NOTE: For more information on fashion during the Biblical era, The Far Right’s Manly, Sexy Jesus. For a history of the period, in perspective: Part I: Jerry Boykin’s Homo-Erotic Tribute to Manly Men also has a brief fashion history of the Jewish people. Part II: Jerry Boykin’s Homo-Erotic Tribute to Manly Men contains a short history of bathing and cleanliness of the ancient Hebrews. Part III: Jerry Boykin’s Homo-Erotic Tribute to Manly Men is about soap, water, deodorant, and the basics of the ancient bath in relationship to the Judeans during the time of Christ.
I don’t mind admitting that I find this fixation on modesty and purity to be abjectly absurd. It is counterproductive, harmful to women, can ruin families, and encourages men to objectify and demean women into nothing but sex objects. It is giving rise to the rape culture in this country. They cling to notion that women should be married and having kids, which is just contrary to many of the teachings of Paul, their favorite religious leader. There are times I think they are more interested in Paul than in Christ.
As a student of fashion, I find the fact that some patriarchs cling to the notion that women should not be allowed to be fashionable to be Biblical to be a total and complete joke. It reflects their complete lack of sociological knowledge of the era. The description Paul gave, of how he thought women should dress is simply a commentary on the well dressed Roman woman of the era, nothing more and nothing less. Instead of demeaning women, and forcing them to wear things that make them a laughing stock in the real world, they should understand and have the basic human decency to realize that Paul wanted women to dress in style. They need to somehow be required to comprehend that, in realizing the fact that Paul was advocating a traditional way of life – Roman style, that Paul was the ultimate Roman. He was advising the men and women who were recipient of his letters to be traditional Romans in every sense of the word. The argument can be made that Paul was a huge devotee of the Emperor Augustus and his propaganda.
“...The late Roman Republic, for Augustus, was a geo-political entity that had lost its moral compass. When Augustus rose to power in 31 BCE, he brought a set of ideals with him on how to restore Rome and the provinces to a traditional and, thus, moral social bearing. Augustus created programs to bring traditional food, entertainment, peace and morality back to Rome (Zanker 1998, 1-2). At the start of his reign, the elite were unsure of Augustus’ ability to correct the moral compass of the Roman state. Augustus first created a plan for the healing and restoration of Rome and the provinces that would help bring peace and prosperity back to the Romans. He created programs that renewed religion, customs and the honor of the people. These traditional and fundamentally imperative issues for Rome and the provinces were reinforced through public architecture and art programs. Architecture, reliefs, free standing sculptures, interior decorations and clothing displayed this new visual vocabulary financed by the emperor, state and wealthy provincial leaders (Zanker 1998, 101; Ray 2007, 31-3). The creation of this new visual program spanned the breadth of Augustus’ rule. One of the key messages that these images conveyed was that of piety and a sense of moral honor (Zanker 1998, 101)…
“…Starting in 29-28 BCE, Augustus enacted legislation regarding issues of public and private morality. This first set of laws dealt with piety. While they were not successful initially, Augustus continued to pass more legislation in regards to morality again in 18 BCE when laws concerning marriage were passed and successfully implemented. Throughout his reign, Augustus continued this trend of creating additional laws on morality. According to Suetonius in chapter 89 in his biography of Augustus in The Twelve Caesars, Augustus used examples from ‘ancient’ sources on moral behavior to try and sway Roman citizens on the importance of leading a moral life to create a strong and healthy empire. As emperor, he, therefore, modeled this behavior with his wife Livia so that the citizens understood that they should live as he actually lived and not just as he decreed (Zanker 1998, 157-9) An example of his public show of modesty and piety was in his choice to keep a small home on the Palatine in Rome for himself and his family instead of commissioning a grand palace for the ruling family (Favro 1996, 100). The written records of the Augustan mandates on morality are tenuous and those on morality in regards to clothing choice are no exception. In reference to the type of dress mandated by the emperor, Suetonius in book two, chapter forty, of The Twelve Caesars provided his directive:…
Further, our godly patriarchs need to get a dose of reality. Paul was as much a propaganda tool of the traditional Roman life as he was devoted to Christ. He was a one-man propaganda machine, who did his job so well, today, Christians who are ignorant of history and Roman sociology are interpreting his commentary on how women should dress and behave as something it is not, and should not be. Instead, they need to go back to the original sources and understand that the Apostle Paul invented state propaganda.
“…In provincial cities including Pompeii, the cult of the Emperor was employed. Thus, new building projects with images of Augustus, Livia, and the ruling family in their modest and traditional garments, were used as exemplars to be incorporated into a citizen’s style of dress. There was meaning in this traditional choice of vestments. This emphasis on the morality through clothing choice will prove influential in the creation of public statuary.
Clothing, since its inception, has been a conveyer of social meaning (Barber 2007, 176). It can show social rank through color, embellishments, design and materials. Therefore, clothing can announce specific messages to members of a particular societal group (Barber 1994, 149-150). These broad definitions can be used when referring to the clothing of both Roman men and women during Julio-Claudian reign. Dress defined and established one’s character to both fellow citizens and foreign guests. Their dress reflected their status and their particular role in society (Harlow 2005, 145). In addition to the ability to show one’s status, clothing also embodied rank and wealth to those who understood how to interpret the color, material and embellishments of the garments worn (Olsen 2006, 186)….”
They need to understand:
“...The clothing of female citizens was also an important component of the traditional moral and pious image that Augustus propagated. In the case of female vestments, the garments also visually told not just their social status but also their rank within the family hierarchy. The reason for the importance placed on costume and its meaning for Augustus came from the lack of interest by women of traditional Roman ways or values, including how one should properly dress, during the late Republic. At this time, interest was in the cultural aspects of the Greek East. Women were devoted to their own ‘selfish desires.’ They had left behind their role as custos doni or the preserver of the household Sebesta 1994, 46-8). While the ideal Roman wife should have increased the family through bearing children, protected the household and her husband’s possessions and created new wealth for the household through her labor, this was not a priority for women in the late Republic (Sebesta 1997, 529). When Augustus came to power, he sought to change this trend and return to traditional Roman virtues. Therefore, he used his wife Livia as both a physical and demonstrable standard for the model Roman wife. She bore him children, wove cloth, and taught her daughters to do the same (Ibid. 1997, 530). By using Livia as a model Augustus’ goal was to demonstrate that peace and social stability could be attained through proper conduct of women through modesty in dress, how they conducted their domestic lives and the practice of solely productive sexuality (Ibid. 1997, 531)….”
Further, Paul had a similar view of women.
“…This chapter begins by noting a number of similarities between Augustus’ legislation and Paul’s directives in 1 Corinthians 7. In particular, this chapter highlights the fact that both Augustus and Paul have a theory of gender rooted in eschatological expectations. Their respective theories uphold Greco-Roman notions of hierarchy and subordination in which women are seen as a the imbecilitas sexus or “weaker sex.” Additionally, both Augustus and Paul offer particular ethical directives regarding marriage and singleness as a remedy for the deterioration of the present age….“
This subordination of women is NOT seen in the ministry of or teachings of Christ. In many ways it is completely contrary to what Christ wanted for women. It rather amazes me how ‘Christians’ put more value in the words of Paul, rather than in what Christ taught. In his Ph. D. thesis, David Reed made some interesting observations about Paul, Augustus, and marriage. Once again, we see that Paul’s version of marriage and children are completely contrary to the entire current version.
“…What my redescription of Paul has shown is that he did not value marriage nor did he value children.566 This does not mean, as later church fathers would have it, that Paul was a radical ascetic as that word is typically understood.567 Nor does it mean that Paul was a champion of egalitarian rights, as many of us would have hoped for. Instead, Paul was someone engaged in a process of “malleable hybridity” in which he took elements from the dominant culture (i.e. Rome) and reinscribed them for his own purposes. This includes borrowing Rome’s myth of the Golden Age, utilizing its understanding of gender hierarchies when necessary, but also standing with the Roman people against the emperor and his legislation when it came to the revered status of the univira. Thus, the comparisons offered here demonstrate that “[w]hat has been neglected in studies of Paul and the Roman imperial order is the fact that one could be critical of aspects of Roman rule without necessarily being anti-Roman.”568 Perhaps, one could even say that this is what it means to be truly Roman….”
“…Paul’s lack of interest in children and marriage was replaced rather quickly by later interpreters of Paul, who placed a high value on procreation, even going so far as to suggest that “childbirth saves a woman” (1 Tim 2:15). Other interpreters of Paul valued children to such an extent that they directly addressed them within the ekklēsia (Eph 6:1-4), which differs from Paul’s reluctant dismissal of them in 1 Cor 7:14 where children exist as a mere afterthought. Moreover, it was interpreters of Paul, later deemed heretical, who understood Paul’s directives in 1 Corinthians 7 the best. It is in the second and third century CE texts known collectively as the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles that Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7 is seen clashing…”
For all intents and purposes the Romans were the prudes of the ancient world. They were far more prudish than the Greeks. The ancient Hebrews were downright loose when compared to them. In many ways, they were much like today’s stalwart far right conservative godly Christian. They talked a good game about traditional family values. The birthrate of the nobility had declined to the point where Augustus put almost draconian measures in place, requiring women to have children – for the state. Much like the efforts of certain discredited historians, Augustus was not above a little redaction here, a little revision there, to create a family oriented society, one like the society the right envisions today, never really existed. Like we are today, they were prudish, except for their art.
One of the very real problems dealing with trying to teach the uneducated about First Century fashion is the fact that we’re dealing with statues and frescoes. We’re also dealing with things that are primarily Roman. Godly Christian modesty advocates refuse to comprehend that the Roman world was the world of Christ. That just doesn’t fit their world-view.
If I sound contemptuous there is a very good reason. I am. You can spend hours trying to explain that the fashion in the day of Paul was different from fashion a couple hundred years later, when Constantine declared the Empire to be Christian, or the images we see on Byzantine frescoes are different from Rome, but why bother.
I’m almost convinced these people are incapable of comprehending that the costume of Moses was different from that of Abraham, and the costume of David was different from Moses, or that what was worn in Judea during the time of Christ was completely different from what was worn during the time of David. Their little washed brains cannot comprehend the movement of time and the flow of history, let alone the fact that even those in the ancient world were as conscious of what they wore as we are today.
Why bother explaining the difference? Let’s try. Paul, as a Roman Citizen had the right to wear a long toga. He would rarely have worn it, opting to wear a tunic, which came right to the knee. A cloak would be worn over the tunic, at times. Because the climate was a good 2-3 degrees warmer than it is, today, he would have worn sandals. Also – many of the men of the so-called ‘New Testament’ era in Judea would also be wearing a tunic. It was the style of the day, worn by EVERYONE (male). They did wear underwear. Women probably did not. They also wore a form of deodorant, brushed their teeth, bathed several times a day, and were extremely clean, far cleaner than their counterparts, until upward of Regency period in England. Get it – CLEAN. They wore short hair, and would have shaved.
The images from Dura Europos are some of the earliest known representations of the ancient Hebrews. They range from 300BC to about the time of Christ. There is little difference in the dress of the religious leaders of the Hellenic Jews than there is with the Romans. This is terribly important.
The frescoes from Dura Europos are important because they prove that the ancient Hebrews, many of them having been exiled from Judea following the conquest of Titus, wore costume contemporary with the ancient Romans. If they were wearing such things there, then they were wearing the same things in Judea, during the time of Christ.
The costume worn by Christians 1000 years after his death, were far more modest than during his life. There is a very good reason for that. The world was experiencing a major cooling period. When it is cold, people wear more clothing. One only needs to look at the costume of the ancient Romans to realize how close it is, in many ways, to what we wear today, bikini included.
I wonder if any of this makes a difference in how people view the First Century Christians, and their completely weird version of modesty – for today?