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Luke's Gospel tells us simply that Jesus was born to Mary and placed in a manger. It doesn't say if it was an easy or difficult birth, who helped deliver the baby, and so on.

I want to write a reflection, but make sure I do not make obvious false statements though lack of knowledge. I can see two sources of information:

  1. The bible. We know there are many prophecies about Jesus, including several about his birth. Are there any which would specifically address my examples above? Is there any scriptural reason to believe Mary had any more or less a painful birth than would be normal for instance?
  2. Historical knowledge. Do we have reasonable knowledge of the culture of the time what giving birth was like? Would the husband be present, who would act as midwife in this situation? Of course medicine was far less advanced.

There are many details which are unknowable, but I want to be able to paint as realistic and biblically justified a picture as possible. As a counter-example, the carol "Away in a Manger" includes lyrics:

But little Lord Jesus / No crying he makes

This seems quite unlikely to me, but just in case there is an obscure prophecy "the Son of man will make no cry" I want to avoid provable errors.

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  • The information in scripture is of a spiritual nature. The wording in the original language is very precise and uses terms that have deep spiritual truth associated with them. The practical details are not reported and there is no other reliable documentation. Which makes this question one of opinion without any reliable source of evidence.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 15:30
  • @NigelJ I'd say that's pretty close to flat out heresy. Prophecy is testable. Jesus life fulfilled hundreds of prophecies (including the place of His birth). The bible is historical not merely spiritual information.
    – Mr. Boy
    Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 15:48
  • Lack of knowledge IS an answer, "we have no more information" is a valid answer. Closing every question which doesn't have a clear answer is a terrible approach
    – Mr. Boy
    Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 15:52
  • @RayButterworth thanks that was a slip, I've corrected.
    – Mr. Boy
    Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 15:54
  • It’s commendable to strive for accuracy and authenticity in such matters. The mistake would be to make Jesus something he was not, as often described in myths and fairytales. There are many songs, having no scriptural basis, promoting such ideas. The details about his birth are the only provision we can rely on when delving into the matter of where Jesus came from.
    – steveowen
    Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 20:16

2 Answers 2

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There are actually two contrasting historical threads about the birth of Jesus. There is the fairly clear biblical account and there is tradition that basically sources to one document.

For example, there is no mid-wife mentioned in scripture, but is mentioned in the other source.

The primary text leading to various Marian dogmas and doctrines comes out from the Infancy Gospel of James.

The Alternative

Here is the primary alternate tradition that gave rise to so much controversy. Emphasis mine.

And I [Joseph] said: I am seeking an Hebrew midwife. And she answered and said unto me: Art thou of Israel? And I said to her: Yes. And she said: And who is it that is bringing forth in the cave? And I said: A woman betrothed to me. And she said to me: Is she not thy wife? And I said to her: It is Mary that was reared in the temple of the Lord, and I obtained her by lot as my wife. And yet she is not my wife, but has conceived of the Holy Spirit. And the widwife said to him: Is this true? And Joseph said to her: Come and see. And the midwife went away with him. And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this day, because mine eyes have seen strange things -- because salvation has been brought forth to Israel. And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary. And the midwife cried out, and said: This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight. And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to thee: a virgin has brought forth -- a thing which her nature admits not of. Then said Salome: As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.

  1. And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire.

In that historic passage, we find the ideas of a helping midwife, the "birthing" at Mary's side (east gate), the no-pain birth, and the ever-virgin before, during, and after Jesus' birth.

In another part of the same gospel, we must and do also find it's explanation of scripture's mentioning of Jesus' brothers. They were step-brothers from Joseph who had been married prior to Mary.

Scriptural Reinterpretation

With that tradition, we may use it to shed light on how scripture is alternatively seen.

As mentioned, the brothers and sisters of Jesus become the step-siblings of Jesus. Later, with Jerome, we find the explanation they are cousins.

Ezekiel is reinterpreted to show the east gate birth and ever-virgin; that it was "opened" and shut forever.

Now when the prince shall prepare a voluntary burnt offering or peace offerings voluntarily unto the LORD, one shall then open him the gate that looketh toward the east, and he shall prepare his burnt offering and his peace offerings, as he did on the sabbath day: then he shall go forth; and after his going forth one shall shut the gate. Eze 46:12

As late as John of Damascus, this birth from the east gate idea continued.

But just as He who was conceived kept her who conceived still virgin, in like manner also He who was born preserved her virginity intact, only passing through her and keeping her closed2460. The conception, indeed, was through the sense of hearing, but the birth through the usual path by which children come, although some tell tales of His birth through the side of the Mother of God. For it was not impossible for Him to have come by this gate, without injuring her seal in anyway. John of Damascus

The idea that Mary had no pain in giving birth also sources to that text; the baby just appears at her side. Her birth state remained intact. The subsequent idea of Mary's sinlessness at her birth being the reason for that came centuries later; that idea was formally defined in 1854. Birth from her side or the baby just appearing at her side from out of the light meant no pain.

That tradition is contrasted with this.

And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. Rev 12:2

But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, Gal 4:4

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John 1:4

Conclusion

The birth of Christ as shown in Luke 2 is further explained throughout scripture as being a normal birth in the normal way, made of a woman, made of flesh, without a midwife's help, and having brothers and sisters from the same mother is all clear enough.

The alternative view that Mary needed help, even though she supposedly had no pain, as the baby simply appears, and she remains as she was in the child birth state, source to that one document.

So, one may either stick to scripture or embellish and view it with tradition's glasses.

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  • For clarification, while the Infancy Gospel of James is not recognized as canon, is it counted among trustworthy texts by anyone considering it is named as "to be avoided by catholics" in the Gelasian Decree? Commented Dec 3, 2021 at 17:54
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    @MikeBorden because of that decree, Catholic rejected the book. So, to explain the brothers of Jesus, since the "old Joseph, former marriage, and children therefrom" had been rejected, Jerome came up with the idea that the "brothers" were really cousins. He also reexplained various relationships of the Marys, at the cross, etc. Different thread, but this led to my question about Mary (mother of Jesus) and Salome's (mother of James and John, sons of Zebedee) relationship. Appears they were sisters. Hence, the reason Jesus refers Mary to John (John 19:25-27).
    – SLM
    Commented Dec 3, 2021 at 21:10
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Additional Bible information

Other than Isa 7:14 prophecy that Jesus was born from a "virgin" and that the location was Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), there was no additional information from the Old Testament. (source: Old Testament Prophecies about the Birth of Jesus, 55 Old Testament Prophecies about Jesus)

But if we consider Jesus's birth as the first fruit of the fulfillment of the new creation and final judgment prophecies recorded in Isaiah's final chapter, then Mary's pain-free labor could have been prophesied. In this interpretation, Mary is prefiguring the spiritual Zion giving birth to all New covenant children (Christ being the cornerstone) since all Christians are Jesus's brothers and sisters. From Isa 66 (ESV):

2b “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.

...

5 Hear the word of the Lord, you who tremble at his word: “Your brothers who hate you and cast you out for my name's sake have said, ‘Let the Lord be glorified, that we may see your joy’; but it is they who shall be put to shame. 6 The sound of an uproar from the city! A sound from the temple! The sound of the Lord, rendering recompense to his enemies! 7 “Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she delivered a son. 8 Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment? For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her children.

Historical knowledge

From a 2005 New York Times article What Jesus' Birth May Have Looked Like reviewing the first episode ("The Birth") of the National Geographic Channel's "Science of the Bible":

Because she was poor, Mary did not have a birthing stool, the choice of wealthy women at that time. She had a midwife and delivered standing up, leaning against the midwife's assistants, who helped with the pushing by massaging Mary's abdomen. Joseph waited nervously outside.

Was it a difficult birth for Mary?

According to Catholicism, because Mary was free from original sin, Gen 3:16 didn't apply to her, making the birth free from labor pain. Furthermore, this is consistent with the belief that Jesus inaugurated the "new creation" untainted by original sin (source: Catholic Answers 2021 article Was Mary Free from Labor Pain? by apologist Tim Staples).

Protestants who don't believe the immaculate conception of Mary can appeal to a particular interpretation of Isa 66:7-8 for pain-free, pre-Fall birth (see details in the first section above).

Either theological interpretation should allow consistency with the "Away in a manger" lyrics:

But little Lord Jesus / No crying he makes

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  • That's interesting, thank-you. I don't know about Mary being free from sin - I actually hadn't heard that idea before - but if she were that logic certainly makes sense.
    – Mr. Boy
    Commented Dec 1, 2021 at 11:14
  • @Mr.Boy If sin is passed from the father (through one man sin entered the world) then Mary need not have been sinless to birth a sinless child; what would have been needed is a sinless father. This makes the virgin birth critical (as Scripture foretells) but not Mary's sinlessness (which Scripture is silent on). Commented Dec 1, 2021 at 13:51
  • @MikeBorden the logic is sound but I can't see any reason why Mary should be viewed as special in this way. Of course I do know that Catholics venerate Mary but this is probably a separate topic altogether. Thanks for the insight.
    – Mr. Boy
    Commented Dec 1, 2021 at 19:27
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    @Mr.Boy I added reference to Isa 66 which should be acceptable to Protestants as well, and doesn't require the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary (i.e. Mary was born without original sin). Commented Dec 1, 2021 at 19:28
  • Looking at the larger passage (vs. 7-14), wouldn't that reading of Isaiah conflate Mary and Zion, Mary and Jerusalem? "for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children." Commented Dec 3, 2021 at 18:08

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