God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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.

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May 29, 2012 - Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , ,

13 Comments »

  1. The primary color thing is not anthropologically sound. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_terms#Basic_color_terms contains a description of the common patterns for color terms in languages. If you can’t find a term for blue, it’s likely that it’s the same as green (as is the case in modern Japanese) or black.

    Comment by Gordon Tisher | May 29, 2012 | Reply

  2. They do pretty much know what color t’chelet is now. A sample was discovered at Masada and chemically analyzed:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/28/world/middleeast/28blue.html?_r=1

    Some interesting videos are also on the tekhelet.com website…

    http://www.tekhelet.com/mystery.htm

    Comment by Lois Tverberg | May 29, 2012 | Reply

    • Thanks, Lois.

      I provide that link in my main text, but I discount it, for two reasons. First, the fabric patch, from the first decades of the first millennium AD, comes too late to help directly with the Old Testament. Secondly, we don’t know for sure that this is t’chelet. It’s a fascinating find, because it shows us what coloring technology was in use at the time, but I don’t think it helps much with color terms from hundreds of years earlier.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 30, 2012 | Reply

  3. [...] the problem with the word “blue” in the Bible. It seems to be blue, but it’s not clear what kind of blue that might [...]

    Pingback by Blue in the Bible | Jewel Lake Parish Online | May 30, 2012 | Reply

  4. Sorry I didn’t see your link, Joel.

    Every time t’chelet is used in the text, it is associated with clothing. It’s never just used as a word to describe the color of the sky or the sea. My assumption is that it’s not an abstract word that means a shade of “blue,” but a particular dye color.

    Is there a reason to assume that the dye color would be different in the Second Temple Period than in earlier history? Given that it would have been needed for priestly garments, it seems like the knowledge would have been handed down over the centuries.

    Comment by Lois Tverberg | May 30, 2012 | Reply

    • I agree that it didn’t mean “just any shade of blue,” but, rather, referred to a specific shade of blue. My point is that we don’t know which shade.

      Even if it was used for the priestly garments, I tend to think that it would have changed over 500 years, though I can also see how it could have been the color produced by a particular animal, in which case it would have been easier to keep constant. But don’t forget, we don’t know if the sample from Masada was t’chelet or not.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 30, 2012 | Reply

  5. I am not a Bible expert by any means. I have a curious question. If the other colors are used in the Bible, then why do you assume that blue was around, just not written down? It’s such a long work, you’d think blue would have made it in at least once.

    Comment by Tamra | May 30, 2012 | Reply

    • Not necessarily. “Blue” didn’t come up very often in the ancient world, because the color is so rare in nature. The Radiolab episode discusses exactly this issue.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 30, 2012 | Reply

  6. I seem to recall there’s an excellent and accessible (to the non-specialist) in Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass about how language for colour tends to develop.

    Comment by Doug | May 30, 2012 | Reply

  7. I was under the impression that blue is often referenced in later Exodus chapters in the description of threads and cloth for the tabernacle. Of course, that was NRSV English, but for a “literal” translation I would expect the NRSV to not simply throw in the color blue if it wasn’t really mentioned.

    http://www.biblebasics.co.uk/colours/col5.htm

    Comment by Jason Engel | July 18, 2012 | Reply

  8. Were there any Hebrew references to lapis lazuli in ancient writing?

    Comment by Rev Kermit Lauterbach | December 18, 2012 | Reply

    • Probably, though — as with most technical terms — it’s hard to be certain.

      Comment by Joel H. | December 21, 2012 | Reply

  9. [...] Part 3, “Heart and Soul” Adultery in Matthew 5:32 Who Says Homosexuality is a Sin? Q&A: What color is the “blue” of the Bible? What’s the difference between an eagle and a vulture? Disaster, Unloved, and Unwanted: [...]

    Pingback by The Year in Review (2012) « God Didn't Say That | January 2, 2013 | Reply


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