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Early Priscillianism was a mystical movement that originated in Spain during the late 4th century. It betrayed traces of that early Christian disdain for the institutions of the world that reminds one of donatism, and it became suspect because of its originally lay leadership and intense proselytism. Priscillianism created groups of devotees, especially among women, who withdrew from the regular church services to hold gatherings of their own. It made use also of apocryphal writings filled with a spirit hostile to marriage, wine, and meat, and it insisted on a theory of inspiration, based on the place given by the New Testament to prophecy in the early Church. Priscillianist asceticism seemed more coherent and logical than orthodox asceticism in that it directed its message intentionally to all the faithful and was not content with reaching merely a select minority.

The fragmentary and biased nature of the sources for the study of Priscillianism that is represented by the writings of adherents or of violent opponents makes it all but impossible to resolve the main problems concerned with this movement. Historians have not decided whether priscillian himself was merely a leading ascetic and the founder of an ascetic movement or a heretic. It is important to distinguish rigorously between (1) the works ascribed to Priscillian himself or, alternatively, to his supporter, Bishop Instantius, (2) later Priscillianist writings, and (3) the references and quotations found in the works of adversaries of Priscillianism. The extreme asceticism recommended in authentically Priscillianist tracts can be paralleled in the practice of many contemporary Eastern ascetics, whose orthodoxy was never questioned.

The accusations of gnosticism and manichaeism leveled against early Priscillianism do not seem capable of proof; the condemnation of Priscillian himself and his execution at Trier were due mainly to political reasons and to the personal hatred indulged by Priscillian's opponents, Hydacius of Mérida, Ithacius of Ossonoba, and other worldly bishops. The execution was condemned not only by Priscillian's supporters, who saw him as a martyr, but by St. martin of tours, St. ambrose, and Pope siricius. The refusal of Pope damasus and St. Ambrose to support Priscillian and his friends when they were first exiled in 381 seems to have been due to the fact that the Spaniards were canonically in the wrong, being in opposition to their metropolitan, Hydacius, and to the Council of Saragossa. Hydacius and Ithacius resigned or were deposed after the fall of their protector, the Emperor Maximus, in 388. But the stories they spread about Priscillianism were generally credited, and the Priscillianists themselves aroused legitimate suspicion among Catholics.

Having first dominated virtually all the province of Galicia, the movement deliberately aimed at obtaining the election of its leaders as bishops in Lusitania. Later it extended to southern France; and there was a Priscillianist bishop in Provence as late as 417 (Zosimus, Epistolae. 4.3). Almost inevitably, Priscillianism came into conflict with the not very strict Spanish bishops and later with the imperial authorities.

Priscillianism secured the support of some educated laymen, who produced apologetic works, now lost. After Priscillian's execution Galicia remained solidly Priscillianist until 400, when most Galician bishops were reconciled to the Church at the First Council of toledo. Among them was Dictinius of Astorga, author of the Libra, which was denounced (c. 420) to St. augustine because it justified lying to escape condemnation for heresy. After 400 Priscillianism survived in Galicia, where it was condemned by Orosius (c. 414), by Bp. Turibius of Astorga (c. 445), by Bp. Montanus of Toledo (c. 530), and by the First Council of Braga in 561. That council anathematized 17 errors, attributing them to Priscillianists. But Priscillianist works were produced after this date, and the errors denounced by opponents of later Priscillianism are a compound of sabellianism, gnosticism, and manichaeism. The influence of Priscillianism can be noticed in the maintenance of the tradition of continence in clerical marriage already upheld at the Council of elvira (c. 33); its effect on the text of the Bible should be noted also.

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[j. n. hillgarth]