The rarity of purple in nature and the expense of creating its dye gave it a great deal of prestige. It was the most expensive dye known to the ancient Israelites in the Bible. It was the color of choice for those of noble or royal birth or those who were high-level officials. Roman Emperors wore clothing colored purple. Catholic Bishops have for many years worn clothing containing this color.
Phrases containing the name of the color sometimes referred to those of a royal lineage. Constantine VII, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire (b. 905, d. 959 A.D.), was given the title of Porphyrogenitus, which means 'born of the purple room.'
In ancient times, the cities of Tyre and Sidon were well-known producers of purple and possessed a thriving dyeing industry. Surprisingly, the prophet Ezekiel mentions the Tyrians obtaining it from the islands of Elishah (Ezekiel 27:7) and through the Syrians (verse 16).
Anciently, the production of purple dye was a long and laborious task. The liquid used to create it came from a tiny Mediterranean Sea snail gland. Each snail produced only a single drop of the needed fluid. To produce one pound of dye, during ancient Roman Empire times, took the acquiring of four million mollusks.
Even though it has a long history of association with kings and rulers, purple is rarely in modern national flags. Only one country, Dominica, uses it in their flag.
Biblical meaning of the color purple
In the King James Bible, the word 'purple' occurs forty-eight times, of which nine are in the New Testament. The Hebrew Old Testament word translated as this color is argaman (Strong's Concordance #H713). The three Greek New Testament words used are porphura (#G4209), which refers to the animal from which the color is extracted, porphurous (#G4210), which is the color's literal name and porphuropolis (#G4211), which is a reference to a female trader of the dye.
Purple can symbolically represent royalty, majesty and high officials (Judges 8:26, Esther 8:15) as well as wealth, prosperity and luxury (Exodus 28:5, Ezekiel 27:7, Proverbs 31:22, Song of Solomon 3:10, 7:5, Luke 16:19, Acts 16:14, Revelation 17:4, 18:12, 16).
This color was an integral part of the temple and its services (Exodus 25:4, 26:1, 36, 27:16, Numbers 4:13, etc.). It was used in curtains (veils) and carpets found in the tabernacle (along with blue, scarlet and white), as well as the garments worn by the High Priest. Working with the color was such an important skill that King Solomon requested from Tyre's King Hiram a man specializing in dyeing with it (2Chronicles 2:7) to supervise building the temple.
The Gospels of Mark and John (Mark 15:17, 20, John 19:2, 5) state that the robe Pontius Pilate's soldiers placed on Jesus, in order to mock him, was purple. The book of Matthew says, however, that the robe was scarlet colored (Matthew 27:28).
Spreading of the Gospel
During his second missionary journey the Apostle Paul finds himself in Philippi, being guided to preach the gospel in Europe by the Holy Spirit (Acts 16:9 - 10). On the Sabbath he meets a businesswoman named Lydia, a 'seller of purple' whose hometown is Thyatira (Acts 16:14).
The city of Thyatira was well known for its ability to dye cloth, especially in the color purple. Such skills made it a prosperous trading town. Lydia almost certainly was financially well off due to her trade, as she owned a home both in Thyatira and Philippi (Acts 16:14 - 15).
According to the Bible, Lydia and her entire household, after listening to the Apostle Paul preach the gospel, became Christians. Her Philippian home, made prosperous through purple, quickly becomes a gather place for fellow believers (verse 40) and the focal point for spreading the gospel in the city.