Religious anthropologists have long attempted to trace religion back to its source. Due to the antiquity of Egyptian civilization, it is not uncommon for those dabbling in religious anthropology to wonder, “Is Egyptian religion the oldest?”
Mesopotamian religion preceded that of ancient Egypt, though some claim that Egyptian animism is older. According to the biblical perspective, all religious systems ultimately branched off from the promises made to man in the proto-Evangelium that foretold the coming of the Messiah.
Still, Egyptian religion was one of the largest, most organized, and earliest state religions of antiquity. In this article, I’ll review the antiquity of Egyptian religion in comparison to Mesopotamian religion while discussing the rise of polytheism out of early monotheism.
How Old Is the Egyptian Religion?”
Archbishop of Armagh James Ussher (1625–1655), based on the calculations of the Byzantine chronicler Constantinus Manasses, dated the establishment of the Egyptian state to 2188 BC. Meanwhile, the secular scholarship would date this to around 3000 BC.
In addition, there is evidence in the archaeological record for some form of religion during the Predynastic Period in the Badarian Culture, which secular archaeologists typically date to around 4000 BC. In contrast, Ussher would have dated this after the Tower of Babel, circa 2242 BC.
The earliest surviving literature tends to coincide with the formation of the city-states of Mesopotamia and the Kingdom of Egypt. Still, the archaeological records provide some clues to prehistoric religion in these regions.
Göbekli Tepe and Nabta Playa
Megalithic structures are an obvious sign of communal effort, and, according to German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known temple in the world (source). Located in the Mesopotamian region of Eastern Turkey, secular archaeologists date this structure to around 10,000 BC (source).
Egypt’s earliest comparable megalithic structure would be the Nabta Playa circle, which allowed cattle herders to mark the summer solstice (source). In fact, the Nabta Playa circle is the oldest confirmed astronomical site in the world, and UNESCO dates the Nabta Playa structures to around 4,600–3,400 BC (source).
The Göbekli Tepe temple is also notable for the strange carvings pointing to an ancient skull cult (source). Similarly, the remains from prehistoric sites such as Çatalhöyük and Jericho of plastered skulls suggest an early form of ancestor worship.
While this skull cult does not appear in Egypt, the presence of grave goods in the Predynastic Badarian Culture might indicate a view of the afterlife as similar to that on earth or a concern to appease the dead (source).
Badarian Culture Idols and Fertility Figurines
Additionally, the graves of the early Predynastic Merimde and Badarian cultures provide the earliest representations of the human form from Egypt.
For example, the British Museum houses an ivory fertility figurine of a woman from the Badarian Culture, while the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo houses a clay head from the Merimde Culture.
Such female figurines were common throughout the prehistoric world, and many believe these were fetishes, objects the users believed had magical or protective powers.
What Is the Oldest Religion in the World?
From the conservative Jewish, Protestant Christian, and Roman Catholic perspectives, the Egyptian religion would have ultimately degenerated from true monotheism passed down through the Patriarch Noah.
In agreement with this essential view, the Jesuit anthropologist Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954) coined the term Urmonotheismus, meaning “original” or “primeval monotheism.”
According to his theory, monotheism became degraded as people worshiped their deceased ancestors, some of which they elevated as gods. Thus, combined with the personification of natural forces, this became the basis for polytheism.
Prior to the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants, Yahweh established the Noahic Covenant with all of humanity. In it, He established the rudiments of government and pledged to preserve the stability of nature (source).
Following the Genesis account of Adam and the fall, the descendants of Noah would have passed down the worship of the one true God as well as the promises that one day the “Seed” of the woman, foreshadowing the Messiah, would one day crush the head of the serpent, representing Satan.
Theologians refer to this promise in Genesis 3:15 as the “proto-Evangelium,” meaning the first Gospel. Thus, the universal primeval knowledge of this promise helps explain such pagan motifs as the Egyptian god Horus slaying an evil serpent by piercing its head.
Noting this motif in The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (Volume III, p. 121, 123), British Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson connected this representation of Horus “to the Bible history” and to Isaiah 27:1.
The Sacralization of Nature
However, this universal primeval knowledge became distorted and corrupted over time, particularly after the rebellion of humanity at the Tower of Babel, where the people built a tower “unto heaven” to “make a name” for themselves.
In The Existence and Attributes of God, Stephen Charnock (1628–1680) noted that since the heavens themself declare the glory of God, the earliest idolatry probably involved the worship of the heavenly bodies in the days of Nimrod (42-43).
Furthermore, in Against the Heathen, the great Alexandrian Bishop Athanasius (AD 328–373), following Romans 1:25, described the shift from worshiping the Creator to venerating the creature through a fixation on bodily appetites as the ultimate good (source).
Mediators Between Heaven and Earth
Such wrongly motivated attempts to approach God, and the subsequent alienation that resulted from it, perhaps led them to perceive God as a “deus otiosus” or indifferent god.
Cultures that adopt this view often believe that they must approach God through various mediators, such as ancestors, nature spirits, demons, lesser deities (especially goddesses), or, eventually, sacred kings.
We can see the seeds of this in the astronomical observations at Nabta Playa and hints of ancestor worship and idolatry.
Later, the development of larger urban religions resulted in the emergence of polytheism as influential priests combined local deities or spirits into larger complex systems, effectively depicting the world as run by a heavenly bureaucracy.
Egyptian Ancestor Worship and the Ka
Reflecting their materialistic view of the world, the Egyptian word for spirit or life was “Ka,” the hieroglyphic symbol of which was a flowering plant. The Ka stood for the imperishable part of man that would represent him in the netherworld or Duat (source).
Thus, when presenting offerings to the dead, the Egyptians believed they presented them to that person’s Ka.
In contrast, the Egyptian word that we often translate as “god” was “netjer,” which could refer to a deity, demon, or venerated spirit, such as a deceased ancestor or king. However, only the king held this title in life.
Egyptian Solar Henotheism or Pantheism?
While the Egyptian religion most of us are familiar with was largely polytheistic, having many gods, the theological underpinnings of Egyptian religion may actually have been closer to pantheism.
In his work Miracles (1947), Christian apologist C.S. Lewis noted that pantheism “is almost as old as we are” and that it might have been “the most primitive of all religions.”
One-Ism vs. Two-Ism
According to Dr. Peter Jones of Westminster Seminary California, we can divide all forms of spirituality into two basic categories: “one-ism” and “two-ism” (source).
He defines “one-ism” as a system where devotees worship and serve the creation itself as divine. This system, similar to the Hindu concept of Advaita (non-duality), seeks the elimination of all distinctions, merging all into one as divine, including individual persons (source).
In contrast, “two-ism” is a system that recognizes God alone as divine and distinct from His creation. God is holy and transcendent yet deeply and sovereignly involved in His creation.
This is essentially the distinction between classical theism and pantheism, the latter of which identifies God with the universe itself (source). Pantheism also tends to be monistic, seeing everything as part of an unchanging whole with any change being a mere illusion (source).
Pantheism in the Pyramid Texts
Interestingly, in his Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt, the American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted (1865–1935) noted the sun god became so central to Egyptian theology that he detected a hint of “solar henotheism” or pantheism in the Pyramid Texts (source).
Henotheism, or monolatry, is a form of polytheism that accepts the worship of a supreme deity while believing in the existence of other deities (source). Meanwhile, others seeing the language of monistic pantheism in the Pyramid Texts mistakenly refer to it as monotheism.
For instance, in describing what they call “Egyptian monotheism,” the Tehuti Research Foundation refers to monotheism representing the “One” and polytheism referring to the “All.” According to the authors, the Egyptian solar deity Ra was the perfect representation of the “One Who is the All” (source).
While using the term “monotheism,” the language is instead monistic, viewing the various deities as attributes of a single deity.
In this way, the Egyptian religion may have been similar to Hinduism, where the priestly class seems to have favored a form of monistic pantheism, while others held to some form of henotheism or polytheism.
The Circle as a Symbol of Monism
It is also interesting to note that the circle, ever prominent in the Egyptian solar cult, is a common pagan expression of monistic unity, representing infinity and wholeness.
For instance, the circular ouroboros originated as an Egyptian symbol, first appearing in the Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld from a shrine of Tutankhamun (source).
The ouroboros consists of a serpent devouring its tail, symbolizing the Egyptian concept of eternal destruction and rebirth. By at least the time of Origen (c. AD 185–253), it came to represent “the soul of all things” (Contra Celsum 6.25), aligning with the Stoic concept of the material soul and the World Soul.
Another important Egyptian symbol using the circle was the shen ring (Gardiner V9), representing eternal protection, which is why the Pharaohs had their name placed in a cartouche (Gardiner V10), which was essentially an oval shen ring.
The Monist Influence on Religious Anthropology
The evolutionary perspective on religion owes much to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), who proposed that all religions developed through evolutionary processes, starting with primitive cavemen.
Interestingly, Hegel was also a pantheist who believed that God and nature were one and that truth itself was an evolutionary process. Similarly, much of modern scholarship relies on a one-ist system of scientific materialism, naturalism, or physicalism.
Additionally, Hegel was greatly influenced by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c. 540–480 BC), who believed that all was in flux or in a permanent state of becoming instead of being. Like Heraclitus and much of the ancient pagan world, he also held a predominantly cyclical view of time and history.
In contrast to the theory of Urmonotheismus, most religious anthropologists hold that all religions originated in a primitive state from an earlier system like shamanism, animism, or totemism, developing into polytheistic systems and eventually to monotheism (source).
In particular, many religious anthropologists have attempted to trace religion to animism, the belief that spirits inhabit objects, whether animate or inanimate (source). There are even modern religions, such as Egyptian animism or Yaananism, that claim to have preserved Egyptian animism as the oldest in the world.
However, animism never appears on its own but is always tied to the belief in a Supreme Being.
At the same time, totemism appears to have contributed significantly to the formation of Egyptian religion, with the Egyptians earning a reputation for their zoomorphic or animal-headed deities.
Totemism is where a group of people believe they share kinship or some special relation with a spirit-being that they take on as an emblematic of their people, such as an animal or plant.
What Are the Most Ancient Religious Texts?
The three oldest and most influential religious texts in the Near East are the Egyptian Pyramid Texts, the Sumerian Kesh Temple Hymn, and the Hebrew Pentateuch. Though the Pentateuch came later, the toledoths contained within the Book of Genesis may have been directly passed down from the earliest generations.
The Pyramid Texts
The Pyramid Texts appear during the reign of King Unas of the Fifth Dynasty, which secular archaeologists generally date somewhere around 2465–2325 BC. They consist of spells, hymns, and prayers that priests designed to protect the deceased king or queen and to sustain them in the afterlife (source).
The Pyramid Texts are the oldest surviving corpora of Egyptian religious writings and among the oldest religious texts in the world.
The Kesh Temple Hymn
However, modern scholars generally accept the Sumerian Kesh Temple Hymn and the Instructions of Shuruppak, which they typically date to around 2500 BC, as the oldest surviving religious texts as original copies (source).
Notably, we also have evidence for contact between Egypt and Mesopotamia in the Predynastic Period from the Egyptian Narmer Palette, which depicts two long-necked behemoths or “serpopods” (source).
Interestingly, a cylinder seal from Uruk dating to roughly the same period, now housed at the Louvre, bears the same creatures in the same posture, with their necks intertwined (source).
The Book of Genesis and the Toledoths
In contrast, Moses wrote the first book of the Pentateuch, Genesis, shortly after the Israelite Exodus from Egypt. James William Jack dated the Exodus to around 1445 BC in The Date of the Exodus in the Light of External Evidence (1925). However, Kenneth Kitchen and other Egyptologists have attempted to date this to the 13th century BC.
“Pentateuch” is Greek for five scrolls, and Moses would have written on perishable material. For that reason, we do not have the original manuscripts of Genesis or the other books of the Pentateuch but copies that scribes have reproduced and passed down to us.
The oldest surviving fragment of the Pentateuch is on the silver Hinnom Scrolls, dating to the 7th century BC and containing the benediction from Numbers 6:24-26 (source). For comparison, while Aristotle wrote his Poetics in the fourth century BC, the earliest surviving evidence for this work dates 1400 years later (source).
Significantly, though Moses himself lived and wrote much later than the earliest Mesopotamian and Egyptian sources, there is evidence in Genesis that he used sources dating to the earliest periods (source).
German theologians Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch held this view, noting Moses would have copied much of the early part of Genesis from documents handed down from the earliest ages (Commentary on the Old Testament, 1861, p. 17).
They and other scholars point to the use of the Hebrew term toledoths, meaning “generations” or “genealogical registration.” For instance, Genesis 5:1 states, “This is the book [sepher] of the generations [toledoths] of Adam” — the Hebrew term “sepher” pointing to an actual document.
There are also toledoths of Noah (6:9), Shem (10:1), and Terah (11:27), the father of Abraham. So the toledoths of Genesis are critical in that they record the line of promise from Adam to Noah and his son Shem onward, leading ultimately to Jesus Christ in the New Testament (source).
The Emergence of the Egyptian Religious System
Egyptian religion deified nature and natural forces, and Egyptologist James Henry Breasted noted the sun and the Nile were the two most important natural phenomena that influenced the development of Egyptian religion.
Like other ancient religious systems, the agricultural cycle also had a vital impact on the development of their perception of life, death, and rebirth. Likewise, the rise of the Egyptian state had a profound impact on Egyptian religion, including their notions of paternal kingship.
Sky Gods and Solar Theology
As with many ancient polytheistic systems, sky and solar deities were prominent among the Egyptians, such as Horus, Atum, and Ra, which the Egyptians largely integrated.
Eventually, they became personifications of different sun phases: Ra-Horakhty (Horus of the Horizon) at dawn, Ra at the sun’s zenith, and Atum-Ra in the evening.
The Egyptians referred to their creator god as Atum or Ra-Atum, while Egyptologists have described the falcon god Horus as a sky god or solar deity.
The Ascendency of Ra
Ra did not actually become the head of the pantheon until the Fourth Dynasty when his name appeared as part of the name of King Djedefra in the third millennium BC.
The rise of Ra to prominence was probably due to the influence of Imhotep, a priest of Heliopolis, the center for the solar cult. He was responsible for the construction of Djoser’s Step Pyramid in the Third Dynasty, and the Great Pyramids of Giza from the Fourth Dynasty were symbols of solar theology.
By the Fifth Dynasty, the Pyramid Texts viewed the Egyptian king as the son of the sun god by an earthly mother. The Egyptians also viewed Ma’at, the goddess of truth, justice, and order, as the daughter of Ra.
Still, the head of the pantheon would change in later dynasties, though the ruling dynasty would often append the name of Ra to the head of their pantheon. For instance, the Theban deity Amun was preeminent by the Middle Kingdom Period, but the Egyptians appended his name to Ra as Amun-Ra.
Did Akhenaten Invent Monotheism?
While many assert that Akhenaten’s Atenism led to the development of monotheism, his movement was very short-lived and resembled monistic pantheism instead.
While attempting to overthrow the powerful priesthood of Amun-Ra at Thebes, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV or Akhenaten (c. 1379–1362 BC) promoted the worship of another solar deity, the Aten.
However, instead of monotheism, the artwork of the Amarna Era and the statues of Akhenaten himself reflect the classic one-ist philosophy of merging all opposites, particularly in combining male and female elements (source).
Also, as even the Encyclopedia Britannica points out, Atenism was not truly monotheistic since the Egyptians still venerated the Pharaoh as a god.
Rejuvenation of the Sun
Unlike the Hebrew view of Yahweh, the Egyptians did not view their gods as eternal and immutable. Instead, the gods, including Ra, aged and required the Pharaoh’s intervention through his ritual performance to rejuvenate the sun daily.
Thus, the Egyptian people looked to the Pharaoh for the maintenance of the cosmic order itself.
The Egyptians believed that Ra traveled through the underworld (Duat) every night upon his solar barque, where he combatted the forces of chaos, often represented by a serpent.
The hieroglyphic symbol for the Duat (Gardiner N15) was the five-pointed star or pentagram, representing the morning star, surrounded by a circle (source). This is also the origin of the ouroboros symbol.
Horus, Osiris, and Deified Kings
Horus is one of the earliest and most central deities of Egyptian religion, as the Egyptians also saw their reigning king as a manifestation of Horus. In contrast, Osiris, the father of Horus through his wife/sister Isis, represented the deceased king reigning in the underworld.
We have evidence for the falcon god Horus as early as the Predynastic Period, while Osiris appears much later. Yet the concept of sacred kingship was common in the ancient Near East, and early experiments with it apparently had disastrous results.
For instance, at Abydos, there is evidence for human sacrifice in the subsidiary graves of the Early Dynastic Period kings.
Most Egyptologists accept that these contained servants deliberately killed to serve the king in the afterlife (source), and the tomb of First Dynasty King Djer contained an astonishing 338 subsidiary burials (source). Later, Djer’s tomb even became a monument to Osiris during the Middle Kingdom Period.
Similarly, we have evidence for human sacrifice in Sumerian Ur during roughly the same timeframe from the Great Death Pit of Ur, discovered by Sir Leonard Wooley.
While this might seem distant and alien to us, there are more recent parallels where a religious cult leader took numerous lives along with him in his hubris. For instance, during the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, cult leader Jim Jones convinced at least 900 cult members to commit ritual suicide with him in Guyana, South America (source).
Similarly, while Egyptian monuments such as the Great Pyramids of Giza remain as amazing testaments to ancient engineering, they also bear witness to the particular presumptuousness of certain men in their thirst for power, immortality, and even deity, seeking to be worshiped as God.
Osiris, Death, and Rebirth
The Egyptians associated Osiris with the Nile, and, consequently, the myths concerning his life, death, and revival reflected the agricultural cycle.
Dying god myths connected to the agricultural cycle were common in the ancient world, and the cult of Osiris remained one of the most influential even into the Roman period in the form of the Ptolemaic god Serapis (source).
The Greeks and Romans admired the antiquity of the Egyptian cults, and the Greek Ptolemies incorporated them into their mystery cults.
The preservation of the Osiris myth also owes much to the late first- to early second-century author Plutarch, who tells us that Osiris’ brother Seth/Typhon killed and dismembered Osiris. Plutarch goes on to tell us that Osiris’ sister/wife Isis gathered and assembled the body parts (source).
He next tells us that Osiris awakened in a mummified state to have a child with Isis — the god Horus. In the older Pyramid Text version, Osiris would go on to rule the underworld, while Horus ruled the living in the form of the reigning Pharaoh.
The Theory of Pagan Derivation
The theory that Christianity originated from the pagan myths of Osiris, Isis, and Horus originally came from the History of Religions school from the likes of August Conrady, Hugo Gressmann, and Richard Reitzenstein (source).
While their arguments have largely fallen out of favor even among secular scholars, many are still floating around in popular culture and the internet. For example, we can see the promotion of this theory in The Da Vinci Code (2003) and Bill Maher’s Religulous (2008).
One of the major flaws in the pagan derivation theory is that it rests upon sources that post-date the Gospels, such as Plutarch’s Moralia. In doing so, they compare later versions of the Egyptian myths that underwent a significant degree of syncretization and modification by that point.
While the earliest surviving fragments of the Gospel of Luke date to around the time Plutarch would have written his work during the reign of Trajan (AD 98–117), Luke wrote that Gospel around AD 60–61, during the reign of Nero.
In contrast, the earliest manuscripts of Plutarch’s Moralia, which contains the account of Isis and Osiris (source), date to the 11th–13th centuries AD.
American theologian J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) made this point when he wrote a refutation of Hugo Gressmann’s theory, which was largely based on attempts to show similarities between the account of Plutarch on Osiris and Isis and Luke 2:1-20 (source).
Similarly, he refuted Conrady’s link to the second-century gnostic Protoevangelium of James and Reitzenstein’s attempt to use a sixth-century fragment to justify his theory.
Did Isis Become the Virgin Mary and Horus Jesus?
No, the pagan comparisons to the virgin birth are highly absurd as the earliest versions of the myth describe the very physical nature of Horus’s conception (source).
Meanwhile, the statement that images of Isis nursing Horus the Child influenced similar Catholic images purportedly of the Virgin and baby Jesus are technically true but misleading.
The appearance of such images was rather late, emerging mainly after the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (AD 527–565) closed the Temple of Isis at Philae. Thus, the adoption of such pagan imagery resulted mainly from the efforts of late Roman or Byzantine emperors at mass conversions.
Subsequently, pagan images supposedly representing Mary nursing the baby Jesus found their way into Coptic and Palestinian iconography (source).
The “Resurrection” of Osiris
Additionally, biblical skeptics have attempted to equate the death, dismemberment, and resuscitation of Osiris with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet, such a comparison attempts to read biblical terminology back into the ancient sources (source).
Also, the stories tell us that, when revived, Osiris remained in mummified form and a state of semi-consciousness, unlike the glorified body of Christ (source).
Furthermore, while the pagan gods of the ancient mystery cults died and arose every year, the substitutionary death of Christ was a one-time event. Also, Christ also died willingly and as a sacrifice for the sins of believers, not because he was duped by an evil brother.
What Is Civilization?
One of the key marks of a civilization is the ability to write and keep records, in addition to the emergence of advanced political and social institutions (source). “Civilization’ comes from the Latin word “civilis,” which is related to public life and citizenship (source).
That some of the earliest records we have are of a religious nature should indicate something of man’s natural predisposition toward religion and evidence the knowledge of God written on men’s hearts (Romans 2:15).
Yet, for much of human history, the statement of French sociologist Emile Durkheim rings true when he said, “religion is society worshiping itself.” This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
Egyptian religion was one of the most influential religions to break away from the worship of a single God. Instead, they directed their affections to the realm of natural phenomena, such as the heavenly bodies, the earth, and various animals.
The common people seem to have accepted some form of polytheism, while at least some within the priestly class held to a system of monistic pantheism. Ultimately, in their attempt to bridge the gap between heaven and earth, they sought to bring God down to their level.