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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Paul's Prenatal Pains

"These are the beginning of birth pains."

That phrase from Mark 13:8 gave a table of men in Mozambique quite a few pains. But our suffering was turned to delight as anguished study gave birth to a new reading of Jesus' dark prophecy about the end times. Instead of "birth pangs" the Nyungwe translators had used a word meaning, "beginning of a major crisis." The consultant, Hessel, thought it should say "birth pains." I turned to the handy dandy "Biblical Analysis & Research Tool" known affectionately as BART, and looked for every occurrence of the word ὠδίν, birth pains.

ὠδίν and ὠδίνω, "birth pains" in the New Testament

(Let me know if I've omitted any occurrences. All Scripture NIV unless noted)

  • Matt 24:8: All these are the beginning of birth pains.
  • Mar 13:8: These are the beginning of birth pains.
  • Act 2:24: But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
  • Gal 4:19: My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,
  • Gal 4:27: For it is written:
    “Be glad, O barren woman,
    who bears no children;
    break forth and cry aloud,
    you who have no labor pains"
  • 1 Thes 5:3:  While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
  • Rev 12:2: She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.

Clearly this word refers to labor pains. But the question is, "Do we need to translate it like that?"  My two favorite idiomatic translations don't have any pains:

  • NLT: But all this will be only the beginning of the horrors to come.
  • CEV: But this is just the beginning of troubles.

Old Testament Birth Pains

As a naughty little boy in Sunday school, one of my favorite Old Testament verses was this one:

"We were with child, we writhed, but we gave birth only to wind." (Is. 26:18, NRSV)

I'll leave an analysis of this and Isaiah 54:1 to those of you who are studying Hebrew.

After Hessel had made his case, we were all convinced that it was a good option. But then his face lit up like he'd just had a vision of the heavens and he said, "I never noticed that before. The reason that they are birth pains is that they are a temporary difficulty that results in something good." And I added, "Of course! The birth pains result in the coming of the Son of Man." Hessel wasn't quite so crazy about that idea and threatened to report me to my director if I blogged about it. But, think about it. Labor leading to a child. And that motif comes up again in Galatians 4:19, only this time it is Paul who is pregnant with the Christ who is being "formed" in the Galatians. The idea pops out one more time in Revelation 12:2, where the woman gives birth to a child who would destroy the dragon.

That one little word turns out to be hugely thematic for the entire Gospel of Mark. Mark is the Gospel of the Son of Man, or as they say in Nyungwe, the child of a person. (There is no grammatical gender in Bantu languages that differentiates between male and female.) The whole book depicts Jesus as a model for suffering Christians in Rome. The narrative is pregnant with meaning as believers hear Jesus promise in Mark 13 that they will suffer terrible tribulation and then that their Savior is coming: "the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory."

These were some of the words available in the Nyungwe dictionary that describe labor:

-bvulumukidwa vt. to begin the pains of childbirth, to be fearful or apprehensive.
bzwade adj. she who gave birth.
kubala n. delivery, the act of giving birth, parturition.
kubereka n. the act of giving birth, delivery a child.
nyakhulukutu n. pain of the uterus that some women feel after the birth of a baby.
ubzwade n. the quality of being in labor, ready to give birth, the state of she who is giving birth in a short time.
ukidwa vt. to begin the pains of childbirth, to be fearful or apprehensive.

The translators chose the first one.

Psalm 51 doesn't mention birth pains but it does talk about birth.


At Thu May 22, 02:28:00 PM, Blogger Paul Larson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At Thu May 22, 03:05:00 PM, Blogger dru said...

Great example. Thanks. I'm with Hessel on this one, even before he had his moment of revelation.

This is why I'd say that unless a metaphor really cannot transpose at all, unless it is simply mystifying - rather than just unfamiliar or a bit ungainly - it's best to try and keep it.

After all every culture knows what labour is. It isn't like snow or a hyrax.

Rather surprisingly, the AV for Mark 13:8 does not transpose the metaphor, though an AV with marginal notes will refer to the more literal translation. Most of the modern translations, I think do transpose it.

For Is 26:18, the REB has

"We have been with child, we have been in labour, but have given birth to wind", which I prefer to 'writhed' particular with all the references to childbirth in the previous verse.


At Thu May 22, 03:46:00 PM, Blogger Naomisu Onamy said...

My first reaction, especially with all Suzanne writes about Christians attitudes to women, was, "a table of MEN!"

Then I liked the different words for childbirth that were available in the Nyungwe language. I have been in labour twice - boy and girl (and yes it is 'hard work') and with the woman in John 16:21 I rejoiced that a 'man' (= anthropos) was born into the world. Before I learnt Greek, I used to wonder why 'man' was used in the older English versions. Was there no joy for a girl? So some versions including the RSV substitute the words 'child' or 'baby' but I am a literalist and wondered why anthropos. I wonder if it is because of the potential and the hopes. Not just thoughts of the baby but of the adult it will become and the hopes that it will live to a natural end of life (no fatal accidents or attacks, no awful illnesses etc.).

The more that a woman knows of the complications of labour, the more there may apprehension. I decided I was going to read a friend's nursing manual on pregnancy but after opening it to a page about twin birth complications, I decided to leave my trust in God and not in complete 'scientific knowledge' of what I was to go through.

My suggestion is for the men to ask their wives (if they are married) what their choice of word is.

At Thu May 22, 03:58:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Let us know what your director says when you are reported to him. If he doesn't say "Well done!", he doesn't know what a good linguist/translator he has, or had until he assigned you to other duties.

At Thu May 22, 04:09:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Thanks for mentionning John 16:21. I find the ESV has the best translation here using "human being" for anthropos. It could also be that a "person" was born into the world. There is no particular connotation of "adult" with anthropos. Aner specifically is used to denote adulthood, but anthropos means "human."

At Thu May 22, 06:33:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Great post. Since you're including Mark's and Matthew's Greek translation of Jesus (and since Naomisu includes John's), I think it's fair to look at the earlier Greek translation of the Hebrew (i.e., the extant LXX). I count around 34 more uses in 16 different "Books" such as Exodus, 15:14).

Don't you think David should also look at λύπη as John's synonym of Mark's and Matthew's ὠδίν?

Richmond Lattimore also has "human being" in John 16:21.

At Thu May 22, 06:45:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I don't have a copy of Lattimore. I'll try to get it out of the library again sometime.

At Thu May 22, 08:55:00 PM, Blogger David Ker said...

The phrase mwana wa munthu in Nyungwe is definitely "human child." Boy is mwana mwamuna and girl is mwana mwamkazi. So a Nyungwe speaker doesn't perceive "Son of a man" but rather "human child" for that term. The phrase mwana wa Mulungu is "child of God" but is also used idiomatically for any live creature (including a very bright red bug) especially small ones. Also the insane are sometimes called "children of God." Finally, the phrase is used for a stillborn child.

I often thought that the centurion's words in Mark 15:39 could be misinterpreted as, "Surely this man is crazy!"

At Thu May 22, 08:59:00 PM, Blogger David Ker said...

Dru, you wrote, "Unless it is simply mystifying..."

That is part of what interested me in this example. Unless you have a really wide understanding of the Bible and the Danielic Son of Man scene this will be completely mystifying. I wouldn't be adverse something like what CEV and NLT uses as long as there is a footnote "Lit. labor pains" that at least ties it (hopefully with cross references) to the appropriate passages.

At Thu May 22, 09:39:00 PM, Blogger Naomisu Onamy said...

J. K. (it's Kurk isn't it?)

I looked up λύπη in LSJ (electronic editions of great Biblical Studies books are better than new clothes - op shops rule!!). It's basic meaning (for me this is any word's literal meaning)is 'physical pain' - presumably different to mental or emotional or spiritual (is that possible?) pain as in, for example, anguish. Physical pain certainly describes what normally happens in a natural childbirth (no pain killers - eyes shut tight and mouth in a grimace) but I personally know of two women who never felt any pain in all their childbirths. Amazing!! But I never thought to ask them if they still had to work at pushing the baby out which is what the 'labour' is all about. So childbirth ὠδίν and pain λύπη don't always go together - unless ὠδίν refers to the cries (songs?) of childbirth. Here in the antipodes, we don't encourage screaming during labour as some of the European migrant women in my time (30 years ago) were encouraged to do by their mothers - uses the same muscles needed to push the baby out. I sometimes think we need to know a lot more about other non-European based cultures and more from the past about 'every day life' so that we can understand what something like 'childbirth' signifies in all it's fulness.

At Fri May 23, 12:08:00 AM, Blogger dru said...

David, I agree that vv 6-8a might be a bit mystifying if one hasn't read Daniel etc, but the textual meaning rather than the underlying resonances is fairly clear. What I'm saying is that the final sentence about 'birthpangs' is textually easy for people to understand wherever they are in the world. The metaphor is universal to human experience, and even more universal to half of it.

As such, it transposes, and indeed helps towards understanding the message of the previous sentences. Therefore in my view it should not be paraphrased out.


At Fri May 23, 03:56:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Yes, Naomisu; please call me Kurk as all my friends do.

As I read the ancients, seems there are these synonyms for pain (not just for the specific context of childbirth). For example, Aristotle uses ὠδίν rather generically (in his Eudemian Ethics):

"Again we shall reckon it affection to grieve with one who grieves not for some ulterior motive—as for instance slaves in relation to their masters share their grief because when in grief they are harsh, and not for their masters' own sake, as mothers grieve with their children, and birds that share each other's pain. For a friend wishes most of all that he might not only feel pain when his friend is in pain but feel actually the same pain—for example when he is thirsty, share his thirst—if this were possible, and if not, as nearly the same as may be. The same principle applies also in the case of joy; it is characteristic of a friend to rejoice for no other reason than because the other is rejoicing. Again there are sayings about friendship such as 'Amity is equality' and 'True friends have one spirit.'"

"ἔτι τὸ ἀλγοῦντι συναλγεῖν μὴ δι’ ἕτερόν τι ἀγαπᾶν θήσομεν—οἷον οἱ δοῦλοι πρὸς τοὺς δεσπότας, ὅτι χαλεποὶ ἀλγοῦντες, ἀλλ’ οὐ δι’ αὐτούς, ὥσπερ αἱ μητέρες τοῖς τέκνοις καὶ οἱ συνωδίνοντες ὄρνιθες. βούλεται γὰρ μάλιστά γε οὐ μόνον συλλυπεῖσθαι ὁ φίλος τῷ φίλῳ, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὴν αὐτὴν λύπην, οἷον διψῶντι συνδιψῆν, εἰ ἐνεδέχετο, ὅτι μὴ ἐγγύτατα. ὁ δ’ αὐτὸς λόγος καὶ ἐπὶ τοῦ χαίρειν· τὸ γὰρ χαίρειν μὴ δι’ ἕτερόν τι, ἀλλὰ δι’ ἐκεῖνον, ὅτι χαίρει, φιλικόν. ἔτι τὰ τοιάδε λέγεται περὶ τῆς φιλίας, ὡς ἰσότης φιλότης,"

But Aristotle has much much much to say about childbirth and about pain in that specific context. Here are a couple of examples from The History of Animals in which he seems to claim to know this stuff better than you mothers (and our mothers) do:

"As a general rule, a man-child is more prone to movement within its mother's womb than a female child, and it is usually born sooner. And labour in the case of female children is apt to be protracted and sluggish, while in the case of male children it is acute and by a long way more difficult. Women who have connexion with their husbands shortly before childbirth are delivered all the more quickly. Occasionally women seem to be in the pains of labour though labour has not in fact commenced, what seemed like the commencement of labour being really the result of the foetus turning its head."


"As a general rule women who are pregnant of a male child escape comparatively easily and retain a comparatively healthy look, but it is otherwise with those whose infant is a female; for these latter look as a rule paler and suffer more pain, and in many cases they are subject to swellings of the legs and eruptions on the body. Nevertheless the rule is subject to exceptions."

At Fri May 23, 04:03:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

I'm disappointed that Willis Barnstone, in John 16:21, has "a child" and not a "human being." And in that he departs from Lattimore, of whom he says: "The Bible in our time. . . finds in Richmond Lattimore its most effective translator."

At Fri May 23, 04:09:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

oops! I inadvertently cut Aristotle's Greek short here (when providing more in English above). It should have continued:

καὶ μὴ μίαν ψυχὴν εἶναι τοὺς ἀληθῶς φίλους. ἅπαντα ταῦτα ἐπαναφέρεται πρὸς τὸν ἕνα.

But what do we think about Aristotle's biology (on the general case that male babies are less painful even during pregnancy and delivery?!!!)?

At Fri May 23, 07:47:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

But maybe the Greek anthropos was not intended to be marked or unusual. Maybe human being draws too much attention to the term in English. I can see an argument for either "human being" or "child."

At Fri May 23, 08:35:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

an argument for either "human being" or "child."

I wouldn't argue with Barnstone either. But Lattimore, seems to me, is much more after the Greekish senses while Barnstone after showing how the traditional English Bibles have whitewashed the Hebrew senses in the gospels and in Revelation. So, with Lattimore, there's sensitivity to the Greek distinctions between beings: human ones (anthropos) and divine (theos) in heaven and on earth. That's not to say there are Aristotelian distinctions between them in Sappho, Hesiod, Pindar, Homer, Gorgias, Isocrates, and the like. But when a god becomes a human or vice versa, that's really something. (Which is different from a child born to either a god or a human).

At Sun May 25, 01:08:00 AM, Blogger michael said...

To change the metaphor of "birth pangs" in certain contexts to something else is to remove the biblical statement being made from one of its contexts. That is because KHEVLEI-HA-MASHIAKH ("birth pangs of the Messiah), or even KEVELIM ("birth pangs") had gained a technical usage in 2nd temple Judaism (E.g. b.Sanh. 98b; Shabbat 118a; 1QH 3:7-10). The smoother, or more natural in the receptor language we make what the Jewish NT writers wrote, or the Jewish characters said, the more chance we have of the readers losing that important Jewish connection and context. This becomes a balancing act between faithfulness and naturalness, I know, but we should be more aware that we are often producing versions that less and less reflect their ancient Jewish context(s).

At Sun May 25, 01:01:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

On anthropos, seems that Willis Barnstone gets it better in English than anyone else I've read in one passage. It's Matthew 16 (which my pastor preached on this morning).

the question in v13:
τίνα λέγουσιν οἱ ἄνθρωποι εἶναι τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου

the answer in v16:
σὺ εἶ ὁ Χριστὸς ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ζῶντος

Now here's Barnstone (with the human / god contrast and the heaven / earth-as-adamish contrast) vv13 - 16:

13 When Yeshua came into the region of Ceasarea Fillipi, he questioned his students,

Who do the people say is the earthly son?

14 The said to him, “Some say Yohanan the Dipper, some Eliyah, and others say Yirmiyah or one of the prophets.”

15 He said to them,

But you, who do you say I am?

16 Kefa, called Shimon Kefa, “You are the mashiah, the anointed, the son of the living God.


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