Question: Was Akhenaten’s sun worship simply a religious reform, or was it also a means of consolidating political power?
Donald B. Redford: It’s been suggested that Akhenaten had a hidden agenda when he started out. I’m not quite sure about that. But we do know, from the inscriptional material that’s coming to light from Karnak, that Akhenaten’s new sun temples had thousands of priests associated with them. Maybe these new priests were simply the old priesthood taken over into the new regime. We know that the revenues of the older temples (which all had landed estates to support them) were now being funneled into the new sun temples. Everyone focused their attention on the new sun temples, worshiping Akhenaten and worshiping the sun. Toward the end of his reign and shortly thereafter, when the country was on the rocks economically, people went back to old temples and found them in ruins. They were completely abandoned; weeds were growing in the courtyards. This situation was easily explained: The gods had turned their backs on Egypt.
Q: In the literature about Akhenaten, there seem to be two main schools, one disparaging and one emphasizing his significance as a precursor of Judaic monotheism. The former suggests that he just worshiped an object, the sun, as opposed to a more abstract being. Those who give Akhenaten more credit refer to the phrase you used earlier about the spirit that dwells in the light of the sun, suggesting that he really did have an abstract concept of a godhead pervasive in the universe.
Redford: Well, I don’t think his thought was too abstract. At least, what has survived does not suggest that it was. In fact, he has been called a crass materialist.
Q: Perhaps “abstract” is not the word I want. Did he have either a pantheistic or a universal concept of the deity?