DYE, DYEING. The actual dyeing process is not described in the Bible. Dyed materials are mentioned as early as the time of the Exodus. Material for the Tabernacle is described as “blue and purple and scarlet stuff” (Exod 26:1, 31). Josephus described the Temple materials as “woven of four stuffs, byssus as a symbol of the earth, whence the flax grows; purple, the sea which was dyed with the blood of fishes; hyacinth, the air; and scarlet, the fire” (Antiq. III. vii. 7).

Dyeing with its infinite possibility in color variations had its secret formulae. Not until Hel. times were many of the secrets of the formulae used in the dye industry recorded. All ancient crafts were family affairs and the best techniques and materials were trade secrets. With the rise of the new science of chemistry in the Hel. period the secret formulae were made known.

The dye used must have a natural affinity for the cloth used, or a mordant must be added to make the color fast. Wool, the most common cloth in Biblical times, was easy to dye. Natural wool came in a variety of colors running from white and yellow through tans and browns. By the use of different dyes on these various wools it was possible to make the “many-colored robes” (Ps 45:14). Linen was more difficult to dye, but linen was used in the Tabernacle (Exod 35:6) and the Temple (2 Chron 2:7). Cotton was easy to dye. Its home was India and by the time of Esther it was used in Persia (Esth 1:6). Cotton did not appear in Pal. until the intertestamental period. Some silk was dyed before it left the Far E for Antioch, while some was dyed in Mediterranean cities. Fine leather also was dyed.

The most important red used in dyeing ran from a brilliant hue to a scarlet (Isa 1:18). It was produced from cochineal insects. A cheaper commonly used dye was secured from the root of the madder plant.

The best blue dye was that extracted from the molluscs Purpura and Murex which flourished on the Phoen. coast. The expensive garments which symbolized rank and nobility were dyed purple from the secretion of the mollusc. During intertestamental times indigo came into Pal. from India. Yellows were made from safflower, turmeric and pomegranate.

The best example of dye works in Pal. came from Kirjath-sepher or modern Tell Beit Mirsim. Six dye plants were excavated by the archeologists, but it is estimated that approximately thirty installations had been constructed at the site. The size of the vats indicated that thread was dyed rather than cloth.

The dominant color of cloth described in the NT is purple (Mark 15:17; Luke 16:19; John 19:2, 5; Acts 16:14). The Gr. term πόρφυρα refers back to the purple shellfish, then to the purple dye obtained from the mollusc and finally the cloth or clothing dyed purple. When the Apostle Paul went to Philippi, Lydia from Thyatira, “a seller of purple goods” (Acts 16:14) was one of the first to respond to the Gospel.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

di, di’-ing (me’oddam, hamuc, tebhul, cebha`):

Four different Hebrew words have been translated "dyed": the King James Version

(a) me’-oddam, found in Ex 25:5; 26:14; 35:7; 36:19; 39:34;

(b) hamuts (the Revised Version, margin "crimsoned") (Isa 63:1);

(c) tebhul (Eze 23:15). Tebhul is probably more correctly rendered "flowing turban" as in the Revised Version (British and American) of the above verses (Brown-Driver-Briggs’ Hebrew Lexicon);

(d) gebha`, "dyed" is so translated in the American Standard Revised Version of Jud 5:30 (BDB); compare Arabic sabagh.

The above references and other color words mentioned elsewhere (see Color) indicate that the Israelites were acquainted with dyed stuffs, even if they themselves did not do the dyeing. An analysis of the various Biblical references shows but four colors which were produced on cloth by dyeing, namely, purple, blue (violet), crimson and scarlet. Of these, purple is the one best known because of the many historical references to it. It was the symbol of royalty and luxury. Because of its high price, due to the expensive method of obtaining it, only royalty and the rich could afford purple attire. One writer tells us that the dyestuff was worth its weight in silver. Probably it was because of its scarcity, and because it was one of the very limited number of dyes known, rather than for any remarkable beauty of color, that the purple was so much sought after. If Pliny’s estimate is to be accredited, then "in the dye the smell of it was offensive and the color itself was harsh, of a greenish hue and strongly resembling that of the sea when in a tempestuous state."

1. Purple and Blue:

The purple and blue dyes were extracted from shellfish. The exact process used by the ancients is still a question in spite of the attempts of early writers to describe it. Tyre and Sidon were noted as the suppliers of these colors, hence, the name "Tyrian purple." The inhabitants of these cities were at first simply dealers in the purple (Eze 27:7,24), but they afterward became the manufacturers, as the heaps of the emptied shells of the Murex trunculus, which still exist in the vicinity of these cities, testify. The pigment was secreted by a gland in the lining of the stomach. The shell was punctured and the fish removed in order to secure the dye. The juice, at first whitish, changed on exposure to yellowish or greenish and finally to red, amethyst or purple, according to the treatment. A modified color was obtained by first dipping the textile in a cochineal bath and then in the purple, Tyrian purple was considered most valuable when it was "exactly the color of clotted blood and of a blackish hue" (Pliny). See also LYDIA; thYATIRA.

Besides the shellfish above mentioned, several other species are noted by different writers, namely, Murex branderis, Murex erinaceus, Murex buccinum (purpura haemastoma). This latter species is still used by the dwellers on the shores where it is found. Various species of the murex are found today at Haifa (Syria), about the Greek isles and on the North coast of Africa. The purple color has been produced from them by modern chemists, but it is of historical interest only, in the light of the discovery of modern artificial dyes with which it could not compete commercially.

Two words have been used in the Hebrew Bible to describe the colors from shellfish:

(a) ’argaman (Greek porphura). This has been translated "purple";

(b) tekheleth which was probably a shade of violet, but has been translated "blue" in both the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American).

2. Crimson and Scarlet:

As indicated elsewhere (See Colors), three Hebrew words have been rendered crimson or scarlet:

(a) karmil (compare Arabic kirmiz and English "carmine"),

(b) tola’, and

(c) shani. We know nothing further about the method of producing these colors than that they were both obtained from the kermes insect which feeds on a species of live oak growing in Southern Europe and Turkey in Asia. The modern dyer can obtain several shades from the cochineal insect by varying the mordants or assistants used with the dye. Pliny mentions the same fact as being known by the ancient Egyptians. Some of the Syrian dyers still use the kermes, commonly called dud ("worms"), although most of them hove resorted to the artificial European dyes which they indiscriminately call dud frangy ("foreign worms").

The "rams’ skins dyed red" mentioned in Exodus are still made in Syria. After the ram’s skin has been tanned in sumac, it is laid out on a table and a solution of the dye, made by boiling dud in water, is rubbed on. After the dye is dry, the skin is rubbed with oil and finally polished. No native product is more characteristic of the country than the slippers, Bedouin shoes, and other leather articles made from "rams’ skins dyed red" (see Tanner).

3. Other Dyes Probably Known:

Other dyes probably known were:

(1) Madder.

In Jud 10:1, we read that "after Abimelech there arose to save Israel Tola the son of Puah." These were probably names of clans. In the Hebrew they are also color words. Tola` is the scarlet dye and pu’ah, if, as is probable, it is the same as the Arabic fuwah, means "madder." This would add another dyestuff. Until the discovery of alizarin, which is artificial madder, the growing of fuwah was one of the industries of Cyprus and Syria. It was exported to Europe and was also used locally for producing "Turkey red" on cotton and for dyeing dull reds on wool for rug making (see thYATIRA). It was the custom near Damascus for a father to plant new madder field for each son that was born. The field began to yield in time to support the boy and later become his inheritance. Madder is mentioned in the Talmud and by early Latin writers. A Saracenic helmet and a shield of similar origin, in the possession of the writer, are lined with madder-dyed cotton.

(2) Indigo. Another dye has been discovered among the Egyptian mummy cloths, namely, indigo. Indigo blue was used in weaving to form the borders of the cloths. This pigment was probably imported from India.

(3) Yellows and Browns. Yellows and browns of doubtful origin have also been found in the Egyptian tombs. The Jews acquired from the Phoenicians the secret of dyeing, and later held the monopoly in this trade in some districts. A Jewish guild of purple dyers is mentioned on a tombstone in Hieropolis. In the 12th century AD Jews were still dyers and glass workers at Tyre. Akhissar, a Jewish stronghold in Asia Minor, was famous as a dyeing city. See also ATTIRE; DYED ATTIRE.


See "Crafts" especially in Wilkinson, Perrot and Chipiez, Jew Encyclopedia, and HDB.

James A. Patch