Monday, December 24, 2007

Did the Virgin Mary Experience the Pains of Childbirth?

Taylor Marshall has an interesting post and discussion over at his blog, Canterbury Tales (, on whether the blessed Mother experienced the pains of childbirth. Rather than posting a long comment over there, I thought I'd make my contribution here as a final Advent post, drawing on two key points. This is a particularly pertinent topic since last years' Christmas movie, The Nativity--which was widely touted by many Catholics--graphically depicted Mary undergoing the birth-pangs of Jesus' birth.

Now, you won't find clarification of this matter in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, apart from the clear teaching in Mary's perpetual virginity, which states that that "Christ's birth 'did not diminish his mother's virginal integrity but sanctified it'" (CCC 499; citing Lumen Gentium 57). Nevertheless, I thought I'd add a couple of points in favor of the classical Catholic position that Mary did not experience the pangs of childbirth.

As Taylor points out, it is fitting that the Virgin Mary would not experience pain in childbirth, since she was conceived apart from the stain of original sin (see CCC 490-93) , and pain in childbirth is clearly taught in Scripture as one of the results of the Fall (Gen 3:16). (It is interesting to note here that--at least to my knowledge--other mammals do not experience birth-pangs as do human mothers.) I find this argument correct, but not necessarily conclusive, and thought I would support it with a couple of points from Scripture and ancient Jewish tradition.

First and foremost, it is worth noting that the notion of giving birth to children without the pains of birth is not an idea that is foreign to Scripture. In fact, it is part of the eschatological vision of the prophet Isaiah, in at least two places. In his prophecy of the new Creation--the "new heavens and the new earth"--Isaiah envisages a future times when the results of the Fall will be undone:

"They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox..." (Isaiah 65:23-25)

Here we see the curse of Adam (fruitless toil) and Eve (pain in childbirth) being undone in the eschatological age.

Even more striking is Isaiah's vision of the new Jerusalem:

"Before she was in labor, she gave bith;
before her pain came upon her
she was delivered of a son
Who has heard such a thing?
Who has seen such things?" (Isa 66:7-8)

Now, it is quite clear in the context that Isaiah is speaking of the city of Zion, of the new Jerusalem, and not directly of Mary. However, the allegorical application of the image of a holy city to an individual woman in salvation history is not unbiblical--think for example of Paul's identification of Hagar with the earthly Jerusalem and Sarah with "the Jerusalem above, who is our mother" (Galatians 4). This is perhaps why the early Church Fathers did not hesitate to see the Old Testament prophecies of the new Jerusalem as being fulfilled in Mary, the "daughter of Zion" (see Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church [Ignatius Press, 1999]), and John Damascus could say of Jesus' birth:

"It was a birth that surpassed the established order of birthgiving, as it was without pain; for, where pleasure had not preceded, pain did not follow" (De Fid. 4:14; cited in Dale Allison, The New Moses, p. 62).

(It is worth noting that this belief can be found as far back as the second century in the Protevangelium of James). Following the Fathers' lead, Isaiah presents interesting food for reflection: if Mary experiences the first-fruits of Christ's redemption in her own immaculate conception as the New Eve, it is easy to see why they would believe that she would similarly be able to taste the fruits of the eschatological age described by Isaiah, when women would be delivered from the curse of Eve.

An interesting addition to the discussion can be thrown into the mix from ancient Jewish tradition. I've recently been reading Dale C. Allison's absolutely brilliant book, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Fortress, 1993). In it, he points out that there was an ancient Jewish tradition, going back at least to the first century, that Moses' mother did not experience birth pangs when he was born:

[The faith of Moses' parents] "in the promises of God was confirmed by the manner of the woman's delivery, since she escaped the vigilance of the watch, thanks to the gentleness of her travail, which spared her any violent throes" (Ant. 2:218).

As Allison notes, according to Josephus, "Moses mother was not subject to the curse of Eve, as recorded in Gen 3:16: 'I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children'." (The New Moses, p. 147). He also notes that the same tradition about Moses' mother reappears in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Sota 12a) and the Midrash Rabbah (Exod. Rab. 1:20).

To my mind, this is an absolutely fascinating ancient Jewish tradition, given the fact that Jesus is very clearly depicted as a new Moses in the New Testament. Although we can only speculate, it is worth asking the question: if Matthew (and the other Jewish authors of the New Testament) believed that Moses' mother had been spared the pangs of childbirth, isn't it likely that they would have believed that Jesus' Mother--the virgin mother of the new Moses--would likewise be spared?

Just some thoughts . May the love of Christ and his blessed Mother be in all our hearts this holy Season, and may we all one day come to the glory of the new Jerusalem!

Enough theologizing. I've got to go now and help my wife and kids make Christmas cookies!

Merry Christmas.


Unknown said...

Two words: Awe some.

I had never associated those passages in Isaiah with the Blessed Mother, but it clearly fits the typology. Great find.

Thanks for the post. I certainly clinches the "debate" if you ask me.

Drew Tatusko said...

Interesting but I am not sure I buy it. Why would Mary not have birth pangs as a human being even as Jesus experienced the pain of suffering on our behalf as was who was fully human in as much as he was also and is fully God? The Jewish sense of the nativity would certainly not dissociate Mary with the pangs of childbirth would it? This seems very closely if not directly related to Gregory of Nazianus' statement "What is not assumed is not redeemed."

Certainly this would include the pangs of childbirth which were present in the literal sense in the birth of Jesus and of John even as Jesus used birth as a metaphor for the coming age in his various eschatological statements.


Drew Tatusko said...

And Merry Christmas too! :-)

Anonymous said...

This is hilarious... though I am guessing it was not meant to be so.

Anonymous said...

"pain in childbirth is clearly taught in Scripture as one of the results of the Fall (Gen 3:16)."

There is another way of reading Genesis 3:16, namely that Eve had already experienced pain in childbirth and that God simply multiplied it after the fall. So even if we accept the Immaculate Conception I see no reason that Mary would be excepted from pain in childbirth.

I have to agree with Drew that your position is interesting, but I'm not sure I buy it. Thanks for giving me something to think about as I enjoy Christmas though!

Merry Christmas! :^D

Danny Zacharias said...

It is hard to convince me of such things when your support for much of the argument is from the CCC and not the Bible.

I'd have to agree with Nick that Gen 3:16 probably means her pains will increase more than they already are—meaning birth pains is part of creation pre-fall.

Unknown said...

Your alternate reading of Genesis 3:16 presupposes that Eve had children before the Fall. Yet Scripture suggests otherwise. Eve did not have children until after they left the garden.

Also notice the line in verse 3:16:
"in pain you shall bring forth children"
The phrase "you shall" points to a future realization. Thus, even if Eve had previously bore children it was not in pain. God tells her that after the Fall, she "shall" (future tense) bring forth children in pain.

Excellent post Brant!

Anonymous said...

Good post, especially the Jewish tradition. I don't know if the first Isaiah reference you use would support your position. It sounds more like a promise that the children will live. "Labor in vain" does not mean without pain, but rather labor which has no live children, or at least children that would not live to adulthood. The reference in chap 66 is perfect, however. The Moses information is amazing.

Brant Pitre said...

Thanks, everybody, for the comments.
I didn't realize this would evoke so many responses; it was a just an off-the-cuff reflection in response to Taylor's rather interesting post on the question.

But, I'd like to take a minute to respond to each.

Taylor, thanks for the kind words, and especially for the original post. I think it's pretty awesome, too, especially the fascinating Jewish tradition about Moses.

Drew, the reason Mary would not have birth pangs is not because she is less "human" but because, according to Scripture and tradition, birth-pangs are an effect of the Fall. They are a result of sin; not an integral part of what it means to be human. As I said in the post, if Mary was "preserved immune from all stain of original sin" (CCC 491), it would be fitting--note: "fitting," not "necessary"--that she would also be preserved from one of the effects of the Fall iterated in Scripture: pain in childbirth. As for Nazianzus' dictum, "What is not assumed is not redeemed," Gregory meant this of course with regard to Jesus and the Incarnation; I'm not sure how it applies to Mary, especially when, again, her not experiencing birth pangs in no way diminishes her humanity--no more than say, her virginally conceiving a child.

Radical Atheist,
No, the post was not meant to be "hilarious." It was meant to be a reflection on the power of the God who loved you and gave himself for you.

Nick (and Danny),
While the English translation of Gen 3:16 make make it sound as if Eve experienced pain in childbirth before the Fall ("I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing" RSV), this is the result of a loose translation; the Hebrew original has no such implication. Literally, it reads "Great, great, will I make your pain and your travail" (Hb Harebah arbeh itzboneka weheroneka) (Gen 3:16). The Hebrew is simply a superlative meaning "Exceedingly great." There is no implication that pain in childbirth was pre-Fall; nor does the text of Genesis in any way suggest that Eve had children before the Fall. Indeed, when the literary unity of Genesis is taken into account, Gen 4:1 ("And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain..") implies the opposite, with Cain as the first of a series of problematic first-born sons (Ishmael, Esau, Reuben, etc.)

I'm puzzled by your response. If you reread the original post, I specifically state that I won't base my suggestions on the Catechism (CCC) because the CCC does not address whether Mary experienced pain in childbirth. (It only states that Mary's virginal integrity was not diminished by his birth.) I was actually trying to speculate about a theological question drawing on Scripture and ancient tradition. I don't understand why it appears my suggestions were not from the Bible when the focus was precisely on Isaiah's oracles about the eschatological restoration of creation (Isaiah 65) and the new Jerusalem (Isaiah 66), as well as the depiction of Jesus as the new Moses. Could you clarify?

Actually, I drew more support for from the Jewish tradition that Moses' mother was spared the curse of Eve and from the widespread tradition of the Church Fathers that Mary did not experience birth pangs. If there is no biblical basis whatsoever, what would you think would be the origin of these traditions?

Thanks for the supporting points and the emphasis on future tense. This seems correct to me.

Thanks for the qualification. The first Isaiah reference was merely to suggest that one of the biblical visions of the eschatological age and the redemption of creation included the undoing of the effects of the Fall, with specific reference to the curse of Adam and Eve: I saw "labor in vain" not as a reference to Eve's labor but to Adam's curse of fruitless toil (Gen 3:17-18, he works the ground, but it only brings forth thorns and thistles) and the latter "bear children for calamity" as a reference to Eve's curse of birth pangs (Gen 3:16).

As for the Isaiah 66 text, after I wrote the post, I looked up the Fathers and found Gregory of Nyssa using precisely this text when he says of Jesus' birth:

"His birth alone occurred without labor pains, and he alone began to exist without sexual relations... Even the prophet Isaiah affirms that her giving birth was without pain, when he says: 'Before the pangs of birth arrived, a male child came forth and was born.' (Isa 66:7) (see Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 158).

Thanks for the all the suggestions, critiques, and clarifications. And again, I hope you all had and are continuing to have a merry Christmas season!

Anonymous said...

Ok - I have given birth six times. And I have given some thought to this question. Not as extensively in a theological/exigetical framework...

Birth is work, labor. It takes effort, lengthy significant muscular work to move the child out of one's womb, once the gates are open, through the birth canal and into the world. As human beings, with our cognitive/self-awareness capabilities as well as our sinful natures, this can become quite an adventure in fear and pain.

However, when one is a fully integrated person, as Mary was, one knows how to cooperate with the workings of the body. To relax, to shift positions, to assume positions which facilitate the birth.

Being wholly in union with God's will and wholly integrated as a human person, Mary, quite logically, would have given birth without pain. It was a human birth so human effort was required, as was human cooperation.

I see His birth in this mode of fully integrated natural human birth.

You occasionally hear of "pain free childbirth" from Bradley childbirth instructors. Based on my experience, I find it quite possible. Based on my faith and the fundamental reality of the immaculate human nature Mary had, I see it as certain in the case of the nativity of the Messiah.

I am sure I could be more theological in my presentation but, tonight I am writing more as mother than theologian.

Katherine O'Brien-Johnston

Anonymous said...

If the Odes of Solomon are from the late first century, as one of their translators, James Charlesworth certainly seems to think highly possible, then we can go back even further for evidence of a belief in the painfree birth of Jesus on the part of the early Christians, and again in a highly Semitic/Jewish-Christian context. See this from Ode 19:

"The womb of the Virgin took (it),
And she received conception and gave birth.

So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies.

And she laboured and bore the Son, but without pain,
Because it did not occur without purpose.

And she did not require a midwife,
Because He cause her to give life.

She brought forth like a strong man with desire,
And she bore according to the manifestation,
And acquired with great power.

And she loved with redemption,
And guarded with kindness,
And declared with grandeur.


Almost the entire Mariology of the Church is in this joyful hymn of a possibly first century Syriac speaking community.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the clarification. I'll try to read a little closer next time. Good post for being "off the cuff."

Anonymous said...

"(It is interesting to note here that--at least to my knowledge--other mammals do not experience birth-pangs as do human mothers.)"

Some years ago as a teenager I assisted at the delivery of at least a dozen calves over the span of a year or so and while some were relatively easy, in most cases the mother clearly experienced considerable pain. Whether or not it compares to a woman's labour pain is impossible to guage.
This doesn't affect the substance of the discussion but I thought you might like the info.

Mark said...

I think one crucial piece of the discussion has been left out: Revelation 12, the Woman Clothed with the Sun.

Rev 12 has been a part of Marian theology from the beginning. Catholic thinkers almost unanimously identify the Woman Clothed with the Sun as Mary. But check out Rev 12:2 "She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth." And later "She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod." (12:5)

If you hold that Mary had no birth pains, then you cannot also hold that she can be identified with the woman in Rev 12. If you hold that the woman in Rev 12 is Mary then you must accept that she had birth pains.

Papa Puttss said...

All I have to say is; after watching the movie over a year ago I told my wife, "Mary did not experience pain because she was not subject to the punishment meted out to those who are subject to original sin." She disagreed. She still does.

I am with you. Period.

Paul Dion, STL
Isabel Dion, M.Div

Anonymous said...

One way round the thorny problem of Rev 12 would be to see it as a vision not of the Nativity of Christ, his first, earthly birth, but of the Resurrection, his second, heavenly birth (cf Psalm 110, the great resurrection psalm, with its mysterious verse that could well be translated "from the womb of the dawn before the morning star I have begotten thee" etc.). Thus the Woman Clothed With the Sun is Our Lady experiencing not the pains of natural childbirth, but the sorrow with which she brings to birth the Church, the Mystical Body. I know it sounds a bit forced, but that is one way of offering a Marian reading of the passage that is consistent. Of course, the Woman is not just Mary, but the Church, Israel, Zion, etc, and also all creation groaning in travail as it awaits with eager longing the manifestation of the children of God to set it free from bondage to decay and make it new, something that happened par execllence in the resurrection as the first breaking in of the End-Time reality of the new creation. While in her bearing of the child Jesus Our Lady was the sign of creation already renewed, and brought forth without pain, she nontheless entered into solidarity with the rest of still fallen creation on Calvary and Holy Saturday, the sword of the worlds sorrows piercing her heart as she shared in some mysterious way in the ministry of her Son as he set free creation to share, in the liberty He had already bestowed upon her from the moment of her conception.

kentuckyliz said...

I don't think we're bound to believe one way or another on this issue. It's not central to the integrity of the faith or of our own salvation. I can accept either, and will leave it up to the next life to find out for sure. I'll ask Mary when I see her. *grin*

Great post! I think the Isaiah 62 reading is a bit of a stretch quite apart from the plain meaning of the text, but everything else seems solid. The Jewish tradition about Moses--didn't know that! That's really interesting.

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Ray Sullivan said...

Good stuff Michael. I looked at the passage in

Revelation 12:2:she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.

All it says is that she had pangs of anguish, not pain. And since Genesis 3:16 says

To the woman he said, "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.",

can it then follow that God increased the anguish in childbearing with pain - You can't multiply something that isn't already there. So following this logic then, normal women would have anguish AND pain, but Mary in Revelation 12 only had anguish...


Christina Leigh said...

I agree with the original theory that she was not stained with original sin and therefore did not experience the repercussions of it. Replying to what Drew mentioned about Jesus suffering pain on the cross even though he was God as well as human and therefore logically Mary would have suffered pain in child birth, I would have to disagree. Physical pain in general was not something that was mentioned when God threw Adam and Eve out of the garden. I'm sure Mary was able to suffer pain if she had stubbed her toe, just as Jesus felt pain on the cross. If Jesus had had a baby I doubt he would have felt labor pains. It's not the same thing. Also, Jesus being God as well as human had a choice of whether he wanted to suffer pain, Mary did not. He chose to suffer for us. It really had nothing to do with him being *able* to suffer.

So yeah, I agree that she was probably spared a bunch of pain. I like that you found biblical evidence to back up this theory :)

Anonymous said...

If being free from original sin freed one from pain in childbirth then why would baptism, which also removes the stain of original son by God's abounding grace not do the same?

Sayonara Tokyo Saitama said...

I've read with great interest your post and all the comments. All the thoughts I have about this question of "painful or painless birth of Jesus" are gathered here.

As mother, it is quite impossible to me to accept the idea of an Incarnation without the natural and beautiful way of delivery, which was designed by God: let's remember that.

I believe God wanted his son to become human the way he wanted us to be born too. I believe therefore that Mary gave birth in this natural and beautiful way meant by God when he created us, and because she was doing everything fully according to God's will, the delivery could have been painless.

This is the conclusion I can accept regarding pangs thanks to all the above reflections.
I see that the next question I'll have to deal with now, is the one of Jesus coming out of Mary's womb "through the closed door". Could you write something about that? Thanks :)

Unknown said...

Are we bound to believe this? That Mary gave birth without pain? If so, what document binds us?