Treponema pallidum, the syphilis spirochaete, has a remarkable ability to evade the humoral and cellular responses it elicits in infected hosts. Although formerly attributed to the presence of an outer coat comprised of serum proteins and/or mucopolysaccharides, current evidence indicates that the immuno-evasiveness of this bacterium is largely the result of its unusual molecular architecture. Based upon a combination of molecular, biochemical, and ultrastructural data, it is now believed that the T. pallidum outer membrane (OM) contains a paucity of poorly immunogenic transmembrane proteins ('rare outer membrane proteins') and that its highly immunogenic proteins are lipoproteins anchored predominantly to the periplasmic leaflet of the cytoplasmic membrane. The presence in the T. pallidum OM of a limited number of transmembrane proteins has profound implications for understanding syphilis pathogenesis as well as treponemal physiology. Two major strategies for molecular characterization of rare outer membrane proteins have evolved. The first involves the identification of candidate OM proteins as fusions with Escherichia coli alkaline phosphatase. The second involves the characterization of candidate OM proteins identified in outer membranes isolated from virulent T. pallidum. Criteria to define candidate OM proteins and for definitive identification of rare OM proteins are proposed as a guide for future studies.