Mattias Brand, The Manichaeans of Kellis: Religion, Community, and Everyday Life (Leiden University PhD Dissertation, 2019).
Media hype often surrounds new papyrological discoveries related to ancient religion before academics have properly translated and interpreted such pieces. After the initial wave of attention, frequently attended by sweeping narratives employed by contemporary journalists, interest slowly fades. The laborious and intensive work of historical and philological study, requiring unwavering critical attention, provides less fodder for salacious headlines. A prime example of this phenomenon was the discovery of Manichaean personal letters and liturgical documents in the village of Kellis (modern Ismant el-Kharab, Dakhleh Oasis, western desert of Egypt). This discovery has everything for a good novel: an ancient world religion, connections to fourth-century Christianity, fragmentary passages, as well as a good deal of relationship drama and other insights into the everyday life of ordinary men and women who, religiously speaking, can be identified as Manichaeans.
Take for example the boy Piene, who is known through the letters of his brother and father, as well as his own letter to his mother. Piene traveled with one of the foremost Manichaean leaders of his time, solely known as “The Teacher.” He learned to read and write, practiced his Latin, was allowed to read in church, and brought his family great joy and honor. His brother, Matthaios, was no less involved in Manichaean practices, and his letters inform us about his training as a scribe and his frequently requests for additional books from family and friends. Many of these letters employ strongly marked religious phrases like: “This is my prayer every hour to the Father, the God of Truth, that he may preserve you healthy in your body, joyful in your soul, and firm in your spirit,” adding the wish that the recipient “may find life in the kingdom for eternity.”
This marked religious language reveals their Manichaean affiliation. The phrase “Father, the God of Truth” is only once referred to in fourth-century letters outside the oasis, while it is common in Manichaean literary texts. The various Manichaean liturgical documents found in the same house also attest to the Manichaeanness of some of the individuals we meet in the personal letters.
These fascinating new sources lead to methodological questions regarding the way we read such fragmentary “everyday” passages. If we recognize a Manichaean deity in the “Father, the God of Truth,” how much of this tradition can we safely assume to have been present in the author’s mind and context? Should we consider these Manichaean phrases as casual or strategic references to a deeply felt religious identity? If so, how would this religious group identity have affected the lives of the two boys? Would they have played with the neighbors’ children? Would their mother have attended birthday parties in the village, or is it more probable that they secluded themselves within a semi-closed religious group?
My dissertation has approached these questions with a minimalist, bottom-up, approach that is rather skeptical about the postulated “religious groups” of Late Antiquity. Drawing upon recent sociological studies, as well as developments in the academic Study of Religion, I have heeded Rogers Brubaker’s critique of “groupism”: the tendency to think in coherent and well-defined religious groups. Rather than taking groups for granted, we should look for where and when religious communities or groups are called into being. When would the Manichaeans of Kellis have felt “Manichaeanness” as the most relevant factor to define their behavioral choices?
Previous studies, mostly produced before all Coptic documentary texts were published, have frequently interpreted the Kellis finds within existing reconstructions of Manichaeism, using the new finds to reinforce existing conceptualizations rather than to challenge them. I have pointed out that the Manichaeans of Kellis have frequently been described as sectarian and persecuted, but also as engaged in missionary work and claiming a Christian identity. Most notably, Peter Brown has repeatedly stressed the “intense solidarity” and “spiritual friendship” that would have characterized the Manichaeans of Kellis. Such strong religious interpretations are not without merit, as they corroborate the observation that Manichaeans were among the first to think about themselves and others as distinct communities defined by their religion (as for example set out in their list of ten advantages of the Manichaean church). However, the everyday letters and business accounts rarely warrant such strong religious interpretations. Rather than thinking about the Manichaeans as a persecuted sect with strong in-group bonds, I have shown how infrequently religon defined everyday life in the papyri.
After having described a suitable theoretical framework in the initial chapters for the examination of Manichaeanness in the Kellis letters, I provide an archaeological overview of the site in the third chapter. Over the course of chapters four through nine, I examine some of the most important aspects of the daily life in Kellis, covering topics including: family relations and work, the use of self-designators and their choice for Coptic rather than Greek, patterns of gift-giving and economic interactions, communal gatherings and Manichaean psalms, death rituals and burial, and bookwriting. Together, these chapters expose the weak factual basis of some—in my eyes rather tentative—historical interpretations of the local Manichaean community in Kellis. These interpretations included the looming threat of religious persecution, the mandatory presence of the elect and the daily ritual meal, as well as the existence of a Manichaean monastery in the oasis. On the other hand, I have shown that the observed multiple cross-affiliations or identifications of the individuals in our corpus do not render religious identifications insignificant. Rather, I have highlighted both situations in with Manichaeanness was extremely visible and relevant and occasions in which it remained latent, inactivated, or invisible. I believe that the dynamic between these two modes of religion in everyday life is of fundamental importance to the study of lived ancient religion.
One significant finding of my research deals with the frequently made claim that Manichaeans either fled towards the oasis during the Diocletian persecution, or lived secluded lives under the threat of Roman imperial persecution as well as maltreatment by Christians. Some of the documentary passages indeed suggest a feeling of unease, sometimes vaguely connected to religious concerns (there is one exception to this, the letter by Ammon, P.Kell.Copt. 37.13-20, which is more explicit). I content that these expressions of anxiety have to be read side by side with letters that show the presence of the Roman military in the oasis, sometimes even in the same houses as the Manichaeans of Kellis. Greek legal documents, moreover, show how these people appealed to local and regional elite in situations of everyday conflict. Nothing suggests that they were hiding from the Roman government, or systematically threatened by the forces that would lead to the anti-Manichaean legislation of the 370s and 380s CE. Rather, the letters convey the impression of a network of Kellites living in relative peace.
From these findings, I propose to move forward in two directions. First, detailed studies into the sociohistorical setting and practices of local Manichaean communities can help us to get a glimpse of the everyday reality behind hagiographical and normative prescriptive texts—like the Homilies, or the Kephalaia. Rather than juxtaposing the “everyday” and the “institutional”, we should focus on their interconnectedness. By comparing the ritual practice of Manichaean communities crossculturally, we will be able to grasp how the alimentary rules and regulations were applied, or appropriated, in specific geographical and cultural settings, thereby giving a glimpse into Manichaeism as a lived religion, rather than a normative theological system.
Second, we could aim to incorporate the study of Manichaeism in the larger framework of the study of religion by focusing on the mechanisms behind individual religious choices. As we observe increasing religious regulation and demarcation over the course of Late Antiquity, we need to reexamine the various types of commitment and religiosity—as well as the group types associated with it. Rather than assuming that all those who self-identify with a certain religious community are in fact fully aware of its behavioral norms, we should explore where and when imagined groups become more or less powerfully present in everyday lives. These approaches are meant to supplement the incredible philological work—and in the case of the Egyptian Manichaeica: papyrological work—of previous generations and contemorary scholarschip. Our field of study is, par excellence, capable of addressing some of the largest questions in the study of religion: “what constitutes a religion?”; “how does religion change?”; “when do religions die?”; “how do individuals navigate between normative expectations and creative freedom or choice?”. Armed with these wider questions, we can not only explain the relevance of our research, but engage with contemporary debates and issues that feature in our newspapers on a daily basis.
 Both passages derive from P.Kell.Copt. 29.7-10 and 12-13, written by Piene to his mother Maria. The letter was found in House 3, room 6, among a family archive.
 Gardner, Alcock, Funk, CDT1, 72-82.
 Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle, 159.
 A longer version of this summary has been published in the Newsletter of the International Association of Manichaean Studies (IASM) 2019.