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At the end of his gospel on the tail end of a warning passage, Mathew uses the expression "beginning of birth pangs". What does he mean?

And Jesus answered and said to them, “See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many. You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.
— Mathew 24:4-8 (emphasis added)

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In this context, the Greek ὠδῖνες refer to the birth pangs a woman experiences while in labor. Basically, the Jews referred to these by the phrase חבלי דמשיח 1 or חבלו של משיח,2 literally "the birth pangs of the Messiah." They are not birth pangs that the Messiah himself experiences (a subjective genitive, if you will), but birth pangs that Israel (personified as a woman) experiences which culminate in the "birth" (i.e., coming into the world) of the Messiah (an objective genitive, if you will).

In other words, Israel will experience great distress and tribulation (represented as birth pangs, ὠδῖνες, or חבלים) before the coming of the Messiah into the world. The notion of of these birth pangs preceding the Messianic advent originated from the Tanakh.3


1 Babylonian Talmud, Ktubot 111a | Hebrew | English |

2 Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b | Hebrew | English |

3 cp. Isa 13:8, 26:17, 66:7-8; Jer. 30:5-7

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