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Every source I mention seems to attribute this to Freud. Was there an earlier proponent?

I realized the question as originally written was horrifically vague. I'm not looking for scholars before Freud who said "this looks a lot like monotheism" I'm looking for a paper before Freud that said "the Jews borrowed monotheism from Aten and here's the postulated causal relationship."

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    Welcome to History:SE. What sources have you consulted? Where have you searched for earlier proponents? Please take a few minutes to review the Site tour and the help center, especially the topic on How to Ask. – Kerry L Oct 19 '18 at 2:51
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    Please clarify: one or two of those sources you've read might benefit others reading this question. To me for example it is unclear what you understand as "monotheism", only the mention of Freud makes it implicitly about Moses. But we cannot be sure that this is correct. There are other monotheisms and your question might also be read as "when was Akhenaten's religion identified as montheism" – LаngLаngС Oct 19 '18 at 14:49
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    A decent point was made in one of the answer comments. We have users all around the world on all sorts of different schedules. The checkmark is of course yours to bestow as you chose, but its generally a good idea to wait a day or so before doing so, so that you don't disincentive the writing of further possibly good answers. – T.E.D. Oct 19 '18 at 19:47
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Q: Was Freud the first to make the connection between monotheism and Aten?

There are a couple of uncertainties encapsulated in this question.

If you want to know which Western researcher first discovered that Akhenaten's religious reform in Egypt was "somehow" monotheistic: we have to observe that there are just a few stations in the discovery: 1714 Claude Sicard finds a stele in Amarna, 1799 Napoleon brings Egypt's past into fashion among European researchers, 1826 John Gardner Wilkinson and James Burton visit the place and document it, 1828 Champollion visits the place for just one day, 1845 Karl Bunsen publishes 3 volumes covering Egypt's place in world history, but then already Karl Richard Lepsius wrote about that what you might want to know in 1851. "Über den ersten Aegyptischen Götterkreis und seine geschichtlich-mythologische Entstehung. Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin 1851." Although he thinks in that work that Akhenaten is a priest of Re and only that there are strong tendencies towards monotheism recognisable.

If you want to know whether Freud was the first of anything in relating what we might call monotheism in ancient Egypt to monotheism in ancient Israel? Then the answer is that Freud was bold enough to speculate that Moses was himself an Egyptian, not an Israelite or Hebrew, bold enough to muse the idea that Moses was eventually killed by the Hebrews for his radicalism. Freud was a keen observer of Egyptology for half a century and entertained ideas in that fashion for the entire time. For as soon as the efforts of exclusiveness in Akhenaten's religious reforms became apparent in scholarship speculations ran wild to connect it to Jewish history.

Apart from the obvious differences and distinctions between religious traditions, the parallels between the religious history of Egypt, Israel and other near Eastern belief systems are at least as interesting. But this is not really an invention of Western, modern scholars.

The monotheist revolution of Akhenaten and the founding of Israelite monotheism by Moses have often been brought together, most famously by Sigmund Freud in his last book, Moses and Monotheism. Chapter 4, “Moses and Akhenaten: Memory and History,” investigates the historical and mnemohistorical foundations of this problematic rapprochement. Akhenaten is a figure exclusively of history who was denied any tradition and memory in ancient Egyptian culture, having been subjected to a complete damnatio memoriae. Moses, on the other hand, is a figure exclusively of memory, accruing an immense importance as the founding father of monotheism in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, of whose historical existence, however, not the least traces have been found. It is, therefore, small wonder that the two figures, complementing each other in such a perfect way, have often been brought together.

There is, however, even a late Egyptian tradition identifying Akhenaten (called Osarseph) with Moses: Manetho’s legend of the lepers, whose reference to the Amarna experience is corroborated by a passage in Diodorus on the pyramids. These and other sources show that there was a strong tradition in Egyptian cultural memory about three great catastrophes and times of suffering in the past and their triumphant overcoming, the Amarna experience being one of them. These traditions concerning Egyptian suffering and final triumph show striking parallels to the Biblical story of the Exodus that point to the fact that the Late Egyptian tradition (ca. 600 BCE onward) about Akhenaten–Osarseph and the Biblical tradition about Moses and the Exodus did not arise completely independently of each other.

Jan Assmann: "From Akhenaten to Moses. Ancient Egypt and Religious Change", The American University in Cairo Press: Cairo, New York, 2014, p 3.

Freud did indeed land a few "firsts" with his book. But most of these firsts are now as criticised as they were when he published his book. Although few of the points that are not entirely psychoanalytical but actually grounded in the understanding of history from his day, are unique, the composition and synthesis of ideas certainly is. That Moses bears an Egyptian name and that this might hint at him being ethnically Egyptian is a hypothesis that is even still current in catholic theology seminars.

But for the "connection" between Moses and Akhenaten, Freud was just by far not the first on that. So I would conclude, equal in boldness to Freud, as soon as anyone identified Akhenaten as some kind of monotheist, everyone started to see the "connection" to what eventually became Jewish monotheism immediately.

Since the early 20th century, scholars have posited that there was some possible connection between Akhenaten and ancient Israelite religion, Moses and monotheism.

James K. Hoffmeier: "Akhenaten and the Origins of Monotheism", Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York, 2014, p xi.


Updated question:

Q: Was Freud the first to say that Judaism borrowed from Atenism?

Most probably not.

Given that Freud published the famous book in 1939 and started to write it in 1937 I would request further precision from the OP as to the exact date that Freud first publicly entertained the idea. If we take 1937/9 as the cut-off date, this would be one earlier example:

H. R. Hall: "Egypt and the External World in the Time of Akhenaten", The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 7, No. 1/2 (Apr., 1921), pp. 39-53

It is however by no means impossible that its inspiration was not lost outside Egypt. In Nubia, where temples were erected to the Aten, it died; but in Palestine we cannot be certain that this was absolutely the case. Even in the midst of rebellion, a Palestinian Khinatuni seems to have been set up, as would naturally be expected from Egyptian officialism in the northern as in the southern external dominion; this would be entirely agreeable to the king: he would not fight, but he would teach. How do we know that the monotheistic doctrine of Heliopolis (again, Moses' "Wisdom of the Egyptians," learnt at On) did not survive at Khinatuni, whether that was at Jerusalem itself or possibly at Bethshemesh, " the House of the Sun," and that it was not the germ from which sprang the monotheism of the Hebrews, of ourselves, and of the Muslims ?

And even earlier, but focussing more on Joseph than Moses, but denying any uniqueness to monotheist thought in the old oriental context:

Hugo Winckler: "Abraham als Babylonier, Joseph als Ägypter: Der Weltgeschichtliche Hintergrund der Biblischen Vätergeschichten auf Grund der Keilinschriften", JC Hinrichs: Berlin, 1904. (Online at archive.org)

It has turned out that the historical personalities of this time were also known to the biblical tradition and that they are the ones to be assumed in an important episode of pre-Israelite history.
Amenophis IV, the Pharaoh to whom most of these letters are addressed, has Palestine ruled by a deputy at that time, a viceroy or whatever one wants to call him.

The decisive reason why the Joseph narrative must presuppose the conditions of this time, however, is not in the correspondence of the external conditions, but in the essence of the intention of the biblical narratives in general. Their purpose is to prove how and under what circumstances religion has developed, as the bearer of which the people of Israel feels. The essence of this religion is monotheism. For no one who has an insight into the essence of the Oriental cultural world, it is a question of whether thoughts such as those underlying the Mosaic doctrine were already thought by human heads in the millennia before Israel's existence as a people. This is also not the contradiction that this Israelite teaching itself wants to teach. Whoever claims this as Israel's merit, has the implementation of the monotheism contrary to the new Babylonian doctrine in the Hammurabi period originated - that is, inspired and conditioned by it, how every expression of human spiritual activity is stimulated by the world of thought of its time and determined in its development, how the Reformation received its impulses through grievances of the Catholic Church - in Egypt once an attempt was made to carry out a likewise monotheistic teaching, but "a new Pharaoh arose who knew nothing of Joseph", Egypt returned to its old gods.
(translation and emphasis mine)

In effect the whole paper that contains the last quote claims that monotheism was a near eastern development that spread through the whole region, with evidence of certain steps here and there, but Amenophis IV being just one salient step of a direct line, or branch, towards Israelite monotheism.


Let's approach this from the rear end of the horse and look at how Freud got his most inspiration from whom and how he differed from that direct inspiration:

Sigmund’s cryptic, phrase-a-day diary for that date merely mentions the visit of a “Mrs Gunn with Egyptian antiquity”, but he and his grandsons were documented inspecting goldfish in the garden pond in an amateur film by Princess Marie Bonaparte, now shown daily at the Freud Museum. A year later Lucian went to Cedric Morris’s East Anglian art school and, shortly after that, at around the time of his grandfather’s death, he was given the copy of Breasted’s Geschichte Aegyptens with which he posed for the Auerbach photograph half a century later. The distinctive recumbent manner in which Lucian poses so many of his sitters suggests the conscious or unconscious influence both of his grandfather’s psychoanalytical couch and of the Egyptian mummy, his dreaming figures, clothed or nude, staring into space until brought back to health and/or consciousness. The particular application of this supine pose to freaks, friends, wives, mistresses and mother alike (the latter depicted following her suicide attempt and eventually, mummy-like, in death itself), tends to support this hypothesis.
In Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud went further than Breasted’s Dawn of Conscience to argue that Moses was an Egyptian who derived his iconoclastic monotheism from the revolutionary, sun-worshipping pharaoh, Akhenaten, and was then murdered by the ungrateful Jews he had led out of slavery. The book was completed in London and published in the last months of Freud’s life. Freud followed Breasted in believing that: “Our moral heritage...derives from a wider human past enormously older than the Hebrews, and it come to us through rather than from them.” Breasted had drawn attention to the striking parallels between Akhenaten’s “Hymn to the Sun” and Psalm 104, as well as the indebtedness of the Book of Proverbs to the so-called “Wisdom of Amenemope”.

Maurizio Ascari &, Adriana Corrado (Eds): "Sites of Exchange: European Crossroads and Faultlines", Rodopi: Amsterdam, 2006, p 45.

  • The thesis that the Jews borrowed monotheism from Atenism doesnt seem to be explicitly stated by anyone before Freud. Observing that Atenism looks monotheistic is not really the same thing as saying that one piggybacked off the other. – BalancedTryteOperators Oct 19 '18 at 19:33
  • The bolded part is saying that Israel received monotheism from Babylon. – BalancedTryteOperators Oct 20 '18 at 15:36
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He's probably not the very first, but no one would have predated him by more than about 40 years, and I'd be very surprised if anyone else did it quite like he did.

As background, Atenism was a religion that Pharoh Akhenaten tried to convert Egypt to around the 14th Century BC for all of 20 years. It was thereafter roundly suppressed. Because this religion was quasi-monotheistic1, it is hard not to wonder what if any connection it had to other monotheistic Near East religions. However, most of our information about it comes from the Amarna Letters, which weren't discovered until the late 19th century. So there really wasn't any time before the early 20th century for anyone to wonder about it.

Freud was essentially the founder of psychoanalysis. However, modern psychiatry generally considers psychoanalysis to be of little proven practical benefit, if not downright hokum. His repressed memory recovery stuff is particularly shaky, and honestly any result arrived at probably says far more about the psychologist doing the analysis than it does about the poor subject.

His book Moses and Monotheism was an attempt to show what could be accomplished if his psychoanalytic techniques, particularly repressed memory recovery, were applied to historical analysis. The result was every bit as much nonsense as a modern psychiatrist would predict.

However, it was quite detailed. So while individual bits may have been suggested by others before, the whole was entirely his invention.

The biblical story of Moses is contradicted by Freud, who retells the events, claiming that Moses led only his close followers into freedom (during an unstable period in Egyptian history after Akhenaten's death ca. 1350 BCE), that they subsequently killed Moses in rebellion, and still later joined with another monotheistic tribe in Midian who worshipped a volcano god they called Yahweh. Freud supposed that the god of Moses was fused with Yahweh, and that the deeds of Moses were ascribed to a Midianite priest also called Moses.

I've left off the end of this quote, where he veers into racially and religiously offensive territory. Freud himself was an atheist of Jewish heritage trying to be taken seriously (and flat-out stay alive) in the very anti-Semitic society of Nazi Germany, and his disdain for the religion and internalization of his society's racism is plain to see2. Nonetheless, that stuff doesn't need to be sitting on any more web pages than it already is.

1 - It acknowledged multiple gods, but only one supreme deity to be worshipped. There are those who argue some of the older parts of the Torah read this way as well.

2 - Again, it's also quite possible he felt that his heritage required him to take this tack, for his own protection. The book was published the same year Germany started forcing Jews into ghettos.

  • Ahem, so monotheism is equal to mosaic monotheism aka what eventually became judaism? (I find the Q unclear on that.) – LаngLаngС Oct 19 '18 at 14:45
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    @LangLangC - This answer certainly isn't saying that! There's kind of a spectrum from Polytheisim -> Monolatrisim -> Henotheisim -> Monotheisim. Things can get confusing here because Atenisim looks to have gone through all 4 during the 20 years in question. Meanwhile, many will argue that you can see evidence of some stuff in the middle of that spectrum from some of the older Torah passages as well. – T.E.D. Oct 19 '18 at 15:07
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    Well, it's just unclear to me what the question is really about. Three almost isolated data-points to infer all the rest from. I am just wondering how you could get an accepted answer so quickly from what is given in the Q. If the Q doesn't get clarified, I think it might be beneficial to do that clarification in an answer (i.e. the background paragraph expanded). – LаngLаngС Oct 19 '18 at 15:14
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    @fdb - In 1939 those were the same country. – T.E.D. Oct 20 '18 at 2:30
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    @T.E.D. He left in 1938. – fdb Oct 20 '18 at 7:40

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