Purple is a significant color that is mentioned several times throughout the Bible. In ancient times, purple dye was rare and valuable, which gave purple fabrics a special status. The color purple came to symbolize wealth, power, and nobility. Understanding the meaning and symbolism of purple in the Bible gives insight into biblical culture and stories.
The Significance of Purple in Ancient Times
In ancient times, purple was the most prized of all colors. The dyes used to create purple fabrics were extremely rare and expensive. As a result, purple cloth became associated with royalty, nobility, and high status.
The rarity of purple dye came from the difficulty of producing it. Purple dye was extracted from a species of mollusk called Murex, found in the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands of mollusks were required to yield just a small amount of purple dye. The labor-intensive process of harvesting the dye made it incredibly precious.
In ancient societies like Rome, purple dye was worth more than gold. The color purple became synonymous with extravagance and affluence. Because purple fabrics were affordable only to the elite, purple robes and togas became symbolic of authority and high rank. Emperors, kings, and magistrates wore purple as a status symbol.
The exclusivity of purple in the ancient world gave it a mystical and sacred quality. The rarity and brilliance of the color inspired awe and veneration. As a result, purple also took on ceremonial and religious meaning.
Purple in the Bible
Purple dyes were just as rare and precious in ancient Israel as they were elsewhere in the Mediterranean region. As in other ancient cultures, purple in the Bible signified luxury, prestige, and royalty.
Here are some key passages that mention the color purple in the Bible:
- The curtains of the Tabernacle were made with purple yarn (Exodus 26:1).
- The ephod worn by the priests was woven with purple thread (Exodus 28:5-6).
- Purple cloth was used extensively in the furnishings of the Temple (2 Chronicles 2:7,14).
- Lydia, a seller of purple fabrics, aided the apostle Paul in Philippi (Acts 16:14).
- Jesus wore a purple robe mockingly dressed as “the King of the Jews” (Mark 15:17, John 19:2).
From these examples, we see that purple dye was used for sacred items like the Tabernacle and priestly vestments. The extensive use of purple fabrics in the Temple also shows its status. In the New Testament, Lydia’s lucrative trade in purple cloth further indicates its value.
The biblical authors used the color purple to evoke a sense of splendor and majesty. The Song of Solomon poetically describes the Beloved’s “purple garments” and “purple cushions” (Song of Songs 3:10). In the Book of Daniel, Belshazzar offers clothing of purple linen to whoever can interpret the writing on the wall (Daniel 5:7).
Symbolic Meanings of Purple
Based on its prestige in the ancient world, the color purple took on symbolic meanings in the Bible:
Wealth and Status
Purple fabrics represented wealth and high social standing. Purple dye was more expensive than gold, so purple garments were affordable only to the very rich.
As a result, purple became symbolic of royalty, nobility, and luxury. Kings, rulers, and other elites wore purple robes and shawls to display their status.
Sacredness and Holiness
Because of the rarity and brilliance of purple dye, it was associated with sacredness and holiness. The Tabernacle and Temple contained purple furnishings to represent the presence of God.
Priests also wore purple vestments while performing ceremonial duties and sacrifices, associating purple with the sacred office of the priesthood.
Wisdom and Divinity
In some ancient cultures, purple was connected with wisdom and enlightenment. As a blend of red and blue, purple contains attributes of both colors – the passion of red and the serenity of blue.
The exalted status of purple also lent it divine associations. Christ is described in the Bible as clothed in purple for his sacrificial death, evoking his divine majesty (John 19:2-5).
Purple in Ancient Israel
Tyrian purple was the most prized purple dye in the ancient Mediterranean world. It came from Tyre, a coastal city in Phoenicia (modern day Lebanon). The Phoenicians were renowned traders of purple fabrics:
“For your wares they traded with you fine fabrics of Egypt in blue and purple…” (Ezekiel 27:7)
Phoenician purple cloth was highly coveted across the region. When King Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem, he engaged Phoenician artisans and craftsmen to incorporate purple fabrics:
“Send me also cedar, cypress, and algum timber from Lebanon, for I know that your servants know how to cut the timber of Lebanon. Then my servants will work with your servants to prepare timber for me in abundance, for the temple I am about to build will be great and wonderful.” (2 Chronicles 2:8-9)
The Israelites greatly valued Tyrian purple for its beauty and status. However, access to purple fabrics was typically limited to royalty, priests, and the social elite. Ordinary Israelites wore clothing of undyed wool and linen.
Biblical Purple Dyes
While the Phoenicians supplied expensive Tyrian purple, the Israelites also extracted purple dye from local mollusk species in the Mediterranean. Two sources of purple mentioned in the Bible are:
Murex – Purple dye extracted from Murex snails
They shall be your priests in charge of the altar and of the inside of the veil; and they shall celebrate its service. They shall not marry a widow, or a divorced woman, but only a virgin of the stock of Israel, or a widow who is the widow of a priest. They shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean.” (Ezekiel 44:15-16)
Argaman – Purple from a species of red algae
Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the faithful!
Let Israel be glad in his Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King! (Psalm 149:1-2)
Though not as valuable as Tyrian purple, these local dyes provided purple hues for ritual objects and the garments of the priests and nobility.
Purple in the New Testament
In the New Testament, purple retained its traditional associations with luxury and status. One example is Lydia, a seller of purple fabrics in Philippi:
One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16:14-15)
Lydia’s trade in purple fabrics indicates she was a successful businesswoman catering to elite customers. Her large house further confirms her prosperity.
Purple also appears in the passion narratives, when the soldiers place a purple robe on Jesus to mock him as “King of the Jews”:
And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. (Mark 15:17-19)
The soldiers’ use of the color purple highlights Jesus’ kingship as the Messiah. Yet it is done in irony and cruelty before his crucifixion.
In summary, purple was a significant color in the ancient world that carried sacred, regal, and divine meaning. The rarity and brilliance of Tyrian purple dye from Phoenicia gave purple a special status.
In the Bible, purple represents wealth, status, royalty, holiness, and wisdom. It was used for the Tabernacle, Temple, and priestly vestments. Purple’s associations with divinity also connect it to Christ’s crucifixion in the New Testament.
From its use and symbolism across Scripture, we see that purple was a color of immense richness, sacredness, and significance in biblical times.
|Time Period||Meaning of Purple|
|Ancient Near East||Wealth, status, royalty|
|Ancient Israel||Sacredness, holiness, priesthood|
|New Testament||Divinity, Christ’s sacrifice|