|The Adoration of the Shepherds|
Gerrit van Honthorst, 1622
As the Christmas season approached this year, I began to think about an aspect of the birth of Jesus that’s often glossed over: the practical realities Mary would have encountered in giving births. As a mother and a student of history, I’ve never bought into one common narrative—that she and Joseph faced this experience alone. That would mean that Joseph, a Jewish man who faithfully observed the laws and rituals of Judaism, would have had to help Mary through her labor and delivery—unthinkable in any culture of that day, and rendering him unclean according to Jewish law. Men would never violate these cultural norms except possibly in an urgent situation when no women were available. For one thing, they didn’t have the knowledge and practical skills. And every community, including Bethlehem, would have had at least one midwife as well as other women who had experience with labor and delivery.
Biblical accounts are skimpy on the details, but midwifery in Judaism would have looked essentially the same as that in the surrounding society, with the exception of specific religious precepts. And a midwife would certainly have been summoned so that everything related to the birth could be handled according to Jewish law. So what would the birth of Jesus actually have looked like?
Although the Bible is skimpy on the details, the Old Testament does depict women as being supported by midwives or other women during childbirth. Midwives, skilled practitioners of their profession, were significant figures in ancient society who provided comfort, pain relief, and encouragement to the laboring woman. They performed rituals and prayers to protect her and her baby, used their expertise to deal with any complications that might arise, delivered the baby and the afterbirth, and supervised the mother and baby’s aftercare. Joseph would definitely have been excluded, nor would he have protested. Giving birth was the province of women, and men were happy to absent themselves.
A suitable person ... must be literate in order to be able to comprehend the art through theory too: she must have her wits about her so that she may easily follow what is said and what is happening: she must have a good memory to retain the imparted instructions … She must love work in order to persevere through all vicissitudes … She must be respectable since people will have to trust their household and the secrets of their lives to her and because to women of bad character the semblance of medical instruction is a cover for evil scheming. She must not be handicapped as regards her senses since there are things which she must see, answers which she must hear when questioning, and objects which she must grasp by her sense of touch. She needs sound limbs so as not to be handicapped in the performances of her work and she must be robust, for she takes a double task upon herself during the hardship of her professional visits. Long and slim fingers and short nails are necessary to touch a deep lying inflammation without causing too much pain…. She will have a quiet disposition, for she will have to share many secrets of life. She must not be greedy for money, lest she give an abortive wickedly for payment; she will be free from superstition so as not to overlook salutary measures on account of a dream or omen or some customary rite or vulgar superstition.
|Woman giving birth on a birthing chair|
The most common position for childbirth was squatting, kneeling, or seated in a birthing chair, which had a u-shaped opening in the seat and supports for the woman’s feet and back. Soranus advised that if possible a midwife should provide a birthing chair, but that when one was not available, the woman should sit on the laps of two women for support. There is historical evidence that in some cultures a hole was dug for the woman to squat over while standing on brightly painted birth bricks. Women did not give birth while lying on their backs until male doctors began to displace midwives in the 19th century.
|Painted Egyptian birthing brick discovered in 2001|
c. 1750-1700 BCE
What do you think about these practices? Might some be better for mothers and babies than the standard procedures in place today? Please share your thoughts and experiences!
~~~J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is a professional editor, a publisher, and the author of award-winning historical fiction whose books have been endorsed by bestselling authors such as Lori Benton, Laura Frantz, and Jocelyn Green. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. She is also the author of One Holy Night, the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year, and co-authored the award-winning Northkill Amish Series with Bob Hostetler.