Manichaeism: Manichaeism in the Roman Empire

views updated


The early diffusion of Manichaeism in the late Roman Empire was achieved directly through the missionary vision of Mani and the evangelistic endeavors of his earliest disciples. Patronized by the Sassanid monarch Shāpūr I, Mani disseminated his teaching both within the Sassanid Empire and in the frontier regions of the Roman Empire, which had recently come under Persian domination. According to Manichaean texts, a mission led by Adda was active along the Syrian frontier at the time of the ascendancy of Odaenathus at Palmyra (c. 262266). The mission appears to have spent some time in Palmyra and later reached Egypt, especially Alexandria; a number of communities were established, which might have later influenced the development of early Christian monasticism. It is possible that a separate mission to Egypt, probably via Eilat and the Red Sea ports, was also dispatched, and Luxor (Lycopolis) eventually became its center. The sect had reached Syria, North Africa, Asia Minor, the Balkans, and Italy, including Rome, by end of the third century ce.

The study of the history of the sect in the Roman Empire was greatly advanced by the recovery of genuine Manichaean writings in the form of ancient manuscripts and not merely citations transmitted in polemical writings by their enemies. The first manuscripts to come to light, between 1915 and 1919, were a small number of papyrus fragments in Syriac, written in the distinctive Manichaean Estrangela script, recovered from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. A more substantial but highly fragmentary text in Latin was recovered from Theveste (Roman Tabessa) in North Africa in 1918. This text, probably a letter, was written in Latin by a Manichaean elect using Christian scriptures (both the Gospels and the Pauline epistles) to justify the apparently privileged position of the elect and the theological reasons for their needing the service of the hearers to attend to their daily needs. The elect members of the sect were the priests who were not permitted to engage in harvesting or thrashing or milling of the wheat or barley nor in the act of baking for fear of damaging the Light-particles which according to Manichaean teaching are found in plant-life. Their livelihood therefore depended on the service of the hearers who were members of the second rank. A substantial find of Manichaean texts were made at Medinet Madi (Roman Narmouthis) in Egypt, between 1929 and 1930, consisting of seven codices in the Lycopolitan (specifically dialect L4) or the Sub-Achmimic B dialect of the Coptic language, which was not native to the area where the texts were found. It is highly possible that the texts were originally translated from Syriac near Luxor (Roman Lycopolis) and brought to Medinet Madi in the late fourth century ce by Manichaean missionaries who hid them for fear of confiscation by the Christian Roman authorities. The cache was split up by the workmen who discovered it; some were purchased by the Irish-American collector Chester Beatty, and the rest by the Berlin Academy. The division is as follows:

In Berlin, at the Bode Museum for Egyptology:

  1. The Letters of Mani.
  2. The Kephalaia of the Teacher (i.e., Mani).
  3. The Synaxeis Codex, which appears to contain a commentary on the Living Gospel (a canonical work of Mani's) and a text that remains unidentified.
  4. A historical work that includes a life of Mani and the early history of the sect (the so-called Acta Codex).
    In Dublin, the Chester Beatty Collection, originally in London:
  5. The Homilies.
  6. The Psalm-Book.
  7. The Kephalaia of the Wisdom of My Lord Mani.

Unfortunately, substantial sections of the codices containing the Letters of Mani and the historical work were lost in the aftermath of World War II before the leaves were conserved and photographed. Nevertheless, the texts, which are still in the process of being edited and translated, throw an enormous amount of light on the earliest phase of the history of the sect in its original Mesopotamian homeland. To these texts from Medinet Madi must be added a miniature parchment codex containing an autobiographical account of the early life of Mani in Greek, which might have originally been recovered from Lycopolis in Egypt and is now housed and exhibited in the Papyrussammlung of Cologne University (the so-called Cologne Mani Codex ). A Coptic version of this Greek text might have formed the first part of the now almost completely lost historical text in Coptic recovered from Medinet Madi. This text describes Mani's upbringing in a community of "baptists," who claimed Elchasaios, a Jewish Christian known from Christian polemical writings, as one of the founders of their sect. The successful deciphering of this text in 1970 caused a sensation and completely altered the direction of research on Manichaean origins; scholars now had to look more closely at the esoteric fringes of Second Temple Judaism and at Gnostic Christianity for the ancestry of some of Mani's ideas, both on cosmogony and on ethics.

The existence of a Manichaean community at Kellis in the Dakleh Oasis in Egypt during the late Roman period (fourth century ce) came as a complete surprise to scholars. Manichaean texts in Coptic, Greek, and Syriac were recovered as part of the ongoing excavations at Ismant el-Kharab by an international team led by scholars from Australia. The texts recovered so far consist of papyrus codices, as well as inscribed wooden boards. These contain psalms and prayers and a substantial number of fragments of the canonical Letters of Mani. There are also bilingual Syriac and Coptic word lists, and the same Estrangela script that was used on the fragments from Oxyrhynchus was also used for these texts. This script is standard for the copying of Manichaean texts in Central Asia in Middle Iranian as well as Turkic languages. Because the texts from Kellis were recovered from a clearly recorded archaeological context, they show that the religion was widespread in the oasis and that the followers regarded themselves as true Christians. The discovery of a substantial section of Paul's epistle to the Romans shows that the sect was well versed in Christian literature, and it is clear from the unique private letters of the believers that the reading of both Manichaean and what is now called apocryphal Christian literature (e.g., Acts of John ) was prescribed. The community disappeared when the oasis site was abandoned at the end of the fourth century ce.

The spread of Manichaeism in the Roman Empire was assisted above all by the conversion of the Empire to Christianity. This opened many missionary possibilities for a religion that claimed to be a superior form of Christianity and that was proclaimed by a prophet who styled himself the "Apostle of Jesus Christ" and the promised Paraclete. It is clear that Mani saw himself as a latter-day Saint Paul who could claim apostleship through special visionary appearances by his divine alter ego (his syzygos ). It is also clear that Mani was familiar with both Christian literature and the hyper-Pauline and anti-Judaic writings of Marcion.

In the Roman Empire, when the religion was first disseminated under the last pagan regime prior to Constantine, its polytheism was thinly disguised. But as the religion circulated under Christian emperors it became a form of Christian dualism (between spirit and body, as well as between good and evil) with strong emphasis on asceticism, especially for the elect members of the sect. The Manichaean community at Kellis, for instance, clearly regarded itself as a sect of Gnostic Christianity, and the surviving correspondence of its members abounded in Christian (and Gnostic) terminology and shows familiarity with Christian (including apocryphal) writings. Persecution against the sect, instigated probably by the pagan emperor Diocletian or his colleague Galerius in 302, was probably instrumental in the establishment of a major Manichaean community at Kellis. The earliest Manichaean missionaries were undoubtedly Syriac speakers, but the sect's literature was soon translated into Greek, Latin, and Coptic. As in Central Asia, the copying of Manichaean texts was held in high esteem by the sect and was normally carried out by hearers. Manichaean books were handsomely bound, and extant examples display a uniformly high standard of calligraphy.

One of the best-known Roman converts to the sect was Augustine of Thagaste in North Africa, who became a hearer while he was a university student and teacher at Carthage (c. 373382). After his famous conversion to a more orthodox Christianity (via Neoplatonism) in Milan in 386, he would devote a great deal of his intellectual energy into refuting the basic tenets of the sect, especially its dualism, its use of Christian scriptures, and its pseudo-asceticism, through his vast literary output. A particular source of concern for Christian polemicists like Augustine was the sect's claim to be a superior form of Christianity through its interpretation of Christian rather than Manichaean scriptures. The sect's rejection of the Old Testamentsave for stories concerning certain figures like Seth and Enoch (who were also revered in Gnostic teaching)as relevant for salvation would have been popular among pagans who wished to be converted to Christianity but who abhorred Judaism. The sect claimed to revere the crucified Christ; the long-term imprisonment of light by matter in the physical universe was, according to Manichaean teaching, personified by the "suffering Jesus" (Jesus patibilis ). This allowed the sect to give a mystical interpretation to the crucifixion, and their use of the historical Jesus as a messianic figure who heralded the mission and "martyrdom" of Mani also enforced the appeal of the sect to a recently Christianized populace.

Christian leaders therefore had to demonstrate that Manichaean Christology had no scriptural basis and was founded on themes in apocryphal Christian literature, such as the Acts of John and the Acts of Thomas. They were also concerned that Manichaean belief in a dualistic creation myth could lead to the denial of the role of human volition in sin and the attribution of evil to a secondary deity that would challenge the omnipotence of the Christian God (the Father). Augustine, the most effective of the Christian polemicists on this score took the battle to the Manichaeans by accusing them of rendering the Judeo-Christian God less than omnipotent by removing him entirely from the horror of human existence. The God that Augustine presents to his Manichaean opponents is imbued with qualities that are more Neoplatonic than Christian. He is almighty, all-seeing, all-knowing, wise, loving, and above all creative, because all these qualities are not for his own gratification but emanate from him into the whole of creation. The world was created out of nothing (ex nihilo ), and by "nothing" Augustine means absolute nonbeing, thereby rejecting the pagan view that the world was created out of "not anything."

Into this modified Neoplatonic picture of creation as emanation, Augustine injects the important Christian doctrine that God saw that everything he created was good (Gn. 1:10). The identification of creation with goodness is fundamental to him. Matter, in that it was created, is not in itself evil, as the Manichaeans would argue, but formless. Upon this basic substance God imposed "measure, form, and order" (modus, species, et ordo ) in different ways to bring about the variety of his creation. Evil is not to be found in creation but in the way a certain object is deficient in its measure, form, and order. Evil is a negative force because it is a privation of good (privatio boni ). Therefore, one cannot say that evil exists in the same way that good exists, because it is a corruption of good and hence parasitic in its existence. In short, evil exists only as a less desirable aspect of some actual unity that is intrinsically good, although it may have fallen far below the state that God intended. An earlier contemporary writer against the sect, Titus of Bostra, would argue that all suffering, including natural disasters, is the result of sin and not the work of a malignant deity. Human beings, according to Titus, are born neither good nor bad but fair. People acquire goodness through education and training. From birth they are imbued with the knowledge of good and evil. Consequently, they are able to reflect on the consequences of sinful actions and come to right decisions. What Titus advocates, therefore, is an all-out assault on evil by Christians in their daily living, rather than remaining on the defensive like the father of light in the Manichaean myth, waiting for the prince of darkness, his opponent, to take the initiative.

The much-vaunted ascetical commandments of the Manichaeans were seen by their Christian opponents as being based on the sect's belief in the evil nature of matter and not on genuine efforts to combat human desires. Manichaean leaders were frequently accused (e.g., by Augustine) of gluttony and overindulgence in expensive (vegetarian) food and (fruit) drinks. The sect was also labeled as libertines who used innumerable methods of contraception to enable the elect to practice sexual intercourse without leading to human birth and generation, which would prolong the "crucifixion" of light-particles in matter.

The religion, as already mentioned, was banned by the pagan emperor Diocletian in 302 for being a Persian sect that could endanger the moral values of patriotic Romans. The ban was later renewed by Christian emperors, who accused the sect of being a secretive cult, and Manichaeanism was heavily persecuted from Theodosius I onward as the most dangerous of Christian heresies. The standard punishment was the denial of rights of Roman citizenship, a punishment that prohibited members from making wills, which rendered any form of gift to the sect difficult. By the early Byzantine period, the death penalty was commonly inflicted on the leaders of the sect. The church was highly active in promoting polemical writings against the sect, especially a fictional life of Mani known as the Acta Archelai, in which Mani was portrayed as a failed miracle-worker who plagiarized his teachings from Christian sources. This and other polemical writings constituted the main source on the history of the sect until the beginning of the twentieth century. Moreover, they were used regularly by the Byzantine and Catholic churches in the Middle Ages against "Neo-Manichaean" sects, such as Paulicianism, Bogomilism, and Catharism. The actual religion itself was probably extinguished by persecution under Justinian, since no genuine Manichaean texts appear to be cited by, nor known by name to, the sect's medieval and Byzantine opponents.

See Also



Primary Sources

The series Corpus fontium Manichaeorum, published by Brepols and edited by Alois van Tongerloo, Samuel N. C. Lieu, and J. van Oort, aims eventually to publish all Manichaean texts. Already published are two sections of the Psalm-Book (Turnhout, Belgium, 1996) in the Series Coptica and a volume in the Series Latina on the anti-Manichaean writings of Pope Leo the Great (Turnhout Belgium, 2002). The publication of the Coptic Manichaean codices found at Medinet Madi in 1929 is underway. The volumes include: Hans Jakob Polotsky, Manichäische Homilien, Manichäische Handschriften der Sammlung A, Chester Beatty (Stuttgart, Germany, 1934); C. R. C. Allberry, A Manichaean Psalm-Book: Part II, Manichaean Manuscripts in the Chester Beatty Collection (Stuttgart, Germany, 1938); Hans Jakob Polotsky and Alexander Böhlig, Kephalaia, Manichäische Handschriften der staatlichen Museen Berlin, Seite 1243 (Stuttgart, Germany, 1940); Alexander Böhlig, Kephalaia, Manichäische Handschriften der staatlichen Museen Berlin, Zweite Hälfte, Lieferung 1112, Seite 244291 (Stuttgart, Germany, 1966); and Wolf Peter Funk, Lieferung 1314, Seite 292366 (Stuttgart, Germany, 1999), and Lieferung 1516, Seite 367440, (Stuttgart, Germany, 2001).

The standard edition of the Cologne Mani Codex is Ludwig Koenen and Cornelia Römer, Der Kölner Mani-Kodex (Opladen, Germany, 1988). The texts from Kellis are published in Kellis Literary Texts: Vol. 1, edited by Iain Gardner (Oxford, 1996). See also the Coptic Documentary Texts from Kellis : Vol. 1, edited by Iain Gardner, Anthony Alcock, and Wolf Peter Funk (Oxford, 1999), which includes a collection of private correspondence from the Manichaean community in Kellis. A convenient edition and translation of the Tebessa Codex is Jason BeDuhn and Geoffrey Harrison, "The Tebessa Codex : A Manichaean Treatise on Biblical Exegesis and Church Order," in Paul Mirecki and Jason BeDuhn, eds., Emerging from Darkness: Studies in the Recovery of Manichaean Sources (Leiden, 1997), pp. 3388. The Acta Archelai (attributed to Hegemonius) has been translated by Mark Vermes and annotated by Samuel N. C. Lieu, Acta Archelai (Turnhout, Belgium, 2001). A dictionary covering genuine Manichaean documents in Syriac, Coptic, Greek, and Latin was published as part of the Corpus Fontium Manichaeorum Project: Sarah Clackson, Erica Hunter, Samuel N. C. Lieu, and Mark Vermes, eds., Dictionary of Manichaean Texts, vol. 1, Texts from the Roman Empire (Texts in Syriac, Greek, Coptic, and Latin) (Turnhout, Belgium, 1998). A substantial collection of Manichaean texts from the Roman Empire in English translation can now be found in I. Gardner and S.N.C. Lieu. eds., Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire (Cambridge, U.K., 2004). A detailed bibliography is also available: Gunner Mikkelsen, Bibliographia Manichaica: A Comprehensive Bibliography of Manichaeism through 1996 (Turnhout, Belgium, 1997).


Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China, 2d ed. (Tübingen, Germany, 1992), gives a detailed overall survey of the history of the religion across Eurasia; the sections on Egypt have been updated by Iain Gardner and Lieu, "From Narmouthis (Medinet Madi) to Kellis (Ismant el-Kharab), Manichaean Documents from Roman Egypt," Journal of Roman Studies 86 (1996): 146169, and by the same two authors, Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire (New York, 2004). A thought-provoking study on the relationship between gnösis and ascesis in Manichaeism is Jason BeDuhn, The Manichaean Body in Discipline and Ritual (Baltimore, 2001). Studies in more specialized aspects of the religion in the Roman Empire include: François Decret, Aspects du manichéisme dans l'Afrique romaine (Paris, 1970); François Decret, L'Afrique manichéenne, Étude historique et doctrinale, 2 vols. (Paris, 1978.); and Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in Mesopotamia and the Roman East (Leiden, 1999). A classic study of the influence of Manichaeism on Augustine's theology, especially on his concept of the "two cities," is J. van Oort, Jerusalem and Babylon: A Study into Augustine's City of God and the Sources of His Doctrine of the Two Cities (Leiden, 1991). The Manichaean Studies Newsletter, an important annual newsletter (with bibliographical details of the year's publications) has been published by the International Association of Manichaean Studies and Brepols (Turnhout, Belgium) since 1988.

Samuel N. C. Lieu (2005)