The first world religion

Quick, what was the first world religion? — that is, the first religion that expanded well beyond its origins within a given culture and/or political unit.

April DeConick, an expert on Gnostic religion, asserts that Manichaeism was the first world religion. “Who gets taught that in World Religions courses?” DeConick adds. After its start in Persia in the third century, it had expanded to the Atlantic ocean by the fourth century, and along the Silk Road to the Pacific ocean in China by the eighth century or so.

5 thoughts on “The first world religion”

  1. Buddhism seems to have spread at the same time (Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, China, south-east Asia, Japan). It did not reach the Roman Empire (but then I don’t think Manichaeism reached south-east Asia but I don’t know its full extent).

  2. I have to go with Erp. Buddhism is definitely the first world religion. It appeared in Northern India some time around the year 500 BCE (scholarly opinions differ–it might’ve been as much as 30 years in either direction of that date). Already within the Buddha’s lifetime it had passed beyond the boundaries of his ethnic group and language. By the third century BCE Buddhist teachings were available in various Indic languages, as well as Greek and Aramaic, and it had spread throughout the kingdoms of the Indian subcontinent and Himalayas and out to Sri Lanka, central and southeast Asia, and into Seleucid territory, with missions to the Greek states, Egypt, and northern Africa. By the time of the creation of Christianity, it had spread into China; when Mani was born, Buddhism already stretched from present-day Iran to eastern China (a distance of about 4000 miles); by the rise of Islam it had reached Japan, the furthest possible eastern point. Not long after, it penetrated the Tibetan plateau and spread to the vast island chains of the South Pacific. Thereafter it moved into Mongolia and Siberia. It achieved its first permanent stronghold in eastern Europe in the early 1600s, and arrived in the New World in the mid-19th century. Today, it is expanding and has established a presence on every continent, with particularly rapid increase in Australia, North America, and some parts of Europe and Africa.

  3. Jeff and Erp — This is not my area of expertise, so I’ll have let you two argue with April DeConick — you can comment on her blog using the link above.

    But that’s not really her most interesting point. What she’s really saying is that Manichaeism was a world religion long before Christianity was; and that Manichaeism was indeed a world religion even though it is rarely mentioned in any of the standard texts on world religions. And Manichaeism was still in existence as late as the nineteenth century! I mean, I know the winners get to write the history books, but it looks to me as though leaving out Manichaeism from the history of religion is a pretty major omission.

    Her post is causing me to rethink how I talk about and teach about world religions, and how I talk about and teach the history of Christianity.

  4. I agree, that’s her most interesting point in her post. But your blog title and opening line are pretty clear about the point of your posting… and that point just happens to be factually incorrect. Meanwhile, at the very moment she accuses others of erasing a major tradition, she commits the exact same offense.

    I saw some Manichean artifacts in an exhibit in Japan last month–they’d been brought back from Central Asia during an early 20th century archaeological trip. Very interesting stuff.

  5. I’m also wondering whether Hinduism counts as the first major world religion as expanding well beyond its original cultural roots. It did manage to cross language families (Sanskrit is Indo-European as are most north Indian languages but almost all of south India speaks languages from the Dravidian language family) and when did it reach Indonesia.

    I do agree that Manichaeism is often overlooked. Stanford has had a few public lectures on it.

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