A Horny Moses: Biblical Translation Gone Awry?

moses-by-michelangelo A friend recently asked me if Moses was ever depicted with horns. I wasn’t sure where he was going with that (or why he was asking me), so I looked it up. To my surprise, I quickly found a depiction of the great Moses with two horns on his head. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought it was Beelzebub himself.

As it turns out, there are many representations of Moses in a horned state (the most famous of which was by Michelangelo himself). When I discovered that, I needed to find out why. The answer was a tad unsettling.

To help you get the picture, I need to give you a little background. Today, we have many translations of Holy Scripture in many different languages. The science of Biblical Translation has been refined over the years to the point where we have a strong handle on what the Good Book actually says.

Isn’t Satan the one with horns?

That wasn’t always the case, however. In the fourth century, St. Jerome translated Scripture from the original languages into Latin. That version of the Bible became known as the Vulgate and was the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church.

In the story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, it is said he came down from Mt. Sinai with his face radiating the glory of the Lord. The Hebrew language connotes something radiating from Moses’ face (much like horns or moses_with_hornsrays of light). Jerome chose to use horns as the metaphor to depict this radiation. He understood it as light, and explained it as such in subsequent commentaries. Unfortunately, there were others who didn’t quite get the picture. Hence the horny Moses (see Rabbi Art Levine).

Over the centuries, people have argued as to whether guys like Michelangelo knew what they were doing when they applied horns to Moses. It’s not a huge deal, but it does make for an interesting discussion.

Location, location, location…

What it points up, however, is how someone can take a sentence in Scripture and turn it into something it was never meant to say. Moses’ face shone like the sun. He didn’t have horns. If we read that in its context, we can derive the proper meaning. But that’s where a lot of folks get into trouble.

It’s like the three laws of real estate—location, location, location. The three laws of Biblical interpretation are context, context, context. We need to read Scripture from the context in which it was written.

We need to ask questions of the text. Who wrote it? To whom did they write it? Why was it written? What was the geographical area, the cultural surrounding, the circumstance of moses_with_horns_110the people who first received it? We can’t just pluck a lone sentence from a book written a thousand years ago and plop it into twenty-first century America without a little context.

Of course, people still do that all the time. If you don’t believe me, just listen to any politician who likes to quote Scripture. It’s a little scary.

One thought on “A Horny Moses: Biblical Translation Gone Awry?”

  1. 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.” (Exodus 34:29–30).

    Its all about light, thanks Dave

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