Built on a foundation of gemstones, revealed in Revelation

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | February 17, 2017

A few weeks ago, on an episode of PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow,” one feature was a bracelet that had been given by a late Anglican archbishop to a relative. The bracelet had 12 different gemstones, along with a pearl clasp, and was set with 18 karat gold. The person who brought it said the bracelet was meant to represent the heavenly Jerusalem described in the Book of Revelation (21:18-22), with its 12 foundation stones of precious gems, and streets of gold and gates of solid pearl.

There is probably no more confusing book in the whole Bible than Revelation. Attributed to St. John the Evangelist, the book overflows with strange visions regarding the end of the world and the second coming of Christ.

Generally, the Catholic Church does not try to interpret specific parts of this book, but instead uses parts of it as allegorical images of what God has planned for us in Christ. While some passages are used in Sunday and weekday readings, especially during the Easter season, some feasts of Mary and on New Year’s Day, they are used to remind us that there will indeed be a second coming of Christ and a final judgment of God. Specific details about how and when are left to God.

Bible commentators in general have taken three approaches to interpreting this book:

  • Historical: This views Revelation as poetically describing persecutions and battles that had either taken place earlier — such as between the Egyptians and ancient Israel — or were taking place at the time the book was written, such as persecutions of the early church.
  • Futurist: Here, things in Revelation are seen as promises of future events, though we do not understand how or when.
  • Idealistic: This approach can be seen especially in the use of Revelation for readings on Marian feasts such as with its story of a woman giving birth and a dragon waiting to devour her child (chapter 12) which is often to remind us of both the Virgin Mary and of the church’s role in salvation history.

The section of the book that speaks of the heavenly Jerusalem is probably best thought of as idealistic, since it talks about the future Holy City — made new by Christ and built on the foundation of the church here on earth. We see this when we read that “the wall of the city had 12 courses of stones as its foundation, on which were inscribed the 12 names of the 12 apostles of the Lamb” (Rv 21:14). This reminds us that the church is built on the faith and teaching of the apostles, whose mission continues in the bishops of our day through apostolic succession.

But gemstones are beautiful and grab our attention. The stones of the New Jerusalem are described as “every precious stone; the first course of stones was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh hyacinth, and the twelfth amethyst.”

What an image — colors from red to green to blue to yellow and even pink (some jacinth stones can be pink, as can pearls). Because the image is so beautiful, various commentators have wanted to take it literally and even link specific stones to specific apostles.

There is not always agreement on which stone goes with which apostle.

It is fairly clear that we could link Peter with the first row of foundation stones: jasper. After all, Peter was appointed as the rock upon which Jesus would build his church (Mt 16:18).

And the last row named — purple amethyst — would make sense to link with Matthias, who was chosen to replace Judas Iscariot.

In between, there is not as much agreement. However, the second course of gemstones — blue sapphire — is most often assigned to Andrew, the brother of Peter, or to Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, who shares a major feast day with St. Peter.

Green emerald is often linked to John the Evangelist and beryl — a blue-green stone — to Thomas.

While it is amusing to think of specific gems and the apostles — such as blue sapphire linked to the fisherman Andrew, it is best to keep in mind what Peter himself is credited with saying about building stones: “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1Pet 2:4).

There is another group of 12 stones listed in the Old Testament. Some, but not all, are the same stones as those in Revelation. They were the 12 stones that adorned the breastplate of the High Priest, and they represented the 12 tribes of Israel as the High Priest prayed in the Temple. They are listed in the Book of Exodus (28:15-20) and the breastplate was arranged with four rows of three stones:

  • The first row on what is called the “breastpiece of decision” held carnelian, topaz and emerald;
  • The second row co ntained garnet, sapphire and beryl;
  • The third row included Jacinth (hyacinth), agate and amethyst and;
  • The fourth row held chrysolite, onyx and jasper.

The Temple Institute, located in Jerusalem, explains that these 12 stones are not necessarily the 12 stones we know today by those same names. “This is because the original Hebrew names of these stones as they appear here in the Bible are extremely obscure,” the institute notes. “They are not commonly used, and no description of the stones appears anywhere in the verses themselves.” They added that there are as many as 30 opinions about the final identifications of the specific gemstones and their colors on this ancient vestment.

“The Catholic Encyclopedia” also notes confusion about the names of gemstones in the Bible, saying that “the ancients did not classify their precious stones by analyzing their composition and crystalline forms: names were given them from their color, their use or the country from which they came. Thus it happens that stones of the same or nearly the same color, but of different composition or crystalline form, bear identical names. … (For example) the ancient chrysolite is our topaz, the sapphire is our lazuli …”

This brings us back to the caveat not to take the Book of Revelation literally. In the long run, what might be most important to note about the precious stones, gold and pearls spoken of in the heavenly Jerusalem is to remember the words attributed to St. Paul: “(Y)ou are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord …” (Eph 2:19-21).


Sources: The “Catholic Encyclopedia;” jewishencyclopedia.com; catholic-lane.com; templeinstitute.org; the Encyclopedia Judaica; Book of Revelation at usccb.org; and fisheaters.com.

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