Mike Aquilina

Just Give Me Mani

Tuesday June 03rd 2008, 3:01 am

An Iranian news service gives us a good, well illustrated intro to the religion of the Manichees — the new agers of the patristic era. Mani’s doctrine gave the Fathers’ heartburn. Augustine flirted with it through his young-adulthood. (I review Augustine’s later anti-Manichean writings here.)

The Iranian website is slow. (Maybe that’s the CIA recording our visits.) Give it time.

Manichaeism, presumably an offshoot of Zoroastrianism, was not only an inspiration for various heretical movements in Christianity but also dominated the religious life of Central and Eastern Asia for centuries.

Through the four centuries of Sassanid rule over Persia (224-651 CE) Zoroastrianism was the official state religion. Historians, however, have spoken of several heretical sects. One such cult was that of the Manicheans, founded by Mani at the beginning of the Sassanid era.

The founder of the new religion believed to have been the culmination of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Buddhism was born in 216 CE in southern Babylonia of noble Persian stock.

He grew up under the careful guidance of his father who was a religious leader of a Jewish-Christian baptizing sect. At the age of twelve, Mani claimed that an angel named The Twin had instructed him in a vision to withdraw from the sect and purify himself through asceticism. The Angel later returned to young Mani, this time calling upon him to preach a new religion.

… Mani proclaimed a new syncretic religion which combined Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism along with elements of Greek philosophy and Indian Jainism, at the court of the Persian monarch Shapur I in 242 CE. He was not well received and was forced to flee the country.

He traveled through modern-day Uzbekistan, India and Western China, making converts wherever he went. Because he intended his creed to be the first world-religion, Mani consciously adapted his teachings to accommodate local beliefs and customs. This greatly helped the rapid spread of his creed throughout Central Asia.

During his years in exile, Mani gave final shape to his teachings and committed them to writing. Between 244 and 261 CE, he sent a mission to Egypt which met with considerable success.

Apart from the extensive body of anti-Manichaean literature, there are numerous Latin, Greek, Coptic, Middle Iranian, Uighur, and Chinese documents, found in the 20th century, on the Manichean doctrine and practices…

Mani’s main teaching concerned the struggle between Good and Evil. The Manichean doctrine, ‘The Teaching of Light’, says that the Universe was primordially divided between the two eternal and irreconcilable principles of Light and Darkness. Light was Spirit and hence ‘good’ while Darkness was Matter and consequently ‘evil’…

Mani taught that salvation lies in the release of goodness (Spirit or Light) from Matter, and that a soul may be incarnated several times before its release through perfected virtue…

The Manichaean community was divided into two groups: the “Elect,” who formed the core of the Church and adhered to a rigid asceticism, and the “Hearers,” who learned from the Elect, served them and could hope for salvation only after re-incarnation as one of them.

The church hierarchy was recruited only from the Elect, who were obligated to abstain from meat and wine, lying, work, carnal relations, hurting animals and plants, polluting water, and owning worldly possessions. Women could become Elect but not officers.

The Elect lived in monasteries and were ‘sealed’ with the three seals of mouth, hands and breast, symbolising the virtues of speech, act, and feeling. They were required to fast, meditate, and study and translate religious texts.

Hearers were bound to monogamy and were cautioned against lying, worshiping idols, practicing magic, killing animals, theft and neglecting their duty of caring for the Elect.

Before his conversion to Christianity, Saint Augustine was a Manichaean Hearer for nine years.

There’s lots more. Hat tip: PaleoJudaica.