The notion that Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten was the first to conceive the concept of the monotheistic ideology that underlies Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Baha’i is hardly original.
Renowned Father of Psychiatry Sigmund Freud presented this idea in his 1939 book, Moses and Monotheist, promoting the perspective that if the Biblical Exodus is to be taken literally, Moses was most likely an Atenist priest (a leader in Akhenaten’s monotheistic cult) forced to leave Egypt and take his followers with him after Akhenaten’s death. Freud contends that Moses ultimately spread the one-god belief Akhenaten had conceived.
And while this theory requires a degree of faith to concede feasibility, the likely impact of Akhenaten’s heretic doctrine on a historically polytheistic region of the world does not. And even if Moses didn’t play the pivotal role Freud suggests, there is plenty of evidence connecting Akhenaten to the Abrahamic faiths.
The Rise of Akhenaten
Born “Amenhotep,” between 1363–1361 BCE, the younger son of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, Akhenaten ascended the Egyptian throne as Amenhotep IV somewhere between 1353 and 1351 BCE.
Crowned in Thebes (the sometimes capital of Egypt), he became the tenth ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty, his reign lasting 17 years, spanning 1353–1336 or 1351–1334 BCE.
At the time of his ascension, a pantheon of deities with shifting popularity held sway over Egyptian society, all constituting elements of “Ra,” the Sun God (also “Re”).
Among these deities was Aten, a relatively insignificant god regarded as a lesser aspect of Ra.
Historically, Aten would likely have slipped into obscurity (like countless other lesser deities) had Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III, not distinguished the name by christening his royal barge the Spirit of the Aten.
Although each Pharaoh in the long procession of Egyptian Pharaohs chose one god as their “Royal Patron and Supreme State God,” no Pharaoh had ever elevated one over the others nor discouraged the worship of multiple deities—per ancient Egyptian tradition.
Akhenaten set out to change that tradition—in the most drastic way possible.
One God Above All Others
Around 1357—1355 BCE, Akhenaten endeavored to convert Egypt from a polytheistic to a monotheistic empire, declaring the Cult of Aten the only legal and legitimate religion, forbidding even writing the names of other deities.
Once changing his name from Amenhotep IV (meaning “Amun is Pleased”) to Akhenaten (meaning “Living Spirit of Aten”), he showed total intolerance for the worship of other gods.
He closed traditional temples, threatened religious traditionalists, and commissioned the construction of Atenist temples throughout Egypt, in Bubastis, Tell el-Borg, Heliopolis, Memphis, Nekhen, Kawa, and Kerma.
He then abolished all anthropomorphic or zoomorphic manifestations of divinity (gods in human or animal form). He intended to obliterate thousands of years of what he considered religious ignorance.
Interestingly, however, it appears that rather than executing a long-considered plan to convert Egypt upon ascension to the throne, Akhenaten’s own conversion to monotheism may be likened to an epiphany sometime in the fourth year of his reign.
Inscriptions from the first three years of his reign show Amenhotep IV worshiping various gods, including Atum, Osiris, Anubis, Nekhbet, Hathor, and the Eye of Ra.
Similarly, texts from that era refer to the “gods” and “every god and every goddess.” Additionally, the High Priest of Amun was still holding office into the fourth year of Amenhotep IV’s reign.
Clearly, something extraordinary prompted Akhenaten to mandate such a radical, heretical transformation of religious beliefs dating back to Egypt’s beginnings.
A Capital City Worthy of Aten: Akhetaten
As if to supernaturally transport Egypt out of the past, Akhenaten decreed that a new capital city was to be built, worthy of Aten’s greatness: Akhetaten (Ancient Egyptian meaning “Horizon of the Aten”), known today as Amarna.
For this new capital city, Akhenaten chose an uninhabited, virginal site midpoint between Thebes (the capital at that time) and Memphis, on the east bank of the Nile; a place where a Royal Burial site and a natural dip in the surrounding cliffs form a silhouette reminiscent of the Egyptian “horizon” hieroglyph.
Though Akhetaten/Amarna is primarily an archaeological site today, many “boundary stelae” demarcating the parameter of the city can still be seen.
According to inscriptions on one such stela, the site was chosen as Aten’s city because it had no former claims: not the property of a god, not the property of a goddess, not the property of a ruler, not the property of a female ruler, not the property of any people able to lay claim to it; a genuine clean slate.
Akhenaten had the grandest of plans for this new capital city, and by 1346 BCE, he moved his people en masse to Akhetaten.
Did the Biblical Exodus Take Place During Akhenaten’s Reign?
Although most Bible scholars agree that the Bible is largely metaphorical and not to be taken literally, the majority concur that it is nevertheless based on a historical framework.
And no Biblical narrative plays more prominently in religious faith than the Hebrew’s departure from Egypt led by Moses, detailed in the second book of the Old Testament, “Exodus,” 13:17-15:21.
Theologians credit Moses himself with writing large portions of Exodus based on many scholarly assertions:
God commanded Moses to write the events of Joshua’s military encounter with the Amalekites (“Write this on a scroll,” Ex. 17:14).
Moses wrote the communication the Lord gave him on Sinai (“Moses then wrote down everything the Lord had said,” 24:4).
On Mount Sinai the Lord told Moses, “Write down these words” (34:27) and Moses “wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant” (34:28).
Additionally, the Bible states that Moses could undertake such a task (“Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” Acts 7:22).
Thus Bible authorities believe Moses did as God instructed, recording the events as they occurred.
But while Moses may have provided an accounting of the events (including the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt), the Bible narrative provides only references and no concrete dates. Therefore, extrapolating from Bible literality, the consensus among theologians has narrowed the date of the Exodus to four possible reigns:
The reign of Amenhotep II (1427–1401BCE or 1427–1397 BCE).
The reign of Amenhotep III (1391–1353 BCE or 1388–1351 BCE).
The reign of Thutmose III (1479–1425 BCE).
The reign of Ramesses II (1279–1213 BCE).
Accordingly, none place the Exodus (nor Moses) in the reign of Akhenaten.
But does that mean Akhenaten’s monotheistic doctrine did not lay the foundation for Abrahamic religion? Was Moses critical to spreading the doctrine, as Freud asserts?
Surely an idea as radical as forcing an entire nation to abandon centuries of religious beliefs and practices—favoring one god over all others–would have spread throughout the Near East like proverbial wildfire, without or without Moses. And historically speaking, that is very likely what occurred.
Connecting the Dots
Early in the 20th Century, segments of proto-Semitic-Hebrew script were discovered in Egypt near the Nile River Basin, indicating that the Hebrews were part of the Egyptian landscape as early as 2100 BCE.
Additionally, many Egyptian texts show that Hebrew traders interacted with Egyptians as early as 1540 BCE, with an untold number choosing to live in and around Egyptian cities.
Thus, there is little doubt that Hebrews lived in Egypt before, during, and after the time of Akhenaten–and were likely among those who abandoned Thebes for Akhetaten (Amarna).
Even historians who find no credible evidence for the Exodus found many direct links between Atenism and Abrahamic religion. For example:
In the Biblical narrative describing Moses’ acquisition of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, the first commandment god is said to have given Moses is, “I am the Lord, thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This directive sounds remarkably like the order Akhenaten issued his people to place Aten over all the others—by law.
Another connection can be seen by comparing the text of Akhenaten’s “Hymn to the Aten” and “Psalm 104” from the Bible, which shares language and imagery in addressing the sun directly; similarities difficult to ignore:
Hymn to Aten:
Splendid you rise in heaven’s lightland,
O living Aten, creator of life!
When you have dawned in eastern lightland . . .
Your rays embrace the lands . . .
The moon marks off the seasons and the sun knows when to go down.
You bring darkness, it becomes night . . .
The sun rises, and they (lions) steal away . . .
How many are your works, O LORD!
Similarly, it is difficult to ignore the obvious connection between the Biblical story of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the spiritual element long associated with the winter solstice (when the Sun appears to die and be resurrected three days later).
Also, in that most traditional depictions of holy icons (such as Jesus) are shown back-lit with the sun, the transition from “Sun” to “Son” is both logical and culturally sound.
Did Akhenaten Lay the Foundation for Abrahamic Religion?
Short of discovering some previously unknown text directly linking Akhenaten’s “one-god” doctrine and the Hebrew God of the Bible, this question can never be definitely answered. But one needn’t be a theologian, historian, or scholar to draw a logical conclusion based on available evidence.
Freud, S., “Moses and Monotheism,” Moses And Monotheism:Freud,Sigmund. : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
Dodson, Aidan, “Amarna Sunrise: Egypt from the Golden Age to Age of Heresy,” The American University in Cairo Press.
Hanna, John, “Exodus,” http://faith-web-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/Exodus%20Intro%20(For%20Further%20Study).pdf
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“Sinaitic inscriptions,” Sinaitic inscriptions | Alphabet, Meaning, & Decipherment | Britannica
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“Son of God vs Sun of God,” http://www.cornerofknowledge.com/son-of-god-vs-sun-of-god/