Home » Tomfoolery » Christendumb » Did Jesus Wear a Dress?

Did Jesus Wear a Dress?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this guy is just making stuff up. There are a few words that ought to be in his vocabulary, but aren’t. One of them, as one of Claude Mariottini’s commentors observed, is “anachronism.” As in, “To assume that people in ancient times had the same sensibilities about what male and female dress should look like is an anachronism.” Three more words (actually, a word and two phrases) that spring to mind are “original languages,” “archeology,” and “Bible dictionary.”

Let’s see what happens when we apply these words and phrases to the issue of how men dressed in the first century. First, there are two Koine Greek words of particular importance for the question of whether Jesus “wore pants.” These are the two common words used to denote the two main garments someone would wear: χιτών (chiton) and ἱμάτιον (himation).

The ἱμάτιον is the outer garment. It is usually translated something like “cloak,” “coat,” or “robe.” Some translators just call it an “outer garment.” Under the ἱμάτιον one wore a χιτών, usually translated “tunic” or “shirt.” The chiton eventually became the alb, the inner garment worn as the basic vestment for priests and deacons in liturgical churches. You can see its modern Middle Eastern descendants in pretty much any crowd scene from the region on the nightly news.

For outer wear in the biblical world, that is pretty much the basic set: a “cloak”—probably nothing more than an oblong piece of cloth wrapped around the body—on top of a “shirt” or “tunic,” the length of which would vary, with women and the most wealthy wearing them floor-length and common laborers exposing at least part of the leg in the interest of ease of movement.

Archeology can help us here. If we can find contemporary depictions of the way people dressed in biblical times, it can either confirm or repudiate a theory about their clothing styles. Here, for example, are a couple of ancient statues of a woman and a man wearing the chiton and himation:

Although quite a bit earlier, here is what the fashionable Israelite was wearing in the late 8th century while being carried away captive by the Assyrians:

It should be noted that “garments worn in biblical times remained rather simple and remarkably unchanged during the entire period” (Donald W. Garner, “Dress,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible [Mercer University Press, 1990] 220), so tunics like these may not have been terribly different from what Jesus and his followers were wearing several centuries later.

Finally, here is an early depiction of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” from the San Callisto catacomb in Rome. The Christian art in this catacomb is dated to the second to fourth centuries AD—well before the rise of Islam and the supposedly new innovation of men “wearing dresses.”

You could complement this basic ensemble with a ζώνη (zone) or “belt” and perhaps a workman’s apron or σιμικίνθιον (simikinthion). A wealthy or important person might wear a στολή (stole) or long, flowing robe, perhaps even a ποδήρης (poderes), a robe reaching to the feet. There are other terms indicating the material from which a garment is sewn; thus the rich man in Luke 18 was “clothed with purple garments and fine linen” (πορφύρας καὶ σιρικοῦ / porphyras kai sirikou). Women might wear a κάλυμμα (kalymma), “veil.” For Roman soldiers or travellers, we’ve got the word χλαμύς (chlamys), which is what the soldiers dressed Jesus in when they taunted him according to Matthew 27:28 and is usually translated “cloak.”All of these terms are carefully defined in Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (United Bible Societies, 1989), pages 72-75.

Here is a statue of a man wearing a chlamys. Presumably, they would usually have worn with something underneath!

Seriously, that is a good 90% of the New Testament vocabulary for articles of clothing. According to J. M. Myers, “the same general terms are used for women’s clothing as for men’s” (“Dress and Ornaments,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible [Abingdon, 1962] 871). Five basic articles of clothing were worn by both men and women: an outergarment, an undergarment, a belt or sash, footwear, and headgear (Garner, 220).

In some readings of Daniel 3:21, the word translated “trousers” in English is σαραβάροι (sarabaroi). This word does not appear in the Greek New Testament. The “breeches” the preacher goes on about

are mentioned only in connection with priestly vestments and were designed to cover the naked body “from the loins to the thighs” (Exod. 28:42; “linen breeches”). They were made of linen (Exod. 39:28; cf. Ecclus. 45:8) and were used in connection with the removal of the ashes of the burnt offering from the altar (Lev. 6:10—H 6:3) and by the high priest on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:4). According to the Ezekielian order (44:18), the Levitical priests were to wear them when on duty. Josephus calls these breeches ἀναξυρίδες (Antiq. III.vii.1), a term used by Herodotus (1.71; 3.87; 7.61) to describe the customary drawers of the Persians. (Myers, 1:870)

These “breeches” are usually called περισκελῆ in Greek—another word not found in the New Testament. Whatever form they took took in Old Testament times (and in the LXX of Lev 6:3 [Hebrew 6:10], the word used to describe them is χιτών!), they are clearly a badge of priestly office, and the layperson Jesus would no more have worn them in daily life than he would have worn a clerical collar (or physician’s lab coat, or any other garment associated with a specific vocation) today.

I'm not wearing a dress!

Now, to the heart of the matter: Did Jesus wear a dress? No, of course he didn’t. A “dress” is culturally defined as a woman’s garment. I wouldn’t say that Jesus wore a dress any more than I would say that William Wallace, the fourteenth-century Scottish freedom fighter, wore one. Wallace wore a medieval Scottish léine or tunic, possibly under an early version of a man’s féileadh mòr or “great kilt”—and no self-respecting medieval Scottish woman would have been so immodest as to wear such a masculine garment!

Similarly, in the New Testament world people perceived differences between a man’s chiton and a woman’s. Most obviously, most men’s chitones were shorter. More significantly, “the difference in clothes between sexes was not style. Women’s apparel was distinguished by its finer and more colorful materials, sometimes the presence of a veil (Gen 24:65; 38:14), and probably the use of a special headdress” (Garner, 220).

This is a lesson that preacher could have learned from my mother-in-law. When the scandal of women wearing pants first presented itself in the rural Appalachian community where she grew up, she understood that women‘s pants are not men‘s clothing: no man ever wore them! Nor should we confuse the simple, homespun tunic and cloak Jesus wore with the more colorful and ornamented garments of his female disciples. Common sense like that would correct a lot of peoples’ theology, and it should.

The moral of the story? Please do try to learn something about the historical context of the Bible before you make a career of trying to expound upon its message. Otherwise, you’re likely to get caught with your pants down.

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8 Comments

  1. Darrell,

    Good article. Your study of clothing shows that if the preacher in that video had done his homework, he would not have preached that kind of message.

    To that preacher and to all preachers out there: Remember the words of Paul (in the KJV):

    “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

    Unfortunately, the preacher in the video did not study ans thus did not show himself approved unto God. He is a workman that should be ashamed because he is not dividing the word of truth rightly.

    Claude Mariottini

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  2. Edward Pothier says:

    “Otherwise, you’re likely to get caught with your pants down.”

    I hope this is an allusion to one of my favorite Old Testament passages, 1 Samuel 24:1-16. Saul is searching out David and his men; and Saul goes into a cave (where David and his men are hiding) for a pressing biological process. David cuts off a piece of Saul’s clothing while Saul is crouching “with his pants down” (my slight mistranslation).

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  3. You mean, while Saul was “pissing against the wall”?

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  4. Tim Miller says:

    You guys are hilarious!

    Very helpful article. Thanks.

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  5. mikelioso says:

    Thanks for directing me to the sermon. I have now found the pastor I’ve been looking for. Learning is way too time consuming so I prefer to invent the facts as I need them. Any how, don’t you know Jesus could see the future? I’m sure he would know that to be taken seriously you need a tie and three piece suit(where was that mans vest?) not some hippie sandal/dress ensemble.

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  6. Slipshod theology is just one of the services I offer.

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  7. Robert says:

    Wonderful information that all preachers that preach against certain garments being worn as a bible doctrine need to really pay close attention to for enlightment.

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  8. [...] my friend Darrell Pursiful at Dr. Platypus has asked the following question: “Did Jesus Wear a [...]

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