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Did Akhenaten's religion influence early Judaism?

Did Akhenaten's religion influence early Judaism?

There were some claims, for example in the 1st 2 chapters of Moses and Monotheism by Freud, that early Judaism was basically a spin-off of Akhenaten's religion. There are indeed some remarkable similarities:

Akhenaten, an Egyptian, is perhaps the 1st monotheist in History; Judaism is the 1st organized monotheistic religion, and its becoming one is associated with the Exodus from Egypt.

Akhenaten calls his god Aton; one of the names used in Judaism is Adon or Adonai.

The word Moses means "son" in Egyptian, as in Ra-mses or Tut-mos; Biblical Moses was raised as the son of an Egyptian princess (perhaps because he was one).

Moses was fluent in Egyptian, but "tongue-tied" in Hebrew, even after considerable time as the leader of Jews.

There are also remarkable dis-similarities between early Judaism and the traditional Egyptian worship that denied the religion of Akhenaten:

The animals that were traditionally worshipped in Egypt (not by Akhenaten) are deemed "dirty" in Judaism.

Jews are forbidden to shave their heads, which was a common practice in Egypt.

Etc., Etc., Etc.

The speculation by Freud goes something like this:

The followers of Akhenaten's religion are persecuted after Akhenaten's death. The son of Akhenaten's daughter, known further as "the Son" or "Moses", decided to flee Egypt. A natural leader, he decides not to flee alone, but to create a new nation, become it leader, and install the religion of Aton with it. Jews, enslaved in the Delta, seemed a good pick. He convinces Aaron, the son of his wet nurse, to disseminate the story that Moses was actually a Jew, and to act as Moses's mouthpiece (and perhaps Hebrew-Egyptian interpreter).

Thus the question: is there any historical evidence to either support or deny such claim? Are there any contradictions between the described above speculated line of events and some reasonably known facts about ancient Egypt history?


In general, I would be very wary of claims that Akhenaten's religion was a significant influence on early Judaism. There is, however, one very famous link that is often claimed between Akhenaten and the Old Testament that seems to be worth investigation.

The Great Hymn of the Aten is one of a number of "hymns" written during the reign of Akhenaten and dedicated to the Aten manifestation of the Egyptian sun-god. The Aten was central to Akhenaten's religious reforms.

There are significant similarities between The Great Hymn of the Aten and Psalm 104 in the Old Testament. These were first identified in 1905 by the American Egyptologist Henry Breasted, and have been the subject of considerable academic debate ever since.


You can read the full English translation of the Great Hymn of the Aten here, (I'm sure a quick Google search will find many other sites).

[In case anyone is interested, you can also see the Hieroglyphic text of the Great Hymn to the Aten, discovered in the tomb of Ay.]

The text of Psalm 104 is also available in English on many sites, for example the King James translation can be found here.


We discussed the similarities between the Great Hymn of the Aten and Psalm 104 at some length when I was a student. I have to say that personally, while I can see the parallels, nothing that I have yet read or heard has quite convinced me of the direct link.

Miriam Lichtheim was a renowned translator of ancient Egyptian literature (I have a very well-read set of her 3-volume collection of translated ancient Egyptian literature on my own bookshelf). She was definitely not convinced of the connection, observing:

"The resemblances are, however, more likely to be the result of the generic similarity between Egyptian hymns and biblical psalms. A specific literary interdependence is not probable."

[Lichtheim, 2006, p100]

On the other hand, John Day (in the book linked above) argues that a number of the parallels, and also particularly the order in which they occur, strongly support the proposed dependence of Psalm 104 on the Great Hymn of the Aten [Day, 2013, p218]. He concludes that:

Psalm 104 is indeed dependent on Akhenaten's hymn to the Sun, but this dependence is confined to vv. 20-30

If he is correct, that really does have significant implications for the early development of Judaism (not to mention the implications for the currently accepted Egyptian chronology!).

That academic debate I mentioned is by no means over.


Sources:

  • Day, John: Psalm 104 and Akhenaten's Hymn to the Sun in Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalms: Conflict and Convergence, Ed Susan Gillingham, Oxford, 2013
  • Lichtheim, Miriam: Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume II: The New Kingdom. University of California Press, 2006

Judaism was long a Henotheist religion, ie it believed there was many gods, but claimed the Yahweh was the foremost and most powerful of these gods. It is generally believed that Judaism became monotheistic, claiming that other gods did not exist at all, during the Babylonian exile, (1, 2) probably influenced by Zoroastrianism.

These events are in the 6th century BC, some 600 years after Akhenaten. I do not know of any evidence outside imaginative readings of the Bible that supports the idea that Judaism comes out of Atenism or that Moses was a descendant of Akhenaten.


"Thus the question: is there any historical evidence to either support or deny such claim? Are there any contradictions between the described above speculated line of events and some reasonably known facts about ancient Egypt history?"

It is fairly certain that there was no Exodus as described in the Bible; the kingdoms of Judah and Israel are broadly accepted to have been Canaanite in origin and never to have been in Egypt.

So any story which presumes the Exodus is highly likely to be false, whatever its other appeal.

For a more extended discussion of the problems with the Exodus narrative as history, see here: Evidence for the Exodus


Akhenaten lived about 125 years before Rameses II, the best fit pharaoh of Moses. You'd have to explain that away first.


Has anyone read the work of Messod and Roger Sabbah? They were primarily concerned with proving a link between Egyptian hieroglyphs and Hebrew/Arabic but included a story linking Akhenaten with the founding of that monotheism which developed into Judaism. In this Moses is Rameses I (r.1292-1290 BCE) and his son Joshua was Sety I. Aaron is Horemheb (r 1319-1292 BCE) who launched a military coup following the death of the Pharoah Ay, also an early name for God in the Jewish tradition. This would set the Exodus story 1290-1279 BCE. In the opening of their book "Secrets of the Exodus", Rabbi Marc Alain Oaknin is quoted "This is far from all the hairbrained publications that have already appeared concerning hidden messages in the Bible. This thesis certainly contains some rather abrupt shortcuts and some errors, But it is not the work of charlatans". Certainly the coincidences are remarkable, compare the description of Sety I's campaign in Canaan with that of Joshua in the Bible and we could well be reading an account of the same campaign.


Did Akhenaten influence the Hebrew religion?

It's possible but it's not really possible to know, you follow?

Even the enslavement of the Hebrews is only plausible, I believe, let along figuring out when they actually were in Egypt, and who they actually were, and what relation they bear to the people later known as the Jews, and what Akhenaton actually espoused, and so on.

StarSpawn

Dyslexsic and proud of it
The Fattest Santa

Almost definitely. Monotheism draws upon it in many ways.

Of course that's also true of pretty much every previous religion they had contact with. Judaism is practically cobbled together out of scraps, and it's successor-religions are even worse about cribbing from one another.

Islam in particular is nothing but a perjury of Christianity with some words changed around to sound more arabic, plus some generic bullshit that makes no sense. It's the Mormonism of the 6th century.

Unhappy Anchovy

1 + 1 + 1 = 1

Fell, you do know that Islam originated in the late 6th and early 7th centuries, right?

In any case: a link is conceivable, and it's obviously very tempting for historians to try to find a link between Hebrew monotheism and this earlier monotheistic experiment in Egypt, but to my knowledge there is no direct evidence. Early Hebrew monotheism does not seem to imitate the language, art, or other forms of Akhenaten's solar henotheism as far as I'm aware.

I would just leave the subject with 'maybe, but probably not a lot'. The Hebrew religious art and writings we have are too different.

The Fattest Santa

Anopheles

I joke of many things

Sayle

Atalantë

Darth Invictus

True Ruler of the Crystal Empire

I'd be surprised if he didn't influence at least a few aspects of the Hebrew faith, the Amarna Pharoahs were less brutal than the 19th dynasty that followed them and Akhenaten in particular with his monotheism may have been seen as a positive sign by the Hebrew slaves and so they may have tried to gain his sympathy

Of course this depends on whether the Hebrews were from Egypt and not Canaan, even if they were though the fact the power to their south (and also their colonial master) became monotheistic may have persuaded them to take some aspects of Atenism onboard to endear themselves to Akhenaten, one of the Psalms and the Atenist Hymn to the Aten are almost identical so at least some influence was present

Duncan_Idaho

Ash Nazg

What seems likely to me is that some of the people who would later get rolled into the new identity "Hebrew" were descended from (a) group(s) in Egypt, and that those people got some ideas/practices that would later get rolled into Jewish scriptural monotheism either from Akhenaton or from some unknown shared source.

But we don't know and probably we can't know.

Todos Somos Humanos

Darth Invictus

True Ruler of the Crystal Empire

Ramenth

Capitalized and with extra salt

It's questionable. It certainly had an impact, but, proto-judaism is believed to be polythesitic and the God that won out is generally considered to be a god of Storms and War, and won out by being the only cult to gain meaningful longevity. Akhenaten imposed monothesim, while Judaism's evolved organically.

Todos Somos Humanos

Yeah, you're talking about the Hyksos expulsion, but they were not slaves (the word means foreign rulers), and the idea they were the Hebrews according to the Bible is a supposition of Josephus and certain traditions. There is evidence that the Hyksos were Canaanites too, but various sources point to them being generally irreligious or appropriating Seth as their deity.

The Hyksos and Akhenaten were also 5 dynasties apart.

Darth Invictus

True Ruler of the Crystal Empire

It's questionable. It certainly had an impact, but, proto-judaism is believed to be polythesitic and the God that won out is generally considered to be a god of Storms and War, and won out by being the only cult to gain meaningful longevity. Akhenaten imposed monothesim, while Judaism's evolved organically.

This seems rather more likely. It would account for any number of oddities and explain the whole "Child of Rameses" thing much more clearly. Judaism was (mythologically at least) around before Aten's reign, but, it's not unthinkable that a number of Atenists fled with Moses.

Judaism gained a lot of its ideology from this storm god? Christianity did the same with Sol Invictus, the only cult that was a serious challenger to it, I've heard worse theories


The 19th dynasty of Rameses the Great was vehemently opposed to the Atenist heresy of the Armarna Pharaohs and went to great extents to wipe them from the face of history with the only exception being Horemheb who succeeded Ay. If one of Rameses sons got into the Aten cult as a way to rebel against his father or to attempt a move on the throne, Rameses would have had zero qualms about making an example of him, armed rebellion or escape would be the only option if that son wanted to remain among the living

It's very, very unlikely that the Hyksos would be the origin of the Hebrews and/or Canaanites, personally I think the exodus was either a slave revolt or rebels who managed to escape into Canaan after failing to unseat Rameses the Great which then influenced the Hebrew faith that would become Judaism by encouraging monotheism

As far as we know Akhenaten was the first known Monoethist, given the proximity to where Judaism emerged I'd be surprised if his faith didn't have a link to it in some form or another

Todos Somos Humanos

Trob030490

Ramenth

Capitalized and with extra salt

Prince Ire

Section XIII

Unhappy Anchovy

1 + 1 + 1 = 1

Darth Invictus

True Ruler of the Crystal Empire

Scottty

LordofHosts

Defying Nebuchadnezzar

Not necessarily. Yamm (the sea-god) was the opponent of the storm god Prince Ba'al and and his consort Maiden 'Anath of Ugarit also. (See the Ras Shamra texts and especially the "Ba'al Epic" -- fascinating reading for a Biblically interested man, whether fundamentalist or atheist.)

The Chaoskampf motif of struggle against dragons and the sea pervades the Ancient Near East. It isn't unique to Babylonian mythology by any means. Or at least so I understand matters -- I am after all only an autodidact on these matters, rather than a learned doctor.

More broadly I would say the cultural milieu shares many common motifs across the Semitic cultures, and even onward into Egypt, the Hittites/Anatolians and -- come time -- possible even the Greeks. It needs little detective work to establish the connection between Semitic Ba'al and Babylonian Bel, or Sumerian Enlil and Canaanite El. But one could easily go further and connect Greek Aphrodite to the Ugaritic 'Anath or Ashtart (AKA Astarte, or Ashtoreth in the Bible) or the Babylonian Ishtar. Over thousands of years it isnt hard to imagine cross-pollination of quite considerable proportions across and between the cultures.


Of course, as a fundamentalist I personally don't believe the inspired authors of our Old Testament were merely derivative copycats of heathen myth in any case.


Searching for the Origins of the Jewish New Year

Scholars agree to its great antiquity, going back to the time of Moses. We first read of the holiday in Leviticus 23:24, where it is called zikhron teru'ah, “a memorial of shouting [or blowing of horns]”, a holy convocation, to be held on the first day of the seventh month. Meanwhile, Numbers 29:1 calls it Yom Teru’ah, or “Day of Shouting [or blowing of horns]”. The day’s three special prayers are for the kingship of God, remembering, and for blowing the shofar.

Blowing the shofar at Jerusalem’s Western Wall during the eve of Rosh Hashanah. (Government Press Office (Israel / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Something of great importance must have been memorialized during this celebration, now lost to antiquity. We know it required both shouting and the blasting of the shofar horns, which marked the coronation of monarchs in Israel. At least a dozen ideas have been put forward as to the reason behind the celebration, including remembering the binding of Isaac by Abraham, commemorating the future arrival of the Messiah and God’s final judgement.

During the times of the Talmud (3-6 th centuries BC), Rosh Hashanah was associated with the coronation of God: “Say before me on Rosh Hashanah the “sovereignty” service… so that you can make me king over you” (Rosh Hashanah 16a). This stems from the very ancient Song of the Sea in Exodus 15:18, which states: “Yahweh will reign forever and ever!”

It also evokes the Coronation Psalms which describe God as King, such as Psalms 45, 47, 93, 95, and 97. In Psalms 98:6 we read: “with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn – shout for joy before the Lord, the King!” I wonder, however, why it isn’t mentioned in the Torah, if this really was the reason? If Moses meant to celebrate the crowning of God, why didn’t he explicitly say so? I still sense a secret.

What are Jewish families celebrating each year during Rosh Hashanah? What secret event are they so joyously commemorating? I have a radical proposal: They are remembering the coronation of Akhenaten, the monotheistic sun king of the Amarna Age , and, I believe, the secret “King Moses” at the heart of Judaism. I believe we can make the most sense of this puzzle if we connect the Pharaoh Akhenaten to the Hebrew prophet Moses.

The most well-known tradition of Rosh Hashanah is the blowing of the shofar. ( rudall30 / Adobe Stock)


Oh my gods! Everyone knows that Ancient Egypt was polytheistic, with a troupe of animal-headed gods that were worshiped for thousands of years. And it’s true. Ancient Egypt was polytheistic — except, of course, for those 20 years or so when it wasn’t.

Many of us thought that the Jews were the first monotheists in history. But sometime early in his reign, from 1353-1336 BCE, the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten upended centuries of polytheistic practices and decreed that there was only one god: the sun itself.

Sun worship started with his father, Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who identified himself with a minor god, the Aten, elevating it to the status of a favored god and personal deity.

Amenhotep III might have initiated the intense worship of the Aten that took over his son, the pharaoh who became Akhenaten

Like Father, Like Sun

After Amenhotep III died, his son ascended the throne under the name Amenhotep IV, which meant The God Amun Is Content. But the pharaoh, in the fifth year of his reign, changed his name to Akhenaten, He Who Is Effective on the Aten’s Behalf, when he became convinced that the Aten was the one true god.

Egyptologists never fail to point out that the Aten is the “solar disc,” though I’m not sure how that differs from just saying that they worshipped the sun.

Gerhard Fecht, who taught Egyptology at the Free University of Berlin and who died in 2006, noted the similarity of the pronunciation in ancient times of Aten (“yati”) and father or forefather (“yata”), which he believed was far from a coincidence. Akhenaten styled himself as the son of the sun and the father of his people, and he believed that he would merge with the sun in death.

Wally and Duke are particularly partial to the Amarna style of art, as shown in this statue of Akhenaten

The Upsides of the So-Called Amarna Heresy

History hasn’t looked favorably upon Akhenaten, deeming him “the Heretic King” for having the gall to shift Ancient Egypt from polytheism to monotheism for a short period and for moving the capital from Thebes to a new city, Akhentaten, now referred to as Amarna.

There’s much to admire about this fascinating ruler, though. For one thing, he created a new style of art — strangely captivating genderbending statuary on the one hand and paintings that convey an intimate realism on the other — when the rest of the three millennia of Ancient Egypt had a remarkably stagnant style. If we can believe the artwork (and we have every reason to be skeptical, since imagery was used for propagandist purposes throughout the ancient kingdom), Akhenaten was utterly devoted to his queen Nefertiti.

We’re also led to believe that Akhenaten doted on the six — count ’em, six — daughters he had with Nefertiti. Most pharaohs would have been disappointed by not having at least one son who could become heir to the throne, but Akhenaten was so enamored of his daughters, he included depictions of them in the artwork he commissioned — an uncommon practice for the time.

There’s evidence that The Hymn to the Aten influenced one of the Psalms in the Bible

The Great Hymn to the Aten

This controversial pharaoh was a man who loved nature, waxing poetic in the Great Hymn to the Aten, which it’s believed he wrote himself. This poem begins:

For you are risen from the eastern horizon and have filled every land with your beauty
For you are fair, great, dazzling and high over every land,
And your rays enclose the lands to the limit of all you have made
For you are Re, having reached their limit and subdued them for your beloved son
For although you are far away, your rays are upon the earth and you are perceived.

When your movements vanish and you set in the western horizon,
The land is in darkness, in the manner of death.
People, they lie in bedchambers, heads covered up, and one eye does not see its fellow.
All their property might be robbed, although it is under their heads, and they do not realize it.
Every lion is out of its den, all creeping things bite.
Darkness gathers, the land is silent. The one who made them is set in his horizon.

Scholars delight in pointing out how similar the Bible’s Psalm 104 is to the second stanza. It’s not too far-fetched to accuse the Psalm author, who wrote hundreds of years after the Aten hymn, of plagiarism.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti, with three of their daughters, basking in the holy rays of the sun, known as the Aten in Ancient Egypt

Who’s Worshipping Whom?

In his book Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet, Nicholas Reeves argues that Akhenaten worshipped the sun, while the populace of Egypt worshiped Akhenaten. He sees the move to monotheism as a political ploy to strengthen the pharaoh’s power. This point is strengthened by the carvings found in the few tombs used outside of Akhentaten: Instead of gods and goddesses, they feature the royal family prominently.

Atenism created a new trinity. Instead of Amun, the father who jerked off to create the twin siblings, his son Shu and daughter Tefnut, you had the Aten, Akhenaten and Nefertiti. In fact, their six daughters rounded out the royal family, providing a new version of the Ennead, the nine gods of creation.

Aten’s temples were open to the air, a striking contrast to previous Egyptian places of worship, notably the dark and mysterious confines of the temples to Amun, known as the Hidden One. Other temples held a small chamber at the back, the sanctuary, or holy of holies, which housed the cult image of the deity. But with the Aten there was no need for a statue — the god could be seen blazing up in the sky, its warmth felt upon the skin during daylight.

A relief from the Karnak Temple shows Akhenaten worshipping the sun. The new religion was probably appealing at first, with its focus on life and beauty instead of death

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

Atenism’s popularity was short-lived, perhaps even beginning to wane while Akhenaten was still alive. But its initial appeal is easy to imagine.

For centuries, Ancient Egyptians were obsessed with death their great monuments, elaborate spells and mummification rituals were meant to assure a pleasant afterlife. But Atenism focused instead on the here and now, on life on this Earth.

In the past, Egyptian tombs were located on the West Bank of the Nile, most notably the Valley of the Kings. But Akhenaten broke with tradition, designating the eastern hills as the site of the royal tombs and lesser cemeteries. No longer would death be associated with the west and the god Osiris, evoking the sunset and a bleak finality. Instead, death was now connected to the sun that rose from the eastern cliffside, offering light and hope each day.

The Militaristic Move to Monotheism

Most likely in the 10th year of his reign, Pharaoh Akhenaten ceased to tolerate any mention of other gods aside from the Aten, and launched an all-out war against the old deities, Amun and his consort Mut in particular.

“An order went out from the palace to smash up the divine statues and hack out the names and images of these gods wherever they occurred — on temple walls, on obelisks, on shrines, on the accessible portions of tombs,” Reeves writes.

The priesthood of the chief god, Amun, in particular, didn’t fare well under Akhenaten’s decree to worship only one deity: the Aten

The persecution spread to the common people as well. Eye makeup containers and commemorative scarabs from this time have been found with the hieroglyphs for other gods gouged or scratched out.

We don’t just have to take Reeves’ word for how bad things got. Here’s what Manetho, a priest and historian from the Ptolemaic Kingdom in the early third century BCE, wrote about Akhenaten’s monomania:

…not only did they [pharaoh’s men] set towns and villages on fire, pillaging the temples and mutilating images of the gods without restraint, but they also made a practice of using the sanctuaries as kitchens to roast the sacred animals which the people worshipped and they would compel the priests and prophets to sacrifice and butcher the beasts, afterwards casting the men forth naked.

Upon Akhenaten’s death, his son and successor, King Tut, returned Egypt to polytheism

King Tut Restores the Old Gods

After Akhenaten’s death, his son Tutankhamun’s reign didn’t last long — but did effect major change. Tut brought Ancient Egypt back to polytheism, after his father’s failed experiment. His Restoration Stela paints a bleak picture of how badly things had gotten in such a short time:

…the temples and the cities of the gods and goddesses, starting from Elephantine as far as the Delta marshes … were fallen into decay and their shrines were fallen into ruin, having become mere mounds overgrown with grass. Their sanctuaries were like something which had not yet come into being and their buildings were a footpath [i.e., public] — for the land was in rack and ruin. The gods were ignoring this land. … if one prayed to a god, to ask something from him, he did not come at all and if one beseeched any goddess in the same way, she did not come at all.

Akhenaten undeniably wreaked havoc upon the social order. His persecution of the gods that had been worshipped for millennia must have greatly unnerved the populace. He created countless enemies by stripping the priests of Amun of their power and stealing their great wealth to build his new capital city. He didn’t concern himself with the military or economics. For all his focus on hope, he left Ancient Egypt in worse shape than when he took the throne.

But his revolutionary religious vision, even if it was self-centered, very well could have planted the seeds of the monotheistic religions that dominate the world today. –Wally


Akhenaten and Hebrew Monotheism

In today’s world, the pre-eminent issue surrounding Akhenaten is whether or not his religion did—or even could have!—influenced the development of Hebrew monotheism, a theology which the historical data suggest evolved several centuries after Akhenaten’s lifetime. The answer to that question depends on two main factors. How alike are Hebrew and Egyptian monotheism? And is there any way in which the Hebrews could realistically have had significant contact with atenism, enough to borrow elements from it or, if not, even just have been influenced by it?

To answer the first question, Hebrew monotheism differs in several significant ways from Akhenaten’s religion. While the aten is an omnipotent, stand-alone divinity, it’s also present specifically in the light of the sun-disk and the pharaoh’s family, so its divinity is limited in a way the Hebrew deity’s is not. The God of Israel acts through all sorts of different media: angels, rainbows, floodwaters and, as biblical Egyptians ought to know perfectly well, frogs. Nor was there any real attempt by Egyptian monotheists to extend the aten’s power beyond Egypt, the way God’s power is seen by later Hebrew prophets to embrace all creation. So, while Akhenaten claims the aten is universal, he speaks of it more like it’s a pharaoh at the center of some cosmic court full of fawning, powerless minions—that is, it looks like him.

Still, both cultures share the central notion, if not the details, of monotheism. Could the Hebrews have picked that up from the Egyptians somehow? Any such idea
presumes, of course, that Hebrews existed in some form during Akhenaten’s reign—later pharaohs’ eradication of all records pertaining to Akhenaten’s religion and regime makes later cultural borrowing highly unlikely—and many scholars would say flatly there weren’t any Hebrews at all during that time, at least not Hebrews as such. Israel was definitely not an organized nation in the fourteenth century BCE, but then theological notions do not require a political state for their existence. Wandering patriarchs, as attested in the Bible during this age, could easily have borrowed the concept of monotheism from Egypt. But there’s no evidence Egyptian monotheism spread beyond the borders of its native land, so if Hebrews borrowed this idea from Amarna culture, they would have to have been living in Egypt around the time of Akhenaten’s reign. That, too, seems unlikely, except that biblical sources say they were.

In the so-called Egyptian Captivity which the Bible claims lasted several centuries, Hebrews did, in fact, live in Egypt, enslaved by powerful New Kingdom pharaohs until the Exodus when Moses led them to freedom in the Holy Lands. If that really happened, they must have been in Egypt when Akhenaten had his brief day in the blazing sun. But because the great majority of scholars today downplay the historicity of the Exodus—there is certainly no corroborating evidence massive numbers of Hebrews fled Egypt at any point in ancient history—again this seems unlikely. Still, it doesn’t take huge crowds of Hebrews in Egypt to introduce the idea of monotheism into Israelite thinking. All you need is one average Joe, or Joseph.

So, it’s possible to weave together from the historical data a scenario in which the idea of monotheism threaded its way somehow out of Egyptian theology and into Israelite culture. But when one looks closely, it’s not a very tightly woven tapestry, especially in light of where the Bible says the Hebrews were in Egypt. The city of Goshen in which scripture claims they lived as captives is probably synonymous with an Egyptian settlement in the Nile delta called Pi-Ramesse (“the City of Ramses”). If so, it’s many miles from Akhetaten, and there’s very little evidence to be found in Egyptian art or history that Akhenaten’s revolutionary theology filtered that far north. Nor is it likely it would have fared well in this part of Egypt, a stronghold of Ramses’ family. The Ramessids were staunchly opposed to atenistic thinking and later attempted to eradicate all traces it had ever existed. So, how is it even possible Ramses’ construction slaves heard about a far-off, out-of-date religious tradition strongly proscribed by their tyrannical overseers?

Statue of Akhenaten excavated in Karnak. / Cairo Museum, Egypt

With that, the evidence seems to weigh heavily against the argument that the Hebrews came into contact with the aten and from that caught the monotheism bug, or even heard about the belief in only one god. With no obvious channels of communication on either side, it’s improbable Akhenaten’s revolution could in any way have influenced or even been the inspiration for Hebrew one-god thinking. Think about how many of the world’s great inventions have cropped up independently in different places. Writing and literature, for instance, arose in both the West and the East with no apparent connection between them, as did agriculture, drama and ship-building.

Thus, proximity in time or space alone is merely circumstantial evidence and doesn’t constitute a compelling case from any Amarna-Israelite connection. It’s perfectly possible some ancient Hebrew came up with the idea of monotheism all on his own. After all, all he had to say was “Hmmm, I wonder if there’s just one god?” Even in a world predicated on polytheistic traditions, how hard is that?

And then you open the Bible to Psalm 104, the great manifesto of God’s all-encompassing power, and read how He created grass for cattle to eat, and trees for birds to nest in, and the sea for ships to sail and fish to swim in:

Bless the Lord . . . you who coverest thyself with light as with a garment . . .
Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters . . .
He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and . . . the trees
Where the birds make their nests as for the stork, the fir trees are her house.
The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats . . .
(As) the sun ariseth, (the beasts) gather themselves together . . .
There go the ships: there is that leviathan (whale), whom thou hast made to play therein.

Among the remains of Amarna culture was found a Hymn to the Aten, purportedly written by Akhenaten himself. It reads:

When the land grows bright and you are risen from the Akhet (horizon) and shining in the sun-disk by day, . . .
All flocks (are) at rest on their grasses, trees and grasses flourishing
Birds flown from their nest, their wings in adoration of your life-force
All flocks prancing on foot, all that fly and alight living as you rise for them
Ships going downstream and upstream too, every road open at your appearance
Fish on the river leaping to your face, your rays even inside the sea. (trans. James P. Allen)

The similarity is fairly astounding. Comparing these passages, who could argue against some form of cultural exchange moving from Egypt to Israel—and, given the chronology, one must suppose the sharing took place in that direction—how can we avoid the conclusion that the ancient Hebrew who wrote Psalm 104 has somehow borrowed from Akhenaten’s Hymn to the Aten?

With that, the realization begins to dawn that answers to the great question about the origins of Hebrew monotheism are not going to come swiftly or easily. How did a Hebrew psalmist’s eyes—or ears?—ever pass near a banned Egyptian hymn? While the psalm is hardly a verbatim copy of its Amarna model, the likeness of these songs, especially in their imagery and the order in which the images come, argues forcefully for some sort of Egypt-to-Palestine contact, however indirect.

And if there is contact there, why not elsewhere? But if we imagine an invisible turnpike of some sort running between Akhetaten and ancient Jerusalem, what are we really creating: a history or a novel? And by doing so, are we not at risk of saying more about ourselves than the odd, beguiling world Akhenaten built, whose slanted light still shines from beneath sand and stone and scripture? Historiai, you’ll remember, means “questions,” and that is exactly what the history of Akhenaten leaves behind.


Did Atenism heavily influenced Judaism? Was Atenism the first monotheistic religion in history?

So there was a brief period in time of ancient Egypt where the traditional pantheon of gods was replaced by Aten as the single supreme deity. Was this the first instance of monotheism we have in history? Could this have possibly influenced other religions like Judaism, Zoroastrianism,etc?

Ancient Israelite religion evolved very slowly from a polytheistic religion to the monotheistic religion we think of today (Judaism). Ancient Israel and Judah can't be called monotheistic, and probably not even henotheistic, until after the Babylonian exile in 587 BC. A time gap of over 700 years is so large that a direct connection with Atenism is unlikely.

Egyptian hymns and prayers have similarities to biblical texts, but that's due more to Egypt, Israel, and Mesopotamia exchanging many literary and cultural elements over the centuries than the influence of Atenism specifically.


Akhenaten Exalts the Cult to Aten by Eliminating all Others

Hands Offering Aten Cartouches , ca. 1352–1336 B.C., found in the Sanctuary of the Great Aten Temple, Met Museum

Step Five was fully realized by the early 1340s BCE, by which time, Akhenaten had eliminated all other priesthoods within Egypt and made himself the sole connection between Egyptians and the realm of the gods. All worship of Atenism, all sacrifices, and thereby all profit was suddenly diverted to Akhenaten and his family, removing the status of all other priests and demoting all prior pharaohs to a much lower position than the current king.


1 Monotheism

During Egypt’s short-lived Amarna Period in the 14th century B.C., Pharaoh Akhenaten decreed that his personal god, the Aten, literally “sun-disc,” should be the supreme deity. Scholars once believed this was the beginning of monotheism in ancient Judaism, but recent research calls that hypothesis into question. In fact, there is little archaeological evidence of any contact between the two cultures in that period. In addition, the Aten was very different from the deity of the Hebrews. Although the Aten had no personal relationship with humans other than the king, the divine being of the Hebrews is shown as often communicating with the people through prophets and signs. So although both religions were for a time monotheistic, it seems doubtful that the tribes that became the Hebrews based their conception of the One God from the Aten of the Egyptians.


Did Akhenaten's religion influence early Judaism? - History

10 (P) "They shall make an ark of acacia wood. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. 11 (P) You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and you shall make on it a molding of gold around it. 12 (P) You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. 13 (P) You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 14 (P) And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. 15 (P) The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark they shall not be taken from it. 16 (P) And you shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you.

17 (P) "You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. 18 (P) And you shall make two cherubim of gold of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 (P) Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. 20 (P) The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.


Hebrew Religion | The First Civilizations

Many of the most fundamental ideas of the Hebrew religion go back to the days when the Hebrews were still nomads, before they had adopted a settled life. From the nomadic period of Hebrew life come the feast of Passover, with its offering of a spring lamb and of unleavened bread the keeping of a sabbath or holy day on the seventh day of the week an annual day of expiation (Yom Kippur) and other holy days still honored by Jews in our own time.

Three fundamental aspects of Judaism were expressed in the Hebrew god’s commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” and “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

The religion of the Hebrews was monotheistic, recognizing only a single god. Despite the experiment of Akhenaten in Egypt and a few Babylonian texts that try to associate all divine power with Marduk alone, the Jews were the first to insist that their god was the only god and a universal god. Furthermore, the Jews were forbidden to represent this god in sculpture or painting. More than that, they were forbidden to make any images of living beings, flesh, fish, or fowl-no doubt because their leaders feared that if they did make such images, they would end by worshiping them. Finally, the religion of the Hebrews regarded the name of god-Yahweh or Jehovah, meaning “he causes to be,” or “the creator”-as literally not to be spoken.

The Bible teems with episodes in which the Hebrews broke away from the worship of their one god, tried to propitiate other gods, and were punished. Yet however often they disobeyed, the first commandment remained the central feature of their religion. Jehovah himself was human in form though not visible to the human eye. Unlike the gods of all other peoples, he did not lead a human life he had no family he dwelt not in a palace but in heaven. When he wished to speak to the leader of his people, he descended onto a mountaintop (Mount Sinai) or into a burning bush or into the space between golden cherubim set atop a sacred wooden box in which the Ten Commandments, transcribed on two tablets of stone, were kept.

This box was the ark of the covenant, built by artisans to the orders of Moses as relayed to him by his god. The covenant was the pact between god himself and his chosen people, all the tribes of the Hebrews in confederation, held together by their regard for this most sacred of objects. The ark moved with the Hebrews, first into the hill country of Shiloh, where the coastal Philistines captured it about 1050 B.C., and ultimately into a temple built for it by Solomon in Jerusalem.

There were prophets among the Jews from the beginning. Summoning the people to return to the original purity of the faith, they sought to avoid the paganism that would threaten if Canaanite influences continued. In ecstasy perhaps brought on by dances, they warned of fearful punishment to come if the people did not heed them. After the punishment, however, Israel would rise again, and a descendant of David’s would appear as a Messiah, a savior, to usher in a new golden age.

The punishment came with deportation into Babylonian captivity and the abandonment of Jerusalem. With the prophecies of evil fulfilled, the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of new life being breathed into the dead bones of Israel, and he urged all to prepare for its restoration. When the captivity was over, the priests became the dominant figures in the restored community, with its rebuilt temple but without a state of its own.

There was much about Hebrew society that recalls what we have already observed about the other peoples of the ancient Near East. The father exercised supreme authority within the family polygamy and divorce were permitted and, as among the Hittites, a widow married her dead husband’s brother. The Hebrews had slaves, but a Hebrew slave could be made to serve no more than six years.

A man who had injured his slave was required to set him or her free. Otherwise the law of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, held sway. Yet the general prescriptions- such as the commandments-and even some specific regulations-not to wrong strangers, not to exact usurious interest for a loan, to help one’s enemies as well as one’s friends-strike an ethical note as deep as any found in the earlier Mesopotamian Near East, and presage other principles that would eventually emerge from Hebrew society.


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