Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.38

Vera-Elisabeth Hirschmann, Horrenda Secta. Untersuchungen zum frühchristlichen Montanismus und seinen Verbindungen zur paganen Religion Phrygiens. Historia Einzelschriften 179.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2005.  Pp. 168.  ISBN 3-515-08675-7.  €37.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Peter Van Nuffelen, University of Exeter (
Word count: 1067 words

Vera-Elisabeth Hirschmann's Ph.D. thesis is at once a contribution to the study of early Christian Montanism and the religious traditions of Phrygia. It is framed as a reply to W. Schepelern's Der Montanismus und die phrygischen Kulte (1929), which denied any early link between both. In his view, Montanism was at its origin a purely Christian movement, and only later showed the influence of its pagan environment. This view is still the dominant interpretation,1 although doubts about it have been raised.2 H. adduces a series of indications which make it plausible that the pagan religions of Phrygia shaped Montanism at its very origin. Because of the tantalisingly scarce material, she has to do this by juxtaposing specific characteristics of Montanism and parallels found in Phrygian religion. Certainty cannot be reached in this way, but the argument is worth making.

After the traditional status quaestionis, a second chapter offers a sketch of Montanism. The sources are often problematic and late. In relation to the general thesis of the book, the following must be singled out. H. interprets the reference to the Phrygian Quintus in the Martyrium Polycarpi (4), 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. No certainty concerning the starting date of Montanus' 'new prophecy' can be reached, but H. prefers Epiphanius' earlier date (157 A.D.; Panarion 48.1) over Eusebius' later one (172 A.D.; Jerome, Chron.). 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). Montanus may have been a priest of such a cult before his conversion to Christianity. This suggestion is open to many objections: Jerome's reference to Montanus as a eunuch does not have to be more than slander, nor does it have to imply that he was a priest of Cybele. However, it receives some support from the fact that both cults knew ecstatic prophecy.

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). This may have been indeed a practice of some Montanists, as in the vision of Perpetua she receives some cheese in heaven. (This assumes that the Passio Perpetuae is Montanist in character.) 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 ἐπίτροπος, κοινωνός, κοινωνός κατὰ τόπον). H. proposes that Montanism was organised as a cultic society (a synodos), as were many other cults in Asia Minor. A κοινωνός is in that case an individual who had bought a property in the interest of the society.

Apart from the general thesis summarised here, the book contains interesting remarks on points of detail, like p. 65-66 the suggestion that the name of the galloi, the eunuch priests of Cybele, is derived from Sumeric gallu, which means "in a woman's voice"

On the whole, this is a clearly argued book with a couple of typos and inconsistencies or errors (e.g., the dialogue between an orthodox and a Montanist is dated differently on p. 40 and 51). On p. 69 I miss the fundamental work of J. Lightfoot, On the Syrian Goddess (Oxford, 2003). The book would have benefited in conciseness if sections not directly relevant to the argument (e.g., prophecy in the Old Testament; extensive discussions of Apollo and Cybele) had been reduced to their essence.

As far as the general thesis of the book is concerned, none of the individual points made by H. constitutes a real proof, nor does the nature of the sources allow for more precise arguments. This is mainly due to the state of the evidence, both for early Montanism and for the religions of Phrygia. H. often has to rely on parallels from other regions to make her point. However, the accumulation of indications makes H.'s case a plausible one, and make her a book a stimulating contribution to the study of the origins of Montanism. In my opinion, however, wider support for her thesis can only come from a broader study of the interaction between paganism and other early Christian sects, which would show that Montanism was not a unique phenomenon in this regard.


1.   See, e.g., C. Trevett, Montanism, Gender, Authority and the New Prophecy, Cambridge, 1996, 8-10; W. Tabbernee, Montanist Inscriptions and Testimonia: Epigraphic Sources Illustrating the History of Montanism, Macon (Georgia), 1997, 23.
2.   One would expect to find the following works in H.'s bibliography: B. Goree, "The Cultural Bases of Montanism," unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, 1980; A. Daunton-Fear, The Ecstasties of Montanism, Studia Patristica 17, 1982, 648-651.

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