The First Heretic

The surprising resignation of Pope Benedict XVI today seems to have prompted, however briefly, a renewed interest into the history of the Papacy. There has been much talk about the unprecedented nature of the Pope’s resignation. The previous Pope to resign was 600 years ago and was by no means as simple. Pope Gregory XII resigned in 1415, he was largely forced to go in order to end a schism in the Western Church which had seen Catholic support split between three “Popes”. The last resignation of a solitary Pope was in 1294, Pope Celestine V quit after just five months in office to become a hermit.

I have decided to focus on a different Christian precedent: Heresy. In the 2000 years (roughly) since the beginning of Christianity thousands have been killed for not conforming to a specific doctrine. When one mentions heresy it is common to immediately picture the Inquisition and all its instruments of torture and death. However, we must not forget the Protestant side which was in many ways more extreme, i.e. the Puritans in America.

This article will focus on the story of the first “heretic” in Christian history to be killed for differing from the mainstream belief of the Western Church. This episode took place in the dying days of the Western Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Gratian (359-383). Less than a century had passed since the legalization of Christianity by Constantine the Great and, despite the Church having since become the official religion, the Christians were trying to assert their temporal authority in this time of crisis. Christianity had yet to split between Orthodoxy in the East and Catholicism in the West but already tensions were starting to show between the See of St Peter (Rome) and the See of St Andrew (Constantinople).

The Pope in Rome was Damasus. Damasus had become Pope as a result of bloodshed when his supporters massacred the supporters of Damasus’ rival, Ursinus. The bloodshed required direct intervention from the Emperor of the West, Valentian before the riots subsided. Damasus, despite getting off to a bad start, was, at least from a Christian point of view, a good Pope. He sent St Jerome to the Holy Land to translate the Old and New Testaments from Hebrew and Greek into Latin creating the Biblia Vulgata which is still in use today. He also collaborated with Emperor Gratian he purged Rome of its last vestiges of her Pagan past by removing the Altar of Victory from the Senate, disbanding the Vestal Virgins and banning the worship of the Pagan gods in the City of Rome. It was also during Damasus’ reign that the ancient title of Pontifex Maximus (chief priest of the Empire) was given by Gratian to the Papacy, a title still held by today’s Popes. However, Damasus’ chief concern was the danger of schism within the Church and he clamped down ruthlessly on dissenters. It was against this background that the first Christian heretic was killed. His name was Priscillian.

Priscillian was a Spaniard from Gallaeciana (modern day Galicia although in Roman times the province included parts of northern Portugal). We do not have a precise date for his birth although it is estimated to be sometime around 340. Described by the Gallic chronicler Sulpicius Severus as “a man of noble birth, of great riches, bold, restless, eloquent, and learned through much reading, very ready at debate and discussion”. We can assume that he was part of the local aristocracy and received a good education.

Priscillian developed a doctrine of harsh asceticism from his interpretation of a passage from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (6:19) “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God?”. From this Priscillian determined that in order to make oneself fit for habitation by the divine a person must practice harsh asceticism, do works of Christian charity and renounce marriage. His beliefs also included sexual equality, fasting on Sundays and retreating into the mountains during Lent. Priscillian won a huge following through his own extreme example and his eloquence including two bishops Instantius and Salvianus. However, his extremism also earned him many enemies the powerful bishops of Cordoba (Hyginus) and Merida (Hydratius).

By 380 Hyginus and Hydratius had become so worried by Priscillian’s growing power that they appealed to Pope Damasus to be granted the authority to make a ruling on the validity of Priscillian’s teachings. Permission was granted and the two bishops convened a Synod of the Spanish clergy at Caesar Augusta (Modern Zaragoza). Priscillian and his followers boycotted the Synod and as a result Hyginus and Hydratius won a condemnation of Priscillian’s teachings. Now armed with the approval of the Synod Priscillian and his followers were excommunicated. However, they had underestimated Priscillian’s popularity who, with the help of the bishops Instantius and Salvianus, was elected Bishop of Avila, one of the most prestigious titles in Spain. Hyginus and Hydratius, fearful of Priscillian’s new-found power, sent an appeal to the Emperor Gratian to overrule Priscillian’s appointment. Gratian promptly issued an edict banishing Priscillian, Instantius and Salvianus from the Western Empire.

The three sectarian bishops decided to go over the head of the Emperor and appeal the edict in person to the Pope. However, upon reaching Rome they were refused an audience with the Pope. During their stay in Rome Salvianus died, leaving only Priscillian and Instantius to fight against the edict. They decided that the next best course of action was to go to the most influential man in the Church at the time, Bishop Ambrose of Milan (the teacher of St Augustine). Ambrose also snubbed them. Finally, Priscillian resorted to bribery and used his personal fortune to buy off enough members of the Imperial court (located in Milan) to have the edict rescinded.

Unfortunately for Priscillian he bought off the Imperial court for nothing. In 383, while Priscillian was still in Milan, there was a coup d’etat and Gratian was deposed and murdered by a new Emperor, Magnus Maximus. With his rule still insecure and wishing to curry favour with the Christian elite Magnus Maximus had Priscillian arrested. The unlucky bishop was brought before a civil court where he was tried on charges of heresy. Priscillian was beheaded at Trier (modern day Germany), the seat of Magnus Maximus’ court. However, the Emperor’s plan backfired and his decision to condemn and execute an ordained bishop in a civil court was widely criticized by the Church who claimed that it was their right, not the Emperor’s, to deal with Priscillian as they saw fit.

The story of the first heretic was to have a final, and long lasting, twist of major historical significance. Despite his execution Priscillian continued to be revered in his native Gallaeciana as a holy man and a martyr. This veneration continued for many centuries until, in the 8th century, Priscillian’s bones were relocated from Trier to Gallaeciana. It has been claimed by some that the site in which the bones were relocated to was later rededicated to Santiago de Compostella (St James the Great) and that the bones at this major pilgrimage site are actually the bones of the first heretic to be executed by the Church.

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