The Tora − the first five books of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) − names the twelve stones that decorate the Khoshen (the “Chestpouch” amulet) of the Kohen Ha'Mashiakh (“Priest the Anointed”).
The Tora lists the gemstones in Hebrew in the Book of Shmot (Exodus 28:17-20). The identity of some gems is certain, and some gems less certain. Happily, the ongoing Tora tradition preserves enough information to identify these “valuable stones” אבנים יקרות of the heavens.
• The gems originate from the Land of Mitsrayim, during the Bronze Age.
• Their names probably preserve the Hebrew forms from the Iron Age.
• During the Classical Age (circa −200s), the Septuagint (Greek Bible) translates this Hebrew list into Greek.
• Later during Classical Age (circa 93), the Yhudi (Judean) historian Yosef Ben Matitya יוסף בן מתתיה − who adopts the Latin name Titus Flavia Iosephus (Josephus) − independently translates the Hebrew gem list into Greek, in his book Ioudaike Arkhaiologia ιουδαικη αρχαιολογια (“Judean Ancient Sayings”, aka, Antiquities of the Jews 3:138). Iosephus himself is one of the Kohanim. He is an eyewitness of the gems that adorn the Khoshen of his Kohen Ha'Mashiakh. Moreover in his autobiographical book, Iosepou Bios ιοσηπου βιος (“Life of Josephus”), he boasts an extensive education, especially in the ongoing Tora. He focuses on his studies as a Kohen. Iosephus knows these twelve gems firsthand.
• Likewise in the Classical Age, the Roman Emperor Vespasian adopts this Iosephus into the imperial family, whence his family name Flavia. The courtiers of imperial Rome pursue gems, passionately. Iosephus consults the new encyclopedia of that Age, Naturalis Historia (“Natural History”), that Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder) recently completes. Altho Plinius dies earlier (79), he is a fellow member of the court, and Iosephus probably knows him personally, even as a fellow writer and researcher. In any case, Iosephus benefits from the systematic research and identification of gems by Plinius. (Naturalis Historia book 37.) He also benefits from consultation with the imperial lapidaries (jewelers) who specialize in the gems of the Roman international traderoutes for the rich and famous of Rome.
The evidence proves remarkable. An informed witness identifies the twelve gems in Greek, and his fellow courtier describes them in detail in Latin. They use the same terminology and the same Greek-Latin equivalences. When these Greek and Latin sources allow us to identify a stone, and archeology demonstrates it exists in the Land of Mitsrayim during the Bronze Age,
We can secure identity of the stone.
The Septuagint (Greek Bible), while translating the Tanakh, seems to list the Greek gem names in the same order, word-for-word, as the Hebrew. As one might expect. Iosephus seems to corroborate the Septuagint sequence.
When Iosephus describes the twelve gems of the Khoshen amulet, his order differs from the one in the Tora. But here, his variance seems to confirm the Septuagint. For one thing, he doesnt copy the Septuagint verbatim, but consults an independent source, apparently his firsthand knowledge. The Tora and thus the Septuagint list the gems, three at a time, per “row”. Helpfully, Iosephus does too. In comparison, he switches the order of the gems in each of the last three rows. Nevertheless, each triad that he lists has the same three gems as the corresponding triad that the Septuagint lists.
Thus, Iosephus supports the correctness of at least the triads in the Septuagint and, by implication, corroborates the Septuagint follows each gem name in the Hebrew list verbatim, in the same order.
Interestingly, the stone that Hebrew calls Yashfe ישפה is in the last triad, whereas the stone that Greek calls Iaspis ιασπις is in the second triad. It seems these are two different stones in two different locations, despite their related names. This resembles the situation where the stone that ancient Hebrew calls Sapir (lazurite) and the stone that modern English calls Sapphire (non-red corundum) are different stones despite their same name.
Here I provide a table to summarize the ancient gem names.
The Hebrew of the Tora lists the twelve stones in the Book of Shmot (Exodus 28:17-20). Then the Greek of the Septuagint translates this. The Greek of Iosephus (Ioudaike Arkhailogia 3:138) confirms the Septuagint account. Finally, Plinius describes these gems, referring to them by their Latin names (Naturalis Historia 37).
For now, I only give the English names for those gems whose identity is secure. I am reasonably confident about the identity of the other gems (except for the tantalizing Tarshish stone), but I intend to describe these in more detail later. For the Sapir stone, check it out here and its name here.
Twelve stones of heavens.