Scholar’s Study: The Great Tekhelet Debate

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In the Archaeological Views column “The Great Tekhelet Debate—Blue or Purple?” (BAR, September/October 2013), Baruch and Judy Taubes Sterman of the Jerusalem-based Ptil Tekhelet Foundation suggest that God’s chosen color for the ancient Israelites was a sky-blue derived from murex dye. In a letter to BAR, Professor Zvi C. Koren, director of the Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts at the Shenker College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan, Israel, criticizes the Stermans’ analysis, to which the Stermans responded. In a letter published on January 2, 2014, Koren replied to the Stermans’ letter. Read about tekhelet and follow the correspondence between Baruch and Judy Taubes Sterman and Professor Zvi C. Koren in Bible History Daily:

What Color Was Tekhelet?

Regarding the Color of Tekhelet by Zvi C. Koren

Baruch and Judy Taubes Sterman Respond

Zvi C. Koren’s Reply to the Stermans’ Response

BAS Library Members: Read “Archaeological Views: The Great Tekhelet Debate—Blue or Purple?” by Baruch and Judy Taubes Sterman as it appeared in the September/October 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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  • Dee says

    It is a very interesting study to study Tyre and this industry of the murex snail. How many needed for an ounce for example and while one is on the way through it don’t forget Lydia, the seller of purple in the New Testement. This is thought to be cloth dyed with this dye hence she brought great wealth to those she worked for. people don’t seem to like their money threatened. While it is true that we seem unable to determine the exact color it is also true that thr history of purple being a royal color comes from this snail dye, whatever color it was. It likely was a blue and I have seen speculation thatt it was mixed with red from something else to gain different shades. we may find in the end thst the red came from a different part of the snail. e.g. the shell or a different gland. Happy hunting.

  • Dee says

    the Hebrews themselves did not touch the snails. The city of zTyre was world famous for providing that particular dye. You get about one drop of dye per snail by the way so it was provided great wealth. Tyre is one and probably the only one place where the.murex was known to be and they kept their techniques secret. but in answer to the comment, Tyre was not Jewish so unless the Hebrews ate their clothes they were not unclean nor expised to the dead carcass.

  • Andrew says

    Shalom all–I am not sure if this was brought up before so forgive me if I am repeating something, but I didn’t see it mentioned at first glance. I believe the best evidences we have for what color the tzit-tzit were include a reference from Exodus 24 and the comments of the first century Jewish scholar Josephus who after all was an eyewitness to these things. First let’s go to the Torah…

    9 Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel,
    10 and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. (Exo 24:9-10 NAU)

    The pavement from the throne of YHWH is SKY blue and it is from His throne that He commanded the sons of Israel to wear the tzit. The Hebrew word TEKHELET is used in direct comparison to the SKY and to SAPPHIRES, both of which tend to a shade of indigo rather than teal/turquoise. Furthermore, there is another Hebrew word, AGRAMAN that is specifically used for PURPLE, so I have no idea why it would be suggested TEKHELET is somehow purple, as they are delineated as two separate colors about 2 dozen times in the Torah text.

    In short, I could see an argument made for LIGHTER blue (turquoise) because the sky can be a lighter shade closer to that color, but not for ARGAMAN (purple). Whatever TEKHELET is it must be reminiscent of a normal shade of sky blue. This brings us to our second witness: Josephus:

    186 And for the twelve stones, whether we understand by them the months, or whether we understand the like number of the signs of that circle which the Greeks call the Zodiac, we shall not be mistaken in their meaning. And for the mitre, which was of a blue colour, it seems to me to mean heaven; 187 for how otherwise could the name of God be inscribed upon it? That it was also illustrated with a crown, and that of gold also, is because of that splendour with which God is pleased. Let this explanation {d} suffice at present, since the course of my narration will often, and on many occasions, afford me the opportunity of enlarging upon the virtue of our legislator. (Ant 3:186-187 JOE)

    Please compare this to Exodus 28:4-5 as the sash and mitre are ALSO “tekhelet”, so the only shade that IMHO matches both the SKY and sapphires is a darker indigo shade of blue, not teal and not purple. And unfortunately I have not seen much discussion overall on this matter from these sources, but that of course doesn’t mean there isn’t.

    And finally, when TEKHELET was translated into Greek of the LXX the Greek word referred to HYACINTH flowers which grow all over the Middle East and are also of a dark sky blue color. As Wikipedia states, specifically regarding the species of Hyacinth that grows in Israel:

    I have personally seen these flowers bloom in Israel. so in sum I think the majority of evidence points in a fairly strong direction of dark sky blue as the best candidate for TEKHELET. Hope this helps!

    Andrew Gabriel Roth
    Translator, Aramaic English New Testament

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