An Overview of Manichaeism
Manichaeism was an influence on Western Christianity through St. Augustine. While he would later go on to attack his former faith, Mani’s vision of a raving and angry God would permeate Protestantism through his followers Calvin and Luther. It would do well for the student to understand this pseudo-gnostic cult. Augustine’s influence ranks only second to the Apostle Paul whom he idealized.
St. Augustine was greatly influenced by Manichaeism and many believe he incorporated these views into Christianity.
Manichaeism was one of the major Iranian-Gnostic religions, originating in Sassanid Persia. Although most of the original writings of the founding prophet Mani have been lost, numerous translations and fragmentary texts have survived. Manichaeism thrived between the third and seventh centuries, and at its height was one of the most widespread religions in the world. Manichaean churches and scriptures existed as far east as China and as far west as the Roman empire. Manichaeism appears to have died out before the 16th century in southern China.
The original six sacred books of Manichaeism, composed in Syriac Aramaic, were soon translated into other languages to help spread the religion. As they spread to the east, the Manichaean writings passed through Middle Persian, Parthian, Sogdian, and ultimately Uyghur and Chinese translations. As they spread to the west, they were translated into Greek, Coptic, and Latin. The spread and success of Manichaeism were seen as a threat to other religions, and it was widely persecuted in Christians, Zoroastrians, and Muslims.
Mani lived approximately 210-276 AD and resided in Babylon, which was then a province of the Persian Empire. Mani is a Persian name found in all three Aramaic dialects and therefore common among its speakers. Mani composed seven writings, six of which were written in Syriac Aramaic. The seventh, the Shabuhragan, was written by Mani in Middle Persian and dedicated to the contemporary King of Sassanid Persia, Shapur I, who was a strong supporter of Manichaeism and encouraged its spread throughout his empire.
Manichaeism claimed to present the complete version of teachings only revealed partially by previous teachers. Accordingly, as it spread, it adapted new deities from other religions into forms it could use for its scriptures. Its original Aramaic texts already contained stories of Jesus. When they moved eastward and were translated into Iranian languages, the names of the Manichaean deities (or angels) were often transformed into the names of Zoroastrian yazatas. It hijacked a number of Christian and Zoroastrian figures.
The original six Syriac writings are not preserved, but there are fragments and quotations from them. The adaptation of Manichaeism to the Zoroastrian religion appears to have begun in Mani’s lifetime however, with his writing of the Middle Persian Shabuhragan, his book dedicated to the King Shapuhr.
In it, there are mentions of Zoroastrian deities such as Ohrmazd, Ahriman, and Az. Manichaeism is often presented as a Persian religion, mostly due to the vast number of Middle Persian, Parthian, and Soghdian (as well as Turkish) texts discovered by German researchers near Turfan, in the Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan) province of China, during the early 1900s. As far as its origins are concerned, however, Manichaeism was no more a Persian or Iranian religion than Talmudic Judaism or Babylonian Mandaeism, which were also written in Aramaic in Babylon in roughly the third century AD.
Mani began preaching at an early age and was likely influenced by Mandaeanism. (A form of Gnosticism) Mani allegedly received a revelation as a youth from a spirit, whom he would later call his Twin, his Syzygos, his Double, his Protective Angel or ‘Divine Self’. It taught him truths which he developed into a religion. His ‘divine’ Twin or true Self brought Mani to Self-realization and as such he becomes a ‘gnosticus’, someone with divine knowledge and liberating insight.
He claimed to be the ‘Paraclete of the Truth’, as promised in the New Testament: the Last Prophet and Seal of the Prophets finalizing a succession of figures including Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus. In the Orthodox Tradition the title Paraclete was understood to refer to God in the person of the Holy Spirit.
Another source of Mani’s scriptures was a section of the original Aramaic “Book of Enoch”, called the “Book of Giants”. This book was quoted directly, and expanded on by Mani, becoming one of the original six Syriac writings of the Manichaean Church. Besides brief references by non-Manichaean authors through the centuries, no original sources of “The Book of Giants” (which is actually part six of the “Book of Enoch”) were available.
Scattered fragments of both the original Aramaic “Book of Giants” (which were analyzed and published by J. T. Milik in 1976), and of the Manichaean version of the same name (analyzed and published by W.B. Henning in 1943) were found with the discovery in the twentieth century of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Judaean Desert and the Manichaean writings of the Uyghur Manichaean kingdom in Turfan. Henning wrote in his analysis of them:
It is noteworthy that Mani, who was brought up and spent most of his life in a province of the Persian empire, and whose mother belonged to a famous Parthian family, did not make any use of the Iranian mythological tradition. There can no longer be any doubt that the Iranian names of Sam, Nariman, etc., that appear in the Persian and Sogdian versions of the Book of the Giants, did not figure in the original edition, written by Mani in the Syriac language.
From a careful reading of the Book of Enoch and Book of Giants, alongside the description of the Manichaean myth, it becomes clear that the “Great King of Glory” of this myth (a being that sits as a guard to the world of light at the seventh of ten heavens in the Manichaean myth), is identical with the King of Glory sitting on the heavenly throne in the Book of Enoch. In the Aramaic book of Enoch, in the Qumran writings in general.
While Manichaeism was spreading, existing religions such as Christianity and Zoroastrianism were gaining social and political influence. Although having fewer adherents, Manichaeism won the support of many high-ranking political figures. With the assistance of the Persian Empire, Mani began missionary expeditions. After failing to win the favor of the next generation, and incurring the disapproval of the Zoroastrian clergy, Mani is reported to have died in prison awaiting execution by the Persian Emperor Bahram I. The date of his death is fixed at AD 276-277.
When Christians first encountered Manichaeism, they deemed it a heresy, since it had originated in a heavily Gnostic area of the Persian empire. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) converted to Christianity from Manichaeism, in the year 387. This was shortly after the Roman Emperor Theodosius I had issued a decree of death for Manichaeans in AD 382 and shortly before he declared Christianity to be the only legitimate religion for the Roman Empire in 391. According to his Confessions, after eight or nine years of adhering to the Manichaean faith as a member of the group of “hearers”, Augustine became a Christian and a potent adversary of Manichaeism, seeing their beliefs that knowledge was the key to salvation as too passive.
How Manichaeism may have influenced Christianity continues to be debated. Manichaeism may have influenced the Bogomils, Paulicians, and Cathars. However, these groups left few records, and the link between them and Manichaeans is tenuous. Regardless of its accuracy the charge of Manichaeism was leveled at them by contemporary orthodox opponents, who often tried to make contemporary heresies conform to those combatted by the church fathers.
Whether the dualism of the Paulicians, Bogomils, and Cathars and their belief that the world was created by a Satanic demiurge were due to influence from Manichaeism is impossible to determine. The Cathars apparently adopted the Manichaean principles of church organization. Priscillian and his followers may also have been influenced by Manichaeism. The Manichaeans preserved many apocryphal Christian works, such as the Acts of Thomas, that would otherwise have been lost.
by Lewis Loflin For Sullivan County