Birthing the apocalypse: images of pregnancy and childbirth in first century apocalyptic literature
Felder, Alexis Lee
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Images of pregnant women and women in childbirth play an important role in first-century apocalyptic literature. The embodied experience of labor pains and parturition captured the imaginations of male authors of apocalyptic eschatology as they envisioned how the eschaton might occur. These writers, while often critical of the present state of the world, were not isolated from it; rather, as active participants in the broader culture, their visions and fantasies are best understood within the literary and material context of the Roman Empire. Imperial and apocalyptic arguments alike employ discourses of gender, power, and futurity, engaging the reproductive body as a fundamental point of connection between humanity and the divine and between the present and future. At the same time, votive offerings and uterine amulets related to pregnancy and childbearing further illustrate the centrality of fecundity and childbearing to women and their families. Reproduction was a cultural imperative achieved, at least in part, by means of appeals to the divine. Medical writers also addressed successful pregnancy, in this case by associating feminine anatomical inferiority with the ability to become pregnant. Together, this evidence serves as a framework for this study of apocalyptic images of pregnancy and childbirth in the writings of Paul, the book of Revelation, and 4 Ezra. Each of these works employs images of pregnancy and childbirth to assert the power of God over humanity and creation, to emphasize the appropriate societal regulation of women’s bodies, and to describe the end of the known world. The reproductive bodies of women become the ground upon which claims of divine authority and human futurity are made and disputed.