High Priest Breastplate

 

 

Jewish high priest wearing the breastplate featuring twelve gemstones

 

 

High Priest Breastplate Worn During Biblical Times

 

 

The high priest breastplate was a religious garment worn by the Jewish high priest during biblical times.  It was embedded with twelve precious gemstones each of which was inscribed with the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were four rows with three gemstones in each.  The breastplate was worn over the top of an ephod which was a tunic-like garment and both are described in the bible's Book of Exodus as being made from the same material and woven out of gold, blue, purple and scarlet coloured threads along with fine linen that was embroidered "with skillful work".

The high priest breastplate was a square shaped item that was held to the ephod by a "girdle" which is a type of belt.  Two shoulder straps were fastened to the front of the garment by golden rings and the breastplate was attached to these with golden chains.

Also known as the Breastplate of Aaron (the first high priest of the Israelites) and occasionally the Breastplate of Judgement, the purpose of the breastplate was to carry the gemstones upon which the names of the tribes of Israel were engraved so that they could be brought before God "as a continual memorial" and Aaron should "bear them upon his heart" when he went into the most holy place.

Problems with accurate translations from both Hebrew and Ancient Greek has made it very difficult to know exactly which gemstones were used in the high priest breastplate and their exact layout.  The fact that the names of certain minerals have changed over the years and many were known by different names or were grouped together under one particular name, has futher added to the confusion.  As a result there have been extensive discussions over many years about the accuracy of the gemstones that were actually present and nothing has been agreed conclusively. 

The following six examples show the gemstones that scholars believe are most likely to have been present and the order in which they were positioned.   

 

 

  • Row 1: ruby, topaz, beryl

  • Row 2: turquoise, sapphirus (old name for lapis lazuli), emerald

  • Row 3: jacinth (reddish-orange stone variety of zircon), agate, amethyst

  • Row 4: chrysolite (possibly chrysoberyl or olivine), onyx, jasper

 

  • Row 1: ruby, topaz, emerald

  • Row 2: turquoise, sapphirus (sapphire was unknown as this time), diamond*

  • Row 3: jacinth, agate, amethyst

  • Row 4: beryl, onyx, jasper

 

 

  • Row 1: sardius (red stone most likely sard but possibly jasper), topaz, carbuncle (old name for any red gemstone cut as a cabochon. Applied particularly to red garnet)

  • Row 2: emerald, sapphirus, diamond*

  • Row 3: ligure (possibly the same as jacinth, variety of zircon), agate, amethyst

  • Row 4: beryl, onyx, jasper

 

  • Row 1: sardius, topaz, emerald

  • Row 2: turquoise, sapphirus, diamond*

  • Row 3: jacinth, agate, amethyst

  • Row 4: beryl, onyx, jasper

 

  • Row 1: sardius, topaz, carbuncle

  • Row 2: emerald, sapphire, diamond*

  • Row 3: jacinth, agate, amethyst

  • Row 4: beryl, onyx, jasper

 

 

*Although some scholars believe one gemstone may have been a diamond, realistically it seems pretty unlikely.  The ancient words used to describe this stone indicates it was a particularly hard mineral that was either white or colourless but it's not known for certain whether diamond was even known at this time.  All of the stones in the high priest breastplate were inscribed with the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel therefore they had to be a reasonable size and with diamond being one of the hardest materials known to man, engraving it would have been incredibly difficult if not impossible.  Another factor to consider is that the Jews had not long been released from Egypt so there was not an abundance of money therefore it's generally believed the stones used in the high priest breastplate would have been fairly inexpensive.

 

 

Further Reading

Details of the Priestly Breastplate by Wikipedia
Ephod Ceremonial Dress | Wikipedia 
Fascinating Article Worth Reading