The High-Priest's Breastplate Stones in Revelation

The precious stones of the breastplate of the high-priest are described in Revelation as the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem, the conenction of the twelve apostles to the stones, and the symbolic meaning

The high-priest's breastplate, as described in Hebrew tradition, was regarded by the Jews with peculiar reverence, and the stones set in it were believed to be emblematic of many things. It is, therefore, quite natural that these stones are described in the book of Revelation as the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem. The names are in some cases not identical with those given in Exodus, but this may arise from various renderings of the Hebrew names in the Targums or in the Greek versions.

The text in Revelation (xxi, 9-21) is as follows:

"And there came unto me one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of the seven last plagues, and talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will show thee the bride, the Lamb's wife:

And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.

Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper-stone, clear as crystal;

And had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel:

On the east, three gates; on the north, three gates; on the south, three gates; and on the west, three gates.

And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

And he that talked with me had a golden reed to measure the city, and the gates thereof, and the wall thereof.

And the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal.

And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel.

And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass.

And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald;

The fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, a topaz; the tenth, a chrysoprasus; the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst.

And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass."

It is easy to trace in this description the substitution of the twelve apostles for the twelve tribes in connection with the precious stones enumerated, and, besides this, we also have the twelve angels, associated at a later date with the months and the signs of the zodiac.

Of the twelve foundation stones the Revelation of St. John expressly states that they had "in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb." The assignment of each stone to the respective apostle was made in later times according to the order given in the lists of the apostles contained in the so-called Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These lists are not quite identical-Andrew, for instance, being placed second in Matthew and Luke, but fourth in Mark-and the same stone was not always assigned to a given apostle. Frequently the list was modified by the addition of the apostle Paul, really the thirteenth apostle. In this case he was usually given the second place immediately after St. Peter, and to the brothers James and John, the "Sons of Thunder," was assigned a single stone; in some later arrangements St. Paul occupies the last place, after St. Matthias, who was chosen to take the place of Judas Iscariot, and whose name as an apostle first appears in the Acts.


Gospel of St. Matthew x, 2-4Gospel of St. Mark iii, 16-19Gospel of St. Luke vi, 14-16
James the LessJames the LessJames the Less
ThaddeusThaddeusSimon Zelotes
Simon ZelotesSimon ZelotesJudas
Judas IscariotJudas IscariotJudas Iscariot

The passage in Revelation xxi, 19, 20, is not the only one in that book treating of precious stones, for we read in chapter iv, 2, 3:

"And immediately I was in the Spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.

And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald."

The commentators, both ancient and modern, have given many different explanations of the symbolic meaning of the similes employed here. Some have seen in the two stones a type of the two judgments of the world, by fire and by water; others find that they signify the holiness of God and his justice. Of the rainbow "like unto an emerald," Alford says we should not think it strange that the bow is green, instead of prismatic: "the form is that of the covenant bow, the color even more refreshing and more directly symbolizing grace and mercy." Alford, "The Greek Testament," vol. iv, Pt. 2, p. 594.

The significance of the twelve Apocalyptic gems is given by Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz (786-856), in the following words:

"In the jasper is figured the truth of faith; in the sapphire, the height of celestial hope; in the chalcedony, the flame of inner charity. In the emerald is expressed the strength of faith in adversity; in the sardonyx, the humility of the saints in spite of their virtues; in the sard, the venerable blood of the martyrs. In the chrysolite, indeed, is shown true spiritual preaching accompanied by miracles; in the beryl, the perfect operation of prophecy; in the topaz, the ardent contemplation of the prophecies. Lastly, in the chrysoprase is demonstrated the work of the blessed martyrs and their reward; in the hyacinth, the celestial rapture of the learned in their high thoughts and their humble descent to human things out of regard for the weak; in the amethyst, the constant thought of the heavenly kingdom in humble souls."

("Rabani Mauri, "Opera Omnia," vol. v, col. 470. Patrologiae Lat., vol. exi, Parisiis, 1864.)

The origin of the foundation stones named in Revelation xxi, 19, 20, may be found in the text, Isaiah Iiv, 11, 12, where we read:

"O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and lay thy foundations with sapphires.

And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones."

As we see, only three stones are mentioned by name: the sapphire, the carbuncle, and "agates." This last rendering is quite doubtful, as the Hebrew word (kodkodim) signifies shining or gleaming stones, and their use for windows indicates that they must have been transparent. It is easy to understand that in later times the twelve stones of the breastplate dedicated to the twelve tribes of Israel, were used to fill out and complete the picture, following the indication given by the general terms "stones with fair colours" and "pleasant stones."

In commenting on this text Rabbi Johanan is quoted in the Babylonian Talmud as saying that God would bring jewels and pearls thirty ells square (twenty ells in height and ten in width) and would place them on the gates of Jerusalem. There may be in this some reminiscence of the Apocalyptic foundation stones. A sceptical disciple said to the Rabbi, "We do not ever find a jewel as large as the egg of a dove." But not long afterward, when this same disciple was sailing in a boat on the sea, he saw angels sawing stones as immense as those described by Rabbi Johanan, and when he asked for what they were designed. the reply was, "The Holy One, blessed be He, will place them on the gates of Jerusalem." ("New Edition of the Babylonian Talmud," ed. and trans. by Michael L. Rodkinson, vol. v (xiii), New York, 1902, p. 210. Baba Batra.)

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