Manichaeism

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Manichaeism

Manichaeism (măn´ĬkēĬzəm) or Manichaeanism (mănĬkē´ənĬzəm), religion founded by Mani (c.216–c.276).

Mani's Life

Mani (called Manes by the Greeks and Romans) was born near Baghdad, probably of Persian parents; his father may have been a member of the Mandaeans. After wandering for several years as a meditative ascetic he came forward (c.240) as the inspired prophet of a new religion. He went to Bactria in NW India, where he came in contact with Buddhism.

He returned to Persia after the coronation (241) of Shapur I, who was tolerant of new religious movements; at the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon he began preaching (c.242) the doctrine that was to become Manichaeism, a great synthesis of elements from Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, other Persian religions, Christianity, Buddhism, and Taoism, as well as from the teachings of Marcion. Rejecting all of the Old Testament and parts of the New Testament, Mani claimed Buddha, Zoroaster, Hermes, and Plato as his predecessors. He always called himself "Mani, Apostle of Jesus Christ" and held that he was the Paraclete promised by Jesus.

During the long reign of Shapur I (d. 272), Mani was free to travel about the realm making converts. However, the accession of Bahram I brought a reaction against the Manichaeans (or Manichees) from orthodox Zoroastrian religious circles, and, after 272, Mani and his followers met with increasing persecution. He died while imprisoned (c.276) in SW Persia.

The Religion

Due to Mani's organizational abilities, the simplicity of his dualistic theology, and his incorporation of elements from other religions, Manichaeism spread rapidly, and it was soon disseminated throughout the Roman Empire and into China.

Beliefs

Basic to the religion's doctrine was the conflicting dualism between the realm of God, represented by light and by spiritual enlightenment, and the realm of Satan, symbolized by darkness and by the world of material things. To account for the existence of evil in a world created by God, Mani posited a primal struggle in which the forces of Satan separated from God; humanity, composed of matter, that which belongs to Satan, but infused with a modicum of godly light, was a product of this struggle, and was a paradigm of the eternal war between the forces of light and those of darkness. Christ, the ideal, light-clad soul, could redeem for each person that portion of light God had allotted. Light and dark were seen to be commingled in our present age as good and evil, but in the last days each would return to its proper, separate realm, as they were in the beginning. The Christian notion of the Fall and of personal sin was repugnant to the Manichees; they felt that the soul suffered not from a weak and corrupt will but from contact with matter. Evil was a physical, not a moral, thing; a person's misfortunes were miseries, not sins.

Classes of Followers

Mani's followers were divided into two classes: the elect, or perfect, were assured of immediate felicity after death because of the resource of light they had acquired through strict celibacy, austerity, teaching, and preaching; and the auditors, or hearers, the laity who administered to the elect, and who could marry. Believing in metempsychosis (see transmigration of souls), the auditors hoped to be reborn as elect. All other were sinners, doomed to hell.

Decline

Several Christian emperors, including Justinian, published edicts against the Manichees. St. Augustine, in his youth a Manichee, describes in his Confessions his conversion to Christianity. Little is heard of the Manichees in the West after the 6th cent., but their doctrines reappear in the medieval heresies of the Cathari, Albigenses, and Bogomils. It was the practice in the Middle Ages to call by the name of Manichaeism any dualist Christian heresy. The young religion of Islam was also challenged by the Manichean sect in Africa and Asia. The sect survived in the East, notably in Chinese Turkistan (Xinjiang), until about the 13th cent.

Bibliography

The prime sources for the study of Manichaeism are the so-called Turfan (Turpan) texts, named after the Dunhuang region where they were found in 1904–5. These include fragments of Mani's long-lost bible and portions of Manichaean literature written in Pahlavi, Saghdian, Old Turkish, and Chinese. Other sources are a collection of documents found in Egypt in 1933 and refutations of Manichaeism by Christian, Islamic, and Zoroastrian polemicists. See also F. C. Burkitt, The Religion of the Manichees (1925); A. V. W. Jackson, Researches in Manichaeism (1932, repr. 1965); S. Runciman, The Medieval Manichees (1947, repr. 1961); S. N. C. Lien, The Religion of Light (1979) and Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China (1985).

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