Early Christian History

Heresies: Manichaeanism

Also known as Manicheism or Manicheanism, this is the pseudo-Christian religion which was established in the mid-third century by a Babylonian named Mani. While not precisely a Christian heresy, as it diverged from other forms of Christianity in several ways, it did represent competition for the hearts of Christians, and was repressed by them, wherever possible.

Mani of Babylon

Mani was born in Babylon, the son of expatriate Jewish-Christian parents. The sect to which they belonged was known as Elkasaite. Elkasaites were vegetarians and baptists, and many lived an ascetic lifestyle. Overall they were not unlike the sect to which John the Baptist had belonged.

At a young age, Mani believed himself to have had visions, presumably from the Paraclete promised to believers by Jesus Christ. He took to wandering, traveling far and wide, and learning much. Along the way he determined a great number of things and built a following.

Persian Politics

At that time, the older Persian dynasty had failed, and the Parthian had assumed control of the land. While Mani wandered in Persia, he converted a brother of the new Shah, and gained the favor of the royal house. At the same time, the Shah also encouraged the rebuilding of the older Zoroastrian faith, providing support to the Zoroastrian magi.

While Mani taught many things which were Zoroastrian in origin — particularly the duality of the world, marked by light and darkness, good and evil, spirit and matter, etc. — the older priesthood saw the Manicheans as upstarts.

When a new Shah came to power late in the third century, the magi prevailed on him to do something about the wandering sage Mani. He was imprisoned, and later died.

Manicheanism Lives On

The new faith did not die out, at that point. Mani's disciples were far-flung, for he had traveled extensively, and many were out of the reach of the vengeful magi and their benefactor the Shah. Also, Mani had left behind writings of his own, which were copied and spread about, especially in Syria, Egypt, and Libya.

Manicheanism had a steady stream of support for the next few centuries. As the Shahs came and went, its fortunes at home in Persia rose and fell. But even at the height of persecution, it did not die out there.

Just how the figure of Jesus Christ fit into Manicheanism, isn't clear. Mani didn't have much to say about him, naming him simply as a prophet. Even so, Manicheans adopted a number of Jesus' sayings. Later Manicheans seem to distance themselves from Christianity — which would appear to agree with what Mani wrote. Christians, however, considered Manicheanism to be an errant version of their own faith. Some Christians of the time compared it with the various Gnostic movements, with which it does share some points in common.

It's for this reason that I stated that Manicheanism wasn't a Christian heresy, per se. What makes it important for Christian history, is that Christians of the time thought of it as heresy. Also, Manicheanism came under occasional repression; for instance, the infamous persecutions of Diocletian began by targeting Manicheans. Only later did Christians become targets.

Augustine, the Most Famous Manichean

Perhaps the most famous Manichean adherent was none other than the Church Father, St. Augustine. As a young man, he was a Manichean for nine years. This distressed his Christian mother, however, it satisfied his intellect (for at the time, he considered Christianity to be a simple-minded religion). Also, it did not prevent him from "living in sin" with a lover, with whom he had a child.

Augustine, who made a living as a teacher of rhetoric, happened to study Platonism in northern Italy. There, he met St. Ambrose, who eventually converted him to Christianity.

Quite thoughtfully, Augustine provided an account of his time as a Manichean, in his autobiography Confessons. It is from him that we know as much as we do, about the Manichean movement in the centuries after Mani.

The Way Of All Heresy

Manicheanism in Egypt, Libya and Syria went the way of all heresies — that is, it was stamped out, by the end of the sixth century. It lingered a bit longer in Mesopotamia and Persia, where it was wiped out when Islam rolled in.

Go back to Early Christian History menu.