Updated: Apr 24, 2020
What could you expect during childbirth in the first-century? How did you maintain ritual purity, and how did it affect your daily life? Did you have to worry about catching an STD? What happened to unwanted babies? Read on to learn more about women's experiences in the biblical era!
Welcome to the seventh post in our series on How to Live as a Woman in First-century Israel!
We've explored many important topics that delve into a historical woman's life, like women's roles in the workplace, managing a household, women's rights within marriage and rules on divorce, what to wear and how to stay clean, how women worship, and shopping for the family on a typical wage.
This series walks in the sandals of a woman in first-century Israel, the century during which Jesus Christ walked the earth.
For a long time, historians ignored or downplayed women in history—including women within the early Christian church. Today that is changing. More than ever, scholars are examining how historical women were viewed within society, their struggles, and their triumphs.
So let's take a look at sexual and reproductive health for women in first-century Israel! I invited you to imagine that you've been transported back in time and that this is now your life.
Menstruation practices in the ancient world
When you get your monthly period, your primary concern as a Jewish woman is not physical cleanliness, but ritual purity. Any man or woman who has a discharge from their body cannot go into the temple area, nor can anyone who recently touched them.
During your menstruation, you will be expected to keep your own bed and chair, and no one will share them with you—except perhaps another menstruating woman or little children you are caring for. In some regions, you might stay in a separate space for the duration, such as the women's side of the house.
As a Jewish woman, you will not go to the temple, have sex, or touch others, though you can pass things back and forth. From what we can tell, there seem to be no restrictions on cooking, weaving, praying, or other household tasks. (1)
To keep yourself comfortable, a menstrual cloth is typical. (2) There are sources that state that Greek women used tampons made from soft wool and that Egyptian woman used sponges. (3)
Could women travel with Jesus, or did menstruation make this impossible?
If you are eager to be a disciple of the new and exciting prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, you might wonder what restrictions you will face during your time of the month.
Based on Luke 8, There seem to be several women that traveled with Jesus. While it is possible these are all older women who had experienced menopause, it would not be hard to keep to your own mat or seat on the road, nor are women expected to purify themselves in a mikveh after their menstruation in the first-century, this tradition came later.
Considering that women traveled in the wilderness for forty years with the rest of the Israelite tribe, breaking camp routinely and moving to a new location, and then again during the mass return from exile and back to the holy land, men would have traveled with menstruating women before. I'm sure it is acceptable and there are workarounds for any concerns for ritual purity.
Views on Sex in the First Century
Virginity is closely guarded in young women because it is important that the new husband knows that the children are his for the sake of inheritance. (4) Sex within the confines marriage is encouraged and seen as pleasing to God. Sex is supposed to be pleasurable for both partners, and procreation is the goal. The marriage state was considered ideal by most, with the popular saying: “he who has no wife lives without joy, blessing, or good”. (5)
Everyone, including rabbis, is generally expected to be married. While periods of abstinence are acceptable for special times of study or worship, life-long celibacy is rare and not a typical spiritual goal. (6)
When you have sex, you and your husband will be considered ritually unclean until evening, when you can wash and go on with life as normal. (7)
Views on monogamy, prostitution, and adultery
You can expect to be married young, in your mid to late teens. Your new husband might only be slightly older than yourself in the Jewish culture, though if you follow Roman culture, he may be much older than you. (8) The benefits of marrying young are to protect your virginity for legitimate children and for your health. (See the next section on STDs)
Though in antiquity Jewish men had multiple wives, in this era it is expected that a man will have only one wife, though some wealthy rulers in this era had more, such as King Herod. Monogamy is the norm in Greek and Roman culture as well. (8)
In the Jewish culture adultery is grounds for divorce, and in more severe groups you will be at risk of death by stoning if you have an affair, for both participants. (9)
There are no temple prostitutes in the Jewish culture, it is expressly forbidden. (10)
In your Roman and Greek neighbors, a man also takes just one wife. However, sexual relations with temple prostitutes or slave girls are socially acceptable, and there are both men and women prostitutes. (11) A prostitute will dress differently than other women, in some places she wears a yellow wig or yellow dyed hair. (12) In other times and places, darkly colored men's clothing signifies a prostitute. (13)
At certain feasts, men will leave their wives at home. Courtesans will be summoned to entertain the men with their charm and their performance in dance or music, with the highest class of prostitute being highly educated and able to dazzle men with her wit and conversation. (14)
Homosexuality in men and women is accepted in ancient Greek and Roman societies, but not first-century Jewish culture. (15)
STD's in the biblical era
Sexually transmitted diseases are nothing new, and you will find them rampant in those with lax views towards sex. STDs are poorly understood, and there are few options to protect yourself. It is generally agreed across all cultures in the first century that STDs are punishments from God/gods. (16)
Any discharge results in uncleanliness and requires keeping from physical contact in Jewish society until it is resolved, which serves to reduce the chance of its spreading. (17)
Herpes can be a problem in this century. Tiberius, the emperor during the life of Jesus, has to deal with a herpes outbreak in Rome during his reign. It is possible there are also syphilis, chlamydia, and other diseases circulating that are going by other names. Ancient physicians document sores, swelling, discharge, erosion, and other deformities of the sexual organs and mouth, which most agreed were passed through sex. (16)
Cures are sketchy in this era. Plus, these first-century physicians don't know that some of these STDs can be passed on to unborn children, resulting in stillbirth or premature birth. Some STDS are passed during childbirth, some of which can cause blindness. (16)
While some STDs can be passed via public baths, kissing, or general uncleanliness, the best bet for protecting yourself in the first century is for you and your husband to come together as virgins, and to remain faithful to each other for your entire marriage. (16)
Childbirth and breastfeeding
Childbirth is something to be viewed with anxiety in the first century, I'm sorry to tell you. Miscarriage is common. (30) Many newborns will not survive their first week, less than half of children survive to their fifth year, and women often die in childbirth or from complications after. (18) If a baby is stuck in the birth canal, a cesarean can be performed in an attempt to save the baby, but the mother will die from this major surgery.
When it is your turn to give birth, you will do so at home. You will give birth with the assistance of other women from your family and in-laws, and with a midwife who has been trained in childbirth. You will give birth upright, sitting on a low stool, with slings or women's arms helping support you. You might sing, pray, breathe slowly, or sway together.
If you and the baby survive the birth, according to Jewish tradition, the cord must be cut and the baby washed, rubbed with salt to ward off infection, and wrapped snugly. (19)
If you are a typical Jewish mother, you will breastfeed your own baby. If you die in birth but your baby survives, they will try to find another who can nurse it. You can give a baby animal milk if necessary, but that is the last resort. (20) In Greek and Roman cultures, children are breastfed until 18-24 months of age, and it is possible that some nurse for longer. (21) Some rabbis permit men to use the withdrawal method of birth control for two years after the birth of a child so as not to deplete the mother's milk supply from a new pregnancy. (20)
If you are wealthy, you might employ a wet nurse to nurse the baby for you, which is common in wealthy Roman households but also happens in Jewish households. There will be a contract and wages agreed upon. If you employ a free-woman to nurse your baby, the baby will live with her in her home for the agreed-upon period of 16, 18, or 24 months. (20)
Exposure of infants and abortion
In Jewish culture, children are considered a blessing—including daughters. (22) In your neighboring countries, however, there is often a much different view of children.
In Gentile populations, abortion is possible, but it is excruciating and often results in death by poisoning, blood loss, or infection. A woman often can not become pregnant or carry a baby to term after an abortion. (23)
In Rome, the more typical practice of getting rid of unwanted pregnancy is by exposing newborn infants, which is the deceptively polite way of saying throwing them away like they are garbage and letting them freeze, drown, starve, or be eaten by animals. A baby is not considered part of the family in their society unless the father accepts the child that has been laid before him, (24) by lifting it up and later giving the baby a special charm necklace called a "bulla" that they will wear throughout childhood. (25)
Girls are rejected more often than boys because boys carry on the family name while girls mean a dowry will have to be paid at some point. A chilling letter has been discovered where a father casually writes to his pregnant wife and tells her to expose the baby if it is a girl. (26)
Unwanted babies might be sold into slavery, or newborn girls might be given to a pagan temple to grow up to become temple prostitutes. (23) Egyptians do not believe in infant exposure, and will often rescue babies from the trash heap to raise as slaves. (27)
If you find a baby crying in the trash heap, you can claim it for your own slave, no paperwork required. If you choose to adopt it as your own child, expect heavy inheritance tax as a penalty in Rome. (28)
The early Christian church keeps the Jewish view on children as being a person from conception, pushing back against the idea that we can choose who is and isn't of value. Any Gentile converts to Christianity will be expected to keep to the standards of protecting life. (29)
The kindness of sexual laws
Living in the first century, you will quickly learn how important it is to your physical well-being that you abstain from fornication. Maintaining strict sexual relationships protects your loved ones from disease or social stigma. Rather than seeing God's commands as limiting as you live out your first-century lifestyle, I invite you to consider that the Lord ultimately has your happiness and health in mind.
So what do you think of reproductive health in this era? Did you learn anything new?
If you're enjoying the series, make sure you subscribe to the blog so you don't miss an upcoming post!
1. Leviticus 15:19-24
2. Isaiah 30:22
3. Celsus. De Medicina (transl from Latin by WG Spencer). Suffolk: Harvard University Press; 1989. pp. 994.
4. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 77
5. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 75
6. Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Craig E. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 680-681
7. Leviticus 15:18
8. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 75; Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Craig E. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 354
9. Leviticus 20:10
10. Deuteronomy 23:17
11. Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Craig E. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 354
12. Everyday Life Through the Ages edited by Michael Worth Davison, MA page 89
13. History of Venereal Diseases from Antiquity to the Renaissance Franjo Gruber, Jasna Lipozenčić, Tatjana Kehler, Acta Dermatovenerol Croat 2015;23(1):1-11 HISTORY OF MEDICINE, page 4
14. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 77
15. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 70
16. History of Venereal Diseases from Antiquity to the Renaissance Franjo Gruber, Jasna Lipozenčić, Tatjana Kehler, Acta Dermatovenerol Croat 2015;23(1):1-11 HISTORY OF MEDICINE, page 4
17. Leviticus 15:1-15, 33
18. Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Craig E. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 198
19. Ezekiel 16:4
20. Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Craig E. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 360
21. Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Craig E. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 198
22. Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Craig E. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 199
23. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 81 24. Backgrounds of early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 80-81
25. Everyday Life Through the Ages page 91; Dictionary of New Testament Background page 197-198
26. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 78 and 81
27. Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Craig E. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 360
28. Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Craig E. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 359
29. Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Craig E. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 200; Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 81
30. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 82