CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Amenhotep IV vs. Abraham

Joel Kaplan

March 18, 2013

With the excitement following the selection of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis along with the various conflicts in the Middle East involving Christians, Muslims and Jews, it is gratifying to be able to arbitrate a more ancient controversy: who is the world's first monotheist, Amenhotep IV or Abraham.

Donald Toole of Evansville, Ind. takes issue with a couple of public broadcasting programs that discuss the world's first monotheist—the first leader to believe in the existence of only one God.

"I have a complaint about your constant attempts at revising history," Mr. Toole wrote. "I have seen both on a special about Egyptian history and a travel show by Rick Steves that claim that the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotop the IV was history's first monotheist. He was Egypt's first monotheist, but Abraham was and is still the first monotheist.

"Amenhotop IV dates to 1370 to 1353 B.C., Abraham was about 2000 B.C., making him around 700 years before Amenhotop IV. These dates are to be found in World Book Encyclopedia as well as others. If you hope to protect Big Bird, don't pass off false and misleading claims as proven history."

Since neither ancient history nor religion are areas of my expertise, I put my crack researcher, Megan Paolone, to find the programs that Mr. Toole was speaking about and to determine whether his complaints are valid.

Ms. Paolone first contacted WNIN, Tri-State Public Media in Evansville, to determine which programs were aired that rankled Mr. Toole. According to WNIN representatives, the program that Mr. Toole wrote in about was produced by WGBH in Boston. But WGBH's researchers/media library could not locate the exact program, which may have been as old as 2006.

Instead, Ms. Paolone found several videos and one non-Nova PBS program that support the idea that Akhenaten (known as Amenhotep IV until the fifth year of his rule in Egypt) was history's first monotheist.

This web video (link to transcript) on PBS' website says that Akhenaten created the world's first monotheistic religion:

"For this pharaoh, there would be only one god—the Aten, the visible sun. Amenhotep would become the first monotheist in recorded history. He would also be the only priest of his new religion."

The PBS series Egypt's Golden Empire has a professor quoted as saying that, "Akhenaten was certainly the certainly the first monotheist." Link to transcript.

"Akhenaten was certainly the first monotheist, but also certainly the first religious oppressor in the history of the world," asserted Professor Antonio Loprieno, Egyptologist at UCLA and University of Basel in Switzerland.

This episode of Rick Steves' Europe Egypt gets into the issue around 13 minutes into the program. Steves discusses Akhenaten as "history's first monotheist":

"Akhenaten was the one exception in a 2,000-year bunny hop of conformist pharaohs. Ruling at around 1400 BC, he was history's first monotheist. He rolled all the gods of the Egyptian pantheon into one all-powerful being, the sun god, which he called Aten."

Ms. Paolone next spoke with Kara Cooney, an Egyptologist at UCLA who has worked on a series of documentaries with the Discovery Channel. She said that the first monotheistic religion, recorded in written history, is Judaism. She agreed that yes, Akhenaten brought about ideas of monotheism during his time but they were limited to himself and his family during his 17-year rule of Egypt. She also said it was nearly impossible to date Abraham. Instead, she said, one can put a date on Judaism itself, which is recorded in non-religious records.

"First of all there's no way to date Abraham," Ms. Cooney says. "There's no historical way to date him. People try, but there's no historical text. The Bible's not a historical text. It's ideologically driven. There's no history that places Abraham in any context that can be dated. If you have him appearing in the context of an Egyptian king of a certain date, you can date him, but there isn't a text like that."

So the verdict:

Both the PBS programs and Mr. Toole are wrong. Akhenaten could have been one of the first monotheists, but it is difficult to say that he was definitely the first. However, it's also wrong, according to Ms. Cooney, to say that Abraham was first. It would be more correct to say that Judaism was the first monotheistic faith.

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