Color Awareness in Biblical Literature The writers of biblical literature reflected little or nothing of an abstract sense of color. Nevertheless, they made frequent references to a select group of colors when their purposes in writing so demanded it. To illustrate, Old Testament writers, writing predominantly in the Hebrew language, chose to describe objects not with reference to their colors but with reference to their appearances or likenesses. When the word “color” appears in an English translation of the Old Testament, it most often renders the Hebrew word ‘ayin. This word literally means “eye” but has the derivative sense of “appearance” (Leviticus 13:55;
Numbers 11:7). Many scholars have attributed this Hebrew way of expression to a lack of diversity in the language. Hebrew was not a particularly complex or highly developed language. Others have suggested the phenomenon stems from the disdain of Hebrew peoples for extravagance in adornment. Such was forbidden by their religious laws and condemned by their prophets (Exodus 20:4;
When coming to the New Testament one discovers even less of an interest in color as such. This is all the more remarkable in that the writers of the New Testament had access to the extensive color vocabulary of the Greek language. In assessing this phenomenon scholars often have noted the greater concern of Greeks for contrasting shades of light and darkness than for differences between various colors (John 1:5;
2 Corinthians 4:6;
2 Peter 1:19). The Greek word occasionally rendered “color” in some English translations of the New Testament is prophasis. This word actually has the better sense of “pretense” or “show” (Acts 27:30;
Revelation 17:4). The problem of the lack of concern in both Testaments for color in the abstract sense has no ready solution, but the phenomenon is of no great theological significance.
References to Colors in the Bible Moving beyond color in the abstract sense, one does find in the Bible frequent references to certain objects which have color designations. When reference is made to a particular color or colors, it is likely made for one of two basic reasons. First, a writer may wish to use color in a descriptive sense to help identify an object or clarify some aspect about that object. Color usages in the descriptive sense may apply to such categories as the natural world, animate and inanimate objects, and aspects of personal appearance. For instance, earthly vegetation is depicted as green; clothes are often of varying shades of red or blue; horses are identified by colors such as red, black, or white; and human features such as eyes, hair, skin, and teeth are described colorfully as well.
A second reason for color designations in the Bible involves a more specialized usage. At times a writer may use color in a symbolic sense to convey theological truth about the subject of his writing. Color designations have general symbolic significance. For instance, white may be symbolic of purity or joy; black may symbolize judgment or decay; red may symbolize sin or life-blood; and purple may be symbolic of luxury and elegance. Color symbolism became for the writers of apocalyptic literature (Daniel, Revelation) an appropriate tool for expressing various truths in hidden language. In their writings one may find white representative of conquest or victory, black representative of famine or pestilence, red representative of wartime bloodshed, paleness (literally “greenish-gray”) representative of death, and purple representative of royalty. Though the majority of color references in the Bible are of a descriptive nature, the possibility of a symbolic use of color necessitates a careful study on the part of the Bible student. Only by careful study can the student discern the writer's intent and so interpret correctly the biblical text.
Color Designations of Frequent Use The color designations which appear in the Bible offer relatively little in the way of variety. The matter is further complicated by the fact that of those colors which appear a precise translation of the underlying Hebrew and Greek terms is difficult. However, a general assessment of the color designations which appear most frequently can be made.
The colors mentioned most frequently in the Bible are those which refer to the dyed products manufactured by the peoples of Israel and her neighbors. Particularly common are the varying shades in the red-purple range. Purple was the most valued of the ancient dyes and was used in the coloring of woven materials. The peoples of Crete, Phoenicia, and Canaan produced the dye from mollusks taken from the Mediterranean Sea. Purple is noted to be the color of some of the tabernacle furnishings and priests' garments in the Old Testament (Exodus 26:1;
Exodus 28:4-6). In the New Testament the robe put on Christ and Lydia's occupation are associated with the color purple as well (Mark 15:17;
Acts 16:14). By varying the dye-making process, other shades of blue became possible and are noted in Scripture (Exodus 28:5-6;
Shades of red dye were produced from the bodies of insects, vegetables, and reddish-colored minerals. These were, likewise, used to color garments. In addition, natural objects are sometimes designated red, scarlet, or crimson, including such items as pottage, wine, the sky, and horses (Genesis 25:30;
Revelation 6:4). Isaiah used the color red as a symbol of the nature of sin (Isaiah 1:18).
The neutrals, white and black, are mentioned on occasion in the Bible. Natural objects such as milk, leprous skin, and snow are designated white (Genesis 49:12;
Isaiah 1:18). White is used in the New Testament of the garments of Jesus and angels to indicate the glory of the wearer (Matthew 17:2;
Acts 1:10). Natural objects designated black in the Bible include such items as hair, skin, the sky, and even the sun itself (Leviticus 13:31;
1 Kings 18:45;
Other color designations used less frequently but not any less significantly in the Bible are green, yellow, vermillion, and gray. While the use of color imagery was not the foremost interest of the writers of biblical literature, it proved an aid to their writing purposes.