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What does purple cloth mean in the Bible?

Purple cloth is mentioned several times in the Bible, most notably in reference to royalty, wealth, and nobility. The color purple in the ancient world was highly prized and associated with high status. Understanding the meaning and symbolism of purple cloth in the Bible provides insight into biblical culture and practices.

The Significance of the Color Purple in the Ancient World

In ancient times, purple dye was extremely rare and valuable. It was produced from a secretion of marine mollusks found in the Mediterranean Sea, a process that required thousands of mollusks to produce just a small amount of dye. As a result, purple cloth was very expensive and associated with royalty and high status.

The expense of purple dye meant that purple fabrics were largely reserved for kings, nobles, and the very wealthy. It became a symbol of power, prestige, and luxury. Ancient texts describe purple garments worn by kings and emperors, including Alexander the Great and Caesar.

The rarity and brilliance of the color purple gave it mystical and sacred connotations. In some cultures, purple was associated with the gods and with spiritual authority. As a result, purple became an important religious symbol and was used in religious ceremonies and for temple priests.

Purple in the Bible

The Bible reflects the symbolic importance of the color purple in the ancient world. Purple fabrics are mentioned mainly in relation to royalty, wealth, and sanctity.

Here are some notable examples of purple cloth in the Bible:

Royal Robes

When Mordecai was honored by King Ahasuerus, he was dressed in royal robes of blue and white, with a purple garment:

“He put on royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a purple robe of fine linen.” (Esther 8:15)

This use of purple marks Mordecai’s elevation to a position of prestige and authority in the kingdom.

The book of Judges describes purple raiment worn by kings (Judges 8:26). Purple robes were symbolic of royal status.

Wealth and Luxury

In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the rich man is described as dressed in purple, indicating his wealth:

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” (Luke 16:19)

The book of Proverbs speaks metaphorically of valuable wisdom as more precious than gold or purple cloth:

“She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her…She is far more precious than jewels. Nothing you desire can compare with her…She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.” (Proverbs 3:15-18)

The association of purple with wisdom reflects purple’s royal implications.

Priestly Garments

Purple cloth was used in the uniforms of temple priests. The book of Exodus details purple threads among the materials used for the ephod of the high priest:

“And they shall receive gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen.” (Exodus 28:5)

The use of purple sets apart the priestly garments as sacred.

Spiritual Battle

In the book of Revelation, purple is associated with earthly royalty and stands in contrast to true spiritual authority:

“And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication.” (Revelation 17:4)

This “woman” symbolizes idolatry and earthly glory, shown as false and evil compared to righteousness.

Repentance and Penitence

Purple can also symbolize repentance and humility. When the King of Nineveh heard Jonah’s message of judgment, he stepped down from his throne, removed his royal robes, and put on sackcloth and ashes, symbolic of his mourning and repentance. (Jonah 3:6)

Use of Purple in Modern Christianity

Purple retains symbolic meaning in Christianity today. During the seasons of Advent and Lent, purple vestments and altar cloths are used to signify penitence and solemnity. Purple candles are also used in Advent wreaths.

In Catholicism and Anglicanism, purple vestments are worn by bishops to denote their authority and connection to the apostles. The Catholic Church uses purple robes for cardinals, further symbolizing authority.

On the feast day of Pentecost, red is used rather than purple to mark the coming of the Holy Spirit.


In summary, purple fabric in the Bible symbolizes:

– Royalty, kingship, and wealth
– High social status and luxury
– Wisdom, honor, and authority
– Sacredness and spiritual authority
– Repentance and solemnity

The rarity and expense of purple dye gave it elite associations in the ancient world. As a result, the color purple came to represent power, privilege, and prestige, as well as sacredness and spiritual stature. The biblical authors used purple motifs to evoke these symbolic meanings and enrich the narratives. Understanding the cultural context of purple in the Bible provides deeper insight into the scriptural texts.