Where does the Vulgate use the word “unicorn”?

In the King James Version of the bible, the unicorn is mentioned in Numbers 23:22 and 24:8, Deuteronomy 33:17, Job 39:9,10, Psalms 22:21, 29:6 and 92:10, and in Isaiah 34:7.  As I understand it, in 1611, in current English, the words “unicorn” and “rhinoceros” referred to the same, vaguely known, animal.  The two go back to the Latin bible, the Vulgate, which uses both in these passages, to represent the two Greek words “monokeros” (“one-horn”) and “rhinokeros” (“nose horn”), again both referring to the same obscure animal.[1]  The KJV translators knew that a single Hebrew word, rē’em, lay behind both words, and (correctly) chose to use just one term.  Unfortunately they chose the “wrong” word, at least as viewed from our own days, because subsequent science instead standardised on “rhinoceros” for this odd animal.  At least, this is what I have read, although I could wish for more confirmation of this.

A correspondent asked me just which passages in the Vulgate used “unicorn”.  This was harder work to discover than I should have liked.

The standard critical edition of the Latin Vulgate is the Weber-Gryson 5th edition of the Biblia Sacra iuxta vulgata, versionem, which appeared in Stuttgart in 2007.  Thankfully a number of copies may be found at Archive.org here.  It’s not the right version to use for general reading, if you want a Latin bible.  But it is certainly the right one to use for scholarly purposes.

A search in a text-file version of the Vulgate (I found one here) revealed a number of references, which are below.

Note that St Jerome made two versions of the  Latin translation of the Psalms, one based on the popular Greek translation, the Septuagint (the “versio iuxta LXX” or Gallican psalter), and one based directly on the Hebrew (“versio juxta Hebraicum”).  The former is the normal version found in Vulgate bibles, for historical reasons.

I link to Bible Gateway with parallel Douai translation.  Bible Gateway uses the LXX-based psalter found in the Clementine text, as it says here.

Psalm 21:22: (both the LXX and Hebrew versions)

Salva me ex ore leonis, et a cornibus unicornium humilitatem meam.

Save me from the lion’s mouth; and my lowness from the horns of the unicorns.

The apparatus gives variants of unicornorum, unicornuum, and unicornuorum.  This is clearly not a common word in Latin.

Psalm 28:6:

et comminuet eas, tamquam vitulum Libani, et dilectus quemadmodum filius unicornium.

And shall reduce them to pieces, as a calf of Libanus, and as the beloved son of unicorns.

But the Vulgate version based on the Hebrew reads:

et dispergit eas quasi vitulus Libani et Sarion quasi filius rinocerotis.

Psalm 77:69: (based on the LXX)

Et aedificavit sicut unicornium sanctificium suum, in terra quam fundavit in saecula.

And he built his sanctuary as of unicorns, in the land which he founded for ever.

But the Vulgate version based on the Hebrew reads:

Et aedificavit in similitudinem monoceroton sanctuarium suum, quasi terram fundavit illud in saeculum.

Psalm 91:11: (based on the LXX)

Et exaltabitur sicut unicornis cornu meum, et senectus mea in misericordia uberi.

But my horn shall be exalted like that of the unicorn: and my old age in plentiful mercy.

But the Hebrew-based psalter has “monocerotis” in place of “unicornis”.

Isaiah 34:7:

Et descendent unicornes cum eis, et tauri cum potentibus; inebriabitur terra eorum sanguine, et humus eorum adipe pinguium.

And the unicorns shall go down with them, and the bulls with the mighty: their land shall be soaked with blood, and their ground with the fat of fat ones.

It’s useful to know.  But it’s also a reminder that the biblical “unicorn” is merely a Latin form of “one horned animal”, rather than the dainty creature of Disney.

  1. [1]Allen H. Godbey, “The unicorn in the Old Testament”, American Journal of Semitic Languages 56 (1939), (JSTOR) 290: “literature. But Jerome’s half-and- half division again means that the Christian scholarship of his time considered monokerôs and “rhinoceros” identical.”

The translators of the KJV speak! What they did about obscure words etc

The Translator’s Preface to the Authorized Version is online here, yet few are aware of it, or refer to it.  It begins with many tedious pages justifying their task.  But then it becomes more interesting.

First, on p.25, they discuss marginal notes, or variants as we would call them.  I’ve over-paragraphed and modernised the language slightly.

Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgment not to be so sound in this point. For though “whatever things are necessary are obvious,” as St. Chrysostom says; and, as St. Augustine, “In those things that are plainly set down in the Scriptures, all such matters are found, that concern faith, hope, and charity.”

Yet for all that it cannot be dissembled, that partly to exercise and whet our wits, partly to wean the curious from loathing of them for their every where plainness, partly also to stir up our devotion to crave the assistance of God’s Spirit by prayer, and lastly, that we might be forward to seek aid of our brethren by conference, and never scorn those that be not in all respects so complete as they should be, being to seek in many things ourselves, it hath pleased God in his Divine Providence here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation, (for in such it hath been vouched that the Scriptures are plain,) but in matters of less moment, that fearfulness would better beseem us than confidence, and if we will resolve, to resolve upon modesty with St. Augustine, (though not in this same case altogether, yet upon the same ground,) Melius est dubitare de occultis, quam litigare de incertis: “It is better to make doubt of those things which are secret, than to argue about those things that are uncertain.”

There be many words in the Scriptures, which be never found there but once, (having neither brother nor neighbour, as the Hebrews speak,) so that we cannot be helped by conference of places.  Again, there be many rare names of certain birds, beasts, and precious stones, &c. concerning which the Hebrews themselves are so divided among themselves for judgment, that they may seem to have defined this or that, rather because they would say something, than because they were sure of that which they said, as St. Jerome somewhere says of the Septuagint.

Now in such a case, does not a margin do well to admonish the Reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity, to doubt of those things that are evident; so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgment of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. Therefore as St. Augustine saith, that variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification, and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good ; yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded.

We know that Sixtus Quintus expressly forbids that any variety of readings of their vulgar edition should be put in the margin; (which though it he not altogether the same thing to that we have in hand, yet it looketh that way;) but we think he has not all of his own side his favourers for this conceit. They that are wise had rather have their judgments at liberty in differences of readings, than to be captivated to one, when it may be the other. …

Their point about obscure technical terms is well-taken.  This seems to be the reason that the King James Version uses the word “unicorn” for what we today would call a “rhinoceros”.  The translators in 1611 had no way to know how best to render the Hebrew, and lacked our dictionaries of species, which were yet to be compiled.  So they preserved what came down to them, and rendered the Greek “monokeros”, “one horn”, as “unicorn”.  I have read that in 1611 there was no agreed term for this animal, nor any certainty as to what it looked like, although I have not been able to locate a source for it.  But it is quite possible that this is so.  A.H. Godbey, “The Unicorn in the Old Testament”, in: American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 56 (1939) 256-296 (JSTOR) states that in antiquity “monokeros” and “rinoceros” were understood to mean the same thing; and that monokeros was the older Greek usage.  No doubt the KJV translators just made a stab at finding an English word for this odd creature, and chose “unicorn”.  Unfortunately for subsequent readers the word for it that actually won out, in English, was “rhinoceros”.  I would prefer to have a proper source for this last point, though.

They then discuss whether the same English word should always be used for the same Hebrew or Greek word in the original.  This is quite hard to ensure, even today.  They defend themselves against this criticism as follows:

Another thing we think good to admonish thee of, gentle Reader, that we have not tied ourselves to a uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe, that some learned men somewhere have been as exact as they could that way. Truly, that we might not vary from the sense of that which we had translated before, if the word signified the same thing in both places, (for there be some words that be not of the same sense every where,) we were especially careful, and made a conscience, according to our duty.

But that we should express the same notion in the same particular word; as for example, if we translate the Hebrew or Greek word once by “purpose”, never to call it “intent”; if one where “journeying”, never “travelling”; if one where “think”, never “suppose”; if one where “pain”, never “ache”; if one where “joy”, never “gladness”, &c. Thus to mince the matter, we thought to savour more of curiosity than wisdom, and that rather it would breed scorn in the atheist, than bring profit to the godly reader. For is the kingdom of God become words or syllables?! Why should we be in bondage to them, if we may be free? use one precisely, when we may use another no less fit as commodiously?  A godly Father in the primitive time shewed himself greatly moved, that one of newfangledness called “krabba/ton”, “ski/mpouj”, though the difference be little or none; and another reports, that he was much abused for turning “cucurbita” (which reading the people had been used to) into “hedera”. Now if this happen in better times, and upon so small occasions, we might justly fear hard censure, if generally we should make verbal and unnecessary changings. …

…we cannot follow a better pattern for elocution than God himself; therefore he using divers words in his holy writ, and indifferently for one thing in nature: we, if we will not be superstitious, may use the same liberty in our English versions out of Hebrew and Greek, for that copy or store that he hath given us.

It’s an interesting position, although their practice may have been better than their position.  Every reference to “unicorn” in the KJV translates the same Hebrew word, whereas the Latin vulgate mostly used “rhinoceros” and used “unicorn” only in the Psalms.  It’s clear that they did at least attempt some consistency.  So this is perhaps mainly intended to deflect captious criticism.

Lastly, we have on the one side avoided the scrupulosity of the Puritans, who leave the old Ecclesiastical words, and betake them to other, as when they put “washing” for “baptism”, and “congregation” instead of “Church”: as also on the other side we have shunned the obscurity of the Papists, in their azymes, tunike, rational, holocausts, prepuce, pasche, and a number of such like, whereof their late translation is full, and that of purpose to darken the sense, that since they must needs translate the Bible, yet by the language thereof it may be kept from being understood. But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.

Here we see a conscious decision not to depart from the ecclesiastical language that had grown up over the centuries.  Opinions on this may vary, of course.


Did King James issue instructions to the bible translators to change the text to hide his own sins?

An interesting discussion on twitter led me to a man who roundly asserted that King James I issued a list of instructions to the translators of the King James version of the bible, with an eye to getting his own sins omitted from it.  It sounded quite improbable.  In fact it is complete nonsense; but it drew my attention to the matter.

The King James Version or KJV has long been obsolescent and is now little used in England.  In some ways this is rather a pity; but it is now quite unfit for daily use by any other than antiquarians.  But it stands forever as a classic of the English language.

In 2005 Cambridge printed a version of the KJV, edited by David Norton, who also produced a book on the subject, his A Textual History of the King James Bible.  Norton inevitably emphasises that the “original” 1611 edition has become changed in little ways as the centuries have passed; for, of course, he was producing his own edition.  But the book contains much interesting information.

We know only a little about how the KJV was made.  King James did not, of course, supervise the work personally, deputising to Bancroft, Bishop of London.  But we do have three copies of a set of rules which seem to have been circulated among the translators.  These are extant in manuscript.  Norton tells us that British Library Add. 28721, fol. 24r; BL Harley 750; and BL Egerton 2884 fol. 6r contain the text.  The first two omit rule 15, suggesting that it was an afterthought.  Here is the text as he gives it, modernised from BL Add. 28721:

1. The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops’ Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit.
2. The names of the prophets, and the holy writers, with the other names in the text, to be retained, as near as may be, accordingly as they are vulgarly used.
3. The old ecclesiastical words to be kept, viz.: as the word ‘Church’ not to be translated ‘Congregation’ etc.
4. When a word hath diverse significations, that to be kept which hath been most commonly used by the most of the Ancient Fathers, being agreeable to the propriety of the place, and the Analogy of Faith.
5. The division of the chapters to be altered either not at all, or as little as may be, if necessity so require.
6. No marginal notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek words, which cannot without some circumlocution so briefly and fitly be expressed in the text.
7. Such quotations of places to be marginally set down as shall serve for fit reference of one Scripture to another.
8. Every particular man of each company to take the same chapter or chapters, and having translated or amended them severally by himself where he think good, all to meet together, confer what they have done, and agree for their part what shall stand.
9. As one company hath dispatched any one book in this manner, they shall send it to the rest to be considered of seriously and judiciously, for His Majesty is very careful for this point.
10. If any company, upon the review of the book so sent, shall doubt or differ upon any place, to send them word thereof, note the place and withal send their reasons, to which if they consent not, the difference to be compounded at the general meeting, which is to be of the chief persons of each company, at the end of the work.
11. When any place of especial obscurity is doubted of, letters to be directed by authority to send to any learned man in the land for his judgement of such a place.
12. Letters to be sent from every Bishop to the rest of his clergy, admonishing them of this translation in hand, and to move and charge as many as being skilful in the tongues have taken pains in that kind, to send his particular observations to the company, either at Westminster, Cambridge or Oxford.
13. The directors in each company to be the Deans of Westminster and Chester for that place, and the King’s Professors in the Hebrew and Greek in each University.
14. These translations to be used where they agree better with the text than the Bishops’ Bible, viz.: Tyndale’s. Matthew’s. Coverdale’s. Whitchurch’s. Geneva.
15. Besides the said directors before mentioned, three or four of the most ancient and grave divines, in either of the universities not employed in the translating, to be assigned by the Vice-Chancellors, upon conference with the rest of the heads, to be overseers of the translations as well Hebrew as Greek, for the better observation of the fourth rule above specified.

These rules were not followed rigidly, but contain much good sense.  The “Bishop’s Bible” was in general use; the Puritans wanted to use the Geneva edition, which contained much anti-monarchical material in its notes, and translated words like ecclesia as “congregation” rather than “church”.

The translators then did not want any of this new-fangled nonsense.  Instead they wanted a bible which was not radically different from what had gone before.

This was very sound thinking, in practice if not in theory.  It is entirely possible to produce a bible which is quite uninspired, at least in a literary sense, and no more than a collection of printed pages.  Anybody who has encountered the old “New English Bible” will know what I am talking about.

Norton also tells us that:

… one of the translators, Samuel Ward, gave an account of the work to the Synod of Dort (20 November 1618). The account includes specimens of the rules, beginning with a paraphrase of rules 1, 2 and 6, and then, as if they were rules, moves on to the following matters of practice.

He then quotes an abbreviated version, which he references to “Pollard, p. 142”, i.e. Pollard, A. W., ed., The Holy Bible. A Facsimile in a Reduced Size of the Authorized Version Published in the Year 1611. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1911.[1]

Pollard is online here.  The opening 142 pages reprint a great collection of useful primary documents relating to the creation of the English bible from 1525 to 1611.  The material from the Synod of Dort is given in the original Latin and in English:

The theologians of Great Britain offered a written explanation of the design and plan in accordance with which the business of the very accurate English version was instituted by the most Serene King James, of what plan was observed in distributing the work, and what rules were laid down for the translators ; with the intent that any points which might be judged useful to us might be taken from it.  A copy of this document is subjoined.

Method which the English Theologians followed in the version of the Bible.

The theologians of Great Britain, unwilling to give a sudden and unconsidered answer to so important a question, considered it their duty to hold an early consultation, and since honourable mention has been made of the very accurate English translation lately set forth, with great care and at great expense, by the most Serene King James, to notify to this numerously attended Synod the design and plan with which this sacred business was furnished by his most Serene Majesty.

Firstly, in the distribution of the work he willed this plan to be observed: the whole text of the Bible was distributed into six sections, and to the translation of each section there were nominated seven or eight men of distinction, skilled in languages.

Two sections were assigned to certain London theologians; the four remaining sections were equally divided among the theologians of the two Universities.

After each section had finished its task twelve delegates, chosen from them all, met together and reviewed and revised the whole work.

Lastly, the very Reverend the Bishop of Winchester, Bilson, together with Dr. Smith, now Bishop of Gloucester, a distinguished man, who had been deeply occupied in the whole work from the beginning, after all things had been maturely weighed and examined, put the finishing touch to this version.

The rules laid down for the translators were of this kind :

In the first place caution was given that an entirely new version was not to be furnished, but an old version, long received by the Church, to be purged from all blemishes and faults ; to this end there was to be no departure from the ancient translation, unless the truth of the original text or emphasis demanded.

Secondly, no notes were to be placed in the margin, but only parallel passages to be noted.

Thirdly, where a Hebrew or Greek word admits two meanings of a suitable kind, the one was to be expressed in the text, the other in the margin. The same to be done where a different reading was found in good copies.

Fourthly, the more difficult Hebraisms and Graecisms were consigned to the margin.

Fifthly, in the translation of Tobit and Judith, when any great discrepancy is found between the Greek text and the old vulgate Latin they followed the Greek text by preference.

Sixthly, that words which it was anywhere necessary to insert into the text to complete the meaning were to be distinguished by another type, small roman.

Seventhly, that new arguments should be prefixed to every book, and new headings to every chapter.

Lastly, that a very perfect Genealogy and map of the Holy Land should be joined to the work.

All very interesting indeed.  The royal backing for the KJV is naturally emphasised.  But what we see, in fact, is a cautious and conservative approach, resisting innovation.

The outcome of all this was the standard English bible for 400 years.

I’d like to end with a word about the context of all this.

The original tweeter was not truly interested in any of this.  Rather he intended his readers to suppose a theological claim: that the KJV was not inspired by God.

It is a very common thing to encounter arguments of this sort: that claim to be historical, but where the intention is to insinuate a theological claim that won’t bear examination.  The claim is usually a strawman, something that no Christian actually believes.  It’s always worth trying to get the insinuated claim out into the open for scrutiny.

In this case the insinuated claim is something like “human beings decided the exact words of the KJV, and some of them were wicked men, therefore this proves that your God” – said with a sneer – “did not inspire the bible”.

Basically the claimant is asserting that he knows what an inspired bible “must” look like.  It must fall from the sky, written on tablets of gold, or something.  No human hand may be involved in any way.

A cynical man might ask how the claimant knows this.  This is a statement about God; so how does he know? did he get a prophecy that tells him this?

But this claim is not what Christians believe about the scripture.  It is merely a strawman, designed to require something that does not exist and never did exist.  Jesus himself talked about the rolls of the law as inspired; but these were written by men.  However divine inspiration works, it can certainly cope with spelling mistakes, human error, and all the business of living in an imperfect world.  If it could not, it could not exist.

The claim is not that the bible is not inspired, but a theological claim that inspired books are impossible in an imperfect world.  This won’t do.

  1. [1]Norton p.366, where the date of publication is amusingly given as 1611, not 1911.