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Priscillian (died 385) was bishop of Ávila and a theologian from Roman Gallaecia (in the Iberian Peninsula), the first person in the history of Christianity to be executed for heresy (though the civil charges were for the practice of magic). He founded an ascetic group that, in spite of persecution, continued to subsist in Hispania and Gaul until the later 6th century. Tractates by Priscillian and close followers, which had seemed certainly lost, were recovered in 1885 and published in 1889.


Priscillian's career

The principal and almost contemporary source for the career of Priscillian is the Gallic chronicler Sulpicius Severus, who characterized him (Chronica II.46) as noble and rich, a layman who had devoted his life to study, vain of his classical pagan education, already being looked on with misgivings (see Gregory of Tours). He was an ascetic mystic and regarded the Christian life as continual intercourse with God. His favourite idea was Saint Paul`s "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God?" (I Corinthians 6:19) and he argued that to make himself a fit habitation for the divine a man must, besides holding the Catholic faith and doing works of love, renounce marriage and earthly honour, and practise a hard asceticism. It was on the question of continence in, if not renunciation of, marriage, that he came into conflict with the authorities, and his influence among growing numbers of followers threatened the authority of the church when the bishops Instantius and Salvian were won over by his eloquence and his severely ascetic example.

His notable opponents in Hispania were Hyginus, bishop of Cordoba, and Hydatius, bishop of Mérida. Their complaint to Pope Damasus I (also from Hispania) resulted in a synod held at Zaragoza in 380, in the absence of Priscillian or any of his followers. The canons issued by the synod shed light on Priscillian's practices, by condemnation. That is, much of what was forbidden was condemned because the Priscillians were practicing it. Women were forbidden to join with men during the time of prayer; fasting on Sunday was condemned; no one was to retreat at home or in the mountains during Lent; the Eucharist was to be taken in church and not brought home; excommunicated persons were not to be sheltered by bishops; a cleric was forbidden to become a monk on the motivation of a more perfect life; no one was to assume the title "doctor" (Latin for teacher); women were not to be accounted "virgins" until they had reached the age of forty.

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