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Cursed Are the Cheese-Breakers

A new book, considered in Bryn Mawr Classical Review, examines the links of Montanism (an early Christian heresy) with certain unsavory pagan cults.

And Tertullian preferred Montanist company to the congregations of Catholics? We gotta work on our people skills.

Vera-Elisabeth Hirschmann’s Ph.D. thesis … adduces a series of indications which make it plausible that the pagan religions of Phrygia shaped Montanism at its very origin …

H. interprets the reference to the Phrygian Quintus in the Martyrium Polycarpi, who was very keen to be martyred but defected when faced with the animals in the arena, as a veiled critique of enthusiastic tendencies in Phrygia. Montanism would also be susceptible to those, as she argues later. References to a pagan background of Montanism are found in Eusebius of Caesarea (Church History 5.16), who quoted the work of Apollinarius of Hierapolis. Later sources like Jerome (Epistula 41) can be taken to imply that Montanus was a priest of Cybele, whereas the so-called dialogue between a Montanist and an Orthodox makes him a priest of Apollo … Finally, H. stresses the Phrygian origin of the main actors of Montanism: Montanus, the incarnation of the Paraclet, and the two prophets Maximilla and Priscilla.

The third chapter lists the parallels between Montanism and Phrygian religion. H. tentatively explains the late references to a priesthood of Cybele and Apollo for Montanus by the fact that in Phrygia both deities were sometimes worshipped together (and even more specifically in Phrygian Mysia, Montanus’ place of origin) …

The next section of chapter 3 discusses the character of the Montanist prophecy. The Montanists believed in an additional source of revelation: the ecstatic prophecies of Montanus and his two female followers. H. shows that the Montanist kind of prophecy, characterised by the idea that God inhabits the prophet and uses his body as a tool for his divine revelation, stands in contrast with mainstream Jewish and early Christian prophecy, where prophecy is controlled and the prophet never loses his individuality. Parallels for ecstatic prophecy are rather to be found in a pagan environment.

The female prophets Priscilla and Maximilla are a remarkable feature of Montanism, for which it often was criticised by mainstream Christianity. H. explains this with reference to the role of women in pagan cults, where they indeed could function as prophets. A detail may support this view. Priscilla is described as ‘virgin’ (parthenos), whereas it is likely that she had reached a certain age and had been married. However, the Delphic Pythia was also called ‘virgin’ without really being one. The virginity is in both cases of a ritual nature, indicating a state of purity. And indeed, a fragment from an oracle by Priscilla indicates asceticism as the road to purity.

The fourth-century church father Epiphanius refers to a group of Montanists, the so-called Artotyrites, who celebrated the Eucharist with bread and cheese (Panarion 49.2.6) … Some parallels with pagan cults, like that of Cybele to whom milk was sacrificed, could indicate a pagan background to this rite. Due to lack of evidence, this must remain merely a suggestion.

The final section discusses the organisation of Montanism. Several sources give titles of Montanist functionaries (like epitropos, koinônos, koinônos kata topon). H. proposes that Montanism was organised as a cultic society (a synodos), as were many other cults in Asia Minor. A koinônos is in that case an individual who had bought a property in the interest of the society.