The views of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) on religion are well known. He proclaimed to his friend Oscar Pfister, a Lutheran pastor, that he was a “godless Jew” and that only such a one would have discovered the secrets of psychoanalysis. He prided himself on being an intrepid man of science, a conquistador of the mind, who cherished his Enlightenment attitude toward religion and clung to his avowed agnosticism until the end of his life. He admired Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth‐century thinker, who in the spirit of the philosophes proclaimed that one had to read the Bible just as critically as any other book. For all that, Freud's attitudes toward religion were not so simple—the superficial view does not take into account his own ambivalent conflicts about religion and the degree of his own obsessional superstition and even credulity. His view of the Bible reflects this ambiguity and ambivalence. We can discuss the problem in terms of Freud's early exposure to the Bible, his ambivalence toward it, his use of the Bible, and finally the special problem of his treatment of Moses.

Early Familiarity with the Bible.

Freud's frequent denials of any meaningful religious training were long accepted as authentic testimony and consistent with his staunch atheism and agnosticism. But recently material has come to light that casts this supposition in doubt, suggesting that Freud's exposure to traditional Judaism may have been more extensive than he implied. In fact, Freud's early religious formation was considerable. His parents both came from traditional Orthodox families and remained Orthodox believers, but they did not follow all the prescribed practices. According to Ernest Jones (1957), they tended to be freethinking, but only after their move from Freiberg in Moravia to Vienna did they dispense with dietary observances and rituals of their Hasidic life‐style—presumably in the service of accommodation. The Seder on the eve of Passover continued to be observed, along with Christmas and Easter.

Freud's father Jacob was a devoted student of the Torah and was well versed in Jewish lore and tradition, and he had attained a position of considerable respect for his scholarly knowledge of scripture. His familiarity and mastery of biblical texts in the original Hebrew was exceptional. The picture of the family religious atmosphere remains unclear, with conflicting accounts from involved observers—the divergences probably relating to what phase of the family experience was being described. There seems little doubt, in the light of recent research, that little Sigmund had considerable exposure to religious practices and traditions and particularly that he was exposed to extensive and intensive study of the Bible. He was a pupil of Samuel Hammerschlag, a Hebrew scholar of moderate Reform views, and studied the Hebrew language and the Bible from age seven through thirteen. Study of Hebrew was featured in every class, and special emphasis was given to the Torah. Freud was not only Hammerschlag's prize pupil during those years, but he also enjoyed a close and affectionate relationship with his old mentor. Freud's later denials of any knowledge of Hebrew might have been due to a lapse of memory or even a retrospective distortion.

One of the prize possessions of the Freud family was the remarkable edition of the Bible by Ludwig Philippson—the biblical texts were accompanied by numerous discussions of biblical history and comparative religion. Freud would have been quite familiar with this work. He commented in his Autobiographical Study (1925) that he had been deeply engrossed in the Bible from as soon as he was able to read and that this experience had had a lasting effect on him.

But Freud took pains to minimize his early religious background and may thereby have promoted a shibboleth that has persisted through the subsequent years of Freud scholarship. Peter Gay, for example, in A Godless Jew (1987) dismisses the years of study with Hammerschlag as merely reinforcing the religious indifference of Freud's home—“Hammerschlag was far more interested in ethics than in theology, let alone the Hebrew language.” This would support Freud's repeated claim that he knew no Hebrew and that his religious upbringing was negligible. He wrote in 1930, “My father spoke the sacred language as well as German or better. He let me grow up in complete ignorance of everything that concerned Judaism.” It seems that this declaration cannot be taken at face value and must be reassessed in the light of new evidence to the contrary.

Attitude toward the Bible.

Freud's attitude toward the Bible was mixed, reflecting his underlying ambivalence toward his father. When Freud turned thirty‐five, his father sent him the family Bible with the following inscription:

"My dear Son,It was in the seventh year of your age that the spirit of God began to move you to learning. I would say that the spirit of God speaks to you: “Read in My book; there will be opened to you sources of knowledge and of the intellect.” It is the Book of Books; it is the well that wise men have dug and from which lawgivers have drawn the waters of their knowledge.You have seen in this Book the vision of the Almighty, you have heard willingly, you have done and have tried to fly high upon the wings of the Holy Spirit. Since then I have preserved the same Bible. Now, on your thirty‐fifth birthday, I have brought it out from its retirement and I send it to you as a token of love from your old father."

Curiously, this inscription, so redolent with biblical allusions, was written in Hebrew. The puzzle remains why Jacob would have addressed such a poignant sentiment to his son who professed to have no knowledge of the language. Certainly one supposition is that Jacob would have known that his son could well understand his inscription. Study of Jacob's language has concluded that he was neither a devout nor nationalistic Jew, but one of the Haskalah who envisioned Judaism as the epitome of Enlightenment rationalism—a characteristic view of Freud himself. Moreover, among the books discovered in Freud's library after his death was just such a Bible in Hebrew and German, with copious marginal notes in Freud's hand. Clearly Freud was more of a student of the Bible than he admitted.

Freud could not reconcile his staunch scientific outlook with any credibility of the Bible. He wrote in a letter in 1939, “The way you are able to reconcile esteem for scientific research with belief in the reliability of the biblical report calls forth my fullest admiration. I could not manage the feat.… But whence do you take the right to monopolize the truth for the Bible? I suppose it simply means: I believe because I believe.” Whether he was at ease with his disbelief is open to question. If he could bring no belief to the biblical texts, they continued to exercise a fascination over and attraction for him.

Use of the Bible.

Freud tended to regard the Bible as a great book of the Western literary tradition, but he did not credit it with any validity or inspiration beyond that. The Bible took its place in his mind along with other great literary works of Western culture, and his use of it was much like his references to other literary sources. His knowledge of European literature in general, both ancient and modern, was extensive—he must have been a voracious reader throughout his life. But in this regard the Bible held no special place. He even quipped at one point that the writings of Karl Marx seemed to have replaced the Bible and the Qurʾān as sources of revelation, even though they were no more free of contradictions than the sacred books.

Consequently, although scriptural references are scattered through Freud's writings, they are used in the same vein as his references to other literary sources—as allusions or images utilized to make a point, draw a comparison, or illustrate a conclusion. The references span both Testaments, suggesting that Freud had a ready familiarity with the biblical material. References to the Pentateuch predominate, but occasional allusions to the historical books or the Psalms are also found. Use of other books of the Hebrew Bible, such as the Song of Solomon, is incidental. The New Testament seems to have taken a back seat. The outstanding exception to this pattern is in Freud's treatment of the Moses theme.

Freud and Moses.

Freud's first mention of Moses was in a letter to Carl Jung in 1908 in which he refers to Jung as Joshua, who would lead the chosen people into the Promised Land, while Freud, like Moses, would only be able to view it from a distance. The metaphor of the Promised Land was one of Freud's favorites and was a frequent reference in his letters to Wilhelm Fliess, his longtime friend and correspondent. The meaning shifts in various contexts—at one point it is Rome, the center of Christianity; at another it becomes the meaning of dreams; and toward the end of his life it was the riddle of Moses and the birth of monotheism.

Freud's closest engagement with the biblical texts came at the end of his life in his attempt to rewrite the Moses legend in Moses and Monotheism (1939). It is flawed by faulty data selection and lacks appropriate methodology and verification; its conceptual structure is built on the sand of unverifiable hypotheses. It was in fact a kind of family romance, which Freud dubbed his “historical novel.” Freud had been fascinated with the figure of Moses and probably strongly identified with the great prophet who led his people into the Promised Land—a metaphor for Freud himself, who led the way into the undiscovered continent of the unconscious. In 1901, he saw Michelangelo's powerful statue of Moses and became absorbed in it; he would spend weeks studying, sketching, and analyzing the statue and finally write his essay that transformed the traditional view of Moses into Freud's own vision of restrained power—a concrete expression of Freud's own ideal of the intellectual restraint of passion. He wrote of it: “Michelangelo has placed a different Moses on the tomb of the Pope, one superior to the historical or traditional Moses. He had modified the theme of the broken tablets; he does not let Moses break them in his wrath, but makes him be influenced by the danger that they will be broken and makes him calm that wrath, or at any rate prevent it from becoming an act. In this way he has added something new and more than human to the figure of Moses; so that the giant frame with its tremendous physical power becomes only a concrete expression of the highest mental achievement that is possible in man, that of struggling successfully against an inward passion for the sake of a cause to which he has devoted himself.”

Clearly his identification with the figure of Moses was a powerful theme in Freud's thinking about himself and his religious views. The writing of Moses and Monotheism became a final effort to resolve his ambivalent identification with the figure of Moses and through him of his deep‐seated conflict and ambivalence regarding his father. It became an act of rebellion, rising up against the religion of his father and toppling its hero. He wrote, “A hero is a man who stands up manfully against his father and in the end victoriously overcomes him.” Moses was the leader of his people, the prophet who brought a new revelation and founded a new religion. The image of the prophet who was without honor in his own country, yet would finally prevail and be universally accepted, was part of Freud's vision.

Freud's writing of the Moses book reflected his deep study of the Pentateuch and the critical scholarship of his day. He was strongly influenced by the higher biblical criticism of his day—Julius Wellhausen was an important influence, along with William Robertson Smith, whom Freud quotes often. In Freud's rendering, Moses became an Egyptian and the chosen people were thus deprived of one of their great cultural heroes. Freud reviewed the story of Amenhotep IV (Ahknaton), who rebelled against the gods of his father and established the monotheistic cult of Aten. Moses would have brought the monotheistic cult with him as a new revelation to the chosen people. This rendering of the origins of monotheism has been countered by subsequent biblical research.

Moreover, following the rather flimsy thesis of Ernst Sellin, who claimed to have discovered evidence of the murder of Moses, Freud advanced the hypothesis that Moses was prevented from entering the Promised Land because the Jews had rebelled against his imposition of the worship of the Egyptian god Aten and killed the prophet. Freud's Moses does not reach the Promised Land because he was murdered by his sons—the idea recapitulates Freud's fantasy of the murder of the father of the primal horde as the origin of religion in Totem and Taboo (1912–1913). Only later, in the reunification at Kadesh, under the leadership of a second Moses, did they take up a new religion based on the worship of the volcano god Yahweh. The result was the preservation of elements of Egyptian monotheism in the worship of Yahweh, including the practice of circumcision.

Psychoanalysts have speculated that, in addition to his identification with Moses, this argument reflects Freud's underlying guilt for his own hostile wishes against his father. Freud would have been struggling to overcome his guilt and ambivalence by his wish to become another messiah, another Moses, who would lead his people out of psychological bondage by the new revelation of psychoanalysis. But this required the destruction of the religion of the fathers. He wrote: “There was no place in the framework of the religion of Moses for a direct expression of the murderous hatred of the father. All that could come to light was a mighty reaction against it—a sense of guilt on account of that hostility, a bad conscience for having sinned against God and for not ceasing to sin. This sense of guilt … had yet another superficial motivation, which nearly disguised its true origin. Things were going badly for the people; the hopes resting on the favour of God failed in fulfillment; it was not easy to maintain an illusion … of being God's Chosen People. If they wished to avoid renouncing the happiness, a sense of guilt on account of their own sinfulness offered a welcome means of exculpating God: … they deserved no better than to be punished by him since they had not obeyed his commandments.”

Acceptance of Sellin's fabricated account suggests a strong need to believe on Freud's part, deriving from his identification of Moses with his father and his own unconscious hostility. The murder of Moses thus expresses a fitting punishment for Freud's own parricidal wishes. The identification with the slain Moses‐father would have been intensified by Freud's advanced age and the progressive deterioration caused by his painful cancer.


Freud could never resolve his ambivalence toward things religious; his attitudes toward the Bible bear eloquent testimony to this conflict. He refused to acknowledge holy writ as bearing any significance beyond its status as an ancient and traditional literary masterpiece. Yet despite his skeptical and agnostic stance, he could not leave the Bible alone. He returned at the end of his life to immerse himself in the figure of Moses and the mystery of the religion he brought to God's chosen people. He created a psychoanalytic myth of the origins of monotheistic belief in the primal murder of the father in the person of Moses. If this imaginative fiction cannot bear the weight of critical appraisal as a contribution to biblical studies, the question still remains whether Freud was touching on something more profound and meaningful about the human religious condition. Certainly, the Freudian encounter with scripture carries its own lesson—that the reading and interpretation of the biblical texts may not be divorced from the motives, sometimes hidden, of the reader.

William W. Meissner, S.J.