The Canon: Thoughts on the First-Generation
8. Montanus and the Canon
Another movement that prompted the church to think about what
constituted legitimate Scripture was Montanism.
In 172, Montanus, Prisca, and Maximilla (a man and two women)
appeared in Phrygia (a region of Asia Minor)
and began to prophesy. Here was their message:
(1) The gift of prophecy had been given to them, and the age of the
Spirit had come.
(2) The world would end, and the New Jerusalem would descend at
Pepuza (a village in Phrygia). The
end was near, too, for Maximilla said that after her there would be
no more prophecy, only fulfillment.
(3) Get ready, and getting ready meant fasting and ascetic practices
and eating radishes and not having sex.
(4) After baptism there was no more forgiveness for sins, except
perhaps for the ones that daily beset us, and certainly no
forgiveness for having sex.
(5) Martyrdom was the only glorious death, and it served as an
exception clause to Number 4: if you were martyred as a Christian,
this remitted any sins you may have done after your baptism.
Because the Montanist prophets claimed to speak a direct message from
God mediated by the Holy Spirit, their oracles were written down and
were viewed by their followers as having the authority of the other
response of the wide church was initially confused.
A well-meaning soul named Zoticus found Maximilla in Pepuza and tried
to cast the demon out of her. She resisted the effort.
The bishop of Rome
thought that from the standpoint of fundamental doctrine and teaching,
the Montanists seemed little different from other Christians. But when
he wrote a letter stating this, it met with such disapproval that he
rescinded the letter.
Some people accepted Montanist teachings, including the great scholar
Tertullian in northern Africa, as well
as people who were not scholarly inclined at all. Hippolytus said that
these people did not evaluate Montanist teachings with reason, but
alleged that they had learned something more through the Montanist
prophets than they had from the law, the prophets, and the Gospels! (Refutation of All Heresies
8.12. Note the summary reference to the Christian literature, consisting
of Old and New Testaments.)
A turning point in the story came when the Phrygian prophets died and
nothing happened. Maximilla had said that after her would come wars and
anarchy. One ancient Christian writer (we do not know his name) remarked
that thirteen years had passed after Maximilla had died and the world
remained at peace.
Another turning point was a public discussion in Rome between Caius and a
Montanist leader named Proclus, who was apparently Montanus’ successor.
Caius objected that the Montanists wrote “new scriptures” (καινὰς
γραφάς). Caius meant the recorded oracles of the Montanist
prophets, and his objection implies that the body of scripture was by
now thought to be closed. In the same debate Caius argued that Hebrews
did not belong to scripture (apparently because of Hebrews 6:4–6, which seemed
to support Montanus’ Rule Number 4) and Caius’ opinion about Hebrews
persisted in Rome
during the next hundred years. (The reception of another book, the Book
of Revelation, was apparently affected by the Montanist controversy as
well: Revelation was not received in the East for several hundred
more years, and even then did not find a place in the lectionary of the
From our distance (and from our almost complete lack of first-hand
knowledge) we may think that when the wide church rejected Montanism it
squelched a vibrant spiritual renaissance. A more careful way to view it
is that the wide church knew the difference between apostolic times and
their own times and realized that the first-generation literature was
central to the message of the gospel, not whatever was spoken by a
later generation even claiming to be the voice of the Spirit.
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Perhaps a dozen Montanist sayings survive. Here are
“I am neither an angel nor an envoy, but I the Lord God, the
Father, have come” (Epiphanius Panarion 48.2).
“I am the Father and the Son and the Paraclete” (Didymus De
“Behold, man is as a lyre and I hover over him as a
plectrum. Man sleeps but I watch. Behold, it is the Lord who
removes the hearts of men and gives them [other] hearts” (Epiphanius
Cited in Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its
Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1987), p. 101. The references in parentheses refer to
the patristic sources that have preserved them.