Origin and Fate of the Breastplate of the High-Priest

Historical facts and conjectures about the where the breastplate mentioned in Exodus originated and where it ended up, the Urim and Thummim oracle, the capture and sack of Jerusalem, and possible Arab possession of the breastplate

Many conjectures have been made as to the origin of the breastplate with the mystic Urim and Thummim enclosed within it. That an Egyptian origin should be sought seems most probable. A breast-ornament worn by the high-priest of Memphis, as figured in an Egyptian relief, consists of twelve small balls, or crosses, intended to represent Egyptian hieroglyphics. As it cannot be determined that these figures were cut from precious stones, the only definite connection with the Hebrew ornament is the number of the figures; this suggests, but fails to prove, a common origin. The monuments show that the high-priest of Memphis wore this ornament as early as the fourth Dynasty, or, approximately, 4000 B.C. (Hommel, "Altisraelitische Ueberlieferung,"sqq.; Erman, "Aegypten," Tubingen, 1885.)

Of the Urim and Thummim, the mysterious oracle of the ancient Hebrews, St. Augustine (354-450 A.D.), after acknowledging the great difficulty of interpreting the meaning of the words and the character of the oracle, adds that some believed the words to signify a single stone which changed color according as the answer was favorable or unfavorable, while the priest was entering the sanctuary; still he thought it possible that merely the letters of the words Urim and Thummin were inscribed upon the breastplate. (Aureli Augustini, "Opera Omnia," vol. iii, Part I, col. 637; Patrologiae Latinae, ed. Migne, vol. xxxviii, Paris, 1864.)

After the capture of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.D., the treasures of the temple were carried off to Rome, and we learn from Josephus that the breastplate was deposited in the Temple of Concord, which had been erected by Vespasian. Here it is believed to have been at the time of the sacking of Rome by the Vandals under Genseric, in 455, although Rev. C. W. King thinks it is not improbable that Alaric, king of the Visigoths, when he sacked Rome in 410 A.D., might have secured this treasure. ("Natural History of Precious Stones," London, 1870.) However, the express statement of Procopius that "the vessels of the Jews" were carried through the streets of Constantinople, on the occasion of the Vandalic triumph of Belisarius, in 534, may be taken as a confirmation of the conjecture that the Vandals had secured possession of the breastplate and its jewels. (Procopius, ed. Dindorf, Bonnae. 1833; "De bello Vandalico," lib. ii, cap. 9.)

It must, however, be carefully noted that Procopius nowhere mentions the breastplate and that it need not have been included among "the vessels of the Jews." It appears that this part of the spoils of Belisarius was placed by Justinian (483-565) in the sacristy of the church of St. Sophia. Some time later, the emperor is said to have heard of the saying of a certain Jew to the effect that, until the treasures of the Temple were restored to Jerusalem, they would bring misfortune upon any place where they might be kept. (Procopius, ed. Dindorf, Bonnae, 1833; "De bello Vandalico," lib. ii, cap. 9.) If this story be true, Justinian may have felt that the fate of Rome was a lesson for him, and that Constantinople must be saved from a like disaster. Moved by such considerations, he is said to have sent the "sacred vessels" to Jerusalem, and they were placed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

This brings us to the last two events which can be even plausibly connected with the mystic twelve gems,--namely, the capture and sack of Jerusalem by the Sassanian Persian king, Khusrau II, in 615, and the overthrow of the Sassanian Empire by the Mohammedan Arabs, and the capture and sack of Ctesiphon, in 637. (For an account of the immense booty taken by the Arabs, under Sa'ad, on this occasion, see Rawlinson, "Seventh Great Oriental Monarchy," London, 1876. The total value has been placed as high as $125,000,000.) If we admit that Khusrau took the sacred relics of the Temple with him to Persia, we may be reasonably sure that they were included among the spoils secured by the Arab conquerors, although King, who has ingeniously endeavored to trace out the history of the breastplate jewels after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., believes that they may be still "buried in some unknown treasurechamber of one of the old Persian capitals."

A fact which has generally been overlooked by those who have embarked on the sea of conjecture relative to the fate of the breastplate stones is that a large Jewish contingent, numbering some twenty-six thousand men, formed part of the force with which the Sassanian Persians captured Jerusalem, and they might well lay claim to any Jewish vessels or jewels that may have been secured by the conquerors. In this case, however, it is still probable that these precious objects fell into the hands of the Mohammedans who captured Jerusalem in the same year in which they took Ctesiphon.

One circumstance which may have contributed to the preservation of these gems in their original form after they fell into the hands of the Romans is the fact that each one was engraved with the name of one of the Jewish tribes, the inscription being probably in the older form of Hebrew writing, which was used in the coinage even as late as the last revolt in 137 A.D. Hence, recutting would have been necessary to fit them for use as ornaments, a process not easily accomplished, and involving a great loss of size. We must also bear in mind that the intrinsic value of the gems may not have been so great as many suppose, since all of them were probably of the less perfect forms of the precious and semi-precious varieties. It is very likely that the enthusiastic statements of Josephus in this connection were dictated by national pride, or arose from the tendency to exaggeration so common among the Oriental writers. Certainly, if the breastplate known to Josephus was made not long after the return of the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity, their financial resources at the time of its fabrication were quite restricted.

Admitting as a possibility that the Arabs may have secured possession of the breastplate, how would they have regarded it? The heroes of the Old Testament, and especially Moses, were such sacred personalities in the eyes of Mohammedans that this relic would have been as precious for them as for us. However, the victorious Arabs who overran the Sassanian Empire, although filled with religious zeal, were no students of archaeology, and would have been quite unable to decipher the strange characters engraved on the stones. They would most probably have supposed them to be Persian characters, and would, therefore, have valued these stones no higher than others in the Persian treasure. This can serve as an explanation of the fact that no allusion to the breastplate with its adornment can be found in the works of those Mohammedan writers, such as Tabari, who treat of the overthrow of the Sassanian Empire. We may be sure that the Persians themselves would have accorded no special honor to objects connected with the Hebrew religion, since their own Zoroastrian faith had no connection with it.

In 628, not long before the date of the Arab invasion, the most precious relic of Christendom, the cross discovered by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, and believed to be the very cross on which Christ died, was surrendered to the Greek Emperor Heraclius by Kobad II, son of Khusrau II, on the conclusion of a treaty of peace between the Eastern and Sassanian Empires. This cross was one of the sacred objects borne away to Persia from Jerusalem by Khusrau in 615 A.D. It is said to have been guarded carefully through the influence of Sira, Khusrau's Christian wife. There is a bare possibility that other objects of religious veneration, taken from Jerusalem, may have been given up by the Persians at the same time, and that the unique character of the most important relic so overshadowed all others that historians have failed to note the fact. The cross was restored to Jerusalem by Heraclius in 629, only to fall into the hands of the Mohammedans when that city was taken by the Arabs under Omar, in 637. Hence, if the jewelled breastplate had also been surrendered by Kobad, it would probably have shared the same fate.

We have here a wide field for conjecture,--but, unfortunately, nothing more. Still, in the absence of any definite and trustworthy information, there is a kind of romantic interest in viewing the various possible relations of the mystery surrounding the fate of the most precious gems, historically at least, that have ever existed. More especially is this interest justified in the case of all who are disposed to prize gems and jewels for their symbolic significance, for, as we have shown, this significance, as far as concerns natal stones and the spiritual interpretation of the qualities of the heart and soul symbolized by the color and character of the principal precious and semi-precious stones, has its root in the veneration felt by early Christian writers, beginning with the author of the Apocalypse, for the unforgotten and unforgettable gems that were worn by the Hebrew high-priest.


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