How Moses got his horns
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