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The Monotheism of Akhenaten

Limestone stela of Akhenaten

It would never have occurred to an ancient Egyptian to think of the supernatural as a monad—a unitary, intellectually superior emanation. Much less would it have occurred to him to suppose that eternal salvation depended on the recognition of such a monad. One person 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.

The Egyptians, like most ancient peoples, experienced the supernatural as infinite plurality. It impinged upon their lives in multiple ways, from beneficial to harmful. It consisted of innumerable wills and personalities.

An ancient Egyptian would have objected only when some belligerent religious reformer threatened to affect the lives of the populace, perhaps by tearing down the old temples and their landed estates or by prohibiting ordinary forms of worship. But even then, the objection would have had nothing to do with how many gods were worshiped.

This can be illustrated by the case of the pharaoh Akhenaten (1352–1336 B.C.E.), who in modern times is sometimes called the first monotheist. Akhenaten’s new program involved the worship of one god (the sun-disc, Aten).

Monotheism appears not through amalgamation and syncretism but rather through the annihilation of other gods. Other divine entities are not simply taken on board and integrated into the pantheon; they are thrown over and left to drown. If they must be acknowledged, it is only done by a kind of deconsecration that demotes them to the status of demons and insists that they were never anything else. They are to be destroyed and plastered over. Their worshipers are attacked, and if they cannot be slaughtered like the prophets of Baal (see 1Kgs 18:40), they are ridiculed, mocked, and vilified.

Though some deny Akhenaten’s “one-god-ism,” Akhenaten was clearly a monotheist. All the well-known ingredients are present: revelation as teaching, belligerent iconoclasm, denial of the plurality of the supernatural, anathematization of other “gods,” purging of forms of religious expression. He believed in a single, universal god, Aten, who had created the world and who continued to affect the world through his active presence. But Akhenaten’s religion did not go much further; he promulgated his belief in the supreme sun-disc by having temples built and hymns composed—and by disfiguring the “false” gods—and that was largely that.

Before much of the archaeological evidence from Thebes and from Tell el-Amarna became available, wishful thinking sometimes turned Akhenaten into a humane teacher of the true god, a mentor of Moses, a Christlike figure, a philosopher before his time. But these imaginary creatures are now fading away one by one as the historical reality emerges. There is little evidence to support the notion that Akhenaten was a progenitor of the full-blown monotheism that we find in the Bible. The monotheism of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament had its own separate development—one that began more than half a millennium after the pharaoh’s death.

After Akhenaten’s death, Egyptians immediately reverted to their old religious norms. Akhenaten was then labeled a rebel and a “doomed one” because he had overthrown the socioeconomic system and had almost disrupted the running of the state. But no one back then ever called him anything like “monotheist,” and certainly no slur was ever hurled at him for espousing one god.

This article was adapted from “The Monotheism of Akhenaten” in Aspects of Monotheism, published by the Biblical Archaeology Society, 1996.

  • Donald B. Redford

    Donald B. Redford is professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies and history at Penn State. He directs the Akhenaten Temple Project with his wife, Susan Redford, and is the author of numerous publications, including Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times.