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Joseph's Coat

Ancient Clothing

Beni-Hasan Clothes

The Black Obelisk

Rich People

Ordinary People

The Roman Period

What's the evidence?

Bible References

 

 

BIBLE WOMEN: JEZEBEL: Elizabeth Taylor as the scheming Cleopatra wears ritual make-up and jewels

‘When Jehu came to Jezreel, Jezebel painted her eyes and adorned her head, and looked out of the window. As he entered the gate, she cried “Is it peace, Zimri, murderer of your master?” He looked up to the window and said “Who is on my side? Who?” Two or three eunuchs looked out at him. He said “Throw her down.” So they threw her down.

   Jezebel's Story

 

 











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'Women crouched over a hole in the ground, standing on bricks or stones placed at either side. They gave birth in a squatting position, with relatives and friends taking turns to support them under the arms...'    GIVING BIRTH

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

The Bride of Bethlehem, by William Holman Hunt, detail

The Bride of Bethlehem, by William Holman Hunt

Bible Study Resource

Ever since Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their nakedness, people have worn clothes. Clothes give protection from the weather, identify the wearer and proclaim his status, or even act as a magic charm (Numbers 15:38). Clothing is also, of course, decoration.

No clothes have survived from ancient Israel, but we can reconstruct  items by looking at what was worn in neighboring countries like Assyria and Egypt. 

There are also wall reliefs and paintings showing ancient clothing. Of course these are 'special event' pictures, and do not show what people wore every day. But fashion and fabrics did not change as quickly as they do in the modern world, so we can make an educated guess about clothing in the ancient world.

JOSEPH'S COAT

Unfortunately, there is no contemporary picture of the "coat of many colours" as rendered in older translations of the Bible, which angered Joseph's brothers (Genesis 37:23) and was worn by Tamar (II Samuel 13:18).

Detail of the Beni Hassan mural showing striped, multi-coloured clothing on Asiatic merchants

Detail of the Beni Hassan mural 
showing multi-coloured clothing

The Revised Standard Version of the Bible describes the garment as a "long robe with sleeves". Many scholars believe it was a tunic or robe made of a material woven from different coloured threads, similar to the costumes in the Egyptian Beni-Hassan painting shown above, in which some of the tunics are made of vertical strips of woven or embroidered material in bright colours, blue and red predominating. 

Other scholars are of the opinion that it may have been a long-sleeved tunic reaching to the ankles - the sort of garment that would have made hard work impossible - especially for shepherds like Joseph and his brothers, who needed to be agile. It may also have denoted high social rank.

The implication was that Joseph was being singled out by his father to work as an overseer, which meant favouritism as far as his older brothers were concerned, and kindled the flame of intense dislike they already felt for this precocious younger brother.

 

 

HEBREW TRAVELLERS, BENI-HASAN

Wall painting from Beni-Hasan, Egypt, showing nomadic merchants from Syria-Canaan; men and women dressed in richly colored fabrics

A drawing of the mural from Beni Hasan in Egypt, circa 1890BC shows a band of  
nomadic merchants from Syria-Canaan, bringing stibium (a cosmetic for painting the eyes). 
The caption in front of the leader identifies them as being from a foreign country called 'Ibsha'.
 

Photograph of wall paintings from Beni-Hasan, Egypt, showing clothing worn by merchants from Syria-Canaan
Photograph of wall paintings from Beni-Hasan, Egypt, showing clothing worn by merchants from Syria-Canaan

Photographs of the mural. For more information, see ARCHAEOLOGY: ABRAHAM

An Egyptian wall painting of the 12 dynasty shows merchants coming from the east, bringing the dye used to make kohl, the eye-liner used by Egyptians to beautify their eyes and protect against dusty winds and eye infections.

Reproduction of the Minoan Snake Goddess, showing multi-colored fabric used in the skirt of her costume

The clothes of the Hebrew merchants are simpler in design, but they use striped fabric similar to that worn by the Minoan Snake Goddess

The merchants are wearing knee-length multi-colored tunics. The fabric seems to be woven in strips of various colors. Others wear what looks like a kilt reaching from waist to knee. 

The men have short beards, and both sexes have well-groomed hair. 

The men wear dark-colored leather sandals. The women wear ankle-length boots - and is that the edge of a sock peeping out from the top of the boot? Or a white edging round the top?

The women's hair is combed, then twisted into ringlets and kept in place with a white, probably linen, band.

 

 

THE BLACK OBELISK

 

The submission of Jehu panel, from the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III

The king of Israel prostrates himself before the Assyrian king - this was the normal position for a subordinate, especially a conquered foreign king like Jehu of Israel. This panel is taken from the Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, which shows Jehu prostrating himself before the Assyrian king (Jehu appears in 1 Kings 22:29-40, 2 Kings 9:21-37 as the leader of a palace coup in which Queen Jezebel and her entire family are murdered; see JEZEBEL for the story). 

Detail taken from the Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, showing men's leather sandels with built up instep and heel

Notice the shoes of the Assyrian men, 
with leather covering at the sides 
to protect the instep and heel.

Israelites bring tribute to Shalmaneser III, scene from one panel of the Black Obelisk

The fringed garments these men wore were common for the well-to-do. 
Women probably wore a more richly decorated version. 

Israelites bring tribute to Shalmaneser III, scene from one panel of the Black Obelisk, photograph by Tewkes

The obelisk shows Israelites laden with gifts for the Assyrian king.  These men were important officials, but lower in rank to the main figures. Several of them wore the same peaked cap that Jehu wears; 
this cap seems to show who are the Israelites in the procession. 
All the Israelites are bearded. A long robe with fringes round the hem and a girdle, a long cloak with fringed end thrown over the shoulder, and pointed shoes complete their outfit.

 

RICH PEOPLE

 

Reconstruction of the Peplos Kore as the goddess Artemis

Luxury sandals from Egypt

Clothes - the right sort - let rich people show others  how important they are. 

It was the same in the ancient world: rich people had 

  • clothes for winter and for summer

  • clothes for going out and staying at home, or for work and leisure

  •  and clothes of different materials – fine linen, or sometimes in the later period, silk. 

Out of doors, a rich man would wear a light coat over his tunic. This came down to his knees and was often gaily striped or woven in check patterns. 

Rich people wore lightweight coats indoors as well, perhaps made from silk. 

Intricate embroidery was one one of showing status in the ancient world (see left). 

So, apparently, was the right footwear. The prophet Isaiah complains about rich women whose shoes made a tinkling noise when they walked, presumably because they had tiny bells attached to them (Isaiah 3:16)

They also copied fashions in Egypt, Assyria or later on, Rome. These countries exported luxury goods, and then as now people with enough money were prepared to pay large amounts for items in the latest fashion.

 

ORDINARY PEOPLE: WOMEN

Movie still from the film 'Passion of the Christ', Mary in simple peasant clothes

The fabric used in ordinary people's clothes was a rough weave of woollen fiber 
(see Mary's robe in a still from the film 'The Passion of the Christ'.

Drawing of two women in clothing from the 1st century AD, roughly the time that Jesus of Nazareth lived

The sacking of the conquered city of Lachish, scene from a wall panel from Nineveh; scene shows men and women leaving the city as captives of the Assyrians

Wall relief from Nineveh, showing the people of Lachish being driven into slavery and exile. 
The women wear a long head covering that reaches to the ground -  
a garment that could double as a blanket at night.

Early photograph of a woman and child from Hebron

This Arab woman's shawl is embroidered and tasselled at either end.

19th century photograph of a girl from Ramallah

If they were able, women had two types of clothing: a day-to-day outfit and something more elaborate for festivals and special occasions. Her work-a-day tunic came down to her ankles but could be tucked up if needed. Her festival clothing was often embroidered on the yoke, skirt or sleeves with a pattern used by all the women of her village. Apart from this, her tunic would be very similar to a man's. A woman could lift up the hem of her long dress and use it as a large bag, or tuck it up like an apron.

 

ORDINARY PEOPLE: MEN

Copy of a wall painting showing Semitic laborers in Egypt

Workers performing heavy manual work often wore as little as decently possible.

 

Recreation of a young shepherd tending his sheep; he is dressed in traditional clothes

This modern re-creation of ancient clothing makes the mistake of putting the shepherd in a long robe. In fact shepherds had to move quickly, to run fast, so their robes were probably only knee-length.

 

The average working villager had a change of fresh clothes, necessary if they were to keep the ritual purity laws. 

Fragments of Egyptian woven cloth

The most common colors were variants of those produced by natural dyes

Most peoples' clothes were homespun, loose fitting, in one of the soft colors of natural dyes - a dark red, brown or yellow, perhaps striped. 

The first thing a man put on was either a loincloth or a short skirt from waist to knee. This was all he wore when he was doing heavy work. Over the top of this came a shirt or tunic - a long piece of material folded at the centre and sewn up the sides, with armholes and an opening for the head to go through. 

The tunic was fastened round the waist with a girdle or belt. This was a piece of cloth, folded into a long strip to make a kind of pocket to hold coins and other belongings.

Image of a man, woman and child on a Roman family monument

As far as we can tell, children wore mini-versions of adult clothing

Both sexes wore leather ankle-length boots in winter and sandals in summer. Sandals were cut to a simple design: a piece of hide the same size as the foot, with a long leather strap which passed between the big and second toe, and was then tied round the ankle. 

When a man needed to be able to move more freely, he would tuck his tunic into his belt to make it shorter - 'girding up the loins'. 

In Israel the sun was so hot that some covering was needed to protect the head, neck and eyes. This was usually a square of cloth folded diagonally, with the fold across the forehead. A circle of plaited wool held it in place over the head, and the folds protected the neck. A cap was sometimes worn (see Jehu's head covering on the Black Obelish, above), or a fine wool shawl or tallith, especially during prayer. 

There was also a thick woollen coat or cloak to keep out the cold, called a himation in New Testament times. This was made from two pieces of material, often 
in stripes of light and dark brown, stitched together. The joined material was wrapped round the body, sewn at the shoulders, and slits were then made in the 
side for the arms to go through.
A poor man's cloak was so important to him that if it was handed over to guarantee repayment of a debt, it had to be returned to him at sunset.

 

THE ROMAN PERIOD

 

Statue of a married couple, Gratidia and Gratidius Libanus-1stcenturyAD; they are wearing simple, dignified Roman clothing

This dual funeral portrait of Gratidia and Gratidius Libanus, 1st century Romans, shows the restrained dress favored by aristocratic Romans of this period. The Jewish upper classes, both men and women were more lavish in their dress, and had  a reputation for luxury and ostentation.

Members of the nobility, or royalty, at about the time of Jesus; a man and woman in rich clothing

Coffin portrait of a Middle Eastern woman from 2nd century AD

One of the Fayum coffin portraits, showing a richly dressed woman with a red dress and gold jewelry

Two of the Fayum coffin portraits showing clothes and jewelry of 1st-2nd centuryAD upper-class women

The Bride of Bethlehem, by William Holman Hunt

This idealized painting of the young Mary of Nazareth by William Holman Hunt, shows how young women displayed their dowry to prospective husbands - as an item of jewelry.

Medieval painting of the Madonna (Bellini), with baby in swaddling clothes

Babies' clothing as we know it did not exist. The only unique piece of clothing was the swaddling bands wound around the baby soon after birth. These held the baby securely and warmly, duplicating the position it had when still in the womb. See CHILDBIRTH IN ANCIENT TIMES for more about this.

The garments worn by Jewish and Christian people of this period were fairly similar to those worn along the whole Mediterranean coast. However, traditional Jewish families still kept the Mosaic Law which forbade mixing wool and linen in the same garment.

Basic clothing was a tunic made from two lengths of woollen material joined at the top, with an opening for the head to pass through. It might have vertical stripes and be dyed red, cream/brown or black. A mantle/cloak made of wool was also worn; this was woven in one single piece of cloth. There was also a woollen or linen head-covering with a band that held it in place.

Photograph of leather bikini pants, ancient Romano-British

Leather bikini pants, ancient Romano-British

 

WHAT'S THE EVIDENCE?

The Hebrews were exiles in Egypt and Babylonia, were ruled by the Greeks and Romans and, more important, lived in a land which was a natural crossroads between the major cultures of the ancient world. The cultural influences on them were many and varied, and  it is certain that the Jews, and the early Christians after them, dressed in much the same way as the peoples around them. They knew and must have been influenced by the style of dress of the Syrians, the Canaanites and Phoenicians, the Assyrians and Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans.

Materials and textiles

In biblical times, the basic textiles were wool and linen. 

Making linen out of flax is quite a complicated process. First the outer bark of the stems must be removed (after it has rotted) and the fibres separated. Egyptian tablets show the flax being pressed into tubs of water, and Josiah 2:6 refers to the fibres spread out in the sun to dry. 

The fibres were then spun into thread and wound onto a spindle held in the hand. The spindle was spun round in the fingers to tighten and strengthen the thread and, to keep this even, a heavy weight known as a "whorl" was attached to one end. The whorls were made of clay or stone, and the large number of them found in nearly all excavations is evidence of the universal practice of the craft. It was carried on by women (as described in Proverbs 31:19) rather than by tradesmen, whereas weaving was a trade. 

Photograph of a Greek vase, showing women working at a loom

Illustration on a Greek vase, showing women working at a loom

A young Middle Eastern girl sits at a loom, weaving


Weaving

The threads were woven into cloth on a loom made from a long beam supported by posts or in some other way. The "warp" threads were hung from this beam, weighted down by stones or other "loom weights" to keep them steady. The weaver threw his shuttle, carrying the long "weft" thread, backwards and forwards between the warp to make the cloth. The biblical loom was upright, not horizontal, and the weaving was done from the top down. This type of loom seems to have been borrowed from the Mediterranean area. 

Model of a weaver's workshop with eleven workers, Cairo Museum

Model of a weaver's workshop, Cairo Museum

The word for warp ("shti" in Hebrew) has been said to come from Mycenean Greek. When the piece of cloth was finished, the ends of the threads were knotted into fringes to prevent unravelling. After all his tedious work, the weaver was naturally reluctant to see the cloth cut. Instead of making fitted garments, the rectangular piece of cloth would usually be draped around the body, fringes and all.

The Egyptians excelled in the making of fine linen, often dyeing the threads to weave coloured or patterned cloth, or embroidering the finished goods. The Hebrews must have learned some of these skills because later on they were able to build the tabernacle with "blue and purple and scarlet and fine twined linen, wrought with needlework." (Exodus 26:1). In early days, the yarn was dyed before weaving in cold vats, like those of the installation at Debir (below), which dates from the 8th-6th centuries BC. In the post-Exilic period, hot vats were used for dyeing woven cloth, as was customary outside Palestine.

Vats for dying cloth, found at Debir

Vats for dying cloth, found at Debir


Types of garments

Egyptian wall painting of a young man dressed in the kiltlike loincloth worn next to the skin, called ezor. Many Egyptian paintings show such a garment wrapped around the loins and tied with a belt or girdle

The earliest undergarment was probably the kiltlike loincloth worn next to the skin, called ezor (II Kings 1:8; Matthew 3:4). Many Egyptian paintings show such a garment wrapped around the loins and tied with a belt or girdle (hagorah).

For religious functions, a shirt or apron was tied around the body (I Samuel 2:18; II Samuel 6:14). 
In general, the most common garment was the tunic, the ketonet, chiton, or tunica (John 19:23).

This tunic or outer garment was made by simply folding a rectangle of cloth in half and sewing up the sides, leaving openings for the head and arms. This could be worn open or closed, with or without sleeves, depending on the people or place. The most usual Hebrew term for a top garment, possibly worn over the tunic, is the me'il, although in many cases English versions wrongly translate the term "coat" (see Joseph's coat, above). Apparently it was also worn by people of high rank. 

Such a costume is pictured in a borderstone of a Babylonian king (ca. 1100 BCE) although this one was collarless and had short sleeves ending above the elbows. Later on, evidence from the New Testament (Mark 6:9; Luke 3:11) suggests that at times people wore two coats, as explained below.

The Cloak/Simlah: In Old Testament times, most people - men and women - wore a shawl or cloak made of wool or linen draped fairly closely around the body over the tunic.  

Jewish law (Deuteronomy. 22:5) makes it clear that women's clothing differed from men's. The saddin may have been similar to the outer cloak (simlah) that was worn, for instance, by King Jehu and his attendants bringing offerings to King Shalmaneser, shown in the black obelisk of Shalmaneser (see illustrations at top of page). 

Headgear

The Bible tells how fine linen was wrapped around the head of the High Priest as a turban or mitre — the saniph or kidaris (Exodus 28:39). 

Ordinary people wore a kerchief over the head, held tight by a cord reminiscent of the Arab headdress, the 'aggal. When bareheaded, men wore a fillet to keep their long hair in place. A skull cap or turban was also typical. The peasant or soldier seems to have wound a simple strip of cloth around the head, leaving one fringed end to hang over the right ear.

Footwear and Leather

In ancient times men generally went barefoot indoors but outside they protected their feet with a sandal usually made of a simple sole of untanned leather, tied on with straps or latchets (Genesis 14:23; Mark 1:7). A sandal was the cheapest thing one could imagine (Amos 2:6) — only the shoe-strap was worth less (Genesis 14:23). 

The Egyptian Beni Hassan painting (at top of this page) shows men wearing thonged sandals, while the women have soft low boots of a kind still found in western Asia a few decades ago. In the black obelisk of Shalmaneser, however, Jehu's attendants, in contrast to the Assyrians, are wearing shoes which cover their feet completely. Shoes had to be removed in certain circumstances. 

In later times a much greater elegance was achieved. A good example of second century AD footwear is the child's sandal found, with its straps still intact, in a cave of Nahal Hever, last hideout of Bar-Kochba's partisans. The other sandals were worn by adults. 

Human hair and sandals found  in a cave of Nahal Hever, last hideout of Bar-Kochba's partisans

Simple strap sandals found  in a cave of Nahal Hever

In the same cave, pieces of leather which had once formed part of a garment or bag were also found, and nearby two samples of sewn leather which had once belonged to an outer coat.

Remnants of a leather woven bag found in the caves at Masada

Remnants of a leather woven bag found in the caves at Masada
it must have belonged to the people who took refuge in a cliff-face cave immediately before the Roman legions broke through



Tassels and Fringes

Jewish people were required by their law (Numbers 15:37-41; Deut. 22:12) to put tassels (tzitzit or fringes) on the corners of their garments with a blue cord intertwined in them. This tradition is still followed by observant Jews during services, in the tasselled tzitzit knotted on the four corners of the tallit, a big fringed, four-cornered prayer shawl. The large tallit, usually made of wool, was worn only during morning prayer and in the afternoon and for all services on the Day of Atonement. However, a special undergarment, the "arba kanfot" (four corners) or "tallit Utan" (small tallit), was worn perpetually during waking hours under the outer garment.

The blue dye for tzitzit was obtained from the Mediterranean sea snail (murex) from which the ancients (mainly the Phoenicians) obtained blue and purple dyes. Because the use of shellfish gave rise to certain difficulties, the Talmud (Menahot 38a) later taught that all fringes might be white. Every male garment originally had tzitzits and wearing them differentiated a zealous Jew from his neighbours. Later on, however, they were worn only on intimate garments or in the synagogue.

Clothes in the late Bronze and early Iron Ages(1300-930 BC)

The Canaanite ivory carvings of Megiddo (12th century BC) show the men wearing long sleeved robes over a coloured tunic (ketonet), embroidered in geometric designs. Over their robes the simlah is wrapped closely around the body, leaving the right shoulder and arm free. On their heads, they have close-fitting caps.

Section of an ivory carving found in the ruins of ancient Megiddo, showing clothing worn by rulers and courtiers

Drawing of an ivory carving found in the ruins of ancient Megiddo

Part of an ivory carving found in the ruins of ancient Megiddo


The women are also dressed in long robes (simlah), trimmed at the neck. Some are sleeveless, some with loose sleeves, showing the long sleeves of the undertunic (ketonet) Some are worn open in the front, decorated with embroidery all around the edges, and with long tassels hanging down in front. One woman wears a wide, flat-topped headdress like a crown, over a kerchief. In contrast, the singer is bare-headed, with her hair spread over her shoulders. She may possibly represent a "kedeshah" (temple-priestess).

An Assyrian law stipulated that a respectable married woman must cover her head, while an unmarried girl must go bareheaded.

The carving presents a court scene so it may not be a very good indication of ordinary Israelite costume of the period. It does show, however, that Iron Age garments were no longer fastened by means of pins, but made use of fibulae or buckles.

Late Iron Age (930-600 BC)

The black obelisk of Shamaneser III of Assyria (images are at the top of this page) shows him receiving tribute from Jehu, king of Israel. Some of the Assyrians wear fillets on their hair, flat sandals and long, short-sleeved robes with fringes at the bottom, tied with a tasselled sash. Others are wearing a long skirt with fringed shawls wrapped around the shoulders and waist. The Assyrian king wears a fez-like cap on his head.
The Israelites wear a long skirt or tunic — very little different from what was worn at the beginning of the Israelite era. Over it they wear an open short-sleeved mantle fastened on the shoulders, with fringes and tassels along the edges. Some of them wear fillets on their heads and others, including King Jehu, have a soft pointed hat, rather like the Phrygian cap. All of them are wearing shoes which cover the foot and turn up at the toes.

In the Assyrian sculpture of the capture of Lachish, captured Jewish men are shown dressed either in a moderately tight garment fitting closely at the neck (Job 30:18) and reaching almost to the ankles, or in a short sleeved tunic and kilt-like garment. They wear a head-band with ends hanging about the cheeks, which are often shaved. The women have a mantle like a long veil wrapped around the body and covering the forehead.

Roman and New Testament times

Fashions changed little after Hellenistic times, but they acquired a Roman flavour. The most interesting feature about Graeco-Roman clothing of the first century AD was the manner in which a long piece of cloth, the "chlamys" as the Greeks called it, or the "pallium" in Latin, was draped over the tunic in a variety of ways. A special variety of the pallium was the "toga". The typical flowing garments of Roman citizens, with loose togas and stoles worn over them in various ways as a type of cloak, are shown on a Roman relief of 13 BC, portraying a religious procession (Ara Pacis).

Part of the Ara Pacis, showing the Imperial family walking in procession

Part of the Ara Pacis, showing the Imperial family


The wealthy and ruling classes in Palestine no doubt dressed like the patricians of Rome but the clothing of ordinary people — like Jesus and his disciples — was much simpler. Apparently there were six garments : a linen shirt, haluk, worn underneath the tunic.; the tunic itself which might be "woven without seam" (John 19:23); a linen girdle wrapped around the waist (Matthew 3:4); leather sandals for the feet and an upper garment (Mark 9:3) probably made of white wool, with tassels at the corners. In those days, Jewish teachers covered their heads, so Jesus may have worn a white linen "napkin" sudarium like a turban. The sudarium was a kind of head kerchief, and is mentioned as a covering for the heads of the dead (John 11:44; 20:7).

 

BIBLE REFERENCES

Mixed materials in one piece of clothing forbidden, Deut. 22:11. 
Men forbidden to wear women's clothes, women forbidden to wear men's clothes, Deut. 22:5. 
Rules with respect to women's clothes, 1 Tim. 2:9,10; 1 Pet. 3:3. 
Not to be held over night as a pledge for debt, Ex. 22:26. 
Ceremonial purification of, Lev. 11:32; 13:47-59; Num. 31:20. 
Various articles of clothing: Mantle, Ezra 9:3; 1 Kin. 19:13; 1 Chr. 15:27; Job 1:20; many colored, 2 Sam. 13:18; purple, John 19:2,5. Robe, Ex. 28:4; 1 Sam. 18:4. Shawls, Isa. 3:22, Embroidered coat, Ex. 28:4,40; 1 Sam. 2:19; Dan. 3:21. Sleeveless shirt, Matt. 5:40; Luke 6:29; John 19:23; Acts 9:39. Cloak, 2 Tim. 4:13; John 19:2,5. Skirts, Ezek. 5:3. Mufflers, Isa. 3:19.  Sashes, Isa. 3:20. 
Changes of raiment, the folly of excess, Job 27:16. 
Uniform vestments kept in store for worshipers of Baal, 2 Kin. 10:22,23; Zeph. 1:8; 
for wedding feasts, Matt. 22:11. 
Presents made of changes of clothes, Gen. 45:22; 1 Sam. 18:4; 2 Kin. 5:5; Esth. 6:8; Dan. 5:7.

 

See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible

  

 

 

 

Clothes for rich and poor in ancient times  - Archaeology of The Bible - Bible References - Bible  Study Resource
The Evidence: Beni Hasan mural, Black Obelisk, Roman era clothing in the New Testament

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