The Color of the King

The language of color, the blood of Jesus, and why we argue about what pink is.

“Is that bag pink?”
“No, it’s red.”
“It looks pink to me.”
“I hope it’s not pink.”

My friend and I went on to discuss how we had problems identifying certain colors. One of us may have a mild color blindness, which is common in men. But the more likely culprit is a concept called linguistic relativity.

Language is based on convention, but colors usually have loosely defined conventions. Put another way, any given color is actually a range of specific pigments, which explains why we can disagree: in each person’s brain, those ranges are slightly different, whether or not they are color blind. This is why we can argue about whether something is pink or not.

Translating Colors

Color words are also difficult to translate. Some languages in New Guinea have no colors—only words for “dark” and “light”—while the Hanuno’o Language of the Philippines only has four colors (or color groupings): black, white, red, and green. Even European languages use almost identical words for different colors!

The French color pourpre is much closer to crimson:

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The German color purpur is shown in this logo:

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If you search Wikipedia for the modern Greek color porphyro, from which the other words come, the site redirects to kokkino, which is their word for red!

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So translating color words is fishy business. And any two people can tell the same story accurately but describe the colors they saw differently. This partially explains why the gospels disagree about the royal color that Jesus’ torturers gave him before his execution:

They stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe. (Matt. 27:28)
They clothed him with purple. (Mark 15:17)
They unclothed him from purple … (Mark 15:20)
They put on him a purple robe … (John 19:2)
Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. (John 19:5)

Why Four Gospels?

When it comes to the gospels—especially the accounts of the Resurrection—many inconsistencies are solved by one simple principle: If the stories were exactly the same between the four Gospels, it would imply collusion, just as it would in a court case. However, the stories could also be so different as to be irreconcilable. Instead, they share the most important narrative elements but vary when it comes to the non-essentials. This alleged argument against the Gospels shows that the four writers used different firsthand sources, inasmuch as they differ. Yet the picture they paint of Jesus as a person, the attitudes he represents, the places he went, the phrases he used, is consistent.

Why Two Colors?

In modern Greek these two words (κόκκινο and πορφυρό) are actually synonyms (as mentioned above), and they may have been near-synonyms in ancient Greek. But even if they differed at the time, varying testimonies could improve the accuracy: the color Jesus wore during his humiliation was purplish crimson. Since colors are relative, the Gospel sources disagreed slightly on what the royal color was—and yet they all told the truth! John pairs the same two colors, purple and scarlet, multiple times in the Book of the Revelation, and says that the prostitute of Babylon wore them both.

The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour … (Rev. 17:4)

John may have paired the two colors to get as close as possible to the actual color, as we do when we say reddish orange or bluish green.

Hast Thou Purpled?

Lastly, the meaning of purple in English has changed dramatically since English Bible translation began. (Not to mention, it was also used as a verb!) Translating Matthew in the 1520s, William Tyndale rendered our Greek word for scarlet as purple, apparently showing he saw no discrepancy at all between the colors in Greek. Perhaps more importantly, John Donne, a poet contemporary with King James, saw no discrepancy between crimson and purple in English:

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?

The color of blood was, at that time in England, within the range of hues recognized as purple. The Oxford Dictionary even says that the word “purple” comes “from Greek porphura, denoting molluscs that yielded a crimson dye”—again, equating the color, both in English and ancient Greek, with crimson.

What Is the Royal Color?

Linguistic evidence provides many interesting reasons that the two colors are not inconsistent. But I think the most interesting point of all is what Jesus actually wore. It could not have been a pansy violet color as some suppose, but, according to the combined testimony of the Gospel writers, was undoubtably much closer to the color of blood. The color of the King is not a color of florid gentleness, but the color of a royal sacrifice.

He was not just killed, but rejected, tortured, humiliated, and murdered. But the crimson garment they mocked him with became in their hands the clothing of Christ with a greater destiny: He would see the travail of his soul and be satisfied.

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9, ESV)

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