Lame Complaints about the Bible: “The KJV talks about unicorns!” & the anachronism fallacy.

The Bible.and.Science.Forum fields questions on “unicorns in the Bible” at least twice per month. It’s a great example of how so many of the silliest anti-Bible taunts have taken on powerful mythologies which refuse to die no matter how much evidence is provided.  Indeed, when ideologies are at stake, emotions tend to outweigh evidence. It will always be so.  Therefore, we try to be realistic and accept the fact that linguistic realities won’t matter when an impassioned taunt is so delightfully useful. As a result, we usually address, and certainly publish for, the education-minded third-parties, not the mocker.

So, why did the KJV Bible of 1611–and the Wycliffe Bible (1382-1395, in Middle English, not Elizabethan ) it regularly follows—translate the somewhat obscure Hebrew word as UNICORN?  The answer is very simple: They thought the Hebrew word referred to what we today call an Indian rhinoceros [Greek for “nose” +”horn”], but which until the 1800’s was known to English-speakers as a UNICORN (Latin for “one”+”horn”.)  Now if someone wants to make fun of 1611 English speakers, including the KJV Bible translation committee, for using the Latin-derived UNICORN instead of the Greek-derived RHINOCEROS, by all means,  get your laughs where you can. (I don’t get the joke, but humor is subjective, I guess.)  But keep in mind that zoologists use both words in referring to the Indian rhino, the rhino which is known for having just one horn:  Rhinoceros unicornis.

Of course, if you think that in 1611 the Oxford and Cambridge professors who completed their new KJV Bible translation should have known that after another four centuries uninformed mockers who never learned Latin and Greek would confuse their one-horn/UNICORN with a pixie-pony with a spiral horn coming out its face and appearing on greeting cards and curio shelves in the year 2015, you need to familiarize yourself with the Argument from Anachronism fallacy. (Include the Argument from Ignorance as well.)Yet, just as Ken Ham has been told thousands of times that The Theory of Evolution says nothing about the Big Bang Theory nor abiogenesis but would never dream of correcting the AiG website to remove those errors, the website will never explain to visitors why “The 1611 KJV Bible refers to unicorns!” argument makes them sound stupid. And SAB won’t tell readers that even the vast majority of fundamentalist Christians have never claimed that any Bible translation is 100% perfect (whatever a “perfect translation” might mean!)  For that matter, the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy is not even embraced by all who call themselves evangelicals. Furthermore, the definition of the term itself is far from unambiguous. So beware of ranting and shaking your fists at  an enemy who is not even in the same room with you.

Of course, if someone wants to complain about the KJV Bible, why not go after the BIG problems instead of imaginary pixie unicorns, non-existent Pi=3 declarations, and ridiculous face-palms about “bats aren’t birds” and “rabbits don’t chew cud”? Leave behind the sand pile mud pies and join the adults. You could start with the embarrassing fact that the KJV is sometimes closer to being a translation of late manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate than it is a translation of the Tanakh and the Koine Greek New Testament.  Why split non-existent hairs when an insertion like the Comma Johanneum of the KJV was a translation of a sheer fabrication and has a much more interesting story that goes back many many centuries?

With that said, if someone likes to publish their favorite list of “Bible errors and contradictions” —or even wax eloquent about their contempt for the Bible or why they hate theism—knock yourself out.  As to the Bible.and.Science.Forum. None of us generally call ourselves fundamentalist. We are academics who care when the uninformed ignore the evidence and deny the realities of Biblical lexicography, exegesis, and basic reading comprehension, especially when you pretend that falsehoods are facts and encourage others to lie about an ancient text instead of engaging the facts.  If you think that science is objective but that the humanities departments of the Academy are nothing but subjective opinion, you have far more in common with Ken Ham than sanity should ever allow. But if you want to be taken seriously in terms of your handling the objective evidence from the Biblical texts, don’t keep emulating Ken Ham and Ray Comfort by continuing to post the same lame PRATTs like an AiG or Discovery Institute propaganda mill. When you promote an argument simply because it opposes the Bible, regardless of whether or not it is based on solid evidence and a valid understanding of the topic, you have adopted the same rationalizations of dishonesty that the “creation science” entrepreneurs use.

In all fairness, the 1611 King James Bible translators did a reasonably good job for what limited Hebrew lexicographic resources they had at the time, to name just one tremendous obstacle they faced in translating the ancient tongues.  If you want to make fun of the KJV-only crowd, get in line and take a number. Even most Young Earth Creationists think that the KJV-onlyists have gone off the deep end of the pier. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s evangelicals think that KJV-onlyists are downright loony.

And seeing how the Septuagint—-a Greek translation of the Hebrew Tanakh from almost 2000 years old before, translated by Hellenistic rabbis–used the Greek word MONOCEROS (“one” + “horn”) you really can’t fault the KJV professors and clergy for going with the Latin equivalent in English: UNICORNIS ==> UNICORN (“one” + “horn”.)  After all, John Wycliffe made the same choice a few centuries before with his ground-breaking English translation. Indeed, in choosing UNICORN, some scholars think the KJV actually got it basically right, even if for the wrong reasons. You see, some think that  the “one-horned” beast might have been much like those seen in some stone inscriptions, where the two-dimensional, flat profile (side-view) of the animal made it look like it had only one horn. Thus, they suggest that the ancients named it accordingly, thus leading to the Septuagint’s MONOCEROS (“one”+”horn”.) This alternative view is held in the minority nowadays but all of these details are quite superfluous when considering that something as simple as “big beast” would have served the nine translation contexts quite adequately. Yes, in the end, the exact identity of the animal holds little importance to the translation per se. Of course, today, we have a much better understanding of Hebrew vocabulary and meanings. But, the names of animals and stones will always remain the most difficult of ancient vocabularies to translate.

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13 responses to “Lame Complaints about the Bible: “The KJV talks about unicorns!” & the anachronism fallacy.

  1. TomS

    There are some lists of amusing scientific names of biological taxa. I can’t think at the moment for examples, or where to find an online list.
    I might think of the use of the words used in particle physics: color (will there be comics in a couple of centuries making fun of that), flavor, strangeness, charm – let alone “god particle”!

  2. 1) I remember something from years ago that listed various “endangered species” along with their scientific names, and each was a Young Earth Creationist “creation science” celebrity. Kent Hovind was something like “Ignoramous dimwittest, common name: Dim-witted Booby.” It included descriptions of habitat (e.g., weekend conferences) and diet (donor’s tens and twenties.)

    2) Yes, the atomic particles surprised me. In the old days, all of the nomenclature sounded very scientific. Then it started going on acid. But considering just how bizarre Quantum Physics is with its own reality, the names actually are probably the best idea.

  3. Meanwhile, back at the Facebook forum where the UNICORN=RHINOCEROS meaning from 1611 is still being denied, I’ve been reminded that Young Earth Creationists don’t have a monopoly on denialism. Yes, when ideology is all that matters, evidence never matters!. No matter what I explain, I’m told by the anti-Bible people that “It sounds like something you made up!”

    “We know more than the Academy” is the simpleton’s route to cognitive dissonance.

    In this case, the denialists are so set on hating the KJV Bible (and all other Bibles, for that matter) that it must always be wrong!

    • TomS

      From the Oxford English Dictionary:

      “1.a A fabulous and legendary animal …
      “The unicorn has at various times been identified or confused with the rhinoceros, with various species of antelope, or with other animals …”

      “b. Used in Middle English versions of the OT to render the Vulgate unicornis or rhinoceros …”
      “†7. The one-horned rhinoceros. Obs.” Just two citations, from 1398 and 1684.

  4. By the way, seeing how the KJV translators were working primarily from the Latin Vulgate and the Greek Septuagint, we could say that they translated without error but the sources they were working from probably blundered on translating the Hebrew word in the Masoretic Text. So we probably shouldn’t blame the KJV scholars for trusting the rabbis who produced the Septuagint. After all, I would probably have made the same choice. (Wouldn’t you expect the rabbis behind the LXX to know the Hebrew text best?)

    Unfortunately, even the rabbis had lost touch with the zoological familiarity with Palestine.

    • This is a problem in the article. The KJV Translators did not work primarily from the Latin Vulgate and Septuagint. In fact, I doubt they had copies of the Septuagint. The primary source for the KJV was the Masoretic Hebrew text, and the Primary Greek Source for the New testament was Beza’s edition of the Textus Receptus Text (Not Erasmus’, which it’s often blasted for using. Though Beza’s was a revision of Erasmus'[text], they are still distinct.)

      The KJV is not a Translation of the Vulgate and LXX, or even realy that close to one. In fact, while it was supposed to be a revision of the Bishops Bible, it ended up being a revision of Tyndale in the New testament, with something like 75% according with Tyndale’s text.

      • Thank you for commenting, S.K. Williams. Your comment reached us in an extremely corrupted condition with many of the words difficult for someone unfamiliar with these topics to even recognize. (I’d wager that you probably posted your comment through your cell phone?) I have taken the liberty of editing the corrupted words (but not their order or phrasing) based on what I assume was your original intention. None of those words were all that difficult to discern (for someone familiar with these topics) but I would encourage you to correct any of my corrections which might possibly have been overly presumptuous on my part, if such was the case, though I doubt that there could be more than one or two, if any. [By the way, I also corrected an attribute tagging error which caused a minor typo in Professor Tertius’ article as it had originally been displayed by the WordPress engine.]

        The KJV Translators did not work primarily from the Latin Vulgate and Septuagint. In fact, I doubt they had copies of the Septuagint.

        Agreed. If you read Professor Tertius’ remarks very carefully, you will find that he never claims otherwise. Also, his discussion of the Greek and Latin words associated with the remarkable animal were addressing the arguments of Bible critics, not the source texts behind the KJV. Nevertheless, the influence of the Vulgate and LXX on the KJV certainly should not be ignored. For example, I would suggest that readers investigate the impact of the Complutensian Polyglot (which included the Vulgate and LXX, obviously) as a tertiary resource behind the KJV. That is just one of several reasons why observations about the texts behind the KJV must be worded very carefully when discussing influences.

        The primary source for the KJV was the Masoretic Hebrew text, and the Primary Greek Source for the New testament was Beza’s edition of the Textus Receptus Text. (Not Erasmus'[text], which it’s often blasted for using. Though Beza’s [text] was a revision of Erasmus’, they are still distinct.)

        While many would debate the nuances of the word “distinct”, I’m sure Professor Tertius would agree. Does he say otherwise in his article?

        The KJV is not a translation of the Vulgate and LXX, or even really that close to one.

        Agreed. And considering the history of the Vulgate, it would have been surprising for the KJV translators to depend too heavily and too obviously on a text so closely associated with the Vatican!

        In fact, while it was supposed to be a revision of the Bishops Bible, it ended up being a revision of Tyndale in the New testament, with something like 75% according with Tyndale’s text.

        Many years ago Professor Tertius wrote a monograph on the enormous influence of Tyndale’s translation on the KJV, where so many of the most beautiful phrases beloved by Bible readers to this day originate. I don’t recall if it is in the Facebook archives of his articles or if it was part of the old BSF newsletter, but my guess is the latter. Only a subset of those newsletter articles have been archived online for the general public and I don’t have any sort of index at hand to tell me whether that article is among them.

        It sounds like you may not fully grasp the heavy “cross-fertilization” of the various “sources behind the sources” which stood behind the scholarship which produced the KJV. Also, I’ve found that today’s students rarely have a conscious grasp of the influence of classical education (centered around Greek and Latin studies) behind virtually every educated person in the 16th century. If you carefully reread what Prof T said about MONOCEROS and RHINOCEROS and their relationship to the Latin word UNICORN, you will find that it is a discussion of the misunderstandings of these words by modern Bible critics and a failure to understand the Greek and Latin morphemes. It is not part of his commentary on any specific Septuagint or Vulgate textual readings.

        Professor Tertius chooses his words very carefully. If you read them just as carefully, I think you will find that he stops short of what a cursory reading might at first assume he is saying. For example, he writes “You could start with the embarrassing fact that the KJV is sometimes closer to being a translation of late manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate than it is a translation of the Tanakh and the Koine Greek New Testament.” He doesn’t say that the KJV is a translation of the Vulgate. He says it is sometimes closer to the Latin than the original Greek and gives an example in the case of the Comma Johanneum in 1 John. Now I suppose the wording would have been more clear if he had said that it appears closer rather than is closer to the Vulgate. I would probably agree with you there in that he could have chosen his words more exactly in that sentence. In fact, I think Prof T would agree. When I was among his students, I recall him saying something about “The customer is always right.” can apply to readers in that if well-informed readers misunderstand a statement, the statement may need to be worded more precisely when the next edition of a textbook is revised.

        So, if there are specific sentences in the article where you believe the wording is clearly misleading or outright in error, please comment accordingly and I will share it with Prof T when he returns from his academic conference. And I know that I can speak for him in thanking you for taking the time to give him feedback on his article. He will be very appreciative to receive your comments.

        [BSF web administrator Saito S. is on a leave of absence due to illness so I’m filling in for him as my schedule allows. (Unlike Prof T, I’m not yet retired.) Professor Tertius was my faculty advisor when I was getting my Masters. You could say that I was one of the original BSF members when we all met at Denny’s for supper after an Evangelical Theological Society meeting. In informal conversation we had suddenly realized that all of us shared a common background: we were all former “creation science” fans back in the 1960’s and 1970’s when The Genesis Flood captured our interest. We are all recovering Young Earth Creationists who now recognize the great age of the earth and the realities of evolution in God’s plan. So even though we differ on some details of our theologies, we all agree with the theory of evolution and the major conclusions of modern geology and paleontology.]

        • I don’t mind editing my posts so long as my original wording and intended (International or British) spelling is retained. I am Dyslexic.

          I do wonder how much of an influence the LXX was on the KJV though. It is my understanding that it was ignored by the West and used mainly by the East until the 18th Century, which is not exactly Timely for the KJV. Sir Lancelot Brenton really invigorated the study of the Septuagint with his own work, and Translation, of it and his contrast between it and the Masoretic Text. Any similarities ( and there are very important and numerous differences) would either be coincidental or the result on an earlier source usign the LXX and it just staying round to meet the KJV.

          The Vulgate is, of coruse, an admited source for the KJV, they say so in their own preface, but I just think its somewhat overstated that the KJv was reliant on the LXX as a major influence.

          • As you are probably aware, margin notes in prior Bible translations had angered many powerful people (including the King, if I recall) and so the KJV translators we not at liberty to easily share their thoughts and comment about their sources.

            At a time when many Muslims in on-line forums proudly emphasize the many contributions of Islamic scholars to Western knowledge and even the preservation of Biblical texts and the Greek and Latin classics, I do wish more of my students were better schooled in the Arab Golden Age and specific collaborative projects, such as the Complutensian Polyglot. In fact, many know very little about the centuries of the Moors in the Iberian peninsula. Of course, it’s hard to blame them for confusion about the state of Greek and Hebrew scholarship in the 16th century and early 17th century. Many of their professors lack a rigorous background on that extremely complex and often controversial topic. Nevertheless, the enthusiastic boasting of many Muslims on Internet forums appears to have encouraged some Christians to investigate a history which most have never examined. So in some ways I think proud Muslims celebrating the history of their most beloved scholars has brought beneficial results and a new awareness of a history forgotten by many Christians.

            • Do keep in mind my original post was a reply to a specific poster, too, not to the original article. ( I think, after re-reading the exchange you may have been confused there. Another poster said the KJV was translated mainly from the Vulgate and LXX.)

              I don’t really think the Margin Notes issue is relevant. I’, saying the LXX was not really relevant to the KJV.

              I agree hat we shoudl elarn more of History and lament myslf the current stateof Education, but that is a separate issue.

  5. As the OED points out, it is hard to find Middle English citations. (The corpus is not large.) But there’s lot of “one-horned animal” in later centuries. In fact, it was still the #1 meaning when 1828 Webster’s Dictionary was published:

    U”NICORN, n. [L. unicornis; unus, one, and cornu, horn.]

    1. an animal with one horn; the monoceros. this name is often applied to the rhinoceros.
    2. The sea unicorn is a fish of the whale kind, called narwal, remarkable for a horn growing out at his nose.
    3. A fowl.

  6. As a reader has commented, once the anti-Bible “The KJV translators thought unicorns were real!” taunters have been proven mistaken, they retreat to “They were still wrong. They didn’t know that it was probably a wild ox.” Of course they were wrong! The KJV translators were wrong about lots of things. But in all fairness to them, considering what little they had to work with in 1611, they truly did a remarkable job. But their errors were many. Scholars today have much more reference material and tools. Without those, we too would probably be prone to simply going with what the Septuagint said.

    Of course, in case anyone is unaware, modern Bibles went through a lot of nail-biting on translating names of animals and precious stones. Those are always difficult. But the “wild ox” reading where the KJV chose “unicorn” is probably the best anyone is going to do. We will probably never know for certain.

  7. StevePhysicist

    Professor Tertius is no doubt talking about the fun thread at the Faith & Reason groups:

    at the OriginalPost:

    For those who enjoy watching the clueless attempt to school the educated people who know what they are talking about, the member “Abigail Hurley” is a prime example. After having to admit to herself, if no one else, that username “Bud Arlington” was correct in denying her taunt that the KJV translators thought the unicorn was a cutesy pony with a horn sticking out of his head (like the popular bric a brac figurines artists produce en masse), she plays the move-the-goalposts game: She says, “I have done a lot of reading about this and I have come to the conclusion that we are both wrong!” FacePalm!

    Yes, Abigail, change the topic from “Abigail thinks the KJV assumed the mythical pixie ponies of kiddie cartoons” to “The correct translation is the wild ox.” Duh!!! So she decides that if she must admit that she was wrong, there surely must be a way to call the OriginalPost wrong as well! LOL. Nice try, Abby!

    Moving the goalposts is a time-honored tradition. I just had an idea for a motto which denialists (as Professor Tertius calls them) of every stripe could use: “Moving the goal-posts: It’s not just for creationists any more.” (Seeing how that joke is based upon an iconic advertising campaign promoted by the orange growers, it may not work make sense to international readers. When they were trying to expand their market by selling more orange juice, their ad campaign was built around the line, “Orange juice. It’s not just for breakfast anymore.” OK. Ya had to be there!)

    But what I find even more interesting is that she doesn’t even notice is not saying that the KJV Bible is inerrant (or even that any Bible is inerrant.) Like real academics do, Professor Bud is addressing a very specific, wrong accusation against the King James Bible, even while pointing out several obviously valid ones. But because the denialist (I like that term) is engaged in a much bigger war, the “I hate the Bible so I must deny that any Bible translation ever got anything right, even if it means ignoring all evidence that is against me!” campaign, Miss Abigail is not about to admit that she alone was wrong!

    I still wonder: Does she actually think that a Biblical scholar would not have noticed that modern Bible translations translate the mystery animal as “wild ox”?

    Dr. T, I saw your favorite Ghanian administrative assistant and spouse at the Acra airport last week. For someone who completed chemo not so long ago, I thought she looked fantastic. Even energetic. She sends her hellos and thanks to the department for help with Willem’s paperwork. They will be returning to the USA sometime this summer.

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