Like Gnosticism, Manichæism was a mixture of heathenism with Christianity. It differed from average Gnosticism by its smaller appropriation of Christian ideas, its more radical and undisguised naturalism, and its more thorough organization.

Accoring to the Oriental account, [The outcome of recent examinations of Oriental sources may be seen in Smith and Wace, Dictionary of Christian Biography.] which is regarded more trustworthy than the Greek, [Found in Acta Archelai, li.-liv.] Mani, called also Manes or Manichæus, the founder of the Manichæan sect, was a learned Persian. He is said to have been converted to Christianity, and even to have served as a presbyter. At this time there was a special effort to restore the pure Zoroastrian faith, and much discussion as to what articles were to be included in that faith, as well as an increase of hostility to Christianity. In the midst of the agitation, Mani conceived the idea of forming an eclectic system in which Christianity and Zoroastrianism should be combined. Some have supposed that Buddhism was included as a third factor. [So decisively Neander,. Kirchengeschichte vol. ii.; and Baur, Das Manichäische Religions-system.] Certain it is that the system of Mani embraced elements not to be found either in pure Christianity or in pure Zoroastrianism. It is credible, moreover, as tradition reports that Mani visited India. Still, in an age when all sorts of religious and speculative elements were so widely scattered, an age which had shortly before produced the variegated forms of Gnosticism, the direct borrowing from Buddhistic sources, though not improbable, is scarcely a necessary assumption.

Giving himself out as the promised Paraclete,--that is, a divinely enlightened teacher and reformer, [Augustine, Cont. Epist. Manich., vi.-viii.; Cont. Faustum, xiii. 4, xxxii. 18; Acta Archelai, xiii.] -- Mani began to spread his views not far from the middle of the third century. A brief interval of successful propagandism was cut short by persecution. Again, a favorable opportunity was found under the patronage of a friendly king, and converts were being won, when a change of rulers prepared for another change of fortune. Assailed by the ill-will of the king and the hatred of the Magi, Mani was brought to a tragic end. According to one account, he was sentenced to be flayed and hung before the gate of the City. [Acta Arch., Iv.]

The system of Mani starts from the assumption of an absolute dualism. Over against the world of light lies an unoriginated world of darkness, matter, fire which has no power of illumination. At the head of the former stands the good Deity with his angels, who are emanations from himself and channels of his light. In the realm of darkness work wild, ungoverned powers.

Mani is represented as saying: “In one direction on the border of this bright and holy region, there was a land of darkness, deep and vast in extent, where abode fiery bodies, destructive races. Here was boundless darkness, flowing from the same source in immeasurable abundance, with the productions properly belonging to it. Beyond this were muddy, turbid waters, with their inhabitants; and inside of them, winds terrible and violent, with their prince and progenitors, Then again a fiery region of destructions, with its chiefs and peoples; and similarly inside of this, a race full of smoke and gloom, where abode the dreadful prince and chief of all, having around him innumerable princes, himself the mind and source of them all. Such are the five natures of the region of corruption.” (AUGUSTINE, Cont. Epist. Manich., xv.)

At first the two realms are entirely distinct; but at length the powers of darkness, in their raging tumult and strife, approach so near the upper space that they behold a glimmer of its light. Irrepressibly attracted by the unwonted vision, they press toward the light with storm-like confusion and energy; so that the good Deity finds it expedient to send forth the Son of the Mother of Life, the Primal Man, for the defence of the realm. Beset by the powers of darkness, who rush upon him with insatiate desire, the Primal Man is in danger of overthrow, and escapes only through the good offices of the Living Spirit sent to his rescue. As it is, he leaves behind a portion of the essence of light which pertained to him. The Living Spirit, who performs a sort of demiurgical function, raises that part of the luminous essence which is unaffected by contact with matter to the sun and moon. But a portion is left behind imprisoned in matter, to which it is related as a soul. Thus the organism of nature is constituted.
[We have given here the most concrete representation of the manner in which the two realms became intermingled, as it appears in the anti-Manichæan writings of Augustine and in the Acts of the Disputation of Archelaus with Manes. Alexander of Lycopolis used less conorete terms in his description.] Throughout the world on all sides there is more or less of the imprisoned light, or soul. This may be viewed as the suffering Son of man, Jesus Patibilis. The crucifixion is in a sense a continuous event. “The earth,” says the Manichæan Faustus, “conceives and brings forth the mortal Jesus, who, as hanging from every tree, is the life and salvation of men.” [Augustine, Cont. Faustum, xx. 2.] “By your profane fancies,” says Augustine to his former co-religionists, “Christ is not only mingled with heaven and all the stars, but conjoined and compounded with the earth and all its productions.” [Ibid., ii. 5.]

Man, in the system of Mani, is a section of the mingled realm, his soul a portion of the world-soul, his body a portion of the evil matter. His origin was due to the powers of darkness. These minions of the evil kingdom, fearing lest the light which they had captured should be drawn off by the attractive power of the sun and the moon, incased it in a human body. Thus concentrated, the heavenly essence is made conscious of its higher origin, and the new-created man appears likely to escape the dominion of the evil powers. To prevent this, they tempt his fleshly appetites, so multiplying the race, and by partition of the essence weakening in the individual the consciousness of his higher nature.

Redemption is the release of the luminous essence from the bands of dark matter. The Redeemer is the Son of the Primal Man, the Christ, the sun spirit fantastically represented as dwelling in the sun by his power, and in the moon by his wisdom. [Augustine, Cont. Faustum, xx. 2.] Coming down to earth in bodily form, but with only the phantom of a body, he instructs men how to attain their true destiny. Ascetic living is the sum and substance of his commands. By this means the soul is fitted for restoration to its kindred light, and, indeed, may assist to freedom some of the light imprisoned in nature. The man of exemplary continence, who observes the threefold seal of the mouth, the hands, and the breast, [Signaculum oris, abstinence from animal food and strong drink; signaculum manuum, renunciation of property and secular pursuits; signaculum sinus, renunciation of marriage, and abstinence from sensual gratification.] when he partakes of the fruits of the earth sets free a portion of the captive light. Death, as the Manichæans conceived, is the liberator of the spiritual part of the believer, which passes on board the great light-ships in the heavens, the waxing of the moon being visible evidence of the cargo received. [Acta Archelai, viii.; Alexander of Lycopolis, iv. The former gives the curious representation that the son who was sent for the salvation of souls “constructed an instrument with twelve urns (signs of the zodiac), which is made to revolve by the sphere, and draws up with it the souls of the dying. And the greater luminary receives these souls, and purifies them with its rays, and then passes them on to the moon; and in this manner the moon's disk is filled up.”]

For the government of the sect, a standing college of twelve apostles, at the head of which was a president who was to be regarded as the representative of the founder, was instituted. Under this body stood seventy-two bishops, and under these, presbyters, deacons, and evangelists. The whole sect was divided into two classes,--the elect and the hearers. The elect held the rank of a priestly caste. They were bound to a strict asceticism, avoided marriage, renounced all private property, abstained from animal food, and took no part in preparing vegetable food lest they should be guilty of wounding that life which is held in the bonds of matter. The labors of the hearers, who were under obligation to render them great reverence, served for their support. The hearers led a less ascetic life, and were not inducted into the inner mysteries of the faith.

The Manichæan sect spread from Persia into Western Asia, North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Though persecuted by Diocletian, and afterwards by Christian emperors, it found some adherents as late as the sixth century, and certain of its ideas came forth under new names at a still later date. Among Christian writers, Augustine produced the most distinguished refutation, being all the better prepared for his task by his nine years' experience as a Manichæan. [The Acts of Archelaus, and the treatise of Alexander of Lycopolis, are also of the nature of refutations of Manichæism. The subject is treated at considerable length by Epiphanius, Hær., lxvi., and by Titus of Bostra, Libri Tres Adv. Manichæos.]

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