Manichaeism (in Modern Persian آیین مانی Āyin e Māni; Chinese: 摩尼教) was one of the major Gnostic religions, originating in Sassanid Persia. Although most of the original writings of the founding prophet Mani (Syriac, ܡܐܢܝ, c. AD 210–276) 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 sixteenth 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 Christian, Zoroastrian, and later, Islamic areas.
Mani lived approximately AD 210–276 and resided in Babylon, which was then a province of the Persian Empire. According to the Cologne Mani-Codex, Mani's parents were Elcesaites of southern Mesopotamia. The primary language of Babylon at that time was Eastern Middle Aramaic, which included three main dialects: Judeo-Aramaic (the language of the Talmud), Mandaean Aramaic (the language of the Mandaean religion), and Syriac Aramaic, which was the language of Mani, as well as of the Assyrian Christians. 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. Mani also created a unique version of the Syriac script called Manichaean script, which was used in all of the Manichaean works written within the Persian Empire, whether they were in Syriac or Middle Persian, and also for most of the works written within the Uyghur 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. Thus Abbā dəRabbūṯā ("The Father of Greatness", the highest Manichaean deity of Light), in Middle Persian texts might either be translated literally as pīd ī wuzurgīh, or substituted with the name of the deity Zurwān. Similarly, the Manichaean primal figure Nāšā Qaḏmāyā "The Original Man" was rendered "Ohrmazd Bay", after the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda. This process continued to Manichaeism's meeting with Chinese Buddhism, where, for example, the original Aramaic "karia" (the "call" from the world of Light to those seeking rescue from the world of Darkness), becomes identified in the Chinese scriptures with Guan Yin (觀音, literally, "watching/perceiving sounds [of the world]", the Chinese Bodhisattva of Compassion).
The original six Syriac writings are not preserved, although their Syriac names have been. There are also fragments and quotations from them. A long quotation, brought by the Syrian Nestorian Christian, Theodor bar-Khonai, in the eighth century, shows that in the original Syriac Aramaic writings of Mani there was no influence of Iranian or Zoroastrian terms. The terms for the Manichaean deities in the original Syriac writings are in Aramaic. 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. According to biographies preserved by Ibn al-Nadim and the Persian polymath al-Biruni, he 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 Sām, Narīmān, 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, and in the original Syriac section of Manichaean scriptures quoted by Theodor bar-Khonai, he is called "malka raba de-ikara" (the great king of glory).
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.
Manichaeism continued to spread with extraordinary speed through both the east and west. It reached Rome through the apostle Psattiq by AD 280, who was also in Egypt in 244 and 251. It was flourishing in the Fayum area of Egypt in AD 290. Manichaean monasteries existed in Rome in 312 A.D. during the time of the Christian Pope Miltiades.
In 291, persecution arose in the Persian empire with the murder of the apostle Sisin by Bahram II, and the slaughter of many Manichaeans. In AD 296, Diocletian decreed against the Manichaeans: "We order that their organizers and leaders be subject to the final penalties and condemned to the fire with their abominable scriptures", resulting in many martyrdoms in Egypt and North Africa. By AD 354, Hilary of Poitiers wrote that the Manichaean faith was a significant force in southern France. In AD 381 Christians requested Theodosius I to strip Manichaeans of their civil rights. He issued a decree of death for Manichaean monks in AD 382.
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 and not able to effect any change in one's life.
I still thought that it is not we who sin but some other nature that sins within us. It flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it... I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me. The truth, of course, was that it was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself. My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner. (Confessions, Book V, Section 10)
Some modern scholars have suggested that Manichaean ways of thinking influenced the development of some of Augustine's ideas, such as the nature of good and evil, the idea of hell, the separation of groups into elect, hearers, and sinners, and the hostility to the flesh and sexual activity.
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 levelled 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.
Manichaeism maintained a sporadic and intermittent existence in the west (Mesopotamia, Africa, Spain, France, North Italy, the Balkans) for a thousand years, and flourished for a time in the land of its birth (Persia) and even further east in Northern India, Western China, and Tibet. While it had long been thought that Manichaeism arrived in China only at the end of the seventh century, a recent archaeological discovery demonstrated that it was already known there in the second half of the sixth century.
It was adopted by the Uyghur ruler Mayunchur (AD 759–780), and remained the state religion for about a century before the collapse of the Uyghur empire. In the east it spread along trade routes as far as Chang'an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty in China. In the ninth century, it is reported that the Muslim Caliph Ma'mun tolerated a community of Manichaeans. In the Song and Yuan dynasties of China remnants of Manichaeanism continued to leave a legacy contributing to sects such as the Red Turbans.
Manichaean theology was dualistic. A key belief in Manichaeism is that there is no omnipotent good power. This addresses a theoretical part of the problem of evil by denying the infinite perfection of God and postulating two equal and opposite powers. The human person is seen as a battleground for these powers: the good part is the soul, which is composed of light, and the bad part is the body, composed of dark earth. The soul defines the person and is incorruptible, but it is under the domination of a foreign power, which addressed the practical part of the problem of evil. Humans are said to be able to be saved from this power (matter) if they come to know who they are and identify themselves with their soul.
Following Mani's travels to the Kushan Empire (several religious paintings in Bamiyan are attributed to him) at the beginning of his proselytizing career, various Buddhist influences seem to have permeated Manichaeism:
Buddhist influences were significant in the formation of Mani's religious thought. The transmigration of souls became a Manichaean belief, and the quadripartite structure of the Manichaean community, divided between male and female monks (the "elect") and lay followers (the "hearers") who supported them, appears to be based on that of the Buddhist sangha. (Richard Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road)
In the fourth century, Ephraim criticized Mani for adopting "the Lie" from India, promoting "two powers which were against each other".
In the story of the Death of Mani (according to the Gnostic Bible by Willis Barnstone, here is one of many authenticating references proving the centrality of Buddhism in Mani's formulation of Gnosticism):
It was a day of pain
and a time of sorrow
when the messenger of light
when he entered complete Nirvana"
In China Manichaean theology featured structural repetitions of images of woken light liberated from darkness: the Son of God was woken from demonic imprisonment by the Holy Spirit and escaped its darkness; conversion to Manicheanism was depicted both as an awakening and an illumination; and in death the converted spirit would escape the darkness of the body. Converts were only guaranteed salvation if they could continue this repetition and convert another in turn.
Manichaeism presented an elaborate description of the conflict between the spiritual world of light and the material world of darkness. The beings of the world of darkness and the beings of the world of light both have names. There are numerous sources for the details of the Manichaean myth. There are two portions of Manichaean scriptures that are probably the closest thing to the original Manichaean writings in their original languages that will ever be available. These are the Syriac-Aramaic quotation by the Nestorian Christian Theodor bar-Konai, in his Syriac "Book of Sects" (eighth century), and the Middle Persian sections of Mani's Shabuhragan discovered at Turfan (a summary of Mani's teachings prepared for Shapur I; published in BSOAS, 1979). These two sections are probably the original Syriac and Middle Persian written by Mani.
The Manichaean cosmogony has been described by Mircea Eliade in his A History of Religious Ideas:
In the beginning...the two "natures" or "substances", light and obscurity, good and evil, God and matter, coexisted, separated by a frontier. In the North reigned the Father of Greatness...in the South, the Prince of Darkness...the "disorderly motion" of matter drove the Prince of Darkness toward the upper frontier of his kingdom. Seeing the splendor of light, he is fired by the desire to conquer it. It is then that the Father decides that he will himself repulse the adversary. He...projects from himself, the Mother of Life, who...projects a new hypostasis, the Primordial Man...With his five sons, who are...his "soul" and "armor" made from five lights, the Primordial Man descends to the frontier. He challenges the darkness, but he is conquered, and his sons are devoured by the demons...This defeat marks the beginning of the cosmic "mixture", but at the same time it insures the final triumph of God. For obscurity (matter) now possesses a portion of light...and the Father, preparing its deliverance, at the same time arranges for his definitive victory against darkness.
In a second Creation, the Father "evokes" the Living Spirit, which, descending toward obscurity, grasps the hand of the Primordial Man and raises him to his celestial homeland, the Paradise of Lights. Overwhelming the demonic Archontes, the Living Spirit fashions the heavens from their skins, the mountains from their bones, the earth from their flesh and their excrements...In addition, he achieves a first deliverance of light by creating the sun, the moon, and the stars from portions of it that had not suffered too much from contact with obscurity.
Finally, the Father proceeds to a last evocation and projects by emanation the Third Messenger. The latter organizes the cosmos into a kind of machine to collect - and...to deliver - the still-captive particles of light. During the first two weeks of the month, the particles rise to the moon, which becomes a full moon; during the second two weeks, light is transferred from the moon to the sun and, finally, to its celestial homeland. But there were still the particles that had been swallowed by the demons. Then the messenger displays himself to the male demons in the form of a dazzling naked virgin, while the female demons see him as a handsome naked young man...fired by desire, the male demons...give forth their semen, and, with it, the light that they had swallowed. Fallen to the ground, their semen gives birth to all the vegetable species. As for the female devils who were already pregnant, at the sight of the handsome young man they give birth to abortions, which, cast onto the ground, eat the buds of trees, thus assimilating the light that they contained.
Alarmed by the Third Messenger's tactics, matter, personified as Concupiscence, decides to create a stronger prison around the still-captive particles of light. Two demons, one male, the other female, devour all the abortions in order to absorb the totality of light, and they then couple. Thus Adam and Eve were engendered.'
Mani wrote either seven or eight books, which contained the teachings of the religion. Only scattered fragments and translations of the originals remain.
In later centuries, as Manichaeism passed through eastern Persian speaking lands and arrived at the Uyghur Empire, and eventually the Uyghur kingdom of Turfan (destroyed around 1335), long hymn cycles and prayers were composed in Middle Persian and Parthian. A translation of one of these produced the Manichaean Chinese Hymnscroll (the 下部贊), now available in its entirety (see the external links section).
Until discoveries in the 1900s of original sources, the only sources for Manichaeism were descriptions and quotations from non-Manichaean authors, either Christian, Muslim, or Zoroastrian. While often criticizing Manichaeism, they also quoted directly from Manichaean scriptures. Thus quotations and descriptions in Greek and Arabic have long been known to scholars, as have the long quotations in Latin by Saint Augustine, and the extremely important quotation in Syriac by Theodor bar-Khonai.
An example of how inaccurate some of these accounts could be is seen in the account of the origins of Manichaeism contained in the Acta Archelai. This was a Greek anti-manichaean work written before 348, most well-known in its Latin version, which was regarded as an accurate account of Manichaeism until the end of the 19th century:
In the time of the Apostles there lived a man named Scythianus, who is described as coming 'from Scythia,' and also as being 'a Saracen by race' ('ex genere Saracenorum'). He settled in Egypt, where he became acquainted with 'the wisdom of the Egyptians,' and invented the religious system which was afterwards known as Manichaeism. Finally he emigrated to Palestine, and, when he died, his writings passed into the hands of his sole disciple, a certain Terebinthus. The latter betook himself to Babylonia, assumed the name of Budda, and endeavoured to propagate his master's teaching. But he, like Scythianus, gained only one disciple, who was an old woman. After a while he died, in consequence of a fall from the roof of a house, and the books which he had inherited from Scythianus became the property of the old woman, who, on her death, bequeathed them to a young man named Corbicius, who had been her slave. Corbicius thereupon changed his name to Manes, studied the writings of Scythianus, and began to teach the doctrines which they contained, with many additions of his own. He gained three disciples, named Thomas, Addas, and Hermas. About this time the son of the Persian king fell ill, and Manes undertook to cure him; the prince, however, died, whereupon Manes was thrown into prison. He succeeded in escaping, but eventually fell into the hands of the king, by whose order he was flayed, and his corpse was hung up at the city gate.A. A. Bevan, who quoted this story, commented that it 'has no claim to be considered historical.'
In the early 1900s, original Manichaean writings started to come to light when German scholars began excavating at the ancient site of the Manichaean Uyghur Kingdom near Turfan, in Chinese Turkestan (destroyed around AD 1300). While most of the writings they uncovered were in very poor condition, there were still hundreds of pages of Manichaean scriptures, written in three Persian languages (Middle Persian, Parthian, and Sogdian) and old Turkish. These writings were taken back to Germany, and were analyzed and published at the Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften in Berlin. While the vast majority of these writings were written in a version of the Syriac script known as Manichaean script, the German researchers, perhaps for lack of suitable fonts, published most of them using Hebrew letters (which could easily be substituted for the 22 Syriac letters).
Perhaps the most comprehensive of these publications was Manichaeische Dogmatik aus chinesischen und iranischen Texten (Manichaean Dogma from Chinese and Iranian texts), by Waldschmidt and Lentz, published in Berlin in 1933. More than any other research work published before or since, this work printed, and then discussed, the original key Manichaean texts in the original scripts, and consists chiefly of sections from Chinese texts, and Middle Persian and Parthian texts transcribed with Hebrew letters. (After the Nazi party gained power in Germany, the Manichaean writings continued to be published during the 1930s, but the publishers no longer used Hebrew letters, instead transliterating the texts into Latin letters.)
Additionally, in the early 1900s, German researchers in Egypt found a large body of Manichaean works in Coptic. Though these were also damaged, many complete pages survived and were published in Berlin before World War II. Some of these Coptic Manichaean writings were destroyed during the war.
After the success of the German researchers, French scholars visited China and discovered what is perhaps the most complete set of Manichaean writings, written in Chinese. These three Chinese writings are today kept in London, Paris, and Beijing. The original studies and analyses of these writings, along with their translations, first appeared in French, English, and German, before and after World War II. The complete Chinese texts themselves were first published in Tokyo, Japan in 1927, in the Taisho Tripitaka, volume 54. While in the last thirty years or so they have been republished in both Germany (with a complete translation into German, alongside the 1927 Japanese edition), and China, the Japanese publication remains the standard reference for the Chinese texts.
In Egypt a small codex was found and became known through antique dealers in Cairo. It was purchased by the University of Cologne in 1969. Two of its scientists, Henrichs and Koenen, produced the first edition known since as the Cologne Mani-Codex, which was published in four articles in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. The ancient papyrus manuscript contained a Greek text describing the life of Mani. Thanks to this discovery, much more is known about the man who founded one of the most influential world religions of the past.