In The Beginning


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Of all gemstone etymologies Topaz is one of the oldest and most complicated. The origin of the word 'Topaz' begins in ancient Egypt, with a gemstone known as 'Topazion.' However, as we shall discover, this was a word for an altogether different gemstone: the Topaz gem type we know today only being identified during the 1700's. The source of this confusion originated from the translations of some of the oldest texts known to man: The Old Testament. Through the next pages we shall explore how Topaz's etymological appropriation and confusion took place, from its origins till today.

The first written references connected to the etymology of the word Topaz, appears in the Septuagint's translation of the Old Testament, which dates from 300 B.C. The Septuagint, a group of seventy-two rabbis, was commissioned by Pharaoh Ptolemy II to translate the ancient Hebrew Bible into Greek. The result of their work was the Old Testament, which was then included into the library of Alexandria. According to the Septuagint, the ancient Hebrew gem term: 'Pitdah' in Exodus chapter 28 was the Greek gem 'Topazion.' However, before detailing this we must first get an overview of the translated Exodus passage, its time and its location.
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Around 1444 B.C., Moses and the high priests were delivering the Hebrew slaves out of Egyptian captivity under Pharaoh Amunhotep II. One of the high priests called Aaron was commanded to make an ephod, a type of apron, and to attach a breastplate to it. Aaron was instructed to mount the breastplate, containing the mystical Urim and Thummim, with 12 gems in sequential order each one representing one of the 12 Israelite tribes. The gems in Hebrew and their order were: 1). Odem 2). Pitdah 3). Bareketh 4). Nophak 5). Sappir 6). Yahalom 7). Leshem 8). Shebo 9). Ahlamah 10). Tarshish 11). Shoham 12). Yashpheh.

In 300B.C., 1000 years after the Exodus, the 'Septuagint' translated the 12 gems from Hebrew into Greek as these: 1). Odem = Sardion, 2). Pitdah = Topazion, 3). Bareketh = Smaragdos, 4). Nophak = Anthrax, 5). Sappir = Sappheiros, 6). Yahalom = Iaspis, 7). Leshem = Ligurion, 8). Shebo = Achates, 9). Ahlamah = Amethystos, 10). Tarshish = Chrysolithos, 11). Shoham = Beryllion and 12). Yashpheh =Onychion.

In 1611 A.D., 2000 years after the 'Septuagint's' Greek translation, the 12 gems were translated into English for 'The King James Version.' Executed at the behest of King James I of England, this is the modern translation by which we know the gems in the Old Testament. The 12 gemstones in Exodus chapter 28 of the 'King James Version' were translated into English as such: 1). Sardion = Sardius 2). Topazion = Topaz3). Smaragdos = Carbuncle 4). Anthrax = Emerald 5). Sappheiros = Sapphire 6). Iaspis = Diamond 7). Ligurion = Ligure 8). Achates = Agate 9). Amethystos = Amethyst 10). Chrysolithos = Beryl 11). Beryllion = Onyx 12). Onychion = Jasper.

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"And thou shalt make the breastplate of judgment.
And thou shalt set in it settings of stones, even four rows of stones: The first row shall be a
(1) sardius, a (2*) topaz, and a (3) carbuncle: this shall be the first row.
And the second row shall be an
(4) emerald, a (5) sapphire and a (6) diamond.
And the third row a
(7) ligure, an (8) agate, and an (9) amethyst.
And the fourth row a
(10) beryl, and an (11) onyx, and (12) jasper: they shall be set in gold in their inclosings."

The chart below details each of the 12 gemstones changing identity through more than 3000 years, from the time of the Hebrew exodus in 1444B.C., to the Septuagint translation of 300 B.C., and finally to the time of the King James translation in 1611 A.D.

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In 300 B.C. the Septuagint had translated gem number 2, the 'Pitdah,' as 'Topazion' which was Greek for Peridot. This, as we shall see in the next page seems very unlikely, as Peridot wasn't known at the time of the Exodus. Then in the 1611 'King James Version,' 'Topazion' itself was translated as 'Topaz.' In fact, both subsequent translations of 'Pitdah' were wrong, but it's the 'King James Version' that was responsible for the modern confusion of the 'Topazion' of the Old Testament as 'Topaz.'

Reviewing the 'King James Version' of the Old Testament: three major flaws become very apparent in the translation of the 12 gems:


1. Many of the gemstones appearing in the King James list were unknown to the Septuagint in 300B.C. So how could the impoverished Hebrew slaves of the exodus, 1000 years earlier, have had access to them?
2. The breastplate measured a span in each direction (approx 8-9 inches), which meant that the gems might have measured up to as much as 2 to 2 1/2 inches each. Where could slaves have found gems such as these and in such sizes?
3. The 'Topaz' we know today was only officially recognized in the 17th century, at least 100 hundred years after the 'King James Version.' In addition, at the time of the translation Topaz was used to describe a multitude of yellow to yellow-green transparent gemstones .
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Relative to points 1 and 2 in the 'King James Version' is the subject of expense. On this matter, the 16th Century Jesuit priest and philosopher Cornelis Cornelissen Van Den Steen, surmised that the price of gems such as these would have been in excess of 100,000 gold crowns. Cornelis bids the question: " Whence could the poor Hebrews have obtained such a sum of money, and where could they have found such a diamond?" Cornelis gives another possible reason as to why such gems as these did not fit the circumstances: The tribes assigned such rare gems as diamond, ruby and sapphire in these sizes would have been the center of envy of the other tribes assigned less valuable gems. This he says may have caused dispute and dissension among the newly unified tribes.

However, of all the above it's point 3 that is the clincher to the misnomer of Topaz. Before the more exacting influences of modern science, most gemstones were not classed by specific properties like gravity, refractive indexes etc., but by their color. Therefore, the term Topaz was generic, used at the time to denote many different colored gems. In addition to this, there is the fact that the official Topaz gem type of today wasn't recognized by that name until the 1700's. From these points alone, the 'King James' translation of Topaz being one of the 12 gems of the breastplate can be largely refuted as conjecture.


Having established that our Topaz and its inclusion in the original breastplate was very unlikely; there still remains the question of where the word 'Topaz' originated.

It is important to state that the etymological theories on these pages are speculative, and should not be taken as gospel.

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