Hebrew: g‚bÓysh, a gem that resembles a hailstone. Job 28:18. Mother of pearl, Esther 1:6.
Greek: margaros; Matthew 7:6, 13:45-46; 1 Timothy 2:9; Revelation 17:4, 18:12 & 16; 21:21.
Probable Identification: Pearl or mother-of-pearl.
The fact that pearl is not a mineral makes pearls no less precious as gems. Pearl is composed of nacre or alternating, overlapping microscopic platelets of 82 to 86% translucent aragonite (calcium carbonate, CaCO3) and 10 to 14% conchiolin, a translucent organic compound similar to horn. This lamellar structure reflects light in an iridescent play of colors.
Impurities in water affect the color of pearl, which ranges from white to black. The mantle tissues of numerous different oysters, mussels, clams, conchs, and abalones form pearls by secreting nacre in concentric layers around irritating grains. While many marine and freshwater mollusks are capable of forming pearls and mother of pearl, Pinctada margaritifera of the Pacific Ocean produces most of the natural and cultured pearls used in commerce today. Pinctada maxima, which lives in Indian Ocean waters near Broome, Western Australia, produces large pearls with a golden color.
The Egyptians and Romans prized pinkish pearls from the Red Sea. Isolated finds of pearls in Mesopotamia date back into the prehistoric period, but the earliest dateable pearl necklace at Susa indicates that a pearl fishing industry arose in the Persian Gulf in the first millennium BC. This pearl necklace belonged to an Achaemenid princes and dates from at least the fourth century BC. Homer portrayed the Greek goddess Hera as wearing pearl earrings ďwith triple drops that cast a trembling light.Ē Roman and Byzantine emperors replaced the laurels in their crowns with pearls and displayed pearls lavishly in other regalia. European royalty and nobility have maintained the tradition. The fact that pearls need no faceting, grinding or polishing to bring out their beauty contributed to their early popularity as natural symbols of perfection and beauty. Their soft, radiant luster and aquatic origin also made them widely prized as symbols of the moon, purity, and harmony.
The Bible reflects the high esteem for pearls that prevailed in biblical times. The pearls of Matthew 7:6 stand for divine revelation and spiritual perfection.
The pearl of great price in Matthew 13:45, like the buried treasure (Matthew 13:44), represents both divine revelation and the value that Jesus Christ places on humanity. The divine revelation is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that brings sudden joy and leads to a life of pilgrimage. Disciples can make this joy their own only by giving up everything else in order to secure it.
The twelve pearls of Revelation 21 are the heavenly counterparts of the twelve stones of the high priestís breastplate (Exodus 28:21). As gates, these pearls stand in the tradition of ancient triumphal arches such as Trajanís Arch, which commemorates the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. The microscopic lamellar structure of pearl, laid down to cover irritants within the mantle of a live mollusc, corresponds to Jesus Christís victory over sin and death, which is the church's one foundation. The stones and pearls in Revelation 21 also stand for the tribes of Israel, who have been exalted by their millennia of persecution.
Scripture, however, also associates the extravagant use of pearls, purple, scarlet, and jewels with harlotry and hedonism (e.g., Revelation 17:4-5).
William Barclay observes in connection with St. Paul's use of a collection of Old Testament texts in Romans 3:10-18, "It was a very common method of rabbinic preaching to string texts together like this. It was called charaz, which literally means stringing pearls." We still speak of "pearls of wisdom."
Barclay, William, 1975. The letter to the Romans, revised edition. Philadelphia: Westminster Press; 55.
Dickinson, Joan Younger, 1986. The Book of Pearls. New York: Bonanza Books.
Landman, Neil H., Paula M. Mikkelson, Rudiger Bieler, & Bennett Bronson, 2001. Columbusís pearls. Natural History; 110-8: 12-14.
Lucas & Harris, op. cit., 401-402.
Schumann, op. cit; 230-239.
Summers, Adam, 2006. Tough as Shells: a promising candidate for artificial bone. Natural History; 115-5; 28-29.
Copyright 2004, 2005, 2006 by Richard S. Barnett, Virtual Curator of