Glorious Exposure: Of Moses’ Horns, St. Jerome, and the Last Judgment

When we cooperate with God’s grace, “we all, with unveiled face... are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another”

Michelangelo’s ‘Moses’ at San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome
Michelangelo’s ‘Moses’ at San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome (photo: Pixabay/CC0)

“All those who love must be known sooner or later as they are,
without pretense, their souls stripped bare.”
Caryll Houselander


“See up there, above the main altar? It’s the Gospel authors – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

I was speaking to my Protestant students who’d accompanied me – voluntarily, no extra credit – to Notre Dame’s Sacred Heart Basilica for Mass. They were intrigued, and I was happy to be their guide.

Following the liturgy, we went forward to explore the apse and relics chapel, the statuary and numerous frescoes. As I pointed to the ceiling above the main altar and tabernacle, I commented that the four Evangelists – prophets of the New Covenant – were paired with four Old Testament prophets. “There’s David, I think, with the harp, and I’m not sure who those other two are,” I admitted. “But that one is definitely Moses. Can you see his horns – those beams of light sticking out of his head?”

My students gave me a blank look – horns? “Oh, yeah, you probably don’t know about that,” I said. “It’s a Catholic thing, based on a mistranslation in an early Latin version of the Bible.” I had them look back and up at the apse. “There he is with the shiny horns again, holding the tablets of the Law. And if you check out the ‘First Down Moses’ statue near the library, you’ll see that he has horns there, too – and they’re actually animal horns!”

I reminded them of what Scripture reports about Moses encountering the Lord on Mount Sinai. As the prophet descended from the heights with the Ten Commandments in hand, it was plainly evident that he’d been transformed by the Theophanous encounter. “The skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God,” reads Exodus in modern translation, and it was such an extraordinary phenomenon that the Israelites were “afraid to come near him” (Exodus 34:29-30, RSV). Moses took to veiling his face when addressing the people – a signal that the radiance was an extension of the divine presence. But it’s likely that the veil also simply served the purpose of allaying the people’s fears and helped them cope with Moses’ alarming appearance.

Imagine how much more alarming it would’ve been if Moses had come down off Sinai sporting a couple horns on his head. That’s how St. Jerome, author of the authoritative, fourth-century Latin Vulgate translation, interpreted the Hebrew word qaran in the relevant Exodus passages, and it’s true that the word can mean both “sending out rays of light” as well as “horned.” But while contemporary translators have universally adopted the word’s luminous sense, it was Jerome’s Vulgate that held sway in the Church for hundreds of years, and artisans followed suit.

Thus, Michelangelo’s majestic statue of Moses, on display in Rome’s San Pietro in Vincoli Basilica, features two prominent horns. And it was no doubt the Vulgate that influenced the artists responsible for Notre Dame’s horned Moseses. Even the 1899 English version of Jerome’s masterpiece retains his ancient error: “And they saw that the face of Moses when he came out was horned,” it reads, “but he covered his face again, if at any time he spoke to them” (Exodus 34:35, DRA).

But was it an error? Perhaps not. Jerome was a sharp scholar, and he consulted widely with Jewish leaders in the Holy Land as he worked on his translation of the Hebrew Bible. It’s unlikely that he just flubbed when he came to Moses’ unusual appearance – especially since he translated qaran as “rays of light” elsewhere in the Vulgate. It’s true as well that some ancient extra-biblical Jewish literature seems to prefer the “horned” Moses motif – almost as a graphic monotheistic counterpoint to the horned Golden Calf that the Israelites had been worshipping in the prophet’s absence – something we heard about in the first reading this past Thursday. “There may be a great deal of divine bovine symbolism that is foreign to our modern conceptions of Moses and of divinity,” writes Dr. James D. Tabor, “but that may have been clearly understood by readers at the time the story was actually written down.”

So, horns? Rays of light? Maybe both – like luminous antlers or something? I’ll let the scholars duke it out. I’m more interested in St. Jerome and his tentatively tainted legacy. For therein lies a timely object lesson in humility as the Lenten season winds down.

Consider that we have no way of knowing exactly why Jerome translated qaran the way he did. It could well be that he was totally justified in doing so given the information at his disposal. Consider further that few who gaze on older religious art and the various horned Moseses out there will be fully cognizant of the complex translation issues at work. All they’ll see are the weird appendages on the Lawgiver’s head and, like I did with my students, they’ll precipitously dispatch the oddity as an unfortunate goof. What’s more, it’s a supposed goof that can’t be rectified – it would be too costly and difficult, even if you overlooked matters of historic preservation and respect for artistic integrity.

Such are our sins – and our apparent sins. We can’t undo our willful wrongdoing; nor can we undo our well-intended actions misconstrued as moral lapses. They’re stuck in time, and there are plenty of people in our lives (just ask your spouse or co-workers) who have formed opinions of our faults and shortcomings, whether warranted or not.

Even our secret sins can’t be erased from the historical record. Certainly it’s true, as G.K. Chesterton noted, that the best reason to become Catholic – and stay Catholic – is to “get rid of my sins,” and that “sin confessed and adequately repented is actually abolished.” Yet that expunging is oriented toward our present and future rather than our past. “The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God's grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship,” reads the Catechism, and it “anticipates in a certain way the judgment to which [we] will be subjected at the end of his earthly life” (CCC 1468).

That final judging takes two forms, both with exacting reference to our unredacted biographies. At the moment of our death, we’ll each undergo an individually tailored particular judgment which will determine our ultimate eternal destiny, heaven or hell. Even those destined for heaven – the saints! – must wince as they endure this personalized rehearsal of their moral ups and downs, but it’s nothing compared to the Last Judgment at the end of time: a corporate and exhaustive review of human history, including our own, that will be on view for the whole cosmos. “In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each man's relationship with God will be laid bare,” the Catechism reads. “The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life” (CCC 1039).

Everyone who’s ever lived will get to see our good stuff, yes, but also our bad stuff – and not just the big, exciting, monumental sins that we sought sacramental absolution for, but also all the little, petty, incredibly selfish bits that we didn’t even consider worth confessing. Which will be more embarrassing at the Last Judgment? I’d warrant the latter – especially if we’re tempted to be puffed up that we’re guilty of so few (if any) monumental crimes.

Yet, none of that will matter for those who die in God’s friendship. Think of poor Jerome, a saint and Father of the Church, who continues to be panned, rightly or wrongly, for those peculiar projections from Moses’ brow. Presumably, the record will be straightened out at the Last Judgment, but Jerome’s not worried about that now. Let the world gawk and giggle at all the horned Moses representations he’s responsible for. He’s got the Beatific Vision to keep him occupied.

Hopefully, we will too. By staying close to Christ and his Church, living lives of prayer and virtue, embracing our vocations and frequenting the sacraments, we can stay on track to join St. Jerome in the “mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ” (CCC 1027). We’ll care not a whit who sees our past misdeeds, let alone our seeming flubs and near misses, at the final reckoning. We are “not like Moses, who put a veil over his face,” St. Paul writes to the Corinthians – and us! Instead, when we cooperate with grace, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:13, 18).

Let it be so.