Manicheism

Manicheism

Svetoslav Ribolov

 

University of Sofia “St Kliment Ohridski”, Bulgaria                                          DOI                                                   
Fuculty of Theology  20 June 2020
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Abstract: Mani was born in Persia Ecbatana in the early 3rd c. AD. He was raised in a family of nobles and from an early age it seems that he had charismatic capabilities. During the development of various Gnostic movements, he organized his own community, but unlike other Gnostics, Mani sought to form his own Church based on the Christian example. One of his inspirations was the activity of Apostle Paul. The Manichaeans knew the Christian scriptures, but they had a particular affinity for the apocryphal and more obscured works of the Christian tradition. The Manichaean mythology combines a number of different personalities from the biblical tradition together with Persian deities and by using them presents the history of the whole world as a colossal battle between good and evil that takes place in the universe. The First Man, Adam, is abducted in the process of this battle by the King of Darkness, while the Father of Light embarks on a campaign in order to redeem the First Man. The redemption is taking place by urging Adam to awaken his poisoned soul, which because of the poison and its obscuration is kept in the present state. Thus, the awareness of the true state of the First Man guarantees his resistance. The final eschatology of Manichaeism is not clear from the available sources.

Keywords: Gnosticism, Early Christianity, Late Antiquity, Religion, Dualism, Mysticism, Manichaeism

Mani was born in 216 AD in Ecbatana (modern-day Hamadan) Persia. Mani’s father was a charismatic teacher and a member of the sect of Elcesaites. Both his father and mother were probably members of the nobility. Mani had already from an early age a religious experience. He saw a vision and in 240 he embarked on his first missionary journey to Seleucia-Cteshiphon. He also managed to travel with his disciples to India, wander around Persia and send missionaries to Syria, Egypt and China. Despite the initial favorable attitude of the Persian authorities towards the new doctrine, Mani’s cult was persecuted under Shah Bahram I and Mani was brutally executed in 277 (there is also an alternative account of an accident).[1] The persecution continued and Mani’s religious faction was destroyed in Persia somewhere around 5th c. AD. It can be assumed that the reason for the violent persecution of Mani’s followers was their social views, which supported social equality on the ideological basis that this world is “evil.”[2]

From an early age, Mani knew the Four Gospels and Pauls Epistles. It is clear from the archaeological findings in Turkestan, China and Turpan that the Manichaeans used the Four Gospels of Tatian – “Diatessaron,” which was rejected quite early by the Church, as it interpreted the apostolic sermon and tried to reconcile it with principles that the Church did not consider ucceptable. Moreover in all of the Manichaean books we find revelations, attributed to the prophet Elkezai, various apocryphal visions and revelations of Adam, Enoch and Shem and Noah, distributed during that time as a part of the Judeo-Christian tradition but with a very provincial character. Mani knew also the Gospel of Thomas, and many scholars believe that Manichaeism was strongly influenced by a grassroots Christian tradition.[3] According to the Manichean Book of Secrets, Mani worshiped a number of Chaldean prophets such as Zoroaster, Zostrianos, Allogenes, Mesos and Nicotheus. There may be also some Hellenistic influences on his thinking based on Hellenistic cultural remnants in the restored Persian Empire.[4] Mani wrote most of his works in Syriac, which was the most popular language in the Middle East at that time, but his writings were also transled into Persian (Pahlavi) in order to be available to his countrymen. Moreover, he was a literary visionary because he reformed the Persian alphabet rendering it more functional.[5]

Mani’s earliest work is Shabuhragan and is written in Persian (Pahlavi). Fragments of it were found in Turpan by later Arab authors. In this work he makes extensive use of the New Testament and the Revelation of Enoch. The book is full of prophecies concerning critical historical events. Mani’s eschatological vision is revealed here as an era of “great war,” affecting every level of being. This crisis unfolds the prospect of entering the world of the messianic age – the return of the Son of Man, called by Mani “God of the World of Wisdom.”[6] He also calls him Jesus the Light (actually the name “Mani” is related to the symbolism of light).

Other works of him are known only as titles and from small excepts: “The Great Gospe,” “Treasure of Life,” “Pragmatia,” “Book of Giants” and “Arzhang.”[7]

Тhe Manihaean mythology rests in strong cosmological premises. It is based on a clear dualism between two primordial nautres – the good and the vil. The good one inhabits the land of light and is called the Father of Greatness. Outside of it are its five dwellings – reason, sense, thought, reflection and intention. The evil or evil nature is diverse from the first, inhabits the land of darkness in its five separate worlds: the world of smoke, the world of fire, the world of wind, the world of water, and the world of darkness.[8] The history of the world and of all being is a colossal evolution of the primordial war of the King of Darkness against the Father of Greatness, in which there are many following reversals and whose central collision is the defeat of the Primal Man, who is captured by the archons of this world. Then the Father of Light returns the attack by calling into being three creatures – the Great Spirit (Wisdom) that generates the “Mother of the Living.” She gives birth to the Primal Man, composed of five elements described as his garments – wind, water, fire and light. The common in these elements is one “the living soul.” It is here that the Primal Man is hold captive, while he leaves his soul in the world.[9] The Father of Greatness responds by sending Jesus of Splendor in this world  to rouse the the First Man Adam from his torpor, a state of intoxication, caused by the archons of this world – evil spirits subservient to the King of Darkness.[10] The Father of Light created the “beloved of light beings,” the “great builder” and the living spirit” in order to deliver him. These beings have also five sons – gods. The “living spirit” calls the captive Adam. The sons of Living spirit attack and kill the archons of this world, and from their torn bodies they create the stars, the sky and the earth. The whole universe is engaged with huge armies comprised of divine beings led by the Third Messenger and the God of the kingdom of Light in order to draw the particles of light from the souls of all human beings. This Third Messenger resides in the suns and in relation to this Mani also includes the images of the Zodiac, which all represent mythological creatures involved in this universal battle.[11]

Mani’s soteriological call means that with the help of knowledge (gnosis) the human soul must be aroused in order to be redeemed from its present state. The awareness of the miserable condition of the soul provides the incentive for its deliverance. However it is not capable of render it on its own and a universal process of redemption is what leads to a colossal universal battle between good and evil. This struggle is carried out and is related to the First Man Adam and to the whole humankind as well. This call was made through the ages by the forefathers of Mani – Noah, Enoch, Sem, Abraham, Buddha, Avrend, Zoroaster, Jesus and of course Apostle Paul. Manni is the last apostle to proclaim the realizations of all religions in history. The question of Mani’s eschatology remains open in the scholar discourse to this day, beause the preserved excerpts from the works of Mani’s followers do not provide a systematic teaching on this subject. Authors such as Bardaisan and Theodore Bar Konai who are well known followers of Manihaeism also do not provide any detailed description.

The specific and unique characteristic of Manichaeism is the desire – unlike with other Gnostic communities – to create something like an organized church with hierarchy, priesthood, worship and officials with social functions. The elaborate mythology of Manichaeism corresponds to a special theological speculation that imitates to some extent some precepts of Christianity but its main principles are far more eastern and based upon the mythology of traditional Persian religious beliefs. Here we see personalities such as Hormuz, Ahriman and Mithras being combined with characters from the biblical texts and other religious traditions. Manichaeism played a major role in the religious developments in Asia Minor and the Balkans because its successors, such as the Paulicians, managed to disturb the peace of Byzantine Empire during the Middle Ages and then the Bogomils continued the strong Manichaen heritage and spreaded their teachings in the Balkans and Western Europe as well.[12]

 

[1] Стефанов (2008), 197–198.

[2] See Pettipiece (2005), 247–260.

[3] See Ehrman (2003), 80 ff.

[4] Tardieu (1997), 40–42.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See Sundermann (1988), 226–227.

[7] Стефанов (2008), 210.

[8] Tardieu (1997), 83.

[9] Стефанов (2008), 221–222.

[10] Tardieu (1997), 84–85.

[11] Стефанов (2008), 222–223.

[12] See Оболенски (1998), 13-33; 192-199.

 

Secondary Sources

Оболенски, Д. (1998) Богомилите. Студия върху балканското новоманихейство, прев. Св. Риболов (София: Златорог) / Obolensky, D. The Bogomils. A Study in Balkan Neo-Manichaeism (Cambridge, 1948).

Стефанов, Павел. (2008) Ялдаваот. Итория и учение на гностическата религия (София: Омофор) / Stefanov, P. (2008) Yaldavoat. Istoria i uchenie na gnosticheskata religia (Sofia: Omofor)

Ehrman, B. (2003) Lost Christianities. The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford University Press).

Pettipiece, T. (2005), “A Church to Surpass All Churches: Manichaeism as a Test Case for the Theory of Reception”, Laval théologique et philosophie 61/2, 247–260.

Sundermann, W. (1988), “La passion de Mani – calendier liturgique ou événment historique?” – in Ph. Ginoux, La Commémoration. Colloque du centenaire de la section des sciences religieuses de l’École Pratique des Hautes Études (Louvain-Paris: Peeters), 225–231.

Tardieu, M. (1997) Le manichéisme (Paris: Press Universitaires de France).


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