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1 Timothy 2:9-10 modest dress

Bust of a Roman woman, circa 100 CE, with elaborately braided hair.
National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Room 32.
(Photo: Giovanni Dall’Orto, Wikimedia)

One somewhat contentious topic among Christians is the subject of modesty.[1] Christian men and women shouldn’t dress in a sexually provocative manner, but this was not Paul’s primary meaning in his instructions in 1 Timothy 2:9.

Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger and arguments. Similarly,[2] I want the women to adorn themselves[3] with modest and sensible fashions, not with fancy braided hair-dos, gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess to be godly. 1 Timothy 2:8–10;[4] cf. 1 Peter 3:3–4.

From Paul’s instructions in these verses, we can see that there were tensions in the church at Ephesus. These tensions were resulting in anger and arguments among the men. The cause of these tensions may have been the arrogance and conceit of the wealthy men (cf. 1 Tim. 6:17). The ostentatious dress of wealthy women was also causing problems.

Modest Dress braided hair 1 Timothy 2

Mosaic of a Roman woman with braided hair and gold jewellery, circa 70 AD, Pompeii.
National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inv. 124666) (Wikimedia)

The first-century church strived to be inclusive of Jew and Gentile, free and slave, male and female (Gal. 3:28), and there were some efforts to be egalitarian. A degree of equality was achieved wherever and whenever the Holy Spirit was moving powerfully and freely (e.g., Acts 2:44). However, it was not always easy to maintain. So Paul taught that distinctions that might lead to tensions and divisions should be avoided.[5]

More so than today, back in the first century what a person wore was an indication of their socio-economic status.[6] For instance, only wealthy women who had specially trained slaves had elaborate, braided hairstyles. And only wealthy women could afford to wear gold and pearl jewellery and expensive, high-quality clothes. Furthermore, the wealthy women of Ephesus were probably used to a lifestyle of idleness and leisure (cf. 1 Tim. 2:10; 6:17–19). And some of their attire and lifestyle may have even been suggestive of immoral living.[7]

The poorer women and slave women, on the other hand, did not have fancy hairstyles, they did not own anything made from gold, they did not own pearls, and their clothes were simple, inexpensive and probably well-worn.[8] Furthermore, they had to work hard, either as free women to support themselves and their families, or as slaves in the employ of their masters.

Modest Dress 1 Timothy 2:9

Mosaic depicting two slaves attending a Roman matron.
National Museum of Carthage.
(Photo: Fabien Dany, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia)

It would have been difficult to maintain sisterly affection when some women wore gorgeous clothes and expensive jewellery while others wore plain, even drab, clothes. To foster harmony and equality, Paul wanted the rich women to dress modestly, that is, simply and sensibly. He also wanted them to be generous and to share their wealth with their poorer brothers and sisters. Instead of idleness, he wanted them to be busy with “good works,” that is, benefactions (1 Tim. 2:10; 6:18).[9]

Paul’s instruction concerning modesty in 1 Timothy 2:8–10 is for humility and meekness.[10] He wanted the wealthy women to be humble for the sake of their poorer sisters, and to dress modestly. He wanted the wealthy women to present themselves in a way that was unlikely to cause jealousy and ill-feeling.

Does the way you dress make less well-dressed, poorer people feel inferior? Or does the way you dress and present yourself promote harmony and equality in the church?

Footnotes

[1] Some Christians give confusing messages to women about dress and modesty. They say that women have an obligation to look attractive to their husbands, but not too attractive in case they become attractive to other men.

[2] The conjunction “similarly” (hōsautōs) indicates that verses 8 and 9 are addressing a similar situation. The instructions about modest dress may be in the context of women praying, just as the instruction about lifting holy hands is in the context of men praying. Kevin Giles commenting on these verses writes:

When men pray, they should do so in the absence of contention or anger; when women pray they should dress modestly. The reference to women praying is often missed by male commentators but it should be noted. In v.9 the words addressed to women lack a verb which must be supplied from v.8.  In v.8 there are two verbs ‘to desire’ and ‘to pray’, which the adverb at the beginning of verse 9, hōsautōs (= in like manner) shows are both carried over (so Chrysostom, Calvin, Spicq, Barrett, Debilius and Conzelmann).
Giles, “Response” in The Bible and Women’s Ministry: An Australian Dialogue, Alan Nichols (Ed.) (Canberra: Acorn Press, 1990), 72.

A translation of 1 Timothy 2:8–10 that perhaps more fully conveys the intended meaning may be,

I want the men to pray in every place, raising holy hands without anger and arguments, and I want the woman to pray in every place wearing respectable clothing with propriety and modesty, not to adorn themselves with fancy braided hair-dos, gold or pearls or expensive clothes but with good works, as is proper for women who profess to be godly.

[3] Paul uses a cognate of the Greek word kosmeō twice in 1 Timothy 2:9. This word can mean “adorn” and “beautify.” (The word “cosmetic” comes from this word kosmeō.) However, it can also refer to order and respectability.  It seems that Paul wanted the rich women to make themselves beautiful with sensible and respectable fashions and with “good works” (i.e. charitable acts).

[4] This version is my paraphrase.

[5] For instance, Paul’s main reason for writing his first letter to the Corinthians was to address various factions and divisions that were causing problems. Some of these problems were between men and women (1 Cor. 14:34–38; cf. 1 Cor. 11:11–13), between rich and poor (1 Cor. 11:17–22), and between followers of different Christian leaders (1 Cor. 1:10–13).

[6] Useful information on this by Bruce W. Winter is in “You Were What You Wore in Roman Law: Deciphering the Dress Codes of 1 Timothy 2:9-15” on the SBL site, here.
S.M Baugh makes these excellent observations on elaborate hairstyles and wives and mothers of Roman emperors.

The women of the imperial household originated new styles; by the Trajanic period they had developed into elaborate curls, braids, high wigs, pins, and hair ornaments that were quickly copied by the well-to-do throughout the empire: “See the tall edifice rise up on her head in serried tiers and storeys!” (Juvenal, Satire 6). One can even date representations of women by the increasing complexity of hair fashions.

If Roman styles seem a bit too far away to affect Ephesian fashions, consider that portraits of reigning empresses often appeared on coins minted in Ephesus and other Asian cities and that they had prominent statues in both public and private places. [Bust found in Ephesus of Livia (58BC–29AD), wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius, here.] Portraits of provincial women from the era show that the imperial coiffures were copied in Ephesus and the other cities of Asia.

Paul’s injunction regarding elaborate hairstyles reflects the increasing influence of Rome at Ephesus during the third quarter of the first century AD. And his sceptical response to this trend was due to his judgement that simplicity and modesty in dress befit pious women rather than external extravagance.

Furthermore, his reaction to women’s imitation of the latest hairstyles is understandable since it was quite a new trend, really begun only a decade or so earlier, and it carried connotations of imperial luxury and the infamous licentiousness of women like Messalina and Poppaea.

Baugh, “A Foreign World: Ephesus in the First Century,” in A. J. Köstenberger & T. R. Schreiner (eds) Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 35.

Modest Dress braided hair 1 Timothy 2:9-10

Statue of Messalina (died 48 CE) and her son Britannicus.
Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities in the Louvre Museum.
(Photo: Ricardo André Frantz, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia)

[7] Pagan writers, contemporary with Paul, and who were concerned about the brazenness of the “New Roman Woman,” counselled women to dress sensibly and not look like courtesans. Plutarch (died 127 CE) praised his wife for the simplicity and plainness of her dress in his Consolation to his Wife (paragraph 5).
Seneca (died 65 CE) likewise commended his mother Helvia in a consolatory letter.

Unchastity, the greatest evil of our time, has never classed you with the great majority of women; jewels have not moved you, nor pearls; to your eyes the glitter of riches has not seemed the greatest boon of the human race; you, who were soundly trained in an old-fashioned and strict household, have not been perverted by the imitation of worse women that leads even the virtuous into pitfalls; you have never blushed for the number of your children, as if it taunted you with your years; never have you, in the manner of other women whose only recommendation lies in their beauty, tried to conceal your pregnancy as if an unseemly burden, nor have you ever crushed the hope of children that were being nurtured in your body; you have not defiled your face with paints and cosmetics; never have you fancied the kind of dress that exposed no greater nakedness by being removed. In you has been seen that peerless ornament, that fairest beauty on which time lays no hand, that chiefest glory which is modesty.” Seneca the Younger, To Helvia, 16:3-4

Centuries earlier, however, a Pythagorean philosopher named Melissa, writing to another woman, instructs that a wife should dress modestly. You can read a translation of Melissa’s letter in Ian Plant’s book, Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology (London: Equinox, 2004) (Google Books, page 83). See also the writings attributed to Phyntis on the following pages.

[8] Many people were poor in the Roman Empire, and many were slaves. It has been estimated that one-third of the population of the Empire in the 1st century were slaves. We know that women and slaves were attracted to Christianity.

[9] N.T. Wright comments,

The phrase ‘good works’ in verse 10 sounds pretty bland to us, but it’s one of the regular ways people used to refer to the social obligation to spend time and money on people less fortunate than oneself, to be a benefactor of the town through helping public works, the arts, and so on.
Wright, Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis, conference paper for the symposium, ‘Men, Women and the Church’, St John’s College, Durham, September 4th 2004. (Source)

[10] It seems one of the wealthy women in Ephesus was not meek but domineering (1 Tim. 2:11–15).

braided hair, gold pearls

Fayum mummy mask of a wealthy Roman-Egyptian woman with braided hair and jewellery, circa 100 CE.
The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.
(Photo: Mary Harrsch, CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr)

A Final Comment

Very few churches insist that men raise their hands when they pray despite Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:8. Very few churches forbid women to braid their hair, wear gold or pearl jewellery, or wear expensive clothes, despite Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:9. Yet many churches, prohibit women from preaching and teaching because of 1 Timothy 2:12. Why do churches mostly ignore Paul’s wishes in verses 8–10, but focus on verse 12? 1 Timothy 2:8–15 addresses specific issues in the Ephesians church. [More about these verses in 1 Timothy 2 here.]

modest dress 1 Timothy 2 gold pearls

“Woman with Earrings,” a Fayum mummy portrait, circa 100 CE.
Brooklyn Museum

Images

(1) Bust of a Roman woman, circa 100 CE, with elaborately braided hair. National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Room 32.
(Giovanni Dall’OrtoWikimedia) I’ve cropped and slightly recoloured the photo.
(2) Mosaic of a Roman woman with braided hair and gold jewellery, circa 100 AD, Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inv. 124666) (Wikimedia)
(3) Mosaic depicting two slaves attending a Roman matron. National Museum of Carthage. (Fabien Dany, www.fabiendany.com/www.datka.kg, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia)
(4) Statue of Messalina (died 48 CE) and her son Britannicus. Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities in the Louvre Museum. (Ricardo André Frantz, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia)
(5) Fayum mummy mask of a Roman-Egyptian woman with braided hair, circa 100 AD. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. (Mary Harrsch, CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr)
(6) “Woman with Earrings,” a Fayum mummy portrait, circa 100 AD. Brooklyn Museum
More images here and here.

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Postscript: February 15, 2022
The meaning of aidōs and sōphrosynē in 1 Timothy 2:9

“Likewise the women are to dress in suitable apparel, with modesty (aidōs) and self-control (sōphrosynēs)” (1 Tim. 2:9 NET).

ΑΙΔΩΣ

The Greek word aidōs, and its related verb, covers a range of behaviours. It can refer, negatively, to shame in the way westerners understand it, but it’s usually tied, more positively, with a restraint which upholds honour and respectability. (LSJ definitions of aidōs here, and of the related verb here.)

Reverance and Piety in Hebrews 12:28

Aidōs can mean to behave with reverence. It occurs with this sense in some Greek texts of Hebrews 12:28. Aidōs doesn’t occur in all Greek texts of Hebrews 12:28; many have the word eulabeia instead which has the sense of piety and reverence. A few Greek texts of this verse have both aidōs and eulabeia which are practically synonymous here.

Modesty and Self Control in 1 Timothy 2:9

In 1 Timothy 2:9, aidōs is paired with sōphrosynē, a word that typically means restraint and self-control. Sōphrosynē is often mentioned in ancient texts as a desirable and important virtue for respectable men and women. I believe aidōs is used with a similar sense as sōphrosynē in 1 Timothy 2:9. Paul wanted the rich women in Ephesus to dress sensibly with restraint and decorum. He didn’t want them to be shameless.

Modest and self-controlled first-century Greco-Roman women were not necessarily silent and invisible as in the case of the following woman, and other women like her.

A Celebrated First-Century Sōphrosynē Woman

From Kyzikos, roughly 250 kilometres north of Ephesus, there survives a large block of white marble that was inscribed in around 25-50 CE with accolades of a woman named Apollonis. The word sōphrosynē occurs four times among the legible words of the inscription. Apollonis held the priesthood of Artemis of the Pythaistridists (i.e. devotees of Artemis Pythia) and a statue was to be erected in her honour after her death. There are instructions in the inscription that her statue be crowned annually with a gold crown. This woman is repeatedly described as modest and virtuous; however, she was also a prominent and influential member of her community.

Here’s a translation of an excerpt of the inscription.

In order that a memorial of her moderation (sōphrosynē) may be visible to the entire city, a statue of her is to be set up in one of the buildings in the square marketplace in the roofed colonnade at the east end … After it is decorated, it will be used forever as the office of the guardian of good order (kosmophylax) and used by those who serve in the office of the guardian of good order. (Read more of the inscription here.)

Shame and Disgrace

The King James Bible translates aidōs and sōphrosynē asshamefacedness” and “sobriety” in 1 Timothy 2:9 KJV. These words can be misleading to modern readers. Paul was not telling rich Ephesian women to be ashamed or to stop drinking. Aidōs is not to be confused with aischunē which means “disgrace” and also refers to the shame that comes with it. Thayer has a good, short discussion on the difference between aidōs and aischunē here. Strong does not!

Note that sōphrosynē is repeated a few verses later in 1 Timothy 2:15. I’ve written about verse 15, here.

I discuss the concept of “shame” in honour-shame cultures, here.


Explore more

The Prominence of Women in the Cultic Life of Ephesus
“Equality” In Paul’s Letters
The Problem with Modesty and the Problem of List
Working Women in the New Testament
The Holy Spirit and Equality in Acts
Interpretations and Applications of 1 Corinthians 14:34–35
Likewise Women … Likewise Husbands
Various articles on Paul and Women
Various articles on the Christian virtue of Meekness

22 thoughts on “Paul’s Instructions for Modest Dress in 1 Timothy 2:9

  1. Excellent! We often fall into the trap of trying to understand the Bible with today’s culture. A simple reading of it tells us that men should raise their hands when praying – but few do – and that women should not braid their hair or wear jewelry. But most importantly, we are told that women are to remain silent and not have authority over men. But if we get too deeply into the clothing aspect of it, we might also realize that women being silent was cultural also. So we hem and haw (be evasive) over the clothing, but come down hard on the silent instruction in these scriptures.

  2. Good insight!

  3. Yes, that would make good sense. Their wasn’t really any middle class as there is today.

  4. Wow, that’s great! It certainly makes more sense than the other reading!

  5. Thanks for your comments! 🙂

    I know that many people wear their Sunday Best as a way of honoring God; yet I truly believe that God couldn’t care less about what we wear to church services, except in the sense of how it affects others.

    God is much more concerned with our “inner person” than with our “outer person”.

  6. …haven’t had time to read it all yet but please don’t call the dress code in 1 Tim 2 Paul’s. He gets enough bad press. This document is from a generation later, probably within a community established earlier by Paul…

    1. Hello again. I don’t have a problem with this “dress code”. I think it is apt and it was in keeping with the social norms of the day.

      Judging by the contents of First Timothy, especially the stage of the development of church “offices” that is evident, I think this document was written in the late first century at the earliest. Was Paul still writing then? Or Did Paul die during Nero’s reign as tradition claims?

      Despite some interpretations, I think 1 Clement 5:5-7 places Paul’s death quite late in the first century. So perhaps he was martyred under Domitian and not Nero, and managed to write the Pastorals sometime before his death. I admit, it’s all conjecture.

      “Because of jealousy and strife, Paul by his example showed the way to the prize of patient endurance. After he had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile [exile where?], had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he received glorious fame for his faith, having taught righteousness in the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the West [Spain]. And when he had given his testimony before the rulers, thus he departed from the world and went to the holy place, having become an outstanding example of patient endurance.”
      1 Clement 5:5-7

  7. I just read this today. It adds to the discussion on how the first-century Roman world understood “modest dress.”

    But on this occasion he [Periander] tried to make an impression on the men by simplicity and restraint in expenditure. Nor was this limited to these other matters, but he also made his wife put aside and out of sight her usual elaborate attire, and present herself inexpensively and modestly attired.” Plutarch, The Dinner of the Seven Wise Men, 4. (p. 371)
    http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Dinner_of_the_Seven*.html

    1. This seems to be similar to his rebuke of the church in Corinth about some getting to the feast early and drinking too much wine. My childhood church was embarrassed by the passage for saying they drank real, intoxicating alcohol.
      But I think it would have been an issue for the idle rich to arrive early and gobble the food and drink but the poor and slaves would have no such luxury. Plus, after drinking a lot of wine, the raising of hands would not be possible.

      1. Thanks, Gary. Yes, the divide between the haves and have-nots was polarised by some thinking and behaviour among the Corinthians, including the way they were doing communion (1 Cor. 11:17ff).

  8. Just listened to Mounce yesterday arguing that “modesty” was basically saying not to dress like a prostitute. Is there any evidence that these elaborate hairstyles and jewelry were linked to prostitutes or loose women?

    1. Hi Beth, Numerous frescoes and sculptures of Roman women, including the Fayum mummy portraits of deceased Roman women in Egypt, survive and they show women with elaborate hairstyles and wearing gold and pearl jewellery. Most of these depictions are of respectable wealthy women. This was how these women wanted to be depicted for posterity.

      The hairstyles, which needed to be done by expert slaves, and even modest gold and pearl jewellery by our standards, were prohibitively expensive for the average Roman woman.

      The average female prostitute, who was usually a slave, did not have elaborate hairstyles, but some, perhaps many, wealthy courtesans would have. Even pagan authors expressed concern that some wealthy Roman women looked more like courtesans than respectable matrons. See footnote 7.

      I’d like to listen to what Bill Mounce said. Have you got a link?

      1. Hey marg, sorry to take forever to answer! I didn’t see that you had answered! Enough I had the same question again after hearing multiple pastors give the argument that basically, yes we know that this specifies not dressing in a ostentatious way, but really it’s saying not to dress like prostitutes. Seems silly, as few women would choose the progression if they were so wealthy as to afford these luxuries. They would be the top tier, not regular protitutes for sure. So I went internet searching for any kind of evidence, found this same post again, and then my own comment while reading through the comments!! Anyway, here is that link! https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/theology-in-the-raw/id1018952191?i=1000603888411 I knew I was going to be aggravated listening to that podcast but I did it anyway. Sucker for punishment.

        1. Hi Beth, Thanks for the link!

          Hetairai, “high class” courtesans, dressed like wealthy women, and vice versa. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hetaira But Paul’s concern is about the opulence and extravagance of the attire of some Ephesian women, not their sexual morality.

          As shown on the footnotes on this page, some ancient people did see a sense of decadence in women who were dressed extravagantly, but few people would have mistaken the rich women in the Ephesian church, or the wives in 1 Peter 3:1ff, for ordinary prostitutes or hetairai.

          1. Thank you Marg! It was my sense that this argument did not hold water, but it is good to hear from someone who has studied the ancient sources! It disappointments me to hear it from someone like mounce who certainly has the skills to know better!

          2. If it makes you feel better, Bill Mounce is rethinking his understanding of “submission” in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. And I’m very happy about that. See the postscript here: https://margmowczko.com/mutual-submission-early-christianity/

  9. I keep finding a massive amount of information in your work. Thanks for your diligence and ministry.

    1. Thanks, Timothy. I’m a very curious person. I like looking into topics and sharing what I find. I often add extra information to older articles as I keep learning.

  10. On your footnote 2 which extends the “I want … to pray in every place …” from men to also women I think “every place” is a Jewish idiom for every holy place, of which the foremost example is the temple, but also a synagogue or better in context a local congregation of believers as indicated by “every”. Such an understanding is also implied by those places being referred to as a “place of prayer” but this also includes other activities that happen there. Thoughts?

    1. Hi Don, I think we’ve spoken about “place of prayer” (proseuchē) before which, in the Greek, doesn’t actually have a word that means “place.” I’ve written about these Jewish places of prayer here: https://margmowczko.com/lydia-and-the-place-of-prayer-at-philippi/

      I can’t see that the temple in Jerusalem would be considered one example of “in every place.” I think Paul may be using the phrase “in every place” about Christian congregations “that are part of the fulfillment of God’s eschatological plan that he be worshipped among the Gentiles.”
      Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, “1 Corinthians” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 696.

      I have more about this phrase on my Patreon page, but non-patreons can read it.
      https://www.patreon.com/posts/pauline-of-1-and-33516230

  11. […] So what does the New Testament say about women covering up and dressing modestly? Practically nothing. No woman is described by her appearance in the New Testament. However, it is evident that some women in the Ephesian church were wearing expensive clothes. Paul’s instructions about modesty in 1 Timothy 2:9 were written in response to these problematic rich women who were wearing luxurious clothing, had fancy hairstyles, and were flaunting their wealth. This verse has nothing to do with covering up cleavage or thighs. (I have more on the context of 1 Timothy 2:9 here.) […]

  12. […] Paul’s Instructions for Modest Dress (1 Tim. 2:9) […]

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