Showing posts with label scarlet. Show all posts
Showing posts with label scarlet. Show all posts

26 March 2013

The colour of the robe

Visiting Bath Abbey left us with a conundrum. When the Roman legionaries dressed Jesus in a robe and mocked him as a king, was that robe purple or red? The Greek text is fairly clear with a small caveat and I'm left wondering if it was, in fact, a rather dark red, perhaps a centurion's cape.

Stone tracery in the roof of Bath Abbey
Donna and I spent a couple of days in the city of Bath recently. While we were there we looked at a number of interesting places including the Roman baths, the famous Georgian architecture, and the Abbey.

The Abbey had some beautiful panels, the Bath Abbey Diptychs. They are presented as pairs, one painted and the other made in needlework.

One of them had a lovely, red, fabric background and the text referred to the scarlet robe put on Jesus by the Roman troops when they mocked him as a king.

This got me thinking, surely the robe was purple, not red? When we got home Donna checked and it seems the robe is sometimes described as scarlet and sometimes as purple.

So what happened? - After Pilate handed Jesus over to the Roman troops for crucifixion, they stripped him and then dressed him in a robe and a crown of thorns. Matthew says the robe was scarlet (Matthew 27:28). Mark says it was purple (Mark 15:17). Luke doesn't mention the event at all. John says it was purple (John 19:2).

So what colour was this robe? There are several plausible reasons for the differences.

The Greek is quite clear. Matthew uses κοκκίνην (kokkinēn), Strong's number 2847, literally 'scarlet' or 'crimson'. This kermes dye is obtained from an insect that lives on the holm oak tree. Matthew and John use the word πορφύραν (porphyran), Strong's number 4209, which usually means 'purple' or 'purple garment' but may also mean 'deep violet', 'deep scarlet', 'deep crimson' or 'deep blue'.

So one possibility is that the three gospel writers are in agreement and the colour was a rich, dark red of some kind.

Alternatively there may be some doubt about the colour, eye-witnesses might have seen or remembered it as either purple or red, particularly if it was a heavily dyed fabric and therefore dark.

Meaning and availability - Another point worth making is that purple was a colour that denoted wealth and high status. The Roman emperors wore purple so it denoted rule, power and kingship. Scarlet on the other hand might represent sacrifice, blood or death. Both seem appropriate, one representing Jesus as King of kings, the other as High Priest. Red and purple were both components of the Jewish priestly robes, along with blue and gold.

We can also ask ourselves what dyed garments the soldiers might have had available. Soldiers wore a white tunic under their armour, but coloured material was expensive and was not worn by the ordinary legionaries. Purple fabric was even more expensive and it's most unlikely they'd have had access to it.

Centurions, however, wore a red cape; might the soldiers have used one of these to dress Jesus as a king? It's certainly possible. A much cheaper dye suitable for these red capes would have been madder.

What's more, using a centurion's cape would have made the mockery deeply shameful as well. It's not unlikely Jesus would have remained naked with just the cloak over his shoulders, the woven thorns on his head and the reed in his hand as the soldiers taunted him. Then they dressed him in his own clothes and led him out to die. They stripped him again before nailing him to the cross, and shared out his clothes as he hung there. In this way Psalm 22:18 was fulfilled (see Matthew 27:27-35).

For me, the idea that the colour might have been deep and could be described equally well as purple or scarlet makes perfect sense. So too does the possibility that a Roman centurion's cape was used.

Questions:

  • Have you ever wondered about the colour of the robe? I hadn't until now.
  • Does the deep red using madder seem a probable solution to you?
  • Do you think the colour is symbolic?

See also:

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