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If You Believe the Bible, Then you Also Believe in...the Cockatrice!
By: David Deschesne
In this part of the series debunking a quip on The Thinking Atheist website that attempts to ridicule the Holy Bible, I will look into the use of the word Cockatrice and the atheists’ assertion that the Bible must be false since it mentions it. As with other series, I’ll preface with the atheist author’s smug, unresearched, uneducated remarks first:
“If you believe the Holy Bible is absolutely, perfectly accurate and infallible; You believe in the Cockatrice, a serpent hatched from a rooster’s egg that can kill with a glance. (Jeremiah 8:17, Isaiah 11:8, Isaiah 59:5, Isaiah 14: 29)”
I suppose it’s fun for atheists to take the King James translation, which has vernacular and word usage and figures of speech that were intended for a society over four hundred years ago, and twist it with today’s meanings of words to somehow attempt to discredit it. However, the original Old Testament was written not in English, but in Hebrew, so that language is where one should look for actual words and meanings. The original Hebrew word the King James translators rendered as “cockatrice” is צפע tseh’-fah; which means “viper” (as thrusting out the tongue, hissing) or adder.1
The cockatrice is a mythological creature that was a snake hatched from a rooster’s egg and was said to be very evil and ferocious. However, on the four occasions it occurs in the King James translation, it denotes nothing more than an exceedingly venomous reptile.2
The Jewish Study Bible3 translates those four instances of צפע not as “cockatrice” but rather, as “adders” (Isa 11:8); “asp” (Isa 14:29); “adder” (Isa 59:5); and “adders” (Jer. 8:17)
An adder is a small, poisonous snake of the viper family. It can also be used to mean any of various other poisonous snakes of the viper family, such as the puff adder. An asp can refer to any of several small, poisonous snakes of Africa; it is also used synonymously with adder.
The Hebrew word צפע means a kind of adder, more venomous than an asp. Bochart supposes the basilisk to be meant, which was thought to poison even with its breath.4
In all of those four verses, the text should not be taken literally, but a figurative, or metaphorical senses is intended, instead. “[Isaiah 14:29] is a proverbial saying, meaning that things will go from bad to worse.”5
“The cockatrice is typically described as a rooster-like creature with a lizard-like tail. Such a creature does not exist today. However, the cockatrice may have been an actual creature that has become extinct. In fact, it might be the Archaeopteryx - an extinct bird with a lizard-like tail [of which there are fossil records of]. Otherwise, the biblical cockatrice may simply be a deadly venomous serpent, most likely the cobra. The cockatrice is equivalent to the basilisk, which comes from the Greek βασιλίσκος, which means ‘little king.’ The basilisk was called ‘little king’ because it had a ‘mitre’ on its head. A snake that wears a ‘mitre’ is the cobra. Jeremiah 8:17 speaks of cockatrices as serpents. Isaiah 59:5 equates cockatrice eggs to viper eggs, indicating that the cockatrice is a viper. In an era before “cobra” was imported into the English vocabulary, “cockatrice” referred to the hooded venomous serpent.”6
1. Strong’s #6848
2. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1958 ed. Vol 5., p. 908
3. ©2004 Oxford University Press.
4. A Commentary; Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testaments, ©1945 Wm B. Eerdsman Publishing Co., Vol. III, p. 603
5. The Cambridge Bible Commentary, The Book of the Prophet Isaiah 1-39, A.S. Herbert, ©1973 Cambridge University Press, p. 106