Purity culture has put a lot of emphasis on modesty as it relates to the female body. In fact, I grew up thinking that the primary New Testament teaching about the female body was that it needed to be covered in such a way as to avoid making my brothers sin. Speakers and writers I heard often cited two texts to support this conclusion:
The apostle Peter: “Let your beauty not be external—the braiding of the hair and wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes—but the inner person of the heart . . .” (1 Peter 3:3–4, NET)
And the apostle Paul: “Likewise the women are to dress in suitable apparel, with modesty and self-control. Their adornment must not be with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive clothing, but with good deeds . . .” (1 Tim. 2:9–10 NET)
This article was curated by the Purity issue's guest editor, Rachel Joy Welcher.
Even though Peter didn’t use the actual word “modesty,” it was assumed that because the two passages had so much overlap, Peter also had sexual modesty in view.
And indeed, “modesty” as the opposite of “sexually provocative dress on the part of a woman” is one of the options for the word’s meaning in our language, day, and context. The Cambridge English Dictionary gives options for “modest”:
(1) not large in size or amount, or not expensive: “They live in a modest house, considering their wealth”; (2) not usually talking about or making obvious your own abilities and achievements: “He’s modest about his achievements”; and (3) used to describe something, such as a woman’s clothes or behavior, intended to avoid attracting sexual interest.
Yet in my academic study of first-century backgrounds, I began to see that the teachers and preachers I’d heard exposit these verses assumed the apostles meant the third English meaning when they actually meant the first. A careful look at both contexts reveals this.
Ever wondered why Paul had a problem with pearls and why both Peter and Paul took issue with braids? Let’s start with the pearls. Today we have access to affordable costume jewelry that includes fake pearls. When I worked in a corporate office during the Bush administrations, I wore “faux” pearls a lot—thanks to the late Barbara Bush, who modeled pearls as everyday wear. And today’s market in faux jewelry makes it difficult to imagine what a strong class statement a first-century woman made when she publicly displayed her dowry’s worth of oyster products. But pearls were the first-century woman’s diamonds, and if someone saw something that looked like a pearl, that’s because it actually was a pearl.
Pulitzer-winning biographer Stacy Schiff in Cleopatra: A Life tells how Caesar once gifted his mistress with a pearl worth the cumulative annual wages of twelve hundred professional soldiers. The cover of Schiff’s book features Cleopatra’s dark Greek hair—she was, after all, a Ptolemy, not an Egyptian—studded not with diamonds but with pearls. And Ephesus was a city on the Aegean where Timothy was situated when he received Paul’s letter. Doubtless his congregants needed the reminder to leave their pearls at home.
Then there were the braids. Imagine a head of fine locks wrapped in intricate creations that required slave labor and leisure time (a luxury) to get them “done” with some frequency. To maintain such a style meant a woman belonged to the ruling or upper class, with the accompanying benefits of power and rank. That is, women wore braids as symbols of rank and wealth.
While we’re tackling the list, let’s add apparel. Women in Ephesus were probably particularly clothing-conscious. A rainbow of colors in silk lined the Ephesian agora. The temple of Artemis in their city was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and worshipers probably draped the goddess’s statue in dazzling fabrics. Homer wrote that when Artemis sat on her father’s lap seeking comfort, she was “dressed in immortal garments” (Il. 21.507). Within 250 years of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus we read that a delegation from Ephesus went to Sardis to take garments as offerings to Artemis’s temple there—a temple founded by the Ephesians.
We know Artemis was a big deal in Ephesus at the time of Paul, not only from ancient history, but also from Acts 19. There we read about a demonstration that led to Paul’s early departure from the city, because his teaching that “gods made with hands are no gods at all” undercut the trade in Artemis statues.
So, Paul objected to flashy apparel. But it appears he had a consideration in mind when discussing pearls, braids, and elaborate clothes that we might not consider when we read the word “modesty.” Because discussions of modesty in the context of women’s clothing, for English speakers at least, relate to sexuality, I would venture to say that in church contexts the third meaning in our dictionary would even be the primary one. Yet in Paul’s mind the word was far more associated with power—which he alludes to in the specifics of braids and pearls. One should not wear emblems of power in a place where Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave, and free gather for worship. Instead, a godly person would be especially discreet about class, rank, and power when gathered in the context of the equal.
A key source for these semiotic findings is Kelly Olson’s 2008 illustrated monograph, Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-Presentation and Society. The book does not deal with the biblical texts; I’ve extrapolated from Olson’s conclusions. But to my knowledge she’s given us the fullest information in English on the subject of women’s apparel in the Early Empire period. And she’s supported her conclusions with evidence from sculptures, inscriptions, coins, everyday wear, and even wig fragments. In terms of understanding biblical backgrounds, the ramifications are significant. Olson demonstrates that when the average Roman woman in antiquity stepped outside her home, her apparel and hairstyle sent visual signals to all who saw her about her rank (citizen, freeborn, slave), her marital status, in some cases her age, and even her moral status. Then and there, far more than here and now, dress meant representation.
As Paul and Peter suggest, hair, jewelry, and clothing do reveal who and whose we are. Love calls us to care about the effect of all we do on others, so thinking about what we wear for the sake of love certainly fits in with the apostles’ thinking. But the idea that the New Testament’s primary concern was with the vibes women were sending sexually rather than the vibes they were giving off relating to power and class should give us pause. It seems the New Testament writers—at least in the contexts that have only women in view—were less concerned with their causing lust than their pride in flaunting social status. In our current context the application seems clear: in God’s upside-down world, we need to consider the messages we send about social power vs. unity, even down to our clothing, hair, and accessories.
Cover image by Jakob Owens.