Epistles: The Horns of Moses
Whenever visitors arrive at the Church of St. Peter-in-Chains in Rome, they are struck with the grandeur of Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses but ultimately are vexed by his appearance. Why does Moses have horns on his head? In our contemporary context, horned figures often represent devils and demons. Most docents or tour guides would immediately launch into an explanation involving a mistranslation in the Bible. But the history of a horned Moses is actually much more complicated and contextual.
It begins with the Bible. In the Book of Exodus, Moses receives the law after seeing God’s glory. The God of Israel states that Moses could not see his face and live. Rather Moses is told to stand in the cleft of a rock. As God passes by, Moses sees his back, not his face. When Moses descends from Sinai with the two tablets of the law, he is visibly changed. The key phrase is that “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34:29, ESV).
In the late fourth century, the Christian monk Jerome translated the OldTestament from Hebrew and the New Testament from Greek into Latin. His translation became known as the Vulgate. In the original Hebrew, the word employed to connote this change in Moses’s appearance is qeren. In other books of the Hebrew Bible, such as Habakkuk 3:4, qeren indicates “rays,” such as “rays of light.” Jerome translates the phrase as cornuta esset facies, literally “(his) face was horned.”
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