What exactly is Manichaeism? This new introductory text by Nicholas Baker-Brian seeks to entertain this question by synthesizing known research with the most recent scholarly discussions and theories on the subject; it is largely successful in doing so. Ideally for an introductory text it is a short book, with the paperback edition ranging to less than 160 pages, and yet its thematic approach covers a great deal of ground in those pages. Those seeking new translations or new research should look elsewhere, and potential critics of this work need look no further than the introduction in which Baker-Brian lays out his scope and directs readers to other works that address the historical and Patristic aspects of Manichaean studies (viii-ix). Baker-Brian does signpost recent contributions and translations, such as the seminal work by Samuel Lieu, as well as the work of Iain Gardner, Hans Joachim Klimkeit, Alexander Böhlig, Michel Tardieu, and Gunner Mikkelsen, which is very useful for the reader seeking further detail or a more comprehensive analysis of the subject at hand. The book instead applies a religious studies approach, and approaches the context and historicity of Manichaeism in relation to other faiths. As such, the amount of consideration that has gone into the thematic approaches within the book is impressive.
The first chapter ("The Rediscovery of Manichaeism: Controversies and Sources") addresses head on the frequent criticisms--both ancient and modern--laid at the feet of Manichaeism, namely, that it is at odds with the accepted beliefs of other religions such as Christianity and that it frequently internalized the practices of other faiths in order to gain local converts. Baker-Brian discusses Manichaeans as an "Other" threateningly at odds with orthodox Roman, Byzantine, and Persian beliefs, and explores the process by which a follower of Mani came to be seen as the "theological and societal outcast—an identity based on a series of misleading, perverted, and often contradictory labels" (3). Having considered Manichaeism as heresy, Baker-Brian then addresses questions of Gnosticism and syncretism, using the work of noted scholars such as Karen King to illustrate that Gnostic and syncretistic labeling is but another form of "othering" (8). He then goes further in exploring the pitfalls of this approach, grounding his analysis in the foundational work of Henri-Charles Puech (9-14). It is significant that Baker-Brian undertakes this examination, as he is able to demonstrate how modern scholarship is susceptible to accepting these ancient descriptions as essential Manichaeism.
Chapter Two ("Lives of Mani"), examines the way in which religious biographies of Mani have been used to define and establish broader Manichaean identity and those religions competing with it. As with the Manichaean "other" of Chapter One, Baker-Brian grapples with the problem that the most complete portrait of Mani's life was "for very nearly sixteen centuries" the anti-Manichaean account found in the Acts of Archelaus (39). Also considered is the Cologne Mani Codex, which establishes Mani as the "immediate heir to the apostolate of the historical Jesus," and which since 1970 has provided scholars with primary source evidence that Manichaeism conveyed a "dominant self identity of the religion in Late Antiquity as the authentic Christian tradition" (54). Again, as this is intended as an introductory text, it is fitting that such an analysis should be here.
Chapter Three ("Theology and Text"), details the rise of a canon of Mani's writings. It then examines the preservation of his message, and it is here that Baker-Brian makes a fine point of the essential role Mani played in insisting that his works be written down and thereby preserved for posterity. Baker-Brian places this within the context of the "communicative technology" (61-66) of letter writing (epistles) utilized with success by the Apostle Paul. It is in this chapter that Baker-Brian demonstrates some true alacrity, succinctly contextualizing Manichaeism as a religion that "committed revelations and teachings to writing," in comparison to other contemporaneous religions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism (65). Baker-Brian advances the argument that in Manichaeism one has the first world religion in which the written word played a central role from inception. He further advances this argument by citing Michel Tardieu in exploring the way this work laid foundations for other religions which followed in Persia, such as Islam (71). Baker-Brian expands this to note the impact this had by paving the way for writing and religions of the book in Persia. So interesting is this and the further arguments in this chapter that one would have liked to see them laid out more succinctly and at greater length. In his introduction (ix), Baker-Brian acknowledges that his study would have benefitted from John C. Reeves' recent work on Islamic perspectives on Manichaeism, and one can hope that the author will return to this question in later works. Baker-Brian finishes his chapter with an examination of Mani's writings and the Manichaean canon.
The last chapter ("The Universe, its Rituals, and its Community"), considers the Manichaean account of the Cosmos, the myth which was employed in detailing it, and the relation of that myth to the physical world. Through this approach the Manichaean conception of the body is explored, as well the application of ascetic practice and ritual. Here Brian-Baker outlines the scholarship of Jason BeDuhn, whose work highlights these relationships. A brief section on the communal, liturgical, and ritualistic roles played by the Manichaean ecclesia rounds out the chapter.
While Baker-Brian's work leaves some aspects of Manichaeism remaining to be "re-discovered," it approaches its subject with a careful consideration of thematic elements that ably synthesizes existing scholarship and suggests further areas of focus. Marketed as an introductory work, this book does a sound job of providing the reader with a solid conceptual understanding of essential concerns related to the topic of Manichaeism, the state of current scholarship, and where to go to explore outstanding questions in greater depth. There are a few points in the book, particularly in Chapter Three, where the reader gets the feeling that the author is holding back in his argument and one can only hope Baker-Brian will address these areas more extensively in further works. It is said, however, that good things come in small packages, and indeed, there are several books twice the length of this one which deliver less in terms of conceptual application. The scholarship in this work is organized in such a way that one can return to it for further insights repeatedly. In its affordable paperback format, Brian-Baker's book is well suited to its introductory task, particularly if used in conjunction with other primary sources.