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The Story of Jesus in the Dyer's Shop

A story is told within the apocryphal Syriac Infancy Gospel of young Jesus entering the shop of a dyer named Salem and proceeding to toss all of the cloth given to the dyer to dye into a tub containing indigo dye. The dyer, convinced that his business was ruined, became furious at Jesus and began to scold him. Jesus, however, remained calm and assured the dyer that he would color each piece of cloth the color it was supposed to be. Jesus then proceeded to pull each piece of cloth from the tub and, miraculously, as Jesus pulled each piece of cloth from the tub, it changed color to the color that the dyer had originally intended to dye it.

Superficially (forgive the pun), the story appears to simply describe what might be called a "parlor trick". But it seems clear that, on further inspection, there is far more to the story than what first meets the eye. The indigo dye in the tub, in fact, was very likely the dye that was used, among other things, to color the blue strands of the tassels, known as tzitzit, attached to the four corners of prayer shawls. The dye was made from sea creatures known as chilazon. Unfortunately, it is not known what sea creature chilazon originally referred to, but modern researchers have suggested that it was either cuttlefish or sea snails since a dye can be synthesized from either that will produce blue or purple depending upon whether or not the dyed cloth is promptly exposed to light. It should also be noted that the dye itself does not appear indigo but rather as a grayish color; the blue or purple color the dye produces appears only after a cloth soaking in the dye has been removed from the dye and exposed to air.

Thus it would appear that the miracle being described in the Syriac Infancy Gospel is actually nothing more than the result of the natural chemical transformations associated with the chilazon dye, known as tekhelet. But here again I think it would be unfortunate if one were to casually dismiss the story as being entirely explained by natural phenomena and therefore, lacking any evidence of miracles, of no significance. There is, in fact, profound religious significance in the act of transforming something that was originally gray, the color of lifelessness, into something that is full of color, which represents life. And ascribing Jesus as the source of the relevant transformations is essentially suggesting that Jesus is both the breath (the air) and the light, a message that is unmistakably Christian.

One might be tempted to argue that the author of the Syriac Infancy Gospel secretly intended to convey the idea that Jesus was the breath and the light that brought that which was dead to life; but I think that would be a bit of a stretch. The author appears to have been entirely unaware of what the indigo dye was and represented, otherwise he would likely have mentioned it. More importantly, the author did not describe the two distinct transformations (gray to purple, purple to blue) that are uniquely associated with the dye, the knowledge of which is essential in order to bring into light what appears to be the otherwise hidden significance of the story. The process used to make the chilazon dye, much like the Ark of the Covenant before it, was in fact lost after the Roman destruction of the Jewish state following the Bar Kokhba revolt in the second century, long before the fifth or sixth century date given the Syriac Infancy Gospel by modern scholars.

What seems likely however is that the event being described in the Syriac Infancy Gospel did in fact occur and was witnessed by someone who was, like the author of the text, similarly unaware of the chemical transformations associated with the chilazon dye. They witnessed the "parlor trick" and were sufficiently convinced that it was a miracle that they chose to report it as such. And the most likely candidate (or, more likely, candidates) for who might have reported the event would be one or more of the children that, according to the account given in the Syriac Infancy Gospel, had been playing with Jesus just before he entered the dyer's shop. Thus, while the Syriac Infancy Gospel may have been composed in the fifth or sixth story, the story itself appears to date to the time of Jesus, when the chilazon dye was still in use. Note also that for one or more of the children to have reported the incident, they must have already regarded the young Jesus as somewhat of an anomaly.

Thus, for those who are willing to accept it, the story of young Jesus in the dyer's shop and the chilazon dye together serve ultimately as an ark from the past that bears within it evidence of Christ's physical existence.