Mani the Prophet

Mani the Prophet January 26, 2015

There is an excellent new contribution to the literature on the Manichaean religion: Iain Gardner, Jason BeDuhn and Paul Dilley, Mani at the Court of the Persian Kings: Studies on the Chester Beatty Kephalaia Codex (Brill 2015). Yesterday, I described the rediscovered ancient texts on which this book is based.

Although this is a rich and wide-ranging collection, several points strike me. One is the sheer geographical range of the events described, the world in which Mani and his immediate followers moved. As I have described, Mani came out of a movement with Jewish-Christian roots, which looked back to Palestinian events and trends. Yet we hear of him for instance at the Persian court, with remarkably good access to the great king Shapur I (240-270). Beyond that, he was active distant eastern corners of the Persian Sassanid empire, at Turan in modern Baluchistan. And of course, the actual manuscript we are dealing with was found in Egypt.

Anyone approaching the “new” Manichaean material for the first time must be struck by this global quality, which makes nonsense of any assumptions we may have about dividing the ancient world into neat compartments. Over here, we might think, we have the Mediterranean role of Greece and Rome, while over in this far corner lies China, and there is India: and how sad that those great civilizations never interacted! But of course they did.

Mani grew up in a Mesopotamia long exposed to Zoroastrian influence from the east, but which was also at the time becoming the world’s intellectual center of Judaism. Christianity was very strong, with powerful Jewish-Christian currents. He saw himself as the culmination of several earlier faiths. He was the heir of Jesus and Zoroaster, but also of the Buddha, and his disciples engaged as much with Buddhists as with Christians. Through the early Middle Ages, across Central Asia, Manichaean missionaries competed fiercely with Christians of the Church of the East, and with Buddhists (and, later, Muslims).

So what kind of literature was the Kephalaia, into what genre did it fall? As Paul Dilley shows, the dialogues with their question-and-answer formats could equally well be read in very different ways – “as a modified example of Greco-Roman erotapokrisis, Iranian frashna or Buddhist sutra.” For our purposes, the technical terms don’t matter, but think of the implications – that this movement was writing in ways intelligible to civilized people from the Ganges to the Tiber. Hardly less open to universal translation was the movement’s use of Wisdom, a concept deeply rooted in Judaism and early Christianity. In the same vein, Jason BeDuhn offers a mind-stretching comparison between the Kephalaia materials found in Egypt and the comparable texts from Turfan, in Western China.

Following on from this point about geography is the overwhelming power of Buddhist ideas and movement’s on Mani’s self-concept. While presenting himself as the heir to Jesus, he and his followers portrayed him as a new Buddha, indeed the messianic figure of Maitreya (pp.72-74).

Another of Dilley’s points that I found helpful. Although the Manichaean enterprise was transcontinental, its spiritual homeland (so to speak) was in the borderlands between the Roman and Persian empires, the Syro-Mesopotamian lands that today comprise the modern countries of Syria and Iraq (insofar as those two nations still exist in unified form as of 2015). At the outer limits of this border country were the two great cities of Antioch and Seleucia-Ctesiphon, where so much of the action occurs both in Late Roman and Sassanid history (p.49). Studied in isolation, the one city without the other, we lose so much of the story – political, cultural and spiritual. It is the interplay between the two centers that is critical.

Here’s a suggestion. If anyone ever wrote a dual biography of these two cities between, say, 100 and 600 AD, they would have a wonderful book on their hands. Readers would certainly gain a far greater understanding not just of Manichaeanism but also of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Islam.

I am still wrestling with the book’s important final chapter, in which Jason BeDuhn discusses “Mani and the Crystallization of the Concept of ‘Religion’ in Third Century Iran” (247-75). Beyond doubt, our modern definition of “a religion” would have been very difficult to explain to (for instance) early Romans or Greeks, but that situation changed in Late Antiquity. BeDuhn shows that in Mani’s time, not only had the concept come into existence, but that this dramatic change was shaped by the growing interaction of global faiths – with Buddhism, arguably, as “the first religion” in anything like the modern sense. Mani was self-consciously striving to go beyond even those categories to create a world religion that absorbed and superseded all its competitors.

If he does not actually say that Mani Invented Religion (!) then BeDuhn is exploring potent ideas.

As I hope I have made clear, this is a very rewarding book.


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