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Montanism was an early Christian movement of the late 2nd century, later referred to by the name of its founder, Montanus, but originally known by its adherents as the New Prophecy. It originated in Phrygia, a province of Asia Minor, and flourished throughout the region, leading to the movement being referred to elsewhere as Cataphrygian (meaning it was "from Phrygia") or simply as "Phrygians". It spread rapidly to other regions in the Roman Empire at a time before Christianity was generally tolerated or legal. It persisted in some isolated places into the 6th century.
Although it came to be labelled a heresy, the movement held similar views about the basic tenets of Christian doctrine to those of the wider Christian Church. It was a prophetic movement that called for a reliance on the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit and a more conservative personal ethic. Parallels have been drawn between Montanism and modern day movements such as Pentecostalism, the charismatic movement, and the New Apostolic Reformation.
Scholars are divided as to when Montanus first began his prophetic activity, having chosen dates varying from c. AD 135 to as late as AD 177. Montanus was a recent convert when he first began prophesying supposedly during the proconsulate of Gratus in a village in Mysia named Ardabau. No proconsul named Gratus or village named Ardabau have been identified, however. Some accounts claim that before his conversion to Christianity, Montanus was a priest of Apollo or Cybele. He believed he was a prophet of God and that the Paraclete spoke through him. Montanus proclaimed the towns of Pepuza and Tymion in west-central Phrygia as the site of the New Jerusalem, making the larger Pepuza his headquarters.
He had two female colleagues, Prisca (sometimes called Priscilla) and Maximilla, who likewise claimed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Their popularity even exceeded Montanus' own. "The Three" spoke in ecstatic visions and urged their followers to fast and pray, so that they might share these revelations. Their followers claimed they received the prophetic gift from the prophets Quadratus and Ammia of Philadelphia, figures believed to have been part of a line of prophetic succession stretching all the way back to Agabus and the daughters of Philip the Evangelist. In time, the New Prophecy spread from Montanus' native Phrygia across the Christian world, to Africa and Gaul.
The response to the New Prophecy split the Christian communities, and the more orthodox clergy mostly fought to suppress it. It was believed that the Phrygian prophets were possessed by evil spirits, and both Maximilla and Priscilla were the targets of failed exorcisms. The churches of Asia Minor pronounced the prophecies profane and excommunicated its adherents. Around 177, Apollinarius, Bishop of Hierapolis, presided over a synod which condemned the New Prophecy. The leaders of the churches of Lyons and Vienne in Gaul responded to the New Prophecy in 177. Their decision was communicated to the churches in Asia and Eleuterus, the Bishop of Rome, but it is not known what this consisted of, only that it was "prudent and most orthodox". It is likely they called for moderation in dealing with the movement. There was real doubt at Rome, and its bishop (either Eleuterus or Victor I) even wrote letters in support of Montanism, although he was later persuaded by Praxeas to recall them. In 193, the Anonymous Writer found the church at Ancyra in Galatia torn in two, and he opposed the "false prophecy" there. Eventually, Montanist teachings came to be regarded as heresy by the orthodox Church for a number of reasons.
There was never a uniform excommunication of New Prophecy adherents, and in many places they maintained their standing within the orthodox community. This was the case at Carthage. While not without tension, the church there avoided schism over the issue. There were women prophesying at Carthage, and prophecy was considered a genuine charism. It was the responsibility of the council of elders to test all prophecy and to determine genuine revelation. The best-known defender of the New Prophecy was undoubtedly Tertullian, who believed that the claims of Montanus were genuine beginning c. 207. He believed in the validity of the New Prophecy and admired the movement's discipline and ascetic standards. A common misconception is that Tertullian decisively left the orthodox church and joined a separate Montanist sect; in fact, he remained a catholic Christian.
Although what became the orthodox Christian church prevailed against Montanism within a few generations, inscriptions in the Tembris valley of northern Phrygia, dated between 249 and 279, openly proclaim their allegiance to the New Prophecy. A letter of Jerome to Marcella, written in 385, refutes the claims of Montanists that had been troubling her. A group of "Tertullianists" may have continued at Carthage. The anonymous author of Praedestinatus records that a preacher came to Rome in 388 where he made many converts and obtained the use of a church for his congregation on the grounds that the martyrs to whom it was dedicated had been Montanists. He was obliged to flee after the victory of Theodosius I. Augustine records that the Tertullianist group dwindled to almost nothing in his own time, and finally was reconciled to the church and handed over their basilica. It is not certain whether these Tertullianists were in all respects "Montanist" or not. In the 6th century, on the orders of the emperor Justinian, John of Ephesus led an expedition to Pepuza to destroy the Montanist shrine there, which was based on the tombs of Montanus, Priscilla and Maximilla.
Because much of what is known about Montanism comes from anti-Montanist sources, it is difficult to know what they actually believed and how those beliefs differed from the Christian mainstream of the time. The New Prophecy was also a diverse movement, and what Montanists believed varied by location and time. Montanism was particularly influenced by Johannine literature, especially the Gospel of John and the Apocalypse of John. In John's Gospel, Jesus promised to send the Paraclete or Holy Spirit, from which Montanists believed their prophets derived inspiration. In the Apocalypse, John was taken by an angel to the top of a mountain where he sees the New Jerusalem descend to earth. Montanus identified this mountain as being located in Phrygia near Pepuza. Followers of the New Prophecy called themselves spiritales ("spiritual people") in contrast to their opponents whom they termed psychici ("carnal, natural people").
As the name "New Prophecy" implied, Montanism was a movement focused around prophecy, specifically those of the movement's founders which were believed to contain the Holy Spirit's revelation for the present age. Prophecy itself was not controversial within 2nd-century Christian communities. However, the New Prophecy, as described by Eusebius of Caesarea, departed from Church tradition: "And he [Montanus] became beside himself, and being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy, he raved, and began to babble and utter strange things, prophesying in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church handed down by tradition from the beginning." The Montanist prophets did not speak as messengers of God but were described as possessed by God while being unable to resist. A prophetic utterance by Montanus described this possessed state: "Lo, the man is as a lyre, and I fly over him as a pick. The man sleepeth, while I watch." Thus, the Phrygians were seen as false prophets because they acted irrationally and were not in control of their senses.
In some of his prophecies, Montanus apparently, and somewhat like the oracles of the Greco-Roman world, spoke in the first person as God: "I am the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit". Many understood this to be Montanus claiming himself to be God. However, scholars agree that these words of Montanus exemplify the general practice of religious prophets to speak as the passive mouthpieces of the divine, and to claim divine inspiration (similar to modern prophets stating "Thus saith the Lord"). That practice occurred in Christian as well as in pagan circles with some degree of frequency.
Other beliefs and practices (or alleged beliefs and practices) of Montanism are as follows: