Kurt Rudolph-A Reading from ‘Gnosis’: About Mani & the Manicheans

Sermon on Mani’s Teaching of Salvation, Cathayan/Chinese Manichaean silk painting, detail from the complete hanging scroll, 142 cm x 59,2 cm, colours on silk, ca. 13th century, Yamato Bunkakan Museum, Nara, Japan.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from ‘Gnosis, the nature and history of an ancient religion‘ by German professor Kurt Rudolph, in its 1983 T & T Clark edition. English translation edited by Robert McLachlan Wilson.

Here we chose some paragraphs about Mani & Manicheism which were the center of Alexander of Lycopolis’ Neo-Platonist, early eye-witnessed, richly documented, refutation, of which we published yesterday some short excerpts that were not explaining the chore Manichaean doctrines but more focusing on mythology and astronomy. This is now, with today’s post, fulfilled  🙂


The conditions of its origin

‘While in the Roman empire the formation of the great gnostic schools comes to an end in the 2nd century, there begins in the 3rd century in the East (Mesopotamia) a golden age of gnostic religion on a world-wide scale. It is the work of one man who as one of the great founders of religion has passed into the history of mankind. Manicheism, of which we are speaking, can be regarded as one of the four world religions known to the history of religions. This means, it shares a position with Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, but, in contrast to these, lies in the past. R. Haardt has aptly characterised it as “the final and logical sys­tematisation of the Gnosis of late antiquity as a universal religion of revelation with a missionary character”. The soil for the origin of this gnostic world religion – this designation is apt of its origin in its fullest sense – had been prepared for some considerable time, for Mesopotamia had not only an ancient civilisation but also a wealth of varying religious traditions which had developed and met there in the course of a history of some thousand years.

In addition to the offshoots of the ancient Babylonian cults which can be traced here and there down to the late Hellenistic period, there were the Iranian religious ideas which penetrated in the train of the Persian rule (539 B. C.) and, after this since Alexander, Hellenistic civilisation. Furthermore, there arose in the country in the time of the so-called Babylonian exile (597 B. C.) a strong Judaism. In the course of the 2nd century, Christianity penetrated from Syria and, especially in the North, formed centres such as Edessa and Nisibis. It is remarks able that at first those groups predominated which were later declared heretical, such as gnostics (the special heretical school identified in Edessa are the followers of one Quq by name, the Quqites), Marcionites and Jewish Christians.

This feature of early Eastern Christianity was apparently typical for its begin­ning in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and also explains the origin of gnostic and gnosticising works in this region, such as the apoc­ryphal Acts of Thomas with the gnostic “Song of the Pearl”, the Odes of Solomon and the figure of Bardaisan (Latin: Barde­ sanes) who belongs to the immediate forerunners of Mani. This “Aramaic philosopher”, as he was called, lived for the better part of his life at the court of king Abgar IX of Edessa (179-216). After the conquest of the city by the Romans (216), he went to Armenia where he died probably in about 222. Bardaisan combined in his person an Oriental-Greek education with a Christianity shaped by Gnosis which he himself had adopted. For his community or school, which apparently strongly influenced the Christian Edessa, he composed a book of 150 hymns in Syriac, modelled on the Psalter, which were preserved in fragments only by his fiercest later opponent Ephraem of Edessa (306-373). One of his disciples, following the teachings of his master, wrote a tractate couched in dialogue form about fate, the so-called “Book of the Laws of Coun­tries”, which, in addition to the heresiological sources, is the only work which allows us an insight at first hand into Bardai­san’s thinking. Other works have not come down to us except for the titles; some (such as the Odes of Solomon or the “Song of the Pearl”) were wrongly attributed to him. An evaluation of his teaching, which can be reconstructed only in parts, is not easy and is under debate among researchers to the present day.

On the one hand he is considered to be an independent-minded representative of early Syrian Christianity, on the other hand he is described in a monograph by Hilgenfeld (1864) as the “last gnostic”. This is in part due to the unsatisfactory terminology used to define the position of early Syrian (Edessene) Chris­tianity, and in part to the deficient sources. If one accepts the reports of the Church Fathers, particularly the Syrian ones, Bardaisan’s teaching is to be taken as a special form of Eastern Gnosis. Although Bardaisan was not a disciple of Valentinus as some heresiologists maintained (e.g. Hippolytus), he obvious­ly used gnostic (including Hermetic) ideas which influenced his theology and which continued explicitly in his school and facili­tated its transition to Manicheism. His view of the world is throughout pessimistic and is based on a dualism of God and darkness (hyle). Between them stand the four primeval ele­ments, light, wind, fire and water which, through a fateful breach of the original order, become mingled with the dark­ ness, and this, in turn, leads to the genesis of the world. Only the “word of thought” or the “power of the first God”, which is equated with Christ, can halt the utter ruin, and can create some order out of the mixture which is composed of higher (psychic) and lower (material) parts above which is ranged the purely spiritual world of God. Body and matter are considered to be bad and hinder the salvation of the soul which, because of Adam’s fall, cannot return to God.

Only through Christ does it become once more capable of ascending with the help of the di­ vine spirit into the “bridal chamber”. An important means for this is “knowledge”, viz. perception. It is consistent with his presuppositions that for Bardaisan the resurrection of the body is excluded and that Christ inhabited on earth only an illusory body, and this demonstrates more than anything else his close link with the gnostic world view. His graduated evaluation of the world’s edifice (the planets and stars are not merely evil powers) derived from Greek thought and his defense of the freedom of the will against the fatalism of astrology, as set out in the above-mentioned dialogic tractate, are thoroughly con­sistent with this. If one compares the manifold manifestations of Gnosis in the West with Bardaisan, there is good reason to speak of him as the author of an independent system of Eastern Gnosis which, together with other gnostic schools, prepared
the ground for Manicheism.

Life of Mani

The founder of the religion, Mani, comes from the Southern region of Mesopotamia; he probably was born on the 14th April, A. D. 216, in the vicinity of Seleucia-Ctesiphon on the Tigris, the Persian capital. His parents are said to be of noble Iranian descent, his mother even of Parthian royal lineage, but this is uncertain. The father, Pattak (Greek: Pattikios, Latin: Patecius) had joined a gnostic baptist sect to which he also in­troduced his son early on. From a recently discovered source, the Cologne Mani Codex, it is clear that this was the heretical Jewish Christian community of the Elkesaites, which claimed to go back to the legendary prophet Elkesai (i.e. the “hidden power of God”) who appeared in about A. D. 100 in Syria.

The Mandeans, who to this day live in Southern Iraq, also formed part of this baptist sectarian world which surrounded the young Mani. When he was twelve years old, in about 228/29, Mani had his first vision in which his heavenly double, his “twin”, his “partner” or “companion”, appeared to him and assured him of his constant protection and help. Later, Mani saw in this the ef­fective revelation of the “comforter” (the Paraclete), or the Holy Spirit, who had revealed to him the “mysteries” of his teaching. In consequence of this experience, he cut himself loose from his environment and began to engage in argument with it, thus attempting to reform the practice and teaching of the baptists. It came to a division in the community and to an of­ficial breach which ended with Mani’s expulsion; only his father and two disciples stayed with him. In the meantime, he had another experience at the age of 24 which constituted his actual call to be an “apostle of light”. It can be dated on the 19th April, 240, and is once more taken as a revelation of the “companion” who acted on the order of God, the king of light. In a hymn Mani briefly described his role:

I am a grateful hearer (i.e. pupil) who was born in the land of Babylon.
I was born in the land of Babylon
and I am set up at the gate of the truth. I am a singer, a hearer,
who has come from the land of Babylon. I have come from the land of Babylon
to send forth a call in the world”.

We have only a rough idea about his later life. After he had fled with his disciples to the capital Seleucia Ctesiphon, where he apparently established his first community, he began to mis­sionarise actively inside and outside Iran. While messengers were sent to the Western, Roman, provinces, Mani himself journeyed in 241 by boat to India and up the Indus valley to Tu­ ran, where he won over the king for himself. In about 242/243 he is back in Babylonia to pay his respects to the new ruler Shapur I (242-273) after the death of Ardashir I.

He succeeds in finding favour with him and even in being received into the royal entourage. Already two brothers of the king become his followers. Clearly, the new universal religion commended itself as a suitable ideology for the Persian empire without the om­nipotent Zoroastrian priestly caste, the Magi, being involved. Mani is now able to spread his teaching without hindrance; he sends his disciples to Syria, Egypt and Eastern Iran:

I have sown the corn of life … from East to West; as you see my hope has gone towards the East of the world and all the re­gions of the globe (i.e. the West), to the direction of the North  and the South. None of the apostles has ever done this … “.

When Shapur I died, his successor, Ohrmuzd I (273/74), was still favourably disposed towards Mani, but under Bahram I (274-277) his fate changed. Probably the caste of the Magi had, in the meantime, gained enough influence to eliminate the un­welcome rival who threatened to upset Iran’s traditional reli­gious order. The head of the Magi, Karti’r (Karder), whose aim was a thorough reform of the Zoroastrian church, appears as Mani’s chief opponent. Mani’s attempt to change the opinion of the Great King who resided in Belapat (Gundeshapur) failed; he was thrown into prison there where he died in chains soon after, in the spring of 276. His corpse was mutilated, as was then the custom when dealing with heretics, and was put on show outside the city. In this his community saw the passion and “crucifixion” (martyrdom) of its master who after this was believed to have ascended into the realm of light.

The spread of Manicheism

The Manichean “church” now lived through difficult times; persecutions and schisms afflicted it. Mani’s successors in the leadership of the community also suffered martyrdom. This led to a decline of Manicheism in the Persian territories (to this the revolutionary movement of the Mazdakites (494-524), which was suppressed with cruel harshness, ultimately contributed), but not elsewhere; on the contrary its spread intensified in the Eastern and Western countries through emigration. Merchants and missionaries (apostles) continued the work of their found- er. In about 300 the “teaching of light”, as it was called, can be found in Syria, Northern Arabia, Egypt and North Africa (where St. Augustine joined it from 373-382). From Syria it reached Palestine, Asia Minor and Armenia.

At the beginning of the 4th century, there is evidence for Manicheans in Rome and Dalmatia, and soon after also in Gaul and Spain. Anti-Manichean polemical writings and imperial edicts against heretics attempt to counter its influence, but only from the 6th century onwards does the religion disappear, though continuing to exert its influence under different guises in other sectarian circles (Paulicians, Bogomils, Catharists) up to the Middle Ages. It could hold its ground even more successfully and more permanently in the East where it flourished at a time when there were no longer any real Manicheans to be found in the West; this is probably due to Islam having put an end to the monopoly position of Christianity and Zoroastrianism.

In the early era of the Arab conquest, Mani’s religion once more attained toleration in Persia, partly as a fashionable religion among the educated. But Central Asia became its centre (Turkestan, the Tarim bas- in) where it had come from Eastern Iran (Chorasan). Here it even succeeded in 762 in becoming the state religion of the Uigur empire. After the collapse of the empire (840) it continued to hold its own in the succeeding petty states beside Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity until the 13th century when it fell utterly victim to the devastating Mongolian attack. The importance of Manicheism in Central Asia is illustrated by the many finds of writings and frescos from this period which were made at the beginning of the 20th century in the course of several Turfan expeditions by German, French and Russian scholars.

In the 7th century Mani’s followers also reached China, via Turkestan and along the Silk Road. In 694 the first apostles made their appearance at the Chinese imperial court and com­peted with Buddhists, Nestorians and Taoists. Several edicts dealt with Manicheism and the Confucian men of letters op­posed it fiercely, as it knew how to adapt to Chinese tradition in its missionary practice. In 843/44 it came to a bloody persecu­tion to which most congregations fell victim. But still, at the end of the 14th century, emperors of the Ming dynasty had occasion to take measures against the followers of “the religion of the venerable light”. In Southern China (according to Portuguese reports) Manichean traditions are said to have still survived in the 17th century. Manichean influence has also been traced to Tibet. Thus Manichean Gnosis has had a history of more than one thousand years during which period it spread from Spain to China.

Mani has therefore been proved right when he said to his community: “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. My religion sur­ passes in this first point all earlier religions, for the earlier reli­gions were founded in individual places and in individual cities. My religion will go out to all cities and its message will reach every land“.

The Manichean writings

In order to protect his work from falsification, and to ensure that it should not be forgotten, Mani set great store by keeping a written record of his doctrinal system. Here, too, he aimed at surpassing his predecessors, the earlier prophets and founders of religion, who in his opinion had composed no works of their own and whose message therefore had been preserved only in­ completely. For this purpose, he developed a new, practical, script and composed a number of works in Iranian and Syriac for the calligraphic production and copying of which he showed great concern. The superior culture of the Manicheans ex­ pressed by script and book which thus came into existence earned him later the epithet “the painter”. Unfortunately only scanty remnants of his own works have survived either in quo­tation by his opponents or in the writings of his community.

But we know at least the titles: “Shahpuhrakan”, a work dedi­cated to the Great King Shapur I, the “Great” or “Living Gos­pel”, the “Treasure of Life”, the “Pragmateia” (i.e. composi­tion, work of history), the “Book of Mysteries”, the “Book of the Giants”, a collection of letters or missives, some psalms and prayers as well as a kind of picture book (“Eikon” or “Ard­hang”) which illustrated his view of the world in pictures. Up to the end of the 19th century there were hardly any original sour­ces of the Manicheans except the few preserved by the Chris­tian, Zoroastrian and Islamic heresiologists. Only the above mentioned Turfan expeditions (1898-1916) yielded an unex­pectedly rich spoil of Manichean literature (in Iranian, Old Turkish and Chinese) and art.

The most important pieces came to Berlin; their publication is not yet concluded. There are doctrinal texts, hymns, prayers, rituals, confessional for­mularies, catechisms, letters of exhortation and epistles,  com­mentaries, narrative material of historical and mythological­ legendary content, mural paintings and miniatures. The writ­ings are for the most part badly damaged and fragmentary, but they have afforded us, for the first time, direct access to this strange religion, even if they are derived from its late phase (6th-10th centuries). Nevertheless they contain fragments of the works of Mani, e.g. the Shahpuhrakan. A few decades later (in 1930) Carl Schmidt, who has already been mentioned in another context, discovered the Manichean texts in Coptic from Medinet Madi (south-west of the Faiyiim oasis in Middle Egypt) which came partly to Berlin and partly to London. In contrast to the finds at Turfan, these Coptic texts are relatively well preserved books (codices) which also are much older; they come from about 400 and therefore were written only 150 years after the rise of Manicheism.

The writings were probably trans­lated from Greek and Syriac in the course of the 4th century in Upper Egypt. Their edition too is not yet concluded; moreover some parts unfortunately were lost in the second world war. There have been published the Kephalaia (i.e. “principal arti­cles”), an encyclopedic handbook in the form of lectures of Mani to his disciples, which is so far our best introduction into his world of thought; then a collection of homilies and a psalm book, both valuable witnesses to the piety of the Manichean community. Recently there appeared a Greek parchment manu­script in pocket book format (3.5cm. x 4.5cm.) of the 4th/5th century which bears the title “On the Genesis of his (Mani’s) Body”, and which is part of a biography of Mani compiled by his community according to the traditions of his first disciples. This text, which has only just been published, also comes from Egypt and belongs to the Cologne collection of papyri. It is the first extant original Manichean text in Greek which is based on Oriental traditions of the earliest community.

The teaching of Mani

In spite of the remarkable addition to original sources, it is still a much disputed problem which fundamental system Mani himself advocated or taught, for the writings and other reports which we possess always reflect particular varieties or drafts of this system which arose from missionary concerns and from adaptations to the Iranian-Persian, the Christian and the Bud­dhist environment in which Manicheism spread. This kind of adaptation was a special characteristic of Manichean teaching and, in order to solve the problem of the authentic system, it was assumed that Mani himself had formulated a system of doc­ trine that was flexible enough to adapt itself readily to other tra­ditions and ideas. We already know this same phenomenon from the remaining world of Gnosis.

Mani, who did not regard himself as a philosopher but a gnostic theosophist and pro­phet, saw his task as fusing the religious tradition of the Orient of his time into a universal religion of the salvation of man. For this purpose of a “conscious syncretism”, he created a strongly mythological system with a pellucid theoretical basic structure which did justice to the practical aim of being a gnos­tic teaching of salvation.

Parts of the mythological apparatus could easily be exchanged, and Mani himself seems to have demonstrated this as is shown by his predilection for series of concepts and catalogues. Moreover, modern research rightly inclines more and more to the view that the tradition preserved in the Coptic Manichaica (especially the Kephalaia) comes closest to the original system and is supplemented by the corre­sponding material from Iranian texts which, however, is younger. Thus the Christian-gnostic tenor of Mani’s system and its mediation through the Syrian-Mesopotamian environment of a heretical-gnostic Jewish Christianity, which was recently confirmed by the Cologne Mani Codex, become explicable.

Mani clearly tapped this reservoir in many features of his reli­gion, in the Christology, the cyclic doctrine of revelation, the eschatology and in ascetic and other precepts, without losing sight of the goal that his religion was also to be able to be amal­gamated with other religions, in particular with the Iranian Zo­roastrianism with which it was closely connected by descent. His disciples, whom he must have consciously trained in this sense, only continued this tendency and went on to form Ma­nicheism in this way, as it confronts us in Roman North Africa in the time of St. Augustine (4th century), in Arabic (8th cen­tury) and in the Central Asiatic-Chinese sources (6th-10th cen­turies).

As it was apparently on the apostle’s own initiative that he was regarded as the “Paraclete” of the Christians, as a Mes­sianic son of Zarathustra and as the Buddha of the future (Mai­treya), the absorption of the respective body of faith becomes intelligible. He probably followed this practice himself on his travels to the East. Mani says in the Kephalaia:

The writings and the wisdom and the apocalypses and the parables and the psalms of all earlier churches (religions) were gathered every­ where and came to my church (religion) and were added to the wisdom which I revealed. As water will be added to water and becomes much water, so were the ancient (earlier) books added to my writings and became a great wisdom, the like of which was not proclaimed (hitherto) in all ancient (earlier) gen­erations. The books as I have written (them) were neither writ- ten nor revealed (hitherto)“.

However, he did not derive his teachings from human book wisdom but, as we are told elsewhere:

The most blessed father” viz. his “light-spirit” (nous) elected and called him out of the congregation of the multitude that does not perceive the truth to reveal to him his mysteries and those of the whole cosmos. With this wealth of  divine knowledge he could if the whole world and all men would listen to it … make them rich and ensure that the wisdom is sufficient for the whole world”.

This is the theological authorisation for his truly astonishing knowledge which he incorporated in his work and which bears witness to a remarkable level of education in the contemporary Orient in the realms of the philosophy of religion and of the natural sciences, and also to the above average imagination and literary talent of the author.

Mani’s teaching is based on the well-known gnostic dualism of spirit and body, light and darkness, good and evil, but advo­cates it most radically in dependence on his Iranian heritage. Also the course of the world was seen as recurring periods and was completely systematised in a way which Gnosis hitherto knew only embryonically. Here also Iran seems to have stood godfather.

The cosmic development, understood as an irreversible process of time and as an expression of temporalness as such, is seen against the background of a gradual liberation of light from darkness. It was Mani who, for the first time, de­ scribed the fundamental gnostic idea really rigorously: the cos­mology is subservient to the soteriology. The universe, the earth and man are subject to a process which has as its goal the liberation by God (of a part) of God and in which man is a deci­sive means to that end. The insight (gnosis) into this world pro­cess guarantees to man, as a potential bearer of light, salvation and makes him at the same time into an active promoter; this leads to a “cosmic feeling of responsibility” which is typical of gnostic-Manichean piety. The essential and probably oldest characteristics of the sys­tem are the following:

The Manichean System

At the beginning stands the undeducible antithesis of the world of light and the world of darkness or of the good and the evil principle. The ruler of the realm of light, which is located in the North, has various names: “Father of Greatness”, “King of the Paradise of Light”, “most blessed Father” or simply God (in the Iranian texts: Zurviin, i.e. God “Time”). His being ma­nifests itself in five spiritual attributes or hypostases which are also thought of as “members” or “worlds” (aeons): reason, thinking, insight, speculation and reflection. Moreover, he is surrounded by a great number of aeons and light worlds. Dark­ ness or Hyle (matter), which is located in the South, also has a king and five “worlds”: smoke, fire, sirocco, water, darkness, each of which is populated by demons and ruled over by an “ar­chon”. Driven by its inherent agitation, the night of darkness (hyle) comes to the borders of the realm of light and begins, filled with jealousy, to fight against it. This is the occasion for the (second) stage of the mixture of the two principles. The God of light, in order to be able to meet the challenge of dark­ ness, creates three “evocations” which form the basic frame­ work for the action of the light world in the following world pro­cess. First the “Great Spirit” or the “Wisdom” (sophia) is creat­ed from which the “Mother of the living” proceeds. She brings forth the Urmensch (primeval man, called Ohrmazd in the Iranian version) who is furnished with five elements who also are called his “garments” or “sons”: fire, wind, water, light and ether. This pentad is also called: “Living Soul”. The Urmensch now descends to fight with the darkness but is vanquished and leaves his fivefold “soul” to the underworld.

This process, however, is interpreted by the Manicheans not as a defeat but as a preventive measure in which the Urmensch, or his “soul”, was only bait to catch Hyle. At all events, the king of light arranges another, the second, “evocation” for the salvation of the Ur­ mensch in the form of the “beloved of the beings of light”, the “great architect” and the “living spirit” (called in Persian Mi­thra), who again has five sons or “gods” (among them the “Light-Adamas”). By sending out an awakening “call” to the Urmensch below to which he reacts with the “answer” (“call” and “answer” together constitute the “thought of life”), the “living spirit” begins his work of salvation which ends with the bringing up of the Urmensch. This salvation is the model for the later salvation of Adam and, finally, of all men. As the five ele­ments or the “soul” of the Urmensch remained in the power of the darkness, the process is not yet concluded, but the “living spirit” sets into motion the creation of the world for their deliv­ery.

It comes to pass through the archons who according to the amount of light swallowed by them (in the form of the fivefold “soul”) serve as building material for stars, heaven and earth. Thus arises the cosmos. from particles of light and darkness; ac­ cording to Mani it is therefore not subject to being entirely demonised, as becomes clear especially in the positive evalua­tion of the sun and the moon. For the maintenance of the cos­ mic order the five sons (gods) of the “living spirit” are responsi­ble, each of whom protects a part of the cosmos. Ten firma­ments and eight earthly spheres are mentioned. For the pur­pose of the actual salvation of the particles of light the cosmos must be set into motion. To this end the third “evocation” ensues, the main figure of which is the “third envoy” or the “God of the realm of light”; his abode is the sun, his female as­pect, viz. his daughters, are the twelve virgins of light who rep­ resent the zodiac. He sets in motion the mechanism of the puri­fication of light in the form of the three wheels of fire, water and wind. For the reception of the purified particles of light he creates the “pillar of glory” which is also called “perfect man” (as a restoration of the Urmensch). It becomes visible in the Milky Way. On it the liberated particles of light ascend to the moon which gathers them up to its fulness (full moon), in order to pass them on afterwards, thus emptying itself (new moon), to the sun, whence they go to the “new aeon” which in the meantime was designed by the “great architect”.

In order to deprive the dark archons of the light that they had received, the “third envoy” shows himself uncovered in his male and female aspect, whereupon the lewd archons either defile themselves or abort. The semen falls, on the one hand, on dry land and brings forth the world of plants, on the other hand, it falls into the sea and produces a sea monster which is vanquished by the “Light­ Adamas”. The aborted embryos, too, fall upon the earth, be­ come demons and devour the fruit of the plants, i. e. the seed of darkness mixed with light, fertilise themselves and thus pro­ duce the animal kingdom. Accordingly, the particles of light are to be found in the plants (here particularly strongly), the animals and the demons. As the darkness fears the final loss of the particles of light, it endeavours to bind them to itself as closely as possible and plans a creation in opposition to that of the third envoy. By means of two chosen demons, Saklas (“fool”) and Nebroel (also called Namrael), the first human pair (Adam and Eve, Persian: Gehmurd) is procreated in ac­cordance with the male – female “image” of the third envoy in such a way that the two previously devour all other demons in order to receive in themselves the light that remained in them. All further events now depend on the fate of the first man. The counter measure of the world of light consists of the calling by the third envoy of the “Jesus Splendour”, whom he sends to Adam to enlighten him about everything and thus to lead to saving “knowledge”. So the plan of darkness has been frustrat­ed once more.

For the salvation of mankind which originated in Adam, the Jesus Splendour summons the “mind of light”(light­ nous, Persian: the great Manuhmed) who is the father of all apostles; by their liberating message he enters all men who are to be saved. Through the fivefold gifts of the “light-nous”, the soul is led to become conscious of itself and is strengthened in its power of resistance. So man is the central subject of world events. His soul, as part of the light (i.e. of God), is the element to be saved, and the saving element is the “spirit” (nous or pneuma) that was granted to him by revelation or knowledge. The body is the dark, evil, component of man, which in death returns to its origin, the darkness, in order to let the soul as­cend, in its liberated state, to its place of origin. But the soul that remains un-awakened is reborn on earth unto a new life (transmigration of souls) until it is either redeemed or finally judged.

This end of the whole world drama occurs when the deliverance of the light is to some extent complete. Then follow the events known from Christian and Iranian tradition: the ap­pearance of Jesus as king, the judgement of the world and the dissolution of the material world by means of a conflagration which purifies the last remaining elements of light.

The hyle (matter) is incarcerated and care is taken to see that no new cosmos comes into existence. Thus the original state is restored even more radically. In the later communities it came to divisions over the problem whether all particles of light really return again or, after all, bear too heavy an admixture of darkness.

The doctrine of redemption

For Mani the event of redemption consists essentially of the awakening of the soul through knowledge, for which the messengers of light are needed, who in the course of history appear variously in space and time, yet mediate only one message, the saving truth in accordance with Manichean teaching. Biblical and extra-biblical figures are considered to be such “apostles of light” and thus forerunners of Mani, such as Seth(el), Noah, Enosh, Enoch, Shem, Abraham, Buddha, Aurentes, Zoroaster; Jesus and Paul. Mani himself is the consummation and the apostle of the last generation, the predicted Messiah and the fulfilment of all religions. This is how he saw himself, and his community accordingly saw in him the “redeemer”, “illuminator”, “physician” (of the soul), even God, as is clear from the graphic descriptions in the rich hymnic literature.

In Mani’s system the figure of Jesus was broken up into several individual figures, as often happens in Gnosis: the “Jesus Splendour” as heavenly figure of revelation, which corresponds to the gnostic Christ of the pleroma, and the earthly Jesus as messenger of light who acts on the orders of the heavenly or light-nous, and suffers only seemingly (the crucifixion, therefore, has no redemptive value and is at most of symbolic worth); in North African Manicheism there is also the “suffering Jesus” (Jesus patibilis) as symbol of the suffering particles of light, of the “living soul” of the Urmensch, while in other texts there is mentioned instead the “boy Jesus” who looks forward to redemption.


Detail of Mani’s Community Established, depicting seven lay people bring offerings to shrine with statue of Mani and three elects. From Zsuzsanna Gulácsi’s ‘Mani’s Pictures: The Didactic Images of the Manichaeans from Sasanian Mesopotamia to Uygur Central Asia and Tang-Ming China’, p. 395.

The Manichean church

The “church” organised by Mani is the final community of salvation which has the task of looking after the light that is still in the world by avoiding tormenting it any further and also by trying to purify it and to lead it back. The ascetic attitude to life which follows from this consists of “reducing all relations of life to a minimum” (H. Jonas) and in practice can be accomplished only by few. The result, therefore, is a division of the community into two distinct groups.

The real core of the “church” is formed by the “elect” (electi) or “perfect”, who are also called “righteous’ or “true”, around whom gather the great circle of the “hearers” (auditores) or”catechumens”. The hierarchy was recruited only from the “elect”: the “head of the church” (archegos, princeps) as Mani’s successor, the twelve apostles or “teachers” (magistri), the 72 bishops or deacons, the 360 “elders” (presbyters) and the plain elect. Women can attain the station of the elect but cannot take office. The mon­astery became the outward form of the Manichean church in Turkestan, probably under Buddhist influence.

In accordance with the bipartite structure of the community, the standards set for ethic-moral behaviour also vary. The harsh demands made by Manichean ethics, the basic idea of which lies in the acquisition of salvation by renunciation, can only be met by the elect. They are subject to the “three seals of the mouth, the hand and the sexual organs”, i.e. they have to keep away completely from consuming meat and wine, from ly­ing and hypocrisy, and from damaging nature by work and sex­ual intercourse. Ill-treatment of animals, damage of plants (the elect, therefore, walked with downcast eyes), pollution of wa­ter, all involve the “tormenting” of the light enclosed therein and are sacrilege.

10th century Manichaean Electae in Gaochang (Khocho), China. Picture by PHGCOM, photographed at Asiatische Kunst Museum.

The “perfect” must dedicate themselves to the study, copying and translating of religious writings, and this, as the finds’ show, they have done in exemplary fashion. They were famous for the use of good paper and writing mate­ rial. “When the Manicheans expend effort on the production of their holy writings, it is like the Christians doing the same for the churches‘.’; this is the judgement of an Arab author (al­ Jahiz).

The possession of material riches was prohibited to the individual, but the community was allowed to possess capi­tal in the form of debentures and could thus attain wealth as the finds at Turfan show. “Whosoever lends on usury does not in­jure the cross of light“, says St. Augustine. The later German popular etymology which derives Manicheans from “Mahn-ni­ cheans”, creditors, usurers, perhaps, goes back to this. Other­wise the life of the elect was Spartan; they were allowed only one vegetarian meal which was further curtailed by fasting.

As such a life could not be led without support by others, the circle of the “hearers” (auditores) was a necessity of life for the elect, as are the workers for the drones in a beehive. The “hearers” had to provide the livelihood of the elect and this was account­ ed to them as good works (“alms”). The guilt which they neces­sarily took upon themselves by reason of their work, the elect forgave them, but their salvation, i.e. the deliverance of their souls, was delayed; an opportunity for it lay only in their rebirth in one of the plants full of light, or in one of the elect. They were only second-class representatives of the community for whom the observance of ten commandments was enough to prove their Manichean faith. These commandments were: monoga­my, the renunciation of fornication, lying, hypocrisy, idolatry, magic, the killing of animals, theft and any doubt of their reli­gion, as well as the duty of the indefatigable care of the elect. Without them, however, the Manichean church would not have been viable, and the rich merchants who attached themselves to it as “hearers” were; without doubt, its economic backbone and account for the quite impressive display of luxury to be found here and there.’


Sermon on Mani’s Teaching of Salvation, Cathayan/Chinese Manichaean silk painting, complete hanging scroll, 142 cm x 59,2 cm, colours on silk, ca. 13th century, Yamato Bunkakan Museum, Nara, Japan.


Kurt Rudolph gained prominence as a historian of religions, author of many works, as well as an expert on Gnosticism and Manichaeism. One of his most important works is “Gnosis: The Nature and History of an ancient religion”, which is a synthesis of the important religions in the late antiquity.
More about Mani and the Manicheans: 🌿 🌿More about professor Kurt Rudolph:
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