Purple



PURPLE. In the ancient world the color purple was a mark of high rank and nobility. This was occasioned by the very high cost of the purple dye used for the clothing of nobles and royalty. A special purple dye was extracted from the murex shellfish found in the eastern Mediterranean. The ancient Canaanites already had learned the technique of making this dye, a deep crimson color with shades ranging from blue to red. The name Canaan prob. originally meant “land of the purple” and is found in Akkadian and Hurrian as Kinahhi (cf. the Hurrian word kinahhu, “purple”). Likewise, the name Phoenicia seems to reflect the purple dye industry of the land since it is related to the Gr. φοινίξ, “purple” (J. Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past [1959], 135f.).


In the NT the rich man in the parable of Dives and Lazarus is described as “clothed in purple and fine linen” (Luke 16:19). When the soldiers mocked Jesus during His trial, they clothed Him in a purple robe and put a crown of thorns on His head (Mark 15:17-20; John 19:2, 5). In the apocalyptic visions seen by John, the “great harlot” named “Babylon the great” is depicted as a woman “arrayed in purple and scarlet, and bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls” (Rev 17:4). Her fall is mourned by the merchants of the earth since the market for their goods, including such luxuries as gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple, silk, and scarlet (18:11f.), had been destroyed (cf. 18:16).

Lydia, whom Paul met at Philippi, is described as a “seller of purple goods” (Acts 16:14). She is further described as a native of Thyatira, a city in western Asia Minor. Thyatira was a textile center, and one of her major industries was the dyeing of purple cloth. The existence of a guild of dyers at Thyatira is attested by a number of inscriptions (e.g., CIG 3496-3498).

The significance of purple cloth is also indicated in the non-Biblical sources. Booty taken by the Assyrian conquerors of Syria and Palestine often included fine clothing made of wool and linen. Among the precious things captured by Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 b.c.) from the kings of the W (including Judah and Samaria) were “linen garments with multicolored trimmings, garments of their native (industries) (being made of) dark purple wool” (J. B. Pritchard, ANET [1950], 282f.). In the Gr. world, purple was often the sign of royalty and high rank.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(’argaman; Chaldaic ’argewan (2Ch 2:7); compare Arabic ’urjuwan, and Persian ’arghawan; porphura, porphureos Septuagint and New Testament)):

Purple dye was manufactured by the Phoenicians from a marine mollusk, Murex trunculus. The shell was broken in order to give access to a small gland which was removed and crushed. The crushed gland gives a milky fluid that becomes red or purple on exposure to the air. Piles of these broken shells still remain on the coast at Sidon and Tyre. The purple gland is found in various species of Murex and also of Purpura.


See Colors; Dye, Dyeing.