Alabaster

Alabaster

(Α᾿λάβαστρον) occurs in the N.T. only in the notice of the "alabaster box," or rather vessel, of "ointment of spikenard, very precious," which a woman broke, and with its valuable contents anointed the head of Jesus as he sat at supper, once at Bethany and once in Galilee (Mt 26:7; Mr 14:3; Lu 7:37). At Alabastron, in Egypt, there was a manufactory of small pots and vessels for holding perfumes (Ptolemy 4:5), which were made from a stone found in the neighboring mountains (Irwin's Travels, p. 382). The Greeks gave to these vessels the name of the city from which they came, calling them alabastra. This name was eventually extended to the stone of which they were formed; and at length the term alabastron was applied without distinction to all perfume vessels of whatever materials they consisted. (Herod. 3, 20; AElian, Var. Hist. 12, 18; Theocr. 15:114; Lucian, Asin. 51; Petron. Sat. 60; Pliny, 9:56; comp. Wetstein, 1:515; Kype, Obs. 1, 188.) The material, although sometimes colored, was usually white, which was the most esteemed (Athen. 15:686). Theocritus speaks of golden alabastra (Idyl. 15, 114); and perfume vessels of different kinds of stone, of glass, ivory, bone, and shells, have been found in the Egyptian tombs (Wilkinson, 3, 379). It does not, therefore, by any means follow that the alabastron which the woman used at Bethany was really of alabaster, but a probability that it was such arises from the fact that vessels made of this stone were deemed peculiarly suitable for the most costly and powerful perfumes (Pliny Hist. Nat. 13, 2; 36:8, 24). The woman is said to have "broken" the vessel, which is explained by supposing that it was one of those shaped somewhat like a Florence oil-flask, with a long and narrow neck; and the mouth being curiously and firmly sealed up, the usual and easiest; way of getting at the contents was to break off the upper part of the neck. The alabastrum mentioned in the Gospels was, according to Epiphanius, a measure containing one cotyla, or about half a pint (Smith's Dict. of Class. Antiq. s.v.). The word itself is, however, properly the name of the substance of which the box was formed, and hence in 2Ki 21:13, the Sept. use ὁ ἀλάβαστρος for the Hebrew צִלִּחִת (tsallach'-ath, a dish, patina, λήκυθος, ampulla). Horace (Od. 4, 12) uses onyx in the same way. Alabaster is a calcareous spar, resembling marble, but softer and more easily worked, and therefore very suitable for being wrought into boxes (Pliny, 3, 20). The alabastra were not usually made of that white and soft gypsum to which the name of alabaster is now for the most part confined. Dr. John Hill, in his notes on Theophrastus, sets this matter in a clear light, distinguishing the alabastrites of naturalists as hard, and he adds: "This stone was by the Greeks called also sometimes onyx, and by the Latins marmor onychites, from its use in making boxes to preserve precious ointments, which boxes were commonly called 'onyxes' and 'alabasters.' So Dioscorides interprets." It is apprehended that, from certain appearances common to both, the same name was given not only to the common alabaster, called by mineralogists gypsum, and by chemists sulfate of lime, but also to the carbonate of lime, or that harder stone from which the alabastra were usually made (Penny Cyclopcedia, s.v.).

By the English word alabaster is likewise to be understood both that kind which is also known by the name of gypsum, and the Oriental alabaster which is so much valued on account of its translucency, and for its variety of colored streakings, red, yellow, gray, etc., which it owes for the most part to the admixture of oxides of iron. The latter is a fibrous carbonate of lime, of which there are many varieties, satin spar being one of the most common. The former is a hydrous sulfate of lime, and forms, when calcimined and ground, the well-known substance called plaster of Paris. Both these kinds of alabaster, but especially the latter, are and have been long used for various ornamental purposes, such as the fabrication of vases, boxes, etc., etc. The ancients considered alabaster (carbonate of lime) to be the best material in which to preserve their ointments (Pliny, H. N. 13, 3). Herodotus (3, 20) mentions an alabaster vessel of ointment which Cambyses sent, among other things, as a present to the AEthiopians. Hammond (Annotat. ad Matthew 26, 7) quotes Plutarch, Julius Pollux, and Atheneus, to show that alabaster was the material in which ointments were wont to be kept. Pliny (9, 56) tells us that the usual form of these alabaster vessels was long and slender at the top, and round and full at the bottom. He likens them to the long pearls, called elenchi, which the Roman ladies suspended from their fingers or dangled from their ears. He compares also the green pointed cone of a rose-bud to the form of an alabaster ointment- vessel (It. N. 21, 4). The onyx (Hor. Od. 4, 12, 17, "Nardi parvus onyx"), which Pliny says is another name for alabastrites, must not be confounded with the precious stone of that name, which is a sub-species of the quartz family of minerals, being a variety of agate. Perhaps the name of onyx was given to the pink-colored variety of the calcareous alabaster, in allusion to its resembling the finger-nail (onyx) in color, or else because the calcareous alabaster bears some resemblance to the agate onyx in the characteristic lunar-shaped mark of the last-named stone, which mark reminded the ancients of the whitish semicircular spot at the base of the finger-nail. SEE MARBLE; SEE VASE.

Bible concordance for ALABASTER.

Definition of alabaster

See also the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.

 
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