The New International Version of the Bible frequently uses the words “crimson” and “scarlet” when other newer versions may simply use “red”. In the original Hebrew text, there were even more ways of describing a reddish hue. Three of these words have been translated as “crimson”. They are karmity, which means deep red; tola, the maggot from which the dye is derived; and shaniy. The term “scarlet” is a translation of the Greek word Kokkinos, which refers to the shape of the insect that dye is extracted from.
Crimson is a strong red colour that slightly inclines towards purple on the colour wheel. The colour was originally produced using the dried bodies of the kermes insect, which could be found in Mediterranean countries.
The plant rhubarb has been poetically referred to as “crimson stalks” for obvious reasons. The crimson sunbird is the national bird of Singapore. In Australia, there is a species of parrot known as the crimson rosella. Occasionally, in places such as Mexico and Florida, a crimson tide occurs when certain algae turn the water red.
In some religions, such as the Bahá’í Faith, crimson stands for tests and sacrifice. Let’s have a look at where it appears in the Bible.
The Second Book of Chronicles, chapter two tells us about King Solomon’s plans to build a temple in Jerusalem. He requested the help of King Hiram of Tyre, with whom he wished to continue the friendly relationship King David had established. The people of Tyre were known for their dyeing industry, particularly for using crimson and purple dyes. Solomon requested Hiram to send him a man who could assist with the decoration of the temple.
There are only two other mentions of the word “crimson” in the NIV Bible and they can both be found in the book of Isaiah. In chapter 63, Isaiah writes about God’s day of vengeance and redemption. The first verse says: “Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in splendour, striding forward in the greatness of his strength? ‘It is I, proclaiming victory, mighty to save.’”
In this verse, crimson is a sign of splendour and of victory, however, in an earlier chapter, crimson means something entirely different. It is also an example that distinguishes crimson and scarlet as two separate colours – some theologians argue that they are one and the same.
This leads me on to investigating the use of “scarlet” in the Bible. Scarlet lies somewhere between red and orange on the colour wheel, making it less strong than crimson. Nonetheless, the same insects originally produced the scarlet dye. Synthetic scarlet is often called cadmium red and was the standard red of many artists during the 19thand 20thcenturies.
In the 20thcentury, scarlet became associated with revolution. It has been used on revolutionary emblems as a symbol of the blood of martyrs in the French Revolution. It also became the colour of communism, which was used on the Soviet Union’s flag and is still used on the Chinese flag. In China, red is also a symbol of happiness.
Scarlet is the colour of the traditional academic dress of doctorate students in the United Kingdom. The Foot Guards and Life Guards also wear scarlet for ceremonial purposes. Army regiments across the world use the colour scarlet on their uniforms too. The countries that do this include Australia, Jamaica, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, Kenya, India, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Brazil and the USA.
In the Roman Catholic Church, scarlet symbolises the blood of Christ and Christian martyrs. In Lutheran tradition, scarlet is used in decorations from Palm Sunday until Maundy Thursday. Other Christians, however, often associate scarlet with prostitution. This is partly due to the description of an adulterous woman in the Book of Revelations, who is sometimes referred to as the Great Scarlet Whore.
Other negative connotations of scarlet in the book of Revelation include:
The first time the word “scarlet” is used in the NIV is in Genesis 38 when Tamar gave birth to twins. A scarlet thread was tied around the wrist of the eldest so that they could differentiate between the two.
The colour is most frequently used in the book of Exodus in relation to the construction of the Tabernacle. This connects scarlet with God, giving it an entirely different meaning in comparison to the final book of the New Testament. Between Exodus 25 and Exodus 39, the colour scarlet is mentioned over 25 times. Examples include:
Leviticus 14 mentions scarlet yarn at least five times in the instructions for the cleansing of defiling skin diseases:
Twice, scarlet is mentioned in the book of Numbers:
Potentially the most famous mention of scarlet in the Bible occurs during the story of Rahab and the Spies. This is found in the second chapter of the book of Joshua. Rahab was a prostitute but in this story, the colour scarlet is not a reflection on her occupation. Rahab helped Joshua’s spies escape and in return, they told her to tie a scarlet cord in her window so that when Joshua’s soldiers attack the city, she will be spared.
Other mentions of the colour scarlet in the Bible are:
Generally, scarlet is a colour associated with wealth and opulence. This meaning is supported with the only mention of the colour in the Gospels:
Despite the unfortunate connection to prostitution, both crimson and scarlet are most representative of wealth and power, both politically and religiously. Even the verses in Revelation refer to this. By the end of times, people were worshipping their wealth and power rather than God.
According to surveys across Europe and the UK, scarlet is also associated with courage, force, passion and joy. Combining this with Biblical meaning, it can be ascertained that scarlet is a powerful, positive colour – crimson, too.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon