Did Akhenaten Influence Jewish Religion?

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:

  1. Both believe in one God, who is a Creator and sustainer of the universe.

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.

Not Your Brightest Leader

If all of this sounds good, it may need to be kept in mind that all of this may not have been the sign of what we would regard as a stable and sound mind. The downside is that Akhentanen appears to have been a poor administrator, and perhaps just a touch of a loony: Under his rule, the Canaanite provinces got out of control; his admiration of the sun god was so great that he held ceremonies out in the blazing Egyptian heat, and one record contains the complaint of an Assyrian ambassadorial party that they were made to stand out in the sun during diplomatic proceedings. Perhaps the most telling aspect of Akhenaten's reign from our persepctive is that royal carvings depict him regularly as "lounging, completely limp, in a chair or on a stool." [Red.HK, 234]

To understand the problem somewhat, imagine if our media had only pictures of our President laying around the White House, slouched in the Oval Office in his pajamas. Atenism may have been less of a new religion and more of a way of an incompetent king gaining control over a rapidly-deterioriating and dangerous situation; as David puts it, Akhenaten looks to be much of "a political opportunist who introduced a new supreme deity in order to destroy the power of Amon-Re and his priesthood" [Dav.ERB, 165]

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.

  1. Evangelism and exclusivism. Atenism was at its inception a typical Egyptian religion that "never bothered no one." Redford [Red.MA, 12] tells us:

    It would never have occurred to an ancient Egyptian to postulate the supernatural as a monad -- a unitary, intellectually superior emanation. Much less would it have occurred to him to suppose that his eternal salvation depended on the recognition of such a monad. One man might choose to worship this god or that; another might even hold, for whatever reason, that other gods did not exist. But this was not important for an ancient Egyptian. He could not have cared less.

    Akhenaten's monotheism, in line with this view, was neither evangelical nor exclusive. Aten became "the" god for the royalty; but he never became a god over the average Egyptian Joe, and in fact, "the degree of intensity with which the new program was pursued" went downhill "the farther one got from the royal presence." [Red.HK, 175] Akhenaten showed no interest in promulgating his faith -- not until it became to his political advantage to do so (like when the priests gave him trouble -- then evangelism became rather convenient).

  2. Henotheism to monotheism.Of relation to this is the possibility that Atenism did not apparently begin as monotheism, but as henotheism -- preference and superiority of one god over others. The earliest inscriptions of Akhenaten continue to refer to "gods" in the plural -- this may be because Akhenaten himself has not clarified his beliefs yet, or it may be that sculptors needed some time to get used to the idea of using the singular. [Red.MA, 22]

    A key here is an inscription which says that all gods other than Aten "have failed and 'ceased' to be effective." [Red.MA, 23] Does this mean that the other gods did once exist, but have been subjugated by Aten? Or does it mean they never really existed at all? The key verb is ambiguous. But it is possible that Akhenaten's thought underwent a sort of "mini-evolution" of it's own -- and note that it did not take thousands of years to happen!

  3. Laws and ceremonies. We all know how many rules God handed down in the Pentateuch; what did Aten do that was the same? Actually, nothing. Atenism is "devoid of ethical content." [Red.MA, 113] As Redford puts it, while Aten is the creator (albeit with no associated "creation story"), he "seems to show no compassion on his creatures. He provides them with life and sustenance, but in a rather perfunctory way. No text tells us he hears the cry of the poor man, or succors the sick, or forgives the sinner."

    Similarly, while we know all about the cultic apparatrus spelled out in detail in the OT, Atenism offered no cultic acts (other than a basic daily sacirifice), no cult images, no mythology, no concept of ever-changing manifestations of the divine world. [Red.HK, 169-70, 178] Atenism has more in common with the Deism of the 18th-century West than it does with Jewish monotheism.

  4. Pharaoh as mediator. Atenism had this common link with "normal" Egyptian religion: Akhenaten was regarded as the sole mediator for Aten on earth. The idea of a mediator is in itself not unusual: Moses is portrayed as serving something of that role, and other religions conceived of their clergy as providing some level of intermediary service. But with Atenism, this relationship went so far as to make it so that the sun-disc of Aten was "simply the hypostasis of divine kingship, a pale reflection of [Akhenaten's] own on earth, projected heavenwards."

    Akhenaten regarded himself as "ever the physical child of the sun-disc" and the sole high priest of Atenism. In further service of his own cult, the temples of other gods were closed, and their priesthoods were abandoned, including the funerary priesthood; as a result, the people literally (from their religious point of view) had to depend on Akhenaten for their fate in the afterlife. The focus on the pharaoh was so great that Allen [All.NP, 100] declares: "The god of Akhenaten's religion is Akhenaten himself."

Conclusion

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.

-JPH


Sources

  1. Ald.A - Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten: King Of Egypt. London: Thomas and Hudson, 1988.
  2. All.NP - Allen, James P. "The Natural Philosophy of Akhenaten." in Religion and Philosophy in Ancient Egypt, Yale U. Press, 1985, pp. 89-101.
  3. Dav.ERB - David, A. Rosalie. The Ancient Egyptians: Religious Beliefs and Practices London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.
  4. Grim.HAE - Grimal, Nicholas. A History of Ancient Egypt. Barnes and Noble, 1997.
  5. McC.RR - McCarter, P. Kyle. "The Religious Reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah." in Aspects of Monotheism: How God is One. Washington: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1997.
  6. Red.HK - Redford, Donald B. Akhenaten: The Heretic King. Princeton U. Press, 1984.
  7. Red.MA - Redford, Donald B. "The Monotheism of Akhenaten." in Aspects of Monotheism.