March 01, 2019

Did you know there are unicorns in the Bible?

It's the God's honest truth, unicorns are in the Bible. They feature more than once, cross my heart and hope to die.

I’m not lying. With my hand on my heart (metaphorically, because I’m typing), unicorns are mentioned in the Bible. And that’s the God’s honest truth.

One example, from the book of Numbers, says, ‘God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.’ Unicorns also feature here, here, and here. If you still don’t believe me, why haven’t you clicked? You are just one click away from the nine times that unicorns take the stage in the Bible.

The more observant of you will have noticed that the links all go to the King James translation of the Bible, which is over 400 years old. It’s an absolute travesty, but unicorns have been erased from the more recent translations!

Once we get over the bleakness of a world without unicorns, there is an obvious problem. How could anyone accept that the Bible talks as if mythical creatures are real, yet still claim that it is the word of God? Surely your confidence in the Bible’s truth evaporates along with the unicorn’s horn?

For a start, let’s get some perspective: back in the King James era, Scotland’s kings were also convinced unicorns were real – so much so that they made them their national animal! Good pub quiz knowledge. Unicorns were believed to be the strongest of creatures and so it made sense to use them on your royal coat of arms.

So when the Bible’s translators came across a Hebrew word that they didn’t know, and saw from its context it meant ‘amazingly strong animal’, they picked the strongest animal they could think of – and so the unicorn proudly strode out and took its place in the text. Today, translators usually pick the ‘wild ox’ for their translation of this word. Both translations would give the contemporary reader the same understanding of God. Although today we don’t have the excitement of God being as strong as a unicorn…

So we’ve explained away the unicorns, but for many people, including some Christians, this is just the tip of the iceberg (or horn, if you prefer). The reliability of the Bible still comes in for questioning, if not ridicule. ‘How can you still believe that?’ ‘Wasn’t it all made up long after the events?’

For example, we don’t have an original copy of any of the Gospels, and the Bible itself often acknowledges that the early manuscripts aren’t in complete agreement.

It gets worse. Scholars would hold that the four Gospel accounts were written 35-60 years after the events they describe, and three of the writers wrote them on different continents. The distance, time and second-hand nature of the Gospel accounts appears to only weaken the Bible’s potential for veracity.  

But imagine it was the other way around. Imagine we had the original and every copy matched perfectly. Imagine they were all written by the same people, in the same place. Would you not doubt that too? It would be like criminals who’d perfectly memorised their alibi. It would be a clear example of propaganda, with a powerful organisation who has ensured control over the accounts.

Instead, we have a holy book that publicises its discrepancies! Talk about honesty. Pick up a Bible and check the footnotes at the bottom of a page, they are there for all to see. The variation actually lends credibility to its reliability and lack of central control. Other famous ancient texts are considered reliable by scholars if we have a dozen of them. The biblical text has been built up using over 5,800 different Greek manuscripts of the Gospels; of course they will vary slightly. Scholars can date each one and see when and where variations or errors have crept in. So we are left with an academically robust, highly accurate version.

Yet, the Gospels were still written a long time after the events by people in other continents. But let me give you a thought experiment: Imagine you wanted to write a history of Genghis Khan. The only map you have of Mongolia at the time is rather sketchy, showing only the major towns and trade routes, and you aren’t allowed internet access to check flora and fauna, local industries or common names of the time. You could come up with a wonderfully detailed imagined history, but any historian checking it would quickly see that you had no real idea of what it was like.

The task sounds impossible, yet that’s what the Gospel writers did. They knew the distance between local places no Roman map knew. They knew how buildings looked. They knew what vegetation was there and all whilst on another continent. Most strikingly of all, even the popularity of names was captured. The nine most popular names in the area were used 41% of the time, those same names appear 40% of the time in the Gospels! All this has since been verified by recent archaeology. [1]

How did they complete this impossible task with such aplomb? It seems only reasonable to accept they had received and accurately recorded accounts from people at the heart of the events. 30+ years usually makes details fuzzy and inaccurate but in this case it hasn’t.  The accurate details, coupled with a lack of control over thousands of manuscripts leaves me with great confidence we have detailed historical accounts accurately handed down from people who met Jesus, that we can engage with.

Yet, today we live in a post-truth age. It’s baffling but 40% of people ignore the scholars and the evidence, to argue that Jesus didn’t even exist and is a myth. Even atheist scholars are arguing for a historical Jesus.

Sadly, unicorns are a myth, translated into the Bible over a millennium after it was first written. But only those who take a blind leap of faith, ignoring the evidence and atheist scholars, would say the same about Jesus.

[1] RZIM DVD: Confidence in the Truth. ‘Confidence in the Bible’, Amy Orr-Ewing, 2013.

Photo by Inês Pimentel on Unsplash

Ben Palmer

Ben Palmer
Ben works for a mentoring charity in London, but boasts a CV that includes a year of living as a monk.

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