top of page
  • Writer's pictureAngela

Colorful Language from the Gospel of John

The Bible in Full Color

Did you know some languages only have 1-3 color words? Not English! Andrew Lloyd Weber uses 29 different color words to describe one dreamcoat! (Mention Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in my hearing, and I will sing all of them!)

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
[It was red and yellow and green and brown and scarlet and...]

The exact meanings of colors present a challenge for translation of Broadway musicals... and the Bible! How might you describe the color "purple" for example, in a language that didn't have a word for it?

The Passion of Christ in Translation

This was our challenge in the translation of John 19 into a language of Central Nigeria. I was consultant checking John's account of Jesus' arrest, trial, and crucifixion: some pretty somber events.

Their translation of John 19:2 described how Pilate's soldiers mocked Jesus with a crown of thorns and a "blue shirt."

Of all the verses in the Passion narrative, this is not where I expected the most heated discussion to take place! After all, is the color really that important?

If you were a witness of these events, you would recognize immediately that the Roman soldiers clothed Jesus in the color of royalty, grinning and crooning, "Hail, King of the Jews!"

The Nigerian translators, knowing that their language doesn't have a word for purple, made a logical substitution. The problem is that for speakers of their language, blue does not signify royalty; it's merely a color. Now what?

When I asked about it, a fierce debate broke out among the translators: should they use blue, since their target audience is familiar with it? But maybe purple is closer to red? Or they could borrow purple from another language??

"Which is more important?" I asked when I could get a word in edgewise, "The color of the fabric or the meaning of that color?"

Image by Marek Studzinski

There was silence as they realized they'd been arguing about the wrong detail. "Kingship is more important," they agreed together. Their revised rendering, "a shirt of kingship" may be less colorful, but it conveys the same royal significance that the original audience understood.

Learning Together

The challenges of each translation are not always where I foresee them - who would have thought the most passionate argument about Christ's Passion would be over the color of his robe?! I'm grateful to be uplifted by my partners' prayers and support through each struggle and triumph of translating God's Word -- in all its amazing, technicolor glory! Until All Have Heard, Angela

[This is an edited version of a monthly prayer e-newsletter sent to subscribers - you can sign up here to receive these updates in your own inbox!]


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page