the "History and the Lives of the Popes"

CHAPTER XV

MONTANISM

 

 

THE Montanist movement began in Phrygian Mysia, in a village called Ardabau, under the proconsulate of Gratus. Montanus was a convert, who, according to some traditions, had previously been a priest of Cybele, and he attracted attention by ecstasies and transports in which he uttered strange sayings. At such times he seemed to lose his own individuality; a divine inspirer spoke by his mouth, and not he himself. Two women, Prisca (or Priscilla) and Maximilla, soon developed the same phenomena, and associated themselves with him. All this was noised abroad, not only in the remote district where the village of Ardabau was situated, but throughout Phrygia and Asia, and as far as Thrace. The followers of the new prophets maintained that it was the Paraclete manifesting himself to the world. Others who could not accept their view, declared that it was simply a case of demoniac possession.

The Paraclete confidently announced the speedy return of Christ, and the Vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem descending from above, which was to appear first in the clouds, and then rest on the earth, at a spot indicated. This was a plain on the further side of Phrygia, between the two little towns of Pepuza and Tymion. The three prophets transported themselves thither, when or wherefore is not precisely known: they were followed by an immense multitude. In some places the people were so entirely won over to the movement that all the Christians left. In the feverish expectation of the last day, country, family, and all earthly ties were disregarded. Marriages were dissolved; and community of goods and the most severe asceticism prevailed. This state of mental exaltation was fostered by the words of the possessed prophets; the voice of the Paraclete was heard, and his exhortations animated them afresh.

Days, weeks, months, and years, however, passed away, and still the Heavenly Jerusalem came not. But the Church on earth, after the first loss of balance, protested a good deal. The orthodoxy of the prophets was no doubt beyond reproach, and the circumstances of their time and surroundings lent them some support. The Gospel of St John, still in the full strength of its new popularity, had roused a special interest in the Paraclete; the descriptions of the Heavenly Jerusalem, and of the millenium, in the Apocalypse, were enthralling, and few Christians, in Asia or elsewhere, banished them from their thoughts on the end of all things. Both tradition and custom had consecrated the right of prophets to arouse Christians in the name of the Lord.

The Didache and the New Testament both show what a prominent place prophecy held in the life of the early churches. The Bishop of Sardis, Melito, was believed to have the prophetic gift. Before him, Quadratus, Ammias, and the daughters of Philip had been endowed with this gift. They were still famous. The ascetism of the Montanists did not exceed that permitted, though not imposed, in other Christian circles. It was free from the dualistic tendencies of the Gnostics and Marcionites: and anything that seemed extreme was justified by their firm belief in the near approach of the last day.

Still, this sudden excitement, this exodus, these exact determinations of time and place, introduced a sense of profound unrest among the Christian churches. Some of them had been in existence for nearly a century or more, and had grown accustomed to live an ordinary life with no special preoccupation as to the end of all things. They soon met the prophets with the objection that their proceedings were contrary to custom. In the Old Testament, as in the New, prophets had never spoken in a state of ecstasy. The communication which, by their means, was established between God and their hearers, had not hindered them from preserving their own individuality. They spoke in the name of God, but it was they themselves who spoke. In the case of Montanus and his prophetesses, the Paraclete himself was heard, just as in certain pagan sanctuaries, the gods were heard to speak directly, by the mouth of pythonesses. "The man himself is a lyre," said the inspired voice, "and I am the bow which causes him to vibrate ... I am not an angel, nor a messenger ... I am the Lord, the Almighty." . . . This seemed unusual, and an abuse, and reprehensible.

Possibly Melito had already dealt with the matter in his books on prophecy, of which we have but the titles. Apollinaris, Bishop of Hierapolis, resolutely attacked the new prophets. Another very prominent person in the Christian world of Asia, Miltiades, wrote a treatise to maintain "that a prophet ought not to speak in ecstasy."

He was answered by skilful writers amongst the Montanists. The Catholics, however, did not confine themselves to writing; they soon adopted very different methods. Sotas, Bishop of Anchiala in Thrace, endeavoured to exorcise Priscilla; and two other Phrygian bishops, Zoticus of Comana, and Julian of Apamea, betook themselves to Pepuxa, and assailed Maximilla. But these attempts failed, owing to the opposition of the sect.

The movement spread in Asia, sowing discord everywhere. In many places, synods assembled, in which the claims of the prophets were examined and discussed. At last the unity of the Church was broken; and the opponents of the Paraclete excommunicated his followers. Some, carried away by their zeal, even ventured to question the authority of those sacred books, on which the Montanists based their claims: and they rejected en bloc all St John's writings, the Apocalypse as well as the Gospel. This was the origin of that particular religious school which later St Epiphanius opposed under the name of Alogi.

But if Montanus did not succeed in winning the churches of Asia as a whole, he at least managed to introduce profound divisions among them. The Heavenly Jerusalem did not appear upon earth; but, on the other hand, the movement led to the foundation of a terrestrial Jerusalem. The name of Pepuza was changed; it was called the New Jerusalem. It became a holy place; a sort of Metropolis of the Paraclete. The necessity of feeding the crowds who flocked there at first, led to some kind of organization in the sect. Before long several others were associated with Montanus, and continued in authority after his death. A certain Alcibiades, then Theodotus, described in one of the documents we have, as the first overseer of prophecy, and lastly, Themison, who, hoping to extend and defend the movement, wrote a sort of encyclical. Themison, it was said, was a confessor of the Faith. The Montanists, indeed, did not flinch from martyrdom, and dwelt with some complacency on their own merits in this respect.

All this was much discussed by the opposition. The financial organization, the collectors of offerings, and the salaried preachers of the sect were keenly criticized. It was said that the prophets and prophetesses led a very comfortable, and even fashionable life, at the expense of their converts.

"Let them be judged by their works," men said. "Does a prophet frequent the public baths and paint himself, and does he consider his raiment? Does he play dice? Or lend money on usury?". Doubts were also expressed as to the virginity of Priscilla, who like her companion Maximilla had, it was said, left her husband to follow Montanus. Themison was but a false confessor: he had purchased his release from martyrdom. Another confessor, much honoured in the sect, a certain Alexander, was even more worthless. He had indeed been summoned before the tribunal, but as a brigand and not as a Christian. This was under the proconsulate of Aemilius Frontinus as the archives of Ephesus testified.

Montanus and Priscilla died first. Maximilla remained alone and suffered much from the opposition to which her sect was exposed. The Paraclete groaned within her: "I am persecuted as though I were a wolf. I am not a wolf; I am Word, Spirit, and Power." At last she died, having predicted wars and revolutions. Malevolent people declared she hanged herself; the same was said of Montanus; as to Theodotus, the story was that, in an ecstasy, he rose towards heaven, and falling back again was killed. This gossip is repeated by the anonymous writer quoted by Eusebius, but he expressly declares that it is not to be relied on. He is quite right. Such stories as these do not help us to form any adequate conception of such an important religious movement. It did not end with the death of the prophets. Thirteen years after the death of Maximilla, the new prophecy still divided the Christian community of Ancyra. And for a long time the Montanists caused discussion and controversy, not only in Asia Minor, but in Antioch and Alexandria, and in the churches of the West. Serapion, Bishop of Antioch, condemned them, in a letter addressed to Caricus and Pontius; to this were attached the signatures of several other bishops, together with their protests against the innovators. Clement of Alexandria, in his Stromata, proposes to treat the subject in a book On Prophecy. But it is in the West that the history of Montanism has special importance.

Even as early as 177 A.D., the date of the martyrs of Lyons, the mind of the Church in Gaul and in Rome was deeply stirred by the new prophesying. The new Church of Lyons, having many Asiatic and Phrygian members, was well informed on all that took place in Asia. In Rome also, the matter came up very early, and, as in many other places, it caused at first great perplexity. The confessors of Lyons wrote about it, from prison, "to the brethren in Asia and Phrygia, and also to Eleutherus, Bishop of Rome". These letters were inserted in the celebrated account of the martyrs of Lyons, with the opinion of the "brethren in Gaul", on the spirit of prophecy claimed by Montanus, Alcibiades, and Theodotus. Eusebius, who actually saw the document, describes it as wise and quite orthodox ; yet his words convey the impression that it was not entirely opposed to the Phrygian movement. St. Irenaeus, who carried these letters to Rome, cannot be numbered amongst the opponents of Montanism. It is conceivable that the Christians of Lyons rather advised toleration, and the preservation of the peace of the Church. We do not know what effect this intervention had on Eleutherus, nor how long the Church of Rome was in taking a decision. It looks as if Rome also felt that there was no call for mutual excommunication. Tertullian says the decision was not unfavourable to the prophets, and that the Pope had already despatched conciliatory letters to that effect, when a confessor, named Praxeas, arrived from Asia with fresh information, and succeeded in inducing him to alter his first decision.

Thus the Montanist pretensions to inspiration did not succeed in obtaining recognition in Rome. It is possible that for some time, Rome merely maintained an attitude of reserve. The Paschal controversy was not likely to incline the Roman Church to attach much weight to the authority of the Asiatic episcopate. But a more decided attitude was eventually taken. Already by the beginning of the 3rd century, as the Passion of St Perpetua and the writings of Tertullian show, it was necessary to choose between communion with the Church and belief in the new prophesying.

The movement was therefore discouraged in the West as in the East. Nevertheless, it continued to spread. The prophets being dead, the objections to their ecstasies gradually subsided. What was extravagant and open to criticism in the Phrygian organisation and in the assemblies at Pepuza, naturally attracted less attention out of Asia. From a distance, the most striking feature was the great moral austerity of the Montanists. Their fasts, their special rules of life, presented no features that orthodox ascetics had not long made familiar. Visions, ecstasies, and prophecies were equally familiar. In many lands, those who led specially mortified lives, enthusiasts and people much imbued with the idea of the Second Advent, felt themselves attracted by the new prophesying. Tertullian, having long lived in a state of mind which may be described as Montanist, finally became an open convert to Montanus, Priscilla, and Maximilla (c. 205 A.D.). This was not then possible without a rupture with the Catholic Church. But that did not hinder him. The Montanists of Africa chose him as their head, and even called themselves Tertullianists. This is not the place to speak of the writings he published, both before and after his separation from the Church. It is enough to say that his most important Montanist work, the treatise in seven books on ecstasy, De Extasi, no longer exists. The seventh book he devoted to a refutation of Apollonius. Tertullianists existed till St. Augustine brought their last Carthaginian adherents back to the Catholic Church.

About this time the Montanists were represented in Rome by a certain Proculus or Proclus, highly venerated by Tertullian. St Hippolytus paid some slight attention to the Montanists, but without dwelling much on them; he objects to their fasts, and more especially to their trust in Montanus and his prophetesses. Another Roman author, Caius, wrote a dialogue against Proclus, of which a few lines survive. It does not seem that the sect ever took deep root in Rome, for after St Hippolytus, we hear no more of it.

In Phrygia, however, Montanism lasted much longer. The New Jerusalem was long venerated. There lay the mother-community. Annual pilgrimages replaced an exodus en masseThere was a great feast—Easter or Pentecost—which began with a dismal display of fasting and ended with great rejoicings. A permanent organisation had taken the place of the prophets and their first lieutenants. First came the Patriarchs, then the These two grades seem to have represented the central government of the sect; the local hierarchy, bishops, priests, etc., was subordinated to them. Women had been intimately connected with the origin of the movement; they always held a higher place in the sect than in the Church. The Church had had its prophetesses like the Montanists; for a longtime still it had deaconesses. According to St Epiphanius, the Montanists admitted women to the priesthood and the episcopate. He also says that, in their ceremonies, seven virgins, dressed in white, and carrying in their hands lighted torches, played a great part. These virgins indulged in ecstatic transports, weeping over the sins of the world, and so carried away the congregation that they too were melted to tears. In his day the sect was known under various names, such as Priscillianists, Quintillianists, Tascodrugites, and Artotyrites. The two first names were derived of course from those of notable Montanists. The name of Tascodrugites came from two Phrygian words, signifying the forefinger and the nose. Some of the sect, it appears, placed their Anger in their nose during prayer. The name Artotyrites was derived from the use of bread and cheese in their mysteries. All this is but doubtful. And still more so is the rumour, an evident calumny, that in one of their rites they bled a child to death.

Their peculiar method of determining the date of Easter is better attested. During the controversy over the various orthodox reckonings, the Montanists fixed on a settled date in the Julian calendar, April 6.

But these details on the Montanism of a later date have but a relative interest. What is really important is the origin and character of the primitive movement, and the attitude of the Church. However eagerly the speedy return of Christ was looked for, towards the end of the 2nd century, however deep was the respect then felt for the prophetic spirit and its various manifestations, the Church was not drawn away by Montanus from the true path; neither prophecy in general, nor the expectation of the Last Day was forbidden; but orthodox tradition was upheld against religious vagaries, and the authority of the hierarchy against the claims of private inspiration

 

CHAPTER XVI THE PASCHAL CONTROVERSY