Priscillian

d.385. Heretical bishop of Avila in “Hispania Tarraconensis.” Of noble birth, rich, learned, pious, ascetic, and eloquent, he was seemingly influenced by Gnostic doctrines brought to Spain by an Egyptian named Marcus. In the eyes of the orthodox he was soon judged a heretic; he caused real problems to the church, since his views and influence were widely spread. Soon he had many followers (Priscillianists) who included a few bishops. Eight of the canons of the Council of Saragossa (380) were directed against them. They retaliated by consecrating Priscillian bishop of Avila.

In 381 the church and empire combined to force the Priscillianists, now accused of teaching Manichaeism, into exile in France. From this point began a complicated series of appeals by Priscillian and other leaders to ecclesiastical and secular judges, to Pope Damasus,* to Ambrose* of Milan, and to Macedonius, Gratian's master of the offices, who finally restored them. However, when Maximus came to power he agreed to a trial of Priscillian and Instantius* at a synod at Bordeaux. Instantius was condemned and later banished, but Priscillian unwisely appealed to the emperor at Trier. By the latter's order he was tried by the prefect Evodius and found guilty of using “magic arts” (associated with Gnosticism*). The emperor decided he should be put to death, and so with six others he was beheaded at Trier in 385, the first people to suffer death as heretics in the history of Christianity. The teaching of Priscillian was not thereby stopped, and his body and those of the six others were conveyed to Spain and given funerals worthy of martyrs. Priscillianism was condemned at the Council of Toledo* in 400 and was still flourishing in 447.

Modern scholarship is divided on the question of whether Priscillian was a heretic or merely an eccentric enthusiast. His doctrine is known only through the statements of others, since manuscripts attributed to him are probably not genuinely his.