googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Does The Bible Say There Are Unicorns?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Does The Bible Say There Are Unicorns?

He hath as it were the strength of an unicorn. (Numbers 23:22 KJV)

The King James Bible mentions unicorns in six verses. It doesn't give much detail about the creature except to say that it noted for having great strength. To the western mind, unicorns are mythical creatures that now only exist in fantasy novels and Dungeons & Dragons but the Bible talks about them as though they are real creatures. Many people pounce on this fact as an opportunity to label the Bible as a work of fiction. Even liberal Christians use the mention of unicorns as an excuse to say the Bible shouldn't be taken literally.

In response to such criticisms, we must first acknowledge them for what they are – straw man criticisms that don't accurately represent what the Bible says. Many critics aren't intentionally making a straw man. Instead, they are committing the exegetical fallacy of reverse etymology. That is, they are forcing the modern meaning of a word onto its original meaning. When the Bible was written in Hebrew, the Medieval concepts of unicorns did not even exist. The writers of the Bible certainly did not have the western image of unicorns in mind when the original text was penned.

My understanding of Hebrew is next to nothing but, according to Brown-Driver-Brigg's Hebrew Definitions the word translated as “unicorn” in Numbers 23:22 above is the Hebrew word “rêm” (ראם). BDB defines it as “wild bulls which are now extinct.” There's nothing about that definition that suggests the Hebrew writers specifically understood this beast to have a single horn. It could be a description of an animal using terminology similar to our name for the modern breed of cattle, the “long horn.”

Since I'm more comfortable reading Greek, I looked up the verse in the Septuagint where I found it is rendered as monokerōtos (μονοκέρωτος) which literally means “only horn” or “one horn.” So, even long before the KJV translation, it seems the idea of a one-horned animal was already understood. What we have then, is the Bible mentions a one-horned animal renowned for having great strength. Do such animals exist? Of course they do!

Even today there exists a species of rhinoceros with one horn. Interestingly, the Latin name for the animal is Rhinoceros unicornis. Did you see that, “unicornis”? It's the word unicorn! So even according to modern taxonomy, there are true unicorns alive today. Rhinos also possess great strength so a one-horned rhino would definitely fit the bill of the biblical unicorn.

Now, there are many other horned animals that have lived throughout history. For example, there is a group of horned animals called, ceratopsians. The most famous critter belonging to this group is the triceratops. The triceratops, of course, has three horns but another member of this club is monoclonius. Would you care to guess how many horns the monoclonius had? I don't know exactly how strong the monoclonius was but given the fact it about the size of a car, I would suspect it was likely impressive.

I'm sure there are still other candidates that would fit the description of the biblical unicorns. It's not my objective to prove exactly what species of creature it was. My objective is demonstrate what it was not – it was not the horned horse of European folklore.

Further reading

How to Answer “The Bible says that Bats are Birds” and Similar Criticisms

How Are Myths Born?


Steven J. said...

I have long leaned towards the idea that the re'em (as I learned to transliterate the word) was the same as the Assyrian rimu, which was depicted in bas-reliefs as an aurochs (the now-extinct but then-extant Bos primigenius, looking very much like a Texas longhorn six feet high at the shoulder). The Bible, as far as I know, doesn't actually say that the re'em had only one horn, and the Septuagint may be a mistranslation on this point.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

I abbreviated the BDB definition. The full definition given there is “probably the great aurochs or wild bulls which are now extinct. The exact meaning is not known.” Other sources like Scofield and Barnes also name aurochs as the culprit only they write a little more confidently. BDB and Strong both claim the root of the word rêm (or your preferred transliteration, re'em) is a primitive word meaning to rise or be lifted up. You are correct that there's nothing about the word that suggests “one horn.”

As for the LXX, it has its flaws as a translation. I still refer to it occasionally, though, because I feel it gives me a little insight into the how the second century BC Jews understood a particular passage. If there is some doubt about the meaning of a Hebrew word, the word chosen in the Greek translation might shed some light on it. In my post here, my point was that the KJV translators weren't the first people to have the opinion the animal referred to in Numbers et al was a “unicorn.”

Thanks for visiting and for your comments. God bless!!


The Palaeobabbler said...

Interesting stuff. My only quibble, which is intended to be constructive, is that Triceratops and Monoclonius are the names of genera, so they should begin with a capital and be emphasised with italics.

RKBentley said...


Thanks for your comments. You're correct about capitalizing and italicizing the names. Grammar is something I usually have a handle on but I guess I'm a little fuzzy on the correct rendering of technical terms.

Have a great one. God bless!!


Justin said...

For me, all the talk about unicorns and trying to justify the use of it in the king james version doesn't makeup for the fact that its misleading and proves the infallibility of the bible to be incorrect. When this version was published, there was a definite mindset as to what a unicorn was. In fact, the coat of arms of King James included a typical unicorn. And I'm sure most bibles of the time had the royal arms in the front pages where it said 'commissioned by his most gracious majesty, king james I of england and IV of scotland blah blah blah' so either way its a flaw.

RKBentley said...


When the OT was translated into Greek around 100BC (the LXX), the term "one horn" was already understood. Certainly you do not mean to suggest that European idea of a horned horse was on the minds of the translators a century before Christ!

Also, you've completely ignored the fact that unicorns exist today and have existed in history. Not the horned-horses, of course, but the one horned rhino as discussed in my post.

Thanks for your comments. God bless!!