Friday, August 12, 2016


How could there be? Dragons are mythical or legendary creatures. They constitute the stuff of fantasy and fiction, and are certainly not the material on which history and revealed religion are based—at least that is the prevailing view today. The dragon has a long and widespread tradition in the world.  See, for example,
            Answering the question, "are there dragons in the Bible?" is more complicated than one might suppose, however. It is complicated because translators practice the art of translation differently in rendering ancient words into what they take to be a modern equivalent, and because we must work in two ancient languages Hebrew and Greek. The Hebrew Lexicons indicate the following: Brown, Driver, and Briggs (1st edition 1907) and Gesenius-Robinson (1857) agree in the translation of "land-serpent, dragon" as being appropriate for the following passages: Deuteronomy 32:33; Psalm 91:13; Exodus 7:9, 10, 12; Jeremiah 51:34; Nehemiah 2:13).
            Not all translators acknowledge this information in the seven English translations I checked. The following translations use "dragon" to translate Psalm 91:13, Deuteronomy 32:33: New American Bible; An American Translation (AT). The New American Bible (NAB) and the New English Bible (NEB) render Jeremiah 51:34 with "dragon." The following translations render Nehemiah 2:13 by "dragon": Today's English Version (TEV), New International Version (NIV), NEB, and NAB.  The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) renders the following passages by δράκων (drakōn: dragon, serpent): Deuteronomy 32:33, Psalm 91:13, Exodus 7:9, 10, 12.  Of the translations I checked, except for Nehemiah 2:13, the NIV never used the word "dragon" to translate the ancient Hebrew text. The King James Version translated all passages with "dragon," except for Exodus 7:9, 10, 12.  The NEB translated Isaiah 51:9 using "dragon"; the TEV also used "dragon" for Isaiah 27:1. The NAB used "dragon" in the translation of Psalm 74:13, Isaiah 51:9, Isaiah 27:1, and AT used "dragon" in translating Psalm 74:13, Isaiah 27:1, Isaiah 51:9.
            The word "Dragon" (δράκων) appears in the following passages in the New Testament: Revelation 12:3, 4, 7, 9, 13, 17, 17; 13:2, 4, 11; 16:13; 20:2, where dragon is twice secondarily identified as an  ὄφις, which the lexicon terms a "snake, serpent" (Revelation 12:9; 20:2).  The Latin translation of the Greek text uses draco, which the lexicon identifies as "a sort of serpent, a dragon."
            Is the mythical or fantasy "dragon" actually described in the Bible? The answer is "Yes," and dragons were part of the landscape of nature in antiquity—at least to judge from the writings of some of the best known names of our classical Greco-Roman past, such as Aristotle, Herodotus, and Pliny, as well as others.  Their reports on the nature of the creature, however, were not uniform. The description of the dragon in Philostratus (2nd century CE), the author of The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, is most similar to what we have come to know as the mythical creature. These ancient writers are not describing mythical creatures, however; they are reporting about creatures they claim to know—sometime serpent-like at other times dragon-like. The description of the creature in Revelation, however, is actually something more than simply a snake or a serpent.  It is described as a species of reptile with a tail; snakes do not have tails.  And this creature "stood on the sand of the sea" (Revelation 12:18).  Serpents do not have legs, and hence cannot "stand." This dragon made certain sounds that enabled it to be identified as a dragon (13:11).*
            What do we learn from this information? The lexicographers really didn't know the species of the creature on which they offered translation advice. The ancient classical writers are confident that they are describing actual existing creatures. And there actually are dragons described in the Bible.
            As Oliver Hardy said to the second of the famed comic duo, his partner Stan Laurel, "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!" The Christian and Jewish Bibles, that are thought to report ancient history and are confessed popularly in conservative Christianity as "The Word of God," attest to the actual existence of what we today regard as a mythical and fantasy creature. Archaeologists and geologists, on the other hand, have given us the Pterodactyl and Pterosaur, a type of flying reptile that actually lived during the late Jurassic period (to judge from their petrified skeletons). These creatures, which actually did exist at one time, are not a part of the Biblical record.
            So the "Word of God" (if I may call it that) leads us to a fantasy creature that never existed, but the modern scientific study of the earth gives us historical dragon-like creatures that actually existed. Go figure!
What do you make of dragons in the Bible?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
*The Greek word for "spoke" in Revelation 13:11 can also be used of inarticulate sounds.


  1. Of course there were dragons, Charlie, and dinosaurs as well. You can drive just a few hours east to Kentucky and see the Creation and Noah's Ark museums complete with dinosaurs co-existing with humans. It must be true!


    1. For those of you who do not know Marcia, I should tell you this is a tongue-in-cheek statement!

  2. Hi Charlie,

    How did you interpret the evidence to reach the following conclusion, particularly the phrases, "they are not describing mythical creatures" and " they are reporting about creatures they claim to know"?:

    "These ancient writers are not describing mythical creatures, however; they are reporting about creatures they claim to know—sometime serpent-like at other times dragon-like."

    I found this quote attributed to Dr. Crossan:"We began [with the Enlightenment] to think that ancient peoples ("other" peoples) told dumb, literal stories that we were not smart enough to recognize as such. Not quite. Those ancient people told smart, metaphorical stories that we were now dumb enough to take literally."(A Long Way From Tipearary: A Memoir, Harper: SanFrancisco, 2000. 148).

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. Hi Gene,
      Thanks for the question. My "interpretation" was to note the writer's stated purpose in writing the ancient text and then to read those statements where the author used the Greek or Latin word for "dragon" in its context (Herodotus described winged-serpents). These passages are not metaphor. I will list what I checked below and you can check them for yourself.
      Hesiod, Theogony, 319-23, 824-30;
      Homer, The Illiad, 308-18;
      Herodotus, The Histories, I,75-76;
      Aristotle, The History of Animals, 7.602b.25; 8.609a.4; 8.612a.30;
      Pliny, Natural History, 8.22.61; 29.20.67;
      Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, III, 6-8.

  3. Very interesting!

  4. Hi Charlie,

    I notice that some of the biblical references involve poetic parallelism. Do you think that this phenomenon adds to our ability to determine the meaning of "land serpent, dragon" either as metaphor or objective reality. For example:

    Deut 32:33 (NRSV)
    the poison of serpents
    the cruel venom of asps

    Ps 91:13 (NRSV)
    the lion and the adder
    the young lion and the serpent

    Isaiah 27:1 (NRSV)
    Leviathan the fleeing serpent
    Leviathan the twisting serpent
    and he will kill the dragon

    Ps 74:13 (NRSV)
    broke the heads of the dragons
    crushed the heads of Leviathan

    Isaiah 51:9 (NRSV)
    who cut Rahab in pieces
    who pierced the dragon

    Revelation 20:2 (NRSV)
    he seized the dragon,
    that ancient serpent
    who is the Devil and Satan

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  5. Good Morning, Gene,
    I think that the parallelisms present a problem for the translator, rather than the parallelisms signaling a metaphorical quality to the parallel. A metaphor I take to be a figure of speech likening one thing to another specific (but unlike) thing by speaking of the one as though it were the other. In these cases they are poetically writing about real creatures to intensify their point. For example, in 32:33 (in the Septuagint) the first word in the parallel is rendered as "dragon" in Greek the second word is "asp" (aspis in Greek). Faced with rendering the ancient text by an easily understood parallel in English a modern translator would opt for serpent rather than the mythical reptilian dragon, because it is a better parallel. Revelation 20:2 I do not regard as a poetic parallelism but as an explanatory expansion,