WHAT WAS THE COLOUR OF THE ROBE PUT ON JESUS? An Easy Solution to an Alleged Contradiction

WHAT WAS THE COLOUR OF THE ROBE PUT ON JESUS? An Easy Solution to an Alleged Contradiction

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© 2022, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

The Problem

In Matthew 27:27-28, we read,

27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole cohort around Him.

28 And they stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him.

On the other hand, in John 19 we read,

1 So then Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him.

And the soldiers twisted a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and they put on Him a purple robe

Then Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And Pilate said to them, “Behold the Man!” (John 19:1-2,5).

This is touted by skeptics as a contradiction, as the two evangelists disagree on the colour of the robe worn by Jesus.

Proposed Solutions

Christian apologists have offered a variety of proposed solutions for this apparent contradiction.  Some suggest that the robe looked scarlet to Matthew but purple to John, because people perceive colours differently.  Eric Lyons, writing for Apologetics Press, asserts that

All would agree that we oftentimes see colors a little differently. What one person calls blue, someone else may be more specific and call navy blue … The simple fact is, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote from different perspectives; they did not participate in collusion. The same way that individuals today look at colors and see different tones, shades, and tints, the Gospel writers saw the activities surrounding the life of Jesus from different angles.[1]

Troy Lacey, writing for Answers in Genesis, objects to such a solution, however, saying that

some commentators have thought that John and Mark (Mark 15:17–20) reckoned the robe to be purplish in color, while Matthew reckoned it to be redder in color. This would solve any apparent contradictions, but this “solution” seems to be contrary to the Greek word choice in each Gospel. It is clear from the Greek terms used in Matthew, Mark, and John that a distinct color is meant, one scarlet and the other purple.[2]

Lacey suggests that there were three robes put on Jesus.  Herod put a white robe on Him; then “After the scourging left his flesh in shreds, the soldiers put a scarlet robe on him (Matthew 27:28)”; and finally a purple one:

One of the soldiers likely was present when Pilate asked Jesus if he was the King of the Jews, which Jesus answered affirmatively (Matthew 27:11–12). What would you clothe a king in? A purple robe, the color of royalty, and a crown. It is probably at this time that the scarlet robe was taken off Jesus, probably to allow them to put the purple robe on but also to reopen the wounds. The crown of thorns and then the purple robe were put on Jesus. The purple robe was an ultimate form of mockery by soldiers who wished to make fun of someone claiming to be a king but was in such a pitiful state … The solution to the apparent contradiction is that there were two or three robes, not one.[3]

This seems problematic.  Matthew wrote:

27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole cohort around Him.

28 And they stripped Him and put a scarlet robe (χλαμύς) on Him.

29 When they had woven a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand. And they bowed the knee before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”

30 Then they spat on Him, and took the reed and struck Him on the head.

31 And when they had mocked Him, they took the robe off Him, put His own clothes on Him, and led Him away to be crucified. (Matthew 27:27-31)

He specified that a scarlet robe was put on Jesus, and then says that they took off the robe and then put His own clothes on Him.  The presence of the definite article with the second appearance of “robe” indicates that the reference is to a robe already identified, and the only one already identified is the scarlet one.  Lacey is very wrong when he claims,

Then when Matthew mentions the robe being taken off Jesus (Matthew 27:31), he purposefully does not specify the color, which removes the basis for claiming this to be a contradictory account.[4]

In fact, according to Matthew’s account as we read it, taking the scarlet robe off Jesus is followed not by putting a purple robe on Jesus but putting His own clothes back on Him and leading Him out to be crucified.  Of course, it is not impossible that Matthew simply omitted the placing of a purple robe on Jesus, and John, describing the event in much the same way, did mention the purple robe but not the scarlet one; not impossible, but certainly tendentious and speculative.

Yet another suggestion is that the robe may have been multicoloured:

The most likely solution to this apparent contradiction is that the robe was both purple and scarlet (e.g. it was striped or patterned in some way).”[5]

A bizarre suggestion is that the robe was indeed scarlet and not purple, but was called purple by John (and Mark) because purple was the colour of royalty, and it was thus that the soldiers were mocking Jesus:

[N]ormally, kings wore purple. So just as the soldiers supplied a crown made of thorns, and supplied a scepter made of reeds, they gave Jesus “purple” – in the form of a soldier’s scarlet cloak. When Matthew tells us they gave Jesus a “scarlet robe,” he is telling is what they used to mock Jesus. And when Mark and John tell us they placed “purple” on Jesus, they are explaining why they did this – to parody the notion that Jesus is a king.[6]

This approach cannot possibly be considered valid exegesis.  Like the other proposed solutions we have seen, it seems forced and unsatisfying.  Can we do better?

The Solution That Works

The first step for the apologist in approaching apparent contradictions is to check the passages in the original language[7] in which God breathed His word (2 Timothy 3:16); in this case the Koine Greek.  When we do that, we find that the issue is not the colour of what Jesus wore, but what Jesus wore.  The first fun fact is that there is nothing in the passages to indicate that Jesus wore a robe.

Robes “were appropriately garments of the high priest … but were sometimes worn by other illustrious men.[8]  The Greek word for “robe” is στολή (stolē); it appears in Mark 12:38 (“Then He said to them in His teaching, “Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces”) and Luke 15:22 (“But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet.”)  Robes were not the garments of the ordinary people, and there is no mention of στολή in either Matthew 27 or John 19 (or, for that matter, in Mark 15 or Luke 22-23).

Before we look at the words that are used in those passages, let us briefly describe the dress of the Jewish people in the 1st century AD.  The basic garment was a tunic (χιτών chitōn), which was gathered at the waist with a belt.  An outer garment (ἐπενδύτης ependutēs, John 21:7) such as a cloak (περιβόλαιον peribolaion, 2 Timothy 4:13) could also be worn.  The general word for “garment” (“clothes, apparel” in plural)[9], which could refer to any of these without indicating which specific item in view is the ἱμάτιον (himation).  With this background, let us return to the supposed contradiction between Matthew and John.

According to Matthew 27:28, the soldiers put a scarlet χλαμύς (chlamus) on Jesus, and, according to John 19:2,5, the soldiers put a purple ἱμάτιον (himation) on Jesus; since two different words are used, there is no necessity of thinking the two evangelists were referring to the same item of clothing.  A χλαμύς is “a military cloak, mantle[10] (BDAG p. 1085), while ἱμάτιον refers to any garment; it could refer to a χλαμύς but certainly need not do so.  In Matthew 27:28, we are told that the soldiers stripped Jesus, which means they removed His tunic – which in turn suggests that they clothed Him in a purple tunic to mock Him and added a scarlet military mantle, either immediately or after some time of mocking.

This solution fits the actual Greek text, which is always what is determinative, and requires no forced or bizarre expedients.  Problem solved.


Endnotes

[1] Lyons, Eric. “Was the Robe Placed on Jesus Scarlet or Purple?” Posted at https://apologeticspress.org/was-the-robe-placed-on-jesus-scarlet-or-purple-300/. Accessed May 14, 2022.

[2] Lacey, Troy. “Was Either Matthew or John Color Blind?” Posted at https://answersingenesis.org/contradictions-in-the-bible/was-either-matthew-or-john-color-blind/.  Accessed on May 14, 2022.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] “jdeans” on http://www.thywordistrue.com/contradictions/64-what-color-was-the-robe-that-was-put-on-jesus. Accessed on May 15, 2022.

[6] Shane, “Scarlet Robe or Purple Robe (and Why It Doesn’t Matter).” Posted at https://thinkingthroughfaith.com/2017/03/14/scarlet-robe-or-purple-robe-and-why-it-doesnt-matter/.  Accessed May 15, 2022.

[7] Hebrew in the case of the Old Testament, with a few short passages in Aramaic, and Koine Greek in the case of the New Testament.

[8] Unger, Merrill F. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Chicago: Moody Press, 1988, p. 320

[9] Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. (BDAG) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, p. 475.  BDAG does give a second meaning of “of outer clothing, cloak, robe,” but it is evident from the examples listed that it is only the context that indicates the particular garment in question is an outer garment, and so should not form part of the definition.

[10] BDAG, p. 1085

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