E. Allusions in Philo and Josephus to the Colour of Tekhelet

I do not think it is possible to go much further than this in the direction of the determination of the Tekhelet-nuance.

Bähr ventures I think too far when upon the basis of certain indications found in Philo, in Josephus, in the Church fathers and in the Talmud he concludes that Tekhelet was an absolutely pure blue. Certain grades of violet are only with very great difficulty distinguishable from blue. That the colour of Tekhelet or hyacinth is likened to that of the sea or of the sky only proves that Tekhelet was not easily distinguishable from deep blue: a deep dark violet-blue would be classed by the ancients, as indeed by most people to-day, as a deep-blue. We have seen that the sea is sometimes described as resembling the colour of the ianthina ( Viola odorata L.), and that Hieronymus likens the ianthina-colour to that of the sky.1

If, as seems almost certain, Tekhelet is not comprised in the Purpura amethystina to which Pliny refers, it is to be sought among the genus of purple-fabric termed by the Roman naturalist vestes conchyliatae, conchylium? It is worth while remarking that it ought not to be supposed for a moment that the data furnished byPliny with reference to purple have universal application embracing all localities and all ages. Pliny in all probability drew his information on the subject from Italian sources. His statements therefore refer in the first place to purple as manufactured in the Italian dye-houses at, or about, his time. In Phoenicia and in Palestine, things may have been somewhat different. Italian taste and fashion may have held in small favour the hyacinth purple properly so called, preferring the violet shades to those inclining more to blue. The Purpura conchyliata on the other hand, though less expensive than the Purpura Tyria and the amethystina, had a charm of its own. Pliny admires the delicacy of shade of the vestes conchyliatae. It is quite possible that Tekhelet is not comprised even in the Purpura conchyliata. Schmidt, as already has been said, identifies the later Tekhelet, that of which Maimonides speaks, with the heliotrope variety of Pliny’s Purpura conchyliata. The identification is really due to Bochart though the latter makes no distinction between earlier and later Tekhelet. I do not think the theory has a great measure of probability. The characteristic mark of the vestes conchyliatae was their lightness or paleness of shade in contradistinction to the dark or deep tones of the Purpura blatta. But the Tekhelet is called black by Philo, and Schmidt’s distinction between earlier and later Tekhelet not seeming to me probable, I do not feel at all inclined to accept the identification of Tekhelet with Pliny’s heliotrope conchyliata purple.

Schmidt’s argument from the Lex Valentina is indeed not to be easily disposed of. It shows clearly that in the course of the centuries separating that Lex from Aquilas’ translation, a change had supervened; hyacinthina replacing amethystina as the generic name for all Purpura blatta not falling under the appellation of Purpura Tyria or dibapha.

With the investigation of the causes responsible for that change we need not occupy ourselves here. Suffice it to remark that the terminology of the Lex Valentina need not necessarily be the same as that of the Septuagint.

Philo in his homiletic explanation of the construction of the Tabernacle says that Tekhelet was meant to symbolise air for “by nature the air is black.”2

Josephus copies Philo making however an important addition …

 “τὸν δὲ ἀέρα βούλεται δηλοῦν ὁ ὑάκινθος. (…) ἀποσημαίνει δὲ καὶ ὁ τοῦ ἀρχιερέως χιτὼν τὴν γῆν (…) ὁ δὲ ὑάκινθος τὸν πόλον, ἀστραπαῖς etc.” “ton de aera bouletai deloun o’ Iakinthos… aposimainei de kai o ton archiereos chiton ten gen … ό de Iakinthos ton polon astrapais mén … kai o pilos de mo dokei ton ouranon tekmerioun iakinthinos pepoiemenos ou gar an alios uperanetitheto auto to onoma ton theon te.”3  “For the hyacinth is proper to signify the air. (…) Now the vestment of the high priest (being made of linen), signified the earth. The hyacinth denoted the sky, being like lightings…”

The comparison of the hyacinth with the sky-colour is not borrowed from Philo but it is certainly not original with Josephus.4 As he adds nothing in explanation of his statement that the hyacinth symbolises the sky, he must have been sure that his readers would readily grasp the point: the resemblance of the hyacinth fabric to the sky-colour must have been self-evident.

In another passage Josephus speaking of the hyacinth coverings of the Tabernacle says:

“Great amazement would seize those who viewed these (veils) from afar, for they seemed to differ in nothing from the colour of the sky.”5 “polle d’ ekpleksis elambane tous porrothen theomenous. Ten gar chroan tois kata ton ouranon sumbainousin ouden edokoun diapherein.” πολλή δ’ έκπληξίς ελάμβανε τους πόρρωθεν θεωμένους. Την γαρ χρώαν τους κατά τον ουρανών συμβαίνουσιν ουδέν εδωκούν διαφέρειν.


It is scarcely possible to trace the source whence Josephus drew this statement. Was it oral Midrash? In all probability Josephus reflects his personal experience of the illusion created by the sight of Tekhelet from a distance.

Close resemblance to sky-colour is a necessary inference from this assertion of Josephus’ but it hardly warrants absolute identity of colour, or in other words, we cannot be sure that if Tekhelet were closely examined by a specialist in colour discrimination it would be declared by him to have absolutely the same nuance as the cloudless Asiatic sky in bright sunshine.



  1. “Calceani te hyacintho, vel ut alii janthino: cum loti fuerint pedes et omni sordi purgati, celceantur hyacinthinis vel ut alii ianthinio, quod utrumque aerii et kuxneon coloris est.”
  2. Philo, De Congressu.
  3. Josephus, ibid., book III, chs. 6-7.
  4. Cf. Philo (De Vita Mosi) on the High Priest’s tunic; ילקוט שמעוני פקודי רמז ת״ט
  5. Josephus, ibid., book III, ch. 4.