jewels in the New Jerusalem

The Greek text that describes the city of the New Jerusalem in terms of jewels and other precious materials is translated in the German New Testament translation of Klaus Berger and Christiane Nord (publ. 2005) by using color references: “The city wall is made of jasper, and the city itself of gold that is as pure as glass. The foundations of the city wall are of great beauty, for they are built out of precious stones in many different colours. The first foundation-stone is jasper, the second blue sapphire, the third red agate, the fourth light green emerald, the fifth reddish brown onyx, the sixth yellowish red carnelian, the seventh yellow-gold quartz, the eighth beryl as green as the sea, the ninth shining yellow topaz, the tenth chalcedony, shimmering green-golden, the eleventh deep red jacinth, the twelfth purple amethyst. The twelve gates are twelve pearls, each gate is made from a single pearl. The main street of the city is of gold as shining as glass.” (for the German version see below.)

Chistiane Nord (in Open Theology 2016; 2: p. 566ff.) explains: “One of the purposes of this passage is certainly a referential-descriptive one. John sees the city in a vision and describes it to his readers. The referential function of this rather technical description works quite well for most readers, and certainly best for those with a specialist knowledge of precious and semi-precious stones. But apart from the referential purpose, the author may have had the intention to express his admiration for the city he has seen. Asked about their associations when reading or listening to the text, most people answer that they are thinking of the enormous value represented by the gold and the stones.

“This, again, is a rather modern perspective. We might wonder why a follower of Jesus, who showed so much contempt for ‘the world’ and its riches himself, would precisely describe his vision of God’s ‘new creation’ as something so rich in material terms. Precisely the great variety of different stones would seem to suggest that perhaps the author’s focus might have been rather on the colours than on the value. On the grounds of the assumption that his addressees knew the colours of all the stones he is describing, he need not mention them explicitly. But if modern translators want their target audience to share the author’s admiration of the beauty and colourfulness of his vision, they would have to make explicit what is implicit in the text. (…) Here it becomes clear that the text has also an expressive-evaluative or emotive function apart from the referential one. But even the expressive purpose may not be the most important one. The vision of the New Jerusalem is presented at the end of last book of the Christian Bible, following the horrors of the apocalypse, and it seems to be the absolute culmination of the Christian message. We may assume, therefore, that there is also an appellative purpose underlying the text, since the New Jerusalem presents the ideal of God’s new creation, for which a large number of martyrs through history were prepared to give their lives. An appellative intention cannot be carried out by a technical description -– for this purpose, we definitely need to know the colours. Therefore, our translation makes explicit the colours. Some critics found that this procedure reduces the poetic effect of the passage. However, the use of adjective compounds to describe the different shades of the stones (e.g., gelbrot, “yellow-red”, or meergrün, “ocean-green”, glasrein, “glass-pure”) is intended to compensate for any loss in poeticity.”

The text in German: Die Stadtmauer ist aus Jaspis erbaut, die Stadt selbst aus glasreinem Gold. Die Fundamente der Stadtmauer sind von großer Schönheit, denn sie bestehen aus verschiedenfarbenen Edelsteinen. Das erste Fundament ist aus grünlichem Jaspis, das zweite aus blauem Saphir, das dritte aus rotem Chalzedon, das vierte aus hellgrünem Smaragd, das fünfte aus rotbraunem Sardonyx, das sechste aus gelbrotem Carneol, das siebte aus goldgelbem Chrysolit, das achte aus meergrünem Beryll, das neunte aus gelbglänzendem Topas, das zehnte aus goldgrün schimmerndem Chrysopras, das elfte aus dunkelrotem Hyazinth, das zwölfte aus purpurnem Amethyst. Die zwölf Tortürme sind zwölf Perlen, jeder Torturm besteht aus einer einzigen Perle, und die Hauptstraße der Stadt ist aus glasreinem Gold.