This month’s Chinese New Year celebrations will usher in 2012 as the year of the dragon. These legendary beasties have been a favorite fairytale and mythology staple for eons. But are dragons really just figments of our imaginations? Or are they evidence of ancient humans’ encounters with living dinosaurs?
The timing of dinosaurs’ existence is a point of disagreement between young- and old-earth creationists. Based on their interpretation of the Genesis creation days as 24 hours long and their belief that animals did not die before Adam’s fall, young-earth creationists insist that dinosaurs and humans must have coexisted for a time. Worldwide dragon lore—including biblical references to dragons, leviathans, and behemoths—is used as support of this coexistence. (See Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research for details on the young-earth perspective.)
However, scientific research does not support the idea of a dinosaur-human coexistence. Paleontologists estimate that the last wave of dinosaurs went extinct around 65 million years ago—well before humans, and even most mammals, showed up. Furthermore, dinosaur fossils were not recognized for what they really were until the 1800s, making dinosaurs a relatively modern discovery.
Based on these two facts, Reasons To Believe believes it unlikely that the biblical authors make any mention of dinosaurs whatsoever. How, then, do we reconcile the biblical references to behemoths, leviathans, and dragons with the scientific and historic data?
- Passages in the book of Job describing the behemoth and leviathan are likely referring to the hippopotamus and crocodile, respectively. This is not a new interpretation. As RTB founder Hugh Ross points out in his book Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job, prior to the nineteenth-century discovery of dinosaurs most Bible scholars accepted the hippo and croc interpretation. (Even some more recent Bible versions include this view in their footnotes.)
- In English Bibles, the word “dragon” appears most notably in Revelation 12–13 and usually refers to Satan. (Other instances of use vary from translation to translation.) In a March 2011 episode of I Didn’t Know That!, RTB scholars Fuz Rana and Dave Rogstad suggest that—given the fact that Revelation’s author, John, was totally ignorant of dinosaurs—it’s more probable that he drew upon well-known mythological imagery to help his readers grasp the strange visions he described than that he referred to a real animal.
So how did we think up dragons? Inspiration for the Chinese dragon did indeed come from dinosaurs—fossilized bones, that is. Whale bones may have also contributed to the stories. Historians believe other reptiles—like the Nile crocodile, spitting cobras, and monitor lizards—also influenced dragon lore.
Thinking about God’s colorful description of the terrifying leviathan in Job 41, it doesn’t surprise me that such relatively modern beasts inspired tall tales and epic mythologies. I can just picture the campfire stories now…
Resources: It’s an undeniable fact that dinosaurs fascinate us. We’ve dedicated an RTB 101 page to helping people understand these monstrous animals and their place in God’s creation.