The Manichaeans

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Christianity

  • Manichaeism was a very popular religion by the fifth Century.
  • It was founded by a Persian nobleman by the name of Mani (210-276 CE), who lived in Babylon, a province of Persia in southern Mesopotamia.
  • He began preaching while still quite young and was, no doubt, highly influenced by Gnosticism and Zoroastrianism.
  • Supposedly, he had a vision at a young age that revealed to him the basic tenets of his religion. This vision came in the form of an angel [he called it his "twin"] who brought him to early self-realization of divine knowledge and liberation.
  • He referred to himself as the "Paraclete of Truth" that had been promised by Jesus in the New Testament.
  • He taught that there were two basic natures: light and darkness.
  • Light reflected peace; darkness meant conflict.
  • The world, as we know it, is the battleground for these two forces with darkness trying to overcome light.
  • On a more individual level, humans are the ultimate battleground with each person having within himself light (the soul) and darkness (the body). One might think the soul would be the dominant nature, but, instead, darkness has the upper hand. People, however, can learn who they really are, identify with their soul, and in so doing, overcome the power of matter.
  • Another way of saying it is that there are good forces and evil forces in the world. The leader of the Good is God; the leader of the Evil is the Devil. There is no one true God or omnipotent power.
  • Because of these beliefs, Manichaeism was known as a dualistic religion, but Mani was careful to include ideas from all the major religions of his day.
  • Converts were both illumined and awakened; death brought liberation from matter.
  • Orthodox Christianity rejected these ideas -- the notion that the Devil might have as much power as God was heretical. On the other hand, Mani might ask, "If God [the leader of the Good] was all-powerful, why is there so much evil?" The question has perplexed theologians forever, but orthodoxy knew the answer was not that there were two gods.
  • Manichaeism was spread both east and west by various apostles, reaching from China to Rome. Scholars think it lasted in China to the 16th century.
  • Psattiq is the apostle who brought it to Rome.
  • Manicheans were the target of persecution by late in the third century. Christians considered them to be heretics for their dualistic beliefs.
  • By 382 CE, the Christian emperor, Theodosius I, pronounced death upon any adherents of Manichaeism. This extended to any Christians who showed sympathy for their beliefs.
  • One result of this was that a Christian bishop was beheaded in 385 CE (possibly the first mainstream Christian martyred by Christians). The great theologian, Augustine (354-430 CE), converted from Manichaeism to Christianity and became an arch opponent. Some think the main reason for his conversion was based on greater opportunities within the Christian Church. Others say it was because of the claim of Manicheans that knowledge was the only route to salvation.
  • Despite his conversion, Augustine adopted many Manichaean ideas – including the belief of election, hostility to all things physical or sexual, and polarized categories of good/evil, eternal/corruptible, and heaven/hell.
  • In 391 CE, Christianity was pronounced to be the only legitimate religion in the Roman Empire.
  • Nonetheless, Manichaeism lasted for a thousand years.
  • Some of the original writings were discovered in the early 1900s. At that time, German scholars excavated an ancient site located in Chinese Turkestan that had been destroyed in 1300 CE. They published their findings in 1933. Prior to that time, as in many other cases, the only knowledge scholars had was the polemic writings of its opponents.
  • Coincidentally, while this was happening in the East, another group of German scholars working in Egypt found many manuscripts written in Coptic. They published these in Berlin prior to World War II, and it is believed that many of these original documents were destroyed during the war.
  • Since then, more discoveries have been made, including one Greek manuscript that shed more light on the life of its founder, Mani.
  • It appears that Mani wrote at least six sacred books. Written originally in Syriac Aramaic, they were translated into various other languages, which was necessary as the religion spread from west to east. Manuscripts now appear in Latin, Greek, and Coptic.
  • Mani's seventh work was a tribute to the King of Persia who was a staunch supporter and promoter.
  • Mani supposedly died in prison while he was awaiting execution by a later Persian regime.

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