Manichaeism was one of the major ancient religions. Though its organized form is mostly extinct today, a revival has been attempted under the name of Neo-Manichaeism. However, most of the writings of the founding prophet Mani have been lost. Some scholars and anti-Roman Catholic polemicists argue that its influence subtly continues in Christian thought via Augustine of Hippo, who converted to Christianity from Manichaeism and whose writing continues to be enormously influential among Catholic theologians.
The religion was founded by Mani, who reportedly was born in western Persia and lived approximately 210-275 AD. The name Mani is mainly a title and term of respect rather than a personal name. This title was assumed by the founder himself and so completely replaced his personal name that the precise form of the latter is not known. Mani was likely influenced by Mandaeanism and began preaching at an early age. According to biographical accounts preserved by Ibn an-Nadim and al-Biruni, Mani received a revelation as a youth from a spirit whom he would later call the Twin. This 'spirit' taught him the divine truths of what would become the Manichaean religion. He claimed to be the Paraclete, as promised in the New Testament: the Last Prophet and Seal of the Prophets that finalized a succession of men guided by God and included figures such as Zoroaster, Hermes, Plato, Buddha, and Jesus.
While Manichaeism was spreading, the large existing religious groups such as Christianity and Zoroastrianism were competing for greater political and social power. Although having fewer adherents than Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism won the support of many high ranking political figures. With the aid of the Persian Empire, Mani initiated missionary excursions. After failing to win the favor of the next generation, and having the disapproval of the Zoroastrian clergy, Mani is reported to have died in prison awaiting execution by the Persian Emperor Bahram I, who, soon after his accession, caused Mani to be crucified. He then had the corpse flayed and the skin stuffed and hung up at the city gate as a terrifying spectacle to his followers, whom the new emperor persecuted with relentless severity. Other accounts say he was beheaded. The date of his death is fixed at 276-277 AD.
The Manichees made every effort to include all known religious traditions in their faith. As a result, they preserved many apocryphal Christian works, such as the Acts of Thomas, that otherwise would have been lost. Mani was eager to describe himself as a "disciple of Jesus Christ", but the orthodox church rejected him as a heretic. Mani declared himself, and was also referred to, as the Paraclete: a Biblical title, meaning "comforter" or "helper", which the Orthodox tradition understood as referring to God in the person of the Holy Spirit. The title was also later applied to Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
It spread with extraordinary rapidity in both east and west. It maintained a sporadic and intermittent existence in the west (Africa, Spain, France, North Italy, the Balkans) for a thousand years, but it flourished mainly in the land of its birth (Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Turkestan) and even further east in Northern India, Western China, and Tibet, where (c. AD 1000) the bulk of the population professed its tenets and where it died out at an uncertain date. Its most famous western convert was Augustine of Hippo who, eight or nine years after, became an orthodox Christian and potent adversary of Manichaeism. In the east it spread along trade routes as far as Chang'an, the capital of the Tang dynasty in China.
The Manichee church had no central organization and, according to Augustine, no appreciable intellectual appeal in the west. In the east it seems to have been destroyed by Islam and the chaotic period that followed the collapse of the Chinese Tang dynasty.
The most striking principle of Manichee theology is its dualism. The universe is considered a battlefield for control between an evil material god, and a good spiritual god. Christians recognized the evil god in Satan but could not accept the idea that Satan had as much power as God. Christians held that Satan, unlike God, is a created being. The term Manichaeistic is often used to describe any religion with a similar concept of struggle between good and evil.
How much influence the Manichees actually had on Christianity is still being debated. It has been suggested that the Bogomils and the Cathars were only superficially orthodox Christians and were, in essence, Manichees. The record is often confused because medieval writers used the term Manichee as a synonym for heretic. Priscillian and his followers apparently tried to absorb what they thought was the valuable part of Manichaeaism into Christianity.
In the case of the Cathars, it seems they adopted the Manichee principles of church organization, but none of its theology.
- The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy by Steven Runciman ISBN 0521289262