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The teaching of Mani (216–277 CE) was essentially Gnostic, its constituent elements deriving from Judaism, Judeo-Christianity, and Iranian religion, especially Zoroastrianism in its Zurwānist form. It incorporated features from Marcion of Pontus (d. c. 160 CE) and from pluralistic Syriac Christianity represented by Bardesanes (Bardaisan) of Edessa (154–222 CE). According to the Cologne Mani Codex and several other primary texts discovered in Egypt, it is basically correct to see early Manichaeism as a kind of Christian heresy. Mani considered himself an apostle of Jesus Christ and, moreover, the Paraclete promised by Jesus. Within the Roman Empire the Manichaeans claimed to be the true Christian believers (veri Christiani), while they saw the members of the Catholic Christian Church as "semi-Christians." According to his Capitula, handed over by Augustine of Hippo (c. 400 CE), Faustus, the itinerant Manichaean bishop originating from Milevis (Algeria), declared his acceptance of the preaching of Jesus and his belief in a kind of Trinity. For many years the future Catholic bishop Augustine did the same (cf., e.g., Confessions III.6.10).
Mani himself believed he was promulgating a new universal religion that would supersede all others. The "prophet from the land of Babylon" was born on April 14, 216 CE, near the southern Mesopotamian town of Seleucia-Ctesiphon on the Tigris River. His father's name was Pattīg or Pattēg; in all probability the (Jewish) name of his mother was Marjam (Mirjam). After receiving several revelations from his heavenly Twin, Mani started his missionary journeys inside and outside the Persian Empire in 240 CE, at first accompanied only by his father and two other members of the Judeo-Christian (Elchasaite) sect of his youth.
Following the example of the apostles of Jesus, missionaries were sent out, and Mani himself journeyed in 241 CE by boat to India and up the Indus Valley to Turan, where he won over the king. Soon after the accession of Shāpūr I (242–273 CE) as the sole king of kings of the Persian Empire, Mani seems to have delivered to him his only Middle Persian writing, the Shābuhragān. His admittance into Shāpūr's entourage accorded him unique opportunities to propagate his new prophecy. After Shāpūr's death, Mani also found a willing ear with Hormīzd (Ōhrmazd, 272–273). At the beginning of the second year of the reign of Bahrām I (274–276/7), this benevolent attitude changed. Kardēr, the head of the Zoroastrian magi, began to persuade the great king to take action against the new prophet. Mani was summoned before Bahrām, duly accused, put in chains, and tortured. After twenty-six days in prison, Mani died. In several Manichaean sources his death is described as a crucifixion. Mani's religion soon spread from Mesopotamia to the Atlantic in the west and finally as far as the Pacific in the east.
Although Mani failed to make his revelation the official religion of Iran, he succeeded in what he really intended: the establishment of a new world religion or church. The firm interior organization of this church seems to date from Mani's times and, in essence, may even be a creation of the prophet himself. The church was headed by Mani and later by his deputy archègos. Immediately following this archègos or princeps there were, in the order of three subordinate ranks, the 12 apostles or teachers, the 72 bishops, and the 360 presbyters. The fourth rank was constituted by the elect, both men and women, and finally, the fifth rank consisted of the wide circle of auditors. In order to firmly establish the doctrine of his church, Mani composed a sevenfold canon of authoritative writings:
- The Living Gospel (or Great Gospel);
- The Treasure of Life;
- The Pragmateia (or Treatise, Essay);
- The Book of Mysteries (Secrets);
- The Book of the Giants;
- The Letters;
- The Psalms and Prayers.
All of these writings only survive in fragmentary form, but in many cases its Jewish and in particular (Judeo-)Christian parallels are evident. The discovery of the Cologne Mani Codex shortly before 1970 produced a highly significant extract from the first and most important of Mani's writing, that is, his Living Gospel.
Like his followers in the West, Mani regarded himself as a true disciple of Jesus: he assumed the title "apostle of Jesus Christ." However, this title seems not to be fashioned after the example and role of the apostles of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels. Mani preeminently followed in the footsteps of the apostle Paul. In the case of Mani the concept of apostle should be taken in an even wider sense. In the Cologne Mani Codex, as in several other Manichaean writings, Paul functions as a link in a long chain of "apostles of truth." These apostles include such Jewish forefathers as Adam, Sethel, Enos, Sem, and Henoch, but also religious figures like the Buddha and Zoroaster had been called to become the apostle for their own time. The idea of the cyclical incarnation of the true apostle (or prophet or savior or evangelist: in many Manichaean texts these terms are interchangeable) was well known in Judeo-Christian circles. Moreover it is likely that, for the Manichaeans, Mani was also the seal of the prophets. Later on Muḥammad seems to have adopted this concept of being both the apostle (rasūl) of God and the seal of the prophets.
When Manichaeism moved east, much of its essential structure remained the same. In southern China, Mani was presented as a reincarnation of Laozi, the founder of Daoism; to many others, he was the Buddha of Light. Yet eastern and western Manichaeism were to a certain extent identical, though the eastern texts represent a much later and far more syncretistic form of Manichaeism. In all its varieties, however, the figure of Jesus had a certain place.
In order to understand both Mani's claim of being an apostle of Jesus Christ and the universal place of Jesus himself within the Manichaean system, some key elements of the Manichaean myth will be highlighted. According to this myth, a series of emanations took place in the heavenly world. From the Father of Greatness came forth the Messenger of Light, and from him emanated Jesus the Splendor, who in turn brought forth the Light-Mind, or Light-Nous. This Nous called forth the Apostle of Light, and during the course of world history this (heavenly) apostle became incarnate in great religious leaders, such as the Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus the Messiah, and Mani. When Mani assumed the title of apostle of Jesus Christ, he actually considered himself an apostle of Jesus the Splendor and not of the historical Jesus. The figure of Jesus the Messiah was, in fact, well known in Manichaeism, but in comparison to the other apostles, he did not have any unique significance (as in mainstream Christendom). He also was an apostle of the Light-Nous, and thus of Jesus the Splendor.
Mani and his followers taught a cosmogony of a definitely dualistic kind: evil is an eternal cosmic force, not the result of a fall. Two realms or kingdoms—that of light and that of darkness, good and evil, God and matter—oppose each other implacably. This dualism, however, is not the Hellenistic dualism of spirit and matter but one of two substances: the divine light is a visible, spatial, and quantifiable element, as is the evil substance of darkness, the active principle of lust, the "thought of death."
In the kingdom of light the Father of Greatness rules, and this kingdom is an extension of himself. It has four divine attributes (purity, light, power, wisdom), and the Father resides in his five intellectual powers or "limbs" (reason, mind, intelligence, thought, and understanding, which are otherwise substantially detailed as the five elements of living air, light, wind, water, and fire). Surrounding the Father are the twelve aeons, equally distributed toward the four directions of heaven and refracted into myriads of "aeons of the aeons."
Opposed to the kingdom of light is the realm of darkness, a kingdom that is essentially the domain of evil matter. It is disorderly and dominated by the Prince of Darkness, who is the product of (and even identified with) evil matter. This kingdom also consists of five areas or worlds (dark reason, dark mind), which are also referred to as the five elements of smoke, fire, wind, water, and darkness. In this area countless demons are actively present; they fight and devour each other. Because there was an accidental shift of these disorganized movements, the Prince of Darkness once glimpsed the radiance of light, desired to possess its life, and therefore attacked the kingdom of light. In the ensuing struggle, the Father of Light called forth the Mother of Life, who in turn evoked the First Man. This was the first series of "evocations." After that, the First Man, the "firstborn" Son of God, was called forth and, being equipped with the five light powers as his "sons" or "arms," went into battle. But Primal Man was defeated, and his fivefold armor or Living Soul was devoured by the powers of evil. This being the case, the divine Soul (also termed the Living Self that is suspended on the Cross of Light and, particularly in the West, personified as the suffering Jesus, Jesus patibilis) was mixed with the dark elements of matter and thus became in need of redemption.
The First Man, being vanquished, lay unconscious in the depths. In order to redeem him, the Father of Light called forth a second series of evocations: a new divine Trinity. First, the Father sent forth the Beloved of the Lights; from him came the Great Builder; he in turn produced the Living Spirit. This Living Spirit (also termed the Father of Life) sent his Call from the lowest boundary of the world of light to the First Man lying in the depths. First Man aroused from his unconscious state and responded by an Answer. Then the Living Spirit, together with its five sons and the Mother of Life, descended to the First Man and led him up to the world of light. To rescue the light still captured through the compound of the divine Soul with evil matter, the Living Spirit constructed, with the help of its sons, ten heavens and eight earths.
It is especially noteworthy that, according to the Manichaean cosmogonic myth, this act of creation is performed by a light god, not by an evil demiurge. Thus, in Manichaeism, unlike most other Gnostic systems, the structure of the universe is divinely devised. In order to create the cosmos, however, use had to be made of material of a mixed substance (light and darkness). The sun and the moon are considered to be vessels of pure light, being made from the particles of light completely unaffected by darkness. The planets and stars, however, are evil rulers because they are created from material contaminated with darkness.
With the world so constructed—as a well-ordered prison for the forces of darkness and also as a place where the divine Soul has been captured—the process of salvation could begin. To this end a third evocation of deities occurred. The Father of Greatness called forth the Third Messenger or Ambassador, who was charged to extract and purify the light still retained by the powers of darkness and contained in their bodies. By taking advantage of the innate lust of the male and female archons chained in the heavens, this Tertius Legatus and his female doublet, the Virgin of Light (also represented as the Twelve Maidens, each corresponding to a sign of the zodiac), made them relinquish the light they had devoured. It was concentrated in particular in their semen and in their wombs. The sins of the male archons fell upon the earth when they saw the beautiful Maiden(s). Out of that part of their semen that had dropped into water a monster arose, but this fearful beast was subjugated by the Adamas of Light. From the semen that had fallen on the dry ground, five trees sprang up, and from them all other forms of plant life originated.
When the female archons, pregnant by their own evil nature, saw the naked form of the Third Messenger, they were also agitated, and their fetuses fell down upon the earth. These abortions not only survived their premature births but also devoured the fruits of the trees that had grown out of the semen of the male archons. Driven by sexual lust, they united with each other and gave birth to the innumerable species of animals now known. The light that was not saved was thus transferred to the earth, where it is still scattered and bound in plants and, to a lesser degree, in the bodies of animals.
The next episodes of the Manichaean myth may be summarized, still with a certain emphasis on Christian parallels, as succinctly as possible. In order to continue the liberation of the light, the Third Messenger called forth the Column of Glory (who is also referred to as the New or Perfect Man; cf. Eph. 4:12–13) and set in motion the work of "the ships of light" (i.e., the sun and moon) in order to transport the light to the New Paradise that had been built by the Great Builder. This process frightened the powers of darkness, and in a desperate attempt to preserve some of the captive particles of light, they created the first human couple, Adam and Eve. Hence man was fabricated by the demons, but after the image of the Third Messenger (and so ultimately after the image of God), which the demons had seen on high. Man was thus rooted in two worlds, but at first he was unconscious of his high descent. However, Jesus the Luminous descended to bring him the saving knowledge; this revelation by Jesus to Adam is the archetype of all future human redemption. Gradually this liberation will be achieved. In order to bring about the redemption of the light, Jesus evoked the Light-Mind, or Light-Nous (Intelligence). This Nous in turn summoned forth the Apostle of Light, who became incarnate in the world's great religious leaders.
The final stage of history will be introduced by the Great War between the forces of good and evil. When the church of the righteous ones triumphs, all the souls will be judged, and those of the chosen will rise to heaven. After that the world will be destroyed and purified by a fire lasting 1,468 years. All or most of the light particles will be saved; evil matter, in all its manifestations and with its victims (the damned), will be forever imprisoned in a globe (bôlos, globus). Then the separation of light and darkness will be accomplished for all eternity.
This is an eclectic account of the myth. However complex its ramifications became in the course of many centuries, its essentials remained the same. It is Mani's doctrine that there are two principles and three "moments": the time before the commingling and the struggle, when the two kingdoms of light and darkness were opposed; the time of the commingling, the present world's existence; and future time, in which the two kingdoms will again be (and now definitively) separated. In essence this doctrine is typically Gnostic: the Nous (the heavenly revelation) rescues the Psyche (the divine spark of light in man) from Hyle (evil matter).
Spread of Manichaeism
In the fourth century Manichaeism made great strides in Egypt and North Africa. In 373 Augustine joined the sect in Carthage, and he remained an ardent follower of Manichaeism for more than ten years. Later on, during his career as a Catholic presbyter and bishop, he opposed his former coreligionists in a great number of writings. Nevertheless it is still debated whether the most influential father of the Western church was also positively influenced by Manichaeism. Many of Mani's adherents became refugees with the onslaught of the vandals in the course of the fifth century CE. Hence in Rome, Pope Leo the Great (r. 440–461) actively sought out Manichaean refugees in order to suppress them. In 527 CE there were lawsuits against them in Constantinople. However, Manichaeism survived in North Africa until at least the eighth century CE.
In the East, on the other hand, especially in Chinese Turkestan, there is evidence that Manichaeans were still active in the thirteenth century. A Manichaean temple built in the fourteenth century is still standing on Hua-piao Hill not far from the modern city of Quanzhou on the South China Coast.
Statements by Catholic Christian writers in the Middle Ages suggest that Manichaeism persisted in the West. The Paulicians, the Bogomils, and the Cathari, as well as those who followed Priscillian were all charged with being Manichaeans. In fact, all these authorities were using Manichaean as a synonym for dualist, and any teaching that manifested a tendency toward dualism was accordingly called Manichaean. The teaching of Priscillian (c. 370 CE) is by no means easy to define, but it is doubtful that the epithet Manichaean is applicable. The Paulicians, first noted in Armenia in the seventh century CE, seem to have been straightforward Gnostics; they had a direct influence on the Bogomils, who emerged in Bulgaria in the tenth century. In the eleventh century the Cathari began to achieve notoriety in Italy, Germany, and France—being commonly called Albigensians in France—but it has yet to be proved that there was an evident historical connection between any of these and the ancient Manichaeans.
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Leo I, Pope. Sermons and Letters against the Manichaeans. Edited by Hendrik Gerhard and Johannes van Oort. Turnhout, Belgium, 2000.
Lieu, Samuel N. C. Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China. Tübingen, Germany, 1992.
Oort, Johannes van. Mani, Manichaeism, and Augustine. Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, 2001.
Oort, Johannes van, Otto Wermelinger, and Gregor Wurst, eds. Augustine and Manichaeism in the Latin West. Leiden and Boston, 2001.
Polotsky, Hans Jacob. Abriss des manichäischen Systems. Stuttgart, 1935. Reprinted in Polotsky, Collected Papers, pp. 699–714. Jerusalem, 1971.
Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis: The Nature and History of an Ancient Religion. Edinburgh, 1983.
Johannes Van Oort (2005)