According to Bible critic Jason Long, the “unicorn and dragon are examples of mythical creatures in the Bible that fail to leave any reliable evidence for their existence.” Don’t these legendary animals prove the whole Bible is a collection of legends?
Because in most cases the Bible is affirming the existence of real animals, the answer is no. It is only the work of later translators, not the Bible’s original authors, that refers to unicorns or dragons. This is especially prevalent in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. This translation is well known for its eloquent seventeenth-century English, but it is also known among scholars for its inaccurate rendering of several scriptural passages.
It is this translation in which we find the majority of references to mythical animals. This is unfortunate, because ever since Steve Wells used this translation for his popular Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, critics often use the King James Bible as their standard for arguing against the Bible.
Medieval literature described the unicorn as possessing medicinal or even magical powers. In the KJV, the unicorn is depicted as a symbol of strength and wild power. Numbers 23:22 says, “God brought [the Israelites] out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of a unicorn.” In Job 39:9-10, God points out Job’s human limits and says, “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow?”
The Hebrew word the KJV translates as unicorn is re’em, which modern scholars have identified with an auroch or a large, horned cow that is now extinct. The ancient Assyrians also referred to these animals by a similar name, rimu. So, how did the Hebrew word re’em become unicorn in the King James Version?
The translators of the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, used the Greek word monoceros (literally “one horn”) in place of the Hebrew word re’em. In the fifth century, St. Jerome translated the Septuagint into the Latin Vulgate and used the Latin equivalent of monoceros or unicornis. Eventually, this word became unicorn in English.
Why did the Septuagint translators use a word that literally meant “one horn” instead of something such as “wild ox?” One theory is that they may have been thinking of another animal that also fits the description found in passages such as Numbers 23:22. The first-century Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder described a real animal from India called a monoceros:
[It] has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length. This animal, it is said, cannot be taken alive (Natural History 8.31).
Today, in northern India, there is a very strong animal with feet like an elephant, a large body, and one horn that protrudes from its head. If we allow some leeway in Pliny’s description (which is necessary in ancient descriptions of unique creatures), we can identify this creature as the modern Indian rhinoceros. Indeed, monoceros means “one horn” and rhinoceros means “nose horn” (rinoceros). A rhinoceros would make sense in these biblical passages because, unlike unicorns, they are known for being very strong beasts that can’t be domesticated.
In order to remain faithful to the original language, and to avoid confusion with the medieval concept of a unicorn, most modern translations of the Bible render the Hebrew word in these passages as “wild ox” and not “unicorn” or “one horn.”
But what about dragons?
In some parts of the Bible, the word dragon is used metaphorically to refer to the devil (Rev. 20:2), or even to humans such as the Pharaoh of Egypt (Ezek. 29:3). But in other passages the word dragon appears to refer to an actual animal. In the King James Version, Jeremiah 10:22 says, “Behold, the noise of the bruit is come, and a great commotion out of the north country, to make the cities of Judah desolate, and a den of dragons.” Psalm 91:13 of the KJV says, “Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.”
In these passages, the Hebrew word that is translated as dragon is tannin, which can mean serpent or dragon. It comes from the root word tan, which means jackal. Modern translations usually render the text based on this root because it better fits the context of these passages. Consider the Revised Standard Version’s rendering of Jeremiah 10:22: “Behold, it comes!—a great commotion out of the north country to make the cities of Judah a desolation, a lair of jackals.” If an ancient city were destroyed, we would expect scavenging animals such as jackals to inhabit it and feast on the dead bodies left amid the desolation.
In other instances, the word dragon seems to refer to a mythical creature and not a real animal such as a jackal. Psalm 74:13 says of God, “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons on the waters.” But this does not mean the Bible endorses the existence of dragons.
The Bible’s depiction of fantastic dragon creatures may have come about when ancient people such as the Israelites discovered dinosaur fossils. All they would have known from examining these unearthed bones was that they came from huge beasts with big teeth. There is nothing problematic in the human authors of the Bible communicating the message that, whatever these huge animals were, and no matter when they lived, our God (Yahweh) is stronger than they are.
In his book The Bible Among the Myths, John Oswalt argued that the writers of Scripture were using “a self-conscious appropriation of the language of myth for historical and literary purposes, not mythical ones.” This literary device does not mean that the author was asserting that dragons were real animals. Comparing Yahweh to a fictional entity is no more problematic than modern Christians comparing Jesus to Superman. It may simply have been a way of showing people who thought these creatures were real, such as the followers of the Canaanite deity Baal (who feared creatures such as dragons or “Leviathan”), that the true God, Yahweh, is omnipotent and has no fear of them; thus, they should abandon the worship of false gods and embrace the one true God.