Compare Bible translations or references and you may notice a difference in how the Hebrew word nechosheth (Strong’s H5178) is treated. There are three possible translations that are asserted: copper, brass, or bronze. Which is accurate?
The KJV translates nechosheth as “brass” or “brazen” 131x. It can also be translated as other things, such as “fetters” or “chains” based on context. It has a very broad application. Strong’s defines it as “copper; hence, something made of that metal, that is, coin, a fetter; figuratively base (as compared with gold or silver): – brasen, brass, chain, copper, fetter (of brass), filthiness, steel”.
Is brass a proper and acceptable translation of nechosheth? Some claim it cannot be, by asserting:
- “In ancient Israel there was no such metal known as brass.” [source]
- “The word translated ‘brass’ in the King James Version would be more correctly translated bronze, since the alloy used was copper and tin (Ex 27:4).” [source]
- “[Brass,] which is an alloy of copper and zinc, was not known till the thirteenth century. What is designated by this word in Scripture is properly copper (Deuteronomy 8:9).” [source]
- “The word nechosheth is improperly translated by ‘brass.’ In most places of the Old Testament the correct translation would be copper, although it may sometimes possibly mean bronze a compound of copper and tin.” [source]
We may simplify these claims into two arguments: (1) the term brass is anachronistic and inaccurate, and (2) brass did not exist in the ancient world.
Is brass an inaccurate term?
In modern English, the word brass refers to a specific alloy of copper, but until the 1700’s is would be a more general term for any copper alloy.
The Online Etymological Dictionary states that brass was “originally any alloy of copper, in England usually with tin (this is now called bronze), later and in modern use an alloy of roughly two parts copper to one part zinc.” The same source also states: “In Middle English, the distinction between bronze (copper-tin alloy) and brass (copper-zinc alloy) was not clear, and both were called bras”.
So, etymologically and historically speaking, brass has been a much broader term to refer to any copper alloy. This changed in the 1700’s when advances in science made it easier to discern different elements and alloys, which also brought a need for more technical terminology. Wikipedia states of brass: “…its true nature as a copper-zinc alloy was not understood until the post-medieval period because the zinc vapor which reacted with copper to make brass was not recognised as a metal.” As part of this new knowledge of metals, the term bronze was first used around 1721 (see Online Etymological Dictionary and Merriam-Webster).
Therefore, we see that brass is historically as broad of a term as nechosheth. In the English of the KJV, it is the best and most accurate term.
But, with what we know today about the differences between brass and bronze, is brass still an accurate translation for today’s world? This can only be answered if we are absolutely sure that nechosheth refers exclusively to bronze and that brass is an impossibility.
Did brass exist in the ancient world?
It is clear that the alloy we today call brass was present in the ancient world. Conclusive evidence and scholarly opinion establish this fact. A few examples:
- The Roman dupondius coin used in the early Roman Empire was often struck in a type of brass called orichalcum [source]
- “Calamine brass” was being made in Asia Minor as far back as the 1st millennium B.C. [source]
- “…numerous copper-zinc alloys (e.g. brass, gunmetal) that have been found in prehistoric contexts from the Aegean to India in the 3rd to the 1st millennium BC.” [source]
- Brass artifacts have been discovered from 5th millennium B.C. in China [source]
Since (1) brass existed in the ancient world, (2) since nechosheth is vague at best about the precise alloy of the metal, we can therefore safely say it is plausible that the metals described could be actual brass.
Do we know what the metals were?
Since the term nechosheth, and even the Greek word chalkos (Strong’s G5475), are vague terms for copper or its alloys, we simply cannot say for certain the precise metal they are speaking of. The terminology is too vague and the ancient metallurgists themselves almost certainly did not have the sophisticated understanding of metal composition we have today.
It must be state that according to history and archeology that bronze was in far greater use than brass. It was far cheaper and easier to produce, and it would appear that ancient brass was considered to be more valuable. We might assume that because bronze was more common that it is more likely that bronze and not brass is being referred to. But this is purely supposition and we cannot rule out that at least some appearances of nechosheth could be referring to brass. We simply do not know since we cannot examine every object made of nechosheth.
The truest definition of nechosheth would need to be vague and inclusive, so “a copper alloy” is probably the best definition. In modern English, there just is not a simple, concise word to use that has that same meaning and “copper alloy” fails to be an workable translation. To try to force nechosheth to be simply bronze is inaccurate: an interpretation rather than a translation. We cannot honestly say what the metals used were by modern classification. It is like trying to take the English word snow and determine which of the dozens of terms of snow used by Eskimos it should be.
The word brass in its classic, KJV English definition is the best equivalent term to be found. It is the same broad term for any copper alloy that we see in nechosheth.