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I was talking with a friend, and he offered this up as a contradiction between the two accounts. When Jesus is about to be crucified, during his flogging Matthew says the soldiers clothed him in scarlet while Mark says it was in purple. I have never noticed this specific difference in accounts before and didn't have an explanation, hopefully this forum can help.

The first passage is Matthew 27:27-30 NASB (v. 28 given in Greek with the word translated scarlet highlighted below).

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole Roman cohort around Him. They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. And after twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they knelt down before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on Him, and took the reed and began to beat Him on the head.

καὶ ἐκδύσαντες αὐτὸν χλαμύδα κοκκίνην περιέθηκαν αὐτῷ

I also found the following definitions for κοκκίνην

  1. crimson, scarlet coloured. A kernel, the grain or berry of the "ilex coccifera"; these berries are the clusters of the eggs of a female insect, the "kermes" (resembling the cochineal), and when collected and pulverised produces a red which was used in dyeing (Pliny)
  2. scarlet cloth or clothing

The second passage is in Mark 15:16-19 NASB (v. 17 given in Greek with word translated purple highlighted below).

The soldiers took Him away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium), and they called together the whole Roman cohort. They dressed Him up in (4)purple, and after twisting a crown of thorns, they put it on Him; and they began to acclaim Him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They kept beating His head with a reed, and spitting on Him, and kneeling and bowing before Him.

καὶ ἐνδιδύσκουσιν αὐτὸν πορφύραν καὶ περιτιθέασιν αὐτῷ πλέξαντες ἀκάνθινον στέφανον

Again, I found the following definitions for πορφύραν

  1. the purple fish, a species of shell fish or mussel
  2. a fabric coloured with purple dye, a garment made from purple cloth

Additionally, in my copy of "A Harmony of the Gospels - New American Standard Version" by R. L. Thomas, & S. N. Gundry 1978 1st Harper & Row Edition I found this interesting footnote on pg. 240

(4). A term for shades varying from rose to purple.

This footnote seems to suggest that the color of the robe Matthew provided as κοκκίνην could be considered to be the same as the color πορφύραν given by Mark. I understand that rulers and wealthy people would often wear purple. In fact there is a good video explaining the use of purple throughout history here that also provides some insight. Is it possible that the modern distinction between reddish/rose colors and purple colors was more blurred during the first century? This would seem to make sense of the different passages and work with the evidence from the footnote.

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  • If I look for a purple shirt on Ebay I will see a range of colors from pink to black. Color is not a definite thing. There is no rule on what is scarlet or what is purple. Its a judgment call on the part of the viewer. – Dan Mar 29 '19 at 17:05
  • I think that's a valid response for the argument that it's a contradiction. But I'd like to get some evidence to back up what I found in the footnotes etc. – WnGatRC456 Mar 29 '19 at 17:16
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Actually, the fact that two independent witnesses give such a similar account using different words is compelling evidence that they are truly independent. If they were verbatim, they could be charged with collusion.

The slight difference in the colour is more apparent than real - whatever the actual colour, Mark and Matthew may have seen the robe in slightly different light (it was NOT daylight but inside with poorly lit torches) and they may have observed a slightly shade.

Now to the actual words. Matthew 27:28 has the word "scarlet is from κοκκίνην (kokkinēn) from the lexical form κόκκινος (kokkinos) (see also Heb 9:19, Rev 17:3, 4, 18:12, 16) which, according to BDAG means: "red, scarlet" and used in Matt 27:28 of a cheaply dyed garment placed on Jesus suggesting that the colour may not have been uniform.

In Mark 15:17 the operative word for "purple" is πορφύραν (porphyran) from the lexical form πορφύρα (porphura) (see also Mark 15:20, Luke 16:19, Rev 18:12) which, according to BDAG means: "purple" - but note the association between these words in Rev 18:12.

Thus, it appears that the range of colours covered by these two words overlapped; but in any case, I am confident that Matthew, Mark recorded what they saw which may have been slightly different depending on the angle and light. This very difference in wording lends credence to the facts underlying the witness accounts. The pulpit commentary observes for Mark 15:17:

Purple and scarlet are not such very dissimilar colors. Purple is a royal color; and the chlamys of St. Matthew was a short military cloak of scarlet, intended to be a kind of royal livery. St. Cyril says that the purple cloak symbolized the kingdom of the whole world, which Christ was about to receive, and which he was to obtain by the shedding of his most precious blood. It was designed in mockery of his claim to be a King, and it probably bad a reference to his supposed insurrection against Caesar.

Ellicott observes in commenting on Matt 27:28,

A scarlet robe.--Here again we have a technical word, the chlamys or paludamentum, used for the military cloak worn by emperors in their character as generals, and by other officers of high rank (Pliny, xxii. 2, 3). St. Mark and St. John call it purple (Mark 15:17; John 19:2); but the "purple "of the ancients was "crimson," and the same colour might easily be called by either name. It was probably some cast-off cloak of Pilate's own, or, possibly, that in which Herod had before arrayed Him (Luke 23:11). Philo records a like mockery as practised upon an idiot at Alexandria, who was there made to represent Herod Agrippa II. (in Flacc. p. 980). It was but too common a practice to subject condemned prisoners before execution to this kind of outrage. Here the point of the mockery lay, of course, in the fact that their Victim had been condemned as claiming the title of a King. They had probably seen or heard of the insults of like kind offered by Herod and his soldiers (Luke 23:21), and now reproduced them with aggravated cruelty.

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    Wow! Thank you for all of the research put into this answer. I will take this to my friend and reassure him that this is actually evidence against collusion and contradiction. – WnGatRC456 Mar 29 '19 at 18:38
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The color of the robe was purple, the weave of the robe was scarlet. (nerd alert, sorry)

Purple (πορφύραν)

This one is pretty unambiguous. Purple is the color associated with royalty in a number of cultures, including Rome. The association was effective because prior to the development of synthetic dyes, purple was a very expensive color to produce. 9,000 mollusks were needed to create just one gram of Tyrian purple (see here)

Etymology of scarlet

The meaning of the word “scarlet” has changed since the time of the King James translators, and with it, the interpretation we read back onto Greek and English texts.

In the English of Tudor fashion (just drawing to a close when KJV was written), “scarlet” was a reference to a specific type of high-quality weaved wool. Because it was a luxury item, it was often dyed in expensive colors, such as the eye-catching red we now associate with the word “scarlet”.

Definitions in Tudor English:

Scarlet: “Broadcloth of the highest quality; dyed in kermes, usually red. Used for petticoats, waistcoats, hose, gowns, cloaks, linings.”

Broadcloth: “Finest woollen cloth, 54 to 63 inches wide (hence the name), of plain weave, with a weft of good-quality carded short-staple wool, well-fulled, a nap raised on it and then sheared; for gowns, coats, cassocks”

(definitions are taken from “The Tudor Tailor – Reconstructing sixteenth-century dress” p. 36)

The Tudor Tailor definitions for these words cite sources from 1546, 1573, and 1592, the later of which would be well within the lifetimes of the future King James translators.

Conclusion

A scarlet (κοκκίνην) cloth is often but not always red. Various shades can be produced by kermes dye. English speakers (and apparently speakers of other languages as well) have over the years come to associate “scarlet” with “red” because scarlet cloth was often dyed red. But scarlet is not (or at least wasn’t always) a description of color; it is the type of weave.

Wearing a “scarlet” robe and a “purple” robe is not a contradiction. It was a purple-colored robe of a very high-quality woollen weave. That a detail like this was noticed suggests multiple eyewitnesses who were paying attention. Otherwise, why shouldn't all 3 synoptic authors describe the robe the same way?

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  • PS I should point out that the only reason I know this, and have a book in my library called “The Tudor Tailor”, is because my wife is a seamstress and historical costumer =) – Hold To The Rod Feb 14 at 19:22
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Thank you for the information provided thus far. A congregant posed the same challenge to me. I have never made much of an issue over it, assuming (I believe correctly) that the authors chose to use two separate acceptably similar words for the same object. The research above has been helpful and then I did an internet search for the word "kermes."

Thayers says: "κόκκινος, κοκκινη, κόκκινον (from κόκκος a kernel, the grain or berry of the ilex coccifera; these berries are the clusters of eggs of a female insect, the kermes ((cf. English carmine, crimson)), and when collected and pulverized produce a red which was used in dyeing..."

When I searched for this color of dye I found a picture of a silk coronation robe worn by Roger II of Sicily which has been "dyed with kermes." In this photo, you can clearly see that where the light is directly hitting the robe it looks red but where the shadows dominate at the bottom of the photo I would say it looks more like a deep purple.

As has already been said, "the slight difference in the color is more apparent than real."

God bless.

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