Atenism & Early Judaism
© Charles Chandler
After the exile of the Amarna heretics, Atenism resurfaced in Judaism.1,2,3:31 So the obvious inference is that the exiles went to Canaan, where they started teaching a new faith to the Habirus. The most important parallels between Atenism and Judaism were that they were the only monotheisms in practice at the time,4 and they were unique in ancient theology for forbidding idolatry,5 believing that God is "supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay."6:5 Thus in their most fundamental conception of God, the two faiths were the same, and in stark contrast to all other faiths of the period. But that's just the beginning...
Another parallel is the similarity between the Great Hymn to the Aten, found in the tomb of Ay at Amarna and attributed to Akhenaten, and Psalm 104 in the Tanakh.7:416,8:371,9
Note that in Judaism, Psalms isn't just another book in the Tanakh — it's the one book from which prayers are recited on a daily basis, and Orthodox Jews specifically recite Psalm 104 in its entirety every morning.
Another parallel is the similarity between the Hebrew Ark of the Covenant and artifacts found in the tombs of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun.
The basic idea of a "ark" (i.e., a container of some sort) made to be carried around was common in Egypt. If it was dedicated to a specific god, there might be a representation of the deity riding on top (such as in Figure 1), suggestive of a king being carried by loyal subjects. Thus the cherubs on top of the Ark of the Covenant would otherwise have been the objects of worship. This is a bit odd in the larger context of Judaism, which explicitly prohibits idolatry, and which appears to have been a compromise between the theologians, who wanted no artifacts at all associated with the faith, and the people, who periodically lapsed into idolatry in moments of weakness.
Cherubs were popular in Babylonia, but rare in Canaan, suggesting that cherubs entered the story during the Babylonian Captivity, which was much later. So what was the original story?
With the ban on idolatry, and with the prohibition against worshiping the pantheon of lesser gods, the only mythical creatures that survive in stricter interpretations of Judaism are angels, who are simply people but with wings, and who can cross the boundary between this world and the next. Similarly, Akhenaten attempted to humanize the faith of his day, eliminating idolatry as much as possible, while the only surviving mythical creatures were humans with wings.
Now if we look at Figure 2, we see that it matches the specification that there are to be beings with "their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them." The only difference is that it's a sarcophagus, not a sedan chair, so the angels are not objects of worship riding on top — the object of worship is inside, and the angels are posted at the corners to guard the contents. Only in the tombs of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun have examples of this particular detail (i.e., two opposing beings, with wings spread upward, spanning the extents of an object) been found.
See this for another example from Tut's shrine. On the sarcophagus, the figures are identified as the goddesses Isis, Nephthys, Neith, and Selket, but the inscriptions were done hastily, while the meticulous detailing of the feathers was far more deliberate, suggesting that the original intent might have been different. The feathers are the insignia of Ma'at, the goddess of truth, ethics, and morality, who used a feather to weigh the heart of the deceased. The principles of Ma'at were wholly consistent with Atenism, in which the whims of the priests were subordinated to the rule of law. This is also the distinctive thing about the early Hebrews, who insisted that principles be established, published, and distributed, bringing religious faith out from behind the curtain of the inner sanctuary, and giving the people a set of standards by which to live.
On closer examination of other artifacts in Tut's tomb, we can clearly see that the humanism of the Atenist faith didn't just preclude mythical beasts. Even the "angels" were not actually supernatural — they were women with wings strapped onto their arms. (See Figure 3.) So this was a de-mystified, humanized concept of truth and justice, inconsistent with all other contemporary faiths except Judaism. (The mitzvot elaborates on the rejection of mysticism in the Torah,10 with specific prohibitions against witchcraft, astrology, seeking any manner of mystical signs or portents, or invoking charms or incantations, practicing magic using herbs, stones, etc., casting spells over snakes and scorpions, belief in ghosts or attempting to communicate with the dead, and consulting wizards.11:334-344)
The next closest resemblance to this form in ancient archaeology is shown in Figure 4, from the previous generation at Amarna.12:11 But the wings are not stretched upward, because they had to leave room for the winged disc in the upper center. This predates Akhenaten's ban on the symbolic representation of the Aten. Since the 1312-Exodus occurred after Tutankhamun, it makes sense that the description in the Torah more closely resembles the latter form, and there is no winged disc in Jewish lore.
The same general form (i.e., two females facing each other, with outstretched wings strapped to their arms) appears in several other places in Tut's tomb (e.g., here, and here), representing Ma'at (the goddesses of truth and justice), and again 40 years later in the tomb of Seti I, who ruled . (See Figure 5.) Seti I appears to have been the pharaoh who established the first Hebrew nation, so he was sympathetic to their principles, even if Egypt had officially banned Atenism. Thereafter, Ma'at is always represented in this general form (e.g., an inscription at Abu Simbel done in ), though never matching the specifications of the Ark of the Covenant quite so precisely as on Tut's sarcophagus.
Before moving on, we might note that the fringed linen draped over Anubis in Figure 1, and the way that it is draped, are recognizably rabbinic. (See this for a closer look, and compare the fringes to those on a modern tallit.) There is no other instance of Egyptian gods wearing shawls, so the Hebrews didn't get this tradition from common knowledge.
Another parallel between Atenism and Judaism is the names of the two top religious officials under Akhenaten and under Moses.13 Akhenaten's two highest priests were:
Likewise, Moses' two highest priests were:
Another parallel is the name of Moses' father,13 who the Torah identifies as "Amram",20,21 or "Imran" in the Qur'an.22 This matches the second cartouche in Aten's name: Im-r-n. So Moses (born Ramose) stopped claiming that he was the son of Ra, and started indirectly claiming that he was the son of Aten (within the limits of the Jewish disdain for living gods).
Next we have the strict Hebrew tradition of keeping the sabbath (Shabbat). The word is a compound based on Sheva (i.e., meaning seven, which in Arabic is saba). But a compound of what? The Greek form is sabbaton, which is cognate with the late Babylonian sabbatum, which variously meant pacify, Sun, or light.23 This would be an odd mix of meanings, unless of course it was originally sabba-Aten, when every 7th day the people pacified themselves and worshiped the Sun god.3:36
Finally we have the very name of God. This was most commonly written as YHWH in the Tanakh, which appears to have been the god of the Shasu, a Transjordan tribe predating the Exodus, who were described as "those who move on foot" (i.e., nomads). The hieroglyphics for this transliterates into Hebrew as YHWH. But Hebrew tradition insists the name of God be pronounced as Adonai, which is too different from YHWH to be considered an alternative form of the word. So we should like to know the origin of this nickname. Adonai is the emphatic plural of Adon (similar to usage of Elohim as the plural of El). Adon, Adonis, Adonai, Adam, atum, atom, Aton, and Aten have all been shown to be cognate, meaning the first, the one-and-only, the indivisible, and/or the sole ruler.24:59-74,25:176-177 Adon, Atum, and Aten are even more closely related, being associated with Sun worship.26:212 Of course, the concept was ubiquitous, so it's not surprising that the word shows up in a lot of different forms. (Note that the letters "d" and "t" are loosely interchangeable, especially in the northern Levant, being identical in cuneiform, one of the common scripts during this period. For example, the name of the city Adana, first attested in the Amarna period,27:203 is alternately spelled Atana to this day.) So Adon was Aten, the god of Akhenaten and Ramose. When the Egyptians outlawed Atenism, it became tactless for the Hebrews to keep a written record of their defiance of the law. So they simply wrote that they were worshiping the god of their tribe (i.e., YHWH), and only in closed prayer meetings did they speak the name of their god (i.e., Adonai). Then again, observant Jews won't even write the name of God, preferring "G-d" or HaShem (which means "the name"). So if they can't use God's real name, they stop short of using YHWH or Elohim.
Thus the two faiths shared the same core. To highlight the central nature of the overlap, imagine a person claiming to be a Jew, but without recognizing the supremacy of Adonai, nor observing the sabbath, nor deliberately attempting to live by Mosaic Law, nor thinking of the Covenant as the glue holding the community together, nor reciting Psalm 104 with reverence, but who does pray to figurines of mythical creatures — in no sense could such a person be considered a Jew. Hence Atenism and early Judaism were nothing short of two instances of the same faith.
So which was the source — was Atenism the inspiration for Judaism, or was it the other way around? Those who acknowledge the secular dating of Joshua's conquest of Jericho (), and then follow the Biblical chronology, which has him coming after Moses, would conclude that Akhenaten adopted monotheism from the Hebrews, and then neglected to defend Canaan against the Habirus out of respect for YHWH.28 But it's hard to believe that isolated groups of illiterate sheep-herders in the Judaean Mountains went straight from primitive paganism to the abstractions of early Judaism. On the other hand, there was a steady theological progression in Egypt, first achieving the pseudo-monotheism of the Amun-Ra cult, and culminating in the all-powerful, indescribable creator-god in Akhenaten's time.29 Next we have the 1312-Exodus, and shortly thereafter, Hebrew settlements start popping up in the Levant. So Atenism is far and away the likelier source.
And if Atenism was the inspiration for Judaism, it could have only been during this period, since Atenism was subsequently suppressed, and was unknown until modern times. Furthermore, scholars have rightfully questioned how far Atenism spread beyond Amarna. This is especially true of the type of information in question, such as prayers that only the pharaoh was allowed to recite, and tomb art that was even more secret. The implication is that the Atenist influence had to travel to Canaan on the lips of a ranking officials from Amarna. That yields a short list, with Ramose at the top.
So the hypothesis is that Moses was Ramose, vizier to Akhenaten,2,3:31,30,31:30 and that he was exiled along with his high priests to Moab when Tutankhamun abandoned Amarna in . The priests have been identified as the Levites, who were the only ones in the Torah with Egyptian names (e.g., Moses, Merari, Phinehas, Hophni, and Hur),32 and who were responsible for the Tabernacle,33,34,35,36 which has been shown to be of Egyptian design.37 Once on the East Bank, they then proceeded to convert pastoral nomads to Atenism. When Horemheb outlawed Atenism in , another group of Atenists left Egypt and settled in Moab. After Ramose and all of that generation had passed,38,39 the Hebrews pressed westward into Canaan in ,8:409 claiming the land on the West Bank that had been promised to them. This caused a ruckus, prompting Seti I's campaign in to restore order to the region, and leaving the "Habirus of the Sun" in charge, thus establishing the first Hebrew nation.
Then comes the question of whether or not a handful of Egyptian dignitaries could have converted thousands of Habirus to Atenism, who then spread the faith throughout the Levant. To Transjordan Bedouins, the arrival of a troop of Egyptian nobility would have made an impressive (if not imposing) sight, and yes, they would have listened. The Canaanite idolatry unearthed from ancient Hebrew settlements suggests that Judaism was not universally accepted all at once throughout the region. This is not surprising — no new religion ever was, or ever will be. (It's also possible that Hebrews wishing not to be persecuted for Atenism found it convenient to be able to produce a miniature likeness of Ba'al on demand, even if the figurine meant nothing to them.) Still, the faith that endured bears the distinctive marks of evangelists coming out of Amarna, so somebody listened.
Lastly, we should note the most significant difference between Atenism and Judaism. It was mentioned in the previous section that Akhenaten positioned himself as the one and only instance of the spirit of the Aten, making him the sole arbiter of truth and justice in the Universe. But adherents of Judaism refuse to acknowledge living gods, and are explicitly skeptical of, and quick to turn away from, false prophets — a first in the history of theology.40,41 So while the Hebrews got the essential tenets of their faith from the Egyptians, there was one point that they rejected — the supremacy of the Egyptian at the top. This was later generalized to include anybody who pretended to be God, or descended from God, or otherwise claimed possession of any sort of mystical connection to God that was inconsistent with earlier prophesy.42 In other words, the Hebrews achieved a purer form of humanism.
1. Breasted, J. H. (1894): De hymnis in solem sub rege Amenophide IV conceptis: dissertatio. Universitas Friderica Guilelma ⇧
7. Breasted, J. H. (1906): Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents: Volume II. University of Chicago Press ⇧
8. Breasted, J. H. (1905): A history of Egypt from the earliest times to the Persian conquest. New York: C. Scribner's Sons ⇧ ⇧
13. Gadalla, M. (1999): Historical Deception: The Untold Story of Ancient Egypt. Greensboro, NC, USA: Tehuti Research Foundation ⇧ ⇧
27. Baikie, J. (2004): Armana Age: A Study of the Crisis of the Ancient World. University Press of the Pacific ⇧
30. Osman, A. (1994): Moses: Pharaoh of Egypt: The Mystery of Akhenaten Resolved. ⇧
31. Assmann, J. (1997): Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Harvard University Press ⇧
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