An early Christian sect founded in the 4th century, characterized by ascetic practices and dualistic beliefs, ultimately condemned as heretical.

Priscillianism was an early Christian movement that developed in the Iberian Peninsula during the 4th century. It was founded by Priscillian, a bishop who was the first person in recorded history to be executed for heresy. The movement, rooted in Gnostic and Manichaean dualism, persisted into the 6th century despite efforts by the Church to suppress it.

Origins and Spread

Priscillianism began around 375 AD in the Spanish towns of Mérida and Córdoba, where Priscillian taught doctrines similar to Gnosticism and Manichaeism. This belief system held that matter was evil and the spirit was good. Priscillian’s teachings attracted many followers, including two bishops, Instantius and Salvianus, and their popularity led to conflict with the established Church.

Core Beliefs

Priscillianists embraced a dualistic worldview, believing in the existence of two kingdoms: one of Light and one of Darkness. They taught that angels and human souls emanated from the Godhead and that human souls were intended to conquer the Kingdom of Darkness but fell and became imprisoned in material bodies. The conflict between these kingdoms was symbolized in man, and salvation was seen as liberation from the domination of matter.

The movement rejected certain aspects of scripture, such as the Creation story, and respected most of the Old Testament while placing considerable weight on apocryphal books. Priscillianists practiced a rigorous form of asceticism, including fasting on Sundays and Christmas Day, celibacy, and abstinence from meat and wine.

Controversies and Condemnation

Priscillian’s teachings led to his excommunication and eventual execution in 385 AD on charges of sorcery and obscenity. His execution, ordered by the secular authority of Emperor Maximus, marked a significant moment in church history as it was the first instance of a Christian being executed for heresy by other Christians.

Aftermath and Legacy

Following Priscillian’s death, the movement continued to spread, particularly in the wake of the invasions of the Vandals, Alans, and Suevi in the Iberian Peninsula. Despite repeated condemnations and synods held to suppress it, Priscillianism persisted well into the 5th century. It began to decline only after the First Council of Braga in 561, which specifically targeted its doctrines.