In Acts 2:24a, Peter explains God’s plan for Jesus:

ὃν ὁ θεὸς ἀνέστησεν λύσας τὰς ὠδῖνας τοῦ θανάτου
God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death

The phrase ὠδῖνες θανάτου seems to be a reference to LXX Psalm 17:5 (Eng. 18:4), which translates the Hebrew (18:5) phrase חֶבְלֵי־מָוֶת.

BHS | ESV | Rahlfs LXX | NETS:

אֲפָפ֥וּנִי חֶבְלֵי־מָ֑וֶת
The cords of death encompassed me
περιέσχον με ὠδῖνες θανάτου
Pangs of death encompassed me

The cords → pangs shift apparently reflects different vocalization of חבל:
חֶבֶל (ḥeḇel, “cord") → חֵבֶל (ḥēḇel, “birthpang”).
The latter is the interpretation of the LXX. If it is indeed “birth pangs” (as opposed to just “pangs”), it seems to be a messianic reference, which is consistent with Acts. However, it's not really consistent with the context of the psalm, where the term refers to the psalmist’s affliction.

So my question at this point is:

  • Was the LXX translator understanding ὠδῖνες θανάτου as messianic, or was this a new context introduced by Peter/Luke?

But then, I wonder whether Peter, in a speech addressing Ἄνδρες Ἰσραηλῖται, was likely to have been speaking Greek (?). Which brings me to:

  • Does the speech recorded in Acts derive from something that included a reference to the Hebrew sense of the term,* i.e. (what we now consider) the “proper” vocalization?

*The odd thing about the Greek to me, prompting this part of the question, is the usage of λύω + accusative. I would expect the accusative either to be the bonds/cords or the thing/person loosed rather than the thing from which [object] is loosed. (There is an alternative meaning «abolish», but translations — e.g. NIV: «freeing him from the agony of death» (as if: «λύσας ἀπό των ὠδίνων») — seem to want it to contain more common sense of λύω.) But if the accusative is a translation of חבל (i.e. spoken quoting the Hebrew, translated by Luke (or prior redactor) according to the tradition of the LXX) it may have meant cords in the context of the speech.

Note: This is a convoluted question. If anyone can decipher it and think of a way to re-write any part of it more simply, please do.

  • λύω in the active voice is always used with accusative whether talking about the bonds (Rev 5:2, Ac 7:33) or the one tied up (Mk 11:2, Rev 9:14). I think if you abandon the archaic glosses of "travails" or "pangs" for ὠδῖνας and go with "contractions" it's a lot easier to understand them being the things which are loosened.
    – fumanchu
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 23:48
  • @fumanchu I see what you mean. I think it’s just difficult for me to resist trying to make a connection with the Hebrew when I see that the psalm being quoted has Hebrew text “cords,” which is kind of a perfect object for λύω.
    – Susan
    Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 3:27

1 Answer 1


The Idea in Brief

The Greek term ὠδίν appears to carry the idea of confinement, which results in anguish. For example, the pregnant woman is "trapped" in pain, and thus anguish. The city inhabitants are "trapped" by their attackers, and thus anguish. Jonah is "trapped" in Sheol, and thus anguish. The use of this term in the New Testament therefore carries the same idea: Jesus was not able to remain "trapped" in Sheol. That is, the New Testament genre seems to indicate that it was not death that had swallowed ("trapped") life, but life had swallowed ("trapped") death.


The Greek word occurs 35 times in the LXX. The following graph from Logos 6 software provides the demographic overview of these words to include at least 10 different Hebrew words/terms they modify. Please click to enlarge.

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The following 5 accompanying spreadsheets from Logos 6 provide the respective translations of the 35 instances in the LXX where the Greek word ὠδίν appears. Please each click to enlarge.

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The general idea in the LXX (based on the Hebrew words translated) appears to be confinement or constraint. In this regard, the pregnant woman is "trapped" in pain, and thus anguish. The city inhabitants are "trapped" by their attackers, and thus anguish. Jonah is "trapped" in Sheol, and thus anguish. The inhabitants of the earth will be "trapped" in judgment during the Day of the Lord, and thus anguish. That is, the general idea is that someone is "trapped" by circumstances outside their control - thus in many of these passages there is allusion to the pregnant woman who is "trapped" and will not escape her inexorable anguish, which only increases in intensity with time.

In the New Testament, the Egyptian army was "trapped" in the Red Sea, and therefore "swallowed." Thus in the New Testament the nuance of "swallowed" comes into play within the context of the confining power of death -

Hebrews 11:29 (NASB)
29 By faith they passed through the Red Sea as though they were passing through dry land; and the Egyptians, when they attempted it, were drowned.

The word for drowned comes from καταπίνω, which means to swallow. In Matthew 12:40 Jesus compared his descent "into the belly of the earth" with Jonah, who was swallowed by the great fish and thereby descended to Sheol (or Hades) for three days and three nights. Since the day when the Egyptian Army was swallowed at the Red Sea seems to align with the day of the resurrection of Jesus from Hades, we see the idea flip-flopped. That is, death does not swallow life, but life swallows death in the resurrection of Jesus on the resurrection Sunday. Thus the following verses -

1 Cor 15:54-55 (NASB)
54 But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. 55 O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

2 Cor 5:4 (NASB)
4 For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life.

Thus in Jesus death is "trapped" by life, and not the other way around.


In summary, the context in Acts 2:24 appears to have death in view with an emphasis on its confining power in Hades. (Some variants in the Greek text in addition to other witnesses make the direct correlation of death with Hades in this verse.) In light of the use of ὠδίν in the LXX, Peter would then seem to state that it was impossible for death to swallow, or confine eternal life in its power (in Hades).

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