Akhenaten and Moses, A Brief History

A reader emailed saying, "I need to know the name of the Egyptologist who first theorized that Moses could have been Akhenaten."

I'm not sure if there is an answer to this question. Perhaps it is best to start from the beginning and work forward. In a new book titled 'The Seventy Great Mysteries of Ancient Egypt,' it is stated (p 273): "Since antiquity, many writers have tried to associate Moses with Akhenaten ... Manetho, who claimed that the founder of monotheism - whom he called Osarsiph - assumed the name Moses, and led his folllowers out of Egypt in Akhenaten's reign. The spectre of Akhenaten was also transformed into Moses by writers such as Lysimachus, Tacitus and Strabo."

A good summary of the relevant works of Lysimachus, Tacitus and Strabo is found in a book by Egyptologist Jan Assmann called 'Moses the Egyptian.' Assmann does not believe that Akhenaten was Moses, but he does provide a detailed "audit trail" of thinking on the subject up until the modern era. After Manetho, Strabo, and the other writers of antiquity, Assmann continues a discussion of "two periods of Egyptian 'revival' or 'Egyptomania' that are associated with two events in the history of Europe: the Renaissance and Napoleon's expedition to Egypt. The first revival consists mainly in the discovery of alleged 'Egyptian texts,' such as the treatise on the Egyptian hieroglyphs by Horapollo and the Corpus Hermeticum." (p 17-18) In the Renaissance, the figure known as Hermes Trismegistus ("Hermes/Thoth the Thrice Great") emerges as the Egyptian Moses.
The movement stalled when Isaac Casaubon made compelling arguments that the Hermetic writings were fabrications. However, after his death in 1614, new arguments by Ralph Cudworth resulted in the return of Hermes Trismegistus to favor and to what Assmann refers to as 'The Moses Discourse of the 18th Century. By then the Renaissance was over and Europe had entered into what is called "The Enlightenment." Akhenaten did not figure much if at all in the debate of this time, although some thinkers such as John Toland continued to maintain that Moses was a true Egyptian. Others considered him to be a Hebrew in the traditional sense. By the end of the 1700's there was apparently great interest in Egypt, and this was possibly a motivation for the conquest of Egypt by Napolean and the subsequent 'Napolean Expedition' to conduct a scientific study of Egypt and the ancient remains.

Reconsideration of Akhenaten as Moses did not resume in earnest until after the discovery of Amarna/Akhet-aten in the late 1800's and the tomb of Tut in 1922. The best summary I have found on this second wave of Moses theorizing is in a book called 'The Search for the Gold of Tutankhamun" (1976) by Arnold Brackman. All the text placed in quotes below are from pages 183-184 of that book. The first Egyptologists to consider a relationship between Akhenaten and Moses were Sir Matthew Flinders Petrie, James Henry Breasted and Arthur Weigall. All three were intimately associated with Howard Carter and the opening of Tut's tomb. None went so far as to conclude that Akhenaten was Moses.

Petrie and Oxford scholar A.H. Sayce were of the opinion that the Exodus occurred in the 19th Dynasty based on the discovery of the so-called "Israel Stela" of pharaoh Merenptah and Biblical references to Rameses. According to that school of thought, "If the Old Testament is accurate, Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh who preached monotheism, was the precursor of Moses."

"In his 'Dawn of Consciousness' (New York: Scribner's, 1934)... Breasted directed attention to the striking parallels between Akhenaten's hymn to the sun and Psalm 104 and to other parallels between Egyptian religious texts and the Old Testament, notably the Proverbs. Breasted then drew the revolutionary conclusion that Akhenaten was the pathfinder in the recognition of one God, a universal Creator of all men ... When the Hebrew prophet caught the splendor of this vision and rose to a higher level he was standing on the Egyptian's shoulders.' Thus, Breasted concluded, 'Our moral heritage therefore derives from a wider human past enormously older than the Hebrews, and it has come to us rather through the Hebrews than from them.'"

"... Arthur Weigall, took the analysis further. He linked Exodus with Akhenaten's revolution and believed the Israelites were driven out of Egypt at the end of Tutankhamun's reign by Harmhab, the general who later proclaimed himself pharaoh. Weigall's case is stated in his 'Tutankhamen and Other Essays' (London: Butterworth, 1923) and 'The Life and Times of Akhenaton (London: Blackwoods, 1923). According to Weigall, the Israelites were not only implicated in Akhenaten's heresy, but may even have caused it ... 'I need not point out how wide an area of thought is opened up by this supposition that Moses lived through the Aton heresy,' Weigall wrote in his 'Tutankhamen.' "

" ... Agreeing with this school was Sigmund Freud. In his last book, 'Moses and Monotheism (New York: Knopf, 1939), Freud described himself as thinking the unthinkable. Moses, the liberator of the Israelites, who gave them their religion and laws, was, Freud speculated, an Egyptian who had formerly been an aide to Akhenaten ... It should be noted here that Breasted, Freud, and others of this school expressed alarm at putting their thoughts to paper in the thirties..."

There is more information in Brackman's book, e.g., favorable comparisons between Akhenaten and Moses made later by Egyptologists such as Alan Gardiner and Wallace Budge.

Other more recent books that discuss the impact on the discovery of Tut's tomb on Moses theorizing are:

Tutankhamun: The Untold Story, by Thomas Hoving (1978)
(recently reprinted in 2001 or 2002)

The Tutankhamun Deception, by Gerald O'Farrell (2001)

Tutankhamun: The Exodus Conspiracy, by Andrew Collins and Chris Ogilvie-Herald (2002)

Freud and the Legacy of Moses, by Richard Bernstein (1998)

Books on Hermes Trismegistus:

Hermetica, The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a new English translation, by Brian Copenhaver (1992, 1997)

The Egyptian Hermes, A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind, by Garth Fowden (1986, 1993)

As I mentioned in the introduction to Chapter 16 of my book, the third generation Freudian Psychoanalyst William Theaux attempted to revive interest in studying the link between Akhenaten, Moses and the Greek Oedipus as early as 1985. I don't know the exact form that this initiative took. Possibly he made some written appeals in his native country of France, but I have not personally seen them.

It was in 1990 that Ahmed Osman published his book "Moses: Pharaoh of Egypt." Ahmed Osman does not hold a PhD in Egyptologist, however he does have extensive formal training in Egyptology. To some, perhaps most, Egyptologists who do have PhD's, Ahmed Osman is not considered to be a true Egyptologist. For example, he was called an "amateur" by Archaeology Magazine. His credentials are given in the following article:

In his own defense, Ahmed Osman has noted that two of the most esteemed living Egyptologists, Kenneth Kitchen and Donald Redford, took their formal education in other fields.

I don't know of any professor of Egyptologist who believes that Akhenaten was the Biblical Moses. That doesn't mean there aren't any who do, but I just haven't heard of any "coming out of the closet" to support the theory. The aforementioned book 'The Seventy Greatest Mysteries of Ancient Egypt,' which was compiled from the contributions of 17 prominent Egyptologists and other specialists in related fields of ancient studies, includes the following statement (p 276): "If one were to seek a genuinely historical founder of Hebrew monotheism influenced by a foreign culture, one would certainly not find him at the court of Akhenaten."

Professional Egyptologists, Archaeologists, Historians, Biblical Scholars and the like have made it very clear that they have no further interest in considering the association between Akhenaten and Moses. For them the matter is closed. So, the pursuit of the truth is up to the rest of us. Personally, I have no "qualifications" to do this research, but came to the realization that if the mystery was going to be fully solved in my lifetime, then I was probably going to have to do it myself! Yet, I do appreciate the encouragement and support received from those of you who feel as I do and want to contribute in whatever way they can. I want this to be an enjoyable venture. A mystery only has the power to captivate until it is solved. After we know, we no longer find it important. Good thing life will always be full of mysteries, even after this particular one is finished.