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Revelation 21:19-20 (NIV) lists twelve kinds of precious stones that make up the city walls of the New Jerusalem: Jasper, Sapphire, Agate, Emerald, Onyx, Carnelian, Chrysolite, Beryl, Topaz, Chrysoprase, Jacinth, and Amethyst.

According to some Christian articles like The 12 Foundation Stones in New Jerusalem, these are all anisotropic gems.

I'm no expert in precious stones and a definitive list seems hard to find, but according to the article, 16 of 28 common gemstones are anisotropic, but that these weren't known until the last Century, around 1900 years after Revelation was written.

I think the naive odds that they would all be anisotropic are (16 choose 12) / (28 choose 12) which is about 1/16715. (The article suggests that the omission of common isotropic gems such as diamonds, makes it less likely than this.)

So, as best I can tell, if the facts are all correct, this either suggests:

  • The person who conceived of the city knew more about properties of precious stones than should have been possible in the 1st Century AD.

  • The author of Revelation "got lucky" (perhaps partly due to confirmation bias or other statistical fallacies).

  • There are perhaps more obvious properties that these gems have in common, that were known about at the time.

How good a case is there that the list of gemstones was revealed without information that was possible to know at the time?

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3 Answers 3

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It doesn't require advanced scientific knowledge to preferentially select optically anisotropic gems

True, a modern definition of optical anisotropy (more specifically known as "birefringence") relies on polarized light to make for a clear distinction, but most of these gems produce visually noticeable effects that require no real scientific knowledge of polarized light. For the more transparent/translucent birefringent materials like calcite, if you lay a large polished piece of them over text, you'll see two copies of the text through the crystal.

All birefringent gems behave this way; light entering them takes more than one path, and one of those paths is insensitive to the angle at which light enters, while the other path is sensitive to the angle; as the gem rotates relative to the light source, the paths collapse and split apart again, an effect visible to the naked eye in most cases, and obvious to anyone who works with gems. You don't need modern science to say "these gems share certain behaviors as the angle changes"; you might not know why, and you can't measure the change in polarization precisely without modern science, but the difference is visible, and would tend to produce non-random selections if you're intentionally selecting for gems that would produce the most impressive effects (in terms of changing colors) as you move around them.

As an additional note, there's multiple types of optical anisotropy (uniaxial negative, uniaxial positive, and biaxial), and the gems in question do not fall into any single one of these categories (e.g. topaz is biaxial, jasper [a type of quartz] is uniaxial positive).

Beyond that, you don't even need to be aware of the optical properties to do a decent job of separating optically isotropic gems from the others; optically isotropic gems are generally either:

  1. Amorphous gems (e.g. amber, opal)
  2. Cubic gems (e.g. diamond, garnet)

Basically, if you selected for "Naturally forms regular crystals, but not ones which naturally form cubic crystals", you'd also end up with a set of optically anisotropic crystals. Why they'd prefer non-cubic crystals I can't begin to speculate on, but it's another way in which a non-random selection for optical anisotropy could occur without understanding polarized light.

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    So, for a non-scientist, the gems they chose all behave kind of alike if you hold them to the light? Nov 25, 2022 at 9:25
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    @GrimmTheOpiner: Well, as you twist them in your hand and hold them to the light. If you hold them to the light without moving them (or yourself, or the light source), you might not notice. Nov 25, 2022 at 11:08
  • Just to add: Polarized light is naturally occurring. The reflection of sunlight off water is polarized, with the amount of polarization depending on the angle of the reflection. Anyone who looked at sunlight reflecting off water through these gems would probably notice it.
    – isaacg
    Nov 30, 2022 at 21:39
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There are a lot of extremely shaky claims here:

  1. The article quotes a single English translation (the New International Version from 1978) of a Greek text written nearly two thousand years ago. A collection of translators' commentaries on the passage reveals that identifying the gems is not necessarily easy. For instance

    Chrysolite (χρυσόλιθος)
    From χρυσός gold and λίθος stone. Lit., gold-stone.
    Identified by some with our topaz, by others with amber. Pliny describes it as "translucent with golden luster."

  2. The reference to "28 stones that are normally regarded as gemstones" is not expanded upon, and I can find no such consensus list. The International Gem Society's "Gem Encyclopedia" lists 304. Not all of these would have been known to the author two thousand years ago, but without a contemporary source it's hard to say which would be.
  3. As the article states, statistical probability is only useful to compare against choosing completely at random. However, there's no good reason to take this as the null hypothesis, as people rarely choose things completely at random. It makes more sense to assume that the author of the Book of Revelation chose them for some aesthetic, symbolic, or poetic reason, in which case it's less surprising for them to have something in common.
  4. As pointed out in ShadowRanger's answer the choices may be directly related to the optic properties of the gem without any scientific theory, since the effects of optical anisotropy are easily visible to the naked eye.
  5. There are many properties by which gems could be categorised; if we accept the claimed probability despite all of the above, the author could simply have kept trying different properties until they found a good result.
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    I think the claim in "some Christian articles", and this one in particular, is that the author did not select randomly. Random selection is just a null hypothesis, which the argument attempts to rule out with the 16 of 28 stuff. So naturally there is no evidence presented that the author chose at random, since the argument is that it's not what happened. The reason for ruling it out, is that someone who doesn't realise that optical anisotropy can be observed visually, might say "it's just a coincidence", so anyone claiming it's intentional needs to dismiss that objection first. Nov 23, 2022 at 18:44
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    Interesting. "Chrysolite" is damn close to the "Crystite" that was of one of the resources you mined for in M.U.L.E.. I wonder if Dani Buten did that on purpose?
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 24, 2022 at 0:50
  • Gold stone could be something more obnoxious; other parts of the Bible when describing Heaven have gold being pure enough to be transparent or translucent; so why not here? I'm left wondering if you actually made a crystal out of gold atoms (good luck with that; it's not going to be easy) if it would be transparent.
    – Joshua
    Nov 24, 2022 at 3:25
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    @T.E.D. Danielle Bunten Berry RIP Nov 24, 2022 at 8:41
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    @Joshua Making gold that is not crystalline is the tricky thing. The gold in your ring is already crystallized. (If you want to make a single crystal, that will be trickier). The only way to make gold transparent, is to make it very, very, thin. Solid gold is opaque because it is a conductor of electricity. Nov 25, 2022 at 9:37
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ShadowRanger pulls apart the details of the claim. I'd like to make a note about the dangers of applying modern meaning to the words in the Bible. As noted in the footnotes for Rev 21:19-20, "the precise identification of some of these precious stones is uncertain."

When interpreting the Bible literally, you have to watch out for translation issues. There are no original copies of the Book of Revelation, and what we have is largely translated from Greek.

Novum Testamentum Graece provides this...

19 οἱ θεμέλιοι τοῦ τείχους τῆς πόλεως παντὶ λίθῳ τιμίῳ κεκοσμημένοι· ὁ θεμέλιος ὁ πρῶτος ἴασπις, ὁ δεύτερος σάπφιρος, ὁ τρίτος χαλκηδών, ὁ τέταρτος σμάραγδος,

20 ὁ πέμπτος σαρδόνυξ, ὁ ἕκτος σάρδιον, ὁ ἕβδομος χρυσόλιθος, ὁ ὄγδοος βήρυλλος, ὁ ἔνατος τοπάζιον, ὁ δέκατος χρυσόπρασος, ὁ ἑνδέκατος ὑάκινθος, ὁ δωδέκατος ἀμέθυστος,

While the names of the gems are often the same as we use now, their definitions would not have been as precise as the modern definitions. They could mean any gem of a particular color, gems from a particular location, or even a completely different gem. This uncertainty makes any claim about their shared properties dubious.

"Jasper" ἴασπις

Possibly any translucent, green stone including nephrite, chalcedony, or chrysoprase.

"Sapphire" σάπφιρος

While the literal translation is "sapphire", the contemporary meaning refers to any blue precious stone, likely lapis lazuli. Modern sapphire may be "hyakinthos".

"Agate" χαλκηδών

The literal translation is "chalcedony", which the article uses. Agate is chalcedony and quartz.

"Emerald" σμάραγδος

"Smáragdos" which can describe any transparent, precious green stone.

"Onyx" σαρδόνυξ

Literally "sardonyx", which the article uses, a red onyx.

"Ruby" σάρδιον

"Sardius", which the article uses, which could be two stones: carnelian or sard. Both are red.

"Chrysolite" χρυσόλιθος

Possibly peridot.

"Beryl" βήρυλλος

A precious blue-green/sea-water stone.

"Topaz" τοπάζιον

Probably peridot. Literally "topázion", named for Topazios or modern Zabargad Island from where peridot was mined.

"Turquoise" χρυσόπρασος

"Chrysoprasus", which the article uses, a precious stone of golden-green color.

"Jacinth" ὑάκινθος

"Hyacinth", a precious stone of the same color as the flower.

"Amethyst" ἀμέθυστος

Seems correct. The Greeks thought it could keep you from getting drunk.

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    I'd like to make a note about the dangers of applying modern meaning to the words in the Bible. And to prove this with an example that is extremely difficult to disagree with: Suppose that the bible uses the phrase "mirror image". Think about what kind of inaccurate mirrors that existed thousands of years ago. Those where far away from our modern mirrors that just flips the view but othervise presents a perfect representation.
    – hlovdal
    Nov 24, 2022 at 13:04
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    I don't know if you intended this, @hlovdal, but the phrase "we see as through a glass, darkly" comes from 1 Corinthians, in reference to mirrors. Nov 24, 2022 at 13:30
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    This answer demonstrates a proper hermeneutic, which is where skepticism of such claims should start. There's no evidence the author was trying to select for these stones, and it's dubious the stones explicitly mentioned in the claim were the ones the author intended, and it's further questionable the author was even aware of them.
    – user11643
    Nov 24, 2022 at 20:18
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    "thaough a glass darkly" it was not a mirror. perhaps a hand-made window pane. glass mirrors were unknown before the industrial revolution and the invention of float glass.
    – Jasen
    Nov 25, 2022 at 9:59
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    @Jasen The Greek was "ἐσόπτρου" ("esoptron", see biblehub.com/1_corinthians/13-12.htm#lexicon), otherwise used in the Bible one other time (biblehub.com/greek/strongs_2072.htm), where in context it clearly means "mirror" (biblehub.com/text/james/1-23.htm). The Vulgate translates it as "speculum" (perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/…), also clearly "mirror". "Glass" is merely a translation into the analogous object in modern English, not a judgement on the material of construction. Nov 25, 2022 at 18:05

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