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Manichaeism was preached by the Gnostic sect of the Manichaeans. Although the sect was bitterly fought by the early Christian Church, the Church was greatly influenced by Manichaeism through the later teachings of Saint Augustine, especially by his doctrine of original sin which the Church readily accepted. This was after Augustine converted to Christianity and begun writing theses against the precepts against his previous teachers.
The Persian prophet Manes or Mani founded the Manichaen sect in the third century AD. In legend his life seems to be almost an reincarnation of Christ. He was born of a holy virgin named Mariham, or Mar Mariam, whose title was "Mother of the Life of the Whole World." Mani performed the general feats that any Saviour performs. He preached, healed the sick, drew about himself twelve disciples, and eventually was martyred. He was crucified and flayed by a Persian king perhaps as a surrogate.
Mani's doctrines were strictly Gnostic and puritanical. They included the strict abomination of all matter, especially the flesh. The Devil created the material world and also made sex to entrap the ethereal souls in the prison of the flesh. Similar views were taught by the Essenes. The Manichaeans abstained from sex, from all animal food, and eggs, believing all flesh was evil if begotten by copulation.
Fish was edible on the pretense the fish did not propagate sexually but spontaneously came from the "living waters." On the practical side perhaps some Manichaeans thought they should eat sometime besides seeds and weeds. The adoption of the Christian Aphroditean fish symbol to represent Christ was perhaps derived from Manichaeism.
Both the Manichaeans and Christians shared the same view that the world is evil. The significant difference between the two groups sharing the view was to cause or originality of the world's evilness. The Manichaeans said the god, or devil, created an evil world while the Christians claimed Adam's Fall, Augustine's doctrine of original sin, caused the world to become evil.
The diversity of these two beliefs inevitably led to another schism between the two groups. The Manichaeans did not accept the belief that the Church sacraments were holy of themselves and therefore sanctified the Church and its people, as the Christians believed; but, held "that the virtue of their clergy was the actual and sole agency by which the principles of spirit and light, caught in the meshes of material darkness, was to be released and returned to its proper state."
According to Mani, the devil god which created the world was the Jewish Jehovah. Mani said, "It is the Prince of Darkness who spoke with Moses, the Jews and their priests. Thus the Christians, the Jews, and the Pagans are involved in the same error when they worship this God. For he leads them astray in the lusts he taught them."
In legend, like Christ, Mani was tempted by the demon-god on the mountain top. In return for His worship Christ was offered "all the kingdoms of the earth." Christ refused and so did Mani.
Mani said he was the reincarnated Christ, then he took on the powers of the Holy Spirit as he chose twelve partners or disciples to come out of Persia and spread his teachings. It might seemed hard to believe he had followers, but he did. It is said that Augustine was a Manichaean for more than a decade before becoming a Christian.
The orthodox Church fiercely battled Manichaeism during the early centuries thinking that it had rooted the teaching out but it kept cropping up in the Middles Ages in sects such as the Cathars, Paulicians, Albigenses (or Albigensians), Bogomils, and many others.
The Church had reasons for wanting to stamp out this heresy, and one of them was that the Manichaeans and other related sects stressed the holiness of their leaders and priests. At times this alone was extremely dangerous for the Church. A.G.H.
Sources: 55, 56.