Was Jesus’ Robe Purple or Scarlet?

Bible skeptics looove to search the Scriptures, not because they think that in them they have eternal life, but so that they can find supposed contradictions to establish that the Bible is not inerrant and therefore not the word of God.  There are many different ways to rebut these various challenges, but many so-called contradictions are the result of our inadequate understanding of ancient times.  We don’t know what we don’t know about the societies of the ancient Middle East, so things that would have made perfect sense to people thousands of years ago don’t make sense to us.  Rather than being arrogant and assuming we’ve found a contradiction, we ought to wait until we learn something else that will help the puzzle fit together.

For instance, most Christians are aware that when Jesus was mocked before His crucifixion, He was dressed in some kind of robe.  Matthew (27:27-29) says the robe was scarlet.  Mark (15:16-20) and John (19:1-5) describe it as purple.

So what color was the robe, scarlet or purple? 

I came up with various theories on my own to reconcile the discrepancy (maybe a multicolored robe with different-colored panels?), but I wasn’t terribly happy with any of them.  However, a couple of years ago, I ran across this article on Ferrell Jenkins’ travel blog.

In the article, Ferrell notes that the ancients made purple dye not only from the Murex snail (which I knew), but from the roots of a plant called madder, which was found in the area of Colossae and Thyatira.  When Luke tells us in Acts 16:14 that Lydia was a seller of purple from Thyatira, he’s revealing that she was in the business of madder-dye sales.

However, the color of fabric dyed with madder is not what we would call purple.  As the pictures on Ferrell’s blog  (and the picture above) illustrate, madder can leave behind a stain ranging from a deep purplish red to scarlet to even lighter.

As soon as I read this, I had an “Aha!” moment.  When we put the various gospel accounts together, they tell us that Jesus’ enemies dressed him in a robe dyed with madder.  Matthew describes the robe as scarlet because that is its actual color; Mark and John say the robe is purple because they know that such a color has to come from the “purple” dye of madder.

It’s kind of like the way that people from Texas will call a glass of Dr. Pepper “a Coke”.  They know that they aren’t drinking Coke.  However, they continue to call all carbonated beverages “Coke” because that’s what you do in Texas.  The description isn’t technically correct, but it’s culturally correct.

So too with Jesus’ robe.  No; the robe wasn’t actually purple, just as a Dr. Pepper isn’t actually a Coke.  However, Mark and John called the robe purple anyway because that’s what you did in Palestine 2000 years ago.  Matthew, by contrast, is basically calling the Dr. Pepper a Dr. Pepper, which is acceptable too.

Even though the gospel writers use different words that seem contradictory to us, no contemporary of Jesus would have seen a contradiction (except for the back-then equivalent of a Yankee who doesn’t know that a Dr. Pepper is a Coke!).  Rather than showing the fallibility of the Bible, these culturally correct descriptions reveal its authenticity.  The gospel writers aren’t fraudsters of some centuries later; instead, they are either eyewitnesses or their contemporaries.  When we think they’re making some mistake, it is far more likely that we are making the mistake ourselves.

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