Book of Mormonisms

Did they really say THAT?

Cockatrice Passage

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.

Why would JS translate Isaiah’s word for “viper”, as related by Nephi in 550 B.C., into a 14th century English word for a mythical creature?
 
 
  One explanation could be that JS copied 2 Nephi 24:29 verbatim from the KJ translation of the Bible (Isaiah 14:29)…
book of mormon cockatrice

Book of Mormon Cockatrice

 

 

 

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.

References:

Alexander, R. McN. The Evolution of the Basilisk. Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 10, No. 2, (Oct., 1963), pp. 170-181

Allred, Alma. http://www.fairlds.org/Book_of_Mormon/Bibl…_of_Mormon.html

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/

 

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40 Responses to “Cockatrice Passage”

  1. Bishop Rick said

    Personally, I find most anachronisms hard to explain away. Horse and Chariot is pretty clear cut. Tapir and wagon just don’t cut it.

  2. coventryrm said

    I agree, what blows my mind is all the changes the Church has to make all the explanations, and yet teach that they have the fulness of truth. See my most recent LDS quote, they make these statements when marketing the Church but when challenged, you get well revelation and people aren’t perfect or that was never really doctrine.

  3. SkiUtah said

    I do a bit of horseback riding. I’m just trying to imagine what it would be like to ride around on a tapir. The BOM battle scenes would be different.

    One explanation might be that the BOM occurred in a land not yet discovered, sort of like a “Land of the Lost”. And in that BOM Land of the Lost, there they have horses, chariots, steel, and so on.

  4. coventryrm said

    Or maybe some kind of Atlantis situation, those actually seem a little more probable then the explanations given by LDS apologetics, God can pretty much do whatever he wants anyway, so why not it makes just as much sense.

  5. deaconj123 said

    A Land of the Lost or Stargate Atlantis still doesn’t explain Cockatrice. Joseph Smith must not have been in seer mode when he copied that text from the Bible.

    I predict that Cockatrice will be removed from the Book of Mormon. A minor change, but the way it is now, it makes no sense.

  6. coventryrm said

    Well that is the way to fix these things change it and hope no one really notices or cares.

  7. I think if the church removed all the words in the Book of Mormon then it would finally qualify for being ‘most correct ‘ !

    When I read The BOM as instructed by my Missionaries , I couldn’t help feeling that Joseph Smith was just writing in his own religious experiences through characters like Zeezrom and Korihor etc ….

    Now I know what he was up to.

  8. coventryrm said

    A cockatrice is a legendary creature, resembling a large rooster with a lizard-like tail, “an ornament in the drama and poetry of the Elizabethans” Laurence Breiner described it; “the cockatrice, which no one ever saw, was born by accident at the end of the twelfth century and died in the middle of the seventeenth, a victim of the new science”

  9. coventryrm said

    I have been searching the internet and the LDS apologetic sites and no one has offered or attempted an explanation regarding cockatrice

  10. SkiUtah said

    It’s interesting that people who witnessed the translation process, never mention that Joseph Smith used the Bible to help. All accounts say that the translation process was done through seer stones.

    One apologetic response I saw was something along the lines of “the language that the King James translators used was widely recognized as a standard way to write sacred text, so it follows that Nephi’s writing used a similar language style.”

    I don’t understand that reasoning.

    And it still doesn’t explain words like “cockatrice”. I think in this case, Joseph Smith simply copied the cockatrice passage (verbatim) from the King James Bible.

  11. coventryrm said

    The research I have done is that word was invented in the 11th or 12th century and discarded in the 17th, so the writing style doesn’t work also from what I understand only the KJV version uses the word.

    Unless he was copying from KJV it has no place in the BOM

  12. skiutah said

    One more apologetic response, from BH Roberts: “When JS saw that the Nephite record was quoting the prophecies of Isaiah, of Malachi, or the words of the Savior, he took the English Bible and compared these passages as far as they paralleled each other, and finding that in substance, they were alike, he adopted our English translation…”

    That has two problems though, nobody involved with the translation process says JS used the Bible for an aid. And also, if JS had access to Nephi’s version of Isaiah, wouldn’t that be better than the KJ version?

  13. coventryrm said

    Isn’t that one of the main sales point of Mormonism is that JS had revelation and such and so therefore there would not be errors? What was the JST about, you would think he woud have also corrected it there, what was the purpose of the JST project anyway I thought it was so JS and God could fix all the translation mistakes.

  14. coventryrm said

    Hey your avatar on Mormons rock turned into a cockatrice how come it doesn’t show up like that here, I love it as a choice for an avatar!

  15. skiutah said

    I guess it just takes a while for the avatar to roll through the blogs. 🙂

    One more apologetic response: “the new testament uses quotes from the old testament, it doesn’t nullify the truthfulness of the new testament.”

    Not sure how to respond to that. Other than, because other authors plagiarize, that makes it okay for JS to plagiarize?

  16. deaconj123 said

    For the record here are the two passages:

    2 Nephi 24:29:
    Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote thee is broken; for out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent.

    Isaiah 14:29:
    Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote thee is broken: for out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent.

    The only explanation that makes sense was that Joseph Smith was holding his seer stones over the King James version of the bible while he was doing the “translation”…

  17. ditchu said

    FUGU.

    What is it? I’ll say it means Ball in the water. Or does it mean fish? Here is the impression I’ll leave you to ponder: Fugu is a brown wet round creature that comes from an egg. How would you translate it into your language?

  18. ditchu said

    FUGU.

    What is it? I’ll say it means Ball in the water. Or does it mean fish? Here is the impression I’ll leave you to ponder: Fugu is a brown wet round creature that comes from an egg. How would you translate it into your language?

  19. coventryrm said

    I would use the closest description possible or word you were familiar with in your respective culture and language as you just illustrated with FUGU, this does not work with cockatrice. It was not being used during JS time nor would have Nephi even described it close to a cockatrice the creature had not been made up yet for Nephi to do so. That logic does not work in this case and is even a far reach to explain Horse and Tapir.

  20. SkiUtah said

    Yes, in this case, the only explanation that makes any sense whatsoever is:

    Isaiah says “snake” –> KJ translators use 14th century word “cockatrice” –> JS copies “cockatrice” from KJ bible

    The word “cockatrice” does not work with the explananation of “JS uses the closest English word for what Nephi wrote”.

    The question for Mormons is that when JS copied the KJ bible for this part of the BOM, how much else of the BOM is copied?

  21. ditchu said

    I used FUGU as a test of your willingness to put your self in the position translating by what ever impression you are given. Joseph Smith Jr. translated into the best language he knew and if it seems odd to say cockatrice instead of Snake, well I think it would be more odd to say Fethered snake. which would lead me to use Cockatrice. I am not sure if this is the impression JSjr. was given or not, but I can relate to taking a unknowen word and deciphering it… Joseph Smith Jr. had one thing working for him in this case, the Holy Spirit.

  22. ditchu said

    So do you think the clostest word is to FUGU, from the short discription I gave prior?

  23. SkiUtah said

    We need a whiteboard…

  24. coventryrm said

    ??????? Ditchu please at least try to make some sense. Why would the holy spirit tell JS to use a word that was a made up mythical animal a word that had not been in use in the English language for more than a century before If anything the Holy Spirit would have helped JS make the correction in the JST wasn’t that the whole point of the JST?

    JST = Joseph Smith Translation JS = Joseph Smith

    The following sentence is too hard to decipher not sure what you are saying. “So do you think the clostest word is to FUGU, from the short discription I gave prior?”

  25. ditchu said

    I would like to hear you pick a word in the english language to translate FUGU into from the information I have privided. This way you may see why it is not so problematic that JS used the term he did.

  26. coventryrm said

    I understand your exercise but you are making my argument for me, cockatrice is NOT a word JS would have been familiar with. So I would pick perhaps Sea anemone something I am familiar with.

    I wonder did Joseph have a pet cockatrice perhaps they went on some cockatrice hunts while treasure hunting.

  27. ditchu said

    “Sea anemone” close but why not Pufferfish?
    By the way that is what Fugu is in Japan. So you understand my exercise, good. Here is the reason JS may not have chosen a word or term that closer related to his personal history: He was translating the History of another people, and he probablly understood that the term snake did not meet the impression he was given so he chose a term he knew that may have had a better dipiction of what he was given, he ended up useing the word so he must have had exposure to it someware. Also when a poet chooses a word he takes years to tweek out the perfect one, JS probably spoak the word used in the passages you site and it was jotted down, no discussion or rework.
    Without the meddling of the human mind mulling over it we get the result of inspired scripture. Thus I suggest it really is the correct word to use.

  28. SkiUtah said

    what?

  29. Bishop Rick said

    I thought the words appeared to JS as he peered into his hat… that the words remained until the scribe got it jotted down correctly. Why would God give JS incorrect words in his hat?

    ditchu, JS didn’t really translate (according to witness accounts) he merely read what was put before him in his hat. I find it interesting that God made the same errors found in the KJV of Isaiah.

  30. blazeheliski said

    I always thought “Fugu” was this……….”Fugu is a secure file transfer program for Macintosh OS X.”??? 😉

  31. ditchu said

    Correct blaze… FuGu is a SFTP application for OSX it was modeled after PufferFish a non secure FTP application for Macintosh computers. But in Japan it is what we call a Puffer Fish. Glad I could be of help.

  32. SkiUtah said

    Ditchu, how are your journal of discourses studies going?

  33. Danna said

    Hello,

    I have been delving into the world of the cockatrice, independantly to you, following an agreement with my mum to read the BoM after christmas. I posted on the MAaD board, and have been accused of plagiarising your argument. Basically, we agree, and frankly the basic facts of the issue would be apparent to anyone reading the BoM who knew what a cockatrice was. I invite you to visit the MAaD board and comment!

  34. coventryrm said

    Give me a bit more information so I can find the thread 🙂

  35. coventryrm said

    Danna

    I found the blog and read through all the comments, I really am not sure what I could add, you have done a great job of asking questions and your research seems to be more extensive than mine, plus it was SkiUtah’s original post Ski might want to go and enter the debate but from what I have read it seems pretty pointless. They have lame answers play both sides of the argument, spin and speculate and then attack you for not accepting their lame and pathetic reaches, when on this one I think it is pretty clear the most simple explanation is most likely the right one, JS was copying from the KJV.

  36. skiutah said

    I read the posts on the MAAD board. Those folks seem to resort to personal insults when you don’t agree their point of view.

    I think I understand their position. They’re saying that cockatrice has always meant snake. And that if you picked up any dictionary for the last 400 years, cockatrice = snake.

    Here’s the etymology of this word, from Webster: Cockatrice \Cock”a*trice\ (-tr[imac]s), noun. [Old French expression cocatrice crocodile, French cocatrix, cocatrice. The word is corruption from the same source as English crocodile, but was confused with cock the bird, French coq, whence arose the fable that the animal was produced from cock’s egg.

    Assuming that Webster is wrong, I still don’t see how this sequence makes sense:

    Isaiah writes “snake” –> greek/hebrew –> KJV translators –> “cockatrice”

    Nephi writes Isaiah’s word “snake” –> reformed Egyptian –> JS translates –> exact same words and sentences as KJV translators.

    Including the use of “cockatrice”, which does not translate neatly into snake.

    The clearest explanation is the text was copied from the KJV.

    One could argue that the KJV translators were inspired by God for that particular verse to match what JS would (hundreds of years later) translate from reformed Egyptian, with his head in a hat, reading what God presented to JS from the seer stone…

  37. coventryrm said

    It has reminded how wacko my thinking was when I was TBM …. did you see the post that Moroni was the translator and somehow speaks 16 century English

  38. skiutah said

    yeah, I guess it’s possible that Moroni, with the help of God, could speak 16th century English. With God’s help, anything is possible.

    To paraphrase your one quote: BOM stories have survived because some people are very good at rationalizing things that they came to believe for non-smart reasons…

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