Most people are not aware of this fact but the concept of monotheism has deep roots in Western Civilization, reaching as far back in time as the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt, well before the formation of the ancient state of Israel. When you begin to study the Egyptian religion and begin to correctly understand the concept of the "neteroo" then you see quickly that contrary to how the Egyptian religion has been "described" and "painted" by many writers it truly was Monotheistic to the core. The most common knowledge about Ancient Egyptian divinities comes to us as a result of the "interpretation" by western academic Egyptologists of the Ancient Egyptian texts. Their "interpretations" are constrained by their western and Judaeo-Christian paradigms. As a result, they report a confused religious system with a great number of "so-called" gods. Academic Egyptologists, while worshipping everything Greek or Roman, totally ignore the eyewitness accounts of Herodotus, Plutarch, Plato, Diodorus, and other historians who reported about the Ancient Egyptian traditions, and who were much closer to the scene than the further removed western academic Egyptologists whose agenda is to find "links" to today's existing religions of Judaism and Christianity instead of recognizing that key religious foundations common to both existed thousands of years earlier in Egypt long before there were ever the birth of the "Jewish" people. That being the case then understand that the Ancient Egyptian word, "neter", and its feminine form "netert", have been WRONGLY, and possibly intentionally, translated to "god" and "goddess", by almost all academicians. "Neteru" (plural or neter/netert) are not "gods" or "goddesses" but the Divine Principles and Functions and Energies contained in the One Supreme Creator. There is a common simple description that explains all of this: "The All who are One".
The Ancient Egyptians believed in One God whom was self-produced, self-existent, immortal, invisible, eternal, omniscient, almighty, etc. This One God was REPRESENTED through the functions and attributes of "His" domain. These attributes were called the "neteru". The term "gods" and "goddesses" are a MISREPRESENTATION of the Egyptian term "neteru". When we ask, "Who is God?", we are really asking, "What is God?". The mere name of noun does not tell us anything. One can only define "God" through the multitude of "His" attributes, qualities, powers, actions. To know "God" is to know the numerous qualities of "God". The more we learn of these qualities (neteru), the closer we are getting to our Divine origin. Far from being a primitive, polytheistic form, this is the highest expression of monotheistic mysticism.
Knowing this then was a pharaoh named Akhenaten who imposed on his people a religious belief-system centering around a single deity which was in principle a "grouping" of all Neteru whom he called the Aten or sun-disk. This was his way of expressing the "All in the One". Famous also for his capital city Akhenaten (modern el-Amarna) and his strikingly beautiful wife Nefertiti, Akhenaten's revolution in religion was short-lived, and the extent of its influence even within Egypt is hard to gauge, though it seems slight. Ironically, however, though the lasting effects of Akhenaten's religious revolution might have been short lived in Egypt we find that his "Aten" worship inspired or in some way sparked the development of monotheism later among the ancient Israelites surrounding their God "YHWH".
We in the western world today tend to associate monotheism with our own traditions, as if it were originally the invention of our European ancestors. It wasn't. Cultures rooted in the Near East and its environs not only explored monotheistic thinking earlier and more fully but also today embrace the strictest form of monotheism to date, Islam. Historical data are clear that the conception of a universe created and guided by one deity alone is the product of Eastern ideologies exported to, not from, the West.
Answer for yourself: Does it not seem reasonable to understand more correctly this God we "inherited" from Eastern religions we should acquaint ourselves with what they taught about this "One God" and compare such understandings with ours to see how "identical" are our religious understandings of this same God and how if any our understanding of this "One God" has been altered and changed and find out why such changes were made?
Answer for yourself: Since most of our religious beliefs of both Judaism and Christianity can be shown to have originated and come from Egypt, like religious concepts of the Soul, Eternal Life, the Messiah, Resurrection of the Dead, Repentance, life after death, the Laws and Commandments of God, etc., then should we not look to the beginning of such religious concepts to see how these very important religious concepts were both believed and taught by those who first "received" them when compared to how we "received" them today?
Many today assume that the earliest historical evidence for monotheism is to be found among ancient Hebrew scriptures, the accounts of a people living in the Near East. Personal study on your part in the Egyptian religion by reading such authors as M. Gadalla and A. Osman, and others on our recommended book list, will prove to you that such an assumption is totally unwarranted. Not only did the Hebrews develop their monotheistic tenets slowly and over the course of several centuries, a fully developed form of monotheism emerged in Israel only after a lengthy period of evolution. In fact "monotheism" developed long before the Hebrews even existed as a people as the ancient Egyptians experimented with a form of single-deity worship. The guiding force behind this effort to "correct" Egyptian religious practice was Akhenaten (the Biblical Moses) who both felt the abuses and excesses of the Thebes' Amun-Ra Priesthood needed to be stopped as well as the prevalent overemphasis on worship of one individual neteroo like Osiris which, it just so happened, had reached its zenith in the 18th Dynasty. In his opinion Egypt was beginning to lose is way from an implicit "monotheism" by an over emphasis in the worship of various individual "neteroo". Simply put he felt that this nation was losing its proper worship of the "One" which comprised the "All" by the overemphasis one these "parts" of the whole. Whether or not his theological experiment influenced or in any way stimulated the religion outlined in the Old Testament is a matter of debate by various scholars but I feel that it was instrumental in Israel later adopting a "monotheistic" religion centered in YHWH. What is clear, however from such a study, is the fact that the ancient Hebrews were not the only nor the first people to adopt the notion of a single cosmic entity that oversees everything. Egypt saw this and understood this as the "All who are the the One".
The unique and peculiar phase of Egyptian history he engineered is known today as the Amarna period. The modern Egyptian village of El-Amarna lies near the site that was once Akhenaten's capital city although the Amarna Period extends beyond his reign. It includes not only Akhenaten's regency but several of his successors': Semenkhare (1338-1336 B.C.E.) about whom next to nothing is known; Tutankhaten (later, Tutankhamun, 1336-1327 B.C.E.) whose current notoriety since the discovery of his tomb in the 1920's far outstrips the boy-king's fame in antiquity; and finally Ay (1327-1323 B.C.E.). By the time the next series of pharaohs held the throne, Horemheb (1323-1295 B.C.E.) and the Ramessids, a dynasty which included the famous Ramses II, Amarna had been abandoned and destroyed, along with the memory of Akhenaten's religion in the general conscience of the ancient Egyptian public. This deliberate attempt to eradicate all reference in the Egyptian record to the Amarna period by Horemheb and his successors was nearly successful, but not quite.
We do know about Akhenaten, in fact, probably quite a bit more than the ancient Egyptians did who lived even just a few generations after the monotheist's rule. In spite of the fact that there is virtually no reference in later Egyptian historical records to Akhenaten's existence, or his immediate successors archaeology has brought Amarna culture back to light with astounding clarity and depth and provides the information that you read in these articles.
To a large extent, our knowledge of Akhenaten's life and times begins in Akhetaten, the city he built for himself and his religion, not that the site is particularly well preserved. In fact, it isn't. Later rulers antagonistic to Amarna culture, the social and religious institutions Akhenaten imposed on Egypt, intentionally demolished the city of Akhetaten along with the records of his reign. Ironically, however, that program of destruction saved the city and its founder's name for posterity by reusing the thousands of "smaller" stones taken from its demolition in building projects throughout all other parts of Egypt which have been discovered today. The reason for this demolition and eradication of all traces of evidence to the existence of Akhenaten and his "reforms" stems from the enormous scope of change which Akhenaten attempted by his dramatic shift in religious, political and social traditions and that, of course, meant he had to have an entirely new, fully functioning capital from which he could run the country without the weight of tradition bearing down on him and holding him back.
Almost as soon as Akhenaten became the sole ruler of Egypt, he began to alter the traditional presentation of the pharaoh and the ways state business was conducted. For instance, he took on a new title, "Prophet of Ra-Horakhte" ("Ra of the Horizon").
Answer for yourself: Did you notice that there is no mention of "Amun" in his new title; Amun being the god of mysteries and hidden truth whose name appears in so many Egyptian appellations such as "Amun"-hotep and Tutankh-"amun". The title "Prophet of Ra-Horakhte" suggests dissatisfaction with conventional religion, especially since by Akhenaten's day Amun had long been seen as the central neteroo and deity in the Egyptian religion whose center of worship was Thebes, the capital city of Egypt. Akhenaten would change all that.
Several years into Akhenaten's reign, there is clearly a major shift in Egyptian religion under way. By now the pharaoh had moved away the court and capital from Thebes to the new city he names "Akhetaten" and adopted a new title, the name we know him by, Akhen-Aten meaning in Egyptian "he is agreeable (Akhen-) to the sun-disk (-Aten)." To have effectively removed Amun from his name seems like an all but open declaration of warfare against the dominant religious faction in the day, the Amun priesthood based in Thebes. And as if that weren't enough, archaeological evidence shows that around this time Akhenaten began closing down Amun temples across Egypt and even had the name Amun erased from inscriptions. Be not mistaken closing these temples means no money for the Priesthood and that always spells trouble when you take the money from the Pastor of his "church". Later, he went so far as to order the word "gods" removed and changed to "god," wherever it occurred on public inscriptions. Whether or not this is monotheism by theological standards, it's certainly is food for thought.
Answer for yourself: But what was Akhenaten's beef with Amun? Why did he dislike this god so intensely?
Opinions differ to which I alluded to one above but others scholars have suggested it was because Amun as the god of secrets was too obscure a deity, too inaccessible to the public. Indeed, shrines to Amun are invariably situated in the middle of temple complexes, roofed and dark, where priests alone may enter them and then only on special occasions. Many scholars believe Akhenaten wished to open up Egyptian religion to a wider clientele, not just the clergy, and so he constructed a capital which was the antithesis of Amun worship, exposed constantly to the full light of day, as the buildings of Akhetaten show: few roofed structures, little shade, and constant exposure to Akhenaten's true father as far as he was concerned, not Amenhotep III but the Aten.
But religion is not the only change attributed to Akhenaten. He was instrumental in creating a new expression of art and iconography in Egypt which of course as expected has "religious overtones". The religious iconography of Akhenaten's religion centers around the Aten as a divine presence. Representing the life-giving force and energy of the universe, the sun-disk is depicted in both abstract and personified forms, occasionally both at the same time. Akhenaten understood this God as the collective whole of many parts (the All who is One); a composite of all forces, energies, and powers of the Cosmos working together to not only create life and matter but sustaining it and recycling it when it "dies". Scientists teach us today that you never destroy energy; it only changes form and recycles itself in other manifestations (both visible and invisible). Though it's most often pictured as a mere circle with rays of light radiating downward, the Aten also appears sometimes with little hands appended onto the end of its solar beams which hold out to worshipers the Ankh, the Egyptian sign of life. In a few instances, the hands are even shoving the Ankh up their noses rather unceremoniously, a statement, no doubt, of the sun's "breath of life," its vital force.
But Akhenaten's religious movement entailed features far stranger than anything which had happened in the history of Egypt. In fact, it looked backwards less than forward in time, at least inasmuch as the new religion prefigured a very different conception of Godhead. As such, the Aten typically portrayed without human or animal form, in strong contrast to standard Egyptian practice of representing the various "neteroo". The goddess Isis, for instance, is frequently shown as part-woman, part-cow, and the face of her deceased husband Osiris is sometimes painted green to demonstrate that he represents the rebirth of vegetation in the spring. But unlike either of them, Akhenaten's Aten is the First Cause of all being, which means by nature this Cosmic Energy God which take upon Himself all forms cannot be restricted in form, and is thus almost always presented as the aptly universal and geometric solar circle. The little hands attached to his sun-rays were a concession, no doubt, to popular taste.
Even to say "he" of the Aten is perhaps too restrictive for this universalist conception of deity. When considering the Aten gender is clearly not relevant to this idea of the sun-disk and stranger yet, to say "he" of Akhenaten himself isn't always valid either. This Cosmic Energy which is inherent in everything, both visible and invisible, is the totality of all negative and positive forces that exist and is contained in both male and female representatives of "life". Thus traditional male-female styles in Egyptian art blended together in peculiar fashion throughout Amarna culture, extending as far as royal portraiture of Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti, and children. Akhenaten, for instance, is shown in a series of colossi (large statues; singular, colossus) lacking male genitalia, and in general, his depiction is odd, to say the least. He's often portrayed as pot-bellied, slouching, thick-lipped, with a big chin and pointed head, which has led scholars to suppose he suffered from some sort of birth defect, resulting in eunuchidism.
Answer for yourself: If these "assumptions" of scholars be correct then how did he sire a family, for in art he appears with as many as six different daughters? And those are only the ones he had by his principal wife.
That raises another fascinating and enigmatic issue concerning Akhenaten's revolution, the centrality of his family in the public presentation of his regime. Not only do we have many depictions of the beautiful Nefertiti, Akhenaten's principal wife-more, in fact, than of Akhenaten himself, but we can trace the royal daughters' births year by year, and sadly sometimes their deaths, too. Reliefs even show the royal couple playing with the girls. Like no pharaoh before or after him, Akhenaten was family-oriented. He celebrated all facets of life that this Invisible Creative Energy of the Cosmos manifested.
Thus, it seems unlikely he was actually unsexed or a hermaphrodite, certainly not a eunuch, but the real father of the children he professes, at least through his art, to adore so fondly. But the gender-bending portraits of him seem ill-suited for such a family man, by modern standards no doubt. And Nefertiti's depictions are not immune to cross-gendering, either. She's shown at least once wearing the blue crown, the helmet kings don as they go into battle. She's the only Egyptian queen ever known to have been depicted that way, including Queen Hatshepsut, the woman who ruled Egypt singlehandedly for two decades a century before. Be that as it may there is no doubt that there is something very odd, by any standard, about the way the Amarna rulers are portrayed.
Moreover, the entire family is depicted with elongated faces and skulls, wide hips and sagging bellies. The tall hat Nefertiti wears in her famous bust is probably covering-perhaps even accentuating-her pointed head, even though surely she was not congenitally deformed, certainly not sexless. Nor were the girls, which is all the more evidence Akhenaten was not, either. Naturalistic portraiture seems a less likely explanation of the oddities inherent in this family than some sort of stylized rendering. There's certainly something abnormal about them but arriving at the answer in my opinion has escaped the majority of scholars who comment on these physical features which are not just limited to Akhenaten but cover his entire family. That the royal family constitutes the only people ever portrayed this way is surely a clue. To depict Akhenaten's entire immediate family, and only them, in such an unusual manner must signify something. Many scholars believe that their different look is meant to highlight exactly that, the fact they're different.
All this concurs well with Akhenaten's religion, where the pharaoh serves as the conduit between humanity and the Aten. It's through and because of him the sun-disk bestows life on the planet. In his own words, a hymn Akhenaten himself apparently composed about the Aten, "There is no other who knows you except your son, Akhenaten." That makes the pharaoh and his family some sort of deific beings, blessed entities on whose good will the benefits of the sun, and thus all life, depend. This was a new concept. Before this, the Egyptians had always held the sun as a representative of the Energy of the Cosmos whom was understood to be the Intelligent Orderer and Creator of all things, both invisible and visible as well as believing that the royal family was always divine ("godly"), but never was the royal family seen to be the ONLY divine presence in the Universe. That, indeed, was something very different.
Taking all this into consideration the bottom line is that 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 later. The answer to that question depends on several factors.
Answer for yourself: 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 even just have been influenced by it?
To answer the first, Hebrew monotheism differs in several significant ways from Akhenaten's religion. While the Aten is an omnipotent 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: the energy of the Heavens and of Mother Nature. 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 its the Pharaoh himself which is both the representative and embodiment of this Creative Energy.
Still, both cultures share the central notion, if not the details, of monotheism.
Answer for yourself: Could the Hebrews have picked up monotheism from the Egyptians somehow? Such a notion presumes, of course, that Hebrews existed in some form during Akhenaten's reign. The eradication by later pharaohs of all records of Akhenaten's religion and regime makes proving the existence of the Hebrews in Egypt more tenuous. Many scholars would flatly say there weren't any Hebrews at all during the time of Akhenaten, at least not Hebrews as such. Israel was definitely not an organized nation in the fourteenth century B.C.E., 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 since there's no evidence Egyptian monotheism spread beyond the borders of its native land, if Hebrews borrowed the notion, they would have to have been living in Egypt around the time of Akhenaten's reign. Coming to the aid of such a hope is the Biblical sources which say they were contemporary with Akhenaten as well as Manetho, an Egyptian scribe who was an author and an Egyptian priest who was offered the patronage of the Ptolemaic court, the result of which was an orderly account, written in Greek, of the history of the Egyptian Pharaohs, which is still the basis of our conventional numbering of the dynasties today.
In the so-called Egyptian Captivity which the Bible claims lasted both 4 generations and 400 years (which is a problem of sorts) the Hebrews did, in fact, live in Egypt, and were later enslaved by powerful New Kingdom pharaohs for being "shepherds" (see http://jesusastrotheology.netfirms.com) and followers of Akhenaten and the Aten until the Exodus in which Akhenaten, the Biblical Moses led them to freedom in the Holy Lands. If that really happened as the Bible and attests and as Egyptian records tell us, then these Hebrews must have been in Egypt when Akhenaten had his brief day in the sun. Still, it doesn't take huge crowds of Hebrews in Egypt to introduce the idea of monotheism into Israelite thinking. One "Joseph" is enough. So, it's possible to weave together from the historical data a scenario in which the idea of monotheism seeped somehow out of Egyptian theology and into Israelite culture.
When you open the Hebrew Bible to Psalm 104, the great manifesto of God's all-encompassing power, and read how God 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.
And then among the remains of Amarna culture you find the Hymn to the Aten, purportedly written by Akhenaten himself, and it says:
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
The similarity is simply astounding. It seems incontrovertible that cultural and religious exchange from Egypt to Israel transpired somehow and, given the chronology, we must suppose the sharing took place in that direction and there appears to be no way around the conclusion that the ancient Hebrew who wrote Psalm 104 borrowed from Akhenaten's Hymn to the Aten.
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