Is the reliability of the Bible undermined by the fact that some translations speak about mythical animals like unicorns and dragons?


Do not assume that the linguists involved in Bible translation are also experts in natural history. Translating Job 39: 5, for example, as ‘wild donkey’, is a mistakea donkey is the domesticated form of the African wild ass. The verse is referring to an Asiatic wild ass, a completely separate species which the writers of the OT correctly distinguished by using a different Hebrew word.

   A few verses later in Job 39, we also have reference to the unicorn: “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?” (vs. 9, 10; AV). The critics of the Bible sneer at the supposed credulity of both writer and translator, but in so doing, they also impugn the honesty of the Holy Spirit, who indited what genuine Christians know as the Scriptures of truth and cannot be a purveyor of fiction. The fact is, Job presents the creature (Hebrew: reem) in the context of other known animals, and there is no evidence whatsoever to connect it to a legendary one-horned horse! Nor can the translators of the AV be accused of introducing mythology into God’s Word. In their original edition, they mark Isaiah 34: 7 (“and the unicorns shall come down with them”) with “or, rhinoceros” in the margin, and they clearly felt that the animal was not fanciful but real and known. In 1611, the rhinoceros was also known as the unicorn, and even today, the scientific name of the one-horned rhino is rhinoceros unicornis! Deut. 33: 17 refers to the “unicorn” as a two-horned animal, but the AV translators still cannot be faulted as, historically, the word appears to have been used in a loose way for both one and two-horned rhinos. Others suggest that the reem was a buffalo, but it more likely refers to the aurochs, the extinct ancestor of modern cattle which, unlike the buffalo, actually lived in the lands of the Bible. The point, however, remains the same: the animal was not imaginary but known.

   The AV also mentions satyrs (see Is. 13: 21; 34: 14), which in mythology are hairy spirit beings sometimes having goat-like features. There is no reason why the Hebrew word sair in both passages could not be translated goat (as it is, for example, in the AV of Leviticus 16). Much the same could be said of the word cockatrice (Is. 11: 8; 14: 29; 59: 5; Jer. 8: 17; AV) which is probably a viper, or similar form of snake. There is no reason to import the reptile of legend (and it’s fanciful powers) into the inspired text.  

   Some consider the Leviathan (see Job 3: 8; 41: 1; Ps. 74: 14; 104: 26; Is. 27: 1) and the Behemoth (see Job 40: 15) to be mythical creatures, but they are simply animals whose identity is now uncertain. The long descriptions given to each (see Job 40: 15-24 and Job 41: 1-34) would suggest known animals. More particularly, it is God who describes them (see Job 40: 6), and if He cannot be trusted in what He has said in the book of Job then He cannot be trusted elsewhere. The reference to fire-breathing (see Job 41: 21) seems remarkable but is in keeping with the intriguing belief in fire-breathing dragons in multiple ancient cultures.

   The word dragon occurs with some frequency in some English translations of the OT but the Hebrew words on which the English is based have also been variously rendered as jackal, whale, monster etc. depending on context. One of the more interesting references is Ezek. 29: 3 where Pharaoh is called “the great monster that lieth in the midst of his rivers” (my emphasis), while a variant of the same Hebrew word occurs in Exod. 7: 9, where Aaron’s staff became a serpent and was superior to the serpents of Pharaoh. Pharaoh as a dragon to God’s earthly people connects very well with what we have in Rev. 12, where Israel is pictured as opposed by the “great dragon … the ancient serpent, he who is called Devil and Satan” (v9). Now of course the book of Revelation is a book of symbols (see Rev. 1: 1) but there seems little point in describing Satan as “a great red dragon” (Rev. 12: 3) unless the readers had some knowledge of what a dragon was. Allowing for some unique features of prophetic imagery (for example, v3: “seven heads and ten horns”) the creature described would still have to conform to the basic pattern of a dragon as commonly understood. Interestingly, dragon and serpent are used somewhat interchangeably in the chapter (compare v15 and v16), and there is actually nothing in the chapter that precludes the dragon being a snake. That it “stood before” (v4) the woman does not necessitate legs, as cobras, for example, are well-known for adopting an attentive and rather intimidating ‘standing’ pose. It is very clear then that we do not have to introduce a mythological creature to account for the use of the word dragon in the book of Revelation.

   In conclusion, the Bible consistently refers to known, real animals, and there is no evidence that mythological creatures are described in the text.

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