Sometimes you come across a passage in a text that is simply fascinating. Being in the time of life in which having and rearing children is a major part of what goes on, I was struck on reading the Apocalypse of Esdras. Seemingly out of nowhere the author launches into what appears to be a chronological description of the in utero development of a baby through the nine-months of pregnancy. Finding this list rather interesting, I decided to take a little bit more of a look into it, to see what there is to see.

On Greek and Roman babies

A lot of our literary knowledge about Greco-Roman culture is hugely selective. It was mostly written by wealthy and powerful people, who were mostly men, and who had certain things they tended to be interested in, like money, philosophy, social-theory, and so forth. Very little about the normal lives of normal people, and especially the normal lives of women and children, have made it through the years in the literary texts that form the backbone of our conception of the Greeks and Romans. These texts stand in relationship to normal peoples’ lives much like monumental architecture does to normal houses–seeing the Parthenon tells you basically nothing about how most people in Athens actually lived.

A peek into the inner regions

This passage from Apocalypse of Esdras seems to be a random window into that illusive other world that rarely peeks into the texts we read. Indeed, it apparently gives an interesting peek into the inner-regions of a pregnant woman’s body by offering a brief but rather interesting description of human pregnancy. Perhaps the most intriguing thing is that there is no necessary reason for this little passage. It is voluntarily thrown into a discussion about the justice of God in creating humanity, without obvious lead-up to it or points being derived from it in the argument. Apocalypse of Esdras is not medical in nature, so it would seem that this passage gives us a picture of what a generally educated person in the time period (estimates for composition of this work range from 2-9th century AD) would have thought about the development of a baby in the womb.

Here is the Apocalypse of Esdras 5.12-13:

καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεός· ἄκουσον, Ἐσδρὰμ ἀγαπητέ· ὥσπερ γεωργὸς καταβάλλει τὸν σπόρον τοῦ σίτου ἐν τῇ γῇ, οὕτως καὶ ὁ ἄνθρωπος καταβάλλει τὸ σπέρμα αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ χώρᾳ τῆς γυναικός·

τὸ πρῶτον μὲν σύνολόν ἐστιν, τὸ δεύτερον μὲν ὀγκοῦται, τὸ τρίτον μὲν τριχοῦται, τὸ τέταρτον μὲν ὀνυχοῦται, τὸ πέμπτον μὲν ἀπογαλακτοῦται, καὶ τὸ ἕκτον μὲν ἕτοιμον γίνεται καὶ λαμβάνει τὴν ψυχήν, τὸ ἕβδομον παρασκευάζεται, τὸ ἔννατον ἀνοίγονται τὰ κλεῖθρα τοῦ πυλῶνος τῆς γυναικὸς καὶ γεννᾶται ὑγιὴς εἰς τὴν γῆν.

And God said, “Hear Ezra, beloved one! Just as a farmer casts down the seed of corn into the earth, so a man casts down his seed into a woman’s place. In the first (month) it is a whole, in the second it is swollen, in the third it grows hair, in the fourth it grows nails, in the fifth it becomes milky, in the sixth it is ready and quickened, in the seventh it is prepared, in the ninth the bars of the gateways of the woman are opened and it is born healthy on the earth.”

Translation from Charlesworth, James H., ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1983.

Aside from skipping the eighth month (or possibly a lacuna in the text there), this is a complete, albeit short, description of the development of a baby in utero. Given that the apocalyptic genre often traffics in extravagant symbolism, one possibility is that these descriptions are meant to be developed allegorically. However, this never occurs in the text, which opens the likelihood that this passage is simply an honest-to-goodness description of how some people understood the development of the baby in utero. As a sort of thought-experiment in this direction, I looked at the descriptions for each month and tried to match them up with actual development stages of a baby. The obvious points to start with were “it grows nails” and “it grows hair.” On seeing these map tolerably well on actual in utero development, I gave the rest of the months a go. Here is a possible mapping out of each month to how we might describe it today. For reference, check out this image giving months and weeks, as counted in modern medical practice.

  • First: given the small size of the baby, unsurprising there is nothing substantive described. We will take this as, “the woman is pregnant.”
  • Second: “it is swollen” (possibly “increases in size”) could be a reference to the early stages of a woman “showing”, which happens as the baby “swells”, or to reaching a point where the woman definitely feels the presence of the baby inside.
  • Third: “it grows hair.” The first crop of hair (there are apparently two of them before birth) is usually evident by around week 15, so depending on how you’re counting, that would fall around 3-4 month range.
  • Fourth: “it grows nails.” Finger and toenails become visible in the 2nd trimester, being clearly visible by around week 20. So, again, depending on how you’re counting, nails in the fourth month is a reasonable milestone.
  • Fifth: “it becomes milky.” This could be a reference to the white, greasy, cheese-like substance (officially called vernix caseosa) which starts developing around week 22 and continues through the pregnancy, largely covering the baby while in the womb. Newborns often still have this on parts of their bodies.
  • Sixth: “it is ready and quickened.” Obviously (to any who have experienced a pregnancy in any detail), babies move around a lot. Maybe this month was stereotyped as the month that outsiders can easily see the movement?
  • Seventh month: “it is prepared.” A baby born in the industrialized world today in the 7th month is overwhelming expected to live (> 90%). Given differences in medical understanding and technology, one could  speculate that 7th month was the point where babies born in antiquity actually did survive.
  • Ninth: “exits the bars of the woman and is born.” This one is pretty obvious.

It is reasonable, it seems, to take this passage in Apocalypse of Esdras as an actual description from antiquity of how (some) people understood babies to develop in utero. It does not take too much creative thinking to generally match up the events listed here with actual events in the development of a baby.

Ancient baby knowledge

How would people come up with such descriptions? Speculatively, I imagine that over the years, medically inclined persons (probably especially midwives, though also “doctors”, in the capacity in which they existed at the time) had seen enough miscarriages throughout different stages of pregnancy to start to map out general stages of development of the child in the womb. Likewise, observation of other mammalian births and developments could have generally strengthened this line of inquiry.

Regardless, this passage is an interesting look into a part of antiquity that rarely peeks around the edges of our literary texts and into scholarly consciousness.