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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?

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    Freud is not known for the skill and subtlety of his historical methods.
    – MCW
    Mar 23, 2015 at 20:32
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    @Mark C. Wallace: Nor in anything else. Frankly, I'd rank his reliability as an historian as roughly on a par with Erich von Däniken.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 23, 2015 at 21:12
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    The part about the animals is pretty nonsensical. The Egyptian animal pantheon included bulls and sheep (which are "clean" - ritually fit for eating - animals in Judaism), and cats and crocodiles (which are not). So there's no correlation there at all.
    – user438
    Mar 23, 2015 at 23:34
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    Adon(ai) appears to be Ugaritic, whereas Aten denotes the ancient Egyptian word for (solar) disc.
    – Lucian
    Oct 2, 2020 at 20:03

6 Answers 6

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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:

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  • If there was any real connection, I'd expect it to show up in more than one single psalm out of more than a hundred.
    – Mark Olson
    Dec 4, 2021 at 18:58
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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.

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    You know, I've often seen the claim in your first paragraph before, and I have never understood how such a thing is even thought possible. You can't get much clearer monotheistic statements than "that the LORD he is God; there is none else beside him" (Deut. 4:35) and "the LORD he is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath: there is none else" (ibid. 4:39) - and even if it is claimed that Deuteronomy dates only from Josiah's times, that is still decades before the Babylonian exile.
    – user438
    Mar 24, 2015 at 2:49
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    I always understood that the Hebrew "Adonai" simply meant "Lord" because the name of God was too sacred to be spoken?
    – TheHonRose
    Mar 24, 2015 at 14:03
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    @user438: I'm not Lennart Regebro, but there are many statements in the Bible that imply the existence of more than one god. Psalm 82:1: "God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment." Exodus 12:12: "on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord." Exodus 15:11: "Who among the gods is like you, LORD?" Genesis 1:26: "Then [Elohim] said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” Mar 26, 2015 at 8:16
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 20, 2015 at 0:17
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"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

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  • That events are not as literal as described in Exodus doesn't not logically implies that there were not underlying events that might have inspired such accounts. That's actually mentioned in the referred post. This is hardly an answer to the question.
    – luchonacho
    Apr 29, 2020 at 22:50
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Akhenaten lived about 125 years before Rameses II, the best fit pharaoh of Moses. You'd have to explain that away first.

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    Well, he would have had to live before if he was to influence what came after... :-) But yes, the idea that Moses was the son of Akhenaten is highly speculative. Jan 13, 2014 at 21:47
  • OK, this definitely could be one of "reasonably known facts" I asked for. Not quite enough to decisively refute Freud's conjecture though: first, rather than being Akhenaten's grandchild Moses could be a few more generations apart, assuming that underground worship of Aton's religion persisted a little longer after Akhenaten's death; and second, I don't think we have any confidence that Ramses II was indeed the Pharo of Exodus. The proposed time gap is a good point indeed, but not conclusive enough for rejection w/out further evidence.
    – Michael
    Jan 13, 2014 at 21:49
  • @LennartRegebro: Freud didn't quite name the proposed relationship between Akhenaten and Moses, but, based on the spirit of the book that quoted a few things from the Biblical account, his speculation seemed to point to grandfather-grandson rather than father-son relation: the book of Exodus names an Egyptian princess (presumably Akhenaten's daughter) acting as (presumably being) Moses's mother.
    – Michael
    Jan 13, 2014 at 21:53
  • @Michael It's still to short, and still relies on that Moses existed, which is not sure, and that the Egyptian Exodus happened, which is highly doubtful. Jan 13, 2014 at 22:09
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    A problem with the Armana religion surviving after Akhenaten is that it was a very personal sect. Akhen was buddy-buddy with the Pharoah himself, there wasn't any real spelling out of how this relation would extend to other followers or his subjects or even the Pharoah's children. The religion pretty much died with Akhenaten.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 13, 2014 at 22:27
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Did Akhenaten's religion influence early Judaism ?

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).

Are you are asking us whether the myth or legend of Moses was (partially) inspired by Amenhotep IV, later known to history as Akhenaten ? If so, then the answer is affirmative:

  • The biblical character is presented, within the Hebrew scriptures, as being adopted by Egyptian royalty.
  • His very name echoes those of the Pharaohs of the late 17th and early 18th dynasties, to which Akhenaten also belonged.
  • One of the major religious contributions he is traditionally credited with is the Decalogue, whose first two commandments reverberate Atenist themes and ideas.

However, this is not quite the same as saying that Judaism historically originated within, and later evolved from Atenism, but merely that, as Judaism grew and eventually prospered onto the world scene, it naturally tried to relate itself to the various well-known and well-respected cultures and civilizations surrounding it, such as those of ancient Egypt and Babylon; thus, Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, is introduced as being a priest of the main Egyptian deity Ra, serving at the city of On or Heliopolis, a famous religious center at the time; and the tale of his floating down the river in a basket, a Jewish (re)interpretation of the aforementioned Egyptian term(s) ms (mes), or msj (mesi):

The biblical account of Moses's birth provides him with a folk etymology to explain the ostensible [Egyptian] meaning of his name. He is said to have received it from the Pharaoh's daughter:

he became her son. She named him Moses (מֹשֶׁה Mōšê), saying, 'I drew him out (מְשִׁיתִֽהוּ mǝšîtihû) of the water'.

This explanation links it to the Semitic root משׁה m-š-h, meaning to draw out.

Wikipedia, Moses: Etymology of name.

which ties in rather nicely with certain (semi)legendary aspects surrounding the birth of Sargon the Great, founder of the Akkadian Empire:

Sargon's birth and his early childhood are described thus:

My high priestess mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose over me. The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me. Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener. While I was a gardener, Ishtar granted me her love, and for four and ... years I exercised kingship.

Similarities between the Sargon Birth Legend and other infant birth exposures in ancient literature, including Moses, Karna, and Oedipus, were noted by psychoanalyst Otto Rank in his 1909 book The Myth of the Birth of the Hero.

The legend was also studied in detail by Brian Lewis, and compared with many different examples of the infant birth exposure motif found in European and Asian folktales. He discusses a possible archetype form, giving particular attention to the Sargon legend and the account of the birth of Moses. Joseph Campbell has also made such comparisons.

Wikipedia, Sargon of Akkad: Birth legend.


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

I am afraid this is a folk etymology as well, insofar Adon(ai) appears to be Ugaritic, whereas Aten denotes the ancient Egyptian word for (solar) disc.


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

No, he is described as being "tongue-tied" in general; otherwise, there would have been no practical need for Aaron's presence when Moses was addressing Pharaoh, as described in Exodus, chapters 5-10; specifically, in 6:12 and 6:30, where his uncircumcised lips are seen as a possible hindrance in convincingly delivering the divine message to the Egyptian ruler.

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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.

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  • Remember the site is for answers. It is not a discussion forum. Oct 2, 2015 at 17:14
  • I'm not sure that this answers OP's question.
    – MCW
    Oct 2, 2015 at 17:38
  • The question is whether there is any historical evidence that Judaism may have origins in Akhenaten's monotheism. I have referenced a book that strongly suggests that the answer is yes. Whether that evidence can stand up to the rigour of historical analysis is of course another question which others may wish to question or debate. Oct 3, 2015 at 19:30

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