Famously, Michelangelo’s Moses has two horns protruding from his head. Clearly, the Renaissance genius, whose Moses is depicted holding the two Tablets of the Law, had in mind the account of Moses descending from Mount Sinai as recounted in Exodus 34:29. There, it says, at least according to the Latin translation, that Moses “et ignorabat quod cornuta esset facies sua,” that is,“did not know his face had become horned.”
It is often said that this is a simple matter of mistranslation, resulting from the fact that the Hebrew word for “horn,” “keren,” happens to be also the Hebrew word for a “ray of light.” But Saint Jerome, who made the translation called the Vulgate at the end of the 4th century, would not have made such a crude mistake. In fact we know he was aware that “karan,” the verb which he translated as “had become horned,” could also mean “had become radiant”; he makes this clear in his commentary on the Book of Amos, written a few years later. This means that Jerome knew that the verse was understood as meaning Moses’ face glowed and was rendered as such in nearly all the ancient Greek and Aramaic translations. Only one Greek translation available to Jerome – that by the Jewish convert Aquila – understood “karan” to mean “had become horned,” but nonetheless, that is the definition the Christian scholar chose to go with.
Hence, Jerome must truly have believed that Moses came down from Mount Sinai with horns, and not radiant. Since Jerome was living in the Holy Land at the time and consulted with Jews when working on his translation, he must have been informed by them that Moses indeed had horns. This may be a bit hard to believe, but we in fact know that some Jews did believe that Moses was literally horned.
The belief in Moses’ literal horns 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 has found its way into a number of Eastern European Jewish prayer books from the 16th and 17th centuries.
The poem is about the meeting between God and Moses atop Sinai and is written as if from the point of view of God. God tells Moses he has chosen him to lead his people and that he has endowed him with superpowers – including “fire-eating fire” and a special purple robe possessed of “virility” – that will allow him to combat evil angels. In one of the poem’s verses God tells Moses, “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."
We can learn a bit more about this evil-fighting, superhero version of Moses from a text called “Spring of Wisdom,” which gives an account of Moses' battles against "the angels of destruction." In it, for example, Moses tells the angel Sammael, "I ascended and trod a path in the heavens. I took part in the war of the angels and received a fiery Torah. I dwelt under a fiery throne and sheltered under a fiery pillar, and I spoke with [God] face to face. I vanquished the celestial retinue and revealed their secrets to humankind. I received Torah from God's right hand and taught it to Israel."
It is clear, then, that at least some Jews believed that Moses had horns, but is that what Exodus 34:29 originally meant, or is this a later interpretation? This turns out to be a difficult question, and there are prominent scholars to be found on either side of the discussion. Those claiming that Moses was no more than radiant, point out that the literal meaning of the Hebrew is “the skin of his face was radiant,” and that no one would ever say that someone’s facial skin was horned. They also point out that the earliest translations understand the word as meaning “radiant.”
On the other hand, those claiming that the original intent of Exodus 34 was indeed to say that Moses came down from the mountain with horns, point out that elsewhere in the Bible, when “karan” is used as a verb, it always relates to horns. They also note that the scene in question follows the episode of the Golden Calf, which definitely had horns. There may be a great deal of divine bovine symbolism that is foreign to our modern conceptions of Moses and of divinity, but that may have been clearly understood by readers at the time the story was actually written down.
The Mesopotamian moon god Sin was often visualized 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 radiant.
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