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Manichaeism Scattered

Ardashir died in 241 or 242, and he was succeeded by his son, Shapur the First.  Shapur invited Mani to his coronation. He invited Mani to speak to him in person, and he granted that Manichaeism could be taught freely throughout his empire.

Off and on into the next decade, Shapur fought the Romans in Mesopotamia, Syria and Asia Minor. Shapur took Mani and Zoroastrian priests with him on his expeditions, with the Zoroastrians more favored, wearing their conical hats and white cotton robes, the white representing light and purity. With their rituals the Zoroastrian priests cleansed the conquered lands of demons, and in the conquered lands they established their fire temples to commemorate Shapur's victories. The Zoroastrian priests saw good in Shapur's warring. Mani, on the other hand, perhaps because of his broader view of culture, developed an opposition to war.

Shapur shared Mani's appreciation of different cultures. He enjoyed talks with Greek philosophers and decreed that all people, including Manichaeans, Jews, and Christians should be left free in their worship, and he persuaded the Zoroastrian priesthood to include in their Avesta works on metaphysics, astronomy and medicine borrowed from the Greeks and Indians. He created an accommodation with the Jewish leader in Mesopotamia: Samuel. And Samuel accepted that Sassanian law would be respected in Jewish courts and that taxes to the Sassanid government would be paid.

The Christians under Shapur were also tolerated. By the time of Shapur, Christians had become a noticeable minority in Mesopotamia. Christian evangelists had arrived as early as the first century, mainly in Jewish communities. More Christians arrived during Shapur's rule, with his invasion of Syria. Shapur deported the populations of Damascus and other cities that he had conquered, sending large groups of Greek-speaking Christians from Syria to the provinces of Persis, Parthia, Susiana and the city of Babylon, where they were allowed to organize their own communities and follow their own leaders.

With the spread of their communities, the Christians attempted to unite and describe diocese boundaries. Disputes arose between Christian communities that spoke Syriac and those that spoke Greek. A Christian bishop, Papa bar Aggai, at the capital, Ctesiphon, claimed patriarchal rights – as had the Bishop of Rome – and the bishop of Ctesiphon remained in rivalry for influence with the Christian leadership in Nisibis.

The Zoroastrians, meanwhile, were offended by Christian beliefs, foremost by the belief in a god that was the creator of all rather than the creator just of goodness. The Zoroastrians were offended also by the Christian belief that Jesus was both a god and born of an impure, earthly woman, and they were offended by the idea that a god could be crucified and die. The Christians on the other hand, drawing from their Jewish tradition and the law of Moses, were offended by the Zoroastrians not condemning marriages between close relatives.

Mani's Martyrdom

Shapur I died sometime between 270 and 273 and was succeeded by his son, Hormizd. Mani received from Hormizd the same permission to teach that Shapur had granted him. But after only a year in power, Hormizd died, and he was succeeded by another of Shapur's sons, Bahram. As practicing a religion was a privilege granted by the king rather than a right, Manichaeism, Christianity and Judaism were threatened by the whims of any monarch. Mani was probably aware of the danger that came with Bahram's accession to power, for he decided to leave for the east, to the Kushan people around Bactria, where he could count on protection. But Bahram prohibited Mani's travel.

Another Campaign of Purification

During the rule of Ardashir, a Zoroastrian priest, Katir, had led a crusade to purify Zoroastrianism, to obliterate what he saw as heresies. He had succeeded in having Zurvanist myths purged from the Avesta, and he had Zoroastrian doctrines inscribed on the face of cliffs, the inscriptions to number over seven hundred in the decades to come.

Katir had been elevated to high priest, and with Bahram's support he launched an attack on the Manichaeans. Manichaeism was criticized for not identifying itself with the Sassanid Empire, and Persia's landed elite saw Manichaeism as a threat because its power base was people of the cities and merchants. A bill was presented to Bahram with accusations against Mani, and Mani was ordered to present himself to Bahram at the royal residence. Mani's arrival there created a great sensation. The King spoke to Mani with hostility, and Mani asked whether he had done anything evil. The king responded with rage and reproached Mani for various ethical transgressions. The king was most displeased by Mani's dislike of war. Mani, in turn, spoke of his services as an exorcist. The king stopped Mani's attempt to defend himself and ordered Mani and three of his followers chained and sent to prison. There, Mani died in less than a month and became a martyr to his followers. The year was 276.

Persecution of Mani's followers followed his execution, and many of them scattered. Manichaeism had already reached Syria, Palestine and Egypt. It then spread into Armenia and to Sinkiang, where it would become the state religion of the Uigur Turks.

In the Roman Empire, often at war with the Persian Empire, the Manichaeans were seen as representatives of a foreign power and as dangerous aliens. That Mani had not been a supporter of the Persian Empire's wars was overlooked, and the Romans persecuted the Manichaeans, while Christians were also being persecuted.  And without the backing of the brute power of a major state, Manichaeism would all but disappear.


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