Sacred Texts  Christianity  Early Church Fathers  Index  Previous  Next 

Letter XLI. To Marcella.

An effort having been made to convert Marcella to Montanism, 873 Jerome here summarizes for her its leading doctrines, which he contrasts with those of the Church. Written at Rome in 385 a.d.

1. As regards the passages brought together from the gospel of John with which a certain votary of Montanus has assailed you, passages in which our Saviour promises that He will go to the Father, and that He will send the Paraclete 874 —as regards these, the Acts of the Apostles inform us both for what time the promises were made, and at what time they were actually fulfilled. Ten days had elapsed, we are told, from the Lord’s ascension and fifty from His resurrection, when the Holy Spirit came down, and the tongues of the believers were cloven, so that each spoke every language. Then it was that, when certain persons of those who as yet believed not declared that the disciples were drunk with new wine, Peter standing in the midst of the apostles, and of all the concourse said: “Ye men of Judæa and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you and hearken to my words: for these are not drunken as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day. But this is that which was spoken of by the prophet Joel. And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: and on my servants, and on my handmaidens I will pour out…of my spirit.” 875

2. If, then, the apostle Peter, upon whom the Lord has founded the Church, 876 has expressly said that the prophecy and promise of the Lord were then and there fulfilled, how can we claim another fulfilment for ourselves? if the Montanists reply that Philip’s four daughters prophesied 877 at a later date, and that a prophet is mentioned named Agabus, 878 and that in the partition of the spirit, prophets are spoken of as well as apostles, teachers and others, 879 and that Paul himself prophesied many things concerning heresies still future, and the end of the world; we tell them that we do not so much reject prophecy—for this is attested by the passion of the Lord—as refuse to receive prophets whose utterances fail to accord with the Scriptures old and new.

3. In the first place we differ from the Montanists regarding the rule of faith. We distinguish the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as three persons, but unite them as one substance. They, on the other hand, following the doctrine of Sabellius, 880 force the Trinity into the narrow limits of a single personality. We, while we do not encourage them, yet allow second marriages, since Paul bids the younger widows to marry. 881 They suppose a repetition of marriage a sin so awful that he who has committed it is to be regarded as an adulterer. We, according p. 56 to the apostolic tradition (in which the whole world is at one with us), fast through one Lent yearly; whereas they keep three in the year as though three saviours had suffered. I do not mean, of course, that it is unlawful to fast at other times through the year—always excepting Pentecost 882 —only that while in Lent it is a duty of obligation, at other seasons it is a matter of choice. With us, again, the bishops occupy the place of the apostles, but with them a bishop ranks not first but third. For while they put first the patriarchs of Pepusa 883 in Phrygia, and place next to these the ministers called stewards, 884 the bishops are relegated to the third or almost the lowest rank. No doubt their object is to make their religion more pretentious by putting that last which we put first. Again they close the doors of the Church to almost every fault, whilst we read daily, “I desire the repentance of a sinner rather than his death,” 885 and “Shall they fall and not arise, saith the Lord,” 886 and once more “Return ye backsliding children and I will heal your backslidings.” 887 Their strictness does not prevent them from themselves committing grave sins, far from it; but there is this difference between us and them, that, whereas they in their self-righteousness blush to confess their faults, we do penance for ours, and so more readily gain pardon for them.

4. I pass over their sacraments 888 of sin, made up as they are said to be, of sucking children subjected to a triumphant martyrdom. 889 I prefer, I say, not to credit these; accusations of blood-shedding may well be false. But I must confute the open blasphemy of men who say that God first determined in the Old Testament to save the world by Moses and the prophets, but that finding Himself unable to fulfil His purpose He took to Himself a body of the Virgin, and preaching under the form of the Son in Christ, underwent death for our salvation. Moreover that, when by these two steps He was unable to save the world, He last of all descended by the Holy Spirit upon Montanus and those demented women Prisca and Maximilia; and that thus the mutilated and emasculate 890 Montanus possessed a fulness of knowledge such as was never claimed by Paul; for he was content to say, “We know in part, and we prophesy in part,” and again, “Now we see through a glass darkly.” 891

These are statements which require no refutation. To expose the infidelity of the Montanists is to triumph over it. Nor is it necessary that in so short a letter as this I should overthrow the several absurdities which they bring forward. You are well acquainted with the Scriptures; and, as I take it, you have written, not because you have been disturbed by their cavils, but only to learn my opinion about them.



Montanus lived at Ardaban, in Phrygia, in the second half of the second century, and founded a sect of prophetic enthusiasts and ascetics, which was afterward joined by Tertullian.


John 14:28, John 15:26.


Acts ii. 14-18.


Matt. xvi. 18.


Acts xxi. 9.


Acts 11:28, Acts 21:10, 11.


1 Cor. 12:28, Eph. 4:11.


A presbyter of the Libyan Pentapolis who taught at Rome in the early years of the third century. He “confounded the persons” of the Trinity and was subsequently accounted a heretic. Cf. Letter XV.


1 Tim. v. 14.


Viz. the period between Easter Day and Whitsunday.


Called by the Montanists the New Jerusalem.


Oeconomos—according to a probable emendation. The text has cenonas.


Ezek. xviii. 23.


Jer. viii. 4.


Jer. iii. 22.




Victuro martyre confarrata. The precise meaning of the words is obscure.


Some suppose him to have been a priest of Cybele, but it would be a mistake to lay too much stress on Jerome’s words.


1 Cor. 13:9, 12.

Next: Letter XLII