Moses the Egyptian in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch

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Herbert R. Broderick
London, British Library Cotton MS Claudius B. IV
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , November
     292 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since antiquity, Moses has been the best known figure of both the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition, with extra-biblical stories, anecdotes, and interpretations of his nature and activities filling countless more pages than are devoted to him by the authors of the Torah. This ever-growing body of exegetical literature draws equally from what the biblical text states about Moses and what it does not state about him, as the Torah leaves many facets of Moses’s existence to the imagination. Although beginning much later for various historical and religious reasons, the iconographic record further attests to the power of the biblical text to inspire countless exegetical interpretations, while also highlighting the paradox that the more one attempts to understand the biblical Moses, the more one looks to post-biblical tradition for insight. 

By the second quarter of the 11th century CE, when Anglo-Saxon scribes penned the manuscript known as the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch (Claudius B.iv), there had already been approximately fifteen centuries of biblical interpretation spread over three continents and numerous religious traditions. In Moses the Egyptian in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, Herbert Broderick embraces the diversity of traditions regarding Moses and brings that diversity to bear on his inquiry as to why the illustrator of Claudius B.iv portrays Moses in a distinct fashion. Broderick’s thesis, declared at the outset, is that the artists responsible for the Claudius B.iv illustrations drew primarily from a specific Jewish Hellenistic exegetical and apologetic tradition preserved in early Christian texts that asserts that Moses is more ancient than all the powers of Egypt, a claim that testifies to the antiquity and legitimacy of Judaism and, by extension, Christianity (4-5).

Broderick demonstrates his thesis through an analysis of the “Egyptianizing” motifs that characterize the manuscript as a whole, with a focus on the six motifs that appear only in relation to Moses: his horned appearance, his alternate horned (i.e., feathered) appearance, the was-like snake rod he sometimes holds, the rounded tablets of the law, the “veil” he carries on a staff, and the blue color of his horns on folio 139v. Broderick begins by demonstrating that this Egyptianizing tendency characterizes the manuscript as a whole, and then turns to the specific case of Moses and the six motifs that serve as evidence of Broderick’s main argument. The motif with the most complicated visual, literary, and symbolic history is Moses’s horned face; therefore Broderick dedicates more pages to this motif than any of the others. Along the way, he draws from a wide-variety of Jewish and Christian traditions that describe Moses as fulfilling various roles including, but not limited to, scribe, priest, prophet, king, and pre-figuration of Christ.

Moses the Egyptian in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch is a traditional work from the field of art history with significant implications for the study of the history of religion. While the author himself does not emphasize this point, it is of interest to scholars of the history of religion to note that Broderick’s analysis of Claudius B.iv also serves as a case study in the ways in which Hellenistic traditions continued to spread, converge, and develop well into the medieval era and across the globe. For those outside of art history, it is likely that one might at times be overwhelmed by sections that go into great technical or descriptive detail, or lose the trail of Broderick’s prose only to pick it back up again when he returns to the overarching thesis. Yet Broderick consistently and explicitly draws connections between the material discussed and the book’s main argument, providing the reader with signposts as to where the argument has gone and where it is going. The volume is also rich in textual and iconographic references across space and time, well researched, and of particular interest to those seeking to understand more about the continuity of religious ideas, specifically as it relates to biblical interpretation, from the Hellenistic through late antique and medieval periods. The book also includes thirty-five full color illustrations, which is much appreciated in a volume focused almost exclusively on iconography.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy L. Balogh is Program Manager at the University of Denver's Center for Judaic Studies and Adjunct Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies.  She is the author of Moses Among the Idols: Mediators of the Divine in the Ancient Near East (Fortress Press, 2018) and also teaches at Colorado College and Regis University.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Herbert R. Broderick is Professor of Art History at Lehman College of the City University of New York, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.


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