30 June 2011

Zenobia and the Manichean Convert

Rock Crystal Sasanian Seal: Mani and two of the Elect (priests).
The inscription reads, "Mani, the Apostle of Jesus Christ".

Mani, Apostle of Light

A new religion was founded in Mesopotamia in the third-century by the Persian prophet, Mani (216-277 CE).  Mani deliberately created a universal church that incorporated Christian, Zoroastrian, and Buddhist concepts.    Previously considered by scholars to be a Christian heresy, Manicheism (as named after the 'apostle') is now properly understood as an independent religion in its own right. 
Glory and honour to the Paraclete!*  Victory and blessing to our lord [Mani], the Spirit of truth, this one from the Father.

Mani saw himself not only as the successor of previous prophets (Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Jesus Christ), but also as the incarnation of the saviour -- that is, both as Jesus the saviour and as Buddha Maitreya, the saviour.
Wisdom and deeds have always from time to time been brought to mankind by the messengers of god.  So in one age they were brought by the messenger called Buddha to India, in another by [Zoroaster] to Persia, in another by Jesus to the West.  Thereupon this revelation has come down, this prophecy in this last age, through me, Mani, the messenger of the God of truth. (Shabuhragân).
Also in the Shabuhragân (a summary of his teachings written for his great patron, the Sasanian King of Kings, Shapur I), Mani declares that he is the very Paraclete* announced by the Messiah and that he is the seal of the prophets.  This means that no further revelations and prophets were necessary, since Mani considered he had taken all precautions to ensure that his religion would not be corrupted and so would endure until the end of the world.

In Mani’s view, the greatest problem with other religions was that the messages of true prophets had become corrupted by later generations because the earlier apostles did not write down their own teachings as he himself did (his seven canonical works included the Treasure of Life, Living Gospel, Book of Giants, Book of Mysteries, Letters, Psalms and Prayers [all in Syriac Aramaic], and the Shabuhragân [in Persian]).  Jesus, he said, came to the West, and after his death his disciples wrote down his words. Zoroaster came to  Persia, but he did not write books, though his disciples remembered and wrote down his words after his death. And, when the Buddha came, he preached much wisdom and established churches, but he did not write anything, and, again, it was his disciples who wrote down his words after his death. 

That was one way in which Manicheism was thought to be superior to all the others. Just as important, Mani’s religion did not dismiss other religions as false religions; instead he accepted earlier religions and their prophets as carriers of parts of the truth. So, he incorporated elements of those faiths into his own great scheme of the world and mankind.

According to Mani, his new religion would not simply replace the previous religions, but rather represented the fulfilment of what the previous religions had promised but not been able to live up to. It was the same truth that had been revealed to the earlier prophets and was embedded in their religions, but, for various reasons, this truth had degenerated.  Earlier religions simply did not have the inherent power to withstand the attacks of evil -- and so they degenerated, and the truth they contained was spoilt.
The writings and the wisdom and the apocalypses and the parables and the psalms of all earlier churches were gathered everywhere and came to Mani’s church and were added to the wisdom which he revealed.... “As water will be added to water and becomes much water, so were the ancient books added to my writings and became a great wisdom the like of which was not proclaimed (hitherto) in all ancient generations.” (Kephalaia,** chap. 154)
This is also what Mani believed distinguished his church from all others.  But perhaps what made Manicheism really special (and Mani himself put this at the top of his list) was the fact that "The previous religions were only in one land and in one language, but Mani’s was taught in all lands and in all languages."

During Mani's lifetime, the religion had already moved east towards India and west into the Roman empire.  The gruesome death of the founder (recounted in Sassanian Stuff III) did not prevent the new religion from growing and spreading.  By the time the Sasanian Empire was overthrown by the armies of Islam in the mid-7th century, Manicheism had spread into Egypt and North Africa in the west, and to the borders of China and beyond in the east.  Thus, Manicheism reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans before it was eventually destroyed by the Catholic church in Europe and wiped out in the east by new conquerors.  So, at times, Manicheism was a veritable world religion -- as had been intended from the beginning.

So, one of the first things Mani did was to concern himself with missions. Not only did he send out missionaries, both east and west, as soon as possible, but he himself travelled extensively. From various sources we know that he visited many countries to the east of the Sasanian empire.  The most reliable report is from Ibn al-Nadim’s Fihrist, which tells us that Mani travelled from country to country for 40 years before he met with Shapur I, King of Kings, who granted him the right to teach his religion in the Persian empire.  Then, Mani settled near Ctesiphon, on the western bank of the Tigris and it was there, during 262-63, that he set down the tenets of his faith and organized the missions.  Throughout Shapur’s reign, for over thirty years, Mani and his followers were free to propagate their ideas.  And so it happened that, by 270, Mani’s religion had firm footholds throughout the vast Sasanian empire.

But that was not enough.  "All lands" meant the world outside Persian territory as well.  So Mani sent one of his closest collaborators, Mar Adda, who held the ecclesiastical rank of 'teacher', to carry the new religion to the west, i.e., to the Roman empire.  Several stories about Mar Adda's missionary activities are found in Manichean texts: for example, when Mar Adda was at Kirkuk (in the north-east of modern Iraq), Mani sent him three scribes who brought him the new gospel and instructed him to strive to spread the good word "like a merchant hoards up a treasure."  As the Prologue to the Kephalaia** reveals, Mani exhorted his disciples to record what he taught them, as "everything is explained fully and completely".

The Books of the Mysteries of the Truth

In 1929, a library of seven genuine Manichean Coptic texts were discovered in the ruins of an old house in Medinet Madi, to the south-west of the Fayyum, in central Egypt. The cache was said to have been hidden in a wooden chest found in the cellar by workmen digging for fertilizer.  They sold the papyri, all bound with wooden boards, to an antique dealer for a trifle. And so the books reached the Cairo market.  A German scholar, Carl Schmidt, who was on his way to Palestine to collect manuscripts, was shown a papyrus entitled the Kephalaia of the Teacher.  By sheer coincidence, he had been working on a 4th-century text (Bishop Epiphanius' Panarion) that furiously denounced 80 different 'heresies', which just happened to cite the Kephalaia as a book of detestable Manichean lies. And then, when Schmidt read the characteristic phrase, Once more the Enlightener speaks to his disciples, he knew for certain that the text had originated from the innermost circle of the Manichean sect. As he read on, it became clear that the 2,000 leaves (= 4,000 pages) were a treasure-trove of original Manichean documents:
Glory and honour to our Father, the God of Truth.  Victory and
blessing to his beloved son, Jesus, and his Holy
Spirit, our Lord, the Paraclete, and all his holy Elect.
While the Coptic papyri were probably written down ca. 400 CE, they were undoubtedly translated from Syriac originals that reach back to Mani himself or to the first generations of the church. 

Mar Adda at Palmyra

Included in the Medinet Madi papryi is a fragment of Mani's Homilies, which mentions the Semitic name of Palmyra:(Thadamor).  While this suggests a lost history of Manichean settlements in Palmyra, the reference passed without comment until, almost sixty years later, spectacular new finds allowed scholars to put two and two together: Manichean documents from the Turfan oasis in Xinjiang (northwestern China) included an account of the missionary exploits of Mar Adda, one of the earliest Manichean missionaries sent by Mani to the west.  His first stop in the Roman Empire seems to have been at Palmyra, where, as healer and teacher, he came into contact with Queen Zenobia.

But Mar Adda and Zenobia will have to wait a bit. What was supposed to be a short introduction to the Turfan texts has turned into a post of its own.  My apologies.  I promise that Zenobia and the Manichean Convert II (the whole kit and kaboodle!) will follow very quickly.  

Part II: click here.

* Mani as the Paraclete (comforter) and Holy Spirit incarnate. Cf: ...the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. (John 14.26)

** Kephalaia, Greek for 'headings, central principles'.  Sacred Manichean text in which Mani discusses the basic tenets of the religion with his students: The whole revelation I have unveiled/and declared to the church. In your presence/I declare this revelation alone.

I am most grateful to Chris Bennett (whose website is a treasure trove, too, on the chronology of the Ptolemaic Dynasty) who brought the documents from Turfan -- and their implications for Zenobia's history -- to my attention.

Main sources for this post: I.M.F. Gardner & F.N.C. Lieu, From Narmouthis to Kellis: Manichean Documents from Roman Egypt, JRS 86 (1996) 146-69;  Prods Oktor Skjærvø, An Introduction to Manicheism, 2006; W. Barnstone & M. Meyer, The Gnostic Bible, Ch. 40: 'The Kephalaia', 598-615.


Upper left: Manichean rock crystal seal engraved with 3 profile busts; inscribed “Mani, the Apostle of Jesus Christ”. Bibliothèque nationale de France, INT 1384BIS. Via Encyclopaedia Iranica

Middle left: Manichaean Middle Persian manuscript (ink on paper). © Depositum der BERLIN-BRANDENBURGISCHEN AKADEMIE DER WISSENSCHAFTEN in der STAATSBIBLIOTHEK ZU BERLIN - Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Orientabteilung.  Via IDP (International Dunhuang Project)

Lower left: pictorial insert in Manichean scroll in the Sogdian language from Turfan oasis in Xinjiang (northwestern China), preserved in the collection of the Turfan Antiquarian Bureau (81 TB 65:01); created between 7th and 9th century CE.  Via  Encyclopaedia Iranica



  1. Great stuff. I have heard the term Manicheaism without understanding what it was so many times.

  2. Thanks for a great article on Mani.

  3. Raul Cruz-Mireles3/7/11 06:17

    Very nice information, as always, tank you very much. Great work.

  4. Chris Bennett5/7/11 07:45

    Great start, I'm eager to read the next chapter O Scheherezade!

  5. Quite a revelation, to me a least. Thanks for unvailing so many corners of history which are generally ignored as being not important enough but which definitely play a role in the entire context of our past. Clear and to the point as ever.

  6. Did Mani or his immediate followers ever make reference specifically to either "Jesus" or "Christ"? Sure, many scholars claim they do, but are these claims correct? From what I have been able to see, they use nomina sacra for the personal name and Chrestos for the title.
    As I have learned - from Christian scholarship - to distrust transliterations and translations, I would particularly appreciate seeing for myself.

  7. John, I don't see you have much choice but to trust transliterations and translations if you are not familiar with the languages in question; in this case Syriac, Coptic, and Persian. You might want to read 'Jesus in the Manichaean World' by Prof. Majella Franzmann -- which does review all the evidence for the Paraclete.


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