Critics and skeptics love to mock Christians because some older translations of the Bible, such as the King James Version, mention unicorns in nine different verses. My employer, Answers in Genesis, has frequently been ridiculed on this point. Someone has developed a unicorn museum website to spoof the Creation Museum site. Many atheists and other skeptics have derided the Ark Encounter project by asking if there will be unicorns on the Ark. The video linked to in this article shows a few examples of skeptics mocking biblical creationists on this issue. So what is this all about?
The word translated as “unicorn” in the KJV, is often rendered as “wild ox” in modern translations (the Hebrew word is re’em). For example, see Psalm 22:21 and Job 39:9–12 in the KJV and then compare to a modern version like the NKJV or NASB.
Those who mock the Bible at this point are guilty of some pretty shoddy scholarship. Rather than spending their time mocking, they should try to understand why the King James translators used the word unicorn or its plural form nine times. Luther’s German Bible, translated nearly a century earlier than the KJV, also renders the Hebrew word re’em as Einhorn (lit. “one horn” or unicorn).
So all of these translators were guilty of believing in some make-believe animal, right? Not at all! The main problem is that several centuries ago, when people mentioned a creature called a unicorn they often had in mind something very different than the mystical horse-like creature pictured above.
Here’s an excellent video that explains why biblical translators used the word unicorn.
As explained in the video, the 1828 edition of Webster’s Dictionary cites two different possible identifications for the unicorn:
- An animal with one horn; the monoceros. The name is often applied to the rhinoceros.
- The sea unicorn is a fish of the whale kind, called narwal, remarkable for a horn growing out at his nose.
Modern versions of Webster’s Dictionary describe the unicorn as a mythical animal. Are we just that much smarter than people 200 years ago who believed in mythical creatures? Of course not. The difference is now when most people hear the term “unicorn” they automatically think of the horse-like fantasy creature because our society has been so inundated with that imagery. However, Noah Webster recognized that the term unicorn simply referred to an animal with one horn, such as the one-horned rhinoceros (as shown in the video) and the narwhal.
Webster was not alone. Consider the following descriptions from some very old sources. During his vast travels, Marco Polo kept detailed records. He mentioned seeing unicorns while visiting what is now known as Sumatra. Here is what he wrote:
They have wild elephants and plenty of unicorns, which are scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead . . . They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions. (Ronald Latham, translator, Marco Polo: The Travels (New York: Penguin, 1958), p. 253.)
Marco Polo specifically refuted the mystical notion of a unicorn by dismissing the creature of legends that could supposedly be captured only by virgins. This idea still persists in unicorn lore.
So what did Marco Polo see? It certainly wasn’t the horse-like creature. He said it was very ugly to look at and was barely smaller than an elephant. The rhinoceros would be an excellent candidate for this, especially the extinct version known as elasmotherium (pictured here). Some argue that what Polo saw was the Javan Rhinoceros (a one-horned variety of the rhino). While this is possible, the Javan Rhinoceros does not have hair like a buffalo as the elasmotherium likely had.
In the twelfth century, a popular book on animals (a bestiary) was written. Known as The Book of Beasts, it offered descriptions of numerous animals, including the unicorn. Although this ancient book included an illustration of the mythical horse-like unicorn, the English translation by T. H. White includes the following information in a footnote:
To put it briefly, the idea of the unicorn probably originated in travellers’ tales about the rhinoceros whose horn was so much valued in Asia as an aphrodisiac. These tales about the scarce horn were given an impetus by the teeth of narwhal found on beaches. The famous medieval ones at Paris, Venice, Antwerp and in England, and those belonging to the King of Poland and the Duke of Mantua, with what Sir Thomas Browne calls their ‘anfractuous spires and chocleary turnings’, were narwhal horns. They were supposed also to have great virtue against poisons, particularly arsenic.” (T. H. White, translator, The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1954; 1984), p. 44.
“Chocleary” may be a misprint for “cochlear,” a term which describes a coiled shape like a snail shell. The description of the narwhal’s horn, which is actually a tooth, perfectly matches the horns on the popular drawings of the mythical horse-like unicorns. It is easy to see how legends were built upon the supposed magical or medicinal properties of these rare horns.
So let’s take a quick look at how the Bible describes the unicorn. The descriptions of this creature sometimes appear in the midst of discussions of other well-known animals and are treated as real creatures. As you read the descriptions here, notice how a real and extremely powerful animal like a rhinoceros is being described rather than the mythical horse-like creature.
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? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? Or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn? (Job 39:9–12)
His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh. (Deuteronomy 33:17)
The narrator of the video was not entirely correct that the King James translators made a mistake here; however, I think they could have been just a little bit more precise. The Hebrew term re’em almost certainly refers to the rhinoceros—both the single horn (rhinoceros unicornis) and two-horned (diceros bicornis) varieties. In this particular verse, it probably would have been more accurate to refer to the two-horned creature here, especially since the plural term “horns” appears twice in this passage while referring to a single creature.
This verse likens Joseph’s descendants to the horns of a rhinoceros. The larger horn represents Joseph’s son Ephraim, who had far more descendants than his brother Manasseh, represented by the smaller horn.
So should Christians believe in unicorns? Absolutely! They were very likely of the rhinoceros kind (perhaps including the elasmotherium). Many of them are still alive today. They were definitely not the mythical horse-like creature, nor did the Bible writers portray such a creature. Their descriptions match that of the rhinoceros. Some Christians propose that this refers to the “wild ox” or the extinct aurochs, whose symmetrical horns may appear as one in profile drawings.
All those critics who enjoy mocking the Bible on this point should perform a bit of research to see how foolish they sound for mocking Christians who believe in the existence of the rhinoceros and/or elasmotherium. But like I’ve said before, many of these scoffers are not interested in studying the Bible, they simply want to mock it and suppress what they know to be true because they do not like the idea of God being their judge when they die. Rather than willfully suppressing the truth and remaining in ignorance, I pray these critics will bury their pride, repent of their sin, and trust in their Creator, whose name is Jesus Christ.
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