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Prisca-Maximilla-Montanus: -who was the founder of 'Montanism'? by Anne Jensen

Prisca-Maximilla-Montanus: -who was the founder of 'Montanism'?

by Anne Jensen, Tübingen

Studia Patristica 26 (1993) pp. 147-150; re-published with permission of the author.

All modern scholars are aware of the fact that the famous prophetic movement of the 2nd century was never called in early Christianity the ‘Montanist’ sect as other schools or movements named after their leaders, but either the ‘New Prophecy’ or the ‘Phrygian’ heresy. The first term is positive, i.e. the expression of the self-understanding of the members. More precisely: the essential self-definition is ‘prophetic’ as a criterion of authentic Christianity, in which all the members are inspired by the Holy Ghost. The term ‘new’ was ambivalent; it is a negative term in the mouth of the opponents (quoted by Eusebius in the 5th book of his Church History): This ‘new’ prophecy is seen in contradiction to the ‘old’ one, termed as ‘prophecy according to the New Testament’(2). In the mouth of the followers (known to us mainly through Tertullian), ‘new’ implies a continuity with the ‘old’ prophecies, but means a higher authority as a more recent revelation of the Spirit (3). The term ‘Phrygians’ was either neutral—it designates the geographical origin—or pejorative: a local ‘provincial’ sectarian group in opposition to the church ‘universal’, the ‘ecumenical’ church of everywhere with its exclusive claim to ‘catholicity’.

The term montanoi (Greek) is only to be found about 350, together with the traditional ‘Phrygians’, in a very polemical text of Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechetical lectures 16,8); in the 5th century, montanistai (Greek) is used mainly in the Codex Theodosianus, where all the possible names of the persecuted church are listed. For instance, ‘Fryges quos Pepuzitas sive Priscillianistas vel alio latentiore vocabulo appellant’ (XVI,V,59). In this passage, the term ‘Montanist’ is not mentioned, but we have several different combinations of the four names in the Codex4.(4) The derivations are evident: 1. from Phrygia; 2. from Pepuza, a small city well-known as the spiritual center of the New Prophecy; 3. from Priscilla (5); 4. from Montanus. One century later, in the Codex Justinianus, we find only montanistai (I,V,18.19.20).

The term ‘Montanists’ bears an implicit suggestion: that Montanus was the head and the founder of a sect. But a close examination of the texts from the 2nd century witnesses shows that these assumptions are wrong; we have a typical case of a biased, prejudiced interpretation a posteriori: Christians in opposition to the Catholica (after 313 the official church in the Empire) are heretics, a heresy had a head, and the head is male. This conception is contradicted by the facts: in the beginning New Prophecy was a movement within the church of Phrygia opposed to the introduction of ‘monepiscopal’ church structure, and stressing the charismatic equality of all the members of the Christian community (6).

Modern scholarship has demonstrated the essential orthodoxy of the original Phrygian movement, but it continues to single out Montanus, thus still neglecting to do historical justice to the other major figures Prisca (or Priscilla) and Maximilla. Here the old polemic view is by no means overcome; the prejudice and opposition against female leadership is clearly (but often quite unconsciously) at work.

A main reason for overlooking the important role of the two women is the old misunderstanding of the classical presentation of the ‘Phrygian heresy’ by Eusebius: Montanus is said to be ‘praised as the Paraclete and Priscilla and Maximilla as his prophetesses’ (Church History V,14). It is by no means the intention of the Bishop of Caesarea to say that Montanus considered himself to be the Holy Ghost, and that was certainly not the idea of the historical Montanus or any member of the early prophetic movement. Only polemical writings of the lowest intellectual level insinuate such an absurd claim. For Eusebius, the term Paraclete has the literal meaning of advocate: supporter, helper. In this sense, Montanus was in fact the ‘advocate’ of Prisca and Maximilla. But the link ‘paraclete-prophet’ suggests the idea that the women were inspired by him. This idea of a spiritual dependency of the prophetesses on the male leader is predominant, even in texts (ancient and modern) in which the orthodoxy of the Phrygian movement is affirmed.

But here again, the language of the facts related by early witnesses about the New Prophecy is a different one: they show that the main prophetic activity was exercised by Prisca and Maximilla (7). The ecclesiastical measures of catholic bishops such as attempts at refutation and perhaps a kind of ‘exorcism’ reported by the 2nd century polemical writers are directed against the women, not against Montanus. His role was a different one: he was a chief organizer of the local church structures in Phrygia. But he was not alone at this task—other names are quoted together with him, especially Theodotus, who is called the ‘first administrator (epitropos)’(8). Nowhere do we have a single head or leader, neither a prophetess nor a prophet nor any other male or female personality. On the other hand, it is clear that the gift of prophecy is considered as the most precious gift of the Holy Spirit which endows with authority the inspired women or men within the community. The gift of church organisation is considered a minor gift.

This conclusion is confirmed by the testimony of the few prophetic logia which can be considered as authentic expressions of the Phrygian tradition. In modern scholarship we find here again persisting the idea of Montanus as the spiritual leader, since all recent collections begin with oracles attributed to him. But one of Maximilla’s and two of Prisca’s logia are quoted by 2nd century authors(9), whereas all the sayings of Montanus are related only in writings of the 4th century; four are transmitted by Epiphanius(10); a 5th logian is clearly not from the 2nd century, for it refers to the trinitarian debate of: later times(11). None of these logia has a particular message; they merely show the claim of the prophet to speak in the name of God. Epiphanius tries to ‘prove’ that the Phrygian prophecy is uttered in a form of ecstasy contrary to human liberty which God always respects, but the quoted logion of Montanus (probably genuine) describes divine inspiration during sleep—a perfectly biblical tradition(12). In the first part of the oracle, God is speaking himself:

“Behold, man (i.e. the human being) is like a lyre and I come upon him as a plectron. Man is asleep and I am awake.”

Then the prophet’s commentary follows:

“Behold, the Lord is raising (to ecstasy) the hearts of men and he is giving them (new) hearts” (13).

In one of Prisca’s oracles we find the same concern for receiving prophetic inspiration; it is quoted by Tertullian who gives to her apostolic authority as to Saint Paul in a passage already cited: ‘Item per sanctam prophetidem Priscam ita evangelizatur...’. The logion says:

Purificantia enim concordat, ait, et visiones vident, et ponentes faciem deorsum etiam voces audiunt manifestas tam salutares quam et occultas—“Purification brings harmony; thus they can see visions, and when turning their faces downwards, they can hear clear voices which are as salutary as mysterious” (14).

The gift of prophecy is clearly seen as an inner experience accessible to everyone.

Even the little remaining evidence shows that Prisca must have had the most important role in the early times of New Prophecy. We owe to her the most perplexing vision of a female Christ sanctifying Pepuza by his manifestation:

“Christ came to me as a woman, in a white cloth and he put wisdom into me; he revealed to me that this is a holy place and that there the heavenly Jerusalem will come down” (15).

Details cannot be discussed here, but one thing is clear: This vision gave inspiration to a church that tried to maintain an early egalitarian ethos against an emerging monarchical male-centered hierarchy, and that placed more value on spiritual leadership than on institutionalised authority. In fact, the ideals of Prisca, Maximilla and Montanus were betrayed later within the Phrygian church itself as well—but that is not the topic of this paper.


1. For a detailed discussion see the chapter on the role of Prisca and Maximilla in my forthcoming book: Anne Jensen, Gottes selbstbewußte Töchter. Frauenemanzipation im frühen Christentum? (Freiburg, 1992; Habilitationsschrift; part of the ‘Frau und Christentum’ research project of the Institute for Ecumenical Studies, University of Tübingen, under the sponsorship of the Stiftung Volkswagenwerk).
As sourcebook cf. Pierre de Labriolle, Les sources de l’histoire du montanisme (textes grecs, latins, syriaques publiés avec une introduction critique, une traduction française, des notes et des ‘indices’; Paris, 1913); together with his monograph: La crise montaniste (Paris, 1913); the most recent in date is the edition (with an English translation, but without any commentary) of Ronald E. Heine: The Montanist Oracles and Testimonia (Patristic Monograph Series 14; Macon GA, 1989). I quote from the sources in my own translation.

2. Eusebius, HE V,17,2.

3. Cf. the classical designation of the Holy Scriptures as Old and New Testament, indicating a progress in revelation.

4. Cf Codex Theodosianus XVI,V,; X,24. The same terminology (without ‘Priscillianists’) is to be found in: Sozomen, HE VII,18; and Theodoret, Compendium on Heretical Falsehood III,2.

5. It is possible that the legislator is already confusing Priscilla with Priscillian.

6. On the antihierarchical aspect cf Heinz Kraft, ‘Die altkirchliche Prophetie und die Entstehung des Montanismus’, Theologische Zeitung 11 (1955), 249-271.

7. Kraft's suggestion that Montanus did not prophesy at all seems a bit exaggerated (loc.cit, 263).

8. Eusebius, HE V,3,4;V,16,14.

9. Anonymous, quoted in Eusebius, HE V,16,17; Tertullian, De resurrectione mortuorum 11.2., De exhortatione castitatis 10,5.

10. Epiphanius, Panarion 48,4,1; 48,10,3; 48,11,1; 48,11,9.

11. In: Dialexis and Didymus, On Trinity III,41,1 (cf de Labriolle, 97ff.; Heine, 6f).

12. Epiphanius also quotes a logion of Maximilla describing her vocation as prohetess though in fact she does not even mention an ecstatic state of mind (Panarion 48,13,1):

“The Lord sent me as his chosen mouthpiece and interpreter of every emergency, agreement and promise, forced as I was, whether I wanted to or not, to know the knowledge of God.”

Maximilla's logia cannot be discussed here; for a detailed analysis see Jensen, loc.cit.

13. Epiphanius, Panarion 48,4,1.

14. Tertullian, De exhortatione castitatis 10,5. For details of translation/interpretation see Jensen, loc. cit.

15. Epiphanius, Panarion 49,1,2f. On the reasons for attribution to Priscilla see Jensen, loc.cit.

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