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From Akhenaten to MosesAncient Egypt and Religious Change$

Jan Assmann

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9789774166310

Published to Cairo Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.5743/cairo/9789774166310.001.0001

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From Polytheism to Monotheism:

From Polytheism to Monotheism:

Evolution or Revolution?

(p.43) 3 From Polytheism to Monotheism
From Akhenaten to Moses

Jan Assmann

American University in Cairo Press

Abstract and Keywords

Is the turn from polytheism to monotheism to be analyzed as an evolutionary or a revolutionary process? The answer is: both. The Bible represents the turn as a violent revolution, but shows within biblical monotheism an evolution from monolatry or monotheism of loyalty (“there are many gods but we stay true to JHWH, the liberator from Egyptian serfdom”) to monotheism of truth (“there is but one God, the creator of heaven and earth”). Egyptian religion confronts us with a revolutionary overturn of traditional religion (Akhenaten) and an evolutionary process towards inclusive monotheism (‘All gods are One’).

Keywords:   inclusive monotheism, exclusive monotheism, cosmogonic monotheism, monolatry, evolution, revolution

Evolution in Nature and Culture

During the first millennium BCE there occurred a fundamental change in the ideas about the divine that we use to describe, in modern terminology, as a turn from polytheism to monotheism. This turn is commonly understood as a process of evolution. After all that we have learned about evolution, however, in the course of 2009, the “Darwin year,” we are no longer able to use the term ‘evolution’ in such a naive and uninhibited way. Rather, we must carefully distinguish between natural and cultural evolution, or between a scientific and a humanistic concept of evolution.

The most important differences between natural and cultural evolution consist, I would argue, in two points: the mode of reproduction, and the question of visibility and observation. Natural evolution is based on the rhythm of sexual reproduction, that is, on the sequence of generations, which, depending on the species, may be a matter of days or of decades. Cultural evolution, on the other hand, is based, to use a term introduced by the late Jacques Derrida, on iteration and reiteration, the various ways in which cultural memory is produced, reproduced, circulated, and communicated.1 The other point is even more important. Nature has neither memory nor any means of self-observation. Natural evolution, therefore, is not aiming at any goal; it does not imply any teleology, any logic of optimization. This is one of the most important lessons of the Darwin year.2

Culture, on the other hand, has both memory and means of self-observation. Besides invisible changes, there is always also consciously planned development. We may here distinguish among three modes of alteration: change, development, and evolution. “Change” is undirected alteration, such as is traditionally lamented, even in ancient Egypt, as (p.44) mutabilitas mundi. In the sublunar world, nothing stays the same. Things are inexorably changing. Gardens grow wild, rivers change their course, prices rise and fall, edifices are raised and decay, languages and customs change, and whoever aspires to constancy and permanence must actively oppose this gravitation toward alteration.

Our notion of development, on the other hand, refers to a completely different kind of alteration. By the term ‘development,’ we understand a goal-directed alteration that follows an inner law or program, an ‘entelechy,’ to use Aristotle’s term. Development aims at maturation, perfection, but also at decay and death. Development may be finite, but evolution never is. Evolution, applied to culture, transcends development in two ways: it refers to something much more complex and encompassing than a finite unit that changes according to an inner program; and it implies—unlike natural evolution, which is blind—an idea of gradation, optimization, and progress that is alien to natural evolution. This is because culture proceeds with open eyes; unlike nature, it has organs of self-observation at its disposal.

Thus we are dealing, with regard to culture, with at least three different kinds of alteration: change, development, and (cultural) evolution. Change excludes planning, in the same way as natural evolution excludes breeding. Development refers to finite units such as institutions, towns and cities, arts and technologies, even states and empires that may rise and fall. Evolution refers to units whose size or complexity transcends planning, such as religion, civility, mentality, and culture or civilization itself. On the level of culture, unlike that of nature, the notion of evolution may be confronted with an opposite term: that of revolution.

In opposition to evolution, revolution does not imply development but rupture, departure, and turning back. This is impossible in nature because it presupposes critical self-observation. In the light of this distinction, let us now examine how the path from polytheism to monotheism should be understood: as evolution or revolution. At first sight, nothing seems more natural than to interpret this change as an evolution from lower to higher ideas about the divine. This may, however, be a question of perspective. Humans tend to view their present situation as the apex of a climactic development and the highest step in the order of being. It is thus only natural that Christianity appears to Christians, and Islam to Muslims, as the highest form of religion. In the perspective of cultural studies, however, it is, first of all, important to free oneself from this cultural bias. In (p.45) cultural studies, a certain form of methodical relativism is indispensable and unavoidable. This distinguishes them from normative disciplines such as theology, law, and philosophy. In this broad and irreducibly relativist approach, cultural studies only carry out their task as organs of cultural self-observation. Self-observation necessarily implies the ability to see oneself with the eyes of others.

A first step in this direction consists in historicizing the concept of religious evolution itself. Where does it come from; in what context did it emerge? My impression is that the idea of religious evolution, in the sense of progress from lower to higher ideas of the divine and forms of worship, is deeply rooted in monotheism itself. There is arguably no other religious tradition that is so deeply informed by this idea, an idea which monotheism probably first brought into the world. I would like to support this statement by means of three ancient concepts that are typical of the Jewish and Christian traditions. These are the ideas of historia sacra, of graded revelation or accommodation theory, and of a spiritualization of religion or, in the words of Sigmund Freud, of a progress in spirituality/intellectuality.

In Judaism, the concepts of religious and political development are inextricably interwoven and together form what in Christian traditions has been called historia sacra since Augustine and ‘salvation history’ since the nineteenth century. Historia sacra is the history of God and his Chosen People, and this history is seen in terms of progress from low to high and from suffering to redemption, at whose end stands the messianic time, eternal peace, or even the end of this world and the world to come.

In the Torah or Pentateuch, we find a clear distinction of three historical epochs: primal history from creation to Noah, which is a universal history concerning all mankind; a history of the patriarchs from Abraham until Joseph, which is the history of a family; and, after an interval of 430 years, the sojourn in Egypt—the history of Exodus, Sinai, and conquest, which is the history of a people. Sacred history proper begins with Abraham. Abraham is commissioned by God to leave Mesopotamia, where his father worked as a maker of idols. Abraham’s emigration from Mesopotamia amounts, therefore, to an exodus from idolatry or polytheism to purer forms of worship. God formed a covenant with Abraham and promised to make him the ancestor of a great people and to make his progeny as numerous as the stars in heaven. This is already an instance of that evolutionary perspective which remains central in Judaism. This miraculous (p.46) demographic multiplication occurred in Egypt, but the Hebrews were only transformed into a veritable people or nation when God liberated them through Moses from their Egyptian bondage and formed a new covenant based on detailed legislation. With this event started a new age. The time ante legem was over and the era sub lege began. Religion, which until Jacob had been a matter of intimate communication between God and the patriarchs, became institutionalized, with priesthood, festivals, ritual and purity laws, and rules of all kind. The Jews are still living in this second era of sacred history; the Christians, however, count a new age from the birth of Christ, the era sub gratia, under grace. Thus, it seems to me very plausible that evolutionism, with its belief in progress, is particularly rooted in Christian tradition.3

This Christian origin of the idea of evolution may also account for the fact that most theories of cultural evolution posit three steps, which seem to refer to the three stages ante legem, sub lege, and sub gratia. In the twelfth century, the monk Joachim a Flores connected these three stages with the Holy Trinity. Leaving the time ante legem aside, he associated the age sub lege with the Father, the age sub gratia with the Son, and the age to come, which he saw already dawning, with the Holy Spirit.4 Secular theories of cultural evolution, in particular, tend to proceed in three steps. In the eighteenth century, Adam Ferguson divided cultural development into the three stages of “savagery,” “barbarism,” and “civilization,” and this division was followed in the nineteenth century by the very influential anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. Marx and Engels turned this scheme into the triad of tribal, enslaving, and capitalist societies, promoting like Joachim a Flores a new age to come, the class-free society as the secular form of the messianic age. Also triadic are the famous model of Auguste Comte with its sequence of religion, metaphysics, and positivist science, and Edward Tylor’s theory of religious evolution in the stages of animism, polytheism, and monotheism. All of these and many more, especially Hegel’s philosophy of history, may be interpreted as secularized forms of sacred history.5

Like the concept of sacred history, the concept of graded revelation or divine accommodation implies God as an agent of change, and may in various regards be interpreted as a variant of the sacred history model. The model of graded revelation seems to be of Christian origin, because Christianity as a new sectarian movement saw itself confronted with a particular need for legitimation vis-à-vis the older Jewish tradition.6 This (p.47) was only possible by privileging the new over against the old and presenting the new as the true tradition: verus versus vetus Israel. Thus, the idea emerged of a truth that did not exist at the beginning but breaks through only in later stages of revelation. The law was only a preliminary and preparatory step, meant to educate mankind, as Saint Paul said, in preparation for Christ. In this context, early Christian theology developed many evolutionist concepts presenting Christianity as the goal of a universal human development. Some examples are Eusebius’s concept of praeparatio evangelica, according to which all religions converge toward Christianity; Origen’s idea of an educatio generis humani, which Lessing took up in the eighteenth century; and, most typical and widespread of all, the theory of accommodation. The argument for the latter runs like this: God adapted his revelation to the mental capacities of humankind, whose development was conceived of in terms of ontogeny. The age ante legem corresponds to childhood, when a human being must not yet be expected to observe strict norms. The age sub lege corresponds to adolescence, when a youth, by contrast, needs such norms. The age sub gratia, finally, corresponds to adulthood, when a mature being may decide for him- or herself, following his or her inner voice.

Thus, God in his mercy and condescension (synkatabasis) adapted to the intellectual level of developing mankind and waited until the time of the Roman Empire to exchange the law, the exterior norm, for faith, the inner certainty.

Unlike the two models of religious evolution mentioned so far, which are important only for the origin of the concept but not for its actuality, the third one is still valid and plays an important role in theories of religious evolution. This is the model of spiritualization or ethicalization of religion. This model is also the oldest one of the three, occurring already with the early Israelite prophets (Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and others), who criticize the sacrificial cult and insist on God’s preference for justice and mercy. Widows and orphans are more important to God than incense and sheep. They thus insist on a change which they interpret as progress to a higher form of worship in the sense of an assimilation to God’s will and nature. Since God is just and spiritual, progress means spiritualization and ethicalization. “You shall be holy for I am holy” is the motto, and the highest commandment in this context is the commandment to love one’s neighbor. Sigmund Freud described monotheism in these terms; he understood Judaism as progress in spirituality/intellectuality (Geistigkeit), (p.48) using this classical Christian motif of distinguishing itself from Judaism in order to distinguish Judaism from paganism.7 During the nineteenth century this parameter of religious evolution was fully adopted by the history and philosophy of religion, as, for example, in Max Weber’s concepts of rationalization and disenchantment of the world.

The critique of the prophets, however, does not concern foreign religion but the Israelite religion itself. Nevertheless, there are quite a few polemical and satirical statements against pagan, especially Canaanite, religion as well, addressing topics such as magic, witchcraft, divination, necromancy, sacred prostitution, and, above all, human sacrifice, especially the sacrifice of the firstborn. In these polemical passages it becomes clear that Israelite monotheism already had to cope with problems similar to those encountered later by Christianity: the problems of a religion trying to replace older traditions with something new, and forced to legitimize the new as progress. Since religion is normally about permanence and the exclusion of change, the argumentative expenditure of legitimizing the new over against the old is particularly high. This may possibly be the origin of theology.

For us who have lived for millennia in the frame of these forms of theological legitimation, the reasons for preferring monotheism to paganism seem so self-evident that we tend to overlook their theological tendentiousness. Of course, the transition from paganism to monotheism has to be seen as progress. Who wants human sacrifices or witchcraft back? Nothing seems more natural than interpreting the change from human to animal sacrifice, such as the replacement of the offering of the firstborn son (Isaac) with a ram, as a veritable evolutionary achievement, in the same way as, later, animal sacrifice was replaced with the singing of hymns and prayers, or nonviolent rites such as the Eucharist. Without any doubt, we are dealing here with a genuine upward development, a progress in spirituality. With all these concepts, however, we are still moving within the internal framework of monotheist apologetics. There is no ritual evolutionism. Rites legitimize themselves through their unfathomable age but not through progressive humaneness.

From Monolatry to Monotheism

Yet the transition from polytheism to monotheism is certainly not a matter of ritual but of ideas about the divine. The question, thus, should be whether there is a change that might be interpreted as an evolution (p.49) of ideas.8 I would like to approach this question in the second part of this chapter by means of two phenomena. The first one concerns the transition from monolatry to monotheism in the Hebrew Bible—that is, from a position that recognizes the existence other gods but requires that only one be worshiped, to a position that denies the existence of other gods altogether.

The first position (monolatry) is most clearly expressed by the first commandment, an absolute key text as far as the question of god and gods, unity and plurality, is concerned.

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.

God does not say, “I am the Only one, there are no other gods except me.” He does not present himself as the only creator of the universe, but as the liberator of Israel. He does not refer to the other gods as nonexistent, but as forbidden. They do not exist for you and in my sight. They have no business in the temple of the Lord.

As a matter of fact, the existence of other gods is not only not denied, but is even presupposed. What God demands of his people is loyalty and fidelity, exclusive faithfulness to one god which does not allow for any relations with other gods. If there were no other gods, the request for faithfulness would be meaningless. The basic metaphor is conjugal fidelity, God being the bridegroom and Israel the bride.9 The other gods appear in the role of seducers wanting to lure Israel away from the way of God and because of whom Israel is constantly scolded by the prophets for fornicating with them.

Another image for the relationship between God and Israel is the political alliance.10 In this case, too, it is strictly forbidden to serve two overlords at a time and, for example, to form an alliance with both the Assyrians and the Egyptians. If Israel were to form an alliance with the Egyptians, this would be regarded by the Assyrians as a casus belli and a reason for most cruel punishment. Unlike courtship and matrimony, the political alliance is no metaphor but the real thing, the model which is at the base of this completely novel form of religion. The covenant between God and Israel is a formal treaty or contract after the model of Hittite and Assyrian treaties with other states and vassals. God chooses tiny Israel from the plethora of peoples and leaves the other people to the other gods.

(p.50) Israel chooses from the plethora of gods the god Yahweh, who delivered it from Egyptian bondage, and abstains from worshiping other gods. God among the gods, Israel among the peoples—this is the foundation on which this alliance or covenant is formed and sacred history proceeds.

One text in particular may stand, pars pro toto, for a great many similar statements in the Torah, the prophets, the psalms, and other Biblical books to characterize the position of monolatry that rests on the principle of loyalty and faithfulness. This position is typical of a certain textual layer in the Hebrew Bible that is most clearly represented by the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy must date back, at least in its original form, to the seventh century BCE, for it uses the terminology and the imagery of the Assyrian vassal treaties, which it transposes or relocates to the relationship between god and people.11

Together with other texts informed by the same spirit, it has contributed to the survival of the Jewish people after the destruction of the temple, the collapse of the state, and the deportation of the elite to Babylon—a singular achievement that amounts to a miracle under the circumstances of the time. This miracle, in turn, helped this position, which before the exile had been only a minority movement, to win general acceptance and to become the mainstream course in Judaism and radical Protestantism to this day.

If we look around at the historical context, we may ascertain two counter-positions. One is the majority or mainstream position against which the Deuteronomist movement is fighting, at first as a minority and later as a victorious position.12 The other is to be recognized in a position that we would classify as properly monotheistic, according to which there are no other gods, and consequently the other religions are worshiping not gods but fictions, idols, false fabrications of their own fantasy and craftsmanship.

We get to see the first position only in the polemical illumination of the Deuteronomist writings. We are obviously dealing here with a moderate and syncretistic polytheism: moderate, because there are only a few (instead of innumerable) deities involved, and syncretistic, because these deities are originally Canaanite, such as Baal and Ashera-Astarte. We are obviously to imagine their relationship in the form of a small pantheon presided over by Yahweh in the role of summus deus. The transition from this form of religion, which according to the books of Kings and Chronicles must have prevailed in the pre-exile kingdom until Josiah, to the (p.51) Deuteronomist position can in no way be understood as an evolutionary development. Rather, we are dealing here with a revolution that even involved bloodshed and massacres, if we may believe the Biblical record: Elijah massacring the priests of Baal, Jehu massacring the house of Ahab, and the atrocities accompanying Josiah’s cult reform. All this certainly belongs more within the realm of fictional literature than of objective historiography. It is, however, highly significant that this transition is represented or remembered by the Biblical sources and in the perspective of the Deuteronomist position in such antagonistic terms, as a forced mass conversion as it were.

Particularly if and because these events are not historical facts but to be understood only symbolically, they are all the more significant and shed light on the forms in which the Israelites or Jews themselves remembered and valued this transition. There is no question of evolution.

With the other position of strict monotheism, the situation is different. We find this position in the texts of the later prophets, especially with Deutero-Isaiah. There we read in chapter 45:5–7:

I am the LORD, and there is no other; there is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, that they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting that there is none besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the LORD, do all these things.

Here, finally, God appears as universal creator:

For thus says the LORD, Who created the heavens, Who is God, Who formed the earth and made it, Who has established it, Who did not create it in vain, Who formed it to be inhabited: “I am the LORD, and there is no other.” (45:18)

Here, God changed from “the Lord who delivered thee from Egyptian bondage” to the “creator of heaven and earth” besides whom there is no other god. This change may very well be understood as a development from the incipient and immature to a mature and final stage, and as an evolution from lower to higher levels of imagining God. The Yahweh of the Deuteronomist Exodus tradition is a tribal or national god who forms an alliance with Israel; he represents himself as the god of the fathers and (p.52) the liberator from Egyptian bondage, but not as the only and all-competent creator of the universe. Deutero-Isaiah’s Yahweh, on the other hand, is a universal deity. Here, we may speak of an evolution of ideas, in the sense of an amplification of perspective, from ethnicity to universality or, in the words of Benjamin Nelson, from tribal brotherhood to universal otherhood.13 We encounter this all-encompassing creator god also elsewhere in the Bible, for example, right at the beginning of Genesis.

We are dealing here, however, with an evolution, not from polytheism to monotheism but within monotheism, from monolatry to pure monotheism. Between poly- and monotheism, there is, in the Bible, no development, but only radical aversion and reversal. No way leads from one position to the other, but only a radical, revolutionary turn.

Egypt and Religious Change

In the last part of this chapter I would like to turn to Egypt. There is no more suitable example for our topic. Egypt confronts us with an unbelievable wealth of sources that in most cases are well determined in terms of chronology and provenance and that belong to a relatively limited timespan, the four centuries from 1500 to 1100 BCE. This time produced thousands of hymns primarily to the sun god, of which hundreds are preserved.14 Within this corpus, a change is clearly discernible that may be interpreted as an evolution of ideas. There are, of course, very many texts that are older and younger than this time window. But there is not much change. The decisive transformation takes place during these centuries around 1300 BCE. In chapter 1, this discourse was presented as an example of ‘explicit theology’ that gained an unusual prominence in Egypt during the New Kingdom. Here, I would like to come back to these texts to ask in what sense they indicate a process of religious evolution or revolution. What is unique with this epoch is that it confronts us with both forms of a monotheistic turn: an evolutionary and a revolutionary one. For Egypt, this is a veritable “Axial Age.”

We may divide this time period into sections of unequal length. The first section comprises the years from around 1500 until 1350, the second contains the twenty years from 1350 until 1330, and the third the time from 1330 until 1100. The dominating theological concept during the first period may be summarized under the concept of a ‘theology of primacy.’ This is a polytheism with a strong sense of unity. Everything is oriented toward one single god from whom all things originated or “emanated”: (p.53) heaven and earth, humans and gods, animals and plants. God appears here absolutely as the universal creator, but ‘creator’ here means ‘origin,’ and the world that originated from God is a world to which the other gods also belong. By creating this world full of gods and other beings, God renounced his original uniqueness and became a god among gods, albeit the highest one among them. This theology of primacy is as old as pharaonic civilization, reaching back far before 1500 BCE. Characteristic of this theology is the combination and identification of three forms of relation: to originate from, to depend on, and to rule over. What emerges from an origin remains dependent on this origin. The Egyptians believed that all life evolves from the sun, which generates light and warmth by its radiation and time by its movement. Everything that originates from and through the sun remains dependent on the sun; without the sun there would be no life on earth. Up to this point we ourselves would still subscribe to this view.

The next step, however, is not so easy for us to take. ‘To be dependent on’ means, in Egyptian thinking, ‘to be governed or ruled by.’ The sun rules as lord or king over the world. It emits not only light and time, but also dominion. We must not forget that the Egyptians founded the first large territorial state in human history, and the theology of primacy dates back to the origin of this state, around 3000 BCE.

Around 1500, however, there starts to emerge a universalist perspective in addition to the traditional perspective of unity. Until that point, people were living in a world whose limits coincided with the borders of Egypt. The outside realm was not considered to be part of creation but of chaos. From 1500 onward the Egyptians started to have experiences that required a radically different outlook. In consequence of radical political changes which cannot be dealt with here—foreign dominion, the Hyksos, and wars of liberation—Egypt entered a network of political interconnections and became a global player among, beside, and above other powers of equal or lesser importance. These political changes caused a transformation of the traditional worldview. Egypt was no longer seen as coextensive with creation in the sense of an ordered world surrounded by chaos, but merely part of a far more comprehensive world containing many comparable nations and civilizations.

Humankind was now divided into four races: Egyptians, Libyans, Nubians, and Asiatics, or even five with the addition of the Minoans, Mycenaeans, and Aegeans, and the Egyptians believed the sun god and (p.54) creator to be responsible for all of them. A hymn to the sun god, dating from the time of the liberation wars, praises him as

  • Atum, creator of human beings
  • who differentiates them and makes them live,
  • who distinguishes people by the color of their skin.15

This does not refer to differences among individuals but between races, languages, and forms of life.

When the primeval god, from whom everything originated, transformed himself into the sun and creator, he entered a boat, together with other deities, in order to circle around the earth by day and by night, above and below, and by these means to animate, organize, and preserve his creation. This concept, the most central and important idea of the ancient Egyptian world image, underwent a decisive transformation that begins to be evident in the texts around 1400. The distance between the sun god and the other gods grows larger and larger until eventually he circles the world alone in his barque. Although the other gods still exist as creatures of the sun god along with humans, animals, and plants, the monotheistic perspective now becomes much more dominant.

This new world image became radicalized by Akhenaten, who ascended to the throne of Egypt around 1350 BCE: the other gods were abolished, their temples closed, their priests fired, their images destroyed, their names erased, their cults and feasts discontinued. On the one hand, these actions may be regarded as the apex of a development that began two hundred years earlier; on the other hand, this is clearly a violent act that must be interpreted in terms of revolution rather than evolution.

For Akhenaten, there exists only one god: the sun. However, the sun no longer crosses the sky and the netherworld in a boat, but is stripped of all anthropomorphic traits and represented as a disk or globe with rays ending in hands (this being the only remaining anthropomorphism). In Akhenaten’s hymns the universalist perspective reaches its height.

  • You made the earth following your heart when you were alone,
  • With people, herds, and flocks;
  • All upon earth that walks on legs,
  • All on high that fly on wings,
  • (p.55) The foreign lands of Syria and Nubia,
  • The land of Egypt.
  • You set every man in his place, you supply their needs;
  • Everyone has his food, his lifetime is counted.
  • Their tongues differ in speech,
  • Their characters likewise;
  • Their skins are distinct, for you distinguished the people.
  • You made Hapy in the netherworld,
  • You bring him when you will,
  • To nourish the people, for you made them for yourself.
  • Lord of all, who toils for them,
  • Lord of all lands who shines for them,
  • Sun disk of daytime, great in glory!
  • All distant lands, you keep them alive:
  • You made a heavenly Nile descend for them;
  • He makes waves on the mountains like the sea,
  • To drench their fields with what they need.
  • How efficient are your plans, O Lord of eternity!
  • A Hapy from heaven for foreign peoples
  • And for the creatures in the desert that walk on legs,
  • But for Egypt the Hapy who comes from the netherworld.16

The monotheism of Akhenaten is no less consequential and radical than the position of Deutero-Isaiah eight hundred years later. For Akhenaten, as for Deutero-Isaiah, there is only one God. In two of his hymns we read: “You one and only God besides whom there is no other god.”17 The god of Akhenaten, however, is the sun and only the sun. His theology is not anthropomorphic but heliomorphic, and more of a cosmology than a theology. Akhenaten drew new and revolutionary conclusions from the traditional idea that the sun generates not only light and warmth through its radiation but also time through its motion. If the whole of reality derives from light and time, the other gods are superfluous fictions without any part in the creation and preservation of the universe. Their cults must be discontinued, their temples closed, (p.56) their images destroyed, their names erased, their priests dismissed, and their feasts abolished.

Unlike the monotheism of Deutero-Isaiah, however, the monotheism of Akhenaten remained a short episode in Egypt. After the death of the king, the old gods were reintroduced and every trace of the new religion and its founder erased. Surprisingly enough, however, the evolution of ideas that culminated in Akhenaten’s revolution was by no means arrested, let alone reversed. On the contrary, the priests of Thebes responded to Akhenaten’s attack by developing—as shown in chapter 1 in somewhat greater detail—a new theo-cosmology based on a new theological category: the ba concept.

The ba concept denotes an immaterial vital force that animates the body in life and separates itself from the body in death. The theologians adopted this concept for redefining the relation between God and the world, a world that was again seen as being inhabited by gods and humans. Now, the highest god, the origin of all, is conceived of as a ba incorporated into the world like the human ba in a human body. At the same time, the many gods who keep the world going may be referred to as the many bas of the transcendent One, in the sense of being his immanent manifestations.

In what sense might this innovation be understood as a step in an evolutionary process, a step forward? With the ba concept, a completely new form had been discovered to conceive of the relation between unity and diversity in terms of transcendence and immanence.

The old paradigm of primacy and creation is now not superseded but complemented by the new paradigm of transcendence and manifestation. In the framework of the first paradigm, that of creation and primacy, the divine as unity was conceivable only in terms of preexistence, as prior and exterior to the created world. The relation between God and world thus became temporalized: God as One before the cosmogony, God among many within the world. Now, a category was found by means of the ba concept to conceive of God as unity together with or simultaneous to the created world. The idea of God as origin and creator before the world was now complemented by God as transcendent power that manifests and hides itself in the world. This God does not confront the world from outside, but penetrates and animates it from within, and at the same time exceeds it.

This change from a polytheism of primacy with a strong perspective of unity to a kind of inclusive monotheism that views the many gods as (p.57) manifestations of the Hidden One confronts us with a veritable evolution of ideas. There is no antagonism, no rejection of tradition involved, but a process that may be understood in terms of an evolutionary logic. This is confirmed by the fact that the same process may be observed with other religions. Referring to Indian religion, the medievalist C.S. Lewis once wrote:

Monotheism should not be regarded as the rival of polytheism, but rather as its maturity. Where you find polytheism, combined with any speculative power and any leisure for speculation, monotheism will sooner or later arise as a natural development. The principle, I understand, is well illustrated in the history of Indian religion. Behind the gods arises the One, and the gods as well as the men are only his dreams. That is one way of disposing of the many . . . the gods are to be aspects, manifestations, temporary or partial embodiments of the single power.18

Yet there is, of course, also the other monotheism, the monotheism of Akhenaten and Moses that does not allow for other gods. This monotheism is by no means the maturity of polytheism but its opposite and its declared enemy. We must therefore distinguish between two forms of monotheism: inclusive monotheism, which can be understood as the maturity of polytheism because it is implicit right from the beginning as a perspective of unity, and exclusive monotheism, which is reached only by resolute reversion or conversion. In the same way, we are dealing with two dynamics of change in the history of religion: the dynamics of revolution and the dynamics of evolution.

We have identified the dynamics of evolution as an evolution of ideas. This is a very special phenomenon requiring many conditions to come about, and a quasi-natural process. An evolution of ideas requires especially the following four conditions: writing, discourse, a certain degree of professionalization, and the rise of lay theology. Writing makes it possible for former positions to remain present and accessible for later reference. Discourse means that such reference takes place and the debate is continued across generations. Professionalization means that specialists are exempt from manual labor and educated for taking up the debate, and lay theology means that the debate on religious ideas spreads beyond the (p.58) circles of professional priesthood and is taken up by media of wider circulation. Under these circumstances, even religion, which normally strives to exclude change and sticks to the ancient and sacred traditions, comes under the influence of new concepts and cultural trends. Religion, it is true, has its true center and foundation in cult, but it transcends cult by reflecting on the conditions of cultic communication and the nature of the divine, and in these “trans-cultic” concerns, an evolution of ideas may become possible.

With regard to religion, an evolution of ideas is called ‘theology.’ Theology flourished especially in the context of those religions that arose from revolutionary impulses, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, where there was an urge to legitimate the new truth and to defend it against regressive paganism and heresies. Under these pressures, all three monotheistic religions developed theologies, professional discourses on the nature of the divine that were codified in written form so that later positions could build on former ones. In Egypt, theology became possible because from the early fifteenth century BCE onward the Egyptian priesthood, at least the more important clergies, started to be based on a professional structure, and because the theological discourse unfolded in written form, in hundreds of inscriptions and papyri. Here the discourse arose from problems such as how to account for the existence of suffering and destruction in a world created by a benevolent and all-providing deity, and how to conceive of the relationship between the one and the many, God and gods, God and the world.

To come back to the question that was our point of departure: is the transition from polytheism to monotheism to be explained in terms of evolution?

The answer is “yes,” if we understand by monotheism inclusive monotheism in the sense of C.S. Lewis, following the principle “All gods are One.” The answer is “no,” if we are dealing with exclusive monotheism following the principle “No god but God.” This position is reached not by slow development and maturation, as it were, but by radical rejection and aversion. Here, the old is not absorbed into the new, but is the object of persecution, abomination, repression, and annihilation. Therefore, we should conceive of the religious transformations in the ancient world as fueled by two dynamics, an evolutionary and a revolutionary one: the evolutionary aiming at ever more adequate and in this sense “truer” representations of the divine, and the revolutionary one breaking with (p.59) tradition in acts of creative destruction and seeking truth in other directions. Both impulses may be active within one and the same religion. We have to learn to account for both. We must avoid rejecting the other religions as disbelief, paganism, or heresy, and yet must be conscious of what we deem incompatible with our own ideas about the divine. (p.60)


(1) See Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988).

(2) See Volker Gerhardt, Klaus Lucas, and Günter Stock, eds., Evolution: Theorie, Formen und Konsequenzen eines Paradigmas in , Technik und Kultur (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2011).

(3) The idea of the three ages goes back to the “Apokryphon Eliae,” which is of great importance for Luther’s concept of sacred history and which is even quoted in the Talmud as a prophecy of Elijah (bSanh 97ab, Aboda (p.138) zara 9a): two thousand years before the Torah, two thousand years under the Torah, two thousand years of messianic time.

(4) Cf. Jacob Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie (Bern: A. Francke, 1947; 2nd ed. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2007); translated into English as Occi- dental Eschatology (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).

(5) See Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949); Amos Funkenstein, Heilsplan und natürliche Entwicklung: Formen der Gegen- wartsbestimmung im Geschichtsdenken des hohen Mittelalters (Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1965).

(6) For Jewish adaptations of the theory of divine accommodation see S. D. Benin, “The Cunning of God and Divine Accommodation,” Journal of the History of Ideas 45 (1984): 179–92.

(7) Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, translated by James Strachey (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 23. London: Hogarth Press, 1953–74).

(8) In the sense of Niklas Luhmann, Ideenevolution: Beiträge zur Wissenssozi- ologie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2008).

(9) The first to use the metaphors of matrimony and love, adultery and jealousy, in order to express the singular relationship between Yahweh and Israel is the prophet Hosea, active in the Northern Kingdom in the late eighth century BCE. He is also the first to allude to the myth of the Exodus.

(10) George E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh: Biblical Colloquium, 1955); Klaus Baltzer, The Covenant For- mulary: In Old Testament, Jewish and Early Christian Writings, translated by David E. Green (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971); Dennis J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant: A Study in Form in the Ancient Oriental Documents, and in the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Analecta Biblica 21. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978).

(11) Eckart Otto, Das Deuteronomium: Politische Theologie und Rechtsreform in Juda und Assyrien (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1999); Hans Ulrich Steymans, Deuteronomium 28 und die adê zur Thronfolgeregelung Asarhaddons: Segen und Fluch im Alten Orient und in Israel (Fribourg, Switzerland and Göttingen: Universitätsverlag, 1995).

(12) See esp. Morton Smith, Palestinian Parties and Politics that Shaped the Old Testament (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1971).

(13) Benjamin Nelson, The Idea of Usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949).

(14) See Jan Assmann, Ägyptische Hymnen und Gebete (ÄHG), 2nd ed. (Fribourg, Switzerland: Universitätsverlag; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1999).

(p.139) (15) pBoulaq 17= pCairo CG 58038, iv, 3–5, ÄHG No. 87C. See also chapter 1, where this text is quoted at greater length.

(16) ÄHG No. 92, 83–104.

(17) “O sole god, beside whom there is none!” Maj Sandman, Texts from the Time of Akhenaten (Bibliotheca Aegyptiaca 8. Brussels: Fondation Reine Élisabeth, 1938), 94, 17; cf. “There is no other except him,” Sandman, 7, 7–8.

(18) C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 57.