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A Church to Surpass All ChurchesManichaeism as a Test Case for the Theory of Reception

  • Timothy Pettipiece

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  • Timothy Pettipiece
    Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses
    Université Laval, Québec

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While Hans Robert Jauss’ theory of “reception” is useful as a tool of literary analysis, it is uncertain whether or not it holds any promise for the examination of ancient religious phenomena. Generally speaking, Jauss examined how works of literature are evaluated by a reader in relation to what has previously been read.[1] This can be compared to what some sociologists of religion have claimed about the individual’s relation to or “reception” of new or previously unknown religious culture. Rodney Stark, for instance, has suggested that individuals are more likely to accept a new religion if it retains a degree of cultural continuity with the religion or religions with which they are already familiar.[2] Late antiquity, then, with its often bewildering array of innovative, syncretic, and traditionalist religious movements, is a period ideally suited for an attempted application of this particular method of analysis. This is to ask whether or not new religious movements in antiquity were better received if they maintained a degree of cultural continuity with existing religions. Among the best possible candidates from the late antique period is Manichaeism, a movement that, based on the available evidence, seems to have achieved a certain degree of missionary success within a variety of cultural contexts, all within a relatively short period of time.

Born along the Fertile Crescent in 3rd century c.e. Mesopotamia, Mani (or Manichaeus) lived at the cross-roads of three great religious cultures of antiquity —Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism. It was in this context that the “Prophet of Light” (as he came to be called) would found a new religion intended to supersede all previous revelations. It was a religion that proclaimed the existence of two eternally opposed principles, Light and Darkness, whose hostile relationship resulted in the creation of the world and the imprisonment of light particles within the dark elements of matter. This religion also proclaimed Mani as the final messenger of God, the Paraclete, or “Comfortor,” whom Jesus promised his Father would send to humanity. After his death in 277, Mani’s religion would spread westward into the Roman controlled areas of Egypt, North Africa, Italy, and Spain, as well as eastward along the Silk Road deep into Central Asia and eventually China.[3] As the Manichaean message spread into new cultural areas, its carriers were quick to translate it into local languages and dialects, frequently absorbing many local cultural and religious characteristics in the process.

When viewed in terms of the concept of reception, the success of Manichaeism in Late Antiquity, however, raises a number of questions. First of all, did the incorporation of elements from previous religions by the “Religion of Light” make it adaptable and capable of being received by a diversity of regions and cultures ? What elements were adapted by Mani from previous traditions in order to create this sense of continuity ? And what impact did these elements have on the promotion and reception of the Manichaean movement ? Such questions are some of the most controversial in the history of Manichaean Studies. In order to test the utility of the theory of reception for the study of Manichaeism, this paper will examine, in particular, whether or not the fundamental, prophetic continuity established by Mani between his revelation and all previous[4] revelations helped or hindered the reception of Manichaeism in a variety of cultural and linguistic environments.

I. Mani’s Perception of Previous Religious Traditions

Mani’s relationship with other religious traditions was complex. While his early life as a member of the Jewish-Christian baptismal sect, known as the Elchasaites rooted him in Syro-Mesopotamian Christianity, the cultural and political environment into which he was born acquainted him not only with Zoroastrianism, the national religion of Persia, but also with the ideas of Buddhists. While what exactly Mani knew about these religious traditions is a notoriously thorny issue, one thing of which we are relatively certain is the degree to which he was convinced of the superiority of his own religious message in comparison with those to which he was exposed.

One of the most significant and fundamental aspects of Mani’s religious world-view was the way in which he presented himself as the restorer of the revelations delivered by previous messengers such as Zarathustra (i.e., Zoroaster), Buddha, and Jesus.[5] While on the one hand, Mani expressed what Ort has characterised as “a strong sense of continuity” with previous religious traditions,[6] it is nevertheless a continuity that was coloured by a strong sense of superiority. In a surviving fragment from his Shabuhragan, a text composed by Mani in Middle-Persian for the Sassanid King Shapur I, the Prophet of Light proclaims : “Wisdom and deeds have always from time to time been brought to humankind by the messengers of God. So in one age they have been brought by the messenger called Buddha to India, in another by Zarādusht [i.e. Zarathustra] to Persia, in another by Jesus to the West. Thereupon this revelation has come down, this prophecy in this last age, through me, Mani, messenger of the God of truth to Babylonia”.[7] These earlier revelations, he suggested, had been corrupted by the fact that their founders did not record their teachings in writing, but rather left them to be imperfectly preserved by their early followers.[8] As a result, Mani decided to compose his own set of scriptures that would leave no room for distortion and misrepresentation of what he believed to be the pure revelation of God of Truth to humanity.[9]

One of the most important statements outlining Mani’s ambitious religious program can be found recorded in the recently edited Kephalaion 151, “On the Ten Advantages of the Manichaean Religion” :

[First :] He, who chose his church in the West, his church has not reached the East, and he, who has his church in the East, his choice has not reached the West […]. But my hope is distinct, since it goes to the West and to the East. People hear the voice of her proclamation in all languages and they will proclaim her in all cities. My church surpasses in this first point the earlier churches. For the earlier churches were chosen in particular places and in particular cities, (while) my church is distinct, since she passes through [all] cities and her good message reaches every land. [Second :] My church is superior concerning the wisdom and the [mysteries] that I have revealed to you in her. This [immeasurable] wisdom I have written into the holy books[10] — in the great [Gospel] and the other writings — so that it will not change after me. Just as I have written it in books, I have also commanded that it be depicted. For all [apostles], my brothers, who came before me, have [not] written their wisdom in books, as I have written it, and they [have also not] depicted their wisdom in the Image, as [I] have depicted it. My church surpasses [also in this point] the earlier churches.[11]

Here Mani evokes the perceived historical disconnection of previous revelations and the need to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers in order to deliver his message. It is a striking sense of universality. His message will not be confined to a single land, a single city, or a single language, but will be brought to all lands, all cities, and proclaimed in every language. This startlingly ecumencial vision, however, would have major implications for the formulation and reception of the Manichaean missionary project.

II. Mani’s Reception of Previous Religious Traditions

In spite of Mani’s strong sense of prophetic superiority, he does seem to have received a number of key elements of his teaching from previous religions. This situation raises a series of question that have long preoccupied scholars of Manichaeism : 1) What elements did he borrow or retain from other religions ? 2) Are they essential or superficial ?, and 3) How deliberate was the process of adaptation ?

As was stated above, Mani lived and preached in what was a cultural and intellectual cross-roads for Christians, Jews, Gnostics, Buddhists, and Brahmins.[12] A region which, according to Puech, constituted “le lieu de rencontre d’une prodigieuse variété de spéculations et de fois.”[13] In response to such religious variety, Mani is reported to have undertaken a series of missionary voyages to India, Mesopotamia, and eastern provinces of the Roman Empire in order to learn the doctrines of various peoples.[14] Surviving Manichaean literature records a number of incidents in which Mani encountered individuals from other religions and sects. For instance, in Kephalaion 89, Mani is questioned by a “Nazorean” who demands to know if the God to whom he prays is good or evil. This line of questioning, it seems, is apparently a trap intended to elicit a Marcionite response from Mani, since he responds that his god is a judge.[15] Mani explains, however, that even though God is a judge, the punishment inflicted on the wicked is a result of their own evil deeds and not of God’s. In this case, the discussion occurs within explicitly Christian parameters. Mani even quotes Matthew 6:21 in support of his argument. In another incident, recorded in kephalaion 121, Mani encounters a representative from the obscure “Sect of the Basket (forme: forme pleine grandeur)” whom he somewhat obliquely chastises for calling himself a “son of the basket” even though he has not yet been plucked from the cosmic “tree.”[16] An additional encounter can be found in kephalaion 341 from the unedited second volume of Kephalaia. In this incident, someone known as Pabakos, the “faithful Catechumen” asks Mani about issues of forgiveness and punishment by contrasting passages from the “Law of Zarathustra” in comparison with one of Jesus’ teachings he heard from Mani’s disciples.[17] Episodes such as these suggest that Mani was less interested in discussion as in correction. Mani’s sense of the falsity of other religions is confirmed by a fragmentary passage from the (as yet unedited) Synaxeis codex, which likely contains liturgical readings from Mani’s own Living Gospel. In this passage, tentatively translated by W.-P. Funk and published by Karen King, Mani alludes to the many false religions in “the country of the sunrise,” i.e., the East, where he seems to have observed the practices “of the Brahmans.”[18]

What, then, was the result of such theological discussions ? In light of the extremely rich religious milieu in which they occurred and in which Mani developed his ideas, it should not be surprising, especially if Mani considered himself to be the culmination of previous revelations, that the religious movement he founded appears to have inherited key elements from each of these religious traditions. Many scholars, however, have puzzled over which elements were essential and which were superficial. The thesis, particularly of Reitzenstein and later championed by G. Widengren,[19] that Manichaeism was ultimately an Iranian religious phenomenon and, therefore, that Iranian elements constituted the core, was initially supported by the discovery at the turn of the twentieth century of primary texts from Turfan, written in a variety of Iranian dialects.[20] On the surface, these texts, with their use of Iranian religious vocabulary, create a strong impression that Mani’s movement was formulated in a distinctly Iranian milieu. Some deeper structures, however, do indeed appear to be of Iranian origin. For instance, the generally dualistic structure of Manichaean cosmology, i.e., the cosmic tension between the principles of Light and Darkness, is usually seen as being in continuity with prior Zoroastrian tradition.[21] Yet when it comes to other apparently “Iranian” elements, the lines of influence could very well have been reversed.[22] For example, as Skjaervo has pointed out, Mani was free to propagate his religious message for approximately thirty-five years, during which time Zoroastrianism was experiencing a period of redefinition and consolidation.[23] It is, therefore, not impossible that the vivid myths of Manichaeism (which were proclaimed openly, especially under the supportive regime of Shapur I) might have had an impact on Zoroastrian discourse. In particular, W. Sundermann has shown that the demon Az was borrowed by Zoroastrianism from Manichaeism.[24] In turn, the Manichaean figure of Az was probably influenced by the Buddhist concept of Desire, as one of the passions. Thus, this example appears to be a case of a Buddhist element being integrated into Zoroastrianism via Manichaeism.[25] Other elements, such as the division between monk and lay person (if not the concept of monasticism itself), have been viewed as borrowings from Buddhism.[26]

While the Iranian thesis held sway during much of the early twentieth century as an explanation of Manichaean origins, the discovery and publication of the famous Cologne Mani Codex caused a reorientation of the discipline. Even though F.C. Burkitt had suggested early on that “the living kernal of the Manichaean system” was ultimately derived from the Christian sensibilities of Marcion and Bardaisan,[27] the Cologne Mani Codex (“On the Origin of His Body”) depicts Mani as receiving his primary formation in the Judaeo-Christian sect known as the “Elchasaites.”[28] Add to this Mani’s self-designation as an “Apostle of Jesus Christ” in his surviving letters, as well as the many quotations from the New Testament in Coptic Manichaean literature, and the earliest stages of Manichaeism take on a particularly Christian hue.[29]

Diverse elements such as dualism and the designation “Apostle of Jesus Christ” are present in the earliest sources and, thus, can reasonably be traced back to Mani himself. What, however, was at work behind the combination of these elements ? Was it a deliberate synthesis formulated by a cunning missionary, or was it the unconscious product of a particularly creative religious visionary ? K. Rudolph, for instance, has described this process as “conscious syncretism” and stated that the goal of Mani’s religion was “to be able to be amalgamated with other religions.”[30] This implies that Mani deliberately chose key elements from the religions which he knew and simply combined them into a new albeit highly adaptable frame. Skjaervo, however, has stressed that something less tangible was happening. Rather than merely combining disparate elements “into a composite structure,” Mani “melted (them) into an alloy in which the constituent elements are no longer separately identifiable.”[31] This suggests that the process was somewhat more organic and that the quest to distil Manichaeism into its constituent parts is ultimately fruitless, since the elements which he might have borrowed were often altered beyond recognition. Skjaervo even goes so far as to tentatively suggest as an axiom that “whenever we detect Zoroastrian elements in Manichaeism we can be almost certain that their function in Zoroastrianism was different.”[32] Yet in light of the definite sense of superiority with which Mani viewed his own revelation in relation to previous traditions, it seems to me that the development of Mani’s teaching was somewhere in between deliberate and instinctive. For instance, the fact that Mani believed that the revelations of Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus had been corrupted would seem to limit his desire or ability, as the restorer of authentic teaching, to borrow elements from previous traditions without substantial revision or, in his view, correction. On the other hand, his obviously intense desire to see his message receive as wide a distribution as possible (especially through translation)[33] suggests that he was open to deliberate adaptation. It may be impossible to accurately identify Mani’s true motivations for wanting to found a church for all lands and all peoples, although we can be relatively certain, particularly in light of the Shabuhragan fragment and the “Ten Advantages of the Manichaean Religion,” that as a religious teacher Mani had unusually broad horizons. Such horizons necessitated that he make his preaching as adaptable as possible, although without loosing the core of his vivid prophetic vision.

As for the theory of reception, it may have some bearing on the formulation of Mani’s religious thought if it is slightly re-orientated. While people may be more likely to accept a new religion as long as it provides them with a sense of cultural and religious continuity, a new religion is just as likely to be formulated out of religious traditions to which the innovator is exposed. It just so happens that Mani was born into a particularly diverse historical and geographical context that enabled him to be exposed to a wide variety of religious ideas. These ideas were then forged into a new religious message aimed at restoring and fulfilling the previously revealed traditions.

III. Mani’s Reception by Previous Religious Traditions

While we have seen the ambiguity inherent in questions about how Mani formulated his religious message, the question of how this message was received by outsiders proves equally ambiguous.

Mission, it seems, was an essential facet of the Manichaean movement from the beginning.[34] Even during his lifetime, Mani not only organised his own missionary journeys, but is also reported to have dispatched missionaries such as Mar Ammo to the eastern regions[35] and Adda to Roman controlled areas.[36] While the Manichaean message seems to have evolved within a matrix of elements from several previous religious traditions, the missionary development of the movement appears to have deliberately made such elements even more acute. For example, when Manichaean missionaries penetrated into parts of the Roman Empire such as Egypt and North Africa (during the 3rd and 4th centuries c.e.), the Christian elements of the movement were highly emphasised as Manichaean writings were translated from their original Syriac into Coptic, Greek, and Latin.[37] For instance, a recently discovered Manichaean letter in Coptic from the so-called “Makarios family” states :

Our beloved daughter, the daughter of the holy church, the catechumen of the faith ; the good tree whose fruit never withers (Mt. 7:18), w[hi]ch is your love that emits [radian]ce every day. She has [gen]erated for herself her riches, [which] are stored in the treasuries that are in [the] he[i]ghts, where moths shall not find a way, nor shall the thieves to go through to them to steal (Mt. 6:19-20) ; which (storehouses) are the sun and the moon. She whose deeds resemble her name, [my] daughter, peace. I am your [fa]ther who writes to you in Go[d]. Greetings.[38]

To an outsider, there is little in this portion of the letter to suggest anything other than Christian sentiment. Yet to the insider, key words such as “catechumen,” “treasuries,” “sun” and “moon” indicate the Manichaean authorship. In fact, this branch of the movement considered itself to be the authentic Christian church in opposition to the mainstream Christian churches, which Manichaeans viewed as perpetually mired in controversy and heresy. As early as the Acta Archelai and especially by the time of Augustine, the well-attested debates between mainstream Christians and Manichaeans in the West revolved principally around the exegesis of canonical scriptural texts such as the Genesis creation story or the New Testament corpus.[39] As Manichaeism spread into the east, and Manichaean literature developed in Middle Iranian, Turkish, and eventually Chinese,[40] the movement began to accumulate and assimilate more overt elements of, first, Zoroastrianism, and then Buddhism.[41] For example, a bilingual (Tocharian B and Turkish) hymn to Mani discovered at Turfan integrates explicit elements from both traditions : “Like the diadem of the God Ohrmizd, / Like the garland of the God Zurvan, / Bright in appearance is my Father, the Buddha Mani / Therefore I praise and worship you so.”[42] Similarly, a Parthian text from Turfan reads : “Awake, brethren, you chosen ones, on this day of the salvation of souls, the fourteenth (day) of the month of Mihr, on which Jesus, the Son of God, entered Parinirvāna.”[43] By way of contrast, Nestorian missionaries active in Central Asia and China tended to avoid the use of explicitly Buddhist terms in their efforts at translation, opting instead for newly coined vocabulary. It is perhaps not surprising then that, as Lieu has stated, the “missionary success of Nestorianism was … limited.”[44] In light of this contrast, it may be asked whether the willingness by Manichaeans to adapt pre-existing terminology influenced their ability to succeed in ever more remote missionary contexts ? The most common response would be Yes.

Modern historical accounts of Manichaeism have tended to describe a highly successful religious movement, especially in light of sources from Central Asia. Sogdian traders active along the Silk Road are thought to have been particularly influential in the dissemination of the movement and facilitated the exchange not only of goods but stories and religious ideas between east and west.[45] Manichaeism, it is suggested, achieved its greatest success under the Uighur kingdom of Qočo, where it constituted the state religion until the coming of Islam. Ultimately, this modern Manichaean historical narrative ends in China where adherents discretely integrated themselves into Chinese society, taking on especially the appearance of Taoism. Our last records of the movement come from the south coast of China, where the followers of the “Buddha of Light” seem to have endured until the 15th or 16th centuries.[46]

This account, however, is proving to be a somewhat romanticised version of Manichaean history. Perhaps it is the result of a latent sympathy for the underdog that seeks to cheer on the persecuted “gnostics” towards the successful formation of a gnostic “world religion,” but nevertheless the contention that Manichaeism ought to be “regarded as one of the four world religions known to the history of religions”[47] is sometimes overstated. To be sure, the “Religion of Light” was certainly influential in theological, literary, and even commercial history, although the actual extent of its success is gradually being re-examined. For instance, a recent study by Xavier Tremblay, suggests that in the Central Asian context Manichaeism influenced only a small elite of Sogdian merchants and part of the Uighur court, was less successful than Buddhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, and, in fact, of the four religions attested at Turfan, was “la dernière venue et la première disparue.”[48] A similar analysis could be developed for Manichaeism in the West, which seems to have drawn adherents primarily from elite intellectuals such as Augustine and Faustus in North Africa and Rome or literate merchants such as the “Makarios” family in Egypt.

A particularly telling example of how poorly Manichaeism seems to have been received is attested by kephalaion 76 (183.10-188.29), “Concerning the Lord Manichaios : How He Journeyed.” In this text, a disciple named Aurades, frustrated by the fact that Mani is continually being called upon by King Shapur, asks why there are not two Manis, one to remain with the disciples and one to deal with Shapur. In response, Mani essentially states that the world cannot even endure one Mani since he has been met with continual opposition throughout his travels through India, Persia, Mesene, and Babylon : “Indeed I, a single Mani, came to the world. All the cities [of the] world stirred, they shook. (The world) did not wi[sh to] acce[pt m]e ; unless I humbled its rebelliousness […]. And thus, if tw[o] Manis had [come] to the world, what place would be able to tolerate them, or [what land] would [be able] to accept them ?”[49] Whether or not these words come from Mani himself is not known, but they do indicate a certain lack of success on the part of the early Manichaean movement. Another example, which we may be able to attribute directly to Mani since it comes from the Syanxeis codex, comes from the passage cited above. Here, Mani describes how he attempted to establish his own teaching and practice in the East, although the Brahmins apparently could not let go of their own traditions.[50] This lack of success, however, seems to have had a re-enforcing value for members of the community, since it only served to confirm the wickedness of the cosmos and the need to endure adversity through fidelity to Mani’s teachings — a common theme of the Kephalaia. Indeed, as Mani counsels his disciples in kephalaion 76 : “Blessed are you i[f] you make yourselves strong in this truth that I have given to you ; so that you may be [confirmed] in it, in the life which continues for ever and ever.”[51]

Chronic persecution is perhaps the most decisive factor that limited reception of Manichaeism both East and West. Evidence suggests that the movement continually drew the wrath of the religious[52] and political elite who sought to preserve their respective orthodoxies in the face of religious innovation.[53] Indeed as Stroumsa and Stroumsa have pointed out : “For more than half a millennium, from its birth in the third century throughout late antiquity and beyond, (Manichaeism) was despised and rejected with the utmost violence by rulers and thinkers belonging to all shades of the spiritual and religious spectrum.”[54] The result was continual persecution by Persian, Roman,[55] and Chinese imperial authorities,[56] and the eventual extinction of the “Religion of Light.” This situation does not quite fit the profile of a successful (“gnostic”) world religion. Rather, it bespeaks of a continuous rejection by those with whom Manichaeans attempted to make a religious and cultural connection.

Conclusions and Implications

While the ability of Manichaeism to adapt to new missionary contexts could be considered as a “built-in” feature of the movement, the fact that Mani, in his fundamental proclamation, emphasised the superiority of his own revelation, over those received by Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus, seems to have contributed to the limited success of the movement. This means that the attempt (conscious or otherwise) to establish a cultural and religious continuity with other religious traditions was not enough to guarantee lasting viability for the “Religion of Light.” Nevertheless, the fact that the Manichaean message was formulated with such a far-reaching view of the world is utterly unique in late antique religious history and points to someone with a genius for mission and the foresight to see far beyond cultural and political boarders.

As was stated at the outset, “reception” theory suggests that a new or previously unknown literary work or religious movement should be able to be gauged in relation to the individual’s “horizon of expectations.” In the literary context, this means that previous reading, understanding of genres and themes, etc., should impact an individual’s positive, negative, or indifferent reaction to a newly encountered work.[57] By extension to the religious context, people should be “more willing to adopt a new religion to the extent that it retains cultural continuity with conventional religion(s) with which they already are familiar.”[58] Stark, for instance, has argued that the early Christian mission to Jews of the Diaspora likely succeeded due to Christianity’s continuity with Judaism. Even though something innovative was being offered, the continuity established between the religious innovation and a previously existing tradition facilitated its acceptance. This case provides some interesting parallels to Manichaeism, since like Manichaeism the early Christian proclamation was eventually formulated in a way that emphasised its superiority to and fulfilment of Judaism, while at the same time insisting on a cultural and religious continuity through the acceptance of the Hebrew Scriptures. This, according to Stark, certainly contributed to the success of Christianity among the Jewish communities of the Diaspora, yet what about other segments of late antique society ? Here, it seems that other factors played an important role, such as the ability of Christians to more effectively respond to crises and epidemics,[59] as well as the wider range of social options initially afforded to women.[60] By way of contrast, the Manichaean abhorrence of the cosmos and the view of women as perpetuators of the imprisonment of light through procreation would have had less appeal.

In sum, it would seem that the utility of the theory of reception in gauging the success of Manichaeism is somewhat limited. While the movement certainly did have some appeal among literate and mercantile segments of the ancient populous, the cultural continuity it attempted to establish was ultimately insufficient to win a broader base of support. In addition, the fact that both Rome and Persia were at the same time formulating their own imperial religious ideologies meant that any movement attempting to supersede these orthodoxies could never achieve the government support necessary for widespread implementation. Nevertheless, in spite of its limited success “on the ground,” the dualistic message proclaimed by Mani continued to influence the development of various religious traditions by haunting the imagination of Christian, Zoroastrian, and Muslim theologians for centuries to come.