The Clothing of Jews in the Time of Jesus

Unlike the ancient Egyptians, first-century Jews left behind no visual clues of their dress.
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In John 21:1-14, apostles are fishing on Lake Tiberias when John recognizes the risen Jesus onshore. Peter immediately puts on the clothes he had taken off while working, jumps into the water and swims toward Jesus. To picture this detail more clearly, it helps to know a little about first-century Jewish dress.

1 Attitudes About Clothing

Jewish fishermen who stripped while working at sea clothed themselves before returning to shore.
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An extremely modest people, Jews considered nudity shameful. Biblical scholar John L. McKenzie notes that the Bible sometimes uses the word "naked" to describe a man who is clad only in his undergarment, a tunic that hung to mid-calf. That is not to say, however, that first-century Jews never went unclothed. Ancient art shows Egyptian fishermen working in the nude. McKenzie believes Jewish fisherman on Lake Tiberias probably did likewise. In the Gospel account cited above, Peter would have donned his tunic by tucking it up between his legs and using a belt to hold it in place. This action was called "girding your loins." It enabled Peter to swim ashore clothed, yet unencumbered.

2 Tunic, Sash, Mantle

This ancient statue shows Caesar Augustus wearing tunic and mantle in the Roman style.
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There is general agreement that every Jew wore three basic items of clothing. The wool or linen undergarment was the first layer. It was a voluminous sleeved tunic held in place around the waist by a rope, leather belt or cloth sash. Over that was draped a mantle or cloak, a square of cloth that served as a topcoat, blanket, bedroll or even as collateral in a loan repayable by sunset. It was draped over one shoulder or both, depending on how much freedom of movement the wearer desired. Biblical researcher Michael Marlowe adds that Jews attached blue tassels to all four corners to comply with Mosaic law. Finally, no matter how poor a person was, all Jews wore sandals. These were made either of wood or camel hide.

3 Women's Wear

McKenzie says that differences of style and cut must have existed between men's and women's clothing, or else the prohibition against cross-dressing in Deuteronomy 22:5 would make little sense. One difference was that a Jewish woman wore a longer, ankle-length tunic. Also, her head was wrapped in a veil that had ends extending to the floor. According to Marlowe, she added a face veil whenever outside her home. The only time she let her hair show in public was on her wedding day.

4 Greco-Roman Styles

The Jews of Jesus’ time inhabited a world dominated by Greco-Roman culture. Although Jews living in a city like Corinth may have adopted a few minor details of local style, they still maintained uniquely Jewish habits of dress. They did not imitate Greco-Roman working men, for example, who wore short tunics that extended only to mid-thigh. Although Greco-Roman women maintained modest floor-length tunics, they did not always cover their heads. Scholars debate the circumstances that determined their choices. Greek women could choose among a variety of head coverings, including veils, scarves, headbands and other items. Roman women sometimes wore veils.

Alice Pfeifer holds a Master of Arts in English from Marquette University and a Master of Arts in pastoral studies from St. Joseph's College of Maine. She has worked as an editor and writer since 1988, including five years in Russia as a writer, ESL teacher and church worker. She has written for the "AHSGR Journal," "CATECHIST" and other magazines.