How Moses got his horns

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

Christo­pher Howse takes is­sue with a punchy his­tory of the blood­shed caused by trans­la­tors of the Bi­ble

all started be­cause a 12th-cen­tury Bi­ble il­lus­tra­tor took Ael­fric’s trans­la­tion too lit­er­ally.”

But wait a mo­ment. How could a man­u­script in Old English in­flu­ence Con­ti­nen­tal iconog­ra­phy? Ruth Mellinkoff, who in 1970 went into all this in The Horned Moses in Me­dieval Art and Thought, says it is puz­zling that no other pic­to­rial rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Moses with horns is known for at least 75 years af­ter the Ael­fric man­u­script. And when they do pop up in Bury St Edmunds, Shaftes­bury and Salzburg, the manuscripts are in Latin. So what has Ael­fric’s trans­la­tion of gehyrned for cor­nuta got to do with it?

More­over, was St Jerome, who in the fourth cen­tury trans­lated the Bi­ble into Latin, re­ally “con­fused”, as Freed­man says, when he came up with cor­nuta in the first place?

St Jerome took the trou­ble of go­ing to live in Beth­le­hem to avail him­self of good He­braists. He was aware that the He­brew word for “horn” could also mean “power”. He also had in mind that the words of Psalm 132 were re­garded as prophetic: “There will I make the horn of David to bud: I have or­dained a lamp for mine anointed.” (“Anointed” is the mean­ing of the He­brew word Mes­siah.) No doubt Jerome was also keen to make a ver­bal link with the New Tes­ta­ment claim that God had “raised up an horn of sal­va­tion for us in the house of his ser­vant David”, as the Au­tho­rised Ver­sion of 1611 put it. So, even if you don’t like Jerome’s trans­la­tion, it was not a mis­take.

And what of these horned hats that the Synod of Vi­enna made Aus­trian Jews wear in 1267? Dr Mellinkoff says they would have been con­i­cal, but they would not have had two horns like the im­age of Moses. This, too, un­der­mines Freed­man’s ar­gu­ment.

His ref­er­ence to the Jewish hats of Vi­enna was picked up, word for word, from “The Horns of Moses”, a cel­e­brated es­say from 1958 by the his­to­rian Nor­man Cohn. I can see why Freed­man did not want to fol­low all the teem­ing leads that Cohn’s fer­tile mind pro­vides in that es­say, or it would have swamped his book. Cohn even touched on the Ko­ran, which styles a mythol­o­gised Alexan­der the Great “the two-horned one” – in Ara­bic Dhul-Qar­nayn, a word re­lated to the He­brew word for Moses’s horns.

To top it all, Cohn pointed out that, at the Catholic cer­e­mony for the or­di­na­tion of a bishop, his mitre (a two-horned hat) is set upon his head with a prayer to God “who didst make the face of thy ser­vant Moses to shine… and didst adorn it with the re­splen­dent horns of thy bright­ness and thy truth”. Is this also to be blamed on the “er­ror” of Ael­fric’s il­lus­tra­tor?

I’ve gone into this in­ter­est­ing busi­ness of the horns of Moses be­cause it ex­em­pli­fies the strengths and weak­nesses of Freed­man’s book. He has a doc­tor­ate in Ara­maic stud­ies and an eye for ar­rest­ing de­tails, but pur­sues them in a di­rec­tion that suits his the­sis that the his­tory of Bi­ble trans­la­tions is mur­der­ous and that re­flects the sad de­fi­cien­cies of or­gan­ised churches.

With a straight face he en­ti­tles a sec­tion on the 14th-cen­tury John Wy­cliffe “The Morn­ing Star of the Re­for­ma­tion”, and his drift is shown by a ques­tion he poses: “If the Bi­ble had re­mained ex­clu­sively in the hands of the priests, would sci­ence, ed­u­ca­tion and free­dom have pros­pered?” Then to “all reli­gious be­liev­ers” he puts an­other ques­tion: “Is your faith driven by per­sonal in­sight, or is it some­thing so com­fort­ing that you can­not help but be­lieve in it?” That is a pre­pos­ter­ous al­ter­na­tive. Rather than be­ing com­fort­ing, faith is likely to be an ob­sta­cle to an easy-go­ing life, and since faith means be­liev­ing some­one else, it can hardly be driven by per­sonal in­sights.

Clearly, then, this book was not writ­ten for me. In a pre­vi­ous book, Freed­man set out to show that “St Paul wrote the holy grail out of Chris­tian­ity, be­liev­ing that it was too dan­ger­ous to re­tain”. I’m not con­vinced by that, nor am I by this ten­den­tious can­ter through the his­tory of bib­li­cal trans­la­tion.

Fas­tid­i­ous: The trans­la­tor St Jerome, painted by An­to­nio da Fab­bri­ano, 1451

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