Uncovering Modesty: Finding “Modest” in the Bible (Part 1)

Uncovering Modesty - Finding Modesty in the Bible

Studying modesty in the Bible

The topic of modesty in the Bible has so many facets that I felt a bit overwhelmed when deciding where to begin my study. Then I laughed and told myself, “Hey! You’re studying modesty. Why not start with that word?” Strong’s Concordance informed me that “modesty” is not used in the Bible, but “modest” is. So that is where I started. The word modest is found only once.

I Timothy 2:9In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;

There you have it. Women are to wear modest apparel. Modesty is for women only and is talking about clothing.

Case closed. C’est fini. The end. Right?

Well, hold your horses for a moment. Yes, that’s what I’ve heard over and over. But what I’ve heard is exactly what I am no longer trusting so let’s dig deeper and see what we find.

What does the word modest mean?

The following definition of the word modest (OxfordDictionaries.com) describes how I’ve heard it used and preached:

3. (Of a woman) dressing or behaving so as to avoid impropriety or indecency, especially to avoid attracting sexual attention.

3.1 (Of clothing) not revealing or emphasizing the figure

Language changes over time, and the KJV was translated in 1611. How can I be sure that a modern definition matches the definition the translators had in mind? Let’s take a look at Webster’s Dictionary 1828. I know that this dictionary is more than 200 years younger than the KJV, but it is the oldest one at my disposal.

Here’s how Webster defines the word modest.

MOD’ESTadjective [Latin modestus, from modus, a limit.]

1. Properly, restrained by a sense of propriety; hence, not forward or bold; not presumptuous or arrogant; not boastful; as a modest youth; a modest man.

2. Not bold or forward; as a modest maid. The word may be thus used without reference to chastity.

The blushing beauties of a modest maid.

3. Not loose; not lewd.

Mrs. Ford, the honest woman, the modest wife.

4. Moderate; not excessive or extreme; not extravagant; as a modest request; modest joy; a modest computation.

Interesting! These definitions do not include the modern definitions I’ve shared. The focus is not on clothing or a specific gender. Instead, the definitions talk about limits, appropriateness, attitudes, and actions. Our search is not yet done, however. The Bible was not originally written in English. I want to find out more about the word that was translated as “modest” in I Timothy 2:9.

 The Greek word translated here as modest is kosmios (ko’-smē-os).

Vine’s Expository Dictionary provides the following definition.

“orderly, well-arranged, decent, modest” (akin to kosmos, in its primary sense as “harmonious arrangement, adornment;” cp. kosmikos, of the world, which is related to kosmos in its secondary sense as the world),

is used in 1Timothy 2:9 of the apparel with which Christian women are to adorn themselves;

in 1Timothy 3:2 (RV, “orderly;” AV, “of good behavior”), of one of the qualifications essential for a bishop or overseer.

“The well-ordering is not of dress and demeanor only, but of the inner life, uttering indeed and expressing itself in the outward conversation” (Trench, Syn., xcii). In the Sept. [Old Testament], Ecclesiastes 12:9.

 I love what a bit of digging turned up. Yes, the word modest appears only once in the Bible. Yes, the verse in which it appears is addressed to women and talks about clothing. However, the Greek word translated as modest is also used elsewhere to speak to men about behavior, and a verse in the Old Testament also talks about setting in order proverbs.

Here are my thoughts about this part of the study.

  1. The English language has changed over time. What I’ve heard given as the primary, if not the only, definition of the word modest was not part of the definition Webster gave in 1828. This illustrates the necessity of realizing that understanding and using a Biblical word according to its current definition can change the meaning of a passage from what the translators intended and can lead to extra-Biblical teachings and doctrine.
  2. Look beyond the obvious. The Bible was not written in English. It was translated into English. A word or phrase may be translated multiple ways. Looking strictly at the English translation can mean missing important connections, such as verses that used the same word when originally written but that use different words in our English translation. If I had looked solely at the word “modest” in the KJV, I would have missed that the same word is used when speaking to men and when speaking about topics other than dress.
  3. Modesty is not just a clothing or gender issue. Based upon the definitions and roots I’ve examined, although the word modest is used in the KJV only to refer to women and their clothing, research shows that modesty is not limited to women or to the tightness or amount of skin revealed by their clothing. Modesty is not just about the length of hems and sleeves or the height of necklines. Modesty also deals with both men’s and women’s motives, speech, attitudes, and actions. Modesty includes factors such as appropriateness, orderliness, temperance (i.e. not going to extremes; moderate).

Come back next week for Finding “Modest” in the Bible (Part 2).
I’ll be looking at Biblical and historical context for I Timothy 2:9.

If you intend to follow along and don’t want to miss any part in this series, scroll to the top of the sidebar on the right and subscribe to receive blog posts by email. Links to all published parts of this series can be found at the Uncovering Modesty index page.


  1. I like what I see so far! I am curious to see what you reveal next.

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