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Colour Adjectives in the New Testament*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 February 2015

Lourdes García Ureña*
Universidad CEU-San Pablo, Avenida Juan XIII n° 8, 28040 Madrid, Spain. Email:


Colour is used throughout the NT, although sparingly, with different functions and in conjunction with specific situations. The gospels and the letters do not contain many references to colour, but when they do it is typically to indicate more than a physical quality. On the other hand, the author of the Apocalypse uses the colour in its literal sense to describe a particular object or character. In view of the fact that the book was meant to be read aloud, his repetition of colour adjectives stresses the effectiveness and importance of aural effect as a conveyor of meaning.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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This paper is a product of the Research Project Diccionario Griego-Español del Nuevo Testamento (FFI2011-2014, N° 26124-31), Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación, Dirección General de Investigación y Gestión del Plan Nacional de I + D + i.


1 Gowen, H. H., ‘The Color Terms of the Old Testament’, Anglican Theological Review 3 (1920) 141–51Google Scholar; Brenner, A., Colour Terms in the Old Testament (Sheffield: JSOT, 1982)Google Scholar.

2 D. Romero González, ‘El adjetivo en el Nuevo Testamento: clasificación semántica’ (Córdoba: Universidad de Córdoba, edición tesis.pdf, 2007), 117 mentions a total of ten adjectives, as she includes the adjective ὑγρός. However, this does not denote the colour itself (attribute), but alludes to a state (to be fresh, lush) and can therefore be translated as ‘wet’, ‘fresh’, ‘green’, as opposed to ‘dry’ (Luke 23.31). For this reason it has not been included in this study.

3 Brenner, Colour Terms, 83–4.

4 LSJ s.v. λευκός; W. Michaelis, ‘λευκός, λευκαίνω’, TDNT iv.241–3; R. W. Byargeon, ‘colors’, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (ed. D. N. Freedman et al.; © 2000 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc v. 1.4); Montanari, F., Vocabolario della lingua greca (greco-italiano) (Torino: Loescher, 1995) 1181Google Scholar, s.v. λευκός; BDAG 4555, s.v. λευκός; Thayer, J. H., The New Thayer's Greek–English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1981) 3201Google Scholar, s.v. λευκός.

5 LSJ s.v. λευκός; Michaelis, ‘λευκός’, 246.

6 LSJ s.v. στίλβω; BDAG s.v. στίλβω; Thayer, Greek–English Lexicon, 4744, s.v. στίλβω.

7 LSJ s.v. λίαν; BDAG s.v. λίαν; Thayer, Greek–English Lexicon, 3029, s.v. λίαν.

8 Evans, C. A., Mark 8:27–16:20 (WBC 34B; Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 2001) 35Google Scholar.

9 Dan Th 7.9; 1 En 14.20.

10 BDAG s.v. ἐξαστράπτω; LSJ s.v. ἐξαστράπτω.

11 Michaelis, ‘λευκός’, 246.

12 G. Kittel, ‘ἄγγελος, ἀρχάγγελος, ἰσάγγελος’, TDNT i.84 n. 67.

13 Vawter, B., ‘Evangelio de Juan’, Comentario Bíblico San Jerónimo (ed. Brown, R. E., Fitzmyer, J. A., Murphy, R. E., trans. de la Fuente Adanez, A., Malla, J. Valiente, del Moral, J. J.; 4 vol.; Madrid: Ediciones Cristiandad, 1971) iv.444Google Scholar.

14 Vulgate; ASV; NASB; NET; Nouvelle édition de Genève; Segond 21; Nuova Diodati; Nuova Riveduta 2006; and the Biblia de Jerusalén.

15 Bible du Semeur; CEI; CEE; Sagrada Biblia: versión crítica sobre los textos hebreo, arameo y griego (ed. Burgos, F. Cantera and González, M. Iglesias; Madrid: EDICA, 1979 2)Google Scholar. However, Sagrada Biblia explains in a note that the literal meaning is ‘white’.

16 Beasley-Murray, G. R., John (WBC 36; Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987) 63Google Scholar; Marcheselli, M., ‘Avete qualcosa da mangiare?’ Un pasto, il risorto, la comunità (Bologna: EDB, 2006) 101Google Scholar.

17 NRSV and NIV.

18 Brent, B. and Kay, P., Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969) 4.27Google Scholar, cited by Brenner, Colour Terms, 94, show that this opposition is found in almost all cultures.

19 Michaelis, ‘λευκός’, 247 n. 37.

20 W. Michaelis, ‘μέλας’, TDNT iv.549; LSJ s.v. μέλας.

21 Montanari, Vocabolario, 1248, s.v. μέλας.

22 Michaelis, ‘μέλας’, 549–50.

23 LSJ s.v. μέλας; BDAG s.v. μέλας.

24 In the biblical context, black ink and other colours (red, yellow, purple, etc.) could be used: K. A. Mackay, ‘ink’, Eerdmans Dictionary).

25 M. P. Boyd, ‘scarlet, crimson’, Eerdmans Dictionary; Kogler, F., Egger-Wenzel, R., Ernst, M., Diccionario de la Biblia (Bilbao/Santander: Mensajero/Sal Terrae, 2012) 250Google Scholar, s.v. escarlata.

26 O. Michel, ‘κόκκος, κόκκινος’, TDNT iii.812.

27 Smith, W., A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (London: John Murray, 1875)Google Scholar s.v. paludamentum;*/Paludamentum.html (last accessed 4 June 2014): ‘the cloak worn by a Roman general commanding an army, his principal officers and personal attendants, in contradistinction to the sagum’.

28 L. Ryken, J. C. Wilhoit, T. Longman III (eds.), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery: An Encyclopaedic Exploration of the Images, Symbols, Motifs, Metaphors, Figures of Speech and Literary Patterns of the Bible (© 1998 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA; Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc. version 1.2) s.v. ‘colors’.

29 F. W. Danker, ‘purple’, ABD v.557; Diccionario de la Biblia, 650, s.v. púrpura.

30 M. P. Boyd, ‘purple’, Eerdmans Dictionary.

31 Danker, ‘purple’, 557.

32 Granger-Taylor, H., ‘toga’, The Oxford Classical Dictionary (ed. Hornblower, S. and Spawforth, A., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996 3) 1533Google Scholar.

33 Hence, when Mounce, R. H., Matthew (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985) 266Google Scholar compares the texts of Matthew and Mark 15.17 where the noun πορφύρα appears, he points out the little difference among the colours.

34 Keener, C. S., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Accordance electronic; ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993)Google Scholar; Hagner, D. A., Matthew 14–28 (WBC 33B; Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1995) 831Google Scholar; Beasley-Murray, John, 336.

35 Luz, U., Matthew: A Commentary (trans. Crouch, J. E.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) 515Google Scholar.

36 However, Davies, W. D. and Allison, D. C., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (3 vols.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997) iii.602 n. 28Google Scholar, citing Plutarch and Josephus, affirm that the χλαμύς was also used by kings.

37 In LXX, Leviticus and Numbers the word ‘wool’ is left out, emphasising the colour, which is substantivised. However, when Flavius Josephus tells the story about the red cow, he mentions wool, although he uses another colour: φοινικτὸν ἔριον (Jos. Ant. 4.4.6).

38 M. Jacob, Numbers (Ba-midbar): The Traditional Hebrew Text With The New JPS Translation/Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990) 159Google Scholar.

39 Budd, P. J., Leviticus: Based on the New Revised Standard Version (London/Grand Rapids: M. Pickering/Eerdmans, 1996) 204Google Scholar; Ashley, T. R., The Book of Numbers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 366Google Scholar; Gray, G. B., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Numbers (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1906) 250–1Google Scholar.

40 BDAG 7938.2, s.v. χλωρός; Montanari, vocabolario, 2235, s.v. χλωρός; LSJ s.v. χλωρός.

41 J. Peláez, ‘El factor contextual como elemento determinante del significado de los lexemas: el caso de ἀπολείπω’, V Simposio Bíblico Español: Fundación Bíblica Españolas – Universidad de Navarra, Pamplona 14–17 de Septiembre de 1997 (; last accessed 26 June 2014; Universidad de Córdoba): ‘El contexto tiene un valor determinante para la formación de las nuevas acepciones del lexema, pues introduce cambios en su fórmula y en su desarrollo sémico, originando nuevos significados y, consiguientemente, nuevas traducciones’.

42 Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, s.v. ‘green’.

43 Fauna and Flora of the Bible: Prepared in Cooperation with the Committee on Translations of the United Bible Societies (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1980 2) 125Google Scholar, s.vv. ‘grass, herb, hay’.

44 Moldenke, H. N. and Moldenke, A. L., Plants of the Bible (New York: Ronald, 1952) 28–9Google Scholar; Musselman, L. J., A Dictionary of Bible Plants (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012) 71Google Scholar.

45 ASV; NRSV; NET; La Bible du Semeur (BDS); Nouvelle édition de Genève – NEG 1979; Segond 21; Nuova Diodati; CEI; Sagrada Biblia; CEE.

46 Swete, H. B., Commentary on Mark: The Greek Text with Introduction, Notes, and Indexes (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1977) 133Google Scholar.

47 Stein, R. H., Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) 315Google Scholar.

48 Romero, El adjetivo, 118 n. 5 proposes that χλωρός represents light green, almost yellow, the colour of newly grown grass.

49 Keener, The IVP Bible.

50 Swete, Commentary on Mark, 133; Gould, E. P., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Mark (reprinted, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975) 118Google Scholar; Légasse, S., L'Évangile de Marc (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1997) 401Google Scholar; Keener, The IVP Bible.

51 Taylor, V., The Gospel according to St. Mark: The Greek Text With Introduction, Notes, and Indexes (London/New York/Melbourne: Macmillan/St. Martin's, 1966 2) 323CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gundry, R. H., Mark: A Commentary on his Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 331Google Scholar.

52 Fernández, M. Pérez, Textos fuente y contextuales de la narrativa evangélica: metodología a una selección del evangelio de Marcos (Navarra: Verbo Divino, 2008) 418Google Scholar.

53 Guelich, R. A., Mark 1–8:26 (WBC 34A; Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1989) 188Google Scholar.

54 Pérez Fernández, Textos fuente, 417–19; Schweizer, E., The Good News according to Mark (trans. Madvig, D. H.; Atlanta: John Knox, 1970) 139Google Scholar; Stein, Mark, 315; Hooker, M. D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991) 166Google Scholar.

55 Lamarche, P., Évangile de Marc: commentaire (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1996) 174Google Scholar; Standaert, B., Évangile selon Marc: commentaire. Deuxième partie: Marc 6,14 à 10,52 (Pendé: J. Gabalda, 2010) 511Google Scholar.

56 Louw, J. P. and Nida, E. A., Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (2 vols.; New York: United Bible Societies, 1988)Google Scholar i.79.31, s.v. πυρρός; Romero, El adjetivo, 119.

57 Louw and Nida, Greek–English Lexicon, i.79.33, s.v. πύρινος; BDAG 6441, s.v. πύρινος.

58 Contra H. H. Gowen, ‘The Color Terms’, 151.

59 Ureña, L. García, El Apocalipsi: pautas literarias de lectura (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2013) 8095 Google Scholar.

60 John also clearly explains the shade of white through the two similes he uses afterwards: ὡς ἔριον λευκὸν ὡς χιών, ‘as white wool, as snow’.

61 García Ureña, El Apocalipsis, 134.

62 Although χλωρός is used as a noun at Rev 9.4, it is clear that its expressive function is the denotation of colour: whatever green.

63 Thayer, Greek–English Lexicon, 5718.2, s.v. χλωρός; BDAG 7938.2, s.v. χλωρός.

64 Versus ‘dappled, vigorous’ proposed by Volokhonskii, A., ‘Is the Color of That Horse Really Pale?’, International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 18 (1999) 167–8Google Scholar.

65 García Ureña, El Apocalipsis, 116–23.

66 Louw and Nida, Greek–English Lexicon, i.79.37, s.v. ὑακίνθινος, suggest that ὑακίνθινος represents a dark blue colour, like that of the hyacinth flower. In fact, this is the meaning that predominates in LXX: Prigent, P., Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John (trans. Pradels, W.; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001) 320Google Scholar. Hence, this could be translated as ‘blue like hyacinth’. However, since this flower was not well known, ὑακίνθινος, denoting dark blue, would be associated more with gemstones, so it could be translated as ‘blue like sapphire’ (Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon, i.79.37, s.v. ὑακίνθινος). In fact, this interpretation is the one most coherent with Rev 21.20, which mentions ὑάκινθος, the precious dark blue stone that resembles the hyacinth flower. In accordance with Lupieri, E. F., L'Apocalisse di Giovanni (Rome/Milan: Fondazione Lorenzo Valla/Arnoldo Mondadori, 1999) 169Google Scholar, I have maintained the translation ‘blue like sapphire’.

67 García Ureña, El Apocalipsis, 128–34.

68 Χλωρός (Rev 8.7; 9.4) denotes the green colour, because it is used in the vegetation context.

69 About the use of these elements: L. García Ureña, ‘The Eloquence of the Color Nouns in the Book of Revelation’ (in progress).

70 Aune, D. E., Revelation 6–16 (WBC 52B; Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1998) 413Google Scholar.

71 Swete, Commentary on Mark, 93.

72 Mateos, J. and Peláez, J. (eds.), Diccionario griego-español del Nuevo Testamento: análisis semántico de los vocablos (Córdoba: El Almendro, 2000) 172Google Scholar, 179, s.v. αἷμα.

73 Louw and Nida, Greek–English Lexicon, i.6.169, s.v. πορφύρα, πορφυροῦν, maintain that πορφυροῦς in this case is a noun. This is not supported in any other dictionary (BDAG; Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon; LSJ), and since John knows the noun πορφύρα (Rev 18.12), I am more inclined to consider it to be an adjective.

74 Ureña, L. García, ‘The Book of Revelation: A Written Text towards the Oral Performance’, Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World, vol. x: Between Orality and Literacy: Communication and Adaptation in Antiquity (ed. Scodel, R.; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2014) 309–30Google Scholar, at 310–13.

75 García Ureña, El Apocalipsis, 52.

76 In that sense I do not agree with the idea of E. Lupieri that ὑακίνθινος connotes a divine sphere (L'Apocalisse, 169). The presence of πύρινος and θειώδης transmits terror and destruction.