Monday, April 02, 2018

Why Does Michelangelo’s Moses Look Like That?

Translations have consequences. In Exodus 34:29, there is a fascinating example of the tension between the formal and functional renderings of the Hebrew text in the history of its translation. Here are the relevant texts on which I want to focus, but if your translation offers some interesting insight, indicate so in the comments.

The Versions

MT: ֹוּמֹשֶׁה לֹֽא־יָדַע כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו בְּדַבְּרוֹ אִתּו
Now, Moses did not know that the skin of his face qāran [when he spoke with him].

OG: Μωυσῆς οὐκ ᾔδει ὅτι δεδόξασται ἡ ὄψις τοῦ χρώματος τοῦ προσώπου αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ λαλεῖν αὐτὸν αὐτῷ.
Moses was not knowing that the appearance of his face’s skin was magnified [while he spoke with him].

Aquila (apud Jerome Am III 6.13): et Moyses nesciebat quia cornuta erat species uultus eius.
And Moses was not knowing that the appearance of his face was horned.

Vulgate: et ignorabat quod cornuta esset facies sua ex consortio sermonis Dei
And he was ignorant that his face was horned [from conversing with God].

Aquila’s Version

The first issue to sort out is the Greek text of Aquila. In his commentary on Amos 6:13 (PL 25:1067), Jerome is commenting on the noun Karnaim (קַרְנָיִם) “horns,” and among other texts he appeals to the Hebrew and Aquila’s edition of Exod 34:29 for an understanding of a person with horns. He does not provide the Greek reading of Aquila (which has not been preserved), but Aquila used κέρας and derivatives systematically for קרן and derivatives so we can reconstruct his version with some probability. Jerome used the adjective cornutu “horned,” so probably Aquila had something like ὅτι κερατώδης ἦν ἡ ὄψις τοῦ δέρματος τοῦ προσώπου αὐτοῦ. I doubt whether Aquila would have used ὄψις and not the nominative δέρμα “skin”, which would agree more closely with the Hebrew, but that’s another question for another day.

Hebrew Meaning

The reason for the differences in translation comes from whether to render the Hebrew text formally or functionally. Qāran is from qeren “horn,” which is often times an image of strength in the ancient world and the Hebrew Bible, specifically the strength of a king (e.g. Deut 33:17; 1 Sam 2:1, 10). In the ancient world, gods and kings were often described as horned as a measure of their great or superior status, and perhaps the horns were a symbol of the deification of the king. Thus the denominative verb “is horned” (cp. the Hiph stem in Ps 69:32 of a bull “sprouting horns”) could symbolize Moses’ strength as Israel’s leader (cf. Exod 4:16).

On the other hand, there are other references to horns in the Hebrew Bible such as the horns on the altar (many places in Exod and Lev), which would probably not symbolize superiority, but atonement and meeting with God. As mediator, Moses’ horns would perhaps fit with this background as well.


OG-Exod interpreted Moses’ horns with a metaphorical rendering by assigning shining, glory, or magnificence to Moses’ face in the presence of Yahweh (cp. Targ and Pesh). Aquila revised the text according to etymology or ultra-literalism, and thus restored the ancient picture of a leader or mediator with horns. Jerome continued this tradition in his Vulgate, which must have also impacted the interpretation of Moses’ appearance by the time Michelangelo put chisel to marble to sculpt his Moses.

Thus Jerome did not mistranslate the Hebrew (neither did the LXX for that matter). But he did borrow the ultra-literal translation of the Hebrew that Aquila had already supplied. And it is this rendering that explains why Michelangelo’s Moses looks the way it does.


  1. JM,
    This article is extremely interesting. Not only does it answer the ‘why are there horns on Moses’ Head, but relates it directly to TC! I also found it interesting that Paul, at least, seems to have known/accepted either the OG or ‘metaphorical rendering’ since he describes Moses’ need for a veil as based on the glory (doxa) of his face.

    1. TJ,
      Thanks! And, yes, Paul reads with the OG interpretation in 2 Cor 3.

  2. Interested readers may wish to read my article, "Moses as Equal to Pharaoh," available here: (article no. 116). See pp. 216-218 especially. - Gary Rendsburg

    1. Thanks for your comment, Gary. I was aware of icons of kings with horns from Mesopotamia, but I had not seen the ones of the pharaohs that you cited in your article. Very helpful context for interpreting Moses' horns in the book of Exodus.

      I would think we could revise one minor part of your article: Moses' horns actually trace back to Jewish interpretation of this text with Aquila's version, not simply to Jerome. That is, alongside the Targums's "radiance" or "shining" was already another Jewish reading of this text that depicted Moses as "horned." But in any case, Jerome conveys this understanding clearly.

      Thanks again for your insights on this enigmatic text.

    2. Is there any evidence Jerome saw Aquilla? Or would it be safest to say that he probably got this idea from one of his Hebrew teachers?

    3. SB:
      Good question. Two possibilities: 1) Jerome saw the edition of Aquila directly or 2) he accessed it from Origen’s Hexapla, which he says he saw. I favor the second option, but it’s hard to prove one way or the other. He does claim that he uses Aquila’s edition. So I don’t think this is information from his teachers. Make sense?

  3. Compare:
    J. Drusius, Quaestionum ebraicarum libri tres, 1599.
    Lib. I, Quest. I, on p. 3-4.
    J. Drusius, Veterum interpretvm Græcorum in totum vetus Testamentum fragmenta, 1622.

    1. Thanks for these references, Teunis. Was there something specific you wanted me to see?

    2. Drusius mentioned already some of the aspects of your subject: Hiëronymus, Aquila, art expressions ... .
      So, as Drusius said: Vide, si placet, & si otium est.

      I found Drusius texts in the Critici Sacri (1660) ad loc.
      For a link to Egyptian tradition, see Grotius, also in CC.

    3. Right, of course he did. The reading was also in Field and the Goettingen apparatus. What I don't find in these discussions is a full Greek retroversion of the Latin reading in the Amos commentary except for κερατώδης ἦν or something similar.


    4. John, to be honest, I am disappointed that Drusius is silent about the link to Amos 6,13.

    5. Teunis, what's your interest in Drusius?

    6. John,
      1. A sense of patriotism.
      2. In many cases Drusius presents surprisingly good exegesis. Reading his letters on the Scriptures is a pleasure. The editor of the Critici Sacri of 1660 did well to publish again so lot of Drusius' work.

    7. Cool. Thanks for sharing. I'm interested to know if he ever preserved hexaplaric fragments whose source we no longer know. Have you run across this sort of thing in your study?

    8. Is this helpful?:
      In Psalmos Davidis veterum interpretum quae extant fragmenta, 1581.