, he bitterly condemns the urban monks whom he calls "remnuoth": living together in twos or threes without any fixed rule, they are undisciplined, insubordinate, ostentatious, disrespectful of the clergy, and overly fond of socializing with virgins.[159] In this passage, Jerome appears to have accepted the application of the public-private distinction to the community of ascetic Christians, and he vigorously advocates the strict privatization of women in particular and of the ascetic community in general. However, within the terms of the


rhetoric of the separation of public and private spheres, his own role with respect to the ecclesiastical hierarchy and to his female associates in Rome is insupportable so long as he fails to clarify his relationship to the clergy and to separate himself from women.

In response to the pressures of public controversy and personal ambivalence, Jerome left Rome and returned to the east. Accompanied by Paula and her daughter Eustochium, he settled in the village of Bethlehem in 386. There he and his companions established two cenobitic communities, one for men, directed by Jerome, and one for women, directed first by Paula and then, after her death in 404, by Eustochium.[160] Jerome had finally found a resting place, and he remained at the Bethlehem monastery until his death in 420, over thirty years later. Although they were influenced by Pachomius' monastic rule, Jerome and Paula did not adhere to it rigidly, instead developing forms of monastic life suited to their circumstances and backgrounds. Paula, for example, seems to have divided her community into groups according to social class, thus echoing the hierarchical structure of the traditional aristocratic household.[161] Jerome himself neglected the Pachomian call to manual labor in favor of more scholarly pursuits. In many respects, he continued to lead the same life, pursuing his ascetic disciplines while remaining active as a scholar, teacher, and theological controversialist, intimately involved with the world around him. The structures of cenobitic monasticism provided a social space in which he could legitimately carry out such activities, relatively safe from charges of sexual immorality or social subversion, in spite of his continued close partnership with Paula and Eustochium and a lengthy conflict with the local bishop, John of Jerusalem.[162] While the separation of women from men within the monastic community must have reduced the scope of authority of such aristocratic patronesses as Paula and Eustochium, the separation of the monastic community from the urban episcopal community seems to have increased Jerome's autonomy. At one point, he and his ally Epiphanius went so far as to argue that a monastery lay outside the jurisdiction of its local bishop.[163]

Having embraced the rural cenobitic life in practice as well as in ideal, by 415 Jerome does not even mention the eccentric urban "remnuoth" in his letter to the aristocratic virgin Demetrias but discusses only the relative merits of the solitary and cenobitic lifestyles. He furthermore warns Demetrias against the dangers of the anchoritic life, which he now perceives to allow a scope of independence inappropriate for most men and for all women.[164] Once again invoking the authority of 2 Tim. 3.6–7,[165] the scriptural passage that also figures so largely in his portrait of Priscillian, Je-


rome instructs Demetrias to seek the security of communal life and to subordinate herself to the instruction of spiritual advisors.

It is therefore good to listen to your superiors, to obey those set over you, and, after the rules of the scriptures, to learn the way of life from others, and not to follow the worst teacher, namely, your own audacity. Concerning such women, the apostle says: "they are carried about with every wind of doctrine, ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of truth."[166]

Jerome's has here reduced his original twofold typology of acceptable ascetic paths to one alternative. He suggests that the cenobitic life alone adequately preserves the social order through the separation and subordination of women to men and—in theory—of ascetics to bishops. In fact, the strict privatization of the ascetic community removed its leaders not only from direct competition with the urban bishops but also from their direct control, thus allowing for the construction of a separate and independent social hierarchy within the monastic community.

The relative stability of Jerome's life at Bethlehem did not preclude his nearly constant involvement in theological disputes, disputes that did not so much displace as continue the controversy over asceticism that had begun for Jerome at Rome. By 393, he found himself embroiled in a long-distance and much-publicized debate with the Italian Jovinian, centering around the question of the superiority of the ascetic over the married life. Once again escaping a controversy over asceticism with his reputation for orthodoxy just barely intact, Jerome continued in subsequent years to defend the notion of a lasting moral hierarchy over against the more egalitarian schemes that he perceived to be at the heart of the theologies of such opponents as the "Origenists" and, later, the followers of Pelagius. Rejecting both the preexistent souls and disembodied resurrection taught by Origen and the Pelagian doctrine of universal human perfectibility, Jerome persistently advocated a theological model that preserved greater continuity between the social distinctions encoded in the fleshly bodies of this life and the rewards to be enjoyed in the life to come.[167]

Throughout the Jovinianist, Origenist, and Pelagian debates, Jerome returned to the topics of gender and sexuality, using these marks of difference both rhetorically as signifiers of the limits of orthodoxy and heresy and theologically as enduring bodily indicators of the heavenly hierarchy. His evolving portrait of Priscillian—however tangential to Jerome's immediate theological concerns—is nevertheless exemplary in this respect. As noted above, Jerome's letter to the Spanish Theodora (c. 399) denounces


Priscillian as a heretic and womanizer in the tradition of Mark the gnostic. Invoking the example of the "little women" of 2 Tim. 3.6–7, Jerome warns the wealthy widow not to be seduced by Priscillian's treacherous followers, but rather to obey chaste and orthodox teachers like himself.[168] The rhetorical manipulation of gender and sexuality in this letter functions on several levels: to distance Jerome from the stereotype of the insubordinate and disorderly urban ascetic teacher; to enable Jerome to assert his hierarchical superiority over rivals among such teachers; and, finally, to persuade and control a woman whose patronage Jerome covets and whose authority of wealth and birth he seems both to admire and to resent. A similar desire to denounce potential rivals and exert control over a distant female correspondent may underlie Jerome's reference to Priscillian in his letter to the Gallic noblewoman Hedibia post 404.[169] The themes of the letter to Theodora are more explicitly echoed circa 410 in his Commentaries on Isaiah .[170]

If there are earlier hints that Jerome found Priscillian a peculiarly expressive figure, it was only in the final years of his life, during his conflict with Pelagius, that Jerome made central use of Priscillian in his polemical rhetoric. Probably inspired by Severus but also perhaps impelled by a desire to locate an easily demonized and safely dead western precursor for his new theological rival,[171] Jerome presents Priscillian as the heretical seducer par excellence in his letter to Ctesiphon of 415. Simon Magus, Nicolas, Marcion, Apelles, Montanus, Arius, Donatus—all are notorious for their dubious relations with women, and in this respect all are the forerunners of Priscillian. As the student of Agape and the teacher of "Galla," Priscillian is both seduced and seducer, an insidious magician who leads the women of the church astray, interspersing caresses with murmured phrases of Virgil, while putting on a false front of "perfection." Having painted this portrait of Priscillian, who had long since been executed by the emperor, Jerome hints darkly, "Now also the mystery of iniquity is at work. Both sexes trip each other up."[172] With these words, he points to Pelagius, who is the real target of his denunciation of Priscillian in this letter addressed to a Pelagian supporter.[173]

The portrait of Priscillian is directed not only at Pelagius and his male disciples but also, implicitly, at a powerful family of ascetic women with strong connections to Pelagius. Jerome shuns a direct attack on Demetrias, her mother, or grandmother, whose patronage he hopes to win for himself; he delicately avoids even mentioning Pelagius' name in this passage. Instead, Jerome is content to let the connections he has drawn between female nature, heresy, and sexual promiscuity stand as a gentle warning to those overly independent women, falsely convinced of their capacity


for perfection, who might presume to choose their own teachers, and perhaps—like Agape—even to teach themselves. Social intercourse with male teachers like Pelagius may leave women vulnerable to charges of physical unchastity as well as the spiritual faithlessness of heresy, he warns. Weak in mind and will, they risk seduction by false teachers. The solution, as Jerome makes explicitly clear in a letter addressed directly to Demetrias herself,[174] is to stay at home, both physically and intellectually, avoiding the company and influence of all strange men.

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

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