The November/December 2020, issue of Archaeology, the journal of the Archaeological Institute of America, carried an interesting article titled “The Price of Purple.” It tells about an archaeological site known as Tel Shikmonan in northern Israel, where there is a very long history of securing purple dye for coloring textiles.
Textiles colored with purple dye were listed along with precious metals in trade and tax records indicating prestige and royal status. In Jesus’ time, Roman high officials wore distinctive purple togas. In Mark 15:17, Jesus was clothed in purple when the Romans wanted to portray Him as king of the Jews. In Luke 16:19, the rich man in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus was clothed in purple to indicate his status.
In the New Testament, we read the story of Lydia (Acts 16:14-15, 40). Paul had arrived in Philippi, which was a “chief city” of that part of Macedonia. There he met Lydia, who came from Thyatira, which was a city near Philippi. Lydia was a “seller of purple” (verse 14). Verse 15 tells us that she owned a house and other people lived in the house with her. Selling purple dye was a high scale business. A woman owning a home and having a household indicated wealth and prestige in the Roman culture. Verse 40 tells us that the Church was meeting in Lydia’s house.
Skeptics have attempted to deny this account, but excavation at Tel Shikmona has strongly supported the Bible. Tel Shikmona is located on the coast at the foot of Mount Carmel near the present-day port city of Haifa, Israel. The ocean is shallow and rocky at Tel Shikmona, and there are large populations of murex snails in those waters. Liquid extracted from the hypobranchial glands of murex sea snails formed the purple dye when treated with light or oxygen. The sea snails at Tel Shikmona can produce large quantities of the purple dye that stains textiles like no other known dye. People had ground up lapis lazuli, which we rock hounds know is a blue color, but it fades and was not as unique as the murex purple.
Joseph Elgavish excavated Tel Shikmona in the 1960s and found thousands of artifacts. Later excavations convinced archaeologists that this was an industrial site focused on the purple dye industry. Roman rulers starting with Julius Caesar (46-44 BC) and continuing through Nero (AD 54 – 68) had laws to fine anyone wearing murex purple without permission. So Lydia was indeed a special woman with connections and clout with people at the top of the social structure. These facts strongly support her ability to use her status to help Paul in his work at Philippi.
— John N. Clayton © 2020