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The Egyptian Origins of Monotheistic Religious Belief

03/22/12

Permalink 11:07:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1160 words   English (US)
Categories: History of Religion

The Egyptian Origins of Monotheistic Religious Belief

This post is the first in a new category on the history of religion. This subject is important because so many people have religious beliefs without understanding how these beliefs originated long ago. People of faith tend to think of their scriptures as being the word of God when in fact there is usually a detailed history of these scriptures that shows that they originated in a more ordinary way, similar to the way that most works of fiction or tall tales originated.

When we understand the history of the development of religious beliefs, this demystifies them and allows us to more easily separate fact from fiction. This is certainly not to say that all religious beliefs are based on fiction. There are several notable beliefs, including the belief that there is a higher power that can be called God, that I think are reasonable. The purpose of this website is to analyze these beliefs and figure out which of them are reasonable and which are simply perpetuations of fantasies.

I will begin this series with the religion of ancient Egypt. Interestingly, there is evidence that seems to show that Judaism, and by extension Christianity and Islam, were influenced by the ancient Egyptian religion, which predates Judaism by at least 1500 years. The Egyptian religion itself had an origin because Egypt was not always an organized civilization that involved cities and writing. The aspects of ancient Egyptian culture developed slowly from a simpler tribal-based culture. It was probably around 3500 to 3000 BC that the Egyptians developed writing and from this they were able to more easily develop more complex religious beliefs. But even before they had writing, they still had religious beliefs, and at that time their beliefs were probably in many ways similar to other tribal societies.

If we look at the history of religious beliefs since the earliest human civilizations, it is probably safe to say that all cultures began with some form of polytheism. Every early society needed deities to explain all kinds of phenomena including the weather, fertility, food, wine, war, the sun, love, etc. These early people had a need to explain different aspects of their lives and for everything that needed to be explained, they could create a god for it.

For most of its recorded history, Egyptian religion was polytheistic. They had many gods, including Ptah, Isis, Osiris, Horus, Amun, Ra, etc. The deity that was considered to be the greatest changed several times over the centuries and was usually determined by the decisions of the ruling pharaoh and the priests who supported him or her and gave legitimacy to their rule. At one point, perhaps during the old kingdom (the time of the pyramids - around 2500 BC), the main god was Ptah. The name “Egypt” actually means “The estate of Ptah”. At a later time, the gods Amun and Ra were considered the highest god by different groups of Egyptians. By about 1400 BC, the main god was Amun-Ra, which was a combination of the older gods Amun and Ra. This god was always depicted with a sun disk over his head. This depiction of the sun was known as Aten.

An interesting event happened around the year 1350 BC that changed Egyptian society for a short time but seems to have had a much more lasting affect on other cultures. The pharaoh at this time, Akhenaten, decided that Egypt should become monotheistic. Instead of having so many gods including Amun-Ra and others, he ordered that everyone should worship the sun, which was only depicted as a disk when drawn, rather than having human form.

Akhenaten named his sun Tutankhaten, which means “the living image of Aten”. This name was not intended to be taken literally, since Aten does not have a humanlike image, but probably was meant to signify that this child was designated by the one true God Aten as the next leader of Egypt. Akhenaten's decision caused the priests of Amun-Ra to lose much of the power they once had, and this angered them. Akhenaten died when Tutankhaten was still young. When Tutankhaten became pharaoh, the priests of Amun-Ra convinced him to restore the previous religious traditions. He complied with this and brought back the main god Amun-Ra and all of the other gods as well. He also changed his own name to Tutankhamun, which means “the living image of Amun”.

This man is, of course, the famous King Tut. Tutankhamun was actually not all that remarkable, in Egyptian history, for much more than restoring the old polytheistic system. He is far better known to the average person today than probably any other pharaoh because his tomb and mummy were largely intact and full of treasures when they were discovered, whereas all of the others were robbed long before the advent of modern archeology.

The period of monotheism did not last long in Egypt, but it was during this time that the Egyptians had Semitic slaves, possibly including the ancient Israelite people. The Bible tells of the Israelites being held captive and enslaved in Egypt and later being able to leave and set up a kingdom in the land of Palestine. Now, the Bible is quite unreliable as a historical source, which I have written about before and I plan on writing about more in the future. At the same time, there are some events in the Bible that have been independently verified. Though it is unknown if the Israelites were ever actually slaves in Egypt, it is reasonable to conclude that if they did, they were there around the time of the 1300's BC. If they were in Egypt at this time, then it is reasonable to conclude that they learned the religion of the Egyptians as it was at this time, which might have been monotheistic.

It is known from historical records that the original religion of the Semitic peoples, from which the Israelite people came, was polytheistic. So it is reasonable to conclude that the Israelites learned monotheism, the belief in one God, from their exposure to the Egyptians during this time in history. Monotheism is very widely believed throughout the world today, and this might partially come from the reformist thought of the pharaoh Akhenaten. Though Jews, Christians, and Muslims trace their faith back to the prophets who supposedly spoke directly to God, this belief is unjustified based on scientific and historical evidence. There is evidence that the belief in one God can be traced further back than any Israelite prophets. Thus these three religions, and even modern Deism, could have origins going all the way back to ancient Egypt and the theology of Akhenaten.

What do you, the reader, think of this theory? This site features a forum where you can let your voice be heard. You can weigh in on topics such as What place should religion have in the modern world? and Is faith virtuous or is it harmful? You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

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