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Moses and Monotheism

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Moses and Monotheism
Cover of the first edition
AuthorSigmund Freud
Original titleDer Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion
TranslatorKaterine Jones
PublisherHogarth Press
Publication date
Published in English
Media typePrint
Pages223 (first edition)
LC ClassBS580 .M6
Preceded byCivilization and Its Discontents 
Original text
Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion at Project Gutenberg
TranslationMoses and Monotheism at Internet Archive

Moses and Monotheism (German: Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion, lit.'The man Moses and the monotheist religion') is a 1939 book about the origins of monotheism written by Sigmund Freud,[1] the founder of psychoanalysis. It is Freud's final original work and it was completed in the summer of 1939 when Freud was, effectively speaking, already "writing from his death-bed."[2][3] It appeared in English translation the same year.

Moses and Monotheism shocked many of its readers because of Freud's suggestion that Moses was actually born into an Egyptian household, rather than being born as a Hebrew slave and merely raised in the Egyptian royal household as a ward (as recounted in the Book of Exodus).[4][5] Freud proposed that Moses had been a priest of Akhenaten who fled Egypt after the pharaoh's death and perpetuated monotheism through a different religion,[6] and that he was murdered by his followers, who then via reaction formation revered him and became irrevocably committed to the monotheistic idea he represented.[1]


The book consists of three essays and is an extension of Freud's work on psychoanalytic theory as a means of generating hypotheses about historical events, in combination with his obsessive fascination with Egyptological scholarship, archaeology, and antiquities.[7][8] Freud hypothesizes that Moses was not Hebrew, but actually born into Ancient Egyptian nobility and was probably a follower of Akhenaten, "the world's earliest recorded monotheist."[9]

The biblical account of Moses is reinterpreted by Freud in light of new findings at Tel-El-Amarna. Archaeological evidence of the Amarna Heresy, Akhenaten's monotheistic worship of the Ancient Egyptian solar god Aten, had only been discovered in 1887 and the interpretation of that evidence was still in an early phase.[10] Freud's monograph on the subject, for all the controversy that it ultimately provoked, was one of the first popular accounts of these findings.[7]

In Freud's retelling of the events, Moses led only his close followers into freedom (during an unstable period in Ancient Egyptian history after Akhenaten's death ca. 1350 BCE), that they subsequently killed the Egyptian Moses in rebellion, and still later joined with another monotheistic tribe in Midian who worshipped a volcano god called Yahweh.[4][11] Freud supposed that the monotheistic solar god Aten of the Egyptian Moses was fused with Yahweh, the Midianite volcano god, and that the deeds of Moses were ascribed to a Midianite priest who also came to be called Moses.[12] Moses, in other words, is a composite figure, from whose biography the uprising and murder of the original Egyptian Amarna-cult priest has been excised.[4]

Freud explains that centuries after the murder of the Egyptian Moses, the rebels regretted their action, thus forming the concept of the Messiah as a hope for the return of Moses as the Saviour of the Israelites. Freud claimed that repressed (or censored) collective guilt stemming from the murder of Moses was passed down through the generations; leading the Jews to neurotic expressions of legalistically religious sentiment to disperse or cope with their inheritance of trauma and guilt. In many respects, the book reiterates the theogony that Freud first argued in Totem and Taboo,[13] as Freud acknowledges in the text of Moses & Monotheism on several occasions. For example, he writes:

"[This] conviction I acquired when I wrote my book on Totem and Taboo (1912), and it has only become stronger since. From then on, I have never doubted that religious phenomena are to be understood only on the model of the neurotic symptoms of the individual, which are so familiar to us, as a return of long forgotten important happenings in the primeval history of the human family, that they owe their obsessive character to that very origin and therefore derive their effect on mankind from the historical truth that they contain."[4]


According to the historian of religion Kimberly B. Stratton, in Moses and Monotheism Freud "posits a primal act of murder as the origin of religion, and specifically ties the memory (and repression) of it to the exodus story and birth of biblical monotheism".[1] The mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote that Freud's suggestion that Moses was an Egyptian "delivered a shock to many of his admirers". According to Campbell, Freud's proposal was widely attacked, "both with learning and without." Campbell himself refrained from passing judgment on Freud's views about Moses, although he considered Freud's willingness to publish his work despite its potential offensiveness "noble".[14]

The philosopher Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and the psychologist Sonu Shamdasani argued that in Moses and Monotheism Freud applied to history "the same method of interpretation that he used in the privacy of his office to 'reconstruct' his patients' forgotten and repressed memories."[15] The Anglican theologian Rowan Williams stated that Freud's accounts of the origins of Judaism are "painfully absurd", and that Freud's explanations are not scientific but rather "imaginative frameworks".[16]

Biblical scholar Richard Elliot Friedman wrote that it "is remarkably insightful and of enormous instructive value even if Freud was mistaken on individual points — as he was perfectly willing to acknowledge."[17]

Biblical archaeologist William Foxwell Albright dismissed Freud's book by stating that it "is totally devoid of serious historical method and deals with historical data even more cavalierly than with the data of instrospective and experimental psychology".[18] More recently, Israeli archaeologist Aren Maier was also critical toward Freud's work and called his analysis "simplistic and largely incorrect", while Egyptologist Brian Murray Fagan stated that it "had no basis in historical fact".[19] Egyptologist Donald Bruce Redford wrote in 2015:

Before much of the archaeological evidence from Thebes and from Tell el-Amarna became available, wishful thinking sometimes turned Akhenaten into a humane teacher of the true God, a mentor of Moses, a christlike figure, a philosopher before his time. But these imaginary creatures are now fading away as the historical reality gradually emerges. There is little or no evidence to support the notion that Akhenaten was a progenitor of the full-blown monotheism that we find in the Bible.[20]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Assmann, Jan (1998). Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism Harvard University Press.
  • Certeau, Michel de (1988). The Fiction of History: The Writing of Moses and Monotheism. [1975.] The Writing of History, pp. 308–354. (Translated by Tom Conley.) Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-05574-9
  • Chaney, Edward (2006). 'Egypt in England and America: The Cultural Memorials of Religion, Royalty and Religion', Sites of Exchange: European Crossroads and Faultlines, eds. M. Ascari and A. Corrado. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi.
  • Chaney, E, 'Freudian Egypt', The London Magazine (April/May 2006), pp. 62–69.
  • Chaney, E, 'Moses and Monotheism, by Sigmund Freud', 'The Canon', THE (Times Higher Education), 3–9 June 2010, No. 1,950, p. 53.
  • Edmundson, Mark (2008). The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days Bloomsbury United States ISBN 978-1-59691-430-8
  • Ginsburg, Ruth; Pardes, Ilona (2006). New Perspectives on Freud's Moses and Monotheism. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.
  • Paul, Robert A. (1996). Moses and civilization: The meaning behind Freud’s myth. ISBN 0-300-06428-4
  • Rice, Emanuel (1990). Freud and Moses: The Long Journey Home. Albany, New York: State University of New York.
  • Rice, Emanuel (1999). Freud, Moses, and the Religions of Egyptian Antiquity: A Journey Through History Psychoanalytic Review, 1999 Apr; 86(2):223–243. PMID 10461667
  • Yerushalmi, Y. H. (1991). Freud's Moses. New Haven: Yale University Press.


  1. ^ a b c Stratton, Kimberly B. (August 2017). Copp, Paul; Wedemeyer, Christian K. (eds.). "Narrating Violence, Narrating Self: Exodus and Collective Identity in Early Rabbinic Literature". History of Religions. 57 (1). University of Chicago Press for the University of Chicago Divinity School: 68–92. doi:10.1086/692318. ISSN 0018-2710. JSTOR 00182710. LCCN 64001081. OCLC 299661763.
  2. ^ Technically speaking, work on Freud's Outline of Psycho-Analysis continued after his completion of the last portion of his Moses & Monotheism manuscript, but this was just a reiteration and condensation of earlier works. See reference No. 4 below for citation.
  3. ^ Gay, Peter, 1923-2015. (1988). Freud : a life for our time (1st ed.). New York: Norton. pp. 532–548. ISBN 0-393-02517-9. OCLC 16353245.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ a b c d Freud, Sigmund (1939). Moses and Monotheism. Hogarth Press. pp. 13-15, 56–57, 66–67, 70–71, 80–81, 88, 97.
  5. ^ "Bible Gateway passage: Exodus 2 - New International Version". Bible Gateway. Retrieved 5 January 2020.
  6. ^ S. Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXIII (1937-1939), "Moses and monotheism". London: Hogarth Press, 1964.
  7. ^ a b "Sigmund Freud's fascination with Egypt". Apollo Magazine. 13 August 2019. Retrieved 5 January 2020.
  8. ^ Reading Freud's reading. Gilman, Sander L. New York: New York University Press. 1994. pp. 266–287. ISBN 0-8147-3051-5. OCLC 28114291.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  9. ^ Brier, Bob. "Akhenaten, The Heretic Pharaoh." Lecture 21 of Great Courses History of Ancient Egypt.
  10. ^ For example, the inventory of the temple fragments was not completed until 1967 and its digital reconstruction is still ongoing. Winfield Smith, .Ray"The Akhenaten Temple Project" Expedition Magazine 10.1 (1967): n. pag. Expedition Magazine. Penn Museum, 1967 Web. 5 Jan 2020 <http://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/?p=1779>https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-akhenaten-temple-project/
  11. ^ "Jahve" according to Freud's transliteration in Moses & Monotheism (see ref 1).
  12. ^ Yerushalmi, Yosef (1991). Freud's Moses: Terminable and Interminable. Yale University Press. pp. 3–4. ISBN 0-300-04921-8.
  13. ^ "Psychoanalysis of Myth - Sigmund Freud - Moses and Monotheism". stenudd.com. Retrieved 6 January 2020.
  14. ^ Campbell, Joseph (1965). The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. London: Secker & Warburg. pp. 125–127.
  15. ^ Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel; Shamdasani, Sonu (2012). The Freud Files: An Inquiry into the History of Psychoanalysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 179–180. ISBN 978-0-521-72978-9.
  16. ^ Williams, Rowan (1983), "Freudian Psychology", in Alan Richardson; John Bowden (eds.), A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, London: SCM Press, p. 220, ISBN 0-334-02208-8
  17. ^ Friedman, Richard Elliott (1 October 1991). "Scholar, Heal Thyself; Or How Everybody Got to Be an Expert on the Bible". The Iowa Review. 21 (3): 33–47. doi:10.17077/0021-065X.4047. ISSN 2330-0361.
  18. ^ Albright, William Foxwell (1957). From the Stone age to Christianity: monotheism and the historical process. Doubleday. p. 112.
  19. ^ Fagan, Brian Murray (31 August 2015). "Did Akhenaten's Monotheism Influence Moses?". Biblical Archaeology Review.
  20. ^ Redford, Donald Bruce (3 June 2015). "Aspects of Monotheism". Biblical Archaeology Review.