Thursday, December 26, 2019

Childbirth in Jesus' Time

By J. M. Hochstetler

The Adoration of the Shepherds
Gerrit van Honthorst, 1622
Merry Christmas! I hope everyone had an especially blessed holiday.

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.

In the 2nd century AD Soranus of Ephesus, a Greek physician who practiced in Alexandria and Rome and was one of the chief representatives of the Methodic school of medicine, described the qualifications and practices of a midwife in his book Gynaecology:

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
Roman era
His list of the things that a midwife should provide for a woman in labor included clean olive oil for lubrication; warm water for cleansing; warm fomentations (ointments) to alleviate pain; soft sea sponges for washing the body; clean cloth to cover the woman’s parts and to swaddle the newborn; a pillow to lay in front of the woman, where the baby could be placed until the afterbirth was delivered; good things to smell as needed to revive the laboring woman; two beds, one hard for use during labor and one soft for her to rest on after delivery.

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
As soon as a baby was born, it was washed in salt water or wine, which have antiseptic properties, and rubbed with olive oil to soothe its skin. It was then wrapped snugly, but not tightly, in linen strips with the arms and legs straight as an aid to developing strong, straight limbs. Luke’s gospel records that Mary wrapped her newborn baby son in such bands of cloth. There were no such things as diapers. Instead the baby was kept close to the mother at all times, and its excretions were caught in a small clay pot that she carried with her for that purpose. Mothers quickly learned to read the signs that their baby was about to defecate, and since the infant virtually never left her side, this was easy to do. In fact, it’s still common practice in many parts of the world.

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.


  1. Very interesting. I was especially intrigued by the fact that diapers weren't used, and aren't used in some cultures. I've heard of moss or such used by Native American cultures but never the little clay pot. Thanks for the interesting post.

    1. I was surprised by the custom of using clay pots, too, Connie, though, like you, I've heard of the Native American practices. Fascinating stuff! Thanks for joining us!

  2. My, how interesting! I have read about some of these things. I knew about the birthing chair. But, was surprised about the clay pots.

    1. It's a bit hard for me to wrap my mind around that, Bev. Lol!

  3. This is fascinating! I found myself wondering about birth practices in preparing a sermon for tomorrow. I was wondering how long it would be until the new family was able to move on from Bethlehem. While this didn't get at my particular question, I found it really interesting. Thanks very much! (Side note - I was once an interim pastor for a Mennonite congregation in Kidron, OH. I'm currently in the Church of the Brethren.)