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Why Did Moses Have Horns?

     Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, 1475–1564 AD), named after Michael the Archangel (Daniel 10:30; 12:1; Revelation 12:7), a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519 AD), was the greatest artist of his time.  A painter, sculptor, architect, engineer and poet, he is perhaps the most famous artist of Christendom.  It is unclear whether or not he was a born-again believer in Jesus Christ.  However, his works are grand and influential.

     His most famous works are the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (the large papal chapel in Vatican city, named after Pope Sixtus IV, which he painted, 1508-1512), the sculpture Pieta (Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, 1498–1499), the sculpture David (Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence, 1501-1504) and the sculpture Moses (Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, 1513-1515). 
     Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, 1475–1564 AD), named after Michael the Archangel (Daniel 10:30; 12:1; Revelation 12:7), a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519 AD), was the greatest artist of his time.  A painter, sculptor, architect, engineer and poet, he is perhaps the most famous artist of Christendom.  It is unclear whether or not he was a born-again believer in Jesus Christ.  However, his works are grand and influential.

     His most famous works are the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (the large papal chapel in Vatican city, named after Pope Sixtus IV, which he painted, 1508-1512), the sculpture Pieta (Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, 1498–1499), the sculpture David (Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence, 1501-1504) and the sculpture Moses (Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, 1513-1515). 



     The sculpture of Moses is more than 7.5 feet tall and depicts Moses with horns on his head!  Was this a satanic joke?  No, it was a Bible mistranslation!

Moses
Moses close upFirst, a little background.  In 382 AD, Pope Damasus I commissioned a new Bible translation.  There were many Latin versions of the Bible for the Latin-speaking western church in Rome, but they were inconsistent and based on Greek translations of the ancient Hebrew (which were inconsistent themselves) and not on ancient Hebrew manuscripts.  For example, the Old Latin versions before Jerome give 27 different readings for Luke 24:4-5.  Jerome himself complained that there were as many versions as manuscripts, "tot enim sunt exemplaria paene quot codices" (Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 72).

     Therefore, Jerome undertook a new translation based on the Hebrew(390 to 405 AD). To this day, the official Latin Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, The Vulgate, is based largely on his work.

     Now, for Moses' horns.
  The ancient Greek translation of Exodus 34:29 reads, "when he went down from the mountain, Moses knew not that the appearance of the skin of his face was glorified" (καταβαίνοντος δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐκ τοῦ ὄρους Μωυσῆς οὐκ ᾔδει ὅτι δεδόξασται ἡ ὄψις τοῦ χρώματος τοῦ προσώπου αὐτοῦ).  This Greek translation is not faithful to the original Hebrew, but does give the sense of the passage - Moses' face shone brightly.
 
     So, where did Michelangelo get the horns? 
  
     The Hebrew of Exodus 34:29 is: 

וַיְהִ֗י בְּרֶ֤דֶת מֹשֶׁה֙ מֵהַ֣ר סִינַ֔י וּשְׁנֵ֨י לֻחֹ֤ת הָֽעֵדֻת֙ בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בְּרִדְתּ֖וֹ מִן־הָהָ֑ר וּמֹשֶׁ֣ה לֹֽא־יָדַ֗ע כִּ֥י קָרַ֛ן ע֥וֹר פָּנָ֖יו


     The issue is with the third to the last word, the Hebrew verb  קָרַ֛ן (qaran).  The noun form of this verb, קֶ֤רֶן (qeren) has as its primary meaning, 'horn,' like the horns of an animal.  However, this word can also refer to things that are long and cylindrical or that radiate from a common source.  For instance, this noun refers to the horns of the altar in the Temple in 1 Kings 1:50 and even to rays of light in Habakkuk 3:4: "His radiance is like the sunlight; He [God] has rays flashing from His hand."  A Bible translator might therefore understand this verb form in Exodus 34:29 much like the noun, as either referring to literal animal horns or to something like light radiating from Moses' face.  

     Jerome decided on the former. 

     The Latin of Exodus 34:29 is: "et ignorabat quod cornuta esset facies": "and he (Moses) was ignorant that [his] face was horned" (Latin: cornutus, -a, -um, adj., horned, having horns).  Thus, in their (Latin) Bible, Moses had animal horns! (Jerome lived in Palestine, Bethlehem, while he did his translation.  I hope an unbelieving Hebrew teacher did not perpetrate this prank!)

     During the Reformation, translators removed the horns from the text of Exodus.  However, according to some, Moses with horns became a common western, medieval depiction of Moses. 

     What a difference a little Bible mistranslation makes!

     St. Augustine (354-430 AD), an expert in Latin confessed: "A Christian teacher who is to expound the Scriptures must know Greek and Hebrew in addition to Latin.  Otherwise, it is impossible to avoid constant stumbling."

      Otherwise, Moses ends up with animal horns!

Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel
Pieta
Pieta
David
David