The Horned Moses

Last week, Jana and I were blessed to be the Spiritual Retreat speakers for Pepperdine's study abroad experience in Lausanne, Switzerland. What an amazing experience! Mark Barneche and Ezra Plank, the directors of the program, were just amazing. And the Pepperdine students were a joy to be around.

After the retreat, Mark took Jana and I on a tour of the Cathedral of Notre Dame there in Lausanne. During the tour I spotted a bearded figure among the statues with horns on his head. "What's Lucifer doing here?" I thought to myself.

Well, as many of you probably already know, that figure wasn't Lucifer. It was Moses, as Mark pointed out and explained to us.

If you didn't know, in Western Christianity there is a tradition of portraying Moses with horns. I think this is common knowledge, but I'd never encountered it before. Somehow I missed that Michelangelo's Moses had horns.

I just love quirky stuff like this.

As Mark explained to us, the tradition of Moses having horns comes from a translation in the Latin Vulgate.

In Exodus 34.29-30 Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the two stone tablets, and the text says that his face "shone":
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him (ESV). 
But notice this translation of the same text in the Douay–Rheims Bible:
And when Moses came down from the mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord. And Aaron and the children of Israel seeing the face of Moses horned, were afraid to come near.
What's going on here?

The Douay–Rheims is an English translation of the Latin Vulgate. And that's where the horned Moses tradition originates. The Latin Vulgate was the work of St. Jerome in the 4th century, and became the official Latin Bible of the Catholic church in the 16th century.

The Hebrew word in question in Exodus 34 is qaran, and its root does literally mean "horn." However, the meaning of qaran is generally understood to mean to "shine" or "send out rays." Jerome, however, translated qaran into the Latin cornuta, "horned." Thus, the Catholic Bible of the 16th century speaks of Moses being "horned" when he comes down from Mt. Sinai bearing the Ten Commandments. This was picked up in the Roman Catholic statuary of Moses, like the statue I saw in Lausanne (pictured here).

Interestingly, there is actually some debate about why Jerome made this translation, as Mark when on to point out.

One camp claims that Jerome just made a mistake, fooled by the root of qaran being "horn" and failing to attend to what the word actually meant ("to shine," "to emit rays"). As we know, etymology does not equal meaning.

But a second camp argues that Jerome didn't make a mistake, that he put horns on Moses intentionally. Some argue that Moses' shining face was a glorified face, and that Jerome translated qaran as "horned" to indicate that glorification. In ancient times, horns were symbols of power and authority. You even see this in the Bible itself:  God "also exalteth the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints" (Ps. 148.14). In this view, Jerome horned Moses to communicate his exalted, glorified countenance.

All that to say, I found it all so very quirky and interesting.

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