Posted by skiutah on Sunday, July 13, 2008
I’m reading 2 Nephi 24:29. Nephi is discussing some of Isaiah’s prophecies. One of Nephi’s words is translated by JS into “cockatrice“. The meaning of that word is “legendary creature, hatched by a reptile, from a cock’s egg, having a cock’s head and a lizard’s tail.”
“Cockatrice” entered the English language in the 14th century. When the King James translators were translating the Bible into English, they needed to translate a word that would nowadays be translated as “viper” or “venomous serpent”. The KJ translators used the word “cockatrice” because it was in common use in England at that time. Using “cockatrice” was okay for the KJ translators, but doesn’t work well in other time periods.
Cockatrice isn’t easily explained away like other BOM anachronisms such as horse, chariot, synagogue, sword, steel, sheep, adieu, glass, wheat, barley, and so on. These words can be explained as the closest words that JS could translate into English in America in the 1800s.
Recently Danna posted the following question on MAAD the resulting debate was interesting to say the least, may even give me some ideas for another posting. I thought Danna did a wonderful job with the Cockatrice problem and would like to add it to SkiUtah’s orginal post.
“Critics and apologists alike acknowledge numerous anachronisms in the BoM, and for the vast majority, apologists are able to introduce a potentially ‘plausible’ explanation. Usual explanations are loan-shifting (e.g. horses), or translation of a defined concept into 19th century vernacular (thus Isaiah’s ‘heleyl’, mopologized as a double reference to the king of Babylon and the devil, ends up as ‘Lucifer’ in the BoM – in spite of ‘Lucifer’ being a Vulgate/KJV error).
There is one particularly interesting anachronism in the BoM. I think it is interesting because there is no way to loanshift or double-reference out of it. The cockatrice is a supernatural chimera with evil super-powers, a rooster with a serpent’s tail, poisonous breath, and in some references, a gaze which turns a watcher to stone. The cockatrice appears in the BoM and in Isaiah in the KJV at: Isaiah 11:8/2Nephi 21:8/2Nephi 30:14; Isaiah 14:29/2Nephi 24:29.
The word cockatrice derives from a 12th century French re-translation of Pliny (apparently originally describing little birds cleaning a crocodile’s teeth) which was anglicised to Cockatrice. Not knowing what creature was referred to, Brits took the word and imagined their own monster for it, a rooster with a serpent’s tail, which had poisonous breath (Pliny’s natural history got somewhat scrambled). There was subsequently a rash of Cockatrice sightings across Britain, and the Cockatrice became a heraldic creature, later on linked to the Basilisk (which was originally an all serpent concept, but gained its rooster’s head at about the same time the cockatrice appeared).
The cockatrice was popular during the Elizabethan period in dramas and beastiaries up till soon after the KJV was translated, and that is possibly why it is found in several places in the KJV, as a mistranslation of the original Hebrew word(s) for “serpent” of some natural kind. In the 17th century natural science became more, well, natural, and the Cockatrice was excluded from natural histories and basically dropped out of fashion. The word essentially disappeared from the language, EXCEPT for the KJV (and eventually re-emerging in ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ where I became fascinated with it).
So why would JS use the word cockatrice in the BoM? Isaiah meant “hissing serpent”. There would be no problems for Nephi translating it into reformed Egyptian, or even Mormon abridging it – snakes are snakes in Egypt, Jerusalem, and in America – even with the supposed limited reformed Egyptian vocabulary (where ‘horse’ includes any animal with 4 legs, big enough to sit on). The very concept postdates both Isaiah and the Nephites. There would be no problems for JS translating “hissing serpent” into 19th century vernacular either. Cockatrice was geographically limited and archaic, and only locally mentioned in the KJV.
‘Potentially plausible’ explanations may allow one to (very barely) excuse the BoM appearances of the KJV words Satyr (for “shaggy goat”), and Dragon (for jackal or hyena). There are tiny and credibility stretchingly remote possibilities that these concepts could have been known to Nephi, Mormon, or JS and considered more apt for a broader metaphysical interpretation of Isaiah’s actual description of physical abandonment of a city. Or whatever.
But I see no grounds whatsoever for finding cockatrices in the BoM. OK. Maybe the reformed Egyptian word for ‘Snake’ means “tastes like chicken”, hence the confusion.
As for the scenario, originally put forward by B. H. Roberts, that during translation, when JS realised that a section of the BoM was essentially the same as the KJV, he simply copied the KJV to save time, I don’t think it can hold as a mopologetic argument these days, we now more detail on the specific translation processes used during production of the BoM. Sperry had a similar argument to B. H. Roberts in 1967:
“…199 verses are word for word the same as the old English version. We therefore freely admit that Joseph Smith may have used the King James version when he came to the text of Isaiah on the gold plates. As long as the familiar version agreed substantially with the text on the gold plates, he let it pass; when it differed too radically he translated the Nephite version and dictated the necessary changes.” (Sperry, ref below)
This might be an option if JS were sitting at a table, with the BoM and a KJV both open side by side in front of him (as Sperry probably assumed), wearing the interpreters as spectacles. But, it doesn’t make sense for JS to switch to the BoM if he were translating as reported – either line by line or word by word from the peepstone in his hat. Surely it would take longer and no sense at all to read out the translation, have Oliver repeat it back, then compare with the KJV to see if it were the same or not, then copy the KJV. It would be easier for Oliver to just write down the words as JS spoke them. Basically, in order to know that the translation was the same, he had to translate it first – scanning the text was not an option given modern understanding of the production process. Also, 2 of the 3 cockatrice chapters contain other major text changes from the Isaiah of the KJV.
The more recent apologists have dropped the KJV copying argument. Tvedtnes’ analysis of Isaiah in the BoM is quite clear that JS translated these portions, using KJV language (explaining both similarities and differences) rather than copied them:
“It has long been my contention that the best scientific evidence for the Book of Mormon is not archaeological or historical in nature, as important as these may be, but rather linguistic. This is because we have before us a printed text which can be subjected to linguistic analysis and comparison with the language spoken in the kingdom of Judah at the time of Lehi.” (Tvedtnes, ref below)
Allred’s analysis for FAIR makes the same assumption – that JS translated from ancient texts rather than plagiarised the KJV. Allowing for plagiarism opens up a huge can of worms – massive, massive, chunks of LDS doctrine are reliant on the translation of one other word in 2 Nephi Chapter 24 – the same chapter as the second cockatrice. (That word is ‘Lucifer’, mentioned above). The appearance of Lucifer and cockatrice in the same chapter compounds the problem of the cockatrice, and casts doubt on the standard apologist explanation of the appearance of Lucifer.
The Jewish Masoretic Text Isaiah and the Great Isaiah Scroll from Qumran do not refer to the word or concept of cockatrice. The words used by both of these Jewish texts are Hebrew for ‘hissing serpent’. The intended concept is clear and it is a ‘natural kind’ recognised on all continents ~ poisonous snake.
It is not possible that any sort of conceptual contamination occurred (somehow) from the Septuagint, written in the third century BCE. Although the Greek translation used the word ‘basiliskos’ (as well as aspis), the basilisk at that time was just a lethally poisonous but normal snake, probably derived from the Egyptian cobra. The basilisk did morph into the supernatural chimera concept circa the 12th century when it became linked to the cockatrice – too late to contaminate the BoM.
The Vulgate circa 400CE uses ‘basiliscus’ and ‘regulus’, again, the terms refer strictly to the concept poisonous snake, emphasizing the lethality of the serpent.
So – given that the concept ‘serpent’ does not require loan-shifting when moving from Hebrew to reformed Egyptian to English, the word that JS would have seen on his peepstone should have been ‘serpent’ or ‘snake’. With maybe an appropriate adjective attached at most.
It defies reason to expect that Isaiah’s hissing serpent is more accurately translated as ‘cockatrice’ rather than serpent or snake, or even some actual local American species. Given the minor changes to other phrases (‘ships of the sea’!), this phrase is not insignificant. The 2 Nephi chap 21 story describes how created nature is made safe in the ‘millennium’ – the insertion of a non-existent supernatural monster amongst the wolf, lamb, leopard, kid, calf, lion, cow, bear, lion, and human child is ludicrous. Cockatrice not only substitutes a concept, it is out of context for Isaiah’s story.
The use of the single term ‘cockatrice’ is proof of erroneous, contextually inappropriate, and inexplicable material from the KJV in the BoM. The term is completely incompatible with the assertion that the BoM is an ancient Hebrew-American text.
Alexander, R. McN. The Evolution of the Basilisk. Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 10, No. 2, (Oct., 1963), pp. 170-181
Assorted parrellel bible translations including Septuagint (The Douay-Rheims is an english translation of the Vulgate): http://bible.cc/
Breiner, Laurence A. The Career of the Cockatrice. Isis, Vol. 70, No. 1. (Mar., 1979), pp. 30-47.
Great Isaiah Scroll: http://www.ao.net/~fmoeller/qumdir.htm
Masoretic Text: http://www.qbible.com/#3
Sperry, Sidney B. The ‘Isaiah Problem’ in the Book of Mormon. Answers to Book of Mormon Questions pp 73-97. http://www.shields-research.org/Books/Sperry/Spry_Isa.html
Tvedtnes, John A. http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?id=2&table=transcripts
Vulgate in Latin: http://www.latinvulgate.com/