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I was talking with a colleague about the bronze snake of Numbers 21, because a student had referred to it as the "copper snake" on a test. (Bronze of course is an alloy of copper and tin.)

I seemed to remember that the Hebrew word doesn't differ, and sure enough, נְחשֶׁת can refer to either.

So we got to wondering how the translators differentiated it. I thought maybe the Septuagint would have used a different word. But I see that their common translation, χάλκεος, is also ambiguous.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the KJV mostly translates these words as "brass", i.e. copper & zinc!

Do we have a way of differentiating these? Do we guess based on chronology / archaeology? Or is it a shot in the dark?

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    The ancients had no way to truly distinguish between copper and bronze (the many alloys of copper). They used what came from the ground, lightly smelted. Copper was never used in its pure form because it could not be refined to high purity. By contrast, brass is a very modern alloy of copper and zinc
    – Dottard
    Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 19:36
  • In researching an answer I discovered that there was indeed an ancient form of brass, although it was not the same as the modern variety. Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 23:18
  • and etymologically, the word "brass" in older forms of English was used for what we call "bronze" (see my answer below). Commented Nov 5, 2023 at 3:52

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The Hebrew word נְחשֶׁת {nekh-o'-sheth} is usually translated as 'bronze.' Bibles that say "brass" tend to be older translations. Copper is another possibility but this translation is rare. Strong's 5178 indicates that the word can have a connotation of lust or harlotry. "Brazen" also carries such a meaning. This part would be a good question for the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange.

In terms of archaeology, the time in question was the Bronze Age, and all three (bronze, brass, copper) are in evidence. Ancient forms of what was called brass were not the same as modern brass but were highly valued for their gold-like appearance. This may explain why the KJV uses the term, especially in the context of a passage involving "fiery serpents." This "brass" seems to be close to or the same as what we call "bronze."

Conclusion: Copper would be the least likely choice. Brass of the ancient variety [which may be what we call bronze] is also possible. Bronze is the most likely candidate.


Addendum: thanks to the people at English.SE, I see that the Online Etymology Dictionary says that the Old English word "brass" refers to what we call "bronze." Mystery solved!

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  • Great! And I see from that article that what it calls "aurichalcum" is pretty unlikely to have been mentioned in the OT (since the finds we have are only as early as first-century AD in Bohemia). But are you able to dig up or elaborate more on why "copper" should be ruled out? Or I guess on reflection it might just make sense to say that if the question is the ten percentage, it's probably less a hermeneutics question and more an archaeology of metallurgy question... Commented Nov 5, 2023 at 4:29
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I don't understand why copper isn't used more or is considered unlikely.

I understand the Bible writers & Israelite peoples/ancient peoples generally thought of the ore as copper ore & smelted it for copper & all alloys were "copper" alloys in their minds. So translators capturing the essence of their thought may prefer copper over bronze.

I also get the argument a lot of copper was really alloys & mostly were bronze alloys technically. So modern science calls it bronze age but culturally in ancients mind they were more likely thinking the term copper for all of it. Hope that makes sense.

Jewish Hebrew dictionaries and Jewish translations of the Bible always translate this word as "copper." Why would Christian translations and dictionaries commonly translate nehhoshet as brass or bronze while Jewish dictionaries and translations use "copper?"

I think modern culture we have specific uses for the different metals due to more scientific knowledge so we are dogmatic & very specific between copper bronze & brass... because we make fittings and wires and we're acutely aware of the difference.

The original writers were Jewish descendants so I don't see why we don't predominantly go with copper like them. some older & newer articles highlighting copper & ancient mines usually use the term copper. So I prefer it in translation description of Bible objects:

A 1975 "Insight on the News" Watchtower article mentions:

Ancient Mines Found

• Down in the Negev desert, near the town of Eilat on the Gulf of ‘Aqaba, a British-backed archaeological team has located what they call the ‘oldest underground copper mines ever found.’ Described as ‘enormous and sophisticated,’ the mines are believed to date from about 1400 B.C.E. They had air shafts allowing miners to work several hundred feet below the surface. According to the “Sunday Times” of London, analysis of slag samples, made by a Chessington, Surrey, laboratory, showed that the “smelting method then used in Israel was every bit as efficient as present-day techniques in separating copper from ore.” It says the discovery calls for rewriting “the entire pre-history of metal technology.”

Such discoveries may surprise archaeologists, but the Bible shows that, even before the global flood of Noah’s day, men were making tools of copper and iron.​— Gen. 4:22.

A 2013 Watchtower magazine article entitled "‘Out of the Mountains You Will Mine Copper’" highlighting archeological updates mentions:

Archaeologists have discovered in Israel and Jordan a number of ancient mining and smelting sites, such as Feinan, Timna, and Khirbat en-Nahas.

The landscape in Feinan and in Timna is dotted with shallow pits, where miners extracted copper over a period of at least 2,000 years. Even today, a visitor can find green-speckled fragments of copper-bearing stones scattered about. The ancient miners laboriously chiseled the rock surface with stone tools to extract copper from visible veins. When those sources were exhausted, they dug deeper with metal tools, enlarging caves and carving out deep shafts and tunnels. In the Bible book of Job, we find a description of such mining operations. (Job 28:2-11) This was hard physical labor; in fact, from the third century to the fifth century C.E., Roman authorities sentenced hardened criminals and other prisoners to work in the Feinan copper mines.

Immense heaps of slag are found at Khirbat en-Nahas (meaning “Ruins of Copper”), suggesting that industrial-scale copper smelting was done there. Scholars believe that ores were brought there from nearby mines, such as Feinan and Timna. To separate the copper from the ore, blowpipes and foot bellows were used to raise the temperature of the charcoal fires to about 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit (1,200°C) for eight to ten hours. It usually took 11 pounds (5 kg) of ore to produce about 2 pounds (1 kg) of copper ingots, which could then be cast into various objects.

My study notes on tin I had an excerpt from Insight on the Scriptures:

Tin’s greatest usefulness, however, was as a hardening agent; copper alloyed with 2 to 18 percent tin has been found in ancient specimens of bronze.

Since they could smelt copper fairly purely I believe most sacred or religious items crafted on God's instructions were mostly copper or intended to be copper since culturally they were aware of mixing things & purity & cleanliness of things plus they had smelting areas for purifying copper from ore.

Like the copper serpent figure, I believe is copper not bronze because it was instructed by God to be nehosshet; plus we see Jewish Bibles & dictionaries say the word predominantly refers to copper.

The King James was written in Old English & usually those people referred to copper as brass back in the day & may have influenced why they used brass mostly in the KJV translation & many translations will follow suit. Plus a lot of people are staunch King James supporters like a lot of people feel this translation is sacred & we can't change it. So credibility was put to a new translation for being similar to KJV Bible, even copying it's errors. So just because KJV does it doesn't mean it's the best. I think looking at Jewish explanations & thought process is more original to the translation & why I prefer the use of copper.

Another interesting article from the Jewish perspective: Ancient Hebrew Research Center—Copper.

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Here's some additional information about bronze, brass, and cast iron.

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, while brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Brass first appeared in the first millennium BCE, much later than bronze, due to the extreme difficulty in combining copper with zinc, which vaporizes at 177 centigrade degrees below the temperature required to melt copper. The zinc metal bubbled through the molten copper alloying with the copper to form brass.

Note that bronze can be cast and the edge of a bronze sword can be work hardened, but iron must be forged: repeatedly heated, hammered, and quenched, and then sharpened by grinding. However, iron ore is much more plentiful than copper or tin ores. Bronze has a melting point of about 1000° C while that of iron is around 1260° C.

Rockwell hardness: Copper – 10 Bronze – 42 Brass – 55 Cast iron – 86

The King James Version Also of interest is that the noun, bronze, was introduced into English in 1721 — 90 years after the publication of the King James Version in 1611. In Middle English, both brass and bronze were known as bras.

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