Michael at Ecce Homo listed as one of this five valuable resources a letter between two women, friends, concerning the modesty of a wives in the ancient world. According the Michael, while the letter which we have dates from the 3rd century, it was most likely written as early as the 1st century – or around the time of the composure of 1st Timothy (maybe).
First, we look at 1st Timothy 2.9-15:
In like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works. Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control. (1Ti 2:9-15 NKJ)
I would have to agree with Michael that the women here spoken of by Paul are primarily the married women, but I believe that Paul expected modesty from all women.
Paul’s commands to women here have been taken in a variety of ways – some harsh, some as cultural contexts. While culture plays a part – from the outside – Paul is referencing something more important – that regardless of culture, women professing piety must act a little pious.
Further, in regards to childbearing, Michael makes an excellent addition to the controversy regarding the moods of ancient Roman society in that first, it may have been against the law to refuse to have children and second, abortions could end the life of the woman very easily. In other words, this was physical deliverance rather than the eschatological salvation which many see.
Michael provides a greater resource than I could, which would be to restate his arguments, but if you would like, click here and read his treatment of this passage of Scripture. While you may not agree with everything that he has to say, it is a different take on this passage.
Regarding the letter mentioned above,
From P. Haun. II, 2 II, 1-42:
Melissa to Clearete, Greetings.
Of your own volition it appears to me that you have the characteristics of what is good. For you wish zealously to hear [teaching] about a wife’s adornment. It gives a good indication that you intend to perfect yourself according to virtue. It is necessary then for the free and modest (ἐλεύθεραν καὶ σώφρονα) wife to live with her lawful husband adorned with quietness, white and clean in her dress, plain but not costly, simple but not elaborate or excessive. For she must reject garments shot with purple or gold. For these are used by hetairai in soliciting men generally, but if she is to be attractive to one man, her own husband, the ornament of a wife is her manner and not her dress (στολή). And a free and modest wife (ἐλεύθεραν καὶ σώφρονα) must appear attractive to her own husband, but not to the man next door, having on her cheeks the blush of modesty (ὄψεως) rather than of rouge and powder, and a good and noble bearing and decency and modesty (καλοκαγαθίαν καὶ κοσμιότητα καὶ σωφροσύνην) rather than gold and emerald. For it is not in expenditure on clothing and looks that the modest woman (σώφρονα) should express her love of the good but in the management and maintenance of her household, and pleasing her own husband, given that he is a moderate man (σωφρονοῦντι), by fulfilling his wishes. For the husband’s will ought to be engraved as law on a decent wife’s mind and she must live by it. And she must consider that the dowry she has brought with her that is best and greatest of all is her order and trust in both the beauty and wealth of the soul rather than in money and appearance. As for money and looks, time, hostility, illness and fortune take them away: rather the adornment of soul lasts till death with women who possess it.
Similar in thought to Paul’s speech, but also allowing that the husband must be a ‘moderate man.’ I wonder if there are any corresponding letter between men of this time period detailing the duties of a husband to a wife?
Paul provides very little -
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. ”For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Eph 5:25-33 NKJ)
Peter adds this to the duties of a husband, after giving duties to a wife:
In the same way, you husbands must give honor to your wives. Treat your wife with understanding as you live together. She may be weaker than you are, but she is your equal partner in God’s gift of new life. Treat her as you should so your prayers will not be hindered. (1Pe 3:7 NLT)
I use the NLT here because I believe that it gives a better translation for ‘weaker vessel’ than a then more literal (N)KJV.
The Household Codes of the New Testament were not new, but generally considered the example of a good life in the ancient world. We should seek to understand the cultural context of the statements, however, so that we do not add to the Scripture what is not there. Holiness is for a people, men and women, devoted to God. Although we can see a scholarly treatment provides for us essential clues – supported by instances from the times – to the holiness of the early Church, we note that even then, society, while not always practicing it, recognized modesty.