Sunday 8 April 2012

The Man who Invented God

What's left of the Temple of the One God at Amarna

Where did the idea of there being just One God come from? 

Every idea that people have, somebody, somewhere, was first to have. So who first came up with the idea of worshiping one all-powerful and invisible God?

This little essay is about 'The Amarna Hypothesis' - the remarkable idea that the whole of Western Religion grew out of one ingenious trick by an ancient king to give himself more power. 

Mention 'God' and the idea which usually comes up is that of an all-powerful super-human 'King' who is capable of thinking and decision-making. A single God who is concerned with the fate and the actions of humans.

But this One-God idea is not, I think, an obvious idea. If it was one of those conclusions we just have to come to by observing the world around us, or one which is made necessary by the way human reason works, then many cultures would likely have come up with it. But they haven't.

If the first humans really had a direct understanding of Him which their descendants carried on as a folk-memory, we would expect the One-God idea to occur in human societies the world over. But it doesn't. Left to themselves, humans do seem to come up with the idea of religion, but they usually come up with the idea of a society of Gods, like a human society, with different people doing different jobs, and with the Heavenly society living its own life without being much concerned with humans. That's the way of the court of the Chinese Jade Emperor, or the Greek or Roman or Aztec or Norse Gods and the rest. Those Gods are not sources of instruction as to behaviour, there are poets and philosophers to do that. They are Kings and Queens of Heaven, not of earth. Less usually humans come up with the idea of some non-sentient mechanical process of 'Super Nature', like the Taoist 'Purity', Buddhist 'Karma' or the concept of 'Bhagavan' in Hinduism.

Adam and Eve from from the 13th Century Iranian  Manafi al-Hayawan
This One-God concept is very unusual, and the idea that the God issues commandments about human behaviour is quite unique. It is central now to Christianity, Islam and most of the world's religious sense, yet we trace it to one cultural group only, to the Jews. Now, once again, everything which people do, someone was first to do, so where did Judaism get the idea from?

The traditional story is that the people who were to become the Jews were desert nomads who indentured themselves to the Egyptian king, The Pharaoh, as builders, in order to gain protection from famine. They built new cities for the King, but complained of harsh working conditions, and, following a dispute over mud-brick quotas, asked to be allowed to leave. A leader arose for them, a man brought up in the Egyptian priestly royal household. This was Moses. When The Pharaoh (he's never actually named) still refused to let the people go, Moses called upon the One God to punish his empire with plagues. The One God obliged, and Moses and his followers were able to escape across the desert. There Moses laid down the rules of the new One-God religion, and violently crushed the worship of the people's customary gods. He set up a hereditary priesthood and detailed new ceremonies, including sacrifices with incense, cakes and bread, and he did something quite new - established a strict moral code backed by the religion. Oh and there was some stuff about not eating pork, men being circumcised and what-not.

That's the story in the Torah, the first books of the Hebrew Bible. But it still doesn't really explain where the One God thing came from, so here's a different story...

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the One God,
represented as a disc and accompanied by a note
explaining that this was just an artistic convenience,
the real God could not be represented.

Round about 1353BC Amenhotep IV inherited the Pharonic throne of Egypt from his father. He'd been brought up accustomed to getting anything he demanded, and the only thing now stopping him from having the sort of absolute power kings crave were the various priestly clans who claimed to have the Heavens behind them. Amenhotep had a simple solution - he declared the various gods invalid, and himself to be the one and only mediator on earth between the One Great God and mankind. Who the One Great God, or 'The Aten' was, was left a bit vague - just declared to be incapable of being represented. Amenhotep IV required himself to be addressed solely as "Akhenaten", or 'living embodiment of the One Great God'. This meant, of course, that the rules of behaviour he issued all had Divine backing, and could not be opposed.

He recruited desert nomads, people free from the influences he wanted to escape, and had them build him a new capital at Amarna. There he set up a distinctive temple to the one unseen god, and recruited priests to preside over it.

A plague overtook Amarna, and Akhenaten died. After some jostling for power the old elite placed Akhenaten's  9-year old son Tutankhaten, ("Living Image of Aten") on the throne, the capital was moved back to Thebes, the city of Amarna abandoned and the boy-king given the less godly name of  Tutankhamun. The Old Gods were reinstated and their priests restored to their traditional privileges. The Priests of Aten had to either renounce their faith or flee. One priest, called Moses, encouraged the, already disaffected, nomad builders to join him in escaping from Amarna and establishing a community devoted to continuing the worship of the One-God. They had a lucky escape over some salt-marshes, and a very difficult time out in the desert. This led to dissent, and some among the nomads tried to reinstate their traditional worship of a visible God, only to have Moses and his supporters kill them. To reinforce his command Moses had the essential social rules approved by the God written on tablets of stone. He laid down other rules of behaviour, including the avoidance of pork, male circumcision, he established a hereditary priesthood and gave strict instruction about religious practices and structures. 
Then they settled down, and told the story to their children, only adding some bits at the beginning to say that it was their people who did everything.

So, is this second story the truer one? That the One-God idea grew out of a trick by a king to give himself more power? That the Jewish Religion is the religion of Aten?
One of the Amarna Letters

Well, the archaeology and the texts put Akhenaten's death around 1334BC. The Jewish traditional chronology 'Seder Olam Rabbah' puts Moses' birth at 1391BC, which would make him about 58 at the time he led the brick-makers into the desert. So the dates fit nicely.

And the psychology fits too. A powerful leader trying to infer that they are The God has been tried from King Gilgmesh of Uruk, a thousand years before Moses, through all those Roman Emperors, right up to Kim Il Sung of North Korea today. Even now Kings and Queens, from England to Japan, try to claim some sort of religion-power. And Akhenaten did indeed set up a new religion of The One God, with himself as sole representative on earth, and vigorously suppressed the traditional Gods. This is clear from surviving artwork and a few written tablets, though his successors appear to have made efforts to remove all trace of it. The Aten was considered to be un-knowable and, to the extent that He was represented at all, it was merely as a disc, usually with a note explaining that this wasn't His real appearance.
Akhenaten did build a new city at Amarna, much of it of mud bricks, just as the Torah says. The city appears, from the surviving 'Amarna Letters', to have suffered a plague, a terrible outbreak of illness of some sort, though it isn't clear what this was, or whether it was before, after, or the cause of Akhenaten's death.

Then there's the linguistic connections. The Hebrew alphabet appears to be based on the priestly Southern Egyptian 'Hieratic' script, unlike Arabic, which seems to be based on the everyday 'Demotic' script of Northern Egypt.
The Egyptian Priestly script (left) and Old Hebrew (right)
Both the ancient Jewish historian Josephus and Sigmund Freud have pointed out that Moses sounds to be an Egyptian name, as in the king Ra-Moses or the sculptor Thut-Moses. And it has been noted that the word used for the One God in the earlier parts of the Jewish bible, 'Ahlohim' or 'Elohim' looks rather like 'Aten' or 'Akhten' or 'Ahthen'. Then there is the fact that the Amarna letters refer to a group of fractious, displaced, people called the 'Habiru' or 'Habiri', who may, or may not, be the Hebrews. You might even like to muse on whether the chief priest of The Aten, called Moryu or Meryre actually was the fleeing Moses - indeed a tomb appears to have been built for Moryu, but never occupied. Though, actually, I'm not sure I'd want to infer anything much from a few syllables  transliterated from dead languages of two millennia ago.

One name, though, is specially significant. The mud-brick city built by the Hebrews is named in the Torah (Exodus 1.11) as Pithom, which comes from Hebrew פתם, from the Late Egyptian name Pi-Atōm,  'House of Aten'. 

Reconstructions of the Temples of Aten (left) and at Jerusalem (right)

Much more significant than words is what the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem looked like, or, more what it did not look like - it is not like the the ones known from Babylonia, nor like the usual Egyptian temples - it is precisely like the One-God Aten temple, with a huge empty rectangular, flat, walled courtyard around a small central compound with towers, open to the sky. 

Of course, things could be quite the opposite way round, as more than one Christian apologist has suggested, perhaps Akhenaten got the idea of One God from the Hebrews? But if so, then how come, as the Torah reports, the Hebrews tried to revert to their traditional religion, Golden Calf and all, as soon as Moses wasn't supervising them?
Indeed the Greek historian Strabo, around 40BC but claiming to be relating very much older information, tell us that there was "An Egyptian priest named Moses, who .. being dissatisfied with the established institutions there, left it and came to Judæa with a large body of people who worshipped the Divinity. He declared and taught that the Egyptians and Africans entertained erroneous sentiments in representing the Divinity under the likeness of wild beasts and cattle of the field; that the Greeks also were in error in making images of their gods after the human form. For God [said he] may be this one thing which encompasses us all, land and sea, which we call heaven, or the universe, or the nature of things"

The ancient Egyptians were unusual, says Herodotus of Halicarnassus (around 450BC) "whereas other men have their members as nature made them, the Egyptians practice circumcision" and "The pig is accounted by the Egyptians an abominable animal; and first, if any of them in passing by touch a pig, he goes into the river and dips himself forthwith in the water together with his garments."


Another unusual feature of the Egyptians was their hereditary priesthood, and the Jewish 'Kohanim' priesthood is also hereditary. Strictly so too, which means we ought to be able to make a good guess at the historical movement of Kohens by looking at the concentration of some distinctive feature in their genetic make-up. By happy chance it turns out that about half of the Kohenim (and 25% or so of all Jewish men) have DNA containing 'haplogroup J1a' on the Y Chromosome, which is very unusual elsewhere. This means that they share a common ancestry on the male side. A map of the distribution of J1a, looks like this...

Notice that there is only one inland concentration of the marker, this is likely to be the origin of the group. It is in what is now Southern Egypt or Northern Sudan.

I didn't discover this story, just brought the bits of it together. Long ago the ancient historians Tacitus and Josephus suggested that the Jews originated in Egypt, and today there doesn't seem to be any great disagreement that the cult of Aten is the first known example of monotheism. I've never actually encountered any authority who disputes the general idea.

There's some rather interesting stuff at Wim van den Dungen's Sigmund Freud's last book 'Moses and Monotheism' follows the One-God/Aten theory, but then wanders off into psychobabble about Jewish angst. The German Egyptologist Jan Assmann's 'Moses the Egyptian' mixes fact with pure fantasy. The Russian Psychologist Immanuel Velikovsky has Akhenaten as the model of legendary King Oedipus, while the Egyptian ethnologist, Ahmed Osman ("Historian and Scholar" as he says at has proposed that Moses was King Akhenaten. Unfortunately, alongside the wise, there's also the likes of David Icke and Erich von Daniken, which doesn't really help at all.
Theologians can't discuss it as it goes against their basic assumptions, and for ethnology and archaeology it is just a tiny aside. But the One-God idea must have started somewhere.

What do you think?

E.A.W. Budge, Tutankhamen: Amenism, Atenism and Egyptian Monotheism (1923):
Flavius Josephus Against Apion (includes extracts from the lost Jewish Historian Manetho)
Edict of Augustus on Jewish Rights:


  1. Persuasive argument, one I've not yet come across in many years of research. I'm curious what the counter arguments are. Nicely done. Very much considering using this for my world religions courses...

  2. Very interesting. This certainly seems like a plausible origin of the One-God idea, though my knowledge on the subject is admittedly limited. Still, you have peaked my interest and I may look into this further!

  3. This is very ingenious. Just puzzled nobody seems to have come up with it before.

  4. Interesting and plausible, although you haven't discussed the issue of faith in all this.

    1. Well, faith, like everything else, has to start somewhere.

  5. The One-God idea may have come from the one God! To the point that it is rare in most religious cultures, the Christian theologian would say that doesn't prove anything. Since Christian theologians believe that man rebelled early on, they conclude that the vast diversity of multi god religions is more the result of man's vain imaginging working to suppress and replace the truth with some thing easier for them to undestand. Thus they built concepts of god modeled after human society, in place of believing what God actually said about himself in the first place.