Christianity’s Forgotten Rival

The history of Christianity, as we are often told, is a story of suppression, persecution and then finally acceptance by the ruling elite. Since the death of Jesus Christ, the story goes that this new offshoot of Judaism was proselytized and spread by the Apostles. Originally seen as a sect of Judaism by the Roman Empire, the Christians were initially allowed to worship without sacrificing to the Emperor, a privilege given only to Judaism. This came to an end under Emperor Nero and thus began centuries of persecution against this upstart religion. The persecutions were not a continuous theme for the next couple of centuries. There would be long periods of a acceptance by the local authorities followed by varying degrees of intense persecution

By the time of the accession of Constantine the persecutions had largely ceased and there was a general tolerance of Christianity. This allowed the Christians to get close to Constantine and convert him at the battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine was but one of four Emperors in a divided empire. In a bid to unite the western half of the Empire Constantine was waging war against the other Emperor in the West, Maxentius. The two met at a bridge on the Tiber called the Milvian Bridge. Constantine was outnumbered but, according to legend received a vision of a cross appearing across the face of the sun. Some Christians who were with Constantine at the time interpreted this as a sign of God’s divine favour and persuaded Constantine to paint the Christian symbol of the Chi-Rho on the shields of his soldiers. Constantine won the battle becoming Emperor of the West and in time the whole Roman Empire. In thanks to the one God Constantine funded the construction of churches across the Empire and promoted the importance of Christianity throughout the Empire allowing Christianity to eventually become the entrenched religion that we know today. The entire history of the world might have been different if Christianity’s rival had got there first.

At some time around 216 AD a child was born in near the city of Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthian empire in modern day Iraq. The Parthians had long been the rivals to Rome and there was frequent warfare between the two with Rome managing to take Ctesiphon several times throughout the centuries. Mani was the son of an Iranian, Christian father and an Armenian mother of unknown faith (also called Miriam or Mary like the mother of Jesus). Apparently, early on in life, Mani had a vision from his heavenly twin calling on him to leave the faith of his father and teach the true message of Jesus Christ. This led Mani to go on a journey of enlightenment to Afghanistan. It was here that Mani was influenced by the Greco-Buddhist faith which was prevalent there at the time. He would have undoubtedly seen the famous Bamiyan Buddhas there, unfortunately these colossal statues carved into a cliff face were destroyed by the Taliban as un-Islamic idols. Several religious paintings found in Bamiyan have even been attributed to Mani.

On his journey Mani developed a new faith that was a mixture of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. It is often described as a Gnostic religion in that it believed in the duality of good and evil, forever locked in conflict. In many ways Manicheaism can be seen as a sect of Christianity in its reverence for Jesus Christ as the messiah. This, however, would equate to Milton’s view that Islam was an offshoot of Christianity for their reverence of Jesus. Mani saw himself as a prophet and the reincarnation of Jesus, Buddha, Zoroaster and Krishna (from Hinduism). As such, Manichaeism should be viewed as a separate religion with a Christian component much like Bahaism and Islam. Mani could therefore claim to be a reincarnation of most of the major religious figures from India to Rome and often emphasised a selected reincarnation to appeal to the crowds he was preaching to in any particular area. The premise of reincarnation was a huge part of  Manicheaism with the belief that the better you were in your current life the more likely you were to be reborn into the higher echelons of the Manichean church and thus closer to God (taken directly from Buddhism).

By the time of his return to Ctesiphon the Parthian Empire he had known as a child no longer existed. There was a new, Persian, dynasty (known as the Sassanid Empire) under Shapur I. Mani tried unsuccessfully to convert Shapur but his potential was not lost on the new Emperor. Shapur’s great mission was conflict with the Roman Empire, in which he was remarkably more successful than he predecessors. Having Manicheans within Roman territory would, in his mind, make them sympathize with the nation of the religion’s birth and thus easier to use as spies, saboteurs etc.

Mani was therefore “unleashed” to proselytize his new faith in which he was remarkably successful. However, by the time of Shapur’s death, Mani had such a large following in the Sassanid Empire that the new Emperor Bahram I decided to persecute the new faith. In 277 Ad Mani was arrested and arrested and died in prison whilst on death row.

After Mani’s death Manicheaism spread like wild fire both east and west. Manichean have been found as far afield as China and there was briefly a Manichean state ruled by the Uyghurs (in Turkestan or Xinjiang province, China depending on your political orientation). In the Roman Empire Manicheaism soon became a rival of Christianity. Although it did not have the widespread support of Christianity, which preached the virtues of poverty, Manicheaism became very popular among the aristocracy and the well educated. During the persecutions of Christians the Roman Empire made no distinction with the Manicheans which made them also a victim of persecution. However, by 312 the Manichean church was popular enough that it set up a monastery in Rome itself. They also became very popular in Southern Gaul (Roman France) and are claimed by some to have gradually evolved into the Cathar faith, a Gnostic sect that lasted into the 14th century. Unluckily for the Manicheans the Christians won over an Emperor and became incredibly powerful. Although they weren’t persecuted under Constantine they were viciously persecuted by his successors, most notably Theodosius I.

Despite the victory of Christianity Manicheasim continued to find followers. A notable example of this was St Augustine of Hippo who, during his university education in Carthage, converted to Manicheaism much to the horror of his pious Christian mother. St Augustine would later convert back to Christianity and heavily attack Manicheaism in his writings, he is now regarded as a Doctor of the Church and one of its most revered Saints.

Manicheaism generally wiped out in the Roman Empire via heavy persecutions. In the east it would be supplanted by the rise of Islam. However, the teachings of Mani retain a certain power and have formed the basis of various Gnostic sects throughout the centuries. Towards the end of the Roman Empire there were echoes of Manicheaism in the Paulicians in Armenia and the Bogomils in Bulgaria both were suppressed. As previously mentioned in the article Catharism, which had many similarities with Manicheaism, flourished in Southern France but was eventually routed out in the 13th and 14th centuries by the Albigensian Crusade and a lengthy campaign by the Inquisition. It is strange to think that this Gnostic sect was the main rival to Christianity and had it not been for that fateful battle at the Milvian Bridge and the luck of the Christians in being present, Constantine may have chosen Manicheaism and the implications that could have had on the present day.


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