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.Iranian Religions: Manichaeism

AUGUSTINE AND MANICHAEISM


 

By Gillian Clark

from the introduction to her Cambridge Latin edition of Confessions,

Books I-IV

 

 

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Early Medieval image of Augustine refuting heretic

 

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Mani - Artist impression

(Painting by Jan Valentin Sæther)

  (Click to enlarge)

 

Augustine encountered Manichaean teaching soon after the impact of the Hortensius, and remained an adherent for nine years. His subsequent attacks on Manichaeism are a major source of information, but of course they are polemic against the system, not exposition of it. In the Confessions he is concerned with the effect of Manichaeism on his own relationship with God. Instead of explaining what he believed as a Manichaean and why, he denounces the aspects of his belief which, in the light of Platonist philosophy and the preaching of Ambrose, he had come to see as its major confusions. But it is now possible to give a general account of western Manichaeism which does not depend chiefly on Christian polemic. Several Manichaean texts have been discovered this century: the Coptic texts from Medinet Medi in the Fayyum include a book of psalms, and the Greek ‘Mani codex’, a tiny papyrus volume, is an anthology on the birth and early life of Mani.

 

Mani, born in 216 in Babylonian-Persia, into a Persian family and was brought up in an ascetic Judaeo-Christian sect which he left in his mid-twenties. He believed himself to be the Paraclete, the ‘Advocate’ who, as Jesus promised to his followers (John 14:26), would lead them into all truth. Revelations from his ‘divine twin’ taught him the doctrines and the organisation of Manichaeism, and instructed him to travel and preach. His teaching spread eastward and westward, adapting to existing religious beliefs and practices: some of the most important Manichaean texts, written in various Central Asian languages, were found at Turfan in China. In the Roman empire, Manichaeism was regarded by Christians as heretical and by the state as a dangerous import from the rival power, Persia (Iran). In Persia there was religious toleration until the death of Shapur I (c. 272), but under his successor Zoroastrianism became the most influential religion, and Mani was imprisoned and died after torture. His death was commemorated in the festival of the Bema, which western Manichaeans celebrated rather than Easter.

 

Mani’s claim to a new revelation was not a new phenomenon in the west. Jesus had told his followers (John 16:12-13) ‘I still have many things to tell you, but you cannot handle them now. But when the spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth.’ He had said that the Paraclete was ‘the spirit of truth which the world cannot receive, because it neither sees nor knows it; but you know it, because it remains with you and is in you’ (John 14:17). Several religious leaders had convinced their followers that they had the truth, the gnosis (knowledge), which most people could not see. The ‘knowledge’ took the form of a deeper understanding of what is really happening in human lives. Gnostics believed that the physical world is of no value: it is the temporary, illusory stage for a struggle of spiritual powers, and all that matters is the release of the divine spirit within us from the contamination of the material body and its return to its true home. They produced complex mythologies of angels and demons to explain the workings of the universe. They refused to accept the affirmation of Genesis that God made the world, ‘and God saw all the things that God had made, and they were very good’ (Genesis 1:31). Consequently, they also refused to accept the Incarnation, the union of God and human in a human body, and taught that Christ was a divine spirit in the appearance of a human body, and that his death on the cross was an appearance of death.

 

Gnosticism recurs through the history of Christianity, but Gnostic sects tended to fragment. Mani combined impressive teaching, reinforced by hymns and splendidly produced books, with effective organisation. He taught that Good and Evil are equal powers, and both have always existed. Each has a kingdom, Good the kingdom of Light and Evil the kingdom of Darkness. Darkness invaded Light, and fragments of light are still entrapped in the darkness; this world was created in order to free them. Jesus of Light, who is pure spirit, shows humans how the light may be freed, and the Suffering Jesus is the Light which is entrapped in this world. The human soul is a fragment of Light which has fallen from its home, the kingdom of heaven, and is trapped in the body. It can escape by disciplining the body and with the help of saving powers.

 

There were two kinds of Manichaeans, the Elect Saints and the Hearers. The Elect, who formed the nucleus of a Manichaean ‘cell’, were committed to a missionary life of poverty and celibacy. They were strict vegetarians, drank no wine, and were forbidden even to harvest or prepare food, because Mani had a revelation that it is a kind of murder to damage plants by harvesting. The sect survived because the Hearers incurred the sin of preparing food, and were released from sin by the prayers of the Elect who ate it: Mani taught that fragments of the divine which were trapped in plants could be released when ingested by the pure body of the Elect. The Hearers were also allowed a wife or concubine, but were taught to avoid procreation because it entraps more divine spirits in matter. Manichaean cells, like Christian churches, were kept in touch with one another by a hierarchy analogous to the Christian clergy, so when Augustine left Carthage for Rome he was able to stay with another Hearer and meet some of the Elect (5.10.18-19).

 

Manichaeism offered Augustine a way to accommodate his conflicts: he could pursue his career, and retain his partner, while purging his sins through his service to the pure Elect (4.1.1); and he could blame those sins on his lower, alien nature, which like the material world had been made by the power of evil, but which his true self would eventually shed (5.10.18). Manichaeism also responded to his need, instilled by his childhood, for the name of Christ, and his initial distaste for the Christian scriptures (3.4.8-6.10). He could regard the Bible as a crude and contaminated attempt at the truth, whereas the Manichaean scriptures offered both the name of Christ and what seemed to be a profound understanding of the universe and of human life (3.6.10).

 

 

 

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