One of the most magnificent statues of Moses was crafted by Michelangelo – a famed Italian artist of 14th and 15th century. It was commissioned by one of the popes and today it graces the church of St. Peter in Rome. Enjoying this beautiful work of art one cannot help but notice that Moses has a pair horns protruding from his head. They are not sharp, nubby and cannot be mistaken with a strange hairstyle, they are horns! What a strange artistic idea to depict a great lawgiver and deliverer of Israel with horns.
But Michelangelo was not alone. Many other medieval depictions of Moses clearly show horns on his head. What led so many artists to believe that Moses had horns? The answer is simple – the Bible.
More accurately an imprecise translation of the Bible! The Vulgate translation was composed in Latin in the 4th century CE by Jerome. The depiction of horns appeared in the phrase describing Moses as he came down the mountain with the commandments. The language of Vulgate is preserved even today in English translations – “…he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord” (Ex 34:29 Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible).
The Hebrew phrase in question literally says כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו (ki karan or panav) “for glowed the skin of his face”. Jerome translated the verb which means “to shine, glow or radiate” as “to horn” because it looks a lot like a Hebrew noun for “horn” קֶרֶן (keren). It’s an easy mistake to make since ancient Hebrew manuscripts had no vowels and thus allowed for greater flexibility in translation. A simple inaccuracy in Jerome’s translation of Hebrew into Latin. Yet it created an impression that some sort of horns protruded from Moses’ head as he came down the mountain.
The broader context, of course, shows that this miraculous occurrence (a glow), even if it was hard to make sense in Hebrew. It was caused by Moses being close to God and speaking with him. In following verses, it says that everyone who saw Moses face was afraid and he had to cover his face with a veil when he spoke before people. Again, it is easy to be misled by the idea of fear of Moses with horns. It sounds conceivable, but it is just a simple misunderstanding of the Hebrew text. Unfortunately, the image of horned Moses was fixed in ancient art forever.
The mystery of Moses’ horns is solved. But a lesson to every serious student of the Bible is to seek the context in original languages and not simply rely on a favorite translation. Even the best translations of the Bible in the world are still done by humans and can occasionally be imprecise. Seek the context in Hebrew and Greek and take the time to look beyond translations!