- Egyptian Pharaoh who ruled for 17 years in middle of fourteenth century, up till around 1336 or 1334 BCE
- originally known as Amenthotep IV (or in Greek, Amenophis IV); changed his name to Akhenaten
- opposed the orthodox priests of Ammon-Re; redirected their income to his new god Aton
- abolished traditional cults and idols of Egyptian polytheism
- established the sole worship of a new god of light, Aton, (variously described as monotheism, monolatrism and henotheism)
- depicted Aton as sun disc with rays ending in hands, understood to be a universal god incapable of true representation
- established new centre of worship at Akhetaten (today known as Amarna)
- temples to Aten stressed worship in open sunlight (contrary to earlier custom of darkened indoor temples)
- Akhenaten was the sole mediator between Aton and earth
- affinities between Hymn to Aton and Psalm 104
- son was the famous Tutankhamen
Unlike Moses, Akhenaten, Pharaoh Amenophis IV, was a figure exclusively of history and not of memory. Shortly after his death, his name was erased from the king-lists, his monuments were dismantled, his inscriptions and representations were destroyed, and almost every trace of his existence was obliterated. For centuries no one knew of his extraordinary revolution. Until his rediscovery in the nineteenth century, there was virtually no memory of Akhenaten.
Moses represents the reverse case. No traces have ever been found of his historical existence. He grew and developed only as a figure of memory, absorbing and embodying all traditions that pertained to legislation, liberation, and monotheism. (Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p. 23)
This current series of posts has arisen out of Professor Chris Keith’s references to Egyptologist Jan Assmann’s comments about social memory theory in history. Keith uses memory theory to “answer questions about the historical Jesus”. By starting with the gospel narratives as memories of Jesus that have been necessarily reinterpreted he attempts to uncover those narrative details that most likely point to a past reality about Jesus. In Jesus’ Literacy, for example, he judges the Gospel of Mark’s implication that Jesus was was not scribally literate to be more likely a memory reflection of the real historical Jesus than the Gospel of Luke’s suggestion that Jesus was able to competently read the Jewish Scriptures.
However, when I read the first two chapters of Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian I read an approach to social memory that is the opposite of the one used by Chris Keith. Keith begins with the Gospels that are assumed to record certain memory-impressions and attempts to work backwards to what those original events more or less looked like to observers. But as I wrote in my earlier post that’s not how the Egyptologist works:
The Egyptologist begins with “hard evidence” and originally genuine historical memories and works his way forward into the later literature to find out what must have become of these memories. The historical Jesus scholar, it appears to me, begins with the later literature and tries to guess what memories came before it.
The two methods look to me to be like polar opposites rather than “similar”.
It is a pity Chris Keith is too busy to engage with Vridar (no reason given in his personal email, just a copy of a cordial invitation to respond to a Nigerian banker-benefactor asking me for my account details) at the cost of public religious literacy. I would love to discuss these questions with him seriously but he’s clearly not interested. (Slightly revised)
The difference is potentially very significant. Take the different versions of the Moses-Exodus narratives that we have seen in the recent posts — each one a differently interpreted memory — and apply Keith’s method to those in order to arrive at information about “the historical Moses” and the “historical Exodus” and see what happens. As we saw in that first post Assmann has doubts that there even was a historical Moses in the first place and he does not believe there ever was a biblical-like Exodus led by such a figure. Applying Keith’s method to “answer questions about the historical Jesus” to these memory-narratives would produce a very false notion of Egyptian and Jewish history.
Assmann starts with something we lack in the case of the historical Jesus. The known events of Egyptian history according to the contemporary inscriptions. These are used to interpret the later “memory literature”. The “memory literature” is not used in an attempt to uncover past historical events. The past historical events are used to interpret the subsequent stories.
Keith may object that he does use what is known of the historical past in order to assess what is closest to historical reality in the Gospels. He does, for example, in Jesus’ Literacy delve into what we can know about the nature and extent of literacy in ancient Palestine. But this tells us nothing new or relevant to the actual historical Jesus. It is comparable to uncovering details about the historical Pilate, or the architecture of the Jerusalem Temple, or the geography of Galilee. No-one would believe we are coming any closer to “the historical Moses” by learning all we can about the Egyptian religious customs and beliefs, the social structures, ethnic groups or literacy in ancient Egypt and Palestine and applying this knowledge to any of the stories we have about Moses.
So here’s how Assmann uses social memory.
Begin with the known historical facts
- Seventeenth century B.C.E., “the Hyksos, a population of Palestinian invaders, settled in the eastern delta and went out to rule Egypt for more than a hundred years.” (p.24)
- There was no religious conflict between the Hyksos and the Egyptians. “The Hyksos were neither monotheists nor iconoclasts. On the contrary, their remaining monuments show them in conformity with the religious obligations of traditional Egyptian pharaohs, whose role they assumed in the same way as did later foreign rulers of Egypt such as the Persians, the Macedonians, and the Romans. They adhered to the cult of Baal, who was a familiar figure for the Egyptians, and they did not try to convert the Egyptians to the cult of their god. The whole concept of conversion seems absurd in the context of polytheistic religions.” (p.24)
I quote here from one of Assmann’s sources, an article by fellow Egyptologist, Donald B. Redford, “The Hyksos Invasion in History and Tradition” (Orentalia, Vol. 39, No. 1, 1970)
In Egyptian texts emanating from the close of the Hyksos occupation and shortly thereafter no conscious effort is evident to propagandize by vilifying the invaders. They were vile Asiatics who had wrongfully seized Egypt; that was enough to justify any resistance or liberation movement. (p.31)
Redford informs us that the first indications that the Hyksos were associated with religious aberrance was in the fifteenth century under Hatshepsut who declared that the Hyksos rule had eschewed by the god Re (p.33).
- Fourteenth century B.C.E., the first conflict in recorded history between two opposing religions took place in Egypt. “In its radical rejection of tradition and its violent intolerance, the monotheistic revolution of Akhenaten exhibited all the characteristic features of a counter-religion. Within the first six years of his reign, Pharaoh Amenophis IV changed the whole cultural system of Egypt with a revolution from above in a more radical way than it ever was changed by mere historical evolution.” (p. 25; see the “Akhenaten refresher” above for details)
Assmann describes that conflict in stark terms:
The monothestic revolution of Akhenaten was not only the first but also the most radical and violent eruption of a counter-revolution in the history of humankind.
- The temples were closed,
- the images of the gods were destroyed,
- their names were erased,
- and their cults were discontinued.
Assmann stresses what must have been a traumatic experience for many Egyptians. Rituals were believed to be linked to cosmic and social order and to bring them to an overnight halt was surely a “terrible shock” to many. Putting an end to the festivals (when the gods came out from their temples to appear in processions to the public) was a blow against the social identities of people who associated themselves closely with their local deities.
- Hard on the heels of this “catastrophe” came a plague which “swept over the entire Near East — probably including Egypt — and raged for twenty years. It was the worst epidemic which this region knew in antiquity.”
It is more than probable that this experience, together with that of the religious revolution, formed the trauma that gave rise to the phantasm of the religious enemy. (p. 25)
(The contemporary evidence for this plague is set out in Redford’s article, page 45.)
- The historical memory of the religious revolution was erased by those who replaced Akhenaten’s dynasty.
The recollection of the Amarna experience was made even more problematic by the process of systematic suppression whereby all the visible traces of the period were deleted and the names of the kings were removed from all official records. The monuments were dismantled and concealed in new buildings. Akhenaten did not even survive as a heretic in the memory of the Egyptians. His name and his teaching fell into oblivion. (p.27)
- Hyksos were Asiatic rulers of Egypt, detested by Egyptians but not for religious reasons
- Egyptians eventually expelled them
- Religious unorthodoxy was later associated with the Hyksos
- A counter-religion revolution took place in Egypt; old gods and cults were destroyed; a single god, without images, replaced them
- Plague accompanied or soon followed this revolution
- Memory of this religious revolution was erased and not rediscovered till the nineteenth century.
Drawing conclusions from the above facts
We have every reason to imagine the Amarna experience as traumatic and the memories of Amarna among the contemporary generation as painful and problematic. . . . Only the imprint of the shock remained: the vague remembrance of something religiously unclean, hateful, and disastrous in the extreme. . . .
Since every trace of the Amarna period had been eradicated, there was never any tradition or recollection of this event and its cultural expression until the nineteenth century, when the archaeological traces of this period were discovered and interpreted by modern Egyptology. The memories of this period survived only in the form of trauma. The first symptoms of this may have become visible as early as some forty years after the return to tradition, when concepts of religious otherness came to be fixed on the Asiatics, who were Egypt’s traditional enemies. In this context, the dislocated Amarna reminiscences began to be projected onto the Hyksos and their god Baal, who was equated with the Egyptian god Seth. (p.28)
Assmann is saying that the myth of the religiously vile Asiatic could well have arisen as early as a generation or “some forty years” after the overthrow of the Akhenaten revolution. A void was created with the suppression of all memory of that period; and voids are readily filled by other “memories” as they arise.
Presumably by this time, other memories and experiences had invaded the void in the collective memory which had been created both by trauma and by the annihilation of historical traces. The Hyksos conflict was thus turned into a religious conflict.
(I should add here that Assmann includes a discussion of the nature of ancient polytheism and why it did not normally lend itself to religious conflict. The various gods of one people or locality were on the whole identifiable with those of another or easily translatable between cultures.)
Now we’re beginning to see how all of this relates to the various Moses-Exodus narratives we have seen in the recent posts.
Lepers and Jews; Moses as Akhenaten
In one of his most brilliant pieces of historical reconstruction, Eduard Meyer was able to show as early as 1904 that some reminiscences of Akhenaten had indeed survived in Egyptian oral tradition and had surfaced again after almost a thousand years of latency. [Eduard Meyer, Aegyptische Chronologie, Abhandlungen der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1904), 92-95.]
He demonstrated that a rather fantastic story about lepers and Jews preserved in Manetho’s Aigyptiaka could refer only to Akhenaten and his monotheistic revolution. (p. 29, my bolding and formatting in all quotations)
Assmann then refers to articles by Rolf Krauss and Donald Redford (cited above) substantiating Meyer’s thesis with additional evidence. Another scholar, Raymond Weill, rejected Meyer’s explanation as being “too monocausal”. Assmann’s view is that both Meyer and Weill were correct.
The story as told by Manetho and others integrated many different historical experiences, among them the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt in the sixteenth century B.C.E. But the core of the story is a purely religious confrontation, and there is only one episode in Egyptian history that corresponds to these characteristics: the Amarna period.
This axial motif of religious confrontation became conflated with the motif of foreign invasion.
The Amarna experience retrospectively shaped the memories of the Hyksos occupation, and it also determined the way in which later encounters with foreign invaders were experienced and remembered.
This explanation takes full account of Weill’s criticism without giving up Meyer’s important insight. The significance of this discovery for the project of mnemohistory is immense. Not only does it prove how trauma can serve as a “stabilizer of memory” across a millennium, but it also shows the dangers of cultural suppression and traumatic distortion. The Egyptian phantasm of the religious enemy first became associated with the Asiatics in general and then with the Jews in particular. It anticipated many traits of Western anti-Semitism that can now be traced back to an original impulse. This impulse had nothing to do with the Jews but very much to do with the experience of a counter-religion and of a plague. (p. 30)
It’s an interesting theory. It makes sense. At least to me.
In this light let’s look again at those different versions of the Moses/Exodus tale and note the tie-ins with the known history of Egypt:
- begins with a plague in Egypt
- solution of the gods is to restore traditional worship and expel the foreigners who introduced alien worship
- some fled to Greece, others to Judea under Moses
- Moses introduced the worship of God without images and customs different from all other peoples
- Leprous Jews fled to temples to collect food leading to shortage in Egypt
- God Ammon’s solution was to expel the impious from the temples into the desert and drown the leprous Jews
- Moses their leader was hostile to all other races and destroyed temples in land he conquered
- God complained of temple desecration
- Restoration possible only by expelling the impure from the land
- Moses became their leader and joined forces with others who had been forbidden to leave; the combined to invade Egypt
- Egyptian king eventually drove the Jews back to Syria
- Hyksos conquered Egypt, treated population cruelly, ruled 500 years
- Thumosis, king of Thebes, rebelled and besieged their city Avaris
- Hyksos subsequently emigrated to Syria, finally settled in Judea
- King wanted to see the gods who had remained invisible
- To do so he had to expel the lepers to quarries and set apart city of Avaris for them
- Osarsiph became their leader; he introduced anti-Egyptian laws and worship
- Joined forces with Hyksos and ruled with terror over Egypt 13 years
- Hyksos and lepers were finally expelled from Egypt
- Egypt was plagued by leprosy; Moses was a prominent Egyptian
- Gods said that the cure was to expel Moses with those diseased
- Moses stole sacred objects, Egyptians attempting to recover them were turned back by storms
- Moses established laws to keep Jews separate from others
- Moses was Hermes and teacher of Orpheus
- Jealous Chenephres sought to kill him
- God appeared in a fire to order Moses to march against king Chenephres and rescue the Jews
- Moses returned but was imprisoned, escaped by divine miracle
- Plagues afflict Egypt, king relents, Jews escape to wilderness, Egyptians slain by fire and flood
- Plague in Egypt was causing bodily disfigurement
- God Ammon told king to remove the Jews, hateful to the gods, to another land
- Moses became their leader, found them water by following asses
- After 6 days they reached the land and expelled the inhabitants
- Set up worship that included ass idol, introduced customs opposed to all other races
- Moses was an Egyptian priest at Heliopolis
- Moses built temples and instituted worship practices different from Egyptian ones
- Moses, an Egyptian, dissatisfied with his country’s worship, exiled himself
- He established worship without images
- The legalisms of contemporary Jews were introduced only after Moses’ death