Manichaeism

Mani (Gr. Coptic Manichaios), of aristocratic Parthian family and religious father, was born in 216, and grew up in S Babylonia probably among adherents of Elchasai. Revelations at the ages of twelve and twenty-four led him to leave the community of his youth and after study and meditation to embark in 240/41 upon his mission of proclamation of the revealed truth. After the conversion of members of his family, and a time in India, he returned to the center of the Persian Empire, by this time having royal princes among his followers. King Shapur I (241-72) received him, gave him leave to preach his message, and made him one of his entourage from admiration or political expediency. Under this patronage he was able to write the six books and the letters that made up the Manichaean Canon, and to travel widely through the empire spreading his message. Under Hormizd I royal protection continued, but after one year Bahram I succeeded him and the climate changed: Mani was first denied traveling rights, then summoned to the presence, and at the instance of Karter, Zoroastrian high priest, imprisoned in chains. After suffering for a month, he died in February of either 276 or 277.

His religion, which had already reached Egypt in his lifetime, spread throughout the Roman Empire and eastward beyond Persia to Sogdia, by the eighth century reached China, and in the late eighth century was the state religion of the Turkic Uigurs. Almost everywhere bitterly persecuted, it eventually died out. Manichaean writings have come to light only this century, mainly in Coptic, Sogdian, and Uigur, but also in Chinese, Greek, and Persian. The doctrine, though claimed as a system, is highly mythological. Two principles, Light and Dark, God and Matter, are eternal. The invasion of the Light led to the saving expedition of the Primeval Man, some of whose substance remained imprisoned in matter after his return. The creation of sun, moon, stars, and plant life was part of a plan to redeem this imprisoned Light. The appearance of Adam was a counterplot to retain Light imprisoned, through reproduction; “Jesus the Brilliant Light” redeemed him by a vision. The Jesus of the gospels is but an instance of the suffering of imprisoned Light in matter.

The religious practice of Mani's followers (among whom the “elect” or “righteous” ate no meat and abstained from sexual life) was an ascetic means of continuing the process of gradual liberation. At length, after the second coming of Jesus and a millenial reign, the end comes, when the elect are reunited with Light, and this creation is destroyed. The precise relation of Iranian, Mandaean* Gnostic, Buddhist, and Christian elements in the teaching of Mani (who called himself “apostle of Jesus Christ”) remains a matter for debate and research. The relation to the medieval “Manichee” is problematic.

F.C. Burkitt, The Religion of the Manichees (1925); S. Runciman, The Medieval Manichee (1947); H-C. Puech, Le Manichéisme. Son Fondateur. Sa Doctrine (1949); G. Widengren, Mani and Manichaeism (ET 1965); A. Adam, Texte zum Manichaismus (2nd ed., 1969); A. Henrichs and L. Koenen, “Ein griechischer Mani-Codex,” in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphie 5 (1970), pp. 97-216; A. Henrichs, “Mani and the Babylonian Baptists, in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77 (1973), pp. 23-59.