"Manichean" has come to describe a tendency to see things in overly simple terms as wholly evil or wholly good, with no shadings or nuances. The word is often found in political polemic. Thus, in the long cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States of America, we might hear that each took a Manichean view of the other, regarding the rival as the very embodiment of evil. In calling the Soviet Union "the evil empire," President Reagan was expressing a Manichean sentiment, and so was the Ayatollah Khomeini in labeling the United States "the great Satan."
Such usage is a secondary meaning of the word, and many who use the term have forgotten that originally Manicheism was a widespread world religion, founded in the third century A.D. It was a threatening rival to early Christianity. At its peak, Manicheism could be found from Spain to China, although it was denounced as heretical by three other religions to which it was related -- Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism.
Manicheism originated in lower Mesopotamia, in the western territories of the Persian empire, soon after the new Sassanid dynasty had ousted the Parthians as rulers in the third century A.D. The convulsions leading to the loss of Edessan independence and the reduction of the city to the status of a Roman colony demonstrated the weakness of Parthian rule under the Arsacid dynasty. The rival clan of Sassanians in Fars, in southern Iran, was now ready to move against the Parthians, and about 226 they seized control in Iran and Mesopotamia. Thus the Parthian Empire became the Persian Empire.
Ten years earlier Mani, the founder of the religion that bore his name, had been born in Babylon. Recent documentary finds indicate that he was the son of an Elkasaite, a member of the vegetarian baptismal sect, originally Jewish, that had come to regard their founder as a reincarnation of Jesus, and apparently he grew up in an Elkasaite community. (The principal source for information on Mani's origins is one of the tiniest books in the world, now referred to as the Cologne Mani Codex It consists of 192 parchment pages measuring 4.5 x 3.5 centimeters, and is written in Greek -- apparently from a Syriac original -- purportedly by four disciples of Mani in the fourth or fifth century.)
Little is known for certain about the Elkasaites, whom we earlier noted as one of the religious groupings in Syria-Mesopotamia. Later heresy-hunters said that the sect, emphasizing the Jewish roots of their Christianism, observed Jewish law, revered the Judaizing Peter, scorned Paul as the missionary to the gentiles, and engaged in ritual ablutions of themselves and of the vegetables that constituted their only food. But there is also some evidence that the originators of the sect, instead of performing ablutions of themselves and food, had actually shunned washing; this reversal of practice may, however, have originated with Mani. As one translator of Manichean writings found in Coptic has said, "it is notoriously difficult to disentangle the teachings of each sect from available texts."
Whatever his early ties may have been with the Elkasaites or a similar group, Mani broke away while still a young man. According to his own statements, Mani was first visited by his guardian angel, his spiritual Twin (or, as he was to say, the Paraclete promised by the Gospel of John ), at the age of twelve. The Twin told him to "leave this cult" and prepare for a mission of teaching, "but it is not yet time for you to appear openly, because of your tender years." At the age of twenty-four, he had a second call. This time he was told to begin his mission: "Come forth and wander about."
Mani later wrote: "At the close of King Ardashir's years [Ardashir was the first Sassanian king of kings] I set out to preach. I sailed to the land of the Indians." After about a year he returned, he said, to the land of the Persians, and to southern Mesopotamia, converting en route a brother of the new shah. For nearly a quarter of a century he enjoyed tolerance from that ruler, Shapur I. He also sent his father and a disciple to continue his work in India.
All of Mani's known writings were in his native Syriac except for a summary of his religion written in Middle Persian, presumably for the special benefit of the shah. At the same time, however, the new Sassanid regime was encouraging the re-emergence and redefinition of the old Zoroastrianism. A leading magus was rebuilding fire temples in the territories Shapur conquered. When Shapur died in 273, Mani lost his royal protection.
At the instigation of Zoroastrian magi a later shah had Mani put into chains, charged with teaching "against our law." For twenty-six days Mani languished in shackles, receiving some of his close disciples to arrange for them to carry on his mission. And in prison he died, in 277. "At eleven o'clock," according to his followers, "he ascended out of his body to the dwellings of the greatness on high." His corpse was cut up and the severed head was stuck on a gate-post.
Mani's version of the creation myth follows what Hans Jonas and Kurt Rudolph, as we have noted, called the Iranian rather than the Syrian-Egyptian model of Gnosticism. That is, in the beginning the realm of Light and the realm of Darkness existed side by side, or one atop the other, equally real, almost equally powerful, as in Zoroastrianism. In this respect the Manichean system differed from the Platonic-Judaic-Christian, where all of creation is good, and evil is a deficiency, resulting from a willful act of Man or of inferior gods. And it differed from the usual Syrian-Egyptian Gnostic cosmogonic myth, which held that the making of the cosmos was an accident, an aborted creation in which the rays of primal spirit had deteriorated or weakened as they spread from the divine center.
Mani's myth started, as the Zoroastrians' did, with two basic, contending principles -- Light and Darkness. The one is ruled over by the Father of Greatness, and among the emanations of himself that share his kingdom are the five mental "members" or "dwellings" that we earlier encountered in the Acts of Judas Thomas . (Sometimes they are translated as intelligence, sense, reason, thought, intention; some accounts refer to the five "worlds" of Light as forbearance, knowledge, intelligence, the imperceivable, and discernment.) All is peaceful and orderly in the realm of light.
Everything is just the opposite in the realm of Darkness. Loathsome creatures dwell in that pestilential world of storms and conflagrations and poison. They are constantly warring, restlessly moving about in chaotic disorder and agitation. When a probe by part of this pulsating dark mass breaks through into the realm of light, a full-scale invasion follows. Emanations from the Father of Greatness succeed in throwing back the intruders but Light and Dark have become mingled. The remainder of the cosmic drama concerns the efforts of the forces of good to extricate the particles of light. These efforts will eventually be successful, it is taught.
One of the Emissaries or Messengers sent by the Father to rescue the captive particles sets up a mechanism, a sort of conveyer belt, by which seeds of light are drawn up into the heavens and concentrated. They move up the Milky Way to the moon, and when that way-station becomes stuffed full (as anyone can see, it happens every four weeks), the accumulated store of light is then transferred to the sun, and the process begins anew.
The stages of the battle, and the varied manifestations of good and evil that take part, are elaborately complicated and will not be described here. But it must be noted that at one stage Adam and Eve are created by the Prince of Darkness, ruler of the realm of evil. At first the two humans are inert, lumpish matter, but the Father's Five Members, the faculties of mind, beg the emissaries to bestow awareness on the pair. Jesus of Light does so. He acts through earthly embodiments of the divine intelligence who become the founders of true religion in this world: Zoroaster, the Buddha, Jesus the Messiah, and, last of all, Mani himself.
As is often the case in accounts of early heresies, Epiphanius gives a version of Mani's origins and development quite different from that found elsewhere. The fourth-century heresiologist, often unreliable, describes at length the career of a predecessor of Mani, a merchant by the name of Scythianus who lived on the border of Palestine, in Arabia. He had grown rich from the trade between India and Red Sea ports.
Epiphanius says that Scythianus, living in luxurious idleness, "finally thought up something new to offer to the world," fabricating doctrines that had no basis in scripture. "For what reason," he asked, "is it that things in the whole visible body of creation are unequal, black and white, orange." He was trying to persuade people "that there is something beyond the one who exists and that, so to speak, the activity of all things comes from two roots or two principles." Epiphanius attributed four books to this Scythianus: Mysteries, Treasure, Summaries , and a Gospel ; he later said Mani had written such books.
The books eventually (through a slave of Scythianus (interestingly, called "Budda") came into the hands of Mani. He also bought the Christian scriptures, and "maliciously wove his own falsehoods into the truth wherever he found the surface meaning of a passage or an appellation which could bear a likeness to his own doctrine. . . ."
From this muddled account, distinctively Ephiphanian, we might take considerable interest in the description of a pre-Manichean trader who brought books as well as goods to Egypt from India and preached the Two Principles. Apart from the unexpected reference to the contrast between orange and green, the list of opposites is familiar from many systems of thought, ancient and modern.
We return to Manichean matters as to which there is more persuasive evidence. Mani organized a separate and effective church. It consisted of a hierarchy of clergy, led by an archegos , successor to Mani. Below them were the Elect, and then the mass of Hearers, or probationers. The Elect lived in severe austerity. They were celibate, did not seek material wealth, and shunned meat and wine. Avoiding any act that might destroy the particles of light, they would not themselves cook the vegetables they ate. Those near death received the sacrament of consolamentum -- a laying on of hands by the Elect; the receiver then sees the Form of Light, his feminine savior angel, which greets him with the Kiss of Love. The Elect were known among their Christian contemporaries for gravity and grayness -- shabby in old clothes, gaunt from lean diets.
"Hearers," the mass of believers, could be much more relaxed. They could marry, do profitable work, and eat meat, so long as they themselves did not kill animals. And they cooked vegetables for the Elect. The Hearers' regimen called for frequent prayers, observance of fast days, and giving of alms. Hearers could not hope for ascent to paradise themselves. They had to undergo further incarnations, with the possibility of eventually becoming one of the Elect. The hope of salvation for all lay in acquiring knowledge of where they had come from and how they might return, with fellow-members of the church supporting them and keeping them on the right path.
Mani's teaching, he himself said, was imparted directly to him by his Twin, Jesus of Light. He and his followers did not try to defend his teaching on philosophical grounds; it was based on direct revelation, beyond argument. Mani was a vigorous proselytizer, making the heart of Iran his own main missionary field. Other missionaries fanned out to east and west, to the Roman empire and to central Asia and China. One of the principal carriers of the message to the Roman world was named Adda. He was active in Mesopotamia, including Edessa, and traveled as far west as Egypt.
To Christians, Mani proclaimed himself the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit in the form of the Helper, whose coming had been predicted by Jesus in the Gospel of John . But he rejected the Old Testament. Along with the New, his followers read many of the apocryphal works denounced by mainstream Christians, including the Acts of Judas Thomas and Gospel of Thomas . One of Mani's chief missionaries was named Thomas. Like many earlier Gnostics, Mani regarded human procreation as a device whereby the Prince of Darkness perpetuated the imprisonment of sparks of light.
Spreading into central Asia and eventually into China, the teaching of Mani there emphasized ties to Buddhism. Well-established even in Mani's lifetime in the region north of Afghanistan, Manicheans of the east began to differ from those of the west, and to challenge the authority of the archegos in Babylon. By the end of the sixth century there were two distinct forms of the movement. Buddhist terms crept into Manichean writings in the east. Mani himself was there identified with Maitreya, the Buddha-to-Come, who will one day take earthly form as the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama Sakyamuni, once did.
The life of the Buddha, suitably reinterpreted, became a model for ascetic monasticism. The busy east-west trade routes made a prosperous merchant class that moved not only silk but Manichean and Buddhist writings and figurative art. One of the titles given to a leading eastern saint was "Great Caravan Leader." Buddhist monasteries were thriving in the land of Gundaphorus, let us recall, long before Christian monasteries were established in Egypt.
In a Chinese hymn scroll the Five Members of the Mind are called the Five Great Buddhas of Light -- the five Meditation (Dhyani) Buddhas, emanations from the primal Buddha of Northern Buddhism. The five are familiar from Tibetan mandalas, arranged at the center and four cardinal points of a scroll; a late Turkish Manichean text depicts the Five Members in the same pattern.
At the end of the seventh century Manichean teachers appeared at the Chinese imperial court. Like all other "alien" religions in China, Manicheism was the target of the Great Persecution in the mid-ninth century, but five centuries later Ming emperors still had to take measures against "the religion of the venerable light."
There is evidence of Manicheans in Rome and Dalmatia at the beginning of the fourth century, and in France and Spain soon thereafter. In later centuries, in modified form, the religion can be traced into the Balkans, and, in the Middle Ages, to the south of France and northern Italy. The Cathars (Pure Ones), or Albigensians (People of Albi), who were nearly exterminated in the south of France by the French kings and nobles, in league with the Inquisition, were spiritual descendants of Manicheans.
Mani once wrote: "But my hope will go to the West and will also go to the East. And they will hear the voice of its preaching in all languages and they will preach it in all cities." It was not an idle boast.
In North Africa, in the fifth century, Manicheans garnered their most famous convert. It was in the region we know as Tunisia, across the narrows of the Mediterranean from Sicily and Italy. Augustine, the future theologian and bishop of Hippo, was to leave an indelible mark on the Catholic church. Although born to a Christian mother, he was a Manichean for nine years between the ages of nineteen and twenty-eight. He was a Hearer serving the needs of the Elect, and evidently leading, for most of that period, a relaxed life as a student, then a successful practitioner and teacher of rhetoric, in Carthage, Rome, and Milan.
It was the period when he was most racked by sexual passions, and he lived with a woman out of wedlock, yet he felt comfortable with the followers of Mani: "[M]y familiarity with them (for there are many sheltered at Rome) made me more remiss in seeking elsewhere." He added that "because the least degree of piety obliged me to believe that the good God had created no evil nature, I, therefore, imagined two opposite substances, the one good, the other evil, both infinite, yet the evil lesser, the good larger." And for a long time he could not accept that the Savior had been born in flesh, "lest I think of Him defiled by the flesh."
His remark that many Manicheans were "sheltered" at Rome is a reminder that the movement had been outlawed by imperial decree. Prosecution, however, had been sporadic, depending on the zeal of local bishops. Later, Manicheans would be vigorously sought out and punished. The very word Manichean became a term of abuse and opprobrium, a label to pin on anyone who was out of line with approved doctrine and church authority.
By his own account, Augustine grew disenchanted with the Manicheans. He realized that a leader whom he met in Rome, named Faustus, was engrossed in cosmological myths that did not take into account the astronomical observations of learned Greeks. Faustus was a pleasant and benevolent man but not intellectually impressive. For a time Augustine was much taken with Greek philosophers, especially Platonists. His work took him to Milan, where he was deeply influenced by the preaching of bishop Ambrose. He found himself more and more drawn to Christianity, but was held back from conversion by reluctance to give up the pleasures of his worldly life.
Augustine's spiritual wrestlings led him one day to dissolve in tears and, "weeping in most bitter sorrow," he heard a child's voice, as if from nowhere, saying "Take up and read, take up and read." This was, it seemed to him, a divine command, and he opened his bible at random. His eyes first fell on a passage from Paul's letter to the Romans (13:13): "No revelry or bouts of drinking, no debauchery or sensuality, no quarreling or jealousy. No, put on the character of the Lord Jesus Christ, and never think how to gratify the cravings of the flesh." In that instant, he wrote, "all the darkness of uncertainty vanished away." Soon thereafter he was received into the church.
When Augustine was later inveighing against his former mentor, Faustus, he sought to answer point by point Manichean charges that the Almighty and prophets of the Old Testament were cruel and unloving. At one point he refers to the "collection of fables, published by some unknown authors under the name of the apostles," apocryphal books used by the Manicheans. "One of the stories is, that the Apostle Thomas was once at a marriage feast in a country where he was unknown, when one of the servants struck him, . . ." and the offending hand, having been torn from the servant's body by a lion, was brought to Thomas's table by a dog in fulfillment of the apostle's curse.
In any event, said Augustine, the incident was not be compared with that of Moses's curses on his people when they forsook God to worship the Golden Calf; Moses was acting, not in cruelty, but out of love for his people. This is not, perhaps, the great theologian at his best, and the passage is mainly of interest to us because it shows how readily the Acts of Judas Thomas came to Augustine's mind.
In arguing with Augustine, Faustus said that the Pastoral letters attributed to Paul could not have been the apostle's words (a judgment with which, for reasons different from Faustus's, most modern scholars would agree). Paul could not have said, as the Pastorals did, that the forbidding of marriage and of certain foods "are doctrines of devils." Apparently referring to the Acts of the various apostles that had been declared heretical, Faustus said: "I do not mention other apostles of our Lord, such as Peter, Andrew, Thomas, and the example of celibacy, the blessed John, . . . I do not mention them, because you [Augustine] do not admit them into the canon, and so you will not scruple impiously to impute to them the doctrines of devils."
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.