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Dye, Dyeing

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.