An Introduction to Manichaeism

A painting of Mani's birth
A painting of Mani's birth.

Manichaeism is an extreme form of dualistic gnosticism. It is gnostic because it promises salvation through the attainment of special knowledge of spiritual truths. It is dualistic because it argues that the foundation of the universe is the opposition of two principles, good and evil, each equal in relative power. Manichaeism is named after a religious figure named Mani.

Who Was Mani?

Mani was born in southern Babylon around the year 215 or 216 CE and received his first revelation at the age of 12. Around the age of 20, he seems to have completed his system of thought and began missionary work around the year 240. Although he found some support early on from Persian rulers, he and his followers were eventually persecuted and he appears to have died in prison in 276. His beliefs had, however, spread as far as Egypt and attracted a great many scholars, including Augustine.​

Manichaeism and Christianity

It can be argued that Manichaeism was its own religion, not a Christian heresy. Mani didn’t start out as a Christian and then start adopting new beliefs. On the other hand, Manichaeism appears to have played an important role in the development of many Christian heresies — for example, the Bogomils, Paulicians, and Cathars. Manichaeism also influenced the development of orthodox Christians — for example, Augustine of Hippo started out as a Manichaean.

Manichaeism and Modern Fundamentalism

Today it is not uncommon for extreme dualism in fundamentalist Christianity to be labeled as a form of modern Manichaeism. Modern fundamentalists obviously haven’t adopted the Manichaean cosmology or church structure, so it’s not as though they are followers of this faith. Manichaeism has become more of an epithet than a technical designation.

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