The Horned Moses in Medieval Art

The Horned Moses in Medieval Art

A curious feature of medieval and renaissance depictions of Moses is that quite a few paintings and sculptures imagine him as horned. Indeed he looks a lot like a Pagan horned god in many of them.

Many scholars believe this was due to a mistranslation in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Hebrew scriptures completed by St. Jerome.

The key verse is Exodus 34-:29-30, which in the New International Version of the Bible reads as follows: “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him.”

The problem is this: the phrase “was radiant” is a translation of the Hebrew word “karan” which can also mean “was horned”.  Only one Greek translation available to
Jerome – that by the Jewish convert Aquila – understood “karan” to mean “had become horned.” Nonetheless, that is the definition that Jerome chose to go with.

It is possible that this was more than a simple mistake though, as there were Jews living at the time who also believed Moses was literally horned. This belief was preserved in a number of poems written at roughly the same time that Jerome was at work on his
translation. One example is a poem in Aramaic called, “The Lord Lowered the Sky to Sinai,” which found its way into a number of Eastern European Jewish prayer books from the 16th and 17th centuries. The poem, about God meeting Moses on Sinai, includes the phrase “I placed horns of majesty on your head so that if an angel comes near, you will gore him with them.” In another poem, this one in Hebrew from 9th-century
Ashkenaz, Moses taunts the angels, saying, “I will not descend, I will not descend, until I prove myself a hero, until I gore your bodies with my horns.”

It is clear, then, that at least some Jews believed that Moses had horns. But it is possible that this was a later translation on their part too. There are prominent scholars to be found on either side of the debate. Given the proximity to the incident with the Golden Calf, there may be a great deal of divine bovine symbolism in the text that is foreign to our modern conceptions of Moses and of divinity. The Mesopotamian moon god Sin was often visualised as a bull whose horns were the moon’s rays of light, so that perhaps there is no contradiction and it is best to imagine Moses being both horned and

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