Continuing my pursuit of ancient quirks, I want to discuss the strange first-century interest in Moses’ beauty. I have discussed it in Hebrews 11 and Acts 7, in Philo of Alexandria’s recounting, and now that other prominent first century Jewish writer: Josephus.
Josephus picks up on this broader first-century promotion of the fine physique of Moses, but there are some major alterations, dislocations, and expansions.
To briefly recap, previous traditions directly relate Moses’ beauty at birth as the reason why his parents, particularly his mother, decided to save him from infanticide. Although Acts 7:20 merely notes that Moses at birth “was beautiful (ἀστεῖος) before God,” Hebrews 11:23 reasons that, “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful (ἀστεῖον).” Both build upon the reasoning found in the LXX Exod. 2:2: “Seeing that he [Moses] was beautiful (ἀστεῖον) they sheltered/covered him for three months."
Philo readily exploits the LXX rendering of Moses as ἀστεῖος (Exod. 2:2). He uses it exegetically to explain why his parents saved him—and other parents did no such thing—and why Pharoah’s daughter took an instant liking to him: it all came down to his appearance (Vita Mosis 1:9, 15, 18-19). In this case, it is further amplified with synonyms of beauty and nobility as well as made “greater goodliness/beauty.” Moreover, it mirrors Moses’ overall advanced status: it is not just of body, but of mind. Philo, however, pushes the terminology further, looking to its Stoic resonances, when speaking of the Moses-mind: the mind that emulates Moses’ beauty/goodliness (Confusion fo Tongues 106). Using a term that literally means “of the city” allows Philo to transition smoothly into Moses’ virtues as a cosmopolitan, one for whom the entire cosmos is his “city.” Moreover, as something beyond a physical quality, it interlinks with Moses’ prophetic abilities: it is the mind of the greatest purity and, thereby, the mind that can commune with the divine (On Mating with Preliminary Studies 132).
While every other tradition in the first century relates his beauty to his parents’ decision to save him from infanticide, Josephus does not. In fact, Josephus totally omits this section and, instead, explains his survival to a vision vouchsafed to his father, Amram, that his child would be the great liberator (Ant. 2.205-216). This dream-visions, interestingly, resemble the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke than even the Exodus account. Even while Josephus completely drops this original account of Moses’ beauty as found in Exodus and other first-century accounts, he does, in fact, promote and enhance Moses’ beautiful appearance in ways partly reminiscent of Philo, but others that appear more singular to Josephus’s telling.
Firstly, like Philo, Moses’ appearance is the reason why the king’s daughter (here: Thermutis) falls in love with baby Moses: “at the sight of the little child, [she] was enchanged by its size (μεγέθους) and beauty (κάλλους)” (Ant. 2.224; trans. Whitaker). Josephus, moreover, does not use the same terminology as Philo, who sought to emphasize its Stoic “cosmopolitan” meanings, turning instead to a more general term for “beauty.” One might note also the concern for telling us about Moses’ size: he is large for his age, another prodigious element to his appearance. These two elements—his size and his beauty—are repeated. As a toddler, he was again quite tall and beautiful (κάλλος, εὐμορφίας): he increased in mind and in body. In fact, Josephus writes, that people were so amazed, astonished at his abnormal beauty that they would stare! (Ant. 2:230-231). This is, as Philo also states, becomes the reason she adopts him: that is, both state Moses’ beauty—though using different terms—as the reasoning for a two-part process whereby Moses’ daughter is enamored enough to pull him out of the water and subsequently actually adopt him.
Finally, Josephus reiterates Moses’ appearance when Pharaoh’s daughter presents Moses to Pharaoh. She recounts to him how she found him, and, giving the reason why he should be made her son and, therefore, heir to the throne of Egypt, she notes his beauty once again, but with a little twist: he is a child of divine appearance (μορφῆ τε θεῖον καὶ φρονήματι) (Ant. 2.232). This “divine form” is perhaps the closest one gets to Acts 7:20’s “beautiful to God.” It may be significant that “divine form” is put into the mouth of the Egyptian for two reasons. Firstly, it keeps Josephus from attributing a divine quality to Moses directly or by a Jew (although Josephus does call him a “man of God” or “divine man” (θεῖον ἄνδρα), but there just to his wisdom in the making of the Tabernacle and the priestly garments that have symbolic relations to the cosmos—as they also do in Philo’s account). Secondly, keeping in mind that Josephus often has an apologetic edge to his portrayal of Moses against many circulating negative evaluations (think of Manetho), he can state that Moses’ beauty is something attested by others as well.
Overall, while Josephus has a tendency to mute Moses’ more supernatural qualities, particularly his visionary abilities, and prefers not to recount anything miraculous, Josephus uses the occasion of Moses’ appearance as a chance for aggrandizement above all others, but that is perhaps a bit more controlled. The expansion of Moses’ beauty compared to the biblical account, its multiple reiterations of being beautiful, great and tall, and of divine form almost compensate for the losses we find elsewhere. It promotes Moses above all others, but seeks not to overstep, remain at least believable to his Roman readers. Nonetheless, he has shifted the terminology of beauty from ἀστεῖος to κάλλος, losing the more "urbane" and "cosmopolitan" associations the term had gained among the Stoics.