Q&A: What color is the “blue” of the Bible?
From the About page comes this interesting pair of questions:
1. Is it true that there was no blue in the Bible, and that the word “blue” in our modern versions is a mistranslation? and
2. How do we know what the Hebrew names of the colors represent?
The first question was prompted by a Radiolab episode that claims that the color blue is a relatively modern invention. The episode, like most of Radiolab, is fascinating, so before you keep reading, listen to it. (Or if you’re part of the multitasking generation, listen while you read.)
The answer to the second question is that there’s only one reliable way to know exactly what a color term represents, and that’s to have a sample to compare it to — either an actual sample, or a reference to something generic like “blood” whose color we know.
So just from the text we know that adom probably means “red,” based on II Kings 3:22 (“red like blood”). Similarly, yarok is probably “green.” The fact that these words have continued to mean “red” and “green” throughout Hebrew’s history bolsters these conclusions.
As the Radiolab episode points out, languages tend to follow patterns regarding color words, and one pattern in particular is that words for the primary colors enter a language before fancier colors. For example, if a language has a word for “pink,” it also has one for “red,” but not vice versa.
This means that the next words we should look for are “yellow” and “blue.” (The primary colors are actually pretty complicated, coming in two varieties: Red/Green/Blue and Red/Blue/Yellow. Look up “additive” and “subtractive” if you’re curious.)
We have a word tsahov in the Bible, and while there’s no textual evidence to tell us what it is, it always seems to have meant “yellow.” So that’s a goog guess.
And that leaves “blue.”
On the one hand, there’s a post-Biblical Hebrew word kachol that means “blue.” If it meant “blue” in the Bible, too, we have four candidates for primary colors that all look the same structurally (this is important in Hebrew), with an /a/ vowel then an /o/ vowel separating three consonants, though it’s a bit hard to see in English because the first consonant in adom is the Hebrew letter aleph (for which we don’t use a consonant in English) and both tzahov and kachol have consonants for which we use two letters in English.
So far it looks like we’ve understood the primary colors, and, indeed “blue” doesn’t appear in the Bible.
What does appear, though, is t’chelet. Tradition puts this as some shade of blue, and if we’re right that kachol is “blue,” t’chelet must be something else, probably a more specific blueish color. Furthermore, t’chelet often appears in lists with other seemingly non-primary colors like argaman and shani, and even zahav (which we know is “gold” and may also be “golden”).
All of this evidence points toward t’chelet meaning some blueish shade that isn’t blue. But because we don’t have any actual samples (the oldest sample of anything blueish is less than 2,000 year old, so it doesn’t help), we can’t narrow it down any further.
This doesn’t mean people haven’t tried, though, because it’s a matter of some religious importance. But I’m not convinced by any of the theories that claim to have determined the exact shade.
So it looks like there’s no pure blue in the text of the Bible, but there are other shades. I don’t think this means that they didn’t have blue back then, though. I suspect it just means they didn’t write about it.