#1: Where does the Bible ever condone social nudity?
#2: Where does the Bible ever condemn social nudity?
The first question – used here as the title of this post – was found to have incorrect presuppositions and therefore not trustworthy to find a valid answer.
Initially, we suggested that the answer to both questions was “Nowhere.” But then I promised to tackle the first question and see if I could indeed demonstrate an affirmative answer.
There are several passages that Christian Naturists have consistently used to try and show that the Bible condones social nudity, but generally, they are all renounced by non-naturists for a variety of reasons. Here’s a quick review of such passages and their rebuttals off the top of my head.
Socially Nude Setting: Adam and Eve, were created and lived nude in the Garden (Gen. 1-2). There they were described as “naked and unashamed” (Gen. 2:25) and all of creation – including the nude couple – was pronounced “very good.” by the Creator (Gen. 1:31). In other words, social nudity was God’s original intent.
Rebuttal: That was all before the fall into sin. Mankind can no longer look upon nakedness in innocence. Furthermore, God Himself provided clothing to address their need to keep their nakedness covered thereafter.
(Note: I do not find this rebuttal convincing, and I would normally be happy to expose its flaws, but that’s not the purpose of this post, so I’ll resist the urge... for now...)
Socially Nude Setting: King Saul came under the influence of the Spirit of God and stripped naked while prophesying before Samuel and the “company of the prophets” (1 Sam. 19:20-24). His nakedness among the prophets did not create a stir among his kingdom subjects except to wonder if he had changed occupations. Evidently, they were accustomed to seeing nude prophets, because they noted that Saul was acting like a prophet. Social nudity among the godliest servants of God was completely acceptable.
Rebuttal: Saul was not acting on his own accord here, and he had a history of being demonized. God struck him here with a form of insanity... that’s why he stripped naked. Besides, there’s no indication that there were any women who saw him.
(Update: for a more complete answer to this rebuttal, see Unclothed and in His Right Mind.)
Socially Nude Setting: Peter fished naked in the boat after Jesus’ resurrection (John 21:3-7). It is quite unlikely that he alone was naked. More likely, this was the customary way for all fishermen to do a rather dirty job that would be very hard on what little clothing they possessed (see the photo below). He—and probably they—were nude in a boat within sight (and earshot) of land. This is social nudity in a working environment.
Rebuttal: It only tells us that Peter was naked. But even if it was more than just he, it was still only men, and this was not a recreational social setting. Furthermore, when Peter swam to shore to meet the Lord, he knew very well that he dare not meet Jesus naked.
I found the picture above in a Bible-History book in my church library. It is a 2nd or 3rd century stone relief showing three boats and their sailors battling a rough sea. Note that all of the sailors are completely nude. Click the picture to see it full size.
Socially Nude Setting: When the author of the book of Hebrews seeks to communicate to us the importance of being completely committed to “victory” in our Christian lives (Heb. 12:1), he invokes the mental image of a culturally relevant sporting event to illustrate his point. It is documented historical fact that the runners in the Greek “Olympic” races ran nude. The author suggests that we lay aside the sin which could entangle us, just as (or so it seems) the runners lay aside all the clothing which could entangle them while running. It is a clear reference to a socially nude context, and it is used as a positive illustration.
Rebuttal: It doesn’t say that the runners were nude and that’s not the point anyway. Nudity is not even mentioned in the passage, and neither are the Greek Olympics. This is not at all condoning social nudity.
Those are not all, but those are the primary offerings in support of social nudity in the Bible, along with their common rebuttals. None seem to be sufficiently convincing to the non-naturist Christian, and evidently the nay-sayers are satisfied with the rebuttals.
But there is another passage which condones social nudity... in my opinion, more strongly than any I’ve already presented. Perhaps there will be adequate “rebuttal” to satisfy those unwilling to accept social nudity, but I’ll present it nonetheless, for it is Scripture.
Let me start this way...
What does the Bible say about physical exercise? The passage that comes to mind for me is 1 Tim. 4:8. Let me quote it here in the NIV:
For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
The other versions are worth looking at by way of comparison, but the NIV here captures the idea that there is indeed some value in physical training or exercise. I’m quick to point out that this verse teaches that it is nowhere near as valuable as godliness – and that is the point of this passage – but there is still an acknowledgment of value in physical exercise.
On that point, I doubt any would disagree. I don’t think anyone would suggest that we should pursue godliness to the exclusion of exercise. Certainly this verse does not teach that exercise is in conflict with godliness. Both are valuable, godliness is more so.
Now that that point is agreed upon, let’s look at the Greek terms used here.
The word here translated “training” (or in the KJV, “exercise”) is the Greek word gymnasia. You will see the relationship with our English word, “gymnasium.” Those who are familiar with Greek will also see that it is based upon the Greek word, gymnos, which is the NT word for “naked.”
If we look at the definition of these Greek words found at BlueLetterBible.org, we find that gymnasia is a noun, and its first definition is given as “the exercise of the body in a palaestra or school of athletics.” It comes from the verb, gymnazo, which is defined as “to exercise naked (in a palaestra or school of athletics).” And as I already mentioned, both of these words are based on the Greek word, gymnos, meaning “naked.”
A little historical snooping will reveal that the palaestra was the wide open field (larger than a football field) within the walls of the ancient gymnasiums which were a central part of Hellenistic culture and life in NT times. As the name implies, nudity was the norm in the gymnasiums for men and for women.
Every major Greek city in the first century had a gymnasium... even Jerusalem (built in 175 B.C, it was in active use while Jesus roamed the streets of Jerusalem!).
Here’s my point... the gymnasium was where people went to exercise in the first century. And exercise in the gymnasium was always done in the nude. Nudity was so closely related to exercise that the word for "exercise" in Greek reflects the fact that it was practiced naked.
We cannot see that in the English translation. But that does not change the fact that the word God used to affirm exercise is a word that would clearly denote a naked activity to any Greek reader.
I would like to coin a word to help us see and hear in English what this would have sounded like to the original audience of the NT. I would suggest “nudercise,” meaning “to exercise naked” just like the original Greek term used in the Bible. Just like in the Greek, I've used a word denoting nudity as the foundation for this new word for "exercise."
So, let’s read the passage in English again, only this time with the more culturally accurate new word in the place of “training” or “exercise.”
For physical nudercise is of some value, but godliness has value for all things...
The nudercising Paul had in mind was the activity that happened down at the local nudenasium, for that’s where everyone went to nudercise.
Again, to even mention “exercise” in Greek was to invoke the concept of nudity, much like I did in the verse and paragraph above.
Since this is the case, we can conclude that the words of Paul in 1 Tim 4:8 are an affirmation of value in a socially nude activity. Paul was – quite literally – condoning social nudity.
Was that Paul’s primary point? No, it wasn’t.
Was Paul even thinking about affirming social nudity when he wrote that? No, he wasn’t.
But at the same time, he invoked a word overtly referring to social nude activity without so much as batting an eye. And he certainly did not offer any sort of disclaimer or warning to avoid the gymnos part of the gymnasia. He simply affirmed the value of a socially nude activity – almost in passing – while making a more significant spiritual point.
God never does command social nudity. Nudity is certainly not ever promoted as a measure of righteousness (neither is staying dressed!). But here in Paul’s words to Timothy we see a passing reference to social nudity in a positive light. Not so strong that we would be compelled to strip here and now, but clear enough for us to know that God has no qualms about our chaste involvement in socially nude activities.
Will this convince the antagonist? I doubt it.
Will it enlighten the seeker? I hope so.
Perhaps for all of us, it will give visibility into some nuances of God’s Word that we’ve never seen before.
I am indebted to the author of FollowTheRabbi.com, Ray Vander Laan, for much of the historical research which led me to discover this passage and its implication regarding social nudity. Just to be clear, Ray Vander Laan is not a naturist. He simply does accurate historical research for the express purpose of helping us understand the Scriptures better.
I would especially recommend the article on Hellenism: Center of the Universe for its eye-opening explanation of the influence Hellenism had in the first century. It also reveals the central role which the Gymnasiums played in public life while the NT was being written (they were also the universities of the day!).
I’ll close with a quote from that article... the very paragraph that turned on this lightbulb for me (emphasis mine).
The Bible does not mention the gymnasium though it was a significant institution of from 300 B.C. until well beyond the New Testament time. Paul hints at its existence in his letter to his friend Timothy writing, “For physical training is of some value...” (1 Tim. 4:8). The expression “physical training” is based on the Greek root word for gymnasium. In addition he used metaphors (1 Cor. 9:24-27 — boxing and physical training; Gal. 2:2 — running; Gal. 5:7 — running; Phil. 2:16 — running) activities taught in the gymnasium and not in the synagogue school of the religious Jews.