What is Atenism?
Question: "What is Atenism? Did either Judaism or Christianity borrow from Atenism?"
Answer: Frequently in the history of the church, skeptics have put forward arguments to say that Christianity is a mosaic of other religions and therefore has no validity. Time and again these attacks have been refuted. One such attack on Christianity, Judaism, and the Bible is to say that Moses borrowed the idea of one God from Atenism and that Yahweh is simply Aten repackaged.
Atenism was the worship of the Egyptian god Aten (or Aton), the representation of the sun god. Aten is pictured in hieroglyphics as the disk of the sun extending blessings to the denizens of earth. Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who lived in the 14th century BC, promoted Atenism in an attempt to consolidate Egyptian polytheism to the worship of only one god. Amenhotep called himself Akhenaten (meaning “Beneficial to Aten” or “Servant of Aten”). The pharaoh gave orders to obliterate pictures and names of other gods in Egypt, and for this reason is sometimes considered the world’s first monotheist. But Atenism is better described as monolatry or henotheism, the worship of one god among others. Atenism did not last long after the death of the cult’s founder; after Akhenaten was gone, the Egyptians went back to their previous collection of gods and eventually labeled Akhenaten as “the Heretic King.”
Did the religion of Atenism have anything to do with Judaism? The way this question is answered largely depends on whether or not one believes that the Bible is true. If the Bible is true, the answer is simply “No, Judaism (and Christianity) did not borrow from Atenism.” The Bible, if true, is an accurate account of who God is and how He interacts with mankind. Any similarities between the biblical description of God and descriptions found in other religions are either coincidence or suggest that other religions borrowed from the Bible. If the Bible is not true, then it doesn’t much matter if it borrowed from Atenism or not. If one is unsure whether the Bible is true, it is worth investigating the similarities between Atenism and ancient Judaism.
According to the theory of some skeptics, the Hebrew people were potentially residents of Egypt during Akhenaten’s reign. The Hebrews liked many aspects of Atenism and therefore incorporated Atenism into their own religious systems upon leaving Egypt. According to the theory, the monotheism of Judaism (and later, Christianity) was copied from the Atenism. Moses stole the idea from Akhenaten.
There are however several problems with this theory. First is the issue of chronology. The Hebrews were in Egypt from roughly 1800 to 1400 BC, and Akhenaten did not reign until the mid-1300s BC. The children of Israel left Egypt before Akhenaten ascended the throne and so could not have borrowed anything from Atenism. To definitively say there was religious borrowing, one would have to definitively prove Moses and Akhenaten were contemporaries. This has not yet been done.
Second, the similarities between ancient Judaism and Atenism are extremely few—namely, one. The only similarity between Atenism and Judaism is that they are both monotheistic in a time when polytheism was nearly ubiquitous. There are major differences between the two religions. Aten seems to have no ethical preferences and certainly no established law like the God of Judaism. In Exodus 19:6, the God of the Jews declares that He will make all of His people priests who are to represent him to the world. In contrast, King Akhenaten declared himself to be the sole mediator between Aten and humanity.
Some have proposed similarities between the Egyptian royal Yuya and the Joseph of Genesis. Others have tried to relate Akhenaten to Moses in some way, saying that Moses actually was Akhenaten. These theories have gained little ground with scholars. For one thing, Yuya was buried in the Valley of the Kings in Thebes, and Joseph’s body was taken to Canaan for burial (Joshua 24:32). For another, Moses was not Egyptian, as the biblical record of his family lineage clearly states.
To summarize, there is no solid basis, historically or theologically, to claim that Judaism or Christianity in any way borrowed from Atenism.
Recommended Resource: The Case for the Real Jesus by Lee Strobel
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Questions about Worldview
What is Atenism? Did either Judaism or Christianity borrow from Atenism?