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Why do some ancient sculptures and statues depict Moses with horns?

The earliest depiction of Moses with horns is in an English illustrated book from 1050. Rendering Moses in this fashion continued into the 1500s, so many sculptures, stained glass, and paintings from that time depict Moses with horns of some sort. Where did artists get the idea to give Moses horns?

In the fourth century, Jerome set about translating ancient Hebrew scriptures into the Latin of his time. His translation of Scripture became known as the Latin Vulgate. When he came to the Hebrew word qaran, describing Moses' face when he descended Mount Sinai after receiving the two tablets of the testimony, Jerome chose to translate the word as cornuta in Latin, meaning "horned." The Hebrew word qaran does come from the root word qeren that means "to have horns, to push or to gore" as used in Psalm 69:31 to describe oxen and bulls.

In ancient times, horns were a symbol of wisdom and rulership often seen on idols of gods (like Molech and Baal), altars of worship (described in Exodus 27:2), and crowns of kings or warriors (like those in Denmark and Gaul). Thus, Jerome may have understood this Hebrew word, and his Latin translation, to mean "shining" or "glorified" as it is rendered in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Bible. However, his use of cornuta in Latin during the 300s led artists during the Medieval and Renaissance periods hundreds of years later to depict Moses with actual horns sprouting from his head.

The Hebrew qaran properly understood means "emanating rays, shining, or glorified" as confirmed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:7–8. He expounds on Moses' experience descending Mount Sinai with the tablets explaining, "Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses' face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?" (emphasis added). The troublesome verses in Exodus 34 are now translated in English as, "Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him… when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses' face was shining" (Exodus 34:29–35, emphasis added).

Horns on depictions of Moses are a somewhat funny reminder of the need to properly understand the original language and cultural context in which the Bible and its historical translations were written.


Related Truth:

Why is knowing about the various characters in the Bible important?

The glory of God – What is it?

Is the Bible reliable?

What was the Israelites' tent of meeting?

Why did God give the Mosaic Law? What is the purpose of the Mosaic Law?


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