I’m sure that when Congregationalist John Harvard founded the school in 1636 that still bears his name, and Puritan minister John Eliot was busy converting and civilizing Massachusetts Indians, they were not anticipating the recent article in the Harvard Theological Review by Roy Bowen Ward. According to Ward, first century Christians had no hang-ups on nudity and in fact probably frequented the 850 Roman baths where citizens came to relax, eat, exercise and listen to recitations.
Has all that missionary work of trying to put clothes on ‘‘heathen’’ been a waste of time? The first Christian missionary trip ever taken was by Christ himself to the far side of the sea of Galilee. There he met a heathen Gadarene running naked through the cemetery. According to Ward, this was all prim and proper and surely a breech of cross-cultural ethics to try to change such a thrifty style of living. But when Jesus left, the Scriptures tell us, he was sitting, clothed and in his right mind (Mk 5:15). Eliot sent many of his ‘‘heathen’’ to Harvard for a proper education and training. I’m sure that in heaven right now, Rev. Eliot is grieving because he didn’t have Dr. Ward’s new revelation on true Christianity. Just think of what modern Harvard could do for those ‘‘native’’ Americans today!
One thing Ward points out is true. The Greek and Roman world had no mores about clothing! All of the exercising was done in the nude. The New Testament word for ‘‘nakedness’’ is ‘‘gumnotes’’ from which we get our word ‘‘gymnasium.’’ This also partly accounts for the high rate of homosexuality in the Greek and Roman world.
Sorry Dr. Ward, but when God found His first two creatures in sin, He clothed them because public nakedness is an exemplification of man’s sinfulness before God. The degree to which a nation is unclothed is an barometer of their standing before a holy God. The Judeo-Christian ethic turned heathen to saints and nakedness to decency. If Christians in the first century, the seventeenth century or today choose to undress because everyone else has, nakedness will still be wrong. Our ethic doesn’t come from the societal norm. It comes from an unchanging and holy God.