Thursday, April 20, 2006

You were what you wore in Roman Law

Yesterday I posted an article by Dan Wallace. Today, an article by Bruce Winter. You were what you wore in Roman Law,

    Statues of the emperor’s wife were reproduced throughout the empire, showing in detail the hairstyle for the modest woman. The high-class prostitute wore elaborate braided hair piled high on the top of her head and with gold and pearls worn over expensive ‘see-through’ clothes. Seneca the Younger, writing at the same time as Paul, complained that in some cases you couldn’t distinguish whether a woman had her clothes on or off — a dilemma not unfamiliar on the cat-walk of to-day’s fashion shows. ‘Modesty’ was the term that identified the chaste married woman.

    There are very moving inscriptions found on a large numbers of graves both in Rome and other parts of the ancient world about married women where the term ‘modesty’ dominates. They commend the virtuous wife who had loved her husband, cared for her children and managed her household (Titus 2.4). Thus, together, we have evidence from the legislation of Augustus, from the Stoic and neo-Pythagorian philosophical schools and also from inscriptions on tombstones that modesty epitomised the virtuous wife.

    Augustus brought in two pieces of legislation — one aiming to restrain the adulterous woman and make adultery an explicit criminal offence for the first time in Roman law; the other offering incentives to marry and have children. This is but one surviving piece of evidence pointing to the fact that there were numbers of avant-garde married women whom ancient historians refer to as the ‘new’ women.

    If a married woman were convicted of adultery under Roman law her hair would be cropped as a sign of her disgrace. She could not wear the marriage veil again, even though she might re-marry. Consequently the status of women of the first century was clearly identifiable by their appearance.


    Contemporary evidence external to the New Testament can help illuminate what is being said in the Word of God and bring us to a better understanding of the text. The true concern of the church was that some men and women were sending inappropriate signals by what they chose to wear. Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 10.32 was to give no offence to either Jew or Greek or the church of God. It was important, therefore, that outsiders should not misread the gospel by what Christians wore, for they were what they wore.
    The Rev. Dr. Bruce Winter is Director of the Institute of Early Christianity and Warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge.
    ROMAN WIVES, ROMAN WIDOWS The appearance of new women and the Pauline communities By Bruce W. Winter Eerdmans. 244 pages. £17.99 ISBN 0 802 849 717
I personally believe that wearing the veil was a cultural symbol of adhering to the proper practise of a modest and virtuous woman. It means that she was married and that she was not adulterous. Woman wanted to be married and they wanted a symbol to show that they were married. They would be proud to dress like the empress.

I have to ask where in the Bible it says that the veil is a symbol of submission. I don't remember reading that but maybe I have forgotten. Please remind me. It does say that a woman should have power on her head. No one is sure what that means. Maybe she has control over her own head. Maybe the veil gives her status.

And Winter also explains that the 'angels' are likely 'messengers'. There is no easy way to make sense of 1 Corinthians 11 otherwise. Here is the passage in King James Version. I have put the parts in red that I have added to show an equally valid alternative translation. The parts in blue are hard to intepret even in Greek.

    3But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman [wife] is the man [husband]; and the head of Christ is God.
    4Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.
    5But every woman [wife] that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.
    6For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
    7For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.
    8For the man [husband] is not of the woman [wife]: but the woman [wife] of the man [husband].
    9Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.
    10For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels [messengers].
    11Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.
    12For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.
    13Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?
    14Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?
    15But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. 16But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.
    So this is not an easy text to understand. I certainly do not think that a woman should wear a head covering to church now, unless she wants to.

    Those women who wear head coverings in Vancouver today show that they belong to an identifiable group like the Moslem, the Orthodox Jews, or maybe visiting Amish. There are orthodox Jewish women in Vancouver who wear a scarf, I saw one today, but I don't see them very often.

    When I was growing up my mother and the other Brethren women wore hats. Of course, my mother always wore her hair up in a French roll or a braid or bun, so her hair was nicely covered by her hat. She always looked like a well dressed woman that belonged to the normal church attending population. She did not look odd. No one would stop her and ask why she dressed oddly - she did not.

    When the Brethren started in the 1840's they did not have a distinctive style of dress that was different from other groups. This was not part of the tradition, to look odd and different. It was changing a little when I was young. Then some parents wouldn't let the girls ever cut their hair or wear pants. So those girls weren't very modest when they went toboganning. But they toboganned anyway. I thought that was a bad thing. My parents weren't strict about that. I alway wore pants toboganning.


    Matthew Celestine said...

    The answer to the toboganning problem is to wear leggisngas and a pair of shorts under your skirt.

    It is simplistic to say that the headcovering is a sign of subordination.

    But do you think that the Roman background is most relevant to headcovering, as opposed to the Jewish or Greek background?

    Every Blessing in Christ


    Suzanne McCarthy said...


    In Canadian English leggings are long pants. Do you mean a woman should wear a skirt over pants?

    What about skiing, jogging, sailing and scuba diving, all sports I enjoy? My daughter is a soccer goalie.

    I don't think that a Brethren woman should be denied enjoyment of God's nature, when other non-Brethren women are free to enjoy it. That is being under the law.

    I think both Roman and Jewish customs should be considered. However, nowadays a head covering on a woman is part of her group identity, being Moslem, orthodox Jew, etc. For the Amish the women wear bonnets and the men wear button fly pants, then you know for sure they are Amish.

    But I don't think that Paul meant that we are to start a new dresscode that makes us stand out, which is what it would mean today.

    I do not agree at all with the Brethren teaching about women, but now I realize that although my parents were a very respected Brethren couple, they probably didn't believe a lot of the Brethren teaching on women either.

    I am seriously interested in Brethren ecclesiology. It should be part of the dialogue about church government.

    I am a little bit interested in dispensationalism, and not very interested in prophecy.

    Matthew Celestine said...

    I do not like seeing women wearing trousers. I think skirts are more modest and reflect gender differences better.

    The issue of sports is difficult. Sports can be very beneficial, but I am not sure that they are worth sacrificing modesty over.

    I think it is striking that women used to play tennis wearing long skirts.

    Still, as you say, it is vital to avoid legalism in this area. I would never want it to be a matter of Church discipline, as it would be in the Raven/ Taylor Brethren.

    I am not sure it would be such a bad thing if Christian women did stand out. Ladies in the Taylor Brethren do a good job of combining modern dress with their skirts and kerchiefs.

    Every Blessing in Christ