Unicorns and the KJV

by Rick Norris

Are the renderings "unicorn" or "unicorns" in the KJV the best and most accurate translation of the Hebrew? These renderings are found in the KJV nine times: Numbers 23:22, 24:3, Deuteronomy 33:17, Job 39:9, 29, Psalm 22:21, 29:6, 92:10, and Isaiah 34:7. The 1611 KJV has the following note in the margin at Isaiah 34:7: "Or, rhinoceros." These renderings seem to be the result of the influence of the Greek Septuagint, which used "monokeros," and the Latin Vulgate, which used "unicornis" or "rhinoceros."

Do the Hebrew words thus translated in the KJV actually refer to an one-horned animal? Concerning the word "unicorn," the 1895 Sunday School Teachers' Bible (KJV) pointed out: "The LXX translation has passed into our A.V., but is erroneous, as the mention of two horns on one reem (Deut. 33:17) proves." The unabridged WEBSTER'S NEW TWENIETH CENTURY DICTIONARY noted at its entry "unicorn": "in the Bible [KJV], a two-horned, oxlike animal called reem in Hebrew: Deut. 33:17." M'Clintock also observed that this text"puts an one-horned animal entirely out of the question" and that one of its scriptural characteristics is "having two horns" (CYCLOPAEDIA, X, p. 638). UNGER'S BIBLE DICTIONARY also noted that "the reem had more than one horn" (p. 66). The earlier English Bibles (Wycliffe's, Tyndale's, Coverdale's, Matthew's, Great, Taverner's, Geneva, and Bishops') all had "unicorn" [singular] at Deuteronomy 33:17. In his 1848 Bible (KJV) and Commentary, Adam Clarke wrote: "'Reem' is in the singular number, and because the horns of an unicorn, an one- horned animal, would have appeared absurb, our [KJV] translators, with an unfaithfulness not common to them, put the word in the plural number" (I, p. 834).

The context at Deuteronomy 33:17 also supports the view that this animal had more than one horn. William Houghton wrote: "The two horns of the reem are 'the ten thousands of Ephraim and the thousands of Manasseh'--the two tribes which sprang from one, i.e. Joseph, as two horns from one head" (SMITH'S DICTIONARY OF THE BIBLE, p. 3351).

In his commentary on Job, Henry Morris stated: "The Hebrew word translated unicorn in this and other passages is believed by most Hebrew scholars to refer to the huge and fierce aurochs or wild ox, which inhabited the Middle East and other regions but is now extinct" (p. 107). W. L. Alexander wrote: "The reem is supposed to be the aurochs, an animal of the bovine species, allied to the buffalo, now extinct" (THE PULPIT COMMENTARY, III, p. 537). UNGER'S BIBLE DICTIONARY noted that this Hebrew word "most certainly denotes the 'wild ox,' for the cognate word in Akkadian 'rimu' has this meaning" (p. 66). Charles Spurgeon wrote: "The unicorn may have been some gigantic ox or buffalo now unknown and perhaps extinct" (TREASURY OF DAVID, II, p. 119). William Houghton concluded: "Considering, therefore, that the reem is spoken of as a two-horned animal of great strength and ferocity, that it was evidently well known and often seen by the Jews, that is it mentioned as an animal fit for sacrifical purposes, and that it is frequently associated with bulls and oxen, we think there can be no doubt that some species of wild ox is intended" (SMITH'S DICTIONARY OF THE BIBLE, p. 3352). This Hebrew word is translated "wild ox" at Deuteronomy 33:17 in the English translations by Jews such as their HOLY SCRIPTURES ACCORDING TO THE MASORETIC TEXT and TANAKH.

Considering this evidence and the meaning of the Hebrew word "reem," does the KJV have the best and most accurate translation of this word? Would not a perfect translation have the most accurate and best translation of every Hebrew or Greek word in God's preserved Word? Can it be proven that the KJV is better, more accurate, and clearer in every verse than every other English translation? It takes only one example of a clearer, more accurate, or better rendering in another English translation to prove that the KJV is not a perfect translation. The truth will not harm the KJV. On the other hand, misleading and extreme claims by many KJV defenders that cannot be proven will harm the KJV.