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.

complete verse (Revelation 21:19)

Following are a number of back-translations of Revelation 21:19:

  • Uma: “Twelve kinds of beautiful stones were put on the foundation stones of the fort, each foundation stone was decorated differently [lit., each one kind its decoration]. The first a transparent and smooth stone called yaspis stone. The second a transparent and bright green/blue stone like deep-still water, called nilam stone. [NOTE: Uma has one term that covers blue and green.] The third a white and transparent stone called mirah stone. The fourth a transparent stone green/blue like grass, called zamrud stone.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “The foundation stones for the wall of that city were adorned with all kinds of valuable precious-stones. One stone had the precious-stone jasper, the second had a blue precious-stone, the third one a precious-stone called kalkidun, the fourth one a green precious-stone,” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “The stones on which the wall rested were decorated with many beautiful precious stones. The first stone was jasper, the second was sapphire, the third was chalcedony, the fourth was emerald,” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “The rocks which were its foundation, they were decorated-all-over with all kinds of valuable stones. The first stone, it was decorated with haspe, the second safiro, the third kalsedonia, the fourth esmeralda,” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “The stabilizers of that wall were made beautiful with all kinds of first-class stones. Haspe was the first, the second sapiro, kalsedonia was the third, the fourth esmeralda,” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “Concerning the stones in the foundation of the wall, they were very beautiful. Each was of a different color. The first stone was a firestone called jasper. The stone was a blue stone called sapphire. The third stone was dark blue stone called agate. The fourth stone was a green stone called emerald.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)

Translation commentary on Revelation 21:19 – 21:20

The foundations of the wall of the city: “The foundation stones of the wall around the city,” “The stones upon which the wall around the city was built,” or, more simply, “… of the wall.”

Adorned with every jewel: the Greek verb translated adorned is the same one used of the bride in verse 2. Here every means, more generally, “of all kinds,” “of different kinds.” Every jewel may also be expressed as “all kinds of beautiful (or, expensive) stones.”

The first was jasper: it is not certain whether the Greek text means “the first foundation stone was adorned with jasper” or “the first foundation stone was made of jasper.” The majority of commentaries and translations take the Greek to mean that the first foundation stone was a jasper, that is, that each foundation stone was a single huge precious stone. This involves an apparent inconsistency, but it is not different in kind or degree from other such inconsistencies in this book. So one may translate “the first foundation stone was made of jasper” or “the first stone was made of a green and blue material.”

There is considerable uncertainty over some of the twelve stones named, and modern translations differ. A comparison of ten translations in English (Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, New English Bible, Revised English Bible, New American Bible, Revised, Translator’s New Testament, New Jerusalem Bible, New International Version, An American Translation, Good News Translation) shows that seven of the translations agree almost unanimously on eight of the twelve stones (New Jerusalem Bible is markedly different from the others). Revised Standard Version and Good News Bible differ on the names of three of the stones.

If the names of all the stones are not readily available in a given language, the best thing to do is to identify the stone by its color; for example, “a precious blue stone,” or the like. In some languages, however, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to name this many different colors. In some instances it may be necessary to transliterate the foreign names, “a precious stone called ‘jasper.’ ”

Jasper: see 4.3. New Jerusalem Bible and Biblia Dios Habla Hoy have “diamond.”

Sapphire: a precious stone, usually blue.

Agate: a semiprecious stone of various colors; perhaps green is indicated here.

Emerald: see 4.3 (the emerald is a superior variety of beryl).

Onyx: a semiprecious stone, of various colors; perhaps here a red stone. Here a number of translations have “sardonyx,” which is a variety of onyx.

Carnelian: see 4.3; it is a variety of chalcedony.

Chrysolite: in today’s terminology this is a peridot, a transparent yellowish-green silicate of magnesium. The biblical gem was probably a gold-colored stone; so Good News Translation “yellow quartz,” and New Jerusalem Bible “gold quartz.”

Beryl: usually bluish-green, but of other colors as well.

Topaz: usually yellow.

Chrysoprase: the modern stone is an apple-green chalcedony, but there is uncertainty about the meaning of the Greek term (chrysoprase is a transliteration of the Greek).

Jacinth: or “hyacinth.” This is a reddish-orange variety of zircon. Good News Translation and Revised English Bible have “turquoise,” which is blue or bluish-green.

Amethyst: purple or violet.

Quoted with permission from Bratcher, Robert G. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on The Revelation to John. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1993. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .