Gemstones Mentioned in The Bible
A surprising number of gemstones are mentioned in the Bible. Although some are identified and verified definitively, the true nature of others is debated by scholars.
It’s not surprising, then, that the translation of some Greek or Hebrew words for the various gemstones differ greatly. I try to include as many as possible in this article, but I won’t pretend to incorporate the ideas of every English translation.
The most recognized lists of gemstones are those of the high priest’s breastplate in the Old Testament and the 12 foundations of the New Jerusalem in the New Testament. We’ll begin with these two instances but include other Bible references for specific stones.
Some have given gemstones meanings beyond their lovely colors and material makeup. For millennia, gemstones have represented the fortunes or misfortunes of life. Biblical writer were not necessarily exceptions in this. They also may have recognized the symbolic significance of certain stones in their culture.
Did God choose the various stones for reasons beyond our understanding? That answer is up for grabs. I have included some of the traditional beliefs held for millennia about some of the stones as food for thought.
The High Priest’s Breastplate (Ephod)
The Ephod consisted of four rows with three stones per row. The gems represented the 12 tribes (or sons) of Israel, whose names the high priest always carried over his heart.
Ephod Row 1
Called sardius or sardine in some translations, Carnelian is a translucent, fine-grained, hard quartz of an orangish-red hue. Some scholars believe this stone could also have been some other red stone, such as red jasper or garnet.
Carnelian has been found in ancient royal tombs and was often used for ring stones and wax seals. A string of expertly-carved carnelian beads found in Egypt dates back as far as 3100 B.C.
Carnelian comes from the Hebrew word “odem” or the Greek word “sardios,” described as a “fiery red gemstone.” It was considered an essential stone for preventing misfortune. Today, the finest carnelians are found in the East Indies.
Possible Biblical references: Exodus 28:19; 39:10; Revelation 4:3; 21:20
Sometimes translated chrysolite, modern topaz ranges in color from a deep gold-orange to red, brownish-yellow, pink, colorless, or various shades of blue. The gem consists of aluminum, silicon, oxygen, and fluorine.
The Greek word “topazion” comes from the island in the Red Sea off Egypt’s coast where the gem was mined. However, the golden-colored stone mined on the island is believed by some to be peridot. Some call this stone yellow topaz, but others agree the breastplate gem was more than likely green peridot.
Topaz gems are said to improve clarity and focus.
Possible Biblical references: Exodus 28:19; 39:12; Ezekiel 28:13; Job 28:19; Revelation 21:20
Some translations call this valuable grassy-green variety of beryl carbuncle. The gem was well-known in Bible lands and mined (later called Cleopatra’s mines) near the Red Sea in Egypt during the time the Hebrews lived there.
The word emerald combines the Greek word “smaragdos” and the French word “esmaralde,” which literally means “green gemstone.” The Hebrew is most likely “baroqet.”
Emeralds symbolize new beginnings and fertility.
Possible Biblical references: Exodus 28:20; 39:13; Ezekiel 28:13; Revelation 21:18
Ephod Row 2
Turquoise is a hydrous compound of phosphorus, aluminum, and copper combined, resulting in a blue to blue-green stone with a dull, waxy luster. In the KJV, turquoise is not mentioned. The obscure word for this gemstone is, instead, translated as emerald or carbuncle.
Turquoise has been found in early archeological excavations in sites such as Sumer (3500 B.C.). It is considered to be one of the earliest mined gemstones.
Turquoise is said to symbolize friendship and success.
Possible Biblical references: Exodus 28:18; 39:11; Ezekiel 28:13
Sapphire is blue, translucent corundum. It derives its color from iron and titanium impurities in the stone and ranges from a pale ice-blue to deep cobalt.
One of the earliest sources of sapphire was Kashmir, India. The name comes from the Greek “sapphiros” and Hebrew “sapir.”
The gemstone we know as sapphire was not known historically until the Roman Empire, around 300 B.C. The biblical stone called by that name is most likely lapis lazuli.
Sapphire stones symbolize hope and faith.
Possible Biblical references: Exodus 24:10: 28:18; 39:11; Job 28:6, 16; Isaiah 54:11; Ezekiel 1:26; 10:1; 28:13; Revelation 21:20
Diamonds are well-known in modern times as the most highly-prized gemstone in the world. They are the hardest of all gems, consisting of pure, elemental carbon. They also have the highest melting point of any known substance (3,800° Kelvin).
Derived from the Greek word “adamas,” meaning “the invisible,” diamonds were not actually recognized until the first century A.D., and then only as a tool, not a gem for decorative purposes.
Only the KJV has translated the Hebrew as diamond. Other translations translate the word as amethyst (the Tanakh–Jewish Study Bible) or some other gemstone.
Diamonds symbolize strength and energy.
Possible Biblical references (KJV only): Exodus 28:18; 39:11; Jeremiah 17:1; Ezekiel 28:13
Ephod Row 3
Scholars agree that jacinth is some kind of blue stone, though little is known about it beyond the color. Some believe it is the sapphire of today.
Jacinth is a derivation of the Greek word “huakinthos,” better known as hyacinth. It symbolizes life and creative power.
Possible Biblical references: Exodus 28:19; 39:12; Revelation 21:20
Agate is one of the fine-grained varieties of quartz known as chalcedony. Agate is banded in patterns of colored layers–white, dull yellow, orange, brown, red, black, blue, or gray.
The name is derived from the Hebrew “shebo,” meaning “to flame, to split into tongues,” and was mined in abundance as early as 3000 B.C. Large amounts have been found in the archeological digs of Sumer dating back to 3500 B.C.
Agate was prized in antiquity for beads, pins and brooches, signet rings, goblets and cups, bottles, bowls, and figurines. Historian Theophastus (372-287 B.C.) noted agate as being “marvelously beautiful” and sold at high prices.
Agate symbolizes balance and protection.
Possible Biblical references: Exodus 28:19; 39:12
Amethyst is a quartz variety with a rich violet hue. Since few purple gemstones exist, amethyst has been highly treasured from antiquity.
Exquisitely carved and engraved goblets, vases, miniatures, and charms of amethyst have been found in archeological digs. The gem was mined in Egypt as much as 4000 years ago.
Amethyst is one of the few stones about which most scholars agree regarding the name. It comes from the Hebrew “ahlamah,” meaning “dream stone,” and was thought to bring pleasant dreams. However, the Tanakh translates the word into English simply as “crystal.”
The Greek word for amethyst is “amethustos,” meaning “not drunken.” The stone was believed to guard against intoxication. Symbolically, amethyst is said to be soothing and calming.
Possible Biblical references: Exodus 28:19; 39:12; Revelation 21:20
This particular variety of beryl is probably more accurately called Aquamarine for its light blue or bluish-green color. It was the most available beryl in Biblical times. The term Aquamarine is not used by Bible translators.
The Roman historian Elder Pliny (23-79 A.D) describes the gemstone’s color and characteristics, known as the Greek “berullos” at that time. The light shade of the stone distinguishes it from emerald–the rarer and, in today’s market, the most valuable of the beryls.
Aquamarine symbolizes tranquility and harmony.
Possible Biblical references: Exodus 28:19; 39:12; Ezekiel 28:13; Revelation 21:20
Onyx is also a variety of banded chalcedony, usually black and white. The description of the stone’s identity was confirmed by the Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 A.D.)
The Greek word “onux” means “nail of a finger.” The Hebrew word translated as onyx is “shosham.”
Onyx became highly sought after for carving cameos and seal rings. It was a favorite of Alexander the Great, and his image has been found beautifully engraved on many onyx pieces.
Black onyx symbolizes willpower, confidence, and good fortune. It was believed to protect from evil spirits and difficult situations.
The Jewish Tanakh translates this stone as lapis lazuli. The reason for this is uncertain.
Possible Biblical references: Genesis 2:12; Exodus 28:20; Job 28:16; Ezekiel 28:13
Jasper is a red variety of chalcedony (quartz). Chalcedony’s colors are derived from various minerals in the surrounding rocks. These impurities leech into the crystals, adding beautiful hues that have been given individual names. The impurity found in jasper is iron.
Jasper may also be yellow, brown, or green. The stone can take a lovely high polish, making it popular in ancient times for household decor such as mantles, pillars, and vases.
Jasper’s name is derived from the Greek “iaspis” or from the Hebrew “yashepheth,” meaning “to polish.”
Nurture and compassion are symbolized by jasper.
Possible Biblical references: Exodus 28:20; 39:13; Job 28:18; Ezekiel 28:13; Revelation 4:3; 21:11, 18, 19
The Foundations of New Jerusalem
Many of the stones listed for the foundation of the New Jerusalem have already been described above. A few are subjects of controversy among scholars, and some are unique.
First foundation: Jasper.
Second foundation: Sapphire or Lapis Lazuli
Many scholars agree that what is often translated as sapphire is actually lapis lazuli. Sapphire was not known or written of before later in the Roman Empire, as late as 300 A.D.
This ultramarine blue with gold speckles gemstone was one of the most valued stones of ancient times. It is abundant in Egyptian archeology as jewelry, seals, inlays, amulets, and other ornamentation. Egyptians used it to create blue paint found in ancient tombs such as that of Tutankhamen.
Lapis lazuli has been mined in Afghanistan for 5000 years. So it’s unsurprising that scholars replace more modern sapphire with this well-loved gem.
Lapis lazuli symbolizes friendship and truth.
Possible Biblical references: See Sapphire above.
Third foundation: Chalcedony
Some translations say agate. Chalcedony is a cryptocrystalline gem comprised of tiny crystals that cannot be seen even under a microscope. The stone can be semi-transparent to translucent, with a waxy luster.
Different colors of chalcedony have their own names. The third foundation’s chalcedony is thought to be milky white, light green, yellowish brown, or blue. Some other chalcedonies include
- Apple green–chrysoprase
- Black and white–onyx
- Red and white–sardonyx
- Multiple colored bands–agate
In Bible times, chalcedony was used for seals, signet rings, beads, and household objects such as bowls, glasses, or goblets. The stone is not well suited for faceting, so it would have been cut as a cabochon, a smooth polished stone.
The gem’s name is derived from the ancient Greek town Chalkedon in Asia Minor. Chalcedon is a modern English spelling.
Chalcedony symbolizes emotional balance.
Possible Biblical reference: Revelation 21:19
Fourth foundation: Emerald
Fifth foundation: Sardonyx, or onyx
Sardonyx is a reddish-brown with white stripes variety of chalcedony.
In Roman times, Sardonyx was popular, along with black onyx, for carving beautiful cameos. The name comes from the Greek “sardonux.”
Josephus also describes sardonyx as the stone used for the shoulder pieces of the high priest’s breastplate.
Sardonyx symbolizes the earth.
Possible Biblical reference: Revelation 21:20
Sixth foundation: Sardius (KJV)/Carnelian
Seventh foundation: Chrysolite
No Hebrew text gives any description of the nature of this stone. Many scholars believe it is similar to modern-day topaz, as described above. But since the ninth foundation is topaz, this gemstone remains a mystery.
Eighth foundation: Beryl
Ninth foundation: Topaz
Tenth foundation: Chrysophrase
Chrysophrase is a translucent, bright green variety of chalcedony.
The name is derived from the Greek “chrusoprasos,” meaning “green leek.” The most famous deposits of the stone are from the ancient Prussian province of Silesia, and samples have also been found in Egyptian digs.
In the Middle Ages, holding a chrysophrase stone in one’s mouth was illegal, as it was believed a condemned criminal could escape punishment by doing so.
Possible Biblical reference: Revelation 21:20
Eleventh foundation: Jacinth
Twelfth foundation: Amethyst
Other Biblical Gemstones
With so many variations in translations, I will not attempt to list every possible stone that could be named or substituted for Bible references here. However, there are several other stones that certainly worthy of mention.
Crystal is a colorless, transparent, coarse quartz. This crystalline quartz is a common mineral worldwide and was mined as early as 3000 B.C. in Egypt.
Samples of quartz crystal lenses have been found in the ruins of Nineveh from as far back as 3800 B.C. These crystals have had many uses throughout history. Roman digs have unearthed vases, goblets, and bowls carved from larger blocks, and smaller crystals have often been used for jewelry.
Crystal comes from the Greek word “krustallos,” meaning “ice.” The Hebrew word translated as crystal means “transparent.”
Clear crystal symbolizes spiritual enlightenment, purity, truth, and healing.
Possible Biblical references: Job 28:17; Isaiah 54:12; Revelation 4:6; 21:11; 22:1
Coral refers to a rare limestone formation of calcium carbonate produced by polyps (a tiny marine animal).
Coral is not technically a mineral, but gem-quality pieces found in the Mediterranean Sea polish out to lovely red shades. These unique living jewels have been harvested from earliest times and found in Egyptian jewelry.
Red coral symbolizes life energy (blood).
Possible Biblical references: Job 28:18; Ezekiel 27:16
Pearl is the only authentic gemstone formed within a living organism. The stones are formed from nacre, the same smooth material used to line shell interiors, especially oysters. Layers of nacre encompass irritants that make their way into the shell.
Pearls were both popular and expensive in Jesus’ time and were used in his parables to demonstrate the value of the kingdom of God. Each of the twelve gates of the New Jerusalem in Revelation is made from a single pearl.
The word pearl was not used until modern times. The gemstones were, instead, called “margarite” from the Greek “margarites.”
Pearls symbolize loyalty, dedication, and steadfastness.
Possible Biblical references: Matthew 13:16; Revelation 21:21
Peridot has been mentioned above as the potential gem referred to in many translations as topaz. It is a transparent green chrysolite gem from the mineral olivine.
There is a lot of confusion here. The Biblical topaz is thought by many scholars to be peridot, while the modern topaz originates from the Greek “chrysolite.”
Peridot is believed to relieve depression.
Possible Biblical references: Revelation 21:19-20
Ruby is a red variety of corundum. Its red hue results from traces of chromium. Only diamond has more hardness than modern ruby.
The earliest rubies are not known until Roman times, around 300 A.D. The Old Testament “ruby” is most likely the red coral spoken of above, pink pearl, carnelian, or garnet.
Rubies symbolize love and passion.
Possible Biblical references: Exodus 28:17; 39:10; Proverbs 8:11; 31:10; Job 28:18; Ezekiel 28:13
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