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Monday, December 29, 2008

Pygmies, Unicorns, Griffon, Basilisk, the Phoenix, Natural History and the "re-interpretation of scripture"

Have you ever read a Bible where the commentary at the bottom of the page said "hippos & elephants" when talking about Job 40:15-24(The Behemoth) and Job 41:1(The leviathan). Did you ever wonder where such people came to such conclusions? It's obvious a hippo doesn't have a tail like a ceder tree. So where did all of this come from? I found something interesting in a book by Dr. Peter Harrison called "The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science". He shows what happened in the 16nth and 17nth centuries.




Pygmies-Ezekiel 27:11

Unicorns-Numbers 23:22; 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17, Job 39:9; Psalms 22:21; 29:6, 92:10, Isaiah 34:7

Griffon-Leviticus 11:13; Deuteronomy 14:12

The Basilisk-Psalms 91:13, Proverbs 23:32; Jeremiah 8:17; Isaiah 59:5

The Phoenix (Septuagint)-Psalm 92:12


In chapter 3(Two reformations, in the section "Aristotle and the encyclopaedias) of the book "The Bible, Protestantism, and the rise of Natural science", Dr. Peter Harrison noted how the Emprical world was eventually used to re-interprete texts.


"The textual bias of this humanist version of natural
history is evident still in the seventeenth century, where it is conspicuous in
the popular digests made by such writers as Topsell, Johnston, and Franzius'
Historiae animalium(1612) is drawn chiefly from scripture, with additional
references to Aristotle, Virgil, and Aelian. Franzius, a Professor of Divinity
at Wittenberg, seems not to have seen an elephant, and if he had, did not see
fit to add his own observations to those of the authorities. He informs the
reader that he begins with the elephant because 'Job in his 40th Chap: maketh
this creature to be the beginning of the wayes of God, or the very first work of
God.' The great size of the creature is inferred from its name (Behema), and
from literary allusions to its tail, its thirst, its teeth, its footprints, and
its 'nose'.

It was not only exotic or rare species which were described
from the works of others. Even the most familiar animals drew their being from
the classics and from scripture. Johnston was a Scot who had made his home in
Poland. In his History of the Nature of Four-Footed Beasts (1678) he pieced
together a description of the horse from Porphyry, Xenophon, Vegetius, Nolanus,
Aristotle, Pliny, Plutarch, Sertorius, Varro, and other authorities. The
compilation of a natural history thus afforded the writer the opportunity to
display the extent of his learning thus afforded the writer the opportunity to
display the extent of his learning. It was not the observation of animals and
plants which counted, but whether all the relevant written sources had been
consulted. This approach accounted for the inclusion in natural histories of
many beats the existence of which, to say the least, was doubtful. True,
Isidore's dogheaded, one-eyed, one-legged, or headless men now rarely appeared.
but in the interests of comprehensiveness, Zoological works commonly carried
descriptions of such fantastic creatures as satyres, unicorns, mermaids,
manticores, gragons, lamias, and griffons. To neglect to mention any animal was
failure of scholarship. From the point of view of the advocate of the new
empirical science of the seventeenth century, such writers of natural history
were mere 'scoliasts and copyists' who 'to the end that their volumes might grow
to the desired bulk, do write and copy all sorts about ever so many things of
which they know naught for certain in the light of experience.' The complaint
seems justified, but is anachronistic. The encyclopaedists did not seek to
provide naked descriptions of living things, based upon observations of nature,
for they saw as an integral part of their task the location of living things
within a broader literary context, a context in which physical description was
merely one element amongst many. Their aim went beyond description to
elucidation.

Natural history, we shall not be surprised to learn,
remained closely associated with the interpretation of scripture. For many, the
landscape in which the creature was to be encountered was still primarily the
sacred page. Stephan Batman wrote in his prologue to the sixteenthcentury
translation of Bartholomew's De propietatibus rerum, that 'all these properties
of things be necessary and of great valew to them that will be desirous to
understand the obscurities or darkness of the holy Scriptures, which are given
to us under figures, under parables & semblance or likelihood of things
naturalls & artificialls.' Wolfgang Franzius informed the readers of his
Historiae animalium that the treatise should be of use and benefit 'not only to
physicians, but also to all scholars, and more especially to Divines,' who will
find it to be 'very useful in sermons' (thus vindicating the view of a later
writer that tomes of natural history ' serve for nothing else but for idle
priests, to make their sermons more gaudy'). Edward Topsell had compiled his
Histories of foure-Footed Beasts (1607) out of Gesner with the laudable
intention of acquainting his readers with all the animals referred to in
Scripture. The Herbal for the Bible (1587) of Levinus Lemnius dealt with the
'Similtudes, Parables, and Metaphores, both in the olde Testament and the Newe,
as are borrowed and taken from Herbs, Plants, Trees, Fruits, and Simples.' One
hundred years later, the Historia vegetabilium sacra (1695) of William
Westmacott provided the same service to readers, discoursing rationally upon
'all the trees, shrubs, herbs, plants, flowers, fruits, &c. mentioned in the
Holy Bible,' as if these plants were somehow possessed of a special status. Such
writers perpetuated the Augustinian tradition according to which the study of
nature was undertaken primarily to assist in the interpretation of the sacred
page.

Scripture also played an important role in preservation of beasts
which might otherwise have been consigned to oblivion. Those sceptical about the
existence of pygmies, unicorns, griffons, the basilisk, and the phoenix needed
only to consult the pages of scripture to have their doubts dismissed.
Additional corroboration often came from equally revered sources. 'The Hebrew
names in Scripture prove Unicorns', declared Topsell, confident that this was
sufficient to silence most sceptics. Indeed, there are no fewer than eight
separate references to unicorns in the Old Testament. A more extended argument
appears in Franzius, who in his section on the unicorn asks first whether they
exist, and second whether they might not be identified with the 'rhinoscerote'.
On the first head he reasons in this fashion: 'the Scripture draweth many
inferences from the nature of this beast, and doth apply them to good men and
bad men, nay even to Christ himself, therefore it must necessarily follow that
there are such creatures as Unicorns'. As to the second question, he concludes
after an examination of the relevant Hebrew words that there are in fact two
distinct creatures-the unicorn with a single horn, and the rhinoscerote with a
large and a small horn. Franzius concludes his discussion of the unicorn by
setting out a complicated strategem for capturing them which involved, amongst
other things, dressing a strong young man in women's clothes clothes and dousing
him liberally with perfume.

If Topsell and Franzius were to argue for
the existence of unicorns on the basis of scriptural references, they needed to
be sure that the relevant Hebrew words actually referred to the unicorn, and not
to some other creature(such as the rhinoceros). At this point, the relevance of
the study of the etymologies of Hebrew words, comparison of biblical texts,
consideration of textual variations, and consultation of rabbinical writings
becomes apparent. At times this would actually lead to the extinction of some
fabulous creature rather than its preservation. Textual and philological studies
could break the presumed corroboration between various ancient sources, or could
show that a particular word had simply been mistranslated. This was particularly
important in those instances in which scripture was presumed to lend support to
ancient testimonies to the existence of mythical creatures. Thomas Browne's
Pseudodoxia Epidemica(1646) contains a number of such analyses, many of which
relyupon the previous work of Aldrovandi and Gesner. Browne thought it doubtful,
for instance, that the men of Tyre had employed pygmies less than eighteen
inches tall to guard their towers, as the book of Ezekiel seemed to suggest. (In
the Latin of the Vulgate the relevant verse reads: pigmaei erant in turribus
tuis'.) Not only would this have been a questionable military tactic, but as
Browne points out, the Latin pygmaei commonly used to sanction their existence
is a translation of the original Hebrew word Gammadim, which 'is very variously
rendred [sic]'. After a consideration of various texts and translations, he
concluded that scriptural evidence for pygmies is doubtful. Similar analyses are
given of biblical references to the griffin, the phoenix, and the unicorn.


Initially, then, the recognition of such distortions in written
authorities did not lead to an appeal to the empirical world. Instead, the
correction of the errors came to be a special work of scholarship, in which
texts were compared, their sources painstakingly identified. Special attention
was paid to the translations of names, to the etymologies of words, and to
likely sources of scribal infelicities. Only gradually did it dawn on scholars
that the empirical world might serve as a standard by which textual accounts of
living things should be judged." [1]





You won't see the word "Unicorn" in your Bible because they translate it as either "Wild Oxen or Wild Beast". But it's there........they just changed the interpretation. I think they should return back to the interpretation of "Unicorn". But that's just me.





JNORM888

[1] pages 74-77 from the book "The Bible, Protestantism, and the rise of natural science" by Dr. Peter Harrison, Cambridge University Press

6 comments:

Pizza Man said...

Interesting, do you know what are some of the passages that refer to unicorns?

I've heard the argument from "young earthers" that the behemoth of Job could have been a dinosaur like a brontosaurus. They sound a lot alike.

I've also heard that some of the apostolic fathers believed in the phoenix, and used it as an analogy to the resurrection.

This kind of stuff fascinates me, but I'm not committed to any view and don't get real worked up about it one way or the other. :)

Pizza Man said...

I looked it up and Clement was the one who wrote about the phoenix. You probably already know that though. :)

Jnorm888 said...

Pygmies-Ezekiel 27:11

Unicorns-Numbers 23:22; 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17, Job 39:9; Psalms 22:21; 29:6, 92:10, Isaiah 34:7

Griffon-Leviticus 11:13; Deuteronomy 14:12

The Basilisk-Psalms 91:13, Proverbs 23:32; Jeremiah 8:17; Isaiah 59:5

The Phoenix (Septuagint)-Psalm 92:12




The pygmy thing, came from a latin translation. But in english what was once interpreted as "unicorn" is now translated as "Wild Oxen" or "Wild Beast".




JNORM888

Lucian said...

The Unicorn is the Rhino. Behemoth is a (very) large (herbivore) land animal. The Leviathan is a (very) large sea-snake or sea-creature (large whale?).

Jnorm888 said...

Lucian,

Thanks for posting, but as was already shown form the post itself:

""Those sceptical about the
existence of pygmies, unicorns, griffons, the basilisk, and the phoenix needed
only to consult the pages of scripture to have their doubts dismissed.
Additional corroboration often came from equally revered sources. 'The Hebrew
names in Scripture prove Unicorns', declared Topsell, confident that this was
sufficient to silence most sceptics. Indeed, there are no fewer than eight
separate references to unicorns in the Old Testament. A more extended argument
appears in Franzius, who in his section on the unicorn asks first whether they
exist, and second whether they might not be identified with the 'rhinoscerote'.
On the first head he reasons in this fashion: 'the Scripture draweth many
inferences from the nature of this beast, and doth apply them to good men and
bad men, nay even to Christ himself, therefore it must necessarily follow that
there are such creatures as Unicorns'. As to the second question, he concludes
after an examination of the relevant Hebrew words that there are in fact two
distinct creatures-the unicorn with a single horn, and the rhinoscerote with a
large and a small horn. Franzius concludes his discussion of the unicorn by
setting out a complicated strategem for capturing them which involved, amongst
other things, dressing a strong young man in women's clothes clothes and dousing
him liberally with perfume.""


Rhino's have two horns, while the Unicorn only has one.

The naturalistic philosophical arguments go back to the 16nth and 17nth centuries......and as seen from your post......they still have influence over western Christians today.





JNORM888

Ken Scherer said...

Great article! I've been studying the Septuagint and the fabulous creatures therein, especially the unicorns, donkey-centaurs, satyrs, and sirens. Check out my article, http://ken-scherer.blogspot.com/2010/06/what-iconoclasts-need-to-know.html. Get this, the LXX & Latin Vulgate mention a donkey-centaur in Isaiah 34:14, but the anti-Xn 1st century MT Hebrew calls it "Lilith" (succubus), & Martin Luther uses the "der Kobold" (Goblin) in his German Bible translation. How can anyone not think Bible study is fun?

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