What did Jewish Priests Wear?

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By: Joan E. Taylor

In antiquity, as today, ritual experts of various kinds were distinguished by dress that marked them off as engaged in sacred duties. In ancient Rome a priest of the imperial cult, the flamen, wore flame-coloured clothing with a remarkable apex-pointed skullcap. The Roman Catholic clerical collar, the Eastern Christian cassock, and the robes of Buddhist monks all serve the same functions today.

But when we consider what the priests wore in the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem, we have no clear pictorial representations, because most Jews through to the second century understood the biblical prohibitions on images (Exodus 20:3–6; Leviticus 26:1; Numbers 33:52; Deuteronomy 4:16; 27:15) to mean that there should be no image of humans.What we have, instead, are descriptions, and on the basis of these descriptions we have to imagine what priests (kohanim) wore, using analogies, insofar as these might be useful.

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Ara Pacis relief in Rome showing Roman priests wearing flamen head gear.

Descriptions of priestly dress are found in Exodus 28–29; Leviticus 6:10; 16:4, and Ezekiel 44:17–20. In Exodus 28, there is a description of the sacred vestments required for the High Priest Aaron, after which there is a summary of the clothing of Aaron’s sons, the ordinary priests:

40 For Aaron’s sons you shall make tunics (kuttonot) and sashes (avnētim) and items of headgear (migba`ot); you shall make them for their fine adornment.

41 You shall put them on Aaron your brother, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and lay hands on them and consecrate them, so that they may be priests for me.

42 You shall make for them linen pants (miknese-bad) to cover their naked flesh; they shall be from the hips to the thighs; …

43 Aaron and his sons shall wear them when they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister in the holy place; and they will not bring built and die. This shall be everlasting for him and for his descendants after him.

This provides us with a number of distinctive items of dress, with Hebrew terms: (1) a tunic, a ketōnet, (2) a sash or girdle, avnēt, (3) linen pants, miknese-bad, and (4) an item of headgear, migb`ah, which is called a pe`er in Ezek. 44:18. These items were only worn by priests when doing their duties in the Temple.

Parthian prisoner on chains, circa 200 CE. Arch of Septimus Severus, Rome.

Parthian prisoner in chains, circa 200 CE. Arch of Septimus Severus, Rome.

But what were these exactly? Did priestly fashion change over time? Helpfully, in the third — second century BCE the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, the Septuagint (LXX), and analogous Greek words were found.The ketōnet is defined as a chitōn (Gk.), which for a man would normally be a short tunic. The ‘avnēt is a zōnē (Gk.), which is anything you tie around the body like a girdle, sash or belt. The linen breeches/pants are periskelēlina; periskelē generally refers to Persian breeches, and in Greek a kidaris is a type of flat Persian turban (see Herodotus, Hist. 8:120).

Thus, the Septuagint’s Greek words link priestly dress with Persian attire. Persians – and in due course the Parthians of northeast Iran – were known to wear pants and waist-tied tunics, with capes clasped with a brooch, along with floppy ‘Phrygian’ caps, as can be seen in the Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome.

So what the Septuagint indicates is that priestly dress was quite Persian/Parthian-looking. Importantly, Josephus – himself a priest – described in detail what he knew priests to wear in his own day. In a passage that is not always well-translated (Antiquities 3:151–58) he tells of how the priest’s feet are put through a linen girdle, diazōma, ‘as into pants/breeches (anaxurides)’. The lower parts are bound to the bottom of the thighs, around the knees. Herodotus also uses the word anaxurides to refer to the trousers of Persians or Parthians (Hist. 5:49; 7:61).

Coin of the Parthian king Mithradates II (123-88 B.C.)

Coin of the Parthian king Mithradates II (123–88 B.C.)

Josephus describes the headgear as a pilos, a helmet, though this is a word often used for felted cloth. The combination of a helmet of felted cloth and a coronet does not correspond to anything worn in the Graeco-Roman world: it parallels the tiara of Parthian rulers like Mithridates II or Mithridates III, headgear which developed out of a Persian kyrbasía felt or leather bonnet, worn with a diadem or two.

It is usually assumed that the Romans simply depicted the Judaean here as a Parthian, as a kind of one-size-fits-all ‘conquered rebel’ type. Clearly, the figure looks like a subjugated (enslaved) Parthian as found in the statues of the public Gardens of Sallust. If in Greek texts Jewish priestly attire is presented as being rather Persian or Parthian in appearance, this might also explain a puzzling image on Roman coins commemorating victory over the Judaean revolt. The coin type has Titus on the obverse and a Judaean kneeling under a Roman trophy on the reverse.

Roman coin depicting Titus, c. 79. The reverse commemorates his triumph in the Judaean wars, representing a captive kneeling in front of a trophy of arms.

Roman coin depicting Titus, ca. 79. The reverse commemorates his triumph in the Judaean wars, representing a captive kneeling in front of a trophy of arms.

However, while the man on the coin is bearded (another way to signify his being a type of Barbarian) and wears pants, there is no distinctively Phrygian cap, and the man’s upper torso appears to be naked. But a Parthian’s garment was tied at the waist and wide, relative to the standard tunic of the Graeco-Roman world, making it appear as a ‘dress’. He is therefore not quite a Parthian. In fact, viewers are supposed to ‘get’ that this man on the coin is a Judaean, when there is no date palm (symbol of Judaea) to identify him, or the words IUDAEA CAPTA (for the literate), as we find on other coinage.

'Judea Capta' coin minted by Vespasian, celebrating victory over the Jewish Revolt.

‘Judea Capta’ coin minted by Vespasian, celebrating victory over the Jewish Revolt.

The question is: How is he then recognisably a Judaean? The Romans had standard ethnic stereotypes in their iconography, in the same way as a cartoon today will portray a Scotsman in tartan kilt, or a Frenchman with a beret.Yet here people had to recognize that the man represented is not a Parthian, but rather a Judaean, or else the propagandistic message would be lost.

There was no great victory over Parthians during the Flavian dynasty to which Titus belonged. Rome was at peace with the Parthians and would not show them humiliated: the Parthian king Vologeses even offered Titus a golden crown (stephanos) of victory for his quashing of the Judaean revolt. What the Romans were representing on the coin is someone who was Parthian-like, but not Parthian.

Kneeling Barbarian, wearing Phrygian cap and Eastern dress, Naples National Archaeological Museum.

Kneeling Barbarian, wearing Phrygian cap and Eastern dress, Naples National Archaeological Museum.

The trouble is that in general Jews (Judaeans) just looked like everyone else. As Shaye Cohen has noted, there is not a single comment in the whole of Graeco-Roman literature that describes any specifics of Jewish appearance (apart from male circumcision, which could not, as a rule, be seen). Jews were not even identifiable in terms of male beardedness.Cohen points to certain rulers who wanted Jews to wear distinctive clothing to mark them out as different when they were otherwise indistinguishable. Textiles found in Masada and the Judaean desert caves indeed indicate that Jews wore exactly the same garments as elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. And there is not a single example of Parthian-like pants.

In my view,the coin image defines the kneeling figure by the one distinctive type of dress Judaeans had: their ‘Parthian-like’ priestly dress. This was revealed to Romans because there had recently been a Judaean ‘fashion show’ in Rome; Josephus describes how in the Roman triumph procession in 71 CE there were captives dressed in diverse garments (War 7:138):

Besides these, you could not help but see that the throng of captives was not unadorned, but the variety of the garments, and the beauty of these, hid from sight the suffering of their bodies.

Since the clothing of priests is described by Josephus as beautiful and was the most exotic Judaean dress a Roman would see, captured priests in their distinctive attire were surely on display, alongside the looted holy artefacts of the Temple as depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome.

Therefore, the coin, with its ‘Parthian-like’ Judaean subject, aimed to show the Jewish priesthood itself subjugated to Rome. The Judaean wears miknese-bad, breeches. The avnēt (wound sash) is portrayed as a kind of scarf, undone and hanging down the back, tied at the end. The ketōnet (chiton) is not shown, perhaps so that the distinctive breeches can be emphasized, but a priest without his chiton would be one partially stripped and thus humiliated. He seems to have something around his head, thus the distinctive migb`ah, not a Phyrgian cap. A shamed and bound Jewish priest of the destroyed Temple, bowing his knee to the Roman trophy, would then serve aptly as imperial Roman propaganda, matching the Arch of Titus.

Arch of Titus.

Arch of Titus.

Lastly, I mention a curious mystery about Titus and the Temple. According to Josephus, Titus ordered his soldiers not to destroy the Temple, but they did it anyway (War 6:220–270). However, according to a lost history of Tacitus (Hist. Frag. 2), summarized by Sulpicius Severus, while some advised Titus not to, Titus himself ordered the Temple’s destruction, since he wished to strike a huge blow against Jewish religion.The coin itself, depicting a humiliated and bound Jewish priest subjugated below a Roman trophy, might well be called as evidence of Titus’s animus..

Joan Taylor is Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London. 

For further reading

G. Azarpay, “Crowns and Some Royal Insignia in Early Iran,” Iranica Antiqua 9, 1972, pp. 108-15, and see also http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/crown-ii

Richard A. Gergel, “Costume as Geographic Indicator: Barbarians and Prisoners on Cuirassed Statue Breastplates,” in The World of Roman Costume, ed.Judith L. Sebesta and Larissa Bonfante  (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001).

Shaye J. D. Cohen, ‘Those Who Say They Are Jews and Are Not: How Do You Know a Jew in Antiquity When You See One?’ in Shaye J. D. Cohen and Ernest S. Frerichs (eds), Diasporas in Antiquity (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1993), pp. 1-46, at p. 6, reprinted in Shaye Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 25-68 at p.33.

Joan E. Taylor, ‘Imagining Judean Priestly Dress: the Berne Josephus and Judea Capta Coinage,’ in Dressing Jews and Christians in Antiquity, ed. Carly Daniel-Hughes, Alicia Batten and Kristi Upson-Saia (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), 195-212.

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