The Development of the Canon of the New Testament

Home | Authorities | Writings | Table | Lists | Places | Heresies | Miscellaneous | for more Information

Heresies in Early Christianity


Montanism, and Montanus (2nd - 3rd century CE)

Montanism, also known as the Cataphrygian Heresy and the New Prophecy, was a heretical movement founded by the prophet Montanus that arose in the Christian Church in Phrygia, Asia Minor, in the 2nd century. Subsequently it flourished in the West, principally in Carthage under the leadership of Tertullian in the 3rd century. It had almost died out in the 5th and 6th centuries, although some evidence indicates that it survived into the 9th century.

The Montanist writings have been lost. The chief sources for the history of the movement are the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, the writings of Tertullian and Epiphanius, and inscriptions, particularly those in central Phrygia.

Little is known about Montanus. Before his conversion to Christianity, he apparently was a priest of the Oriental ecstatic cult of Cybele, the mother goddess of fertility. He appeared at Ardabau, a small village in Phrygia, in the year 156 according to Epiphanius, or if we follow Eusebius, in 172. He fell into a trance and began to "prophesy under the influence of the Spirit". Claiming to be the voice of the Holy Spirit, he announced the fulfillment of the New Testament promise of the Pentecost and the imminent Second Coming of Christ. He was soon joined by two young women, Prisca (or Priscilla) and Maximilla, who left their husbands and also began to prophesy.

Their pronouncements were written down and gathered together as sacred documents similar to the words of Old Testament prophets or the sayings of Jesus. About a score of such oracles have survived, plainly showing the ecstatic character of this form of utterance, in that the prophet does not speak in his or her name as a human being, but the Spirit of God is the speaker. Epiphanius quotes Montanus as saying, 'I am neither an angel nor an envoy, but I the Lord God, the Father, have come'. Such pronouncements were made still more impressive by the manner in which they were presented. According to Epiphanius, a ceremony was held frequently in the churches of Pepuza when 7 virgins, dressed in white and carrying torches, entered and proceeded to deliver oracles to the congregation. He comments that 'they manifest a kind of enthusiasm that dupes those who are present, and provokes them to tears, leading to repentance'.

The movement spread throughout Asia Minor. Inscriptions, some the earliest Christian ones in Asia Minor, have shown that many towns were almost completely converted to Montanism. Phrygia traditionally had been a center of religious mystery rites of Cybele and her consort Attis, whose devotees engaged in frenetic dancing. Hence Montanus and his followers began to be called Phyrgians or Cataphrygians. After the first enthusiasm had waned, however, the followers of Montanus were found mainly in the rural districts.

The essential principle of Montanism was that the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth, whom Jesus had promised in the Gospel according to John, was manifesting himself to the world through Montanus and the prophets and prophetesses associated with him. This did not seem at first to deny the doctrines of the church or to attack the authority of the bishops. The church acknowledged the charismatic gift of some prophets.

It soon became clear, however, that the Montanist prophecy was new. True prophets did not, as Montanus did, deliberately induce a kind of ecstatic intensity and a state of passivity and then maintain that the words they spoke were the voice of the Spirit. It also became clear that the claim of Montanus to have the final revelation of the Holy Spirit implied that something could be added to teaching of Christ and the Apostles and that, therefore, the Church had to accept a fuller revelation.

The belief in the imminent Second Coming of Christ was not confined to Montanists, but with them it took a special form that gave their activities the character of a popular revival. They believed the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21) was soon to descend on the Earth at the little Phrygian town of Pepuza. The prophets and many followers went there, and many Christian communities were almost abandoned.

Convinced that the end of the world was at hand, Montanus laid down a rigoristic morality to purify Christians and detach them from their material desires. The new asceticism included the renunciation of marriage (later mitigated to one marriage), arduous fasting, an emphasis on virginity, the desire for martyrdom, and a stringent penitential regiment for the forgiveness of sin. In contrast to the Gnostic sects of the east that also taught an elitist enlightenment, Montanus' original doctrine eschewed sophisticated principles and speculative mysticism and initially intended his teaching to be a spiritual revival through the new prophecy within orthodox Christianity. On one hand, he honored tradition by acknowledging the biblical basis for Christian belief and accepting its apocalyptic (end of the world) themes. On the other hand, he reacted against the uniformity of a hierarchically organized Christianity that did not allow for the expression of individual religious inspiration. Official criticism of Montanus and his movement consequently emphasized the new prophecy's unorthodox ecstatic expression and his neglect of the bishop's divinely appointed rule. A feature offensive to some in the Church was the admission of women to positions of leadership.

When it became obvious that the Montanist doctrine was an attack on the Catholic faith, the bishops of Asia Minor gathered in synods and finally excommunicated the Montanists, probably ~177. Montanism then became a separate sect with its seat of government at Pepuza. It maintained the ordinary Christian ministry but imposed on it higher orders of patriarchs and associates who were probably successors of the first Montanist prophets. In the West, its most illustrious convert was Tertullian in Carthage; but it declined in importance early in the 5th century. It continued in the East until severe legislation against Montanism by Emperor Justinian I (527-565) essentially destroyed it, but some remnants evidently survived into the 9th century.

Regarding the New Testament canon, the Montanist heresy caused the great Church to develop a mistrust of all recent writings of a prophetical nature. Not only did such a feeling tend to discredit several apocalypses that may have been, in various parts of the Church, on their way to establishing themselves, but even the Revelation of John was sometimes brought under a cloud of suspicion because of its usefulness in supporting the 'New Prophecy'.

The above was taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica and [Metzger].

Pages created by Glenn Davis, 1997-2010.
For additions, corrections, and comments send e-mail to