Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Horns of Moses

[This is a transcript of a speech I gave to our church men’s club in 2012.  Minor details were edited to accommodate the written form.]

Head of Michaelangelo's Moses(2)
In Rome, in the church of San Pietro , there is a famous statue of Moses, done by the famous sculptor Michelangelo (Buonarroti). It depicts Moses with horns -- discreet horns, but horns nonetheless. According to Wikipedia(1), "This was the normal medieval Western depiction of Moses". Why is he depicted with horns? What was Michelangelo thinking?

Moses bas relief US House orf Represetatives(3)
In the US House of Representatives, there is a relief (not quite a statue, not a painting either) of Moses, also with horns. In fact you can find lots of examples of Moses depicted with horns in paintings or sculptures just by searching the Google images(4) for "Horns of Moses".

Back to our story, Michelangelo's sculpture was commissioned in 1505 by Pope Julius II for his tomb, and was sculpted around 1515. Michelangelo for his inspiration obviously turned to the Bible story of Moses. He chose the passage where Moses came down the mount with the two tablets of stone for the second time. If you recall the story, the first time Moses received the law, the children of Israel had set up the golden calf while he was away, which enraged Moses and he cast the stone tablets on the ground breaking them. So he had to trudge up the mountain a second time, and receive a second pair of stone tablets written with the finger of God. This is the scene that Michelangelo was trying to re-create in his sculpture. It is given in Exodus 34:29- 35.

So let me show you exactly what Michelangelo read, Exodus 34
35qui videbant faciem egredientis Mosi esse cornutam sed operiebat rursus ille faciem suam si quando loquebatur ad eos(5)

Oh wait, that's Latin.

Remember this was 100 years before the King James Bible, which wouldn't have done Michelangelo any good anyway - he was Italian. The only Bible available was the Latin Vulgate translation by St. Jerome, that is Biblia Sacra Vulgata , which means sacred Bible in the common language. St. Jerome translated this in the fourth century A.D., at the behest of yet another Pope, pope Damasus in 382 AD to be exact, so this Bible had been in use for over 1000 years by the time Michelangelo came along.  I assume Michelangelo either understood Latin or had help translating to Italian.

So let's see what Michelangelo read - in English this time - the Douay-Rheims Bible translates the Vulgate Exodus 34:35  

And they saw that the face of Moses when he came out was horned, but he covered his face again, if at any time he spoke to them. (6)

The Latin word "cornutam" from above means horn.  It also occurs in vs 29 of Exodus 34.

Well there you have it, case closed.

Or maybe you remember that verse differently. In the New King James it reads like this "29 Now it was so, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the Testimony were in Moses’ hand when he came down from the mountain), that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him. 30 So when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 Then Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned to him; and Moses talked with them. 32 Afterward all the children of Israel came near, and he gave them as commandments all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33 And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face. 34 But whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with Him, he would take the veil off until he came out; and he would come out and speak to the children of Israel whatever he had been commanded. 35 And whenever the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone, then Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with Him.(7)

What we have here is two different translations.

A Hebrew-English Bible According to the Masoretic Text and the JPS 1917 Edition, fragment of Exodus 34:29 (8)

 וּמֹשֶׁה לֹא-יָדַע, כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו

And Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams 

The Hebrew word for horn is qaran.
The Hebrew word for light ray is qaran.

[Here's how they look in Hebrew]

Okay, okay, there is no difference. It is the same word, and the same root meaning. A qaran is an emanation, like light rays or beams as it says in the Jewish Bible, or a horn emanating from an animal's head. Jerome chose to translate it as horn. Everyone else recognizes that it is rays of light. I leave it as an exercise to the student to prove from the Bible that it does actually mean rays of light and not horns. Some say that Jerome did not want to give an Old Testament figure anything resembling a halo, which he saw as a New Testament manifestation for Saints only.

I learned about the horns of Moses when I was taking Hebrew lessons. My instructor told the class about it. Apparently, this mistranslation is well known among the Jews. Like I mentioned earlier, it was a common representation of Moses during the Middle Ages. Somehow, this notion got transferred to the Jewish people themselves, so that Christians, typically peasants or less educated Christians, began to believe that Jewish people had horns, perhaps wanting to vilify or demonize them. Note that Michelangelo portrayed only Moses has having horns, and not the children of Israel. Nonetheless, people began to believe that Jews have horns.

My teacher (who is a Russian Jew) told a story about his grandparents who were sent to Siberia on a train during World War II - that can't be good. When the train stopped in some small villages, the townsfolk came out to see the Jews and their horns.

You can scour the Internet and find stories of people who upon meeting a Jewish person for the first time inquire "where are your horns?" I'm not kidding.

And occasionally you will find references in literature or movies to Jews with horns. But if you're not aware of the myth, you may not have understood what the reference was. It all goes back to St. Jerome and his mistranslation of Exodus.

There you have it, case really closed this time. Moses didn't have horns, Jewish people don't have horns, but the myth persists to this day.

How many more ancient myths do people believe today?

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_(Michelangelo)
2. http://taylormarshall.com/2013/08/the-horns-of-moses-defending-michelangelos-horned-moses.html
3. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moses_bas-relief_in_the_U.S._House_of_Representatives_chamber.jpg
4. https://images.google.com/ "horns of Moses"
5. http://vulgate.org/ot/exodus_34.htm
6. ibid.
7. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+34&version=NKJV
8. http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0234.htm


  1. This is one of many examples of translation illiteracy in the christian bible. For a complete understanding, one must study the Talmud, Zohar, and Kabbalah. Then, you have the key to its interpretation. Then, you have pre-Constantine influence, non-redacted and omitted texts and books.

  2. Hi Ron. Glad you took the time to read this. I don't think we need to get as deep as that. The Masoretic text shows great agreement with the Dead Sea Scrolls, showing the Hebrew has been well preserved from before Constantine. There will always be errors and biases in translation, but here we have the original, and a large group of people who understand the original languages.

  3. Very interesting John. I had never heard this before. Amazing the impact of one small error.