Monday, March 27, 2017

Wasn’t Clothing the “Norm” in the Bible?

An Unaddressed Issue.
One of my non-naturist readers submitted an important question a while back. I thought the answer deserved its own new entry into The Biblical Naturist blog.
Here’s the email in full:
I've been reading and enjoying reading your thebiblicalnaturist blog. Your arguments are compelling and convincing. I'm a Christian, but not a naturist/nudist. Your blog has convinced me that the Bible doesn't condemn nakedness. However, I DO have a question that I haven't seen addressed.
From your descriptions, and analysis of Bible passages, and from my readings of Scripture, it appears that, while nudity was not really promoted or condemned in biblical times, most people wore clothes most of the time. They often went naked for: various jobs, prophesying, bathing in public communal baths, and exercising, but from my readings, the default was still clothed. Except for Adam and Eve, most accounts of nakedness were either related to a job, or some unusual situation.
I like the idea of making my home clothing optional, but I don't see bible passages stating that this was the norm.
I once asked a Sunday school teacher of mine (who had been an archaeologist in Israel) about footwear in NT biblical times, and specifically, during corporate worship. He indicated that wearing sandals (usually that person's best pair) was the norm. So... wearing your "Sunday best" seemed to be practiced even in Jesus' time.

While nakedness was much more common and much more accepted back then, I still get the impression that:
- Nudity still wasn't the norm. If it were, I would expect little to no mention of someone's nakedness. But nakedness seemed to be a condition to be mentioned as significant.
- The common man (or woman) walking down the street or living in his home was clothed.
- It was nothing like a naturist or nudist resort, even in people's homes or yards.
- Being naked in town would be like a homeless person is now. An indicator of extreme poverty, and to be avoided.
- Corporate worship (in a synagogue) was a clothed affair as well.
I would welcome your comments and views on this matter.
Thank You
Thanks for writing, Bill. Let me see if I can address your question in a satisfactory way.
First of all, I’m grateful that the blog has opened your eyes to the fact that the Bible neither promotes nor condemns nakedness. That acknowledgement all by itself sets you apart from the vast majority of Christians. And I really appreciate your words of affirmation about my work.
Now let me dive in on your questions.

The Question In a Nutshell…
Rather than comment point by point on what you’ve written, I’m going to see if I can summarize your question—hopefully accurately and fairly enough that I will not be guilty of creating a “straw man.” How does this sound?
  • In the Bible, isn’t it the norm that people were clothed most of the time?
And the answer to that is a simple “Yes, it is.”
But I’m pretty confident that that’s not the answer you were really looking for, because that answer is nothing more than the acknowledgement of a historical fact. It doesn’t mean much… or at least we haven’t yet discussed what that fact means.
The reality is that there are probably other questions—unstated, but implied (or presumed)—behind that question. There likely are assumptions about what the answer must mean, therefore answering in the affirmative to the question as stated is taken as assent to the veracity of the unspoken assumptions behind the question. But that is not the case. So, let’s uncover the assumptions and THEN answer what I suspect is your question’s real intent.

Assumptions, Assumptions…
Let me take an educated (and experienced) guess at the assumptions that you—or others—might be holding behind your question:
  1. You’re The Biblical Naturist; you’re obviously teaching that the Bible promotes naturism.
  2. Whatever we see as common practice in the bible should be adopted as normative (i.e. morally required) for us today.
  3. The descriptions of public life we read about in the Bible fully describes life for the common folks in biblical times.
Ok… so now I’m treading very close to “straw man,” right? I’m putting words in your mouth that you didn’t say so that I can shoot them down. That’s almost the case, but let me give the reasoning behind why I’ve articulated these assumptions as being hidden within your question (if not for you, then perhaps for others who have pondered the same question). Then I’ll give my response to each.

1. You’re The Biblical Naturist; you’re obviously teaching that the Bible promotes naturism.
  • The subtext of your question is, “How can you promote naturism when it’s obvious that the bible does not promote living life naked as a ‘naturist’?” If this subtext that were not in play, then the question would not really be a question, but simply a historical observation.
I do not promote naturism, nor do I teach that the Bible teaches that we should live naked. I don’t teach those ideas because those assertions would be false! The bible simply does not command or promote nakedness as a way of life. I’ve never stated or suggested otherwise.
What I teach is that fact that the bible does not command or promote clothing either! Clothing is not a moral requirement for righteous living. Clothing does not commend us to God. Our bodies are not visual impediments to moral purity. To teach any of these notions is to assert a falsehood.
Many times I’ve been asked, “Why is nakedness such a big deal to you??” … to which I answer, “Nakedness is not a big deal to me. Nakedness is only a big deal to those who believe it is morally wrong.”
No, I don’t promote naturism, I just confront the lies that claim that the Bible teaches against social nudity. (I wrote a blog article about that, too).

2. Whatever we see as common practice in the bible should be adopted as normative (i.e. morally required) for us today.
  • Clearly, the question you asked can only have bearing on whether or not people today can live life as naturists if we also assume that the very description of the biblical lifestyle should be considered a moral mandate on how we also should live. Otherwise, the question is as inconsequential as “Didn’t people walk just about everywhere they went?”
When people are looking for reasons to oppose social nudity, they are often tempted to make the very same observation you made, but with the presumption of moral mandate: “Social nudity was NOT the norm in the Bible, therefore to practice it is NOT normal and not biblically acceptable.”
But the problem is that when we pull out the assumption behind such a declaration and say it straight out as I just did as point #2 above, the absurdity of that assumption is so evident as to be laughable.
Nobody would argue that since people in the Bible never rode bikes, drove cars, or took buses or planes to travel that we shouldn’t either. Didn’t people just walk? Well, of course they did. So?
Yet if the very same logic were applied to travel as is sometimes made about clothes, then we’d have to ban all travel that was not by foot or by the power of a beast of burden!
So, as to the question of whether people generally wore clothing, the answer is, “Well, of course they did. So?”
Common practices of a culture long past are not morally binding on us today. Your question is fine for discussing the way of life in biblical times, but it is irrelevant to the question of the morality or practice of social nudity today.

3. The descriptions of public life we read about in the Bible fully describes life for the common folks in biblical times.
  • If we are looking to biblical times as our basis for biblical behavior today, then it must also be assumed that we know all that we need to know about those cultures we are supposed to emulate.
I shouldn’t need to spend much time on this one, because the absurdity of this claim is also self-evident, even though it too is inherently assumed in the question if we hold to Assumption #2.
Some might claim that we know everything that we need to know because God inspired the inclusion of only those things that we need to emulate… but the hypocrisy of that claim becomes immediately evident when you just compare how Christians live today against what we DO know about life in bible times (like walking everywhere, or wearing only tunics and robes). There’s really no other assertion besides the “nudity-taboo” that anyone ever tries to use “biblical life” to support.
The fact is we know very little about life in bible times as it relates to common nudity. What’s more, we read the biblical text through 21st century eyes. We consider the Bible’s teaching on clothing through the lens of wealthy modern individuals with enough clothes to go for weeks changing clothes every day without ever wearing the same outfit twice.
What did people in biblical times really think about nudity? How common was it really? When we read the bible in English, it’s hard to tell, because a careful examination of modern translations reveals that whenever nudity was mentioned or implied when not shameful or embarrassing, the text has been rendered in such a way as to obscure the nudity that was present. I’ve carefully documented this translational obscuration in the blog series, Squeamish Translating. Those articles focus only on New Testament texts, but perhaps I need to write a version from the Old Testament as well.

In Summary…
I suspect that you’re thinking, “I wasn’t thinking those things at all!” and I would believe you. But I would encourage you to answer the question, “Why would common practices of attire in biblical times matter at all to this discussion of the morality of Social Nudity and its recreational practice?” Perhaps there are other good reasons you could offer, but the only one I’ve ever been able to discern is the presumption of biblical practices being normative for us today. That particular reason is invalid, so that’s why I have addressed it.
The correct answer to that question is that if we can discern that nudity truly was more common in biblical times (for work, public bathing, in individual homes, ritual mikvehs, exercising, etc.), then we can draw a very strong conclusion that since the biblical writers did NOT forbid such public nudity, we cannot and must not have the audacity to claim that the bible does forbid it at all. This purpose for asking the question doesn’t support the nudity-taboo teaching, so you just don’t hear anyone offer it.
On that score, allow me to address a few points in your email that warrant specific commentary.

Additional Comments
Except for Adam and Eve, most accounts of nakedness were either related to a job, or some unusual situation.
I’m surprised that you say “unusual”… I dare say that naked prophets were not unusual. Naked girls milling grain were not unusual. Naked servants were not unusual. Naked fishermen were not unusual. Even naked poor people were not unusual. They might seem unusual to us today, but we cannot assert that it was unusual at the time. To describe them as “unusual” affords you the opportunity to categorize public nudity as “unusual,” when in fact it may not have been at all! That’s 21st century lenses at work.
I like the idea of making my home clothing optional, but I don't see bible passages stating that this was the norm.
The bible doesn’t comment on the incidence of nudity in the home at all, but certainly it must have been common if only wealthy folks had more than one garment in their possession and the garments worn during the day were repurposed as blankets at night (Exodus 22:26-27, Deut. 24:12-13). Family bath time, bed time, and laundry day all would have resulted in plenty of family nudity. Again, if we read these sorts of passages without the discoloration of our modern experiences, we’ll miss the implications of what it must have been like when whole families lived together in a single tent, as it was when the OT laws were given.
- Nudity still wasn't the norm. If it were, I would expect little to no mention of someone's nakedness. But nakedness seemed to be a condition to be mentioned as significant.
We must be careful what we declare “If… then” for. Quite frankly, my impression is that nakedness IS mentioned very little in the Scriptures. Nakedness IS mentioned from time to time in the bible, but it is again the modern-day mindset that notes the “significance” of the mention—assuming that the “naked” part is really the point of the mention! The way I see it, the poor’s nakedness was a sign of the poverty which God’s people were commanded to minister to. The mention of Isaiah’s nakedness was notable only because it went for 3 years non-stop. King’s Saul’s nakedness was notable because he had “changed professions,” since evidently nudity among prophets was so common as to not merit a mention. Peter’s nakedness fishing was mentioned only to tell why he grabbed his garment before jumping out of the boat (and he probably wasn’t the only naked fisherman on the boat!).
My point is that it is our modern mindset that says, “Oh… he was NAKED… that’s notable!” when that may not be the emphasis of the passage at all.
- The common man (or woman) walking down the street or living in his home was clothed.
We can guess that this was pretty much the case, but it may not be nearly as universal as we imagine today, 2000 years removed. Have you ever seen a naked person walking around in public? Yet in bible times, Jesus and others made a special point of telling people to pay attention to the naked poor people; it must have been common enough to warrant repeated instructions on that precise point! If people really did often work naked, then seeing a naked workman in the middle of the day would not have been noteworthy; when Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus for the gardener, the most natural explanation for her mistake is that He—having left the grave-clothes behind in the tomb—must have been “dressed” like an actively working gardener!
- Being naked in town would be like a homeless person is now. An indicator of extreme poverty, and to be avoided.
Yes, extreme poverty was to be ministered to by God’s people, and if they did so, then those needs would be addressed. But bear in mind that the “naked” that this is talking about is the same as the “hungry” the bible tells us to feed. Being hungry was not a moral need, it was a physical need. Being naked was not a moral need, it was a physical need (they probably sold the shirt on their back for food, so they no longer had a way to stay warm at night—See James 2:15-16 for a clear description of what the hunger and nakedness meant).
Furthermore, the instructions to feed “the hungry” and clothe “the naked” were not commands to feed any person we meet who happens to be hungry at the moment or clothe every person who happens to be naked at the moment; they were commands to feed the hungry people who truly had no food to eat and no way to get any food, and to clothe the naked people who truly had no clothes to wear and no way to get any clothes.
- It was nothing like a naturist or nudist resort, even in people's homes or yards.
Again, you might be right in the main, but you have no way of knowing this for sure. First of all, I know of no mention in the bible at all of any sort of “recreational” activity… either at home or “on vacation.” We’re really only guessing on this point.
However, it might be worth considering that if a carpenter worked in his own backyard woodworking shop, we could expect that he would strip off his clothes to preserve his one clean garment from getting sweaty and covered with sawdust. The same would be true for a gardener or any other physically demanding home-based job.
Beyond that, however, I can say definitively that there was a place in public life where nudity was precisely like a nudist resort… and that’s the local city’s “gymnasium” (from the Greek word gumnazo meaning “naked”) and any of the Roman Baths common throughout the Roman Empire. Even Jerusalem had a local gymnasium in Jesus’ day (Check out this article). Paul’s writing reveal his own knowledge of the gymnasiums’ existence and the activities practiced on their grounds (he mentions wrestling, running, boxing, and “exercise” a word translated from the Greek word gumnazo in the NT). These mental/physical training sites also served as Universities in their day, and yes, nudity was required for all genders while on the grounds. NOTE: These gymnasiums—or “Palaestras” as they were called—were a part of public life throughout the Roman empire while Jesus was on the earth and while the New Testament was being written!!

The Fine Print…
This is the part where I admit that almost everything I’ve suggested regarding commonplace nudity in biblical times is speculative. I can point to hints of these things here and there throughout the scriptures, but I have no concrete proof (except the point about the local Gymnasiums in Jerusalem… I can prove that).
But… we also have no concrete proof that any of the speculations I have offered are not accurate. My point is not to prove that my descriptions are accurate, but to point out that within the things you wrote, there are assumptions about how things were in bible times which themselves may not be accurate. Drawing final conclusions on my speculations would be indefensible. Drawing final conclusions on your representation of biblical life would also be indefensible. THAT is my point.

Again, Bill, thanks so much for writing… and for giving me this opportunity to put into a blog post some things I’ve pondered for a long time, but never directly addressed. I hope my comments have met your expectations. Please feel free to follow up with a reply here or directly by email.
— Matthew Neal

See also:
I Don't Promote Naturism
Obviously! – a post about Assumptions.
Squeamish Translating, and in particular, the article about Naked Disciples.
A Day at the Baths (this shows the layout details of a bath and Paleastra combined)
Hellenism: Center of the Universe (This one is startling in its implications…)


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this article. I had a similar question and I believe that the assumptions you listed that underlie the question are (for most people, including me) accurate.

Keep up the good work.

I've been reading your blog for over 2 years now and am convinced of the neutrality of nudity. I wish more people were convinced. I want to promote a wholesome relaxed attitude towards nudity, but it's difficult as people are so polarized with the taboo.

God bless you.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see you post here again Matthew. Thanks!

CJ Michelli said...

Hi! Matthew, I really appreciate how forthright and (generally) accurate your blog is. But I'd add in just one or two words about the carpenter you mentioned, the one who probably took his tunic off to keep it from getting sweaty and sawdust-y - considering the sharp utensils, etc., that they had to deal with, the primary concern for carpenters (like many ancient vocations) was probably sharp objects that endangered his clothing rather than dustiness.
Just my two cents.

Anonymous said...

The letter writer seems to be hung up on the word "norm". If something is indeed considered the norm, that doesn't necessarily negate the validity of a particular activity outside that parameter as improper. It may, but it may also just be something the majority of people don't practice.....and I think we can agree nudism does and will always be considered a fringe activity.

Bill Littlejohn said...

Thank you for a opened mind approach of theory and speculation as it relates to the written word in the Bible.

Ted said...

Are you still posting to this blog? I don't find anything newer than May '17

Matthew Neal said...

Hi, Ted

I support the blog if I see any comments or responses. However, I have been distracted of late. So it took me awhile to get to your comment.

Life has been busy, so I have not been giving a lot of attention to this effort. But the real truth is that I and made a list at the outset of this effort detailing the subjects and the scripture passages that I wanted to address. The time came that I had addressed everything on my list. I literally run out of things that I felt were compelling points of contention that I had with the church's traditional position on social nudity.

I'm wide open for suggestions regarding topics that someone needs to see addressed. Got any ideas or burning questions?