Thursday, July 30, 2015


Kristi Upson-Saia, Carly Daniel-Hughes, Alicia J. Batten (ed.), Dressing Judeans and Christians in Antiquity. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014. Pp. xvi, 293. ISBN 9781472422767. $129.95.

Reviewed by Karel C. Innemée, Leiden University (

Version at BMCR home site


This book is the result of three invited panels, held at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies and the American Academy of Religion. The papers presented here were joined with a number of solicited essays in this volume.

Everyone conveys messages through the way he or she is dressed (or not dressed). The range of these messages and their vocabulary is wide: from social status and profession to preference in music and sports. Religion is another aspect that can also be reflected in dress and this is the subject of this volume. The title suggests that the subject is limited to the way Judeans and Christians used costume as a means of communication and expression, but in fact some of the contributions go beyond this. Callie Callon writes about how the facial characteristics of the apostle Paul were depicted, while the contribution of Kristi Upson-Saia concerns the hair of anchorites. The scope of the book is therefore the human body as a whole and how it can be "read" within the context of religious communities and their non-verbal forms of communication—as the editors make clear, they "are not interested in studying ancient dress as an end in itself" (7).

The source material used by the various authors primarily consists of contemporary texts, with a few references to pictorial sources (especially in part 5, "Dress, Image and Discourse"). In choosing this approach, the authors of this volume analyse the language of body and dress in a multifaceted way. Although it is impossible to deal with a subject as complicated as the language of body and dress in Judaism and Christianity in an exhaustive way in fewer than 300 pages, these contributions do offer interesting information to scholars in various fields.

The editors have divided the book into six parts, each containing two contributions, and in spite of their effort to impose order in the table of contents, these capita selecta are in some cases quite different in their approach, some going deep into the details of one specific topic, while others give a broader overview of certain phenomena.

Part 1 is entitled "Dress and the Social Body." In chapter 1 Naftali Cohn discusses the adornment of Judean women and the third-century Mishnah. The way that the adornment of the female body was regulated by rabbis did not just concern the individual body, but the metaphorical body of society as well—especially vis à vis the identity of non- Judeans. It is interesting to see how social identity was expressed in the costume of one half of society, women, while simultaneously, the regulation of women's dress controlled moral (and implicitly, sexual) behaviour. The author discusses the measures taken in case a woman did not dress according to the rules: public humiliation by removing dress and jewelry. Male control over female behaviour is not restricted to ancient Judean society and one cannot help being reminded of present-day Iran, where female dress is scrutinised as a symptom of morality. Although Cohn's discussion is perfectly clear, the reader is left to wonder about rules and restrictions on male dress in ancient Judean society.

In the second chapter, Maria Doerfler deals with differences between male and female attire, more specifically the topic of cross-dressing and Ambrose of Milan's attitude toward what he and many others considered a threat to Roman manliness and virtue. For Ambrose, the clear division of the genders by their appearances maintained not only social order, but Christian values as well. Whereas for women cross-dressing could be considered a way of "breaking in to" a more prestigious segment of society—in the words of Ambrose, "imitate the nature of the worthier sex"—it could give to a man nothing but scorn. Three kinds of men would be prone to this travesty: the slaves of luxuria, those under the influence of foreign habits, and pagans. In other words, Ambrose did not defend an exclusively Christian standpoint: defenders of traditional Roman values would have agreed with him on at least the former points. The author ends by observing the paradox that "Ambrose's conservative vision of Roman dress re-coded in Christian terms gave way to a more radical change of attire: medieval Christians would exchange the Roman toga, that long-standing symbol of Romanitas, for the bishop's mantle or the monk's habit as the new symbols of masculinity." Yet monks, and soon bishops as well, were celibate and as such not role-models for the average male. Moreover, the taste for colourful un-Roman garments and imported silks had already begun influencing general taste and that of the court since Constantine's establishment of it at Constantinople. What we see was less a paradox than a gradual process wherein Christian dress became more foreign as more foreigners and pagans became Christian.

Part 2 is called "Dress and Relationality." In chapter 3, Rebecca Krawiec discusses the monastic habit as an expression of social memory and of visual connection with the past. Most parts of the monastic habit had a purely practical origin, but the symbolism attached to them by authors such as Evagrius underscores how the "grammar of dress" provided a counterpart for written or orally conveyed teachings. As long as dress serves a practical purpose it is subject to improvements, changes, and developments, but as soon as it becomes a bearer of religious values and symbolism, its shape tends to freeze. Monastic ideals codified in texts required unaltered copying, and likewise monastic dress, as soon as it had become a part of social memory and a bearer of values, was required to remain unchanged, as Krawiec makes clear.

In chapter 4, Adam Serfass focuses on a specific matter: the dispute between Pope Gregory the Great and bishop John of Ravenna concerning the occasions when wearing the pallium—the episcopal insignia granted by the pope—was allowed. The fact that John wore it not just during the liturgies but on other occasions as well was seen as a sign of pride, contrary to the pallium's purpose: expressing the humility of the bearer. Ravenna, officially under the authority of the bishop of Rome, was at the end of the sixth century also an exarchate of Byzantium. The author of this chapter may have overlooked the fact that, for eastern bishops, the omophorion, the vestment that corresponds to the western pallium was not a special insignia, but a normal part of the episcopal costume. John may have complied with the eastern rather than the western habits of dressing, not necessarily meaning to challenge Gregory's authority.

Part 3 is titled "Dress and Character Types." Chapter 5 is a contribution by Callie Callon about the description of the appearance of St. Paul in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, especially those features that were meant to make him resemble the traditional type of the philosopher: a bald head, a frown, and a unibrow.

The following chapter, by Erin Vearncombe, discusses the role of the dress of Judith in the narrative about the killing of Holofernes. Although she is literally "dressed to kill" and her seductive appearance would not be approved under other circumstances, the purpose of her behaviour—saving her people from destruction—transforms the appearance of vice into virtue.

Part 4, "Dress and Status Change," starts with chapter 7, in which Meredith Warren analyses the role of changes of dress as a reflection of a transformation process in the pseudepigraphic romantic novel Joseph and Aseneth. Aseneth, Joseph's Egyptian wife, at first dresses in a brilliant but "pagan" outfit. After she is rejected by Joseph for her idolatry, she puts on garments of mourning. Then follows her process of spiritual transformation and finally a heavenly visitor instructs her to put on a wedding dress in which she will appear in all her beauty to Joseph. In chapter 8, "Hairiness and Holiness in the Early Christian Desert," Kristi Upson-Saia discusses the growth of hair as an expression of other- worldliness, where the deliberate neglect of one's appearance is a sign that a hermit has already mentally exchanged this world for the hereafter.

Part 5 has the title "Dress, Image and Discourse," and in chapter 9, Arthur Urbano gives an elaborate account of the various and sometimes ambiguous Christian attitudes that existed towards the pallium and specifically its worn-out version, the tribon. In antiquity the tunic and toga were the garments of the upper-class respectable man, while the pallium and the tribon were the hallmarks of the philosopher. The combination of the worn-out tribon and a beard became the outfit of the intellectual because of his disdain for worldly elegance. On one hand, the tribon and beard fit the Christian appreciation for the ascetic teacher of which Christ was the prototype, but on the other hand some considered it a superficial disguise that any charlatan could don. In Christian iconography the tunic and pallium nevertheless remained a tradition for centuries.

In chapter 10, Joan Taylor investigates the Judean priestly costume according to descriptions from Exodus, Leviticus, Ezekiel, and Flavius Josephus, and tries to decipher its representations in the Berne Josephus (9th cent.) and on Judea Capta coins. Literary sources give a reasonable amount of information concerning priestly dress, but reliable representations from the period before the Common Era have not survived. The distance in time makes comparing the descriptions in biblical sources with those in the Berne Josephus problematic. At least seven centuries separate the illustration from the period that priestly dress was worn and it is unclear on what source the picture was based. Representations on Roman coins are closer in time, but one could wonder whether the makers of Roman coins had the intention or ability to show the details of Judean dress on such a small surface.

The sixth and last part of the book, "Dress and Material Realities," opens with a contribution by Carly Daniel-Hughes on the metaphorical vocabulary concerning the "putting on of the new man" in the Gospel of Philip. The chapter gives a convincing analysis of garment imagery in this text, although the aspect of "material reality" seems to be absent. The twelfth and last chapter, on the other hand, deals with the importance attached to the pearl as a precious piece of adornment in costume, both in its intrinsic and symbolical aspects. Alicia Batten gives a concise and highly informative history of the appreciation for the pearl, which differed remarkably between East and West.

The book as a whole presents an interesting and kaleidoscopic view on a number of aspects of the language of the human body and its adornments in ancient Judean and Christian culture. In some contributions the aspect of dress is remotely present or almost absent, but each shows that understanding the grammar and vocabulary of the language of the human body is an undeniable but sometimes still underestimated part of human culture.

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