Moses the Egyptian

Moses the Egyptian

The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism

Book - 1997
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Moses is at the foundation of monotheism, and so of Western culture. Here the factual and fictional events and characters in religious beliefs are studied. It traces monotheism back to the Egyptian king Akhenaten and shows how Moses's followers established truth by denouncing all others as false.
Publisher: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1997.
ISBN: 9780674587380
Branch Call Number: 222.1 Assm
Characteristics: x, 276 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.


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Apr 24, 2016

Though its title would seem to suggest otherwise, this book never really addresses the question of whether Moses existed or whether Israelite monotheism is derived from Akhenaten's apparent religious exclusivism. Inspired by Sigmund Freud's Moses and Monotheism, Assmann treats both Akhenaten and Moses as emblematic of the shift from flexible polytheism to exclusivist monotheism, but he never says straight out whether there was any connection between them. Instead, he discusses "mnemohistory", the way a culture remembers and adapts its own past.

Manetho, a Hellenistic Egyptian historian, related a story that seems to have conflated events of Akhenaten's reign with the Hyksos, and both Apion and Josephus, writing in Roman times, connected Manetho's account with the Exodus. Real or not, the connection between Moses and Egyptian religion took on a life of its own, and antiquarians in the 17th and 18th centuries created increasingly speculative and frankly silly theories on top of it, particularly once the Freemasons got involved. The emergence of Egyptology banished their theories to the dustbin. Freud, apparently unaware of the antiquarians' work but armed with early 20th-century understandings of Akhenaten's religious revolution, was the first to bring Akhenaten back into the equation.

Anyone who wants to know whether Israelite monotheism is related to Akhenaten's should look at recent scholarship on biblical history. (The short answer is that they are almost certainly not related.) This book is really about the history of Western perceptions of ancient Egypt, and it complements several other books on that topic.


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