“fine pearls.” Matthew 13:45-46 contains a short but powerful parable about the value of attaining everlasting life and living in the Messianic Kingdom, which Jesus often referred to as “the Kingdom of Heaven.” As clear as the parable about the pearl of great price seems to us, it was much clearer to people who lived before the 1900’s. The early 1900’s saw the collapse of the pearl industry and the decline in the value of pearls as a status symbol, because it was then that the Japanese invented a way to grow cultured pearls. Worse, not too long after that, plastics and resins were also used to produce very realistic pearl look-alikes. Then finally, the invention of the scuba diving system made gathering real pearls much easier and safer. The result of all this was that pearls, which for millennia had been a mark of high culture, social standing, and financial wealth, were suddenly seemingly being worn by anyone who wanted to. This caused them to be less of a status symbol and less desirable to wear. As the attraction of pearls wore off, they were worn by fewer and fewer people, even being ignored by those who could afford the “real” ones. So while there are natural pearls of great value still around, the desire to own and wear them, and the status they project, are not what they were in years past.
However, the value of pearls in the biblical period is why Jesus chose a pearl to compare the value of the Kingdom of Heaven to, instead of something else. In the biblical world, the pearl was incredibly expensive, in fact, it was the apex gem in the culture. The Roman historian, Pliny the Elder (23 AD – August 24, 79 AD), said this about pearls: “The topmost rank of all things of price is held by pearls.”
Oysters that produce pearls are found all over the world, in both salt water and fresh, and yet the round, white pearls that have been so prized in history are amazingly rare. Although the translation “pearls” is disputed, Job 28:18 (ESV) certainly shows the value of pearls when it is trying to show the value of wisdom: “the price of wisdom is above pearls.” When pointing out that women should not dress extravagantly, 1 Timothy 2:9 says women should not dress with gold and pearls (not that women should not wear gold and pearls, but they should not flaunt them as if worldly wealth was the important thing in life).
Part of the mystique of pearls in the first century was that, even by the time of the early church, people were not sure where they came from. Expensive pearls that came into the Roman world from the Persian Gulf (still today perhaps the most reliable source of natural pearls) and from India had traveled far, and anyone who deals in vulnerable and expensive items knows that creating an air of mystery and guarding your sources can create value in the item and also protect your source of supply. “Pliny claimed that pearls rose to the sea’s surface and swallowed dew to achieve their luster and beauty, while other authors suggested that lightning hitting an oyster produced the gem” (Andrew Lawler, “The Pearl Trade,” Archaeology Magazine, March/April 2012, p. 48).
Although some pearls were discovered in shallow water, most pearls in the ancient world were brought up from deeper water. In the Persian Gulf region, a fruitful source of pearls in biblical times, they were often at a depth of about 40 meters (about 45 yards). To get down to the oyster beds, divers held a weight on a rope to make a quick descent to the beds. The weight was pulled back up to the ship by the rope, while the diver swam back up, having put the oysters he had gathered into a sack he had with him. Until the invention of scuba gear, this diving-with-a-weight method of pearling was the common way of pearling, with only slight improvements over the years, such as hand and foot protection from the sharp oysters, and face masks to enable better vision and protect the eyes. It was a dangerous way to make a living and a major reason that natural pearls continued to be so expensive until our modern times.
When we understand the rarity of a round, white, pearl in the biblical world, and understand the mystique that surrounded them as well as the monetary and social value they had, we are in a position to see why Jesus compared gaining the Kingdom of Heaven to finding and buying a pearl of great value. The pearl of great price was valuable, but nothing is more valuable than salvation and everlasting life. And just as no merchant in the ancient world would hesitate to sell everything else he owned to gain a very valuable pearl, no person should hesitate to make every effort to be saved and be assured of everlasting life. [For more about the wonderful Kingdom of Heaven on earth, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth].