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Manichaeism (or Manichaeanism) was a religious movement founded in the third century CE, of which Augustine of Hippo was a member in his youth. Although it gained some popularity in the Roman Empire, its centre of influence was north-east Persia (modern-day Iran), and flourished between the third and fifth centuries CE, when it was a serious rival of Christianity. It had died out by the end of the sixteenth century, although there have been modern attempts to revive it as Neo-Manichaeism.

Origin and beliefs

Manichaeism was named after its founder, Mani or Manichaeus (c.217–277), known as the Apostle of Light, a Persian religious teacher who took the Zoroastrianism in which he had been brought up and combined it with Christian (especially Gnostic) and Buddhist beliefs. Its central doctrines were dualistic in a fairly straightforwardly Zoroastrian way, positing human life (and the world in general) as a battle between the forces of good and evil, light and darkness, truth and error (the two seen as being completely separate in nature and origin), but Mani added the more Christian notion that matter is evil, and also advocated celibacy and an ascetic life in general. Manichaeism accepted the notions of life after death in either heaven or hell and of individual judgement, together with the Zoroastrian account of creation, Bundahishn.

Manichaeans took the side of light in the great battle, their aim being to escape from the evil of the material through strict asceticism. The fact that the world is a mixture of good and evil, of truth and error, is the result of a breaking of the boundary between the two; the universe was created in order to allow the re-separation of good and evil. The Manichaean's task was to help in that task, so that ultimately evil would again be separate and harmless. He or she does this by gaining knowledge of the true nature of the world and behaving accordingly, so that the good isn't further contaminated by, and is even helped to release from, evil.

The Manichaeans were condemned as heretics by the Zoroastrian magi, as well as by the Christian church (who saw the religion as a version of Gnosticism). The European Middle Ages saw the rise of a number of Christian heresies which reflected some of the teaching of the Manichaeans, including the Paulicians (seventh-century Armenia), the Bogomilists (tenth-century Bulgaria), and the Cathars or Albigensians (twelfth-century France). Although the actual influence (direct or indirect) of Manichaeism on these groups is hard to trace, they are sometimes known as Manichaean heresies, or as neo-Manichaean sects.


After Mani's execution in Persia in about 277, he was succeeded by the Twin, who lived in Babylon. The religion had a very hierarchical structure; below the Twin were five grades: twelve teachers, seventy-two bishops, 360 elders, the Elect, and the Hearers. The Hearers were the only grade permitted to marry; the Elect included women.


At least seven works formed part of the Manichaean body of scriptures, all of which have been at some time attributed to Mani himself. Little of this writing has survived to the present day, and no work has survived intact. The twentieth century saw the rediscovery of some parts of the texts, primarily in East Turkestan and Egypt. The titles of the seven works are:

  • Shapurakan ("Princely"), written in Syrian in about 232, and dedicated to Peroz, the brother of Sapor I. An eschatological work in three parts divided between the Hearers, the Elect, and Sinners.
  • The Book of Mysteries, polemical and dogmatic.
  • The Book of the Giants (lost, contents unknown).
  • The Book of Precepts for Hearers, with an appendix for the Elect.
  • The Book of Life-giving, written in Greek.
  • The Book of Pragmateia (lost; contents unknown).
  • The Gospel, written in Persian.

In addition to the major works, we know of seventy-six letters or brief treatises, by Mani and his successors. Large parts of the "Epistola Fundamenti" are known through Augustine's refutation of it, in which quotes extensively from the text, as well as in the wotk of Theodore bar Khoni and Titus of Bostra, and in the Acta Archelai.

Apart from Mani, the names of the following Manichaean writers have survived: Agapius of Asia Minor, Aphthonius of Egypt, Photinus, and Adimantus.

Influences on Christianity

Also see

  • Manichean paranoia, a concept used by some political thinkers to describe the political-religious worldview of some political actors who view the world in stark terms of black or white, enemy or friend.