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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]

Among the writers of the NT the sense of colour is strongest in the author of the Revelation, who partly reproduces the colour-symbolism of earlier authors, priestly, prophetic, and apocalyptic, and partly is original. Colour distinctions were perhaps not so fine in ancient as in modern times; at any rate the colour vocabulary was more limited. The associations of colour vary greatly in different ages and peoples.

1. White (λευκός, connected with lux  ; λαμπρός, ‘bright’ in Revised Version, fr.[Note: fragment, from.]λάμπω ‘to shine’), the colour of light, is the symbol of purity, innocence, holiness; it is the primary liturgical colour. The head and hair of the Son of Man are white as wool or snow ( Revelation 1:14). Angels are arrayed in white ( Revelation 15:6; cf.  Acts 1:10). The elders ( Revelation 4:4), the martyrs ( Revelation 6:11), the great multitude ( Revelation 7:9) are clothed in white raiment: but their robes were not always white; they have washed them and made them white (ἐλεύκαναν) in the blood of the Lamb ( Revelation 7:14). Such raiment one of the Seven Churches is counselled to buy ( Revelation 3:18). A hypocrite has not the white robe; he is only like a whitewashed wall (τοῖχε κεκονιαμένε,  Acts 23:3; cf.  Matthew 23:27). White is the colour of victory; the first rider on a white horse ( Revelation 6:2) represents a conquering secular power, probably Parthia; the second is the Faithful and True ( Revelation 19:11), whose triumphant followers are clad in white uniform ( Revelation 19:14). The Son of Man is seen enthroned on a white cloud ( Revelation 14:14); and the great throne of God-unlike the sapphire throne in  Ezekiel 1:26 -is white.

2. Red , the first of the three primary colours of science, is in Greek πυρρός, from πῦρ, ‘fire.’ ‘Light and fire, when regarded ethically in Holy Scripture, are contrasts: light, the image of beneficent love; and fire, of destroying anger’ (Delitzsch, Iris , Eng. translation, 1889, p. 73). The swordsman upon the red horse ( Revelation 6:5) represents war and bloodshed; the great red dragon ( Revelation 12:3) the same, probably with the added idea of fire.

3. Black (μέλας) indicates the absence of light: a white object is one which reflects nearly all the light of all colours; a black object absorbs nearly all. Ethically considered, the withdrawal of light is weird and appalling. The revelation at Sinai was made in ‘blackness (γνόφος, gloom) and mist and tempest’ ( Hebrews 12:18). Black is the colour of famine; the third of the four riders in the Apocalypse, who brings dearth, goes forth on a black horse ( Revelation 6:5). A great earthquake makes the sun black as sackcloth of hair ( Revelation 6:12; cf.  Joel 2:30-31; Ass. Mos . x. 4f.; Virg. Georg . i. 463f.). For men whose lives belie their profession there is reserved the blackness of darkness (ὁ ζόφος τοῦ σκότους,  2 Peter 2:17||  Judges 1:13; cf. Homer, Il . xxi. 56).

4. Purple (πορφύρα, purpura ) now denotes a shade varying between crimson and violet, but to the ancients it was a red-purple dye, which might even be mistaken for scarlet (cf.  John 19:2 with  Matthew 27:28). It was obtained from a shellfish ( purpura, murex ) found near Tyre and on the shores of Tarentum and Laconia. The throat of each molluse yielded one drop of the precious fluid. The manufacture and sale of the dye was the monopoly of the Phœnicians. Pliny says of Tyre that, while she once ‘thirsted so eagerly for the conquest of the whole earth … all her fame is now confined to the production of the murex and the purple’ ( Historia Naturalis (Pliny) v. 17). Cloth of purple was the emblem of royalty and nobility-purpura regum (Virg. Georg . ii. 495). The soldiers arrayed Christ with it in derision ( Matthew 15:17;  Matthew 15:20). It was among the costly merchandise of Imperial Rome ( Revelation 18:12). The Maccabees noted that the sober-minded Romans of the Republic did not wear it ( 1 Maccabees 8:14), but Pliny remarks on ‘the frantic passion for purple’ in his time ( Historia Naturalis (Pliny) ix. 60). The prophet of the Revelation knows that the great city is arrayed in it ( Revelation 18:16). The apocalyptic harlot clothes herself with it ( Revelation 17:4). The finest kind of purple was ‘the Tyrian dibapha (double-dyed), which could not be bought for even 1000 denarii per pound’ (Pliny, ix. 63). Lydia ( Acts 16:14-15;  Acts 16:40) was a seller of purple (πορφυρόπωλις), but it is now generally believed that the Thyatiran dye, which she was engaged in selling, was the modern turkey red, which is extracted from the madder root ( rubia ).

5. Scarlet (κόκκινος) was obtained from the female of the kermes insect (Arab. kirmiz , whence the synonymous ‘crimson’), which, when impregnated, attaches itself to the holm-oak, and was long supposed to be a red berry or seed-a mistake found in Pliny ( Historia Naturalis (Pliny) xvi. 8). The insect ( Coccus ilicis ) is of the same family as the cochineal of Mexico, which yields a finer dye that has superseded the ancient scarlet. Wool dyed scarlet was used in the Jewish ritual of sacrifice ( Hebrews 9:19). Scarlet fabrics were among the merchandise of Rome ( Revelation 18:12)-‘rubro cocco tincta vestis’ (Hor. Sat . II. vi. 102f.). The glaring colour was the symbol of luxury and splendour. The great city was attired in it ( Revelation 18:15). The woman arrayed in purple and scarlet, and sitting on a scarlet-coloured beast, is an image of flaunting licentiousness ( Revelation 17:3-5).

6. Pale is one of the translations of χλωρός, an indefinite hue, applied as an epithet to objects so different as fresh green grass ( Mark 6:39) and yellow sand (Soph. Aj . 1064). Both meanings were common from Homer downwards. The pale horse in  Revelation 6:8 has the livid hue of death.

7. Hyacinthine (ὑακίνθινος) is one of the three colours of the breastplates of the fiendish horse-men in  Revelation 9:17. ὑάκινθος is the Septuaginttranslationof תְּבֵלָת, a dye obtained from another shellfish on the Tyrian coast. It was blue-purple as distinguished from red-purple; the Oxf. Heb. Lex . gives ‘violet.’ The cuirasses were also red like fire (πυρίνους) and yellow as brimstone (θειώδεις).

The brilliant hues of the foundations, walls, gates, and streets of the New Jerusalem, and those of the robes of the inhabitants, suggest that ‘the beauty of colour … will contribute its part to the blessedness of vision in the future world’ (Delitzsch, Iris , 61).

James Strahan.

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible [2]

Colours . The colours named in OT and NT, as in other ancient literatures, are few in number, and of these several are used with considerable latitude.

1. White as the colour of snow in   Isaiah 1:18 , of the teeth described as milk-white (  Genesis 49:12 ), and of horses (  Zechariah 1:8;   Zechariah 6:3;   Zechariah 6:6 ); also of wool (  Revelation 1:14 ) the prevailing colour of the Palestinian sheep being white (see   Song of Solomon 4:2;   Song of Solomon 6:6 ) and of garments (  Ecclesiastes 9:8 ,   Mark 9:3 ). Gray (and grey ) occurs only in the expression ‘gray hairs,’ while grisled (lit. ‘grey,’ from French gris ) apparently means black with white spots (  Genesis 31:10 ,   Zechariah 6:3;   Zechariah 6:6;   Zechariah 6:1-15 below). Green is not a colour adjective (in   Esther 1:6 read as RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ), but a noun signifying green plants and herbs, as e.g. in   Genesis 1:30 and   Mark 6:39 . A kindred word rendered greenish (  Leviticus 13:49;   Leviticus 14:37 ) is probably a greenish yellow , since it is also used in   Psalms 68:13 of ‘yellow gold.’

2. The darker colours likewise merge into each other, black and brown, for example, not being clearly distinguished. Black is the colour of hair (  Song of Solomon 5:11 ‘black as a raven’), of horses (  Zechariah 6:2;   Zechariah 6:6 ,   Revelation 6:5 ), and of ink (  2 Corinthians 3:3 ). In   Song of Solomon 1:5 the same Heb. word signifies dark-complexioned (AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘black’). Laban’s black sheep (  Genesis 30:32 ff. RV [Note: Revised Version.] ) were probably dark brown (AV [Note: Authorized Version.] brown ).

3. Red is the colour of blood (  2 Kings 3:22 ), and of grape juice (  Isaiah 63:2 ). The same word is used of the reddish-brown colour of the ‘red heifer’ of   Numbers 19:1-22 , and of the chestnut horse of Zechariah’s vision (  Numbers 1:8 , AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘red’), although the precise colour distinction between the latter and his companion, the sorrel (AVm [Note: Authorized Version margin.] bay  ; in   Zechariah 6:3 EV [Note: English Version.] ‘bay’ should prob. be ‘strong,’ and in   Zechariah 6:7 [by a slight change of text] perh. ‘red’) horse, is not clear. ‘Red’ is used also of the sky (  Matthew 16:2 f. lit. ‘of the colour of fire’).

4. Crimson and scarlet are shades of the same colour, and were both derived from the same insect, the coccus ilicis or cochineal, which ‘attaches itself to the leaves and twigs of the quercus coccifera ’ (Post), and is termed in Hebrew ‘the scarlet worm.’ Scarlet-coloured garments were regarded as a mark of distinction and prosperity (  2 Samuel 1:24 ,   Proverbs 31:21 ), but in OT scarlet is most frequently mentioned as one of the four liturgical, or, as we should say, ecclesiastical colours (see below). Vermilion is mentioned as a pigment (  Jeremiah 22:14 ,   Ezekiel 23:14 ).

5. Associated with scarlet in the Priests’ Code of the Pentateuch are found two colours, ’argâmân rendered purple , and tÄ•khçleth rendered blue . In reality these are two shades of purple, the red tone predominating in the former, the blue tone in the latter. Since blue predominates in our modern purple, it would be well to drop the cumbrous terms red-purple or purple-red, and blue-purple or purple-blue, in favour of the simpler names purple and violet , as in the margin of   Esther 1:6;   Esther 8:15 (AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ). Both shades were obtained by the use, as a dye, of a colourless fluid secreted by the gland of a shell-fish, the murex trunculus , which was found in great quantities on the PhÅ“nician coast. Hence Tyre became the chief seat of the manufacture of the purple cloth for which PhÅ“nicia was famous throughout the ancient world (cf.   Ezekiel 27:7;   Ezekiel 27:16 ). Purple raiment is repeatedly mentioned in Scripture as worn by kings and nobles. It was as ‘King of the Jews’ that our Lord was derisively robed in purple (  Mark 15:17 ,   John 19:2 ).

In the Priests’ Code, as has been noted, from  Exodus 25:1-40 onwards, ‘violet’ (AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘blue’), ‘purple,’ and ‘scarlet’ are used and always in this order to denote the fine linen thread, spun from yarn that had been dyed these colours (see esp.   Exodus 35:25 ), which, with the natural white thread, was employed in weaving the rich material for the various hangings of the Tabernacle, and for certain parts of the priests’ dress.

6. Jacob’s small cattle, ‘ ring-straked, speckled , and spotted ’ (  Genesis 30:39 etc.), showed white mixed with black or brown in the case of the sheep, and black mixed with white in the case of the goats. For Joseph’s ‘coat of many colours’ see Dress, 2 ( d ).

It may be added that the art of dyeing was one in which the Jews of later times excelled. According to tradition, as we have just seen, purple and scarlet also red (  Exodus 26:14 ) dyes were known as early as the Exodus time (cf.   Judges 5:30 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ). In NT times, as may be seen from the Mishna, dyeing was a flourishing branch of native industry. The true Tyrian purple was always a monopoly, and consequently imported; but many less costly dyes were known, such as the cochineal insect for scarlet, dyer’s woad ( isatis ) for true blue, madder (Heb. pûah , cf. Tola ben-Puah, i.e. ‘Cochineal, son of Madder,’   Judges 10:1 ), and others.

A. R. S. Kennedy.