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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV:
Writings in Connection with the Manichæan Controversy.: Chapter V

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter V.—The Relation of Manichæism to the Old Babylonian Religion as Seen in Mandæism and Sabeanism.

It would have been strange indeed if the old Babylonian religion, after dominating the minds of the inhabitants of Mesopotamia for so many centuries, had given place completely to the religion of the Medo-Persian conquerors of the country.  Magism itself was a mixture of old Babylonian, Medic and Persian elements.  But there is much reason for believing that the primitive Babylonian faith, in a more or less pure form, persisted until long after the time of Mani, nay, that it has maintained its ground even till the present day.  The researches of Chwolson, Nöldeke, Kessler and others, in the literature and history of the Mandæans and the Sabeans, combined in the last case at least with accurate knowledge of old Babylonian literature and religion, have rendered it highly probable that representatives of the old Babylonian faith were numerous in Mesopotomia and the adjoining regions at the time of Mani, and that Mani himself was more or less closely connected with it.  The Mandæans were a Gnostic sect of the Ophitic type, without Christian elements.  It is the opinion of Kessler, who has devoted much attention to this sect and to the relations of occult religious matters in general in Mesopotomia, that "the source of all Gnosis, and especially the immediate source of Ophitic Gnosis, is not the doctrine of the Persian Zoroaster, not Phœnicean heathenism, not the theory and practise of Greek mysteries, but the old Babylonian-Chaldaic national religion, which maintained itself in Mesopotomia and Babylonia, the abode of the Ophites, Perates, Mandæans, until the post-Christian centuries, and was now opposed by the Gentiles in a mystical-ascetical form to Christianity."  The close connection of the Mandæans with the Ophites, and of both with the old Babylonian religion, would seem to be established beyond question.  The relation of Manichæism to Mandæism has been by no means so clearly shown.  Let us look at some of the supposed points of contact.  Mani’s connection with the Mugtasilah sect (or Baptizers) has already been mentioned.  Kessler seeks to identify this party with the Mandæans, or at least to establish a community of origin and of fundamental principles in the two parties.  He would connect with the old Babylonian sect, of which ceremonial baptism seems to have been a common characteristic, the Palestinian Hemero-baptists, Elkesaites, Nazareans, Ebionites, etc.  There is nothing improbable about this supposition.  Certainly we find elements in Palestinian heresy during the early Christian centuries, which we can hardly suppose to have been indigenous.  And there is no more likely source of occult religious influence than Babylonia, unless it be Egypt, and there is much reason for supposing that even in Alexandria Babylonian influences were active before and after the beginning of the Christian era.  Besides, a large number of Gnostic elements different from these can be traced to Egypt.  How far the Mandæans of modern times, and as they are described in extant literature, correspond with representatives of the old Babylonian religion in the third century, cannot be determined with complete certainty.  Yet there is much about this party that has a primitive appearance, and the tenacity with which it has held aloof from Judaism, Manichæism, Mohammedanism, and Oriental Christianity, during centuries of conflict and oppression, says much for its conservatism.  It would extend this chapter unduly to describe the elaborate cosmogony, mythology, hierarchy, ceremonial, etc., of this interesting party.  For the illustration of Christian Gnosticism the facts that have been brought out are of the utmost value.  As compared with Manichæism, there is a remarkable parallelism p. 22 between the two kingdoms and their subordinates or æons; the conflict between Primordial Man and the King of Darkness has its counterpart in Mandæism.  The close connection of the Mandæan and the Manichæan cosmogony, together with similar views about water in the two parties, would make it highly probable that the Manichæans, like the Mandæans, practised some kind of ceremonial ablutions.

What, now, are the grounds on which the connection of these systems with the old Babylonian religion is based?  The dualistic element in the old Babylonian system was pointed out above.  Kessler seeks to establish an almost complete parallelism between the Mandæan and Manichæan cosmological and mythological systems on the one hand, and the old Babylonian on the other.  That there are points of striking resemblance it is certain.  There is ground to suspect, however, that he has been led by partiality for a theory of his own to minimize unduly the Zoroastrian and Buddhist influence and to magnify unduly the old Babylonian.  Be that as it may, there remains an important residuum of solid fact which must be taken account of by all future students of Manichæism.  There is reason to hope that future work along the lines of Kessler’s researches will bring to light much additional material.


Next: Chapter VI

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