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Stones of the Bible

The Bible makes numerous references to stones.  The first mention of stones in the Bible (Exodus 28:17-20) has to do with the stones in Aaron's breastplate. Aaron was Moses' brother and led the tribe of the high priests. His breastplate was adorned with twelve stones and is described in the Bible as the breastplate of judgment or decision.  "You shall put settings of stones in it, four rows of stones: The first row shall be a sardius, a topaz, and an emerald {sometimes carbuncle is listed here}; this shall be the first row; the second row shall be a turquoise {sometimes emerald is listed here}, a sapphire, and a diamond; the third row, a jacinth {sometimes listed as a ligure}, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row, a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper."

In Revelation 21:18-20, John names twelve stones that adorn the foundation of the New Jerusalem.  "The wall was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with all kinds of precious stones: the first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth sardius, the seventh chrysolyte, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst."

The difficulty comes in identifying the stones named. No matter whose translation of the Bible you read - Protestant, Catholic, Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian, Babylonian or Assyrian - you will note the placement and the names of stones in the breastplate differ. In Bible times stones were identified by color, such as the Hebrew term odem, which simply means “red stone.” This could have been any number of red stones known at the time (i.e. ruby, red jasper, carnelian, garnet), or may have referred to all of them. Some variations of those names still exist today, but many stones have been reclassified by science. As more information surfaces thanks to archaeological findings and the writings of ancient historians such as Theophrastus (372-287 BC), Elder Pliny (23-79 AD), and Josephus (37-100 AD), we are able to make more positive identifications.

Carnelian (Sardius), Ex 28:19, 39:10; Rev 4:3, 21:20  Sardius or Odem is listed as the first stone in the first row, and Sardius is the sixth stone in the New Jerusalem foundation. This is a translation in question. Some believe Sardius may have meant Ruby or Garnet. The Greek word is sardios. The Hebrew word odem (literally redness or red stone), is translated by some Bible scholars as sardius. Sardius is equivalent to carnelian in Theophrastus and Pliny's writings, who derive the name from that of the city of Sardes where, they claim, it was first found. Odem here could have been any one of several red stones known to the ancient Hebrews; ruby, garnet or red jasper, as well as the sardius (carnelian). Carnelian is a translucent, orangish red variety of chalcedony that has often been used for ring stones and wax seals. Carnelian has been frequently discovered in excavations of the ancient tombs of royalty. A necklace more than 10 feet long and containing 670 orange-red carnelian beads was found in the tomb of a queen dating 1000 BC. A string of expertly carved carnelian beads was found in Egypt dating back to 3100 BC. Carnelian was believed to be an important stone in preventing misfortune.

Topaz (Peridot), Rev 21:19,20  The second stone in the first row as well as the ninth stone in the New Jerusalem foundation is listed as Topaz. It would at first sight appear that the Greek word topazion must be translated into English by the word "topaz", but according to Pliny (AD 23-69), the topaz was a green stone found and mined on the island of Topazios (today called St. John’s Island off the coast of Egypt). This is a source for green peridot. No topaz has been found there and topaz is not green. So the term topaz of Bible times was actually the peridot (or chrysolite) of today. Peridot is the modern name for chrysolite, which is a lovely, transparent, green gem from the mineral olivine. It appears that the identitoes of chrysolite (or peridot) and topaz were reversed in Biblical times!

Emerald, Ex 28:20, 39:13, Ezek 28:13, Rev 4:3, 21:18  Emerald is the third stone in the first row of the breastplate and the fourth foundation stone of the New Jerusalem foundation. Emerald is a green variety of beryl. One of the earliest known source of emerald were mines located near the Red Sea in Egypt. There is evidence that these mines were in operation as early as 1650 BC (the time that the Hebrew people would have been in Egypt). Later these mines became known as Cleopatra’s Mines, who was quite fond of emeralds and was reported to wear them to enhance her beauty. In the Middle Ages miraculous healing powers were attributed to the emerald, among them; the power to preserve or heal visual problems.  Carbuncle is used in some translations as the third stone in the first row and emerald is listed as the first stone in the second row (instead of turquoise). Carbuncle is believed to represent emerald, but may mean a ruby or garnet. There is no stone or mineral known as Carbuncle today.

Turquoise, Ex 28:18; 39:11; Ezek 28:13  Turquoise is sometimes referenced in newer translations as the first stone in the second row. There are many differences of opinions among scholars as to the identification of many of the stones of the Old Testament, but due to the widespread use of turquoise in those times it is very likely that one of those obscure terms refers to this beautiful gemstone. In fact, turquoise, carnelian, and lapis lazuli were the most used gems by the ancient Egyptians. Turquoise specimens have been found in excavations of early civilizations such as Sumer (3500 BC). Turquoise was used by the Egyptians of the First Dynasty (3000 BC) and it was mined at Serabit on the Sinai Peninsula as far back as 5500 B.C. Turquoise was valued by most ancient civilizations, including the Aztecs, Incas, Persians, Egyptians, and Native Americans. There are more legends associated with turquoise than with any other gemstone. Turquoise was believed to prevent accidents, and to cure diseases of the head and the heart. It was also believed to make one invulnerable and it was placed on body armor, turbans, swords and knives.

Sapphire (Lapis Lazuli), Ex 24:10; 28:18; 39:11; Job 28:6,16; Song 5:14; Isa 54:11; Ezek 1:26; 10:1; 28:13, Rev 21:20  "Sapphire" is the second stone in the second row and also the second foundation stone of the New Jerusalem. Most scholars agree that lapis lazuli is actually the stone referred to as “sapphire” in the Bible. Sapphires were not known before the Roman Empire (300 BC) and were initially considered to be jacinth. The Elder Pliny (AD 23-69) gives a description of sappir (translated by most as sapphire) as being "refulgent with spots like gold. It is also of an azure color...In no case, however, is this stone transparent." Theophratus (372-287BC) describes it as “sappir spotted with gold.” These descriptions sound more like lapis lazuli. Lapis Lazuli is a beautiful, deep blue stone consisting largely of lazurite and speckled with yellow pyrite. Lapis was one of the most sought after and prized stones of ancient times. It was used for jewelry, ornamentation, seals, and amulets. It was also used extensively for inlaying. Egyptian blue paint was made from finely ground lapis. This stone has been found in abundance in archaeological digs of ancient civilizations, including King Tut’s tomb, which held many beautiful specimens of lapis jewelry dating to 1350 B.C. Mines in Afghanistan have been producing gem lapis lazuli for nearly 5000 years and are still the world’s largest producer of the material.

Diamond, Ex 28:18, 39:11, Jer 17:1, Ezek 28:13  Diamond is listed as the third stone in the third row. However, the diamond was probably not the true identity of these stones because the diamond was not identified in the Mediterranean lands until the first century AD, and then it was not valued for it’s beauty as a decorative gemstone, but for it’s use as a tool for carving other stones due to it’s hardness. Ancient civilizations were fascinated by the exceptional hardness of diamonds. The first definite reference to it is found in the Latin poetry of Manilius about 12 AD, and Elder Pliny describes diamond crystals from India about 77 AD. Diamonds remained extremely rare up to the eighteen century and was appreciated for its beauty only after its faceted brilliant cut was developed at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Jacinth (Hyacinth), Rev 21:20  Ligure is the name of a stone in the third row on the breastplate, but some have claimed that this stone was the same as the jacinth. Jacinth is the eleventh stone in the New Jerusalem foundation. Jacinth is a derivation of the word “hyacinth” which comes from the Greek huakinthos. Most scholars agree that it was some kind of blue stone, taking it’s color from the flower. There is no stone or mineral bearing the name Ligure or Jacinth today. Pliny (AD 23-69) describes the hyacinthus as being very different from amethyst, "though partaking of a color that closely' borders upon it" and it is believed by some that the jacinth/hyacinth may actually be the sapphire of today. It has also been suggested that it was actually amber.

Agate, Ex 28:19, 39:12  Agate is named as the second stone in the third row of the breastplate. Agates are a form of chalcedony that is usually translucent and banded, in a variety of patterns and colors. “Agate” comes from the Greek word, Achates, which is the name of the river in Sicily where agate was mined in abundance as early as 3000 BC. Agate was discovered with the Stone Age man in France 20,000-16,000 B.C. Agates were highly prized among ancient civilizations. It was fashioned into beads, pins, brooches, signet rings, goblets, cups, bottles, bowls, and carved figurines. Large amounts of agate have been found in archaeological digs of Sumer, dating back to 3500 BC. In many legends agate is believed to cure the stings of scorpions and the bites of snakes, soothe the mind, prevent contagion, quiet thunder and lightning, secure the favor of the powerful, and bring victory over enemies. Agate was believed to void the toxicity of all poisons and counteract the infection of contagious diseases; if held in the hand or in the mouth it was believed to alleviate fever.

Amethyst, Ex 28:19, 39:12, Rev 21:20  Amethyst is the third stone in the third row of the breastplate and the twelfth and last stone listed in the foundation of the New Jerusalem. Amethyst is a variety of quartz that is best known for it's rich purple color. Amethyst is one of the few stones in which experts agree as to the correctness of its identification. The Hebrew word for amethyst, ahlamah, literally means “dream stone,” and it was thought that it induced pleasant dreams. The Greek name alludes to the popular belief that amethyst prevented intoxication; hence drinking vessels were made of amethyst, and people wore amulets made of it to counteract the effects of wine. Beautifully carved and engraved amethyst goblets, vases, charms and miniatures have been found in excavations.

Beryl, Ex 28:19, 39:12, Ezek 28:13, Rev 21:20  Beryl is the eighth stone in the New Jerusalem foundation. Beryl is the true name of several very important gemstones, yet a term not often used. The best-known beryl is the emerald (green in color), and the aquamarine (blue-green in color). Both of these stones were well known in Bible times, the aquamarine being the most common, while the Emerald was more rare. The term aquamarine is not used by any of the Bible translators, but many scholars believe that the aquamarine was the type of beryl of the eighth stone of the New Jerusalem.

Onyx, Gen 2:12, Ex 28:20, Job 28:16, Ezek 28:13  The Hebrew word shoham is most often translated as onyx and it is the second stone in the fourth row of the breastplate. There has been a lot of question about whether the shoham stone is indeed onyx, however, Josephus (Jewish historian AD 37-100) who had personal access to the breastplate in his time, clearly identifies the shoham stone as onyx. Onyx is a chalcedony that has even, banded layers of various color (most commonly black and white). The Greek word for onyx is onux literally “the nail of a finger”. The ancients obtained onyx from Arabia, Egypt, and India. Onyx has been very popular through the ages as the stone used for engraving cameos. It also was used for carving seal rings. These seal rings when pressed into the seal material (clay or wax) leave a raised design.

Jasper, Ex 28:20, 39:13, Job 28:18, Ezek 28:13, Rev 4:3, 21:11,18,19  Jasper is named as the twelfth stone in the breastplate. Jasper (iaspis) is mentioned in several places in the Bible and it is also listed as the sixth foundation stone of the New Jerusalem in the Greek and Latin texts. Jasper is undoubtedly the yshphh of the Hebrew text. Jasper is a variety of chalcedony. It is found in many different colors and patterns. The named jasperis is derived from the Greek word that means “spotted stone”. It was used in ancient times as mantles, pillars, vases, and other interior decorations. Jasper was a favorite in the ancient world, and its lore can be traced back in Hebrew, Assyrian, Persian, Greek and Latin. Legend states it was used to drive away evil spirits and protect against snake and spider bites. Many amulets made from jasper were found in Egypt with scripture inscribed on the amulet to protect the wearer from death.

Chalcedony, Rev 21:19  Chalcedony is listed as the third foundation stone of the New Jerusalem. Chalcedony is a microcrystalline quartz. Usually only the translucent or transparent, single color types are called "chalcedony", the majority of chalcedonies are agates and jaspers. The colors are white, blue, purple, pink, yellow, green (Chrysoprase) and orange or red (Carnelian). The various types differ in color due to metallic impurities, such as iron, nickel, copper, and titanium present during crystallization. In Bible times, chalcedony was used extensively in the carving of seals, signet rings, beads, bowls, goblets, glasses, and other household objects. The word “chalcedony” is derived from the name of the ancient Greek town, Chalkedon, in Asia Minor, in modern English usually spelled Chalcedon.

Sardonyx, Rev 21:20  Sardonyx is the fifth foundation stone of the New Jerusalem. Sardonyx has a structure similar to onyx, but is composed usually of alternate layers of white chalcedony and carnelian, although it may have layers of white, brown, and black chalcedony too. Sardonyx made beautiful cameos, and was often extravagantly carved. The Romans developed this craft of engraving into a fine art. Great quantities of quality sardonyx came from India during this time. Even Julius Caesar, the Roman general, became an avid collector of engraved sardonyx. The word sardonyx comes from the Greek sardonux, and has remained relatively unchanged for centuries. It is a combination of sard (carnelian) and onux (onyx).

Chrysolite (Topaz), Ex 28:19, 39:12, Ezek 28:13, Job 28:19, Rev 21:20  Chrysolite is the seventh foundation stone of the New Jerusalem foundation. None of the Hebrew texts give any hint as to the nature of this stone. However it is most often assumed that the chrysolite of the ancients equates to our topaz of today. Though to[az is found in many colors (including colorless), the most common is a golden yellow. During the Middle Ages it was believed to possess the power of relieving anxiety at night, driving away devils, and to be an excellent cure for eye diseases.

Chrysoprase, Rev 21:20  Chrysoprase is listed as the tenth stone in the foundation of the New Jerusalem. Chrysoprase is a translucent, bright apple or grassy green variety of chalcedony. The green color comes from nickel. The modern word comes from the Greek chrusoprasos and literally translated is chrusos meaning “golden” and prason meaning “a leek” indicating the color of the stone. Chrysoprase has been discovered in archaeological digs in ancient Egypt. A necklace that included chrysoprase beads was found on a mummy dating back to 1500 BC. The most famous deposits of chrysoprase came from Silesia (a former Prussian province). During the Middle Ages, it was believed that if one who was condemned for a crime held Chrysoprase in his mouth, he would escape punishment of his crime.