Priscillian (d. 385) was a Spanish theologian and the founder of a party which advocated strong asceticism. He was the first person in the history of Christianity to be executed for heresy. His party, in spite of severe persecution for heresy, continued to subsist in Spain and in Gaul until after the middle of the 6th century.
He was a wealthy layman who had devoted his life to a study of the occult sciences and the deeper problems of philosophy. He was largely a mystic and regarded the Christian life as continual intercourse with God. His favourite idea is that which St Paul had expressed in the words "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God?" 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.
Priscillian and his sympathizers, who were organised into bands of spiritales and abstinentes, like the Cathari of later days, indignantly refused the compromise which by this time the Church had established in the matter. This explains the charge of Manichaeism levelled against Priscillian (Jerome, for his talk of the Sordes nuptiarum, had been similarly accused, and to escape popular indignation had retired to Bethlehem), and to this was added the accusation of magic and licentious orgies.
Among the more prominent of Priscillian's friends were two bishops, named Instantius and Salvianus, and Hyginus of Cordova also joined the party; but, through the exertions of Idacius of Emerita, the leading Priscillianists, who had failed to appear before the synod of Spanish and Aquitanian bishops to which they had been summoned, were excommunicated at Saragossa in October 380. Meanwhile, however, Priscillian was made bishop of Ávila, and the orthodox party found it necessary to appeal to the emperor (Gratian), who issued an edict threatening the sectarian leaders with banishment. Priscillian, Instantius and Salvianus succeeded, however, in procuring the withdrawal of Gratian's edict, and the attempted arrest of Ithacius of Ossonuba.
On the murder of Gratian and accession of Magnus Maximus (383) Ithacius fled to Treves, and in consequence of his representations a synod was held (384) at Bordeaux, where Instantius was deposed. Priscillian appealed to the emperor, with the unexpected result that with six of his companions he was burned alive at Treves in 385. The first instance of the application of the Theodosian law against heretics had the approval of the synod which met at Treves in the same year, but Ambrose of Milan and Martin of Tours can claim to have reduced the persecution. The heresy, notwithstanding the severe measures taken against it, continued to spread in France as well as in Spain; in 412 Lazarus, bishop of Aix en Provence, and Herod, bishop of Arles, were expelled from their sees on a charge of Manichaeism. Proculus, the metropolitan of Marseilles, and the metropolitans of Vienne and Narbonensis Secunda were also followers of the rigorous tradition for which Priscillian had died.
Something was done for its repression by a synod held by Turibius of Astorga in 446, and by that of Toledo in 447; as an openly professed creed it wholly disappeared after the second synod of Braga in 563. "The official church," says F C Conybeare, "had to respect the ascetic spirit to the extent of enjoining celibacy upon its priests, and of recognizing, or rather immuring, such of the laity as desired to live out the old ascetic ideal. But the official teaching of Rome would not allow it to be the ideal and duty of every Christian. Priscillian perished for insisting that it was such; and seven centuries later the Church began to burn, the Cathari by thousands because they took a similar view of the Christian life."
The long prevalent estimation of Priscillian as a heretic and Manichaean rested upon Augustine, Turibius of Astorga, Leo the Great and Orosius, although at the Council of Toledo in 400, fifteen years after Priscillian's death, when his case was reviewed, the most serious charge that could be brought was the error of language involved in a misrendering of the word innascibilis.
It was long thought that all the writings of the "heretic" himself had perished, but in 1885, G. Schepss discovered at Würzburg eleven genuine tracts, since published in the Vienna Corpus. "They contain nothing that is not orthodox and commonplace, nothing that Jerome might not have written," and go far to justify the description of Priscillian as "the first martyr burned by a Spanish Inquisition" (this quote shows the influence of the Black Legend).
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.