|Did the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten influence Jewish monostheism?|
In the never-ending search for a natural explanation for the origins of the Judeo-Christian religion, Skeptics have gone far afield looking for any person or idea they can point to and claim that the Jews or Christians "borrowed" from -- and we will look here at one of the most common claims, one that goes as far back as Sigmund Freud [Red.HK, 4]. The claim: Monotheism, the belief in one god, is not a Hebrew original, but was borrowed from the Pharaoh Akhenaten.
A caveat is in order before we begin. I am inclined to accept the thesis of David Rohl that the Egyptian chronology is in need of revision and that Akhenaten was actually a contemporary of Saul and David. If that is true, then the argument is moot, and if anything, the borrowing occurred the other way around.
However, for the sake of argument, we will assume here that the presently-accepted Egyptian chronology is correct, and explore whether or not Akhenaten's monotheism may have been the source for Jewish monotheism. (This also, of course, takes for granted the naturalistic assumption that Jewish monotheism was not instigated by a revelation, regardless of Akhenaten; but we will not address the issue from that perspective.)
The Atenism-Judaism borrowing connection begins with a general naturalistic assumption that not only denies the possibility of external revelation, but from a rational perspective, supposes that monotheism was a late development that evolved from polytheism, which had in turned evolved from polydemonism, and so on back. However, as McCarter notes, many "so-called primitive societies" who were/are at a Neolithic level otherwise "were in fact monotheistic and showed no signs of ever having been anything else." [McC.RR, 67] Even from a naturalistic perspective, the "borrowing"/development idea for monotheism has too many surds in the plotline to be taken seriously as an all-explaining thesis.) Second, it is open to question according to recent research whether "monotheism" is a proper word for Jewish belief anyway -- and on that account we refer the reader here.
What Has Cairo to Do With Jerusalem?
We should begin our study by listing in full the similarities between Atenism (as we shall call Akhenaten's religion) and Jewish monotheism. They are:
And what else?
Nothing else...that's it.
Now if this is all there is to the similarities, one wonders what critics who allege borrowing are thinking. Coming up with an idea that there is but one God (rather than several or none) who created and sustains the universe is little more than a natural variation upon a theme that we would expect people to hit upon often, even quite independently. This means, of course, that the critics don't need to allege borrowing from Akhenaten at all.
Nevertheless, we need now to explore the differences between Atenism and Judiasm, in order to make a rational case concerning alleged borrowing. We begin by digging into the soil from which Atenism grew.
I any of the Egyptian pantheon were to be chosen as supreme, the sun god Re, or some variation upon him (like Aten), was the best candidate. Already in Egypt at the time of Akhenaten, there had been a longstanding story of Re as the first king to rule Egypt; afterwards, wearied of the affairs of men, this Re "retired to the heavens leaving his son the pharaoh to rule on earth in his stead." [Ald.A, 237]
Not surprisingly, the time leading up to Akhenaten showed "a progressive increase" in the regard for the sun god, and a view of Re as a universal god (Not surprising, because the sun shines on everyone!). [Ald.A, 239] The 18th dynasty (in the period prior to Akhenaten) saw a rise of "Heliopolitan" cults and a "solarization" of the principal gods of Egypt. Thus Grimal [Grim.HAE, 238] avers that the change wrought by Akhenaten in this regard "was not in itself revolutionary and was far from being the revelatory religion that scholars have claimed it to be."
Beyond this, we see in the reign of Akhenaten a certain variance and expressed need to be different, and hence a reason or desire to establish a new religious tradition. Akhenaten was no conformist in other matters; so much so that Breasted referred to him as "the first individual in history." [Red.HK, 4, 6, 78-9, 137ff]
This "heretic king" built a new capitol in Middle Egypt, and left the old administrative centers to the jackals; he tossed out cronies from the old political system and installed "rank outsiders"; he celebrated a jubilee much earlier in his reign than was normal, and made a much bigger to-do of it than was typical; tributes and gifts were handed out right and left (as Redford puts it mildly, "every day seemed a holiday"); he gave unusual prominence to his queen, Nefritity; within seven years of his reign, "the integrated system of politics, economics, and cult that Egypt had known for seventeen centuries had been drastically modified, if not turned upside down." Akhenaten was not one to keep the status quo going, and it is no surprise to see him breaking with tradition radically.
With this history established, we now set out to explore the differences between Atenism and Jewish monotheism -- and here is where the road gets really rocky for the "borrowing" proponents.
Redford, who is regarded as the "foremost authority on Akhenaten" [Red.MA, 6] summarizes the view of Mosaic/Jewish monotheism being a ripoff of Atenism [ibid., 26, 113]:
...(T)hese imaginary creatures are now fading away one by one as the historical reality gradually emerges. There is little or no evidence to support the notion that Akhenaten was a progenitor of the full-blown monotheism that we find in the Bible...(it) had its own separate development.
...The monotheism of Akhenaten is so distinct from Yahwism that I wonder why the two are compared.
And Grimal [Grim.HAE, 228] adds:
It has been supposed that Atenism lies at the roots of Christianity, when in fact it does nothing more than reflect the common ground of Semitic civilizations.
Finally, Allen, quoting Assmann, observes that Atenism is "the origin less of the monotheistic world religions than of a natural philosophy. If this religion had succeeded, we should have expected it to produce a Thales rather than a Moses." [All.NP. 97] We would expect not the God of Judaism, but the Prime Mover of Aristotle, or the Deism of Thomas Jefferson, to come from the religion of Atenism.