“These are the beginning of birth pains.”
That phrase from Mark 13:8 gave a table of men in Mozambique quite a few pains. But our suffering was turned to delight as anguished study gave birth to a new reading of Jesus’ dark prophecy about the end times. Instead of “birth pangs” the Nyungwe translators had used a word meaning, “beginning of a major crisis.” The consultant, Hessel, thought it should say “birth pains.” I turned to the handy dandy “Biblical Analysis & Research Tool” known affectionately as BART, and looked for every occurrence of the word ὠδίν, birth pains.
ὠδίν and ὠδίνω, “birth pains” in the New Testament
(Let me know if I’ve omitted any occurrences. All Scripture NIV unless noted)
- Matt 24:8: All these are the beginning of birth pains.
- Mar 13:8: These are the beginning of birth pains.
- Act 2:24: But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
- Gal 4:19: My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,
- Gal 4:27: For it is written:
“Be glad, O barren woman,
who bears no children;
break forth and cry aloud,
you who have no labor pains”
- 1 Thes 5:3: While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
- Rev 12:2: She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.
Clearly this word refers to labor pains. But the question is, “Do we need to translate it like that?” My two favorite idiomatic translations don’t have any pains:
- NLT: But all this will be only the beginning of the horrors to come.
- CEV: But this is just the beginning of troubles.
Old Testament Birth Pains
As a naughty little boy in Sunday school, one of my favorite Old Testament verses was this one:
“We were with child, we writhed, but we gave birth only to wind.” (Is. 26:18, NRSV)
I’ll leave an analysis of this and Isaiah 54:1 to those of you who are studying Hebrew.
After Hessel had made his case, we were all convinced that it was a good option. But then his face lit up like he’d just had a vision of the heavens and he said, “I never noticed that before. The reason that they are birth pains is that they are a temporary difficulty that results in something good.” And I added, “Of course! The birth pains result in the coming of the Son of Man.” Hessel wasn’t quite so crazy about that idea and threatened to report me to my director if I blogged about it. But, think about it. Labor leading to a child. And that motif comes up again in Galatians 4:19, only this time it is Paul who is pregnant with the Christ who is being “formed” in the Galatians. The idea pops out one more time in Revelation 12:2, where the woman gives birth to a child who would destroy the dragon.
That one little word turns out to be hugely thematic for the entire Gospel of Mark. Mark is the Gospel of the Son of Man, or as they say in Nyungwe, the child of a person. (There is no grammatical gender in Bantu languages that differentiates between male and female.) The whole book depicts Jesus as a model for suffering Christians in Rome. The narrative is pregnant with meaning as believers hear Jesus promise in Mark 13 that they will suffer terrible tribulation and then that their Savior is coming: “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”
These were some of the words available in the Nyungwe dictionary that describe labor:
-bvulumukidwa vt. to begin the pains of childbirth, to be fearful or apprehensive.
bzwade adj. she who gave birth.
kubala n. delivery, the act of giving birth, parturition.
kubereka n. the act of giving birth, delivery a child.
nyakhulukutu n. pain of the uterus that some women feel after the birth of a baby.
ubzwade n. the quality of being in labor, ready to give birth, the state of she who is giving birth in a short time.
ukidwa vt. to begin the pains of childbirth, to be fearful or apprehensive.
The translators chose the first one.
Psalm 51 doesn’t mention birth pains but it does talk about birth.