I have been contextualizing treatments of Moses in the first to fourth centuries CE, particularly pertaining to his visions in early Christian sources (see my discussion here): particularly how those visions are alternatively highlighted, expanded, or suppressed and diminished in the sources--and why? In order to do this, however, it is important to see what the earliest Christians' contemporaries were doing with Moses, how they were using his visions, promoting or suppressing them. While the earliest Christians, represented in the NT, largely suppressed Moses' visionary abilities, later Christians sought to affirm and even expand them. Many Jewish (and don't forget Samaritan) trends in the first to fourth centuries also sought to expand what Moses saw and heard on the mount. Josephus, however, proves to be more exceptional in this regard.
Josephus, much like Philo, presents Moses as the greatest and best in basically all things (e.g., Ant. 2.229); however, unlike Philo, he overall downplays the miraculous and supernal as much as possible. While Philo strongly emphasizes Moses’ visions at the burning bush and on the mountain when entering the dark cloud and seeing the “pattern” of the Tabernacle, Josephus removes nearly all visual references, turning instead to the stereotypical Deuteronomic emphasis on audition. Indeed, while the biblical account is ambivalent about whether Moses did (Num. 12:8) or did not (Exod. 33:20) see God, while Philo strongly promotes Moses’ visionary abilities (through the eye of the mind), Josephus completely falls on the side of not seeing. There are, however, a few exceptional moments, momentary glimpses where Josephus sometimes slips into visual language or allows indirect visual indicators of the divine presence.
Let’s compare, for a moment, Philo’s and Josephus’s handling of the burning bush. Firstly, in the biblical account, the angel of the LORD “appeared” to Moses, Moses saw the bush, but, realizing God was in the bush, he looked away “for he was afraid to look at God” (Exod 3:2-6). There is the typical elision of the angel of the LORD and God as found in other theophanic passages, but the passage leaves the question of whether Moses could have seen God if he just looked. Again, other passage will alternatively affirm or deny Moses’ ability to see God. Philo handles this as a very interesting, but subtle vision:
In the midst of the flame was a form (μορφή) of the fairest beauty, unlike any visible object (τῶν ὁρατῶν ἐμφερὴς οὐδενί), an image supremely divine in appearance (θεοειδέστατον ἄγαλμα), refulgent with a light brighter than the light of fire. It might be supposed that this was the image of Him that is (εἰκόνα τοῦ ὄντος εἶναι); but let us rather call it an angel or herald, since, with a silence that spoke more clearly than speech, it employed as it were the miracle of sight to herald future events. (Vita Mosis 1.66; see context in 1.65-70)
In this passage, Philo claims that Moses saw something quite astounding: “a form of the fairest beauty,” “an image supremely divine in appearance.” It is something unlike anything else of this world. Whatever he saw, it was supernal; it was beyond. It was superlative. It was, as he says, “supremely divine.” Did he see God? Or, since Philo reserves “God” for one of God’s qualities, one might ask, did Moses see “the one who is” or the “self-existent one”? Philo cannot grant this, not with visible appearance at least. So he at least entertains a step removal of seeing the “image” of the one who is. He grants its possibility, but does not consider it the best reading. Instead, this most divine appearance is more of an angelic herald of things to come, a symbolic vision. What follows is the allegory of fire and the bush, the bush consumes the fire rather than vice versa, as the Hebrews will consume those who are consuming them. Philo, therefore, grants that Moses saw something quite special, but prefers to claim it is a step away from the divine—Moses would later “see” that in an intellectual vision when he enters the dark cloud where God is on Sinai (e.g., Vita Mosis 1.158; Post. 14; Gig. 54; Mut. 2-9, esp. 7).
Compare, for a moment, Josephus Ant. 2.264-269. In his rendering, Moses encounters an “amazing prodigy” (2.265), of the bramble-bush being aflame, but remaining green with blooms intact. Moses is further amazed when the bush speaks to him, telling him to “withdraw as far as might be from the flame, to be content with what he, as a man of virtue sprung from illustrious ancestors, had seen, but to pry no further” (2.267). Throughout, Josephus emphasizes that Moses speaks with “the voice.” Whereas Philo offered a compilation of visual terms, heightening the moment with an exalted divine presence, even if partially removed since Philo prefers intelligent vision of the mind rather than bodily vision, Josephus downplays the specter. While Moses receives an amazing glimpse into a mysterious occurrence, he downplays the visual imagery, even making the presence of God/the Angel of the Lord a little more indirect in the passage than even in the biblical version. Indeed, instead of Moses looking away, fearing to glimpse God, the voice tells him to pry no further—this is all he is going to get in terms of a vision.
Even at Sinai where Philo repeatedly emphasizes that Moses, finally saw God plainly (with the mind), Josephus largely omits visual registers unless they are indirect. For example, there are some visual cues, but they are left to the meteorological impact of the presence of God on the mountain (rather than a direct vision of God). Indeed, Josephus retains the theophanic elements of a cloud, tempest, thunder, and lightning descending upon Sinai (3.79-80), even though, he suspects, his Roman readers won’t believe a word of it (3.81-82). Otherwise, however, it is all auditory. Moses prepares to ascend the mountain (and just a mountain, not into the immaterial realities as in Philo or heaven as in apocalyptic traditions) to “converse with God” (3.75). Josephus presents this in two ascents. Moses goes up and then comes down for the first one (3.75-87). Interestingly, the episode is retold entirely from the perspective of an Israelite at the base of the mountain. Josephus avoids a direct description of Moses’ encounter with God. Instead, one hears second hand from Moses what happened:
Τῷ θεῷ γὰρ εἰς ὄψιν ἐλθὼν ἀκροατὴς ἀφθάρτου φωνῆς ἐγενόμη: οὕτως ἐκείνῳ τοῦ γένοθς ἡμῶν καὶ τῆς τοὐτου μέλει διαμονῆς.For I have been admitted into a sight of God, I have become a hearer of an incorruptible voice: such care has he for our race and for its endurance. (adapted from Whittaker).
The language of entering into a sight of God is rather strange. It leaves much to the reader’s interpretation of what seeing has occurred. There is a visual element to this, although it is rather muted compared to Philo. He does not directly say that Moses saw God. A sight of God could be Moses seeing God; or it could mean that Moses came within God’s sight. This might, indeed, be what is inferred from the language of “entering” or “coming into.” Perhaps Whiston was correct to treat it as a more generic “presence.” Nonetheless, the event does not make him a “seer” but a “hearer.” Afterwards, God speaks to all of the people the ten commandments (3.89-90).
Moses goes up again, Josephus completely omits the golden calf incident, and then Moses comes down. For each occurrence, Josephus completely downplays the tradition of Moses’ glorious face—instead of people being amazed of his glorious face, they are joyous at his “appearance,” here seemingly meaning the fact he came back. Instead of Moses seeing the pattern of the Tabernacle at this point (something about which Philo makes a lot of hay; see LegAll. 3.102; Vita Mosis 2.71-146, esp. 74-76), Josephus writes that God told Moses that he desires (βούλεται) a Tabernacle. While Josephus spends a great deal of time on the instructions for building the Tabernacle (3.102-150), the priestly garments (3.151-187), and the purification and consecration of the sacred objects and people (3.188-223), during all of this Josephus omits visual language. By contrast, Exodus emphasizes the visual registers, that this is something Moses sees and is not just hears (Exod. 25:9, 40; 26:30; 27:8).
While Moses’ visual encounters with the divine and divine revelations are largely dropped in favor of aural ones, there are some hidden gems. Perhaps like “entering into a vision of God,” there are some other visual slips and cues. One place where Josephus appears to slip from his acoustic emphasis on the divine voice is when he discusses how Moses knew what the Cherubim looked like. The problem is that the Cherubim are of a “form” unlike any earthly creature any human has seen. So how did Moses know what they looked like? Especially since all of his encounters have been auditory? Josephus writes,
Μωυσῆς δέ φησι τῷ θρόνῳ τοῦ θεοῦ προστυπεῖς ἑωρακέναι.Moses said he saw them on God’s throne. (Ant. 3.137).
When did Moses see God’s throne in Josephus’s account? Indeed, it almost sounds like Josephus is alluding to a merkavah vision of some sort, perhaps with Ezekiel 1 in mind? The reference, to be sure, is extraordinarily subtle, couched in a long and tedious description of all of the Tabernacle’s furnishings; in other words, it is very easy to skim right over without noticing it. Nonetheless, oddly for Josephus, he alludes to a visual encounter that goes beyond what is found in the biblical account of Moses. In the biblical story, Moses saw a vision, although sans throne, that resembles the imagery and language of Ezekiel 1 in Exod. 24:9-11. Moreover, when Moses enters the dark cloud where God is, he saw the “appearance of the glory of the LORD” (Exod. 24:17) much like Ezekiel’s “appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” (Ezekiel 1:28). [Indeed, the entire priestly account of the vision of the Tabernacle and what occurs afterward in issuing cultic instructions strongly resembles a great deal of Ezekiel 1 and 40-48; and Leviticus 17-26 sounds much like Ezekiel 20-22. There are clear contacts.] Moses, moreover, sees the mercy-seat with the Cherubim in the vision of the “pattern of the Tabernacle” (Exod. 25:17-22). Whatever the precise reference for Josephus, he claims, as he does not elsewhere, that Moses saw the very throne of God. Josephus has barely hinted that Moses saw anything before this except a flaming bush and that strangely worded “entering a vision of God.”
There is a reference to the divine nimbus, moreover, when God enters the sanctuary.
While heaven was serene, over the tabernacle alone darkness descended, enveloping it in a cloud not so profound and dense as might be attributed to a winter storm, nor yet so tenuous that the eye could perceive a thing through it; but a delicious dew was distilled therefrom, revealing God’s presence to those who both desired it and believed in it. (Ant. 3.202-203; trans. Whitaker).
One can sense, especially in the last line, an apologetic edge to this admission of at least one visual sight of God; or, at least, means by which God’s presence was made known. Perhaps this works somewhat on par with the fiery theophany on Sinai: using the elements to denote the divine presence in the form of dew and, not quite the dense, dark cloud of the Bible, but a fog. Indeed, Josephus does not seem to apologize so much at hearing God, but any visual cue he does.
One final case is perhaps the most fascinating visual indicator of the divine presence in Josephus: the high priest’s shoulder:
Of those stones which, as I said before, the high priest wore upon his shoulders—they were sardonyxes, and I deem it superfluous to indicate the nature of jewels known to all—it came about, whenever God assisted at the sacred ceremonies, that the one that was buckled on the right shoulder began to shine, a light glancing from it, visible to the most distant, of which the stone had before betrayed no trace. (Ant. 3.214-219; trans. Whitaker)
Therefore, the people ultimately receive three visual indicators of the divine presence: a thunderstorm on Sinai, a fog and dew entering the tent, and the gleam of light from a gem on the high priest’s right shoulder. Excepting the high priest’s shoulder, Josephus is quite reticent, embarrassed even, and definitely apologetic about the incident. These are, moreover, largely presented as indirect. That is, people do not directly see God, but see the indicators of the divine presence—at least in the roundabout language Josephus uses in these incidents. There are some subtle allusions for Moses’ visionary experiences, nonetheless. Moses enters a vision of God—whatever that means. And Moses, curiously, in an off-handed remark, saw the divine throne. Otherwise, places in the Bible and in Josephus’s contemporaries that exalted Moses’ visionary abilities are suppressed.