Dragons are mentioned in the Bible many times, especially in the oldest English translations. Like giants, unicorns, satyrs and cockatrices these are not mythological creatures. I believe, the notion that they are mythological stems from two sources. One is the assumption, born from disbelief, that the Bible is not an accurate record of either history nor of science. The second is related to the first, that evolution is a fact, and therefore the only possible candidate for real dragons, dinosaurs, must be ruled out because “as everyone knows the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago and therefore could not have lived in recent times with mankind.” I have already examined the claim that giants are mythological. Here I will examine the claim that dragons are mythological. (Others will be examined in future articles).
Nowadays atheist skeptics use the mythology of the dragon-slayer in their attempts to discredit belief in the Bible. For example,1
“We tend to think of tales of dragons as mere fairy stories, but they were once integral to the Christian faith, and featured heavily in factual accounts of the lives of saints, including the prime authority on them, The Golden Legend.”
“In medieval times people gave credence to the dozens of saints who owed their position to the slaying of dragons. These huge damsel-eating, fire-breathing, scaly, flying creatures seem a little improbable now, even to the most devout Christians. But these stories were not originally presented as figurative. They were presented as factual, and were to be interpreted literally.”
I am convinced the Roman Catholic Church, as it rose to political power during the 4th and 5th centuries, developed bogus methods to delude the populace into their counterfeit religion. So it is no wonder that such practices continued for the following thousand of years or more. That is an indictment not on the veracity of the Bible but on the deceptiveness of the corrupt heart of man.
The dragons described in these stories–St. George and the dragon, for example–are usually depicted as breathing out fire. The skeptics would argue that that is further evidence to the falsehood of the tales. But I believe that it can been argued that even such stories have some basis in actual fact. Stories abound in such forms.
Various lines of evidence exist today where civilisations accepted dragons as real creatures. The Chinese use a 12-year calendar system that use 11 well-known ordinary animals (i.e. pig, horse, dog etc) but the twelfth is a dragon. Why use one mythological creature? Could it be that the use developed at a time when dragons were well known and over time (like all myths) dragons took on a life of their own as people, who had no direct personal knowledge, propagated the stories?
One line of evidence is the bowls made in China for more than 2000 years, called censer bowls. Any internet search will quickly give you many examples of these adorned with typical dragon figures. See Fig. 2.
A censer is a bowl made to hold burning incense, often crafted from bronze, copper, porcelain, or stone. The first Chinese vessels designed specifically for burning incense appeared during the Western Han Dynasty, from 206 BC to 8 AD. By this time, ancient bowls like the ceramic dou or three-legged bronze ding had been adapted as vessels to hold ceremonial offerings, and eventually became the prototypes for incense holders.2
The Emperors of China once used dragons ceremoniously.
“The Censer Dragons, of course, are depicted everywhere in Chinese culture. But these are only legendary creatures, some will say. No, not at all. Later depictions of dragons, to be sure, contained fanciful elements, because they were drawn by people who did not see dragons themselves but had only heard about them from others or from historical sources. But dragons did live contemporaneously with humans in the history of ancient China. Dragons are written about in ancient Chinese annals, and not as imaginary creatures, but as real live animals. It is known from Chinese history that certain parts and fluids of dragons were used for medicines. And one historical account even mentions a Chinese family that bred dragons to be used to pull the Royal Chariot during Imperial processions!”3
Not only Chinese history, but even Chinese sayings and the Chinese lunar calendar, make it clear that the Chinese have traditionally regarded dragons as real creatures.
There are many writings, historical accounts, where dragons are mentioned as a matter of fact.
“When the army of Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) went through India, they went to see a dragon living in a cave, which the Indians worshiped as a god, bringing it sacrificial food. This is only one of many historical accounts of dragons from places in the world other than China. One of the Holy Fathers of the Church, St. John Damascene (A.D. 674–750), wrote of dragons as actual creatures that still existed in his time in small numbers.”3
All of these writings were from a time before a general belief in evolution had developed. Also people who believed dragons, as a matter of fact, had no reason to doubt the stories of their ancestors, because they were not being told that they were just fairy tales.
Only in the last two hundred years has any truth basis in these stories been disputed. No doubt such stories have been greatly embellished over time but there are several good books/videos available now that provide ample evidence of dragon-like creatures having existed with man over the past few thousand years. One such book, which I recommend, is “Untold Secrets of Planet Earth: Dire Dragons,” a compilation by Vance Nelson4 of photographs depicting dragons from many places around the earth.
One example from the book (Fig. 4) are the depiction of dragons in the brass relief work in Carlisle Castle, England. The castle is a Cathedral built in 1122 A.D. and has had regular church services conducted there for nearly 900 years. Bishop Richard Bell was buried in the floor of the Cathedral in 1496 A.D.. His tomb was decorated at that time with elaborate engravings of animals, such as a bat, dogs, fish, a bird, a fox, a pig and others, yet two animals depicted look like nothing alive today. The best description you could give them is some sauropod dinosaur.4,5 Note the horns in the tail (left-hand side of Fig. 4). None of this information would have been known in 1496, long before any of those type of dinosaur fossils were discovered.
On a Cambodian temple of Angkor, about 800 years old, was found this depiction of what could be none other than a Stegosaur.6 See Fig. 5. The growth of the patina in the surface layers of the stone structure validates the ancient age of the carving. The fact that such an image was used long before any fossils of these animals were discovered illustrates the credibility of such a discovery.
So the argument could be made that ancient depictions and stories of dragons have had a basis in fact, a basis in real history and that man and these creatures once lived contemporaneously. Over time, as their numbers depleted, stories were embellished, and have become more fanciful, but the carvings and illustrations we find tend to look very much like what various dinosaurs would have looked like, from recent reconstructions made using their fossils. And as we know some of the fossils resemble creatures with wings, such as the pterosaurs, which include the Pteranodon, and Rhamphorhynchus. And some researchers feel the Thunderbird myth of the American indians may have originated from sightings of a real-life flesh-and-blood birdlike creatures, like pterosaurs, from earlier times.
Dragons in the Bible
In Job 40:15-24, God calls Job’s attention to his greatness by reminding him that He created the great and powerful creatures of the earth. And the land creature that God mentions is בְּהֵמוֹת (behemoth, an untranslated Hebrew word), which has a tail like a cedar tree (Job 40:17) and eats grass like an ox (Job 40:15). This biblical description of the behemoth matches none other than a sauropod dinosaur, the herbivore type. Also in Job 41 again God shows His greatness where we find mention of לִויָתָן (leviathan, also an untranslated Hebrew word). Leviathan has one feature that behemoth doesn’t and that is, it seemed to have breathed out fire.
Job 41:19-21 Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out. 20 Out of his nostrils goes smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron. 21 His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes out of his mouth.
So it is not so much imagination but a real fact that fire-breathing dragons once existed and that the folklore we read of today is based on real history. The bombardier beetle has the ability to chemically make a fiery hot mixture and blast that out of his rear end to ward off his enemies.7 So why not also in some extinct dinosaurs?
The Hebrew words behemoth and leviathan have been left untranslated in many translations because of the uncertainty in the meanings of those words. But some English Bible translations render the Hebrew word leviathan as ‘crocodile'(Job 41:1 (SLT, EBR)) and make suggestions in the footnotes like ‘hippopotomus’ or ‘elephant’ (Job 41:1 NIV). Some other language translations also have done the same (Job 41:1 – ‘Krokodil’ German Schlachterbibel 1951; ‘crocodile’ French Louis Segond (LSG) 1910; ‘coccodrillo’ Italian Nuova Riveduta 1994 (NR1994)). But to render it as ‘crocodile’ because it is ‘the dragon that is in the sea‘ (Isaiah 27:1, KJV), the translator would have to have been influenced by evolutionary thinking. See discussion on Isaiah 27:1 below.
Sir Richard Owen (Fig. 6) was Britain’s foremost expert in comparative anatomy and was the first person to realize that these creatures, as found in the fossil record, were a distinctive group of previously unknown reptiles. While everyone now accepts this conclusion, it is less well known today that Owen opposed Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution on scientific grounds.8
The word ‘dinosaur’ was not coined until 1841. The term ‘dinosauria’ (from the Greek δεινός (deinos) ‘terrible’ + σαῦρος (sauros) ‘lizard’) was made famous by the British anatomist and palaeontologist. He first used the word at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Plymouth, in 1841. Therefore the word could not have appeared in any English translations of the Bible before that date.
The following is from a search of the relevant words that could nowadays been translated as some sort of dinosaur. Many are used in symbolic language of fierce rulers and kingdoms but that only illustrates the power of these animals as natural beasts.
The word for ‘dragon’ in the Hebrew Bible is תַּנִּין (tannin), which has the meaning (in the Mickelson’s Enhanced Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary) of a marine or land monster. It is sometimes translated as ‘sea-serpent’, ‘crocodile’ or even ‘jackal’. But there seems to have been a confusion between two Hebrew words: תנין (tannin) and תַנִּים (tannim).9 Translating it as ‘whale’ (KJV) in Genesis 1:21 is at least consistent with a marine monster, but is nothing like a ‘jackal’ or ‘crocodile’.
A search of the word ‘dragon’ in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible (published in 1611) yields the following.
Psalm 91:13 You shall tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shall you trample under feet.
The dragon is compared to an adder which is a snake, a reptile, with which God often compares Satan. The verse speaks of God’s power being given to the faithful to overcome the power of Satan, the dragon.
Isaiah 51:9 Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Are you not it that has cut [destroyed] Rahab [i.e. Egypt], and wounded the dragon?
The dragon and the serpent are used is reference to the devil, Satan, the evil lord of this world. This verse is a reference to Pharaoh king of Egypt, and because of his fierceness and cruelty. See Ezekiel 29:3 a reference to Pharaoh as a great dragon. It is interpreted as Pharaoh and his army, who were strong as a dragon.
Also God speaks against the ancient king of Babylon in Jeremiah 51:34. Both Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar (king of Babylon) are likened to Satan as ruler of the world.
Isaiah 27:1b … leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.”
This connects dragon to leviathan and to serpent, which is a reptile. Leviathan is also found in several verses which describe a water-dwelling scaly dinosaur like creature (Job 41:1; Psalm 74:14, 104:26; Isaiah 35:7).
Other verses are Job 30:29; Psalm 74:13, 148:7; Isaiah 34:13, 43:20; Jeremiah 9:11, 14:6, 49:33, 51:37; Micah 1:8. Many of these verses refer to the dwelling place of dragons as a desolate place. Maybe they would hide in caves and desolate places to avoid man. The rest of the Bible verses, which use the word ‘dragon,’ are found in the book of the Revelation (Revelation 12:3,4,7,9,13,16,17; 13:2,4,11; 16:13; 20:2). These are all a symbolic references to the power of Satan on Earth in his control of the rulers of the final kingdoms.
And that same mighty arm of the LORD that destroyed Egypt, and its tyrannical king (Isaiah 51:9), can and will destroy that great city, spiritually called Sodom and Egypt (Revelation 11:8), the papal Roman Empire, the final kingdom of prophecy, and the beast that has two horns like a lamb, but who speaks like a dragon (Revelation 13:11), the false prophet, and to whom the dragon has given his seat, power, and authority (Revelation 13:2).
The final kingdom in two forms, one pagan (Revelation 12:3,9) and one papal (Revelation 13:3), is represented by the great red dragon. This is studied in detail elsewhere,10 but what better illustration of a beast than some fierce dinosaur?
The final kingdom of Revelation led by the AntiChrist is a kingdom that has evolved out of pagan Rome and into papal Rome, which has extended its control into all the nations of the world. That final beast (Revelation 13:1,2) is represented by a beast with 7 heads and 10 horns with crowns. The 3 world kingdoms preceding Rome are represented in the one animal with 7 heads.
In Revelation 13:2 the kingdom of Babylon is represented by the lion’s mouth, Medo-persia by bear’s feet, and Greece by the body of a leopard. This must mean 3 additional kingdoms were added to this final kingdom (forming the composite beast) which I believe is an indication of papal Rome consolidating its power after the 4th century A.D.. This all represents Rome (both pagan and papal forms) as a fierce beast that is the worst of them all. But note, as shown in Fig. 7, you could illustrate this final beast using the attributes that the prophet Daniel was shown about these other 3 kingdoms (as a lion, a bear and a 4-headed leopard). See Daniel 7:1-7. Add these 6 heads to the dragon head and you get a seven-headed beast.
If the first 3 animals are real animals (lion, bear and leopard) then what is the dragon? I suggest it was a dinosaur that was alive at the time of Daniel, or at least was known to them at the time. God used Daniel’s knowledge to show him how fierce this final kingdom would be and so used a fourth real animal in the illustration, possibly a 10-horned Ceratops (Fig. 7).
Finally, let’s look at a few more KJV verses.
Isaiah 14:29 Rejoice not you, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote you is broken: for out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent.
Isaiah 30:6a The burden of the beasts of the south: into the land of trouble and anguish, from whence come the young and old lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent, … .
In both of these verses the Hebrew word translated ‘fiery serpent’ is שָׂרָף (saraph), which literally means ‘burning’. Many English translations render it as ‘fiery flying serpent’ but some translations render it as a ‘darting adder’ (NET), a ‘darting venomous serpent’ (NIV), a ‘burning winged snake’ (BBE), a ‘dragon volant’ (the French LSG 1910). But the Hebrew indicates it flew because the Hebrew word translated ‘flying’ is עוּף (`uwph), which means ‘to cover with wings’. Most logically this animal was a flying reptile of some sort, one of the pterosaurs, and possibly with the ability to breath out hot gases like leviathan.
Then there is the cockatrice, which according to dictionary.com has the meaning of,
- a legendary monster with a deadly glance, supposedly hatched by a serpent from the egg of a cock, and commonly represented with the head, legs, and wings of a cock and the body and tail of a serpent.
- a venomous serpent. (Isaiah 11:8)
In Isaiah 14:29 and 11:8 the Hebrew word צֶּפַע (tsepha`) has the meaning of ‘a viper’, a snake. Quite obviously the legendary definition can be discounted and only the definition of the venomous snake considered, because that is the meaning of the Hebrew word. From the image shown in Fig. 8 it can be seen as a mosaic or a chimera, which most probably developed as a blend between a serpent, a rooster and a dinosaur of some type.
Considering that the word ‘dinosaur’ was not coined until 1841 and that the early English Bible translations were made several hundred years prior to this date, it is no wonder that the word ‘dragon’ was used by the translators. It is an appropriate choice, and even more so when you consider the comparison made to the fierce animals in Bible prophecy in the books of Daniel and the Revelation.
So don’t let the mention of dragons in the Bible affect your faith in the historical accuracy of the Bible. They are not mythological.
- Miracles, badnewsaboutchristianity.com, accessed July 5, 2016.
- Antique Chinese Censers, collectorsweekly.com
- Ancient Chinese History in Light of the Book of Genesis, by Hieromonk Damascene
- V. Nelson, Untold Secrets of Planet Earth: Dire Dragons, Untold Secrets of Planet Earth Publishing Company, Inc. 2012.
- P. Bell, Bishop Bell’s brass behemoths!, Creation 25(4):40–44, September 2003.
- D. Catchpoole, Angkor saw a stegosaur?, Creation 29(4):56, September 2007; J. O’Brien and S. Doyle, Did Angkor really see a dinosaur?, Creation 35(2):41–43, April 2013.
- How bombardier beetles bomb, YouTube. Don’t be deceived by the evolutionary spin put on these living insects, which have always been insects.
- R. Grigg, Dinosaurs and dragons: stamping on the legends, Creation 14(3):10–14, June 1992.
- Tannin is the singular form of a creature like a serpent or dragon (either land- or sea-dwelling). The plural form is tanninim as used in Genesis 1:21 where it is rendered “sea creatures” (NKJV, ESV), “sea monsters” (NASB), “whales” (KJV)). But tannim is the plural form of tan (jackal), hence quite a different Hebrew word.
- See my Bible studies on the chapters of the book of the Revelation here. Particularly look at Revelation chapters 11-18.