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SILVER (כֶּ֫סֶף, H4084; Gr. ἀργύριον, G736), one of the precious metals. It is white in color, ductile and so malleable that it can be beaten into leaves as thin as 0.00025 mm. Silver has a density of 10.5 and melts at 961oC. It forms alloys with other metallic elements, including gold, copper, nickel and zinc with 10-15% silver commonly present in native gold. Electrum, which was used for many early coins, is the natural alloy of gold with 15-45% silver; it was called asem in ancient Egypt. The crystal structure of silver, like gold (q.v.) and copper (q.v.) is a facecentered cubic lattice. The cell dimensions of the basic cubic units of four atoms of silver and of gold are almost identical and because of this silver substitutes for gold, and vice versa, right up to 100%.

Native silver occurs much more rarely than native gold, but is widely distributed in small amounts and would have been the earliest source of the metal, as at Laurion, Greece (mine, mining, q.v.). It sometimes is of primary origin, but generally is secondary, occurring in a zone of secondary enrichment, in a silver lode or deposit. Together with other silver sulphides occurring in this zone, the silver developed by the action of hot water vapors or oxygen upon the primary silver sulphides of which argentite is the most important ore mineral. The uppermost, weathered parts of silver lodes or deposits, above the zone of secondary enrichment, include cerargyrite (silver chloride), another important ore. These silver ores are mined primarily for their silver content. Much of the world production of silver comes from smelting ores of lead, such as galena, a lead sulphide, and sulphides of copper and zinc all of which contain a small percentage of silver.

Silver can be extracted from its ores by a number of simple metallurgical processes, one being the process of cupellation with lead thought to have been used by the Babylonians, and still used today. The silver ores are smelted with lead or lead ores in a simple furnace. The resultant lead-silver alloy is then melted on a porous hearth of bone-ash or marl. The lead is oxidized by the oxygen in the air to form a layer of molten lead oxide. Any other base metal impurities are also oxidized and dissolved in the molten lead oxide which is skimmed away (“dross,” Ezek 22:18) or run off the top of the crucible or vessel. Only the silver, with any gold or platinum present, remains and is free of base metals (cf. Isa 1:22; metals and metallurgy q.v.).

The tarnish which forms on silver results from the action of sulphur or sulphur compounds in the air forming a film of silver sulphide on the surface. Such an effect is particularly marked in industrial cities but in Biblical times it would be a very rare occurrence and only adjacent to places where sulphide ores were being smelted. See Coins.


J. R. Partington, A Textbook of Inorganic Chemistry, 6th ed. (1950), 733-738; H. H. Read, Rutley’s Elements of Mineralogy, 26th ed. (1970), 255-262; S. L. Smith, “Silver,” EBr, 20 (1970), 536, 537.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

It is likely that the ancient supply of silver came from the mountains of Asia Minor where it is still found in abundance associated with lead as argentiferous galena, and with copper sulfide. The Turkish government mines this silver on shares with the natives. The Sinaitic peninsula probably also furnished some silver. Later Phoenician ships brought quantities of it from Greece and Spain. The Arabian sources are doubtful (2Ch 9:14). Although silver does not tarnish readily in the air, it does corrode badly in the limestone soil of Palestine and Syria. This probably partly accounts for the small number of objects of this metal found. On the site of the ancient jewelers’ shops of Tyre the writer found objects of gold, bronze, lead, iron, but none of silver.


In the New Testament, reference should be made especially to Ac 19:24; Jas 5:3; Re 18:12.

James A. Patch

See also

  • Minerals