Manichaean mythology not only draws on Genesis, but also borrows from extrabiblical Jewish texts, including a Second Temple era account known as the Book of Giants. The Book of Giants includes an expanded version of Genesis 6:1–4, in which the sons of God mate with the daughters of man. The Book of Giants is known from only two literary collections: the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Manichaean scriptures, where it was considered canonical.
How did Mani and his followers know about this ancient Jewish book? Is there a connection between Mani and the Essenes, the Jewish sect often credited with producing and preserving the Qumran library?
Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis, a fourth-century C.E. expert on Christian heresies, suggests an intriguing link.
According to Epiphanius, who was intimately familiar with the late antique Palestinian landscape, the Dead Sea area was home to a Jewish sect of “Ossaeans,” a designation that is strikingly reminiscent of “Essenes.” Epiphanius reports: “During the reign of the Emperor Trajan [98–117 C.E.],” these “Ossaeans” were joined “by one called Elksai, who was a false prophet.” According to Epiphanius, the Ossaean sect is now called “Sampsaean,” but elsewhere he states that the “Sampsaeans are now called Elkesaites.”
As noted in the accompanying article, Mani spent his formative years—from age 4 to 24—living among the Elkesaite sect that his pious father had joined. In Mani’s day the Elkesaites were settled along the Euphrates River. But the first-century C.E. founder of the sect, a prophet named Elkesai, was active in the Transjordan and Dead Sea area.
Scholars have long observed similarities between the communal structure and ritual observances of the Elkesaites and the Essenes. Could the two groups be not just similar, but one and the same? Were the Elkesaites simply eastern Essenes? In short, did Mani read the Book of Giants in an Essene-Elkesaite library in Babylonia?
For further details, see John C. Reeves, “Manichaeans,” in The Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2 vols., ed. Lawrence H. Schiffman and James C. VanderKam (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), vol. 1, pp. 505–507.