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New Ideas About Their Identity


This modern illustration depicts the breastplate as it was worn by a high priest of the Israelites. (Wikimedia Commons

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.

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.

This wood engraving circa 1900 shows an ancient British Arch-Druid wearing the Breastplate of Judgement.

Not surprisingly, the identities of the breastplate gemstones have become confused. Modern English versions of the Bible collectively oTher more than 40 diTherent 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 oThen 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.

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