Who Invented Monotheism?


Akhenaten. Thebes

The fables that people tell each other, the myths they construct for themselves, the stories that clothe their memory, help them to build their supposed identity, and enable them to distinguish themselves from other peoples.

Through the magic of words, « barbarians », « idolaters », « savages » and « infidels » appear in the imaginations of some peoples.

But with the hindsight of history and anthropology, we sometimes find strange similarities, disturbing analogies, between peoples who are so diverse, so distant, separated from each other by a priori ostracisms.

Many peoples resemble each other in that they all believe that they only are « unique », « special ». They believe that they are the only people in the world who are who they are, who believe in what they believe, who think what they think.

We can apply this observation to the religious fact.

The « monotheistic » religion, for example, has not appeared in a single culture, a single people. If the primacy of monotheistic worship is often associated with the ancient religion of the Hebrews, it is because we often forget that another form of monotheism was invented in Egypt by Amenophis IV (Akhenaten), several centuries before Abraham. Moses himself, according to Freud, but also according to the recent conclusions of some of the best informed Egyptologists, would have been, in his first life, a defrocked priest of the God Aten, and would have taken advantage of the Exodus to claim the laws and symbols of what was to define Judaism.

The idea of monotheism, far from being reserved for the Nile valley or the foothills of the Sinai, appeared in other cultures, in Vedic India or in the Avesta of ancient Iran.

In Max Müller’s Essay on the History of Religion (1879), which devotes a chapter to the study of the Zend Avesta, but also in Martin Haug’s Essays on the Sacred Language, Scriptures and Religion of the Parsis (Bombay, 1862), one finds curious and striking similarities between certain avestic formulas and biblical formulas.

In the Zend Avesta, we read that Zarathustra asked Ahura Mazda to reveal his hidden names. The God accepted and gave him twenty of them.

The first of these names is Ahmi, « I am ».

The fourth is Asha-Vahista, « the best purity ».

The sixth means « I am Wisdom ».

The eighth translates into « I am Knowledge ».

The twelfth is Ahura, « the Living One ».

The twentieth is Mazdao, which means: « I am He who is ».

It is easy to see that these formulas are taken up as they are in different passages of the Bible. Is it pure chance, an unexpected meeting of great minds or a deliberate borrowing? The most notable equivalence of formulation is undoubtedly « I am He who is », taken up word for word in the text of Exodus (Ex. 3:14).

Max Müller concludes: « We find a perfect identity between certain articles of the Zoroastrian religion and some important doctrines of Mosaism and Christianity.”

It is also instructive to note the analogies between the conception of Genesis in the Bible and the ideas that prevailed among the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians or Indians about « Creation ».

Thus, in the first verse of Genesis (« In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth »), the verb « to create » is translated from the Hebrew בָּרַא, which does not mean « to create » in the sense of « to draw out of nothing », but rather in the sense of « to cut, carve, sculpt, flatten, polish », from a pre-existing substance. Similarly, the Sanskrit verb tvaksh, which is used to describe the creation of the world in the Vedic context, means « to shape, to arrange », as does the Greek poiein, which will be used in the Septuagint version.

Some proper nouns, too, evoke borrowings across language barriers. The name Asmodeus, the evil spirit found in the biblical book of Tobit, was certainly borrowed from Persia. It comes from the parsi, Eshem-dev , which is the demon of lust, and which is itself borrowed from the demon Aeshma-daeva, mentioned several times in the Zend Avesta.

Another curious coincidence: Zoroaster was born in Arran (in avestic Airayana Vaêga, « Seed of the Aryan »), a place identified as Haran in Chaldea, the region of departure of the Hebrew people. Haran also became, much later, the capital of Sabaism (a Judeo-Christian current attested in the Koran).

In the 3rd century BC, the famous translation of the Bible into Greek (Septuagint) was carried out in Alexandria. In the same city, at the same time, the text of the Zend Avesta was also translated into Greek. This proves that at that time there was a lively intellectual exchange between Iran, Babylonia and Judeo-Hellenistic Egypt.

It seems obvious that several millennia earlier, a continuous stream of influences and exchanges already bathed peoples and cultures, circulating ideas, images and myths between India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Judea and Egypt.

And the very names of these countries, if they mean so much to us, it is probably because, by contrast, the cultures of earlier, « pre-historic » ages have left precisely little trace. But it is easy to imagine that the thinkers, prophets and magi of the Palaeolithic also had an intuition of the Whole and the One.

Une réflexion sur “Who Invented Monotheism?

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