Medicine and Monotheism

Statue of the Pharaoh Amenhotep I, currently housed in the British Museum. Amenhotep ruled towards the end of the 16th century BCE, and his mummy is unique in remaining untouched during the modern era of archeology. Image credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The pharaoh was circumcised.

This was the throwaway detail in many late 2021 news stories about how the best-preserved Egyptian mummy in history, that of Amenhotep I, was digitally “unwrapped” and examined thanks to 3D computed tomography. He had good teeth for someone who’d lived to the age of 35 more than three and a half millennia ago, and he apparently strongly resembled his father, Ahmose I. But that wasn’t what made my jaw drop.

Wait, what? Pharaoh was circumcised?

Circumcision for males shortly after birth is, for more than half of the world’s population who were brought up with either Christian or Muslim culture, considered to be a Jewish practice. Muslims are encouraged to circumcise males, but there is no commandment to do so in the Qur’an as there is the Bible (Genesis 17:10). The biblical forebear of the Jewish people, Abraham, is estimated to have lived thousands of years before Amenhotep I (assuming the Jewish patriarch was an actual person and not purely a myth); it was to him that God directed the edict of circumcision. We know that there were many centuries of intimate contact between Egypt and the wandering Semitic peoples of the Levant, so was cutting the foreskin part of this cultural exchange?

Possibly. But almost certainly, medical prowess originating in Egypt – by far the most advanced in the ancient world – was absorbed by the Israelites. The trope of the Jewish doctor may well have been born out of the relationship between Egypt and the early Abrahamic tribes. In my novel Sina’i, one of my teenage protagonists becomes a medical scribe for Miriam, Moses’s sister. It’s a role that we know was played by Egyptians around the time described in the Book of Exodus.  A papyrus from about 1550 BCE, the oldest surgical treatise ever discovered, describes therapies for everything from brain injuries to fractures in calm, analytical terminology worthy of today’s medical journals.

So the practice of circumcision and expertise in healing might have flowed back and forth between the ancient Israelites and their Egyptian taskmasters and trading partners. But many scholars make a more controversial claim: that the ultimate source of Judaism’s arguably most significant contribution to world culture, the belief in a single, unified god, was also a famous pharaoh.

Model heads of the pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti, on display at the New Museum in Berlin, Germany. Akhenaten is known popularly as the world’s first monotheist, but many scholars of religious history question that characterization. Image Credit:  Mike Steele via Flickr.

Akhenaten, the husband of Nefertiti and probably the father of Tutankhamen (a.k.a. King Tut), ruled Egypt towards the close of the 18th dynasty. His tumultuous reign ended about two generations before that of Rameses II, who may have been the pharaoh of the Exodus. (They weren’t related; two commoners, at least one of whom had no heirs, were named pharaoh in the interim.) Akhenaten was a literal iconoclast: He destroyed statues and temples belonging to the powerful god Amun-Ra in favor of the god of the sun’s disc, Aten. Akhenaten imagined his supreme god “as an all-powerful, all-loving deity, supreme creator and sustainer of the universe”;  a belief that “is thought to have had a potent influence on the later development of monotheistic religious faith,” writes Egypt specialist Joshua Marks on

Tutankhamen restored the worship of Amun-Ra, so the experiment in monotheism – if that’s what it truly was – was short-lived. It also came about two centuries after a mysterious group of invaders with Semitic names, known to us as the Hyksos, ruled Lower Egypt from a capital city in the Nile Delta called Avaris. So the evidence seems thin, even to me, that Akhenaten’s ideas might have inspired religious innovation among Semitic nomads.

In fact, the idea of a supreme deity subsuming an entire pantheon of gods predates Akhenaten. Some of the earliest written evidence we have for it hails from the same part of the world as Abraham, i.e., Mesopotamia. The second-millenium BCE epic poem “Enuma Elish” calls its dominant divine being, Marduk, by 50 names of “lower gods [who] were really manifestations of one god,” writes Isobel Whitcomb in Live Science. “‘When you look across human history, the distinction between polytheism and monotheism kind of falls apart,’” says religious historian Andrew Durdin in Whitcomb’s article.

Marduk battles Tiamat in a scene from the Enuma Elish, in a Relief drawing from the Palace of Sennacherib, Nimroud, Nineveh. This version has been touched up to reveal more details. My favorite bit is the “smartwatch” that marduk wears on his right wrist. Image credit: TYalaA, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“Enuma Elish” also features a titling mechanism that was still used thousands of years later by rabbis composing commentaries, collectively known as the Talmud, on the Hebrew Bible: using the first word or words of a text to signify the text as a whole. For instance, a talmudic tractate called Beitza, which is Hebrew for “egg,” actually deals with laws about Jewish holidays. But its first word is beitza, so non-Jews thought that the entire tractate was just about eggs. The words “Enuma Elish” mean, “When the heavens above.”

(Given the explosive proliferation of the printed word in the past several centuries, first-word titling is no longer sustainable. But in ancient times, there was no such thing as mass circulation. Compare it to calling Supreme Court cases by the name of the party that filed suit: Roe, Plessy, Miranda. It works as long as the supply of texts is extremely limited.)

So while medical knowledge may well have flowed from Egypt to the Israelites, it seems very unlikely that monotheism did; Babylon is a more substantial candidate than Egypt for the origin of monotheism – and even the Babylonian characterization of Marduk as the supreme god isn’t true monotheism anyway. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls early Judaism not monotheistic, but “monolatrous,” insisting that only one god out of the many in existence is allowed to be worshipped by the Children of Israel. Being “monolatrous” is, in a sense, the opposite of being “idolatrous,” and it’s pronounced with the same emphasis on the second syllable. Akhenaten’s decree that only Aten should be worshipped by the Egyptians is also a form of monolatry, and may well have been sparked by a relationship with someone of Semitic origins whose religious beliefs and practices ascribed to that philosophy.

Someone who maybe, just maybe, had circumcised the Pharaoh.

This painting on papyrus is titled “Egyptian doctor healing laborers.” But it certainly looks like the procedure and then aftermath of a circumcision. Image credit: GoShow, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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