10 million Ukrainians without power because of Russia. Help us purchase electrical generators for churches.
Consider helping today!

Bible Dictionaries

A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography


Additional Links

Manicheans ( Μανιχαῖοι , Epiph. Haer. lxvi., where they are also called Ἀκουανῖται , from Ἀκούας , one of their leaders, who carried the heresy from Mesopotamia to Eleutheropolis). For the personal history of Manes see last art. We now treat of the origin, principles, cultus, literature, and history of the sect called after him; which was, indeed, not so much a definite sect as a vast indefinite spiritual and intellectual movement, which from its very vastness eludes, or at least renders very difficult, definite historical treatment.

(1) Origin and Principles of Manicheism. —For the fountain of the Manichean heresy we must turn to India (see Baur, Das Manichäische Religionssystem , Tübingen, 1831, pp. 433–451, where there is satisfactory evidence that elements derived both from Buddhism and from Zoroastrism are found in the Manichean system). Darmester recognized the influence of the Zend-Avesta and Zoroastrism upon Manicheism: cf. Zend-Avesta in Sacred Books of the East , t. iv. intro. p. xxxvii. For a thorough exposition of this system see the two large works of Beausobre, Baur's vol. of 500 pp., and Neander's Church Hist. (Bohn's ed.), t. ii. pp. 157–195. We must content ourselves with sketching the leading principles of the sect. Manes probably at first merely desired to blend Christianity and Zoroastrism together. From Zoroastrism he took his Dualism, which consisted of two independent principles absolutely opposed to each other, with their opposite creations: on the one side God (Ahura-Mazda), the original good from whom nothing but good can proceed; on the other side original evil (Angro-Mainyus), whose essence is wild, self-conflicting tumult, matter, darkness, a world full of smoke and vapour. The powers of darkness, contending in wild rage, approached so near in their blind struggle to the realm of light that a gleam from that hitherto unknown kingdom reached them, whereupon they strove to force their way into it. The good God, in order to guard His boundaries, produced the Aeon Mother of Life, by whom the first or spiritual man was produced, together with the five elements, wind, light, water, fire, and matter, to carry on the struggle; which, however, are not identical with the actual elements, but are the elements of the higher world, of which the mundane and actual elements are a copy framed by the Prince of Darkness, a view we find worked out by the Cathari of the 12th cent. (Gieseler, H. E. iii. 452). Primitive man is worsted by the spirits of darkness, who take from him some of his armour, which is his soul ( ψυχή ). He prays to the Light-King, who sends the Spirit of Life, who rescues him and raises him once more to the Light-Kingdom. Meanwhile the Powers of Darkness had succeeded in swallowing part of the luminous essence of the primeval heavenly man, which they proceeded to shut up in material bodies, as in a prison. But this very violence is the means of their destruction. The Divine Spirit is only enclosed in the material prisons for a time and with a view to final deliverance. To illustrate this Manes used a parable. A shepherd sees a wild beast about to rush into the midst of his flock. He digs a pit and casts into it a kid; the beast springs into the pit to devour his prey, but cannot extricate himself. The shepherd, however, delivers the kid and leaves the lion to perish (Disp. c. Archel. c. 25; Epiph. Haer. lxvi. c. 44). The Spirit of Life at once began his preparations for purifying the souls which had been mixed up with the kingdom of darkness. That part of the soul which had not been affected by matter he placed in the sun and moon, whence it might send forth its influence to release and draw back towards itself, through the refining processes of vegetable and animal life, kindred souls diffused through all nature; for the sun and moon play as important a part in the Manichean as they do in the Persian, Indian, and Mithraic systems (C. B. Stark, Zwei Mithraeen , Heidelberg, 1864, p. 43). To prevent this gradual despiritualization the powers of darkness resolve to produce a being in whom the soul of nature, which was ever striving after liberty, might be securely imprisoned. This is man as he is now, shaped after the image of the primitive man with whom they originally waged war. He was formed by the prince of darkness, and embraces in himself the elements of both worlds, the soul springing from the Light-Kingdom, the body from that of darkness. The powers of darkness now perceive that the light-nature, by concentrating itself in man, has become powerful. They therefore seek to attach him by every possible enticement to the lower world. Here comes in the Manichean story of the Fall, which resembles that of the Ophites. The Powers of Darkness invited man to partake of all the trees of Paradise, forbidding only the tree of Knowledge. But an angel of light, or Christ Himself, the Spirit of the Sun, counteracted their artifices in the shape of the serpent, the parts of the Biblical narrative being thus reversed, God's share being ascribed to the devil and vice versa. The Manichean standpoint with respect to the Fall determined their attitude towards the whole O.T., which they rejected as the work of the evil principle. Likewise their theory about the creation of the material part of man determined their view of the Incarnation, which they regarded as wholly Docetic; if a material body was a prison and a burden to the spirit of man, Christ could scarcely voluntarily imprison His divine Spirit in the same. "Moreover, the Son, when He came for man's salvation, assumed a human appearance, so that He appeared to men as if He were a man, and men thought He had been born" (Epiph. Haer. lxvi. 49). This Docetic view of the Incarnation destroyed the reality of His life, His death, resurrection, and ascension, and struck at the root of all historical Christianity, so that we find at last some later Manicheans maintaining a distinction between the mundane or historical Christ, who was a bad man, and the spiritual Christ, Who was a divine deliverer (Gieseler, H. E. iii. 407, note 28). They attached a mystical signification to orthodox language about our Lord, whereby they could use it to deceive the unwary. Thus they could speak of a suffering son of man hanging on every tree—of a Christ crucified in every soul and suffering in matter. They gave their own interpretation to the symbols of the suffering Son of Man in the Lord's Supper (cf. Petrus Sic. Hist. Man. in Bigne's Bib. PP. xvi. 760). For a thorough exposition of the relations between Manicheism and Buddhism see Baur, l.c. pp. 433–451, where he points out Buddhist influence on Manichean doctrines as to the opposition between matter and spirit, upon the creation and end of the world, and upon moral questions. The most striking points of contact are metempsychosis (Baur, l.c. p. 440), and the stress laid upon gnosis. The former is the outer way, whereby souls can return thither whence they have descended. The latter is the inner and highest way (cf. Colebrooke's Essays , ii. 382, 389, for the universal influence of this view in India. In both systems asceticism was the practical result of the opposition between matter and spirit; the more matter could be crushed, the nearer the spirit came to its original source (cf. Lassen, Ind. Alterthum. iii. 408–415)

(2) Organization. —Perhaps, however, it is on the practical organization of the system that Buddhist influence is most clearly seen. Manicheism differed from Gnosticism, for the latter did not wish to alter anything in the constitution of the existing church, but only desired to add to the Confession of Faith for the ψυχικοί a secret doctrine for the πνευματικοί; while Manes, as the Paraclete, set up a new church instead of the old, which, even in the persons of the apostles, had been corrupted by Jewish traditions. In the Manichean church the gradations were similar to those among the Buddhists (cf. H. H. Wilson's Opp. t. ii. p. 360, Essay on Buddha and Buddhism ). There was first the great body consisting of the auditores, from whom a less strict course of life was demanded, and one of whose leading duties was to supply the other and higher class, the Elect or Perfect, with food and other necessaries. From these last an ascetic life was demanded. They should possess no property, were bound to a celibate and contemplative life, abstaining from all strong drinks and animal food. They should hurt no living thing, from a religious reverence for the divine life diffused through all nature. Not only should they take no life, but not even pull up a herb or pluck fruits or flowers (Aug. cont. Faust. v. 6, vi. 4). Thus Epiphanius ( Haer. lxvi. c. 28) tells us that when their followers presented one of the Elect with food, he first addressed it thus: "I have neither reaped nor ground, nor pressed nor cast thee into the oven. All these things another has done, and brought thee to me. I am free from all fault." Upon which he said to his disciple, "I have prayed for thee," and let him go (cf. Von Wegnern, de Manich. Indulgent. pp. 69 seq.). Here is an essential Pantheism, a tendency which Manicheism manifestly draws from Buddhism (Hodgson, Jour. Roy. As. Soc. 1835, p. 295; Matter, Hist. du Gnostic. t. ii. 357) and which develops further in the course of its history. St. Augustine noted this point in his reply to Faustus, ii. 5, xii. 13; cf. Aug. Epp. 165, 166, c. iii. § 7; Ep. 74 ad Deuterium Episcop.; Toll. Insig. p. 137; Muratorii, Anecd. Ambros. Biblioth. ii. 112. Manes derived from Christianity another element of his system. As the Paraclete promised by Christ, he, after Christ's example, chose twelve apostles, in whom the government of the sect was placed. At their head there was a thirteenth, representing Manes and presiding over all (Flügel's Mani , pp. 97, 298, 316; Baur, l.c. p. 305); subordinate to them there were 72 bishops, under whom were presbyters, deacons, and travelling missionaries, a constitution which lasted to the 13th cent. and possibly may not be yet quite extinct.

(3) Cultus. —The Manicheans had their own peculiar rites, though their mystical interpretation of language enabled them to hold the highest position in the Christian ministry, as in an-Nadim's time, a.d. 987, it enabled them to conform externally to the Mohammedan system (Flügel's Mani , pp. 107, 404–408). Thus Eutychius, Pat. Alex. Annal. t. i. p. 515 (cf. Renaudot, Hist. Patr. Alexand. p. 101), tells how Timotheus, Pat. Alex., discovered Manicheans among the Egyptian bishops at the council of Constantinople by permitting the bishops and monks to eat flesh on Sundays, which the Manicheans would not do. Their worship consisted in prayers and hymns. They had neither temples, altars, incense, nor images. They fasted on Sunday. They regarded Easter lightly, as a festival which in their system had no meaning. They observed Pentecost, but not Christmas or Epiphany. Their great festival was that of Bema, held in March in memory of their founder's death. An empty chair or pulpit, richly upholstered, was then placed in their assembly, as a symbol of his presence, while one of his works, probably his Fundamental Epistle , was read, together with the records of his martyrdom (cf. Aug. Reply to Fund. Epist. c. viii.; cont. Faust. xviii. 5). As to their sacraments, the authorities vary much. Beausobre (t. ii. liv. ix. c. vi.) maintained strongly that they baptized even infants, and that in the name of the Trinity. On the other hand Augustine, de Haer. c. xlvi.; cont. Ep. Pelag. lib. ii. and other places cited by Beausobre, l.c. p. 714 n.; Cedren. Hist. Comp., Opp. t. i. col. 831, Migne's Patr. Gk. t. cxxi., expressly assert that they rejected baptism with water; and Timotheus C. P. in his Form. Recep. Haer. classes them among those heretics who must receive baptism on joining the church, a rule which seems to have prevailed from the 4th cent. (Beveridge, Cod. Canon. Eccles. Primit. lib. ii. c. 12; Basil. Ep. clxxxviii.). Certainly their practice in the 12th cent. would support this latter view, as they then substituted their Consolamentum or laying on of hands—which they called the baptism of the Holy Ghost—for water baptism, which they scorned (cf. Gieseler, H. E. iii. 397, 410 n.). For the Manicheans to admit baptism with water would seem inconsistent with their fundamental principle of the essentially evil nature of matter (cf. Tertull. cont. Marcion. i. 23). But we cannot expect perfect consistency, as in another respect they seem to have retained from the Zoroastrian system an exaggerated reverence for water. As to their Eucharist there is the same diversity of testimony and a similar accusation of filthy practices. They celebrated the communion, substituting water for wine, the use of which they abhorred. About the disgusting ceremonial of Ischas, which Cyril. Hier. ( Cat. vi.), Augustine ( Haer. xlvi.), and Pope Leo I. ( ser. v. De Jejun. x. Mens. ) accuse them of adding to their communion in a foul manner, see Beausobre, liv. ix. cc. 719 in t. ii. pp. 720–762.

Manicheism has been the prolific parent of false gospels. [See LEUCIUS (1); MANES.] But the work of forgery was due not so much to Manes as to his followers, and it is almost certain that Manicheism merely adopted many apocryphal writings.

(4) History after Death of Manes. —(i) In the East, where they originated, the Manicheans made rapid progress, spreading, as an-Nadîm (Flügel's Mani , p. 105, cf. p 394) tells us, into various lands. During their persecution upon the death of Manes, they fled into Transoxania, whence they maintained a constant communication with Babylon, their original seat, as the head of the sect always remained there till the Mohammedan invasion. They spread into S. Armenia and Cappadocia, where they found material ready to their hand in the HYPSISTARII of that region (Matter, Gnosticism , ii. 392), whence they came into immediate contact with Europe. A proof of their activity in Armenia is found in the work of Eznig, one of the leading writers of Armenia in the 5th cent., pub. by the Mekhitarite monks at Venice in 1826 under the title Refutatio Errorum Persarum et Manichaeorum . Their progress seems to have been intensified by the Mazdakite movement in the 5th cent., which was only a revival of Manicheism. It displayed the same missionary activity which manifested itself in an aggression upon the orthodox of Armenia, a.d. 590, noted by the Armenian historian Samuel of Ani. He gives us a list of Manichean works which they introduced into Armenia, including the Penitence or Apocalypse of Adam (pub. by Renan in the Jour. Asiat. 1853, t. ii. p. 431), the Explanation of the Gospel of Manes, the Gospel of the Infancy, the Vision of St. Paul, and the Testament of Adam.

(ii) In the West the first notice of an advance is found in an edict (given in Gieseler H. E. i. 228) of Diocletian directed to Julian proconsul of Africa dated prid. kal. Apr. 287 wherein Manichean leaders are condemned to the stake and their adherents punished with decapitation and confiscation of all their goods as following "a new and unheard-of monster which has come to us from the Persians a hostile people and has perpetrated many misdeeds." The genuineness of this edict has been challenged but is defended by Neander H. E. ii. 195 n. The chief ground for disputing it is the silence of the Fathers specially of Eusebius. But the argument e silentio is never a safe one and Ambrosiaster mentions it when commenting upon 2Ti_3:7. It is addressed to the proconsul of Africa where the Manicheans were making great progress. This coincides with the fact known independently that Manes sent a special envoy to Africa where during the 4th cent. Manicheism flourished both among the monks and clergy of Egypt and in proconsular Africa ensnaring souls like St. Augustine; and where they must have been very numerous and powerful since notwithstanding the severe and bloody laws enacted against them by Valentinian a.d. 372 and Theodosius a.d. 381 they assembled taught and debated in public in Augustine's time. Yet in some places these laws were not empty threats for the heathen rhetorician Libanius appealed in behalf of the Manicheans of Palestine (Ep. 1344) Probably as in the case of the pagan persecutions the vigour with which they were enforced varied with the dispositions of local magistrates. From Africa the sect spread into Spain Gaul and Aquitaine (Philast. Haer. c. 61 84) where it may have originated Priscillianism (Muratori Anecd. ex Ambros. Biblioth. Codic. ii. 113 ed. 1698). Later we find the Arian king Hunneric persecuting it in Africa together with the orthodox a.d. 477 (Vict. Vit. Hist. Persec. Wand. ii. init.). We of course find the sect at Constantinople and at Rome. Constantine the Great commissioned a certain Strategius—who under the name of Musonianus rose to be praetorian prefect of the East—to report upon it (Ammian. Marcell. xv. 13); while again 200 years later in the end of the 5th and beginning of the 6th cent. Manicheism in the Mazdakite movement made an imperial convert in Anastasius I. At Rome they were found from ancient times. Lipsius in Jahrb. Prot. Theol. 1879 art. on Neue Stud. zur Papst-Chronologie p. 438 discusses a constitution of pope Anastasius I. a.d. 398 enacted on account of their recent immigration from beyond the seas. After the barbarian invasion of Africa they fled to Rome in great numbers and pope Leo I. was active in their repression. Leo says that the Manicheans whom with the aid of the civil magistrates he arrested acknowledged their dissolute practices; whereupon Valentinian III. published a very severe law against them. Notwithstanding all the papal efforts renewed from age to age we still find the sect at Rome in 7th cent. under Gregory the Great (cf. Greg. Mag. lib. ii. Ep. 37; Gieseler H. E. t. ii. p. 491 Clark's ed.).

(5) Remains of the Sect and of its Literature. —In the Yezedees, or Devil-worshippers of Mosul, and the Ansairees of Syria, we have their direct representatives; while mingled with the doctrines of the Sabians or Hemerobaptistae, who still linger in the neighbourhood of Harran, we have a large Manichean element. See Badger's Nestorians , t. i. cc. ix. x.; Lyde's Asian Mystery , and Layard's Nineveh , c. ix., as confirming this view by several interesting facts, cf. also Notes sur les sectes de Kurdistan , par T. Gilbert, in Jour. Asiat . 1873, t. ii. p. 393. Cahier maintained, in Mel. archéol. i. 148, that the Bogomili and the Massalians, branches of the same sect, still existed (1888) in Russia. We still possess some specimens of their literature, and a critical examination of Mohammedan MSS. and a complete investigation of the interior state of Western and Central Asia would probably reveal them in still larger abundance (Beausob. Hist. Man. t. i. p. 366, and n. 4). Renan published in 1883, in the Jour. Asiat. a Syriac document called the Apocalypse of Adam, which he shewed to be one of those brought by the Manicheans into Armenia in 590 a.d. and condemned in the celebrated Gelasian decree. See Harnack, Dogmengesch. vol. ii. (4th ed. 1922), pp. 513–527. [See GELASIUS.]


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Manicheans'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. 1911.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse: