In book 4, Augustine begins by describing his floundering in the Beliefs of the Manichaean sect for nine long years (from his nineteenth to his twenty-ninth year). Vaught notes the movement in Books 2-4 from stealing, to loving, then finally to deceiving. Augustine is deceived and he deceives others.
The founder of Manichaeism is Mani who was born in Babylonia under Persian rule in 217. Mani’s personal history was written by his enemies and contains often contradictory unreliable accounts.[i] In modern time several manuscript collections of Manichaean writings have been discovered in Northwest China (Turkestan) and Egypt.
The beliefs of the Manichaean appear to fit within the broad category of Jewish Christian heresy of Gnosticism.[ii] As we noted above in the introduction, Manichaeism was particularly concerned with the problem of the existence of evil. Where did evil come from? Did God create evil? These questions were answered by proposing a radical dualism between the realm of light, or God and the realm of darkness or Satan. According to the Manichaean doctrine, Adam and Eve are actually the progeny of male and female demons. The first human parents are not the creation of God but resulted from Satan’s evil initiative. Particles of the Kingdom of Light were trapped in the visible world. God countered this tactic of the devil by sending Jesus from the realm of light to reveal divine knowledge (Greek, gnosis) to Adam and Eve.
In Augustine’s time the Manichaean religion had spread to Rome and Carthage and across North Africa. In practical terms the adherents of this faith considered themselves Christians. They believed that the present visible world was a mixture of light and dark elements. God, “the Father of Greatness” set up the sun and moon as collector stations for light to pass back to the realm of light. Adam and Eve were created as the progeny of demons to counter the Sun and moon and keep the light trapped in the material world principally by generating offspring. In turn God countered this move by sending Jesus from the light-realm to reveal divine knowledge (gnosis) to Adam and Eve. Coyle notes that this was not the Jesus of orthodox Christianity, “for Manicheism seems to propose several entities called Jesus” yet none of them was a savior except as the bearer of saving knowledge. Further since they believed matter was evil, the “true” Jesus could not have been born of Mary.[iii]
The followers of the Manichaean religion tried to help the world through the agency of its members who were divided into the Elect (who were generally Manichaean presbyters, bishops, and deacons) and the auditors or hearers who included both men and women. The ultimate goal was the release of all light from matter through the agency of the Elect. The Elect carried out this task through digestion. They practiced a rigorous asceticism eating no meat and consuming certain grains, vegetables and fruits thought to contain light. Once enough light was release and great fire would erupt and complete the process of separation of light and darkness. The Elect followed a rigorous moral and ascetical code. They were not permitted to kill any living thing, including harvesting food (others had to do this for them) and they observed frequent prayer (seven times per day) and fasting. The Elect were perpetual wanders owning nothing and depending on the Hearers for their care. The Hearers lived a less restrictive life with fewer prayers and fasts and were allowed to marry (though procreation was discouraged).
Text © Scott McKellar 2011
[i] Coyle, “Mani, Manicheism,” in Augustine through the Ages, p. 520.
[ii] The Standard work on Gnosticism is Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: the Nature and History of Gnosticism, trans. Robert McLachlan Wilson (San Francisco: Harper, 1987) based on expanded revised German ed. (1980). Two other important works which argue persuasively that Gnosticism is a post-Christian phenomenon deserve mention. Edwin M. Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism: A survey of the Proposed Evidences, 2nd ed., (Eugene, Wipf and Stock, 1983) and Simone Pétrement, A Separate God: The Christian Origins of Gnosticism, trans. Carol Harrison (San Francisco: Harper, 1984).
[iii] Ibid. p. 522.