Unicorns in the Bible and the need for Joseph Smith
A few years ago I engaged in a gospel discussion with a friend of another religion whom I respect greatly. We disagreed on a point of doctrine and went to the New Testament to find out why. As we studied the verses back and forth, our difference came down to the Joseph Smith Translation of a verse. She very kindly said that she did not support interpreting the Bible based on changes made by a man in the 19th Century. I completely respect her point of view.
Because let's be honest, it can seem quite strange that some of our doctrine is based on what we call the Joseph Smith Translation found in the Pearl of Great Price and as footnotes in the Holy Bible. In essence we are saying, "Here the Bible is wrong, this is what it is actually supposed to say."
To learn more about the Joseph Smith Translation and how it came to be, click here.
We have had the King James Version of the Bible for centuries, and the LDS Church uses that version as their cannon scripture. Yet we also have an Article of Faith that says,
"We believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly."If you are easily amused, here is that Article of Faith sung by a group of children. You're welcome.
The point is that while we do believe the Bible, we also reserve the right to say that we don't always agree with how it was translated. Joseph Smith spent several years of his life as a modern-day prophet receiving revelation to correct many of those errors.
What does this have to do with unicorns?
We actually find that unicorns are mentioned 9 times in the authorized version of the King James version. But unless you are a 5-year-old girl, you know that unicorns aren't real. So why would the word of God makes us think that they are?
Thanks to a website called Unicorns Rule (and yes, unicorns do rule) we have a history of how unicorns show up in the Bible.
The original language of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew.
One of the words used was
In 250 B.C. the Greeks took on the task of translating the Bible into Greek so that the Bible could be made available to the public.
When they came across the Hebrew word re'em, they were puzzled because the animal re'em had gone extinct. So there was no word in the Greek language that could be used to translate re'em.
What is a re'em anyway?
No one really knows, but many scholars have come forward with their ideas.
It might have been a wild ox with one horn. It might have been what is called an elasmotherium, which is an extinct animal like a rhinoceros but with wooly fur.
It might have even been a one-horned rhinoceros, knows as the rhinoceros unicornis.
Some have even suggested it might be a narwahl. A whale that has a long tooth that grows out of its head.
Don't those look terrifying?
But the animal mentioned in the Bible is a land creature. So it's not likely to be a narwahl.
But whatever a re'em is, the Greeks didn't have a word for it. So they did their best and used their own word.
which means one-horned.
Now we have a new translator, in 390 A.D. St. Jerome began to translate the Bible into Latin. There is some question as to whether he translated the Bible from Hebrew (which he might not have been fluent in) or Greek (which he most likely was fluent in). Whether he was looking at the word re'em or monokeros, he used the Latin word
which also mean one-horned.
In 1611 when a group of scholars translated the Bible into English they too didn't have an English word so they made one up. The word was "unicorn."
And that's the story of the birth of a unicorn.
Which frankly is way cuter than this ugly thing.
But as you can see what was intended to mean one thing, morphed to mean something completely different.
But at the end of the day whether it was meant to mean an extinct wild ox, a rhinoceros, or a narwahl, what does it matter? It wouldn't change any doctrine, would it? I'd say probably not.
But there are thousands of words in the Bible that were translated, not just this one. And as you can see it is a complicated process (much more complicated than what I've shown here) and it is possible for words to be misconstrued or mistranslated.
Additionally, not all mistranslations were accidental. In 1604 when the King James Version of the bible began to be translated, there was a purposefully effort not to commend civil disobedience to royal supremacy1.
And that's just one translation. We find many different translations of the Bible written throughout the centuries.
To see the list of English translations, click here.
Can you see why the LDS Church says that it believes the Bible to be the word... as long as it was translated correctly? And why Joseph Smith, a modern-day prophet, worked for years and used divine revelation to correct as many errors as he possibly could?
I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet and had the proper power and authority to do this. That is why I read the Joseph Smith translation found in the Pearl of Great Price and the Bible as part of my scripture study.
But I still think unicorns are cute.
1. Daniell, David (2003). The Bible in English: its history and influence. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09930-4.
This article is not an official publication of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.