Return to Martyrdom

Montanism

"And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter [Paraclete], that he may abide with you for ever."

John 14:16

The encyclical letter recounting the martyrdom of Blandina was addressed to the brethren in Asia Minor and Phrygia, "who have the same faith and hope of redemption as we" (Eusebius, V.1.3). It was "at that very time," relates Eusebius (V.3.4), that a heresy arose in Phrygia, promulgated by Montanus, a former priest of Cybele (Magna Mater) who "began to acquire a widespread reputation for prophecy," together with his two female adherents, Priscilla (Prisca) and Maximilla, who "chattered crazily, inopportunely, and wildly, like Montanus himself" (V.16.9). "I am the Lord God, the Almighty, who abide in man" (Epiphanius, Panarion, XLVIII.11.1) said Montanus; "I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete" (Didymus, De Trinitate, III.41). Maximilla was said to have exclaimed, "I am speech and spirit and power" (Eusebius,V.16.17).

Letters, some written by martyrs still imprisoned in Lyon, also were sent to Eleutherus, the bishop of Rome, pleading for unity and tolerance within the church. Eleutherus may have been the pope referred to by Tertullian, who, persuaded by the calumnies of Praxeas, condemned Montanism.

"For after the Bishop of Rome had acknowledged the prophetic gifts of Montanus, Prisca, and Maximilla, and, in consequence of the acknowledgment, had bestowed his peace on the churches of Asia and Phrygia, he, by importunately urging false accusations against the prophets themselves and their churches, and insisting on the authority of the bishop's predecessors in the see, compelled him to recall the pacific letter which he had issued, as well as to desist from his purpose of acknowledging the said gifts. By this Praxeas did a twofold service for the devil at Rome: he drove away prophecy, and he brought in heresy; he put to flight the Paraclete, and he crucified the Father" (Adversus Praxeam, I).

That such ecstatic revelation was counter to church orthodoxy can be discerned in the words of Hippolytus, a disciple of Irenaeus, who writes in The Refutation of All Heresies that the Montanists "do not judge whatever statements are made by them [Priscilla and Maximilla], according to reason; nor do they give heed unto those who are competent to decide; but they are heedlessly swept onwards, by the reliance which they place on these [women]. And they allege that they have learned something more through these, than from law, and prophets, and the Gospels. But they magnify these wretched women above the Apostles and every gift of Grace, so that some of them presume to assert that there is in them a something superior to Christ" (VIII.12).

In reaction to the heresy, the church became more distrustful of new prophecy and rejected claims of continuing revelation and divine inspiration, emphasizing instead the authority of canonical scripture and ordained priests. In AD 385, Jerome wrote from Rome to Marcella, who, being proselytized, had asked his opinion of Montanism. He quotes Acts, "And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy" (2:17-18), arguing that, if "the prophecy and promise of the Lord were then and there fulfilled, how can we claim another fulfillment for ourselves?" To the heretic who responds that there was later prophecy, "we tell them that we do not so much reject prophecy--for this is attested by the passion of the Lord--as refuse to receive prophets whose utterances fail to accord with the Scriptures old and new" (XLI.1-2).

Apocalyptic and ascetic, with ecstatic prophecy set forth as divine revelation announcing the second advent of Christ and the establishment of the heavenly Jerusalem (premillennialism), Montanism appealed to sterner moralists, stricter disciplinarians, and the more deeply pious, including Tertullian of Carthage, its greatest convert and advocate--hence, such declarations as "Why then hesitate to believe that the Paraclete, whom you deny in a Montanus, exists in an Apicius?" (On Fasting, XII). It also appealed to the martyr, in whom death was true discipleship and the closest imitation of the passion and death of Jesus, as can be heard in the confession of Felicitas, "I suffer by myself. But then another will be inside me who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for him" (Eusebius, V.2).

Blandina and the martyrs of Lyon, as well as Perpetua and Felicitas in Carthage, may well have been Montanists.


It was Irenaeus, a presbyter of Lyon, who had been commissioned to deliver letters to Pope Eleutherius requesting tolerance for the Montanists. He succeeded the bishop of Lyon, who had been martyred during the fierce persecution of Christians that had taken place there in his absence (Eusebius V.1.29ff). A native of Smyrna on the coast of Asia Minor (or so it is supposed, having heard Polycarp, who was bishop of that town, as a boy), Irenaeus is the first important theologian of Catholicism and author of Adversus Omnes Haereses, an attack on Gnosticism and refutation of heresy.

Irenaeus writes that a certain Marcus, "a perfect adept in magical impostures....devotes himself especially to women, and those such as are well-bred, and elegantly attired, and of great wealth, whom he frequently seeks to draw after him" (Adversus Haereses, I.13.1, 3), seducing them with claims of miracles and prophecy and by love potions and philters. Such Gnostics assert that

"they themselves know more than all others, and that they alone have imbibed the greatness of the knowledge of that power which is unspeakable. They also maintain that they have attained to a height above all power, and that therefore they are free in every respect to act as they please, having no one to fear in anything....Such are the words and deeds by which, in our own district of the Rhone, they have deluded many women, who have their consciences seared as with a hot iron" (I.13.6, 7).

Irenaeus describes these Gnostics as regarding "the practice of every kind of lust, a matter of perfect indifference. These men, moreover, practise magic; and use images, incantations, invocations, and every other kind of curious art" (I.24.5), which must have incensed popular hatred even further. And yet, these Gnostics did not suffer the fate of more orthodox Christians. For "persons of such a persuasion are also ready to recant, yea, rather, it is impossible that they should suffer on account of a mere name, since they are like to all....They declare that they are no longer Jews, and that they are not yet Christians; and that it is not at all fitting to speak openly of their mysteries, but right to keep them secret by preserving silence" (I.24.6). Indeed, "such witness-bearing is not at all necessary, for that their system of doctrines is the true witness" (IV.33.9) and, remarks Irenaeus, only one or two ever suffered death for their faith.


The Gospel of Judas

"...you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me."

The Gospel of Judas (Codex page 56)

Irenaeus also condemns the Cainites, a Gnostic sect that believed Judas "alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas" (Adversus Haereses, I.31.1). The original Greek text of the gospel, of which the unique papyrus codex above is a Coptic translation, is thought to have been written sometime between the authorship of the Gospels and AD 180, when Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon, referred to it.

Tertullian, a contemporary of Irenaeus, remarks on the Cainites as well.

"...there has broken out another heresy also, which is called that of the Cainites. And the reason is, that they magnify Cain as if he had been conceived of some potent Virtue which operated in him; for Abel had been procreated after being conceived of an inferior Virtue, and accordingly had been found inferior. They who assert this likewise defend the traitor Judas, telling us that he is admirable and great, because of the advantages he is vaunted to have conferred on mankind; for some of them think that thanksgiving is to be rendered to Judas on this account: viz., Judas, they say, observing that Christ wished to subvert the truth, betrayed Him, in order that there might be no possibility of truth's being subverted. And others thus dispute against them, and say: Because the powers of this world were unwilling that Christ should suffer, lest through His death salvation should be prepared for mankind, he, consulting for the salvation of mankind, betrayed Christ, in order that there might be no possibility at all of the salvation being impeded, which was being impeded through the Virtues which were opposing Christ's passion; and thus, through the passion of Christ, there might be no possibility of the salvation of mankind being retarded" (Appendix: Against All Heresies, II).

Revered as scripture by the Cainites, the pseudonymous Gospel of Judas eventually was proscribed by the orthodox church and its notion that the physical body was imperfect, from which one is to be freed to release the divine spark within, deemed heretical.


References: Eusebius: The History of the Church (1965) translated by G. A. Williamson; Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (1967) by W. H. C. Frend; The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (1885-1896) translated and edited by the Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II (1890-1896) edited by by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; The Montanist Oracles and Testimonia (1989) edited by Ronald E. Heine; The Panarion of St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis: Selected Passages (1990) translated by Philip R. Amidon; "The Judas Gospel" (2006, May) by Andrew Cockburn, National Geographic, 209(5), 78-95.

 Return to Top of Page

Email