Given that I am working on a book about things Jesus learned from women, I was delighted that someone in my Sunday school class noticed the imagery of a woman giving birth used in John 16:21-24, when Jesus speaks of the experience of childbirth. How does the analogy Jesus makes there relate to the book I am working on? What does it tell us about Jesus?
First things first. You would think it could be treated as obvious that, if we say that a male historical figure learned something from childbirth, they learned it from either witnessing what women went through, or listening to women as they shared their own experiences and perspectives.
But when it comes to Jesus, few things that should be obvious can be taken for granted.
Some people imagine Jesus as an omniscient entity who experienced childbirth but already knew everything there was to know, and remembered every aspect of that experience and of every other he underwent.
Thinking historically, I’m much more interested in other approaches to this question.
First, did Jesus have opportunities to witness childbirth? There have been times in history when men go elsewhere as women undergo this difficult experience. Would Jesus have been in close proximity as relatives of his were born?
This connects in interesting ways with questions about his brothers and sisters. Some have turned them into cousins, and we’re much less likely to have been in the room when a cousin was born than a sibling. But even for those who accept that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were precisely that, brothers and sisters, there is more than one possibility. Were they Joseph’s children from a previous marriage, and thus Jesus’ older siblings, or were they children of Joseph and Mary, and thus Jesus’ younger siblings? Jesus might have had a chance to be present at the birth of one of the latter, but obviously not at the birth of one of the former. On the other hand, when one has half siblings sometimes they are old enough that they marry and have children.I suppose the key question is whether the way Jesus is depicted as speaking strikes readers as reflecting something beyond mere formulaic stereotypes, something gleaned through lived experiences either of being present when women gave birth, or listening to women talk about their experiences. And then, whether he was typical or atypical in doing so.
Among the things I’d like to hear from fellow scholars who study the ancient world is what we know about what was typical when women gave birth in ancient Jewish and other Mediterranean societies. How common or uncommon was it for men to be present? How common or uncommon was it for women to talk about their experiences of childbirth with men, and to what extent did it matter whether the men were close relatives?
That kind of historical information may help me figure out whether Jesus seems to have been drawing on stock imagery (we know that there was widespread use of some related images, such as the “birth pangs of the Messiah”), witnessed and paid attention to what women experienced, or spoke with them about aspects of their lives that men were normally excluded from.
In case anyone is wondering, I am not asking this because I think I might write a chapter on the subject as part of the book. But it might deserve a mention somewhere, depending on what I find out. This post is mainly me listening to the input of women I know. My own reaction to the text was to assume that Jesus was using a stock metaphor. But if some women think there might just possibly be more to it, then the right thing to do is take that perspective to heart and look into the matter further!
For a sampling of the assumptions that many men in the church have had about women, see the collection of quotes that Mike Bell collected and shared.