Fewer words in Biblical theology have greater potential of moving large groups of professing Christian women to hate you.
Fewer words in Biblical theology have more diverse associations.
Fewer words in Biblical theology have more associated confusion.
Fewer words get serious exploration, since everyone already knows that it means, right?
Not so fast.
So what does the word “modesty” actually mean, like in the Bible?
If you look up “modesty”in your ESV, you’ll strangely come across only two occurrences: 1 Cor. 12:23 and 1 Tim. 2:9 (there’s zero occurrences of “modest”). Now that doesn’t mean that the concept doesn’t occur more frequently, but rather that the English Bible translates a Greek term as “modesty” only twice.
In case you’re wondering if I’ve stacked the deck because of my chosen Bible version, that’s hardly the case. The NIV only has those two occurrences of “modesty” as well. The New Living Translation has 1 Tim. 2:9 and 2:15. The RSV has all three (1 Cor. 12:23; 1 Tim. 2:9, 2:15). The NASB and KJV only have 1 Tim. 2:9. The Message hilariously has none of those but rather has Song of Solomon 2:10-14; Matt. 10:11; Mark 6:10; Luke 9:1-5; John 8:54-56. Let’s be serious: if your study bible is The Message, you may have confusions about a whole lot more than “modesty.”
So let’s look at those two sections of scripture quickly (sticking with the ESV) and unpack the term “modesty” as best we can:
1. Cor. 12:23 – I’m going to set the verse within its immediate context of 12:21-26.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
So the original language has some related terms in verses 23 and 24. The term “unpresentable” is translated from the Greek term aschemon and the term “modesty” is translated from the Greek term euschemosyne. Both of those terms occur once in the entire Bible, but they’re both derived from the term that is translated “presentable” in 12:24; euschemon . Without knowing Greek you can see the common schem component in all those words. Aschemon is an adjective (the ‘a’ on the front makes it a negative), as is euschemon . Euschemosyne is a noun.
The root term of all of these terms is made up of eu (meaning “well“) and schema, which I’d argue should be understood to mean “form/conduct” (schema only appears in 1 Cor. 7:31 and Phil. 2:8 and both times is translated “form”, but it carries a far deeper concept than “shape”). In 1 Cor. 7:31 the root term schema refers to not just the shape of the world, but behaviour. That behaviour is spelled out in 1 Cor. 7:32-40. In Phil 2:8 the term expands on the Greek term morphe (form/shape) which appears in 2:7 (“…by taking the form of a servant…”) by adding discussion of Christ’s conduct in the second half of 2:8. I actually like translating the euschema family of words with either “courtly” (meaning “befitting a royal court”) or “seemly”, even though those words are obtuse archaisms (and come to think of it, the phrase “obtuse archaism” is also an obtuse archaism). So I’d suggest that the idea of the passage is something along the lines of:
“and on those parts of the body we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our discourtly parts are treated with greater courtliness, which our more courtly parts do not require.”
The idea is one of not just form, but demeanor/deportment. The first clause of vs. 23 (“those parts of the body we think less honorable”) suggests that those members of the church whom are not generally deemed as important need to be treated as though they were important. That means that, in a church, nursery workers and church custodians may not be as important to the operation of the church as the head of the elders, but they should not be treated in such a way. The reason for this is due to their connection to Christ, not tangible contribution to the church.
The second clause (“and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty“) deals less with perceived value and more with functional demeanour. I’d suggest that the idea here is along the lines of treating inappropriately behaving church members as if they were behaving better than they are: being gracious with them and not looking down on their immaturity or lack of church-appropriate decorum. In other words, when a young “rough around the edges” woman joins the church, treat her as if she was equally befitting of the social graces afforded to the more elegant and stately women of the church.
I’ll say it again: the idea behind “modesty” in 1 Cor. 12:23 isn’t primarily one of appearance, but rather overall demeanour. To be clear, it includes appearance but is more than just appearance.
Now it seems rather obvious that 1 Cor. 12:23 doesn’t directly talk about women, clothing, fashion, or anything of the sort…except there is an important conceptual framework that comes out when the term is used in other places. Knowing the underlying Greek terminology, it’s now worth looking at two other passages where euschemon appears but is not translated as some vesion of “modesty”:
Acts 13:50 – “But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district.“
Acts 17:12 – “Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.”
In both instances, the English words translated from euschemon are underlined. One can see the underlying idea of “seemly/courtly demeanour” coming out in both usages of the term. For interest sake, the term occurs only five times in the entire New Testament, and two of the five occurrences are describing women. That’s certainly something worth noticing, and that brings us to our next passage:
1 Tim. 2:9 – Again, I’m going to set the verse within its immediate context of 2:8-15
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
The term “modesty” is actually translated from an entirely different term, but we’re going to look at the blanket category before getting to the specific word translated “modesty”.
The woman that Paul is mentioning is one who has different clothing than unregenerate women. Their apparel should be “respectable,” and “modesty” is one of two ways Paul explains what he means. The term translated “respectable” is kosmios and it occurs only twice: once with regards to men (1 Tim. 3:2) and once with regards to women (1 Tim. 2:9). The term kosmios comes from the root kosmos, which is a very common term in the New Testament and usually means “world”. In John 3:16 it says “for God so loved the world…” and “world” is translated from kosmos.
Wait a minute.
What in the…world?
Well, the term kosmos has a rather large pool of meanings (semantic range) in the New Testament. It’s kind of like how terms like “green” have a lot of different meanings in English (i.e. money, rookie, sick, envious, etc.)
Interestingly, kosmos also appears in 1 Peter 3:3 – “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear…”
Kosmos (in 1 Pet. 3:3) is a noun and kosmios (in 1 Tim. 2:9) is the adjectival form of that noun. The idea behind kosmos in both these passages is one of arrangement. Without getting into a rather long discussion of the philology and etymology of kosmos, the earliest known common usage of the term carried the idea of arranging and order and that idea is what’s being transmitted in both passages. If you’re actually interested in tracking down that information, I can tell you exactly where to look:
– Puhvel, Jaan. “The Origins of Greek kosmos and Latin mundus.” American Journal of Philology : 154-167,
– Marconi, Clemente. “Kosmos: The Imagery of the archaic Greek temple.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics : 211-224,
– Bratcher, Robert G. “The Meaning of Kosmos,“World”, in the New Testament.” The Bible Translator 31, no. 4 : 430-434.
All three of those articles will provide ample background and further sources that will give a rather meticulous account of the history of the term kosmos (but you’ll need some sort of access to online journal databases to read them).
As a point of interest, the term kosmeo is also derived from kosmos and means “to put in order” or “to adorn.” It is from kosmeo that we get the English word “cosmetic.” I once heard a preacher say something along the lines of “when women get ready for church, they apply cosmetics to bring kosmos to their chaos.”
So the word that is translated “world” in most of the New Testament can also mean “order” or “arrangement” in specific contexts. Now, back to 1 Tim. 2:9
So what does 1 Timothy 2:9 mean?
Well, let’s break down the passage phrase by phrase:
“likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel”
Adorn themselves – Kosmeo is the Greek term here (another derivative of kosmos). The idea is “arrange themselves” in the sense of “dress themselves.”
Respectable Apparel – The idea here is one of “orderly” apparel; clothing that is well-fitting or “proper for women who profess godliness” (1 Tim. 2:10). The Greek term here is kosmios (there’s a clever word-play here by Paul, given the previous term). This is the overarching category that Paul holds up as exemplary for the women in Ephesus.
***update – Since some folks tend to milk the word “apparel” (Katastole in Greek) into a full on teaching on “biblical skirt lengths,” I’ve addressed that point in the comment thread of the third post in this series. Read this comment.***
So what does “respectable apparel” look like?
Let’s look at the next phrase and find out:
“with modesty and self-control,”
modesty – Now we get to the specific term. The term here is translated from the Greek term aidos . The term comes from a (not) and eido (to look/see) and carries the idea of averting one’s eyes from a person of rank/power out of a sense of either shame or honour. It only appears here and in Heb. 12:28, where it’s translated “reverence.”
The idea is not one of being a doormat or some sort of quiet mouse of a woman, but rather being one who shows appropriate honour to those to whom it is due.
self-control – The term here is translated from the Greek term sophrosyne . The term is the noun form of the adjective sophron, which carries the idea of grabbing the reins of one’s own passions and desires; having oneself under restraint.
It’s also worth noting that sophrosyne is the term that appears also in 1 Tim. 2:15 that is translated “modesty” in the NLT and RSV. To the translators, it seems that aidōs and sophrosyne were closely related, seeing that they translated both as “modesty.”
So when the two terms (aidos and sophrosyne ) are combined, the idea of “order” comes out clearly. The women that God esteems are women who are marked by restraint and dignity. They’re honourable women who are not given to wild behaviour. The contrast that Paul makes shows exactly what sort of “self control” he’s thinking of:
“not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire”
braided hair -literally “woven hair”. The Greek term is plegma and only occurs here in the New Testament.
gold or pearls – believe it or not, the Greek term for “gold” means “gold” and the Greek term for “pearls” means “pearls.”
costly attire – The term “costly” is translated from polyteles, which only occurs here, Mark 14:3 and 1 Pet. 3:4. It’s interesting that in 1 Pet. 3:4, the contrast is between external adornment (“ braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire“) and internal adornment (“a gentle and quiet spirit“). That internal adornment is what’s “costly” (polyteles), but it’s costly to God (“which in God’s sight is very precious“).
Amazingly, the Greek term for “attire” means “a tire.”
Well, not entirely (remember that I warned you that I’m a guy, right? That joke was too hard to not make…).
So here, we finally get to talk about clothes. The term “attire” is translated from himatismos and basically refers to one’s “array” or “apparel.” It occurs fairly infrequently in the New Testament: Matt. 27:35; Luke 7:25, 9:29; John 19:24; Acts 20:33 and here. The meaning is pretty simple. It means “attire”, as in “clothes”.
Now we’re getting somewhere concrete, right?
Paul’s basically saying “don’t dress like a skank,” right?
Well, not so fast.
The “costly attire” seems straight-foward: clothes that are expensive.
But what did braided hair with gold and pearls indicate in ancient Roman culture?
I know that there’s an evangelical myth that such things indicated that a woman was a prostitute, but that’s:
a) Totally illogical.
Why would any God-fearing woman willfully dress in a way to knowingly advertise that she was a prostitute, or at least a woman of loose morals, in the early church?
b) Simply not true.
c) The next post.
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “about to upset the apple cart” Unger