Akhenaten and Moses

Did the monotheism of Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten influence Moses?


On this stela from El-Amarna, Egyptian King Akhenaten is seen with his wife Nefertiti and their daughters bearing offerings to the sun-disk Aten.

Defying centuries of traditional worship of the Egyptian pantheon, Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten decreed during his reign in the mid-14th century B.C.E. that his subjects were to worship only one god: the sun-disk Aten. Akhenaten is sometimes called the world’s first monotheist. Did his monotheism later influence Moses—and the birth of Israelite monotheism?

In “Did Akhenaten’s Monotheism Influence Moses?” in the July/August 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, University of California, Santa Barbara, emeritus professor of anthropology Brian Fagan discusses this tantalizing question.

Egyptian King Akhenaten, meaning “Effective for Aten”—his name was originally Amenhotep IV, reigned from about 1352 to 1336 B.C.E. In the fifth year of his reign, he moved the royal residence from Thebes to a new site in Middle Egypt, Akhetaten (“the horizon of Aten,” present-day Tell el-Amarna), and there ordered lavish temples to be built for Aten. Akhenaten claimed to be the only one who had access to Aten, thus making an interceding priesthood unnecessary.

In the free eBook Ancient Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, top scholars discuss the historical Israelites in Egypt and archaeological evidence for and against the historicity of the Exodus.

In the BAR article “The Monotheism of the Heretic Pharaoh,” Donald B. Redford, who excavated Akhenaten’s earliest temple at Karnak (in modern Thebes), describes how Akhenaten instituted worship of Aten:

The cult of the Sun-Disk emerged from an iconoclastic “war” between the “Good God” (Akhenaten), and all the rest of the gods. The outcome of this “war” was the exaltation of the former and the annihilation of the latter. Akhenaten taxed and gradually closed the temples of the other gods; the images of their erstwhile occupants were occasionally destroyed. Cult, ritual and mythology were anathematized, literature edited to remove unwanted allusions. Names were changed to eliminate hateful divine elements; and cities where the old gods had been worshipped, were abandoned by court and government.

Akhenaten destroyed much, he created little. No mythology was devised for his new god. No symbolism was permitted in art or the cult, and the cult itself was reduced to the one simple act of offering upon the altar. Syncretism was no longer possible: Akhenaten’s god does not accept and absorb—he excludes and annihilates.

Did Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten’s adamant worship of one deity influence the Biblical Moses, leader of the Israelite Exodus? Was Akhenaten’s monotheism the progenitor of Israelite monotheism? According to BAR author Brian Fagan, we are talking about two different kinds of monothesisms:

“Israelite monotheism developed through centuries of discussion, declarations of faith and interactions with other societies and other beliefs,” Fagan writes. “In contrast, Akhenaten’s monotheism developed very largely at the behest of a single, absolute monarch presiding over an isolated land, where the pharaoh’s word was divine and secular law. It was an experiment that withered on the vine.”

The Biblical Archaeology Society publication Aspects of Monotheism: How God Is One, edited by Hershel Shanks and Jack Meinhardt, presents an exciting, provocative and readily understandable discussion of the origins and evolution of monotheism within Judaism and Christianity. The book is free for BAS Library members.

When Tutankhaten—the second son of Akhenaten; we know him as the famous King Tut—ascended to the throne, he, working with his advisers, restored worship of the traditional Egyptian pantheon and its chief god, Amun. Tutankhaten also changed his name to Tutankhamun, meaning “the living image of Amun.”

To learn more about the monotheism of Egyptian King Akhenaten, read the full article “Did Akhenaten’s Monotheism Influence Moses?” by Brian Fagan in the July/August 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


Subscribers: Read the full article “Did Akhenaten’s Monotheism Influence Moses?” by Brian Fagan in the July/August 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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In the free eBook Ancient Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, top scholars discuss the historical Israelites in Egypt and archaeological evidence for and against the historicity of the Exodus.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Epilepsy, Tutankhamun and Monotheism

Where is Queen Nefertiti’s Tomb?

Has Queen Nefertiti’s Tomb Been Located?

Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination

When Egyptian Pharaohs Ruled Bronze Age Jerusalem

To See or Not to See: Technology Peers into Ancient Mummies

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on June 8, 2015.


Posted in The Ancient Near Eastern World.

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  • BRANDON says

    Abraham was the first monotheist, as he lived 450-650 years before Akhenaten. It is a glaring omission to discuss early monotheism sans the Hebrew patriarch.

  • Ben says

    All things considered, I think that it is much more likely that Israel’s experience in Egypt contributed to their tendency (until their return from exile) to include other forms and objects of worship either in conjunction with or to the exclusion of their worship of God.

  • JohnB says

    Your hypothesis might have some merit, had both Akhenaten and Moses lived during the same period. In this article, you point out that Akhenaten reined between 1352 and 1336 BCE. Unfortunately, Moses lived around three-hundred years earlier — the story of the Exodus covers a period between 1657 and 1512 BCE.
    Joseph, whose family worshipped a monotheistic deity loosely known as Almighty God or El Shaddai, brought his family to Egypt 430-some years before the Exodus. Because of Joseph’s position and his achievements, he and those born into his household (the household of his father, Jacob) were treated with respect for many years — even centuries — after his death. It is more likely, therefore, that Joseph — and particularly his father Jacob (Israel) — introduced the concept of monotheism into the religious landscape that existed in Egypt at that time.
    Many scholars incorrectly put the Exodus — those who accept that there was such a thing, anyway — as recently as the 13th century BCE, during the reign of Rameses II (1279 – 1213). But such a timetable denies many of the post-Exodus events that took place in Canan after the arrival of the Hebrews (the almost three-hundred year long period of Judges before the anointing of Israel’s first king (Saul) during the 11th century BCE.
    I never cease to be amazed at the number of supposedly ‘smart’ people who refuse to use the only record of human history that had endured down through the ages as the basis of their research. It appears that they would rather spend their lifetimes trying to prove alternative theories of history and trying to fit those theories into the picture they have drawn for themselves.
    God must be turning in his grave when he sees scholars who profess to be Jews denying the history of their own people; thus denying their own God, Jehovah.

  • David says

    The evidence from the Berlin Pedestal would indicate that Israel was already acknowledged as a people in the southern levant during the reign of Amunhotep II. I am constantly surpised that an academic minded publication would fail to acknowledge this. This would clearly imply that if there was a monotheistic influence between Israel and Egypt, that it went the other way… Akhenaten was borrowing, not creating.

    • REV says

      Well said. The hundreds of years and large number of monotheists would have some influence on the Egyptians.

  • Helen says

    Monotheism on in the sense that it was a power grab on the part of the monarch. Once he moved the court to the desert, Egypt really fell apart internationally. And why move to the desert? To create a new power base and protect the “flank” fm those who would assassinate the monarch.

    I see far more politics in the move than religious motivations.

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