Minerals & Metals of the Bible (Part II)

New Ideas About The Identity of the Gemstones of the Breastplate

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Biblical breastplate

Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series. Enjoy the first part >>>

By Steve Voynick

THE Bible makes many general references to “precious stones” and “jewels,” most often as metaphors for such attributes as value, wealth, beauty, and durability. It also mentions 23 specific gem materials, among them 20 mineral gemstones and three biogenic gem materials, the latter being amber, coral, and pearls.

Origins of the Sacred Breastplate

The Bible’s most celebrated – and debated – reference to gemstones regards the sacred breastplate of the high priest of the Israelites, also known as “Aaron’s breastplate” and the “breastplate of judgment.” Described in detail in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus, this golden breastplate was set with 12 different gemstones arranged in four rows of three gemstones each. Each gemstone was identified in ancient Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament.

But the text of the original Hebrew Bible and the meanings of many ancient Hebrew words are now largely lost. Our knowledge of the Old Testament as presented in the Bible’s many English versions is based on 2,500 years of scholarly interpretation of Greek, Aramaic, and Latin translations

Debating Gemstone Identities

Not surprisingly, the identities of the breastplate gemstones have become confused. Modern English versions of the Bible collectively offer more than 40 different identities for the 12 breastplate gemstones. Most are modern names of gemstones, minerals, and mineral varieties, along with some archaic English names and several untranslated Greek and Latin names.

Adding to the confusion, modern artistic depictions of the breastplate often disregard the probable color and transparency of its gemstones. Many depict the gemstones as faceted, transparent gems, even though faceting as we know it today was not developed until about 1400 C.E. Prior to the first century B.C.E., most gemstones were opaque or translucent and were fashioned as cabochons.

For centuries, historians, theologians, and scholars have debated the identities of the breastplate gemstones and agree only on the general historical background of the breastplate itself. According to biblical scholars, the Old Testament was written over a period of 1,000 years, roughly from 1400 to 400 B.C.E. The breastplate was created about 1450 B.C.E. during the time of Moses. The Book of Exodus, which contains the breastplate description, is based almost entirely on oral tradition and was written in stages between 600 and 400 B.C.E.

Tricky Translations

Most interpretations and translations of the names of the breastplate gemstones were provided by scholars with little, if any, geological, gemological, mineralogical, or sometimes even historical, awareness. Their translations are based largely on tradition, limited gemstone knowledge, personal whim, or simple phonetics – sapphieros must mean “sapphire,” and topazos must means “topaz.”

Olivine_topazos
The Septuagint’s topazos, widely translated as “topaz,” is actually peridot, the gem variety of olivine. (Wikimedia Commons)

But Dr. James A. Harrell, Professor Emeritus of Geology at the University of Toledo, has taken a different approach to identifying the breastplate gemstones. A specialist in the archaeological geology of Egypt and the Middle East, Harrell presents his ideas in a paper published in the Bulletin for Biblical Research and titled “Old Testament Gemstones: A Philological, Geological, and Archaeological Assessment of the Septuagint.”

The Septuagint is a third-through-first-century B.C.E. Greek translation of the original Hebrew Bible. The name “Septuagint” stems from the Latin septu?gint?, meaning “seventy” and referring to the number of Jewish scholars who worked on the translation. As a first-generation translation, the Septuagint is the most direct linguistic link to the identities of the breastplate gemstones.

Research Reveals Gemstone Order

In his research, Harrell considered all Septuagint passages that mention gemstones and not just those related to the breastplate. He also consulted numerous other contemporaneous ancient texts that describe gemstones that are likely the same as those in the breastplate.

Historically, Harrell considered the gemstones that were known to be in use in the greater biblical region (southwestern Asia, Egypt, and the eastern Mediterranean) during the first millennium B.C.E. He also applied geological criteria to gemstone identification and drew upon his own field research and personal examination of ancient gemstones in museum collections.

As described in Exodus, the order of the breastplate gemstones progresses from right to left, as does ancient Hebrew writing. The first stone in each row therefore appears at the right, and the third stone in each row at the left. In the following discussion, the stones are identified by the transliteration of their Septuagint Greek names that have so confused translators.

Sardion (row one, first stone)

Sardion has been translated as “carnelian,” “sard,” “sardonyx,” and “red

carnelian
The Septuagint’s sardion is carnelian, a translucent, red microcrystalline quartz that, as beads and cabochons, was the most popular gemstone during the biblical period. (Steve Voynick)

jasper.” Archaeological recoveries indicate that carnelian and sard, both translucent forms of microcrystalline quartz, were the most common gemstones throughout the biblical region during the first millennium B.C.E. Carnelian is reddish; sard is brownish. Sardonyx is a brown-and-white-banded type of sard. Red jasper, an opaque form of microcrystalline quartz, also served as a gemstone, but not nearly to the extent of carnelian.

In his Naturalis Historia, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus, 23-79 C.E.) describes sardion as a widely used, “fiery, red gemstone.” As a gemstone for the breastplate, Harrell concludes that bright-red carnelian would certainly have been chosen over sard, sardonyx, or red jasper.

Additional Editor's Note: Search our site for additional "Gemstones of the Breastplate" articles to learn about the remaining 11 specimens of the biblical breastplate.