Unicorns in the Bible

Unicorns in the Bible

Updated: October 11, 2020

There are unicorns in the Bible.

How did they end up there? Were they real creatures? Did the authors of the Bible actually see them?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t glamorous. Their appearance is due to an issue of translation.


HIghlights:

  • There are unicorns in the Bible
  • A series of translations over the years created the unicorn
  • The origin of the biblical unicorn is the Hebrew word re’em
  • Scholars translated re’em to monokeros and in Greek, unicornis in Latin, rinocercerotis in Greek/Latin, and unicorn in English.
  • Numbers 23:22 is an example of a Bible passage where re’em is translated in three different ways including “unicorn”

Hebrew Writings

The biblical unicorn’s origins are in Hebrew writings that would later be adopted by Christians as the Old Testament. The Hebrew authors described a horned animal as a “re’em” that they believed represented strength. It is unclear what the animal is/was, but it may have been the mythological re’em, the worldly oryx, or the extinct auroch. Today, modern translations of the Bible use the term wild ox for the mysterious horned animal.

Unicorns in the Bible
Liturgical genizah fragments in Judeo-Arabic, ca. 900
British Library Or 5563B

Greek Septuagint

According to Jewish tradition, the King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt (r. 283-246 BCE) ordered the Jewish Torah to be translated into Greek and placed in the Library of Alexandria. Each of the 12 Tribes of Israel sent six scholars to the King. The King placed each scholar in a separate room and ordered the Torah to be translated. Miraculously, each scholar produced identical copies suggesting the translation was divinely inspired.

Unicorns in the Bible Septuagint
Song of Songs, ca. 350
British Library Papyrus 2486

The translation became known as the Septuagint or LXX (both Latin for 70). The tradition is a myth, and textual analysis reveals that the translations occurred over the course of centuries, and it contains scriptures that are not traditionally included in the Hebrew Bible.

The Greek translation used for re’em, the horned animal representing strength, was “μονοκερωσ” (monókeros). Monókeros loosely translates to single-horned or an one-horned animal.


Read more on Unicorn Encounters

Eyewitness Accounts: M. Paulus saw unicorns in Java; Ludovico di Varthema saw two unicorns on the Arabian peninsula
Physical Remains: The Horn of Windsor in England, St. Mary’s Church in the Netherlands, The Bishop’s Crosier in Greenland


St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate

Within the vast Roman Empire, Latin translations of the Old and New Testaments existed piecemeal. The Latin texts were primarily translated from Greek sources, especially the Septuagint. This loose collection is known as the Vetus Latina. The Vetus Latina was inadvertently problematic for early Church leadership. Translations were not uniform, scriptures were missing or incomplete, and grammar was inconsistent. These issues led to conflicting textual interpretations and the potential for doctrinal clashes.

Pope Damasus I (r. 366-384) commissioned St. Jerome (347-420) to remedy the problem by creating a new and complete translation of the Bible into Latin. Between 382-405 CE, Jerome produced a new translation of the Old Testament based on Hebrew sources, and the New Testament based on Greek Sources. This new, complete new translation is known as the Latin Vulgate.

Codex Amiatinus Unicorns in the Bible
Codex Amiatinus ca. 716. The oldest surviving complete Vulgate.
Laurentian Library Amiat.1

The Vulgate received it’s name because in Latin, vulgata means common or popular. St. Jerome’s translation was the common and popular Latin translation used by the people of Rome and the Church.

St. Jerome used three words to describe the horned animal signifying strength (the re’em, oryx, aurouch, or wild ass) – unicorn, monoceros, and rhinoceros.

  • Unicorn = uni (one [Latin]) + cornus (horn [Latin]) = one horned
  • Monoceros = mono (single [Greek]) + keras (horn of an animal [Greek]) = one horned
  • Rhinoceros = rhino (nose [Greek]) + keras (horn of an animal [Greek]) = nose-horned

After nearly 1,000 years of continual use, St. Jerome’s Vulgate was used as the source to translate the first English bibles.

Unicorns in the Bible
Saint Jerome in the Wilderness probably by Antonio Rossellino, ca. 1470. Marble sculpture.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

Unicorns in the Jerome Vulgate

Unicorns

The words unicornium and unicornes are used in the Vulgate. They were later translated to unicorn in English.

  • Psalm 22:21
    • salva me ex ore leonis, et a cornibus unicornium exaudi me
  • Isaiah 34:7
    • Et descendent unicornes cum eis, et tauri cum potentibus; inebriabitur terra eorum sanguine, et humus eorum adipe pinguium.

Monoceros

The word monocerotís appears are used in the Vulgate. It was later translated to unicorn in English.

  • Psalm 92:10
    • et exaltabitur quasi monocerotís cornu meum et senecta mea in oleo uberi

Rhinoceros

The words rinocerotis, rinoceros, and rinocerota are used in the Vulgate. They were later translated to unicorn and unicorns in English.

  • Numbers 23:22
    • Deus eduxit eum de Aegypto cuius fortitudo similis est rinocerotis
  • Numbers 24:8
    • Deus eduxit illum de Aegypto cuius fortitudo similis est rinocerotis devorabunt gentes hostes illius ossaque eorum confringent et perforabunt sagittis
  • Deuteronomy 33:17
    • quasi primogeniti tauri pulchritudo eius cornua rinocerotis cornua illius in ipsis ventilabit gentes usque ad terminos terrae hae sunt multitudines Ephraim et haec milia Manasse
  • Psalm 29:6
    • et disperget eas quasi vitulus Libani et Sarion quasi filius rinocerotis
  • Job 39:9
    • numquid volet rinoceros servire tibi aut morabitur ad praesepe tuum
  • Job 39:10
    • numquid alligabis rinocerota ad arandum loro tuo aut confringet glebas vallium post te

Unicorns in the English Translations of the Bible

Between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries, scholars translated the Bible into English. The first translations mostly depended on the Vulgate as the source material. Later translations used Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic texts in addition to the Vulgate.

Unicorns appear in the following English-language bibles.

  • Wycliffe Bible (1382-1395)
    • Group of handwritten translations organized by John Wycliffe and associated with the Lollard movement. Wycliffe was declared a heretic by the Church after his death, and his corpse disinterred and defiled.
  • Tyndale Bible – New Testament (1525, 1526, 1534) and the Pentateuch (1530)
    • Translated by William Tyndale. Printed on continental Europe and smuggled into England and Scotland. Tyndale burned at the stake in 1536 by the Church.
  • Coverdale Bible (1535)
    • Translated by Myles Coverdale who continued the work of William Tyndale. The first complete Bible in English. Officially licensed by King Henry VIII.
  • Matthew’s Bible (1537)
    • Translated by John Rogers under the pseudonym Thomas Matthew. Rogers used existing translations made by William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale. Rogers employed the Matthew pseudonym to disguise Tyndale’s work because Tyndale’s status as a heretic.
  • Taverner’s Bible (1539)
    • Richard Taverner’s revision of Matthew’s Bible.
  • Great Bible (1539)
    • Prepared by Myles Coverdale. First authorized version of the Bible in English. Created by order of Henry VIII for the newly created Church of England.
  • Geneva Bible (1560, 1587, 1599)
    • Translated under the direction of William Whittingham by English Protestants in exile in Geneva. It included a series of annotations critical of Anglican notions of government. Considered to be the most popular and widely-read version of the Bible in early-modern England.
  • Bishop’s Bible (1568, 1572, 1602)
    • Authorized by Elizabeth I to replace the Great Bible within the Church of England.
  • Douay-Rheims (1582)
    • Translated by English Catholics in exile at the University of Douai, France.
  • King James (1611)
    • Authorized by James I to replace the Bishop’s Bible in the Church England to counter pressure the emerging Puritan movement. Translated by 47 scholars who used Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin sources.

Unicorns in the English Bible (using King James Version (1611)

The following passages contain unicorns:

  • Numbers 23:22
    • God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an Unicorne.
  • Numbers 24:8
    • God brought him forth out of Egypt, he hath as it were the strength of an Unicorne: he shall eate vp the nations his enemies, and shall breake their bones, and pierce them thorow with his arrowes.Deuteronomy
  • Deuteronomy 33:27
    • His glory is like the firstling of his bullocke, & his hornes are like the hornes of Unicornes: 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.
  • Job 39:9
    • Will the Unicorne be willing to serue thee? or abide by thy cribbe?
  • Job 39:10
    • Canst thou binde the Unicorne with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleyes after thee?
  • Psalms 22:21
    • Saue me from the lyons mouth: for thou hast heard me from the hornes of the vnicornes.
  • Psalms 29:6
    • He maketh them also to skip like a calfe: Lebanon, and Sirion like a yong Unicorne.
  • Psalms 92:10
    • But my horne shalt thou exalt like the horne of an vnicorne: I shalbe anointed with fresh oyle.
  • Isaiah 34:7
    • And the Unicornes shall come downe with them, and the bullockes with the bulles, and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatnesse.

Numbers 23:22 – An Example

Numbers 23:22 is an example of how various translations in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and English identified the “unicorn” over roughly 2,000 years (450 BCE – 1611 CE).

The Book of Numbers in English is known as Bamidbar in Hebrew (in the desert of), Arithmoi in Greek, and Numeri in Latin. The version that we know today was written sometime around 450 BCE, and covers the period between when the Jews arrived at Mt. Sinai under the leadership to Moses, to their arrival on the Plains of Moab under leadership of Joshua. In the meantime, two generations of Jews die in the desert for not having the proper faith in God’s plan to conquer and ethnically cleanse Canaan.

The animal in question – whether a re’em, aurouch, wild ass, monoceros, or unicorn – was translated the following ways:

  • Hebrew – רְאֵם (re’em)
  • Greek – μονοκέρωτος (monoceros)
  • Latin – rinocerotis. Note that other passages in the Latin Bible translates the word as unicornes
  • English – unicorn

Numbers ca. 450 BCE. From the Mikraot Gedolot, 1517. Below from vol. 4 of the 1912 edition

unicorns in the bible hebrew book of numbers

אֵל, מוֹצִיאָם מִמִּצְרָיִם–כְּתוֹעֲפֹת רְאֵם, לוֹ.

Septuagint – ca. 250 BCE. Below from the Codex Vaticanus ca. 550 CE

septuagint unicorns in the bible

Θεὸς ὁ ἐξαγαγὼν αὐτοὺς ἐξ Αἰγύπτου· ὡς δόξα μονοκέρωτος αὐτῷ. NOTE: I don’t speak Greek nor can I read medieval Greek. I am guessing this is the appropriate passage based on the word monoképwtoc, but there is a strong possibility that I am wrong.

Vulgate – 405. Below Codex Amiatinus ca. 700 CE

Codex Amiatinus vulgate bible Numbers 23:22 unicorns in the bible

Deus eduxit eum deaegypto (or Aegypto) cuius fortitudo similis est rinocerotis

Wycliffe – 1382. Below from a 1850 printing

wycliffe bible unicorns in the bible

The Lord God hath ladde hym out of Egipte, whos strengthe is lijk to an vnycorn;

Tyndale – 1530

Tyndale Bible Numbes 23:22 Unicorns in the bible

God that broughte them out of Egipte is as the strength of an vnycorne vnto them

Coverdale – 1535

Coverdale unicorns in the Bible

God hath brought thē out of Egipte, his strēgth is as of an Vnicorne.

Matthew’s – 1537

Matthew's Bible Numbers 23:22 Unicorn

God hath brought thē out of Egypt is as the strength of an vnycorne vnto them

Taverner’s – 1539

Taverner Bible Numbers 23:22 Unicorns in the Bible

God that brought thē out of Egypte, is as the strength of an vnycorne vnto them,

Great Bible – 1539. Below from 1540 edition

Great Bible Unicorns in the Bible

God brought them oute of Egypte, he hath strength as an vnicorne.

Geneva – 1560

Geneva Bible Numbers 23:22 unicorns in the Bible

God broght them out of Egypt: their strength is as an vnicorne.

Bishops’s – 1568

Bishop's Bible Numbers 23:22 Unicorns in the Bible

God brought them out of Egypt, they haue strength as an Unicorne.

Douay-Rheims – 1582

Douay-Rheims Bible Numbers 23:22 Unicorns in the Bible

God hath brought him out of Ægypt, whose strength is like to the vnicorne

King James – 1611

King James Bible 1611 Numbers 23:22 unicorns in the Bible

God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an Unicorne.

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