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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Undressed Cloth

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1. Ingredients in dressing.—The principal cleansing agents were two kinds of crude alkali salt.—(a) Mineral. This consisted of the natural deposits, chiefly in Egypt, of potassium or sodium carbonates. It was the Heb. nether, Arab, natrún, Authorized and Revised Versions (incorrectly) ‘nitre,’ Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ‘lye’ (Jeremiah 2:22). White clay was also used, chiefly as a detergent or scrubbing agent.—(b) Vegetable. This was obtained chiefly from the soap plant called in Arabic ishnûn, growing on the desert plains of Syria. When burnt, it yields a crude substance named kali in Arabic, corresponding to the Heb. borith, ‘soap’ (Malachi 3:2).

2. Process of dressing.—(a) For cotton and linen. The cleansing of these was carried out after the cloth had been woven. The present custom in Syria is to dip the cloth in water, and lay it out on a flat surface of rock. It is then sprinkled with natrûn (lye) or kali (soap), and beaten with rods or clubs, and is finally rinsed in fresh water and spread out under the sun to dry.

(b) For wool. On account of the presence of natural oil and many accretions and impurities in the fleece, the cleansing had to be done before the cloth was woven. For this the chief ingredient was urine collected and kept till it formed ammonium carbonate during putrefaction. Because of the offensive odours of such cleansing agents, as well as on account of the free space needed for drying purposes, the fullers’ establishments were placed near or outside the city walls. The wool was further purified in several changes of water containing the lye or soap already mentioned, and was finally rinsed in running water.

(c) For silk. This also had to be treated before being woven, in order to remove from the thread the gluey substance called sericin (fr. σηρικόν, Revelation 18:12), which not only gave off an offensive odour, but, if allowed to remain, would make the cloth hard and lustreless. To remove this, the silk fibre had to be kept for several hours in a bath of hot water containing soap made of olive oil and alkali salt. This process tested the skill of the fuller; for if the soaking were insufficient, some of the sericin still adhered to the silk fibre, and if prolonged beyond a certain point it imparted an indelible yellow stain. The raw silk was then transferred for a short time to a bath of water in which dog or pigeon dung had been mixed, and, as in the case of the other materials, the last stage was a thorough washing in pure water.

The eye-witnesses of our Lord’s majesty in the Mount (Mark 9:2-8) testified that on that occasion the white radiance of His garments was beyond the art of any fuller on earth.

3. Christ’s parabolic use of undressed cloth.—In Matthew 9:16, Mark 2:21 Christ, in reply to the question of the disciples of John the Baptist as to why His disciples did not fast, employs the figure of a piece of undressed cloth (ῥάκος ἄγναφον) sewed on an old garment, to show the incongruity between fasting according to rule and the new spirit of Christianity, ῥάκος (fr. ῥήγνυμι ‘to break’) is properly a piece of cloth torn off, cf. English ‘rag’; ἄγναφος (fr. α privative and γνάπτω, ‘to full or dress cloth’ [whence γναφεύς, ‘a fuller,’ Mark 9:3]) = ‘unfulled,’ ‘undressed.’ Neither of the Gr. words occurs elsewhere in NT. In the parallel passage Luke 5:36, where, however, a somewhat different turn is given to the saying, ἱμάτιον καινόν (‘new garment’) occurs instead of ῥάκος ἄγναφον. By the rendering ‘undressed cloth’ Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 brings out the point of the original, which is quite lost in the colourless ‘new cloth’ of Authorized Version , though suggested by the ‘raw or unwrought’ of AVm [Note: Vm Authorized Version margin.] . A piece of cloth that is undressed or unfulled is certain to shrink with a wetting, and so to strain and tear away the old garment to which it is sewed. Thus, as Christ said, it ‘taketh from the garment, and a worse rent is made.’ For the religious significance of the saying see esp. Bruce, Parabolic Teaching of Christ, p. 302 ff. Cf. also artt. Bottle in vol. i., and Law, above, p. 12b.

G. M. Mackie and J. C. Lambert.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Undressed Cloth'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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