Podcast episode

Episode 123: Jason BeDuhn on Mani and Manichæism

[We had some digital breakup on this interview, so Professor BeDuhn’s voice occasionally goes into robot-mode. Apologies for that, but anyone listening to the interview should find it a small price to pay. Thanks to the IAMS for the above image.]

We discuss the life and work of Mani, the Prophet of Light (probably 216 – 277 CE), founder of perhaps the most successful missionary religion of all time – while it lasted – known to scholars and heresiologues as Manichæism. Manichæism has long been seen as a stereotyped ‘heretical’, even ‘gnostic’ movement, so famous for its dualist light-vs.-darkness story that to call something ‘manichæan’ is to imply a cut-and-dried, oppositional mindset. But it’s hard to see how such a cut-and-dried, good-vs.-evil view of the world would compel huge numbers of people from western Africa to China to convert en masse to a religion, which is precisely what happened with Manichæism.

We are delighted to speak with Jason BeDuhn, a man who has not only thought and written extensively on Manichæism, but has learned the incredibly-difficult and obscure set of languages needed to deal with the Manichæan texts found across central Asia and beyond. He sets us straight on the life of Mani, set against the diversity of third-century Mesopotamia, the story of the religion Mani founded, and some of the fascinatingly-rich cultural encounters undergone by this religion in the course of its spread across Afro-Eurasia. We learn of the fascinating Manichæan creation-myth – which does in fact involve an eternal conflict between light and darkness, but the light is winning, and we humans are soldiers on the light’s side – and some of the complex and involved concepts and entities involved in the ongoing saga of redemption. We discuss the social structure of the Manichæan community and the rigorous life led by the Elect, whose sole task is to remove particles of light from the universe through their bodies, and free those particles, sending them back to the Realm of Light. We discuss lots of other stuff. In the process we gain some insights into why this religion was so compelling to so many.

Interview Bio:

Jason BeDuhn is Professor of Religious Studies at Northern Arizona University. A Guggenheim and National Humanities Center Fellow, he is an advisor to UNESCO’s Atlas of the Silk Road project and former chair of the Department of Humanities, Arts, and Religion at NAU. He has published and lectured widely on numerous subjects, and has particularly made his mark on the study of Manichæism.

Works Cited in this Episode:

Our knowledge of Manichæism is largely based on a number of important manuscripts which have appeared in the last hundred years or so. By no means all the sources have been discovered yet, and when they have, edited yet, and when they have, edited properly. If you want to get seriously thorough, check out Samuel Lieu. Working Catalogue of Published Manichæan Texts. In Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, volume 45 of Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies, pages 196–246. Brill, Leiden, 2020.

The MSS referred to in the interview are listed below along with the best available edition thereof.


  • The Cologne Mani Codex (on vellum) was found near Asyut (ancient Lycopolis) in Egypt. See L. Koenen and C. Römer, editors. Der Kölner Mani-Kodex. Über das Werden seines Leibes. Kritische Edition. Number 14 in Papyrologica Coloniensia. Abhandlung der Reinisch-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Opladen, 1988.
  • The seven Medinet Madi/Maadi (Greek Narmoûthis, in the Egyptian Fayyūm) Coptic papyrus codices of the fourth or fifth century, containing a collection of Manichæan psalms, were found in an illicit excavation in Egypt in 1928. See Carl Schmidt and Hans J Polotsky. Ein Mani-Fund in Ägypten: Originalschriften des Mani und seiner Schüler. Verlag d. Akademie d. Wissenschaft, Berlin, 1933. The Medinet Madi material has been mostly published by Kohlhammer:
    Polotsky, Manichäische Homilien 1934
    Polotsky and Böhlig Kephalaia 1940
    Funk Kephalaia 1999, 2000, 2019
    Allberry Manichaean Psalm Book 1938.
  • The Tebesa Text is a fragmentary Latin Manichæan writing found in Tébessa in Algeria in 1918. See Markus Stein, editor. Manichaica Latina. Number 27 in Papyrologica Coloniensia. Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen, 1998.
  • The Kellis fragments are a body of Coptic materials found in Egypt in the 1990’s, containing fragments of letters of Mani, as well as letters between Manichæans. See Iain Gardner, Anthony Alcock, and Wolf-Peter Funk, Coptic Documentary Texts from Kellis, Volume 2: P. Kellis VII (P. Kellis Copt. 57–131). Dakhleh Oasis Project Monograph 16. Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2014.
  • The Turfan texts: A huge amount of Manichæan material (about 5,000 fragments of various kinds including works of visual art) survives in the Iranian languages Parthian, Middle Persian, and Sogdian, and in Uighur/Old Turkic, from the oasis of Turfan. In print, the most basic resources are in the Berliner Turfantexte series, previously published by Akademie Verlag and now by Brepols. Approximately 40 volumes have been published since the 1960s. Not every volume is on Manichaean material, but about a third of it is. A good accessible English translation for much of this is Hans-Joachim Klimkeit. Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic Texts from Central Asia. Harper, San Francisco, CA, 1993.The Digitales Turfan-Archiv maintained by the Turfanforschung group at the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften is the primary resource here. Middle Persian and Parthian etexts for many of these documents are available from TITUS at the University of Frankfurt. New critical editions and English translation of the Turkic Manichaean texts are coming out in the Corpus Fontium Manichaeorum series at Brepols:
    Larry Clark, Uygur Manichaean Texts, 2: Liturgical Texts, 2013
    Idem, Uygur Manichaean Texts, 3: Ecclesiastical Texts, 2016
    (vol. 1 on Doctrinal Texts is forthcoming).
  • The Dunhuang texts, an amazing cave-library containing, among much else, Manichaean writings in Uighur and Chinese, were found by a Taoist monk at the turn of the last century. See Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer. Chinesische Manichaeica. Wiesbaden, 1987, and the online International Dunhuang Project organised through the British Library. In print, Lieu & Mikkelsen, Tractatus Manichaicus Sinica (Corpus Fontium Manichaeorum, Brepols, 2017) is a critical edition of one Chinese text.
  • For the new Chinese paintings, there is a Japanese volume by Yutaka Yoshida, Studies of the Chinese Manichaean paintings of South China origin preserved in Japan, 2015.
  • For the Buddha Jesus painting, see Zsuzsanna Gulácsi. A Manichaean “Portrait of the Buddha Jesus”: Identifying a Twelfth- or Thirteenth-Century Chinese Painting from the Collection of Seiun-Ji Zen Temple. Artibus Asiae, 69(1):91–145, 2009.
  • For the Cosmology painting, see Zsuzsanna Gulácsi and Jason BeDuhn. Picturing Mani’s Cosmology: An Analysis of Doctrinal Iconography on a Manichaean Hanging Scroll from 13th/14th-Century Southern China. Bulletin of the Asia Institute, 25 (NS):55–105, 2011.


  • Ibn al-Nadīm, Fihrist: The Kitāb al-Fihrist (‘Book of the Catalogue’) is a late tenth-century treasure-trove of all kinds of lore current in ‘Abbasid Baghdad, including a section on the Ṣābians (see our interview with Michael Noble), under which heading (section 9.1) the beliefs of the Manichæans are discussed. The standard edition is Flügel’s (Muḥammad b. Isḥāq al-Nadı̄m. Kitāb al-fihrist. F.C.W. Vogel, Leipzig, 1871-1872. 2 vols.), and the standard English translation is Bayard Dodge’s (The Fihrist of al-Nadim: A Tenth-Century Survey of Muslim Culture. Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 1970).
  • Iain Gardner 2020: see below.
  • Zsuzsanna Gulácsi. Mediaeval Manichaean Book Art: A Codicological Study of Iranian and Turkic Illuminated Book Fragments from 8th–11th Century East Central Asia. Number 57 in Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2005.

Recommended Reading:

The International Association of Manichæan Studies is a good place to start any search for up-to-date work on Manichæism; their book series is ridiculously-rich, and they put out a newsletter. Also of central interest:

  • Jason BeDuhn and Paul Mirecki, editors. The Light and the Darkness: Studies in Manichaeism and its World. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA/Köln, 2001.
  • Jason D. BeDuhn. The Manichaean Body in Discipline and Ritual. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD/London, 2000.
  • Jason D. BeDuhn, editor. New Light on Manichæism: Papers from the Sixth International Congress on Manichæism, Organised by the International Association of Manichæan Studies. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2009.
  • J. Kevin Coyle. Manichaeism and its Legacy. Number 69 in Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2009.
  • April DeConick, Gregory Shaw, and John D. Turner, editors. Practicing Gnosis: Ritual, Magic, Theurgy and Liturgy in Nag Hammadi, Manichaean and Other Ancient Literature. Essays in Honor of Birger A. Pearson. Number 85 in Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies. Brill, Leiden, 2013.
  • Iain Gardner, editor. The Kephalaia of the Teacher: The Edited Coptic Manichaean Texts in Translation with Commentary. Number 37 in Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies. Brill, Leiden/New York, NY/Köln, 1995.
  • Iain Gardner. The Founder of Manichaeism: Rethinking the Life of Mani. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2020.
  • Iain Gardner and Samuel Nan-Chiang Lieu. Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004 [contains a good sampling of the Medinet Madi and Kellis material, along with the Cologne Mani Codex and materials from Greek and Latin in English translation].
  • Iain Gardner, Jason BeDuhn, and Paul Dilley. Mani at the Court of the Persian Kings: Studies on the Chester Beatty Kephalaia Codex. Number 87 in Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2015.
  • Manfred Hutter. Der Manichäismus. Vom Iran in den Mittelmeerraum und über die Seidenstraße nach Südchina Reihe. Number 11 in Standorte in Antike und Christentum (STAC). Anton Hiersemann Verlag, 2023.
  • Samuel Lieu. Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1985.
  • Rea Matsangou. The Manichaeans of the Roman East: Manichaeism in Greek Anti-Manichaica and Roman Imperial Legislation. Brill, Leiden, 2023.
  • Paul Mirecki and Jason BeDuhn, editors. Frontiers of Faith: The Christian Encounter with Manichaeism in the Acts of Archilaus. Number 61 in Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2007.
  • Madeleine Scopello. Femme, Gnose et Manichéisme: De l’espace mythique au territoire du réel. Number 53 in Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2005.


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