Why Sarah had a semen emission in the Bible


In 1990, Pieter Willem Van der Horst (professor of theology at Utrecht University), writes a comprehensive article on Sarah's semen/seed in Hebrews 11:11, titled "Sarah's Seminal Emission - Hebrews 11:11 in the Light of Ancient Embryology" (footnote 0). Prof. Horst makes a very comprehensive argument that the author of the Hebrews 11:11 passage honestly and explicitly meant to say that through her faith, Sarah had a seminal emission, and that any other translation is "evasive" - a lie. Prof. Horst bases his argument on the semantics of the Greek language and Greek knowledge of science at the time the Letter to the Hebrews was written.

What follows is his argument that any translation other than Sarah having a semen emission is a lie to correct the original scientific error. (A shorter version of his argument appears in the February 1992 edition of Bible Review, pages 35-39).

Sarah's Seminal Emission
Hebrews 11:11 in the Light of Ancient Embryology
Pieter Willem Van der Horst
in Hellenism - Judaism - Christianity: essays on their interaction (1998)
[PAGE 221]

Many translators and commentators have racked their brains over Hebrews 11:11:

Πιστει και αντη Σαρρα στειρα δυναμιν εις καταβολην σπερματος
ελαβεν και παρα καιρον ηλικιας
[Note: the Greek transliteration and one English translation is:
        Pistel   kai   antee  Sarra dunamin eis kataboleen spermatos
       By faith  also herself Sarah  power  for conception  of seed

         elaben   kai   para   kairon elikias
        received even  beyond   time   of age

The problem is obvious: καταβολην σπερματος is the terminus technicus for a seminal emission by a male person or animal (footnote 1). So it would seem impossible to say that Sarah received power to emit semen. Hence there are many evasive translations: "Through faith even Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed" (KJV); "By faith even Sarah herself received strength to conceive" (NEB); "It was by faith that even Sarah got strengty to conceive" (Moffatt); "It was equally by faith that Sarah was made able to conceive" (JB); "Also by faith Sarah personally received potency for conception" (Berkeley version); "By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive" (RSV).

A different solution is found in the following translation: "It was faith that made Abraham able to become a father, even though ... Sarah herself could not have children" (GNB); "By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old - and Sarah herself was barren" (NRSV). This translation reflects a cutting of the Gordian knot based upon the way our text is printed in the UBS Greek New Testament (3rd ed.): Πιστει -- και αντη Σαρρα στειρα -- δυναμιν εις καταβολην σπερματος ελαβεν και παρα καιρον ηλικιας. As Bruce Metzger explains in a note in the Textual Commentary to the Greek New Testament, this way of printing the text is based upon the assumption that Abraham, who is the grammatical subject in verses 8-10 and in verse 12 [of Hebrews], most probably is also the subject in verse 11, and the words και αντη Σαρρα στειρα are a parenthetical and semiticizing circumstancial clause ("even though Sarah was barren), as [PAGE 222] Matthew Black had already proposed. (footnote 2). The authors of the Translator's Handbook on the Letter to the Hebrews also opt for this solution, albeit not without hesitation. (footnote 3).

In commentaries to the Epistle to the Hebrews, one finds a variety of other solutions to the problem. H. Windisch assumes that the text is corrupt; if it were about Sarah, one would expect εις υποδοχην σπερματος since the author uses καταβολην σπερματος, which can only be said of Abraham, there must be a textual corruption. (footnote 4). O. Michel, H. Braun, H.F. Weiss, and H.W. Attridge assume that an original dative αντη Σαρρα has been misread as a nominative αντη Σαρρα; thus one should translate, "By faith he (Abraham) received power, together with Sarah, to deposit seed." They find less likely the solution to regard the words και αντη Σαρρα στειρα as a later gloss or to take them as a circumstancial clause (although Weiss finds the latter "wahrscheinlicher"). (footnote 5). A.F.J. Klijn assumes that the author has mixed two different thoughts, one about the faith of Abraham and one about Sarah's becoming pregnant. (footnote 6). H.W. Montefiore says that one should not press the expression δυναμιν εις καταβολην σπερματος to have a literal meaning; the translation 'power to conceive' can stand. (footnote 7). H.A. Kent proposes as the least forced solution the following translation: "By faith Sarah received power with regard to [Abraham's] depositing of the seed." (footnote 8). And so one could go on listing solutions by commentators. (footnote 9).

As far as I have been able to see, it is only C. Spicq who assumes that the author may have literally meant what he seems to write. In his earlier commentary, Spicq only remarks that the ancients believed that a woman, as well as a man, could emit semen; for evidence he refers to an [PAGE 223] article by H.J. Cadbury. (footnote 10). In his later commentary, Spicq says that some Presocratics (Empedocles, Parmenides and Democritus) believed that women emit their own semen, and that the physician Galen had the same opinion, and he quotes Lactantius as stating that Varro and Aristotle shared this view. (footnote 11).

Cadbury and Spicq seem to me to be on the right track. In this contribution it will be demonstrated that the view that women had their own seminal emissions was not an eccentric, but a quite current opinion in antiquity and that this idea did not remain limited to Greek scholarly circles, but penetrated into other strata of society as well. It will also be demonstrated that this theory was well known in early Judaism. (footnote 12).

Preliminary Remarks

Three preliminary remarks are in order here. First, it should be borne in mind that, although it was known since Herophilus (footnote 13) that woman had ovaries, the ovum [egg] itself was unknown throughout antiquity (and remained so until it was discovered with a microscope by C.A. von Baer in 1827). (footnote 14) Second, when the ancients discussed female seminal emission, this probably had little or nothing to do with observation of the so-called G-spot (discovered by W. Grafenburg in 1950) (footnote 15), but it did have to do with a theoretical problem in their doctrines of heredity. Third, this theoretical problem was created by the observation that the widespread and traditional notion that the father alone makes the child and provides the substance for its coming-into-being and development could not explain why children often resemble their mothers. This traditional theory already occurs in "a context innocent of pretensions to biological investigation" (footnote 16), namely, in Aeschylus' Eumenides (657ff.), where the god Apollo says: "This too I will tell you and mark the truth of what I say. She who is called the child's mother is not its begetter, but only the nurse of the newly sown embryo. The begetter is the male, and she as a stranger preserves for a stranger the offspring, if no god blights its birth." (footnote 17) Aeschylus here clearly reflects the common assumption of the superiority of the male roel, a theory that had obvious implications for the evaluation of the position of women. As G.E.R. Lloyd states, "The question must still be pressed, on what grounds alternative views - dissenting from the assumption of the determining role of the male and alloting equal importance to the female - were put forward." (footnote 18)

Alternative views were developed by some of the Presocratic philosophers. (footnote 19) The doxographical excerpt in Censorinus, De die natali 5:4, clearly states: "On another point as well these authors [namely, the philosophers] have divergent opinions, namely whether an embryo originates solely from the seed of the father, as Diogenes and Hippo and the Stoics have written, or also from the seed of the mother, which is the view of Anaxgoras, Alcmaeon, Parmenides, Empedocles, and Epicurus." (footnote 20) The five authors mentioned as defenders of the view that female [PAGE 225] semen is also needed to form an embryo were not the only ones - we will meet others later - nor were their theories uniform. There existed at least three different theories on the coming-into-being of human sperm: (1) the encephalo-myelogenic doctrine; (2) the pangenesis doctrine; and (3) the hematogenic doctrine.

Three Greek Theories

The encephalo-myelogenic doctrine (footnote 21) holds that there is a continuum of 'brains - spinal marrow - sperm'; hence "sperm is a drop of brain", as Diogenes Laertius (8:28) presents Pythagoras' view. And the Pythagorean (?) Alcmaeon of Croton is reported to have said that sperm is εγκεφαλον μερος (Aetius 5:3:3). Although this theory was rather quickly superseded by the pangenesis doctrine, its influence is still noticeable in Plato's Timaeus. In Timaeus 77D Plato speaks of the "generative marrow", and in 91A he says that "marrow runs from the head down the neck and along the spine and has, indeed, in our earlier discourse been called seed" (referring back to 73C, 74B, 86C) (footnote 22). And although Aristotle speaks out strongly against this theory, which gave an extra impetus to its decline, even in the imperial period it still had some adherents, albeit by then in various amalgamated forms. (footnote 23)

It is clear that this doctrine in principle leaves room for a female contribution in the process of conception, the brains-marrow-semen continuum not being restricted to males. And, indeed, we find that several of its adherents adopt the epikrateia principle as far as heredity is concerned. The principle of επικατεια (predominance) is best illustrated by the short statement in Censorinus, De die natali 6:4: "Alcmaeon said that the sex of that parent would be realized [namely, in the embryo] whose semen was most abundant [namely, in coition]" (fragment 24A14 Diels-Kranz). That is to say, if the woman's sperm prevails in quantity, a girl will be born, and if the man's, a boy. This principle, that the seed of either parent can be 'overpowered' by the other's seed, is not limited to Pythagorean circles, but occurs with various modifications in several [PAGE 226] ancient theories of sex differentiation (again, in spire of Aristotle's opposition to every double-seed-theory; see especially De generatione animalium 1:20 (footnote 24)). The existence of female semen and the occurrence of female ejaculation is the necessary basis of the epikrateia principle and is affirmed by authors like Parmenides (fragment 28B18 D-K), (footnote 25)), Empedocles (fragment 31B63 D-K), Democritus (fragment 68A142 D-K), and several Hippocratic writers (see below). Let us look briefly at two theories concerning sex differentiation that imply a double-seed doctrine.

Empedocles thought that some parts of the embryo had their origin in the man's seed and others in the woman's seed. However, he seems to have combined this with a theory about the determining influence of the temperature of the seed (or the uterus). (footnote 26)). A late tradition (in Censorinus, De die natali 6:6-7) schematizes this theory as follows:

Mw + Fw -> Mm      Mc + Fc -> Ff     Mw + Fc -> Mf     Mc + Fw -> Fm
    M = Male,    m = resembling male   parent
    F = Female,  f = resembling female parent
    w = warm seed, c = cold seed,  -> = creates child
Even though this tradition may perhaps not fully go back to Empedocles himself, it gives a fairly good idea of one of the ancient theories of sex differentiation and heredity. Parmenides' view on this matter is different, because he has a combination of a double-seed doctrine with a left-right theory. (footnote 27)). This is the theory that the sex of the child is determined by its position in the left or right part of the uterus (right for males and left for females). A later modification of this theory by Anaxagoras (fragment 59A107 D-K) seems to have introduced the idea that the sex of the embryo was determined by the part (left or right) of the body from which the seed had been formed. (footnote 28)). This results in the following schema: [PAGE 227]

Mr + Fr -> Mm      Ml + Fl -> Ff     Mr + Fl -> Mf     Ml + Fr -> Fm
    M = Male,    m = resembling male   parent
    F = Female,  f = resembling female parent
    r = seed formed in right side of the body
    l = seed formed in left  side of the body

Later, other amalgamated forms of the left-right theory and of other pieces of embryological speculation developed, and it is probably that these theories had become widely accepted even outside scientific circles. (footnote 29)).

Anaxagoras brings us to the second theory concerning the origin of semen, the so-called pangenesis-doctrine, of which he is the auctor intellectualis (see fragment 59B10 D-K). (footnote 30)). This theory was refined in the school of the atomistic philosophers. According to Aetius (Plac. 5.3, 6), Democritus said that sperm is formed from all parts of the body, like bones and flesh and sinews (fragment 68A141 D-K). Democritus is also quoted as saying: "Coition is a slight attack of epilepsy, for man gushes forth from man and is separated by being torn apart with a kind of shock." (fragment 68B32 D-K). He believed that in women, too, sperm was formed from all parts of the body. Aristotle tells us that the epikrateia principle was an important factor in Democritus' embryological system: "Democritus of Abdera also says that the differentiation of sex takes place within the mother; however, he says, it is not because of heat and cold that one embryo becomes female and another male, but that it depends on the question which parent it is whose semen prevails - not the whole of the semen, but that which has come forth from the part by which male and female differ from one another" (De generatione animalium IV 1, 764a6-11 = fragment 68A143 D-K).

The pangenesis doctrine was the dominant theory in several Hippocratic writings, especially in On Airs, Waters, Places; The Sacred Disease; On Generation; On the Nature of the Child; and On Diseases IV. (footnote 31)). A few quotations will suffice. On Generation 8:1-2 says: "Sperm is a product which comes from the whole body of each parent. (...) [The child] must inevitably resemble each parent in some respect, since it is from both [PAGE 228] parents that the sperm comes to form the child."

On Generation 4:1 says: "A woman also emits something from her body, sometimes into the womb, which then becomes moist, sometimes externally as well, if the womb is open wider than normal. (...) If her desire for intercourse is excited, she emits semen before the man." (footnote 32)). On Diseases IV 32,1 says: "The sperm, coming from all parts of the body both of the man and the woman to produce a human being and falling into the uterus of the woman, coagulates." (footnote 33)). An interesting new feature is that the author of On Generation stresses that "both male and female sperm exists in both partners" (7:1). This thesis, in fact a principle of complete parity, results in the following schema: (footnote 34)).

M+/F+ -> M   M-/F- -> F   M-+/F+- -> M or F   M+/F- -> M or F   M-/F+ -> F or M
    M = Male,    + =   male determining sperm
    F = Female,  - = female determining sperm
    M or F / F or M = depending upon the epikrateia

We see here a far-reaching theory with immensely important implications for an anthropology in which equality of the sexes is sought.

The third theory, the hematogenic doctrine, holds that semen originates from the blood - in fact, is nothing but blood in a certain state of coagulation. It is not certain who the author of this theory was (footnote 35)), but it was already held by Diogenes or Apollonia (fragment 64B6 D-K), as is clearly stated in a long quotation from his work by Aristotle (Historia animalium III 2, 511B31ff.). Aristotle himself is the one who promoted this theory to its influential position, (footnote 36)). which it held until far into the Middle Ages. Aristotle's De generatione animalium, book I, is our main source for his ideas on spermatogenesis. Of course, the basic principle is [PAGE 229] teleology. Aristotle holds that the woman contributes to the embryo nothing but νλη (matter) - that is, she is the causa materalis - whereas the man contributes τελος (form), αρχη της κινησεως (source of movement) - that is, the causa finalis, the causa formalis, and the causa efficiens. This male contribution is semen, by the female contribution is not semen but menstrual blood (τα καταμηνια). Semen is a residue of food. The body converts food into blood by means of a process of 'conception' (πεψις). Blood is the substance from which flesh, bones, and so on come into being. Because in childhood all (food >) blood is needed for the growth of the body and its parts, no semen or menstrual blood is produced. Once the body has become full-grown, it produces a residue (περιττωμα) of blood (< food), and in a process of further concoction, this residue is transformed into semen or menstrual blood. The essential element in this process of concoction (food > blood > semen) is bodily heat. Because males have greater bodily heat than females, males' blood can be 'cooked' enough to reach the stage of semen; females can never reach this stage and hence can produce no semen, only (menstrual) blood. (footnote 37)). In the process of fertilization the semen brings form and movement into the matter (νλη) of the menstrual blood. The state of aggregation of this blood changes only by the impact of the greater heat of the semen, "for the menstrual blood is semen not in a pure state, but in need of working up" (Gen. anim. I 20, 728a26). Only semen in a pure state can 'inform' the powerless female matter so as to make it develop into an embryo. It is clear that in Aristotle's version of the hematogenic doctrine, the female contribution to embryogenesis is very much reduced as compared with the pangenesis and the encephalo-myelogenic doctrines. (footnote 38)).

Aristotle heavily influenced not only Stoic doctrines of spermatogenesis, (footnote 39)), but also the doctrines of the medical school of the so-called pneumatics, founded in the first century CE by Athenaeus of Attaleia (footnote 40)).

[PAGE 230] More important in this respect, however, is the influential Galen, since this great physicisn tried to combine Aristotelian elements with insights of Presocratic and Hippocratic writers as regards embryology. (footnote 41)). Galen did assume on the one hand that women contribute their own sperm, but on the other hand he followed Aristotle in attributing a much lower value to this contribution: female sperm is by far less perfect, thinner, and colder than male sperm. During coition, female sperm is expelled from the 'ovaries' in such a way that both kinds of semen meet in the womb, mix, and form a membrane; thereafter, the female sperm serves only as food for the male semen in its development into an embryo (see for all this especially Galen's extensive treatise De semine). (footnote 42)). As a real eclectic, Galen tries to run with hare and hunt with the hounds. Nonetheles, despite Aristotle's influence, Galen maintains the concept of female sperm: ψευδως λεγεται το μονου του πατ&pho;ος ειναι το σπερμα (it is falsely said that sperm is only from the father)(De sem. 2:1, p. 608 Ed. Kuhn), and he transmits his theory to many a writer in the Middle Ages. (footnote 43)).

We could go on discussing ancient Greek testimonies concerning female seed, (footnote 44)), but I will now turn to a few references to Latin authors. In Lucretius' De rerum natura 4:1028-87, we find an interesting passage on matters of procreation. I quote lines 1208-17 in the prose translation of R.E. Latham: (footnote 45)). [PAGE 231]

In the intermingling of seed it may happen that the woman by a sudden effort overmasters the power of the man and takes control over it. Then children are conceived of the maternal seed and take after their mother. Correspondingly, children may be conceived of the paternal seed and take after their father. The children in whom you see a two-sided likeness, combining features of both parents, are produce alike of their father's body and their mother's blood. At their making, the seeds that course through the limbs under the impulse of Venus were dashed together by the collusion of mutual passion in which neither party was master or mastered. (footnote 46)).

This is a very clear instance of a double-seed theory based upon the pangenesis doctrine combine with the epikrateia principle. The influence of earlier philosophers is obvious. Less influenced by philosophers is Ovid, who warns women in his Ars amatoria 3:767-8: "It is not safe to fall asleep during a meal, for much can happen during sleep that one may feel ashamed of." It is probable that the poet is making an allusion here to the phenomenon of female wet dreams. The pseudo-Aristotelian author of the tenth book of De generatione animalium states that when women have erotic dreams, they too emit semen into the region in front of the womb (10:2, 634bb30-1) (footnote 47)). And other authors discuss the same phenomenon (footnote 48)).

The material surveyed so far covers the period of roughly 500 BCE to 200 CE. It has shown us that throughout this period a theory about female semen had its place side by side with a theory that denied females a contribution to embryogenesis. Widely differing ideas circulated concerning the origin of human semen. I have briefly discussed three of them, and we have seen that all three left room for one or other other form of a double-seed theory. Even Aristotle, the most staunch opponent of the idea of female semen, did not deny that a woman contributed her katamenia to the embryogenesis and that this menstrual blood was in fact from the same origin as male semen, albeit that it had stopped halfway in its development to semen "pur sang". We have seen that many philosophers, physicians, poets, and others held that the contributions of men and women to the formation of a fetus were strictly equal. {PAGE 232]

Jewish theories

If, however, we want to make it a probable thesis that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews could have known such a theory, it does not suffice to point out its existence in the Greco-Roman world. We will have to demonstrate that a Jewish author - and this the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews certainly was - could have known such a theory, either because it had penetrated into early Jewish circles or because similar ideas were already current in Jewish tradition itself.

Let us first go back in history and look at whether ancient Israel could possibly have met such a theory in one of its surrounding cultures. When we turn to Egypt, we do not find any evidence. This matter has been studied intensively by the Dutch Egyptologist B.H. Stricker in his impressive multivolume enterprise De geborte van Horus, but in this elaborate commentary on an ancient Egyptian embryological treatise, he has not been able to point to any unambiguous passage from Egyptian literature that supports a double-seed theory. (footnote 49)). If we continue our search in Mesopotamia, the harvest is far from rich, but perhaps there is something to be found. There is an ancient Mesopotamian potency incantation in which the following line occurs: "If either a man or a woman is [...?] and their semen flows copiously ..." (footnote 50)). The most recent editor of this text remarks that the Babylonian word rihutu (sperm) is "here used exceptionally of a woman's secretion". (footnote 51)). However, it should be conceded that this cuneiform tablet is partly restored here and that, even if the restoration would seem acceptable, this single instance would stand too isolated to enable us to speak of a double-seed theory in Mesopotamia. (footnote 52)).

When we turn to the Old Testament, again we find only one single text that could perhaps be interpreted as implying a theory of female seed. The text is Leviticus 12:2: "Say to the people of Israel: If a woman tazri'a and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; at the time of her menstruation she shall be unclean." The word tazri'a is he hiphil of zr (to sow), a causative form which is used in the Old Testament only [PAGE 233] here and in Genesis 1:11-12, where it is said of plants in the sense of 'produce seed, yield seed, form seed'. When a form of zr means 'to become pregnant, to be impregnated', the niphal form is always used (see, for example, Numbers 5:28, Nahum 1:14). Because the hiphil form can hardly mean anything else than 'to make seed', commentators have got into trouble over this verse and proposed emendations of the text, because they found the thought expressed impossible. (footnote 53)). But one should beware of overhasty conclusions and leave open the possibility that the author of Leviticus 12 may have meant what he seems to write, that is, that a woman can produce semen. But that remains uncertain. We shall see later, however, that this is exactly what the rabbis understood this biblical verse to mean. However, before looking at the rabbinic evidence, let us cast a quick glance at earlier postbiblical Jewish material. (footnote 54)).

The earliest postbiblical passage to be quoted is 1 Enoch 15:4, where the Ethiopic text runs as follows: "Surely, you [namely, the Watchers], you (used to be) holy, spiritual, the living ones, (possessing) eternal life; but (now) you have defiled yourselves with women and with the blood of flesh you have begotten children; you have lusted with the blood of the people [or: after the daughters of men] (footnote 55)), like them producing blood and flesh, (which) die and perish." (footnote 56)). The expression "with the blood of flesh you have begotten children" would seem to be a reference to an Aristotelian theory of the καταμηνια (menstrual blood) as one of the two components in the generative process. That this theory was known in Jewish circles seems certain in view of Sap. Sal. 7:1-2: "In my mother's womb I was sculpted into flesh during a ten months' space, curdled in blood by virile seed and the pleasure that is joined with sleep." (footnote 57)). David Winston rightly points out in his commentary that the author [PAGE 234] here reflects passages like Aristotle's De generatione animalium 1:19-20. The same probably hold true for 4 Maccabees 13:20: "There [in their mother's womb] do brothers abide for a similar period and are moulded through the same span and nurtured by the same blood and brought to maturity through the same vitality. (footnote 58)). And we can add Philo, Quaestiones in Genesim 3:47: "The matter of the female in the remains of the menstrual fluids produces the fetus. But the male (provides) the skill and the cause. And so, since the male provides the greater and the more necessary (part) in the process of generation, it was proper that his pride should be checked by the sign of the circumcision." (footnote 59)). And compare his De opificio mundi 132: "(The menstrual blood) too is said by physical scientists to be the bodily substance of embryos" (footnote 60)).

These five passages all clearly use Aristotelian terminology or show reminiscences of it, so one cannot but conclude that at least this form of the hematogenic doctrine of seed was known in educated Jewish circles. And it has been suggested that it is against this background that one should consider a passage in the New Testament, John 1:13: "... who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God". The expression εξ αιματων εγεννηθησαν (were born of blood) (footnote 61)) is best explained against the background of an Aristotelian katamenia theory. Be that as it may, the evidence for knowledge of (originally) Aristotelian theories in Judaism does not prove the existence of a theory of female semen. As far as I know, there is no direct evidence for that outside rabbinic literature. However, it should be borne in mind that knowledge of Aristotle's ideas very probably implied knowledge of the ideas he combatted so firmly, that is, knowledge of double-seed theories. It may be pure coincidence that these theories are nowhere mentioned (besides being a testimony to Aristotle's influence and prestige), for we meet them often in early rabbinic literature.

[PAGE 235] In the Talmud and the Midrashim, we find the same variety of opinion as in Greek (or Latin) literature. Of course, there is the traditional theory that the women does not contribute anything to the formation of the embryo, for example in Lev. Rabba 14:6 (footnote 62)). This need not detain us here, although it is interesting to see that in one of the passages that reflect this view, we find a marked concurrence with, if not influence of, Greek terminology: In Gen. Rabba 17:8 we read: "Why does a man deposit sperm within a woman while a woman does not deposit sperm within a man? It is like a man who has an article in his hand and seeks a trustworthy person with whom he may deposit it." The word used here for the verb 'deposit' is a hiphil form of pqd, which, according to the dictionaries, means 'to give in charge, to deposit'. When one looks up καταβαλλω and καταβολη in Liddell-Scott-Jones, one finds there exactly the same meaning, '(to) deposit'. This can hardly be coincidence, and I am inclined to detect here the influence of Greek terminology for seminal emission.

That there was indeed Greek influence on rabbinic embryology (footnote 63)) is proved beyond any doubt by several passages, of which I will quote only the most illuminating (footnote 64)). The Aristotelian position seems to be reflected in the short remark in b. Ketuboth 10b: "It has been taught in the name of Rabbi Meir: Every woman who has abundant (menstrual) blood has many children." (footnote 65)). A combination of an Aristotelian and a double-seed theory (as in Galen) is found several times - for example, in a baraita in b. Niddah 31a:

Our rabbis taught: There are three partners in (the conception of) man, the Holy One - blessed be He -, his father, and his mother. His father supplies the semen of the white substance out of which are formed the child's
[PAGE 236]
bones, sinews, nails, the brains in his head and the white in his eye. His mother supplies the semen of the red substance out of which is formed his skin, flesh, hair, blood, and the black of his eye. The Holy One - blessed be He - gives him the spirit and the breadth, beauty of features, eyesight, the power of hearing, the ability to speak and to walk, understanding and discernment.

Almost identical passages can be found in b. Qiddushin 30b, Qohelet Rabba 5:10, 2, Midrash Yetsirat ha-Walad vol. 1, p. 156. Jellinek (footnote 66)), et al. The Aristotelian element is, of course, that the menstrual blood is regarded as the female contribution to the embryogenesis (although, in a sense, quite different from the Stagirite), whereas the fact that the katamenia are explicitly called semen here classes this statement with the double-seed theory.

The double-seed theory is also explicitly referrde to in b. Baba Qamma 92a, where the rabbis discuss the fact that in Gen. 20:18 ("For the Lord has closed up all the wombs in the house of Abimelech."), the Hebrew text has two forms of the verb 'close', the infinitive and the finite verb (MT has 'atsor 'atsar):

Rabbi Eleazar said: Why is "closing up" mentioned twice? There was one closing up in the case of males, semen, and two in the case of females, semen and the giving of birth. In a baraitha it was taught that there were two in the case of males, semen and urinating, and three in the case of females, semen, urinating and the giving of birth. Rabina said: Three in the case of males, semen, urinating and anus, and four in the case of females, semen and the giving of birth, urinating and anus.
Interestingly enough, within the framework of a double-seed theory, the rabbis developed their own version of the epikrateia principle. This version simply held that if a man emits his semen first, the child will be a girl, but if the woman emits her semen first, the child will be a boy (see, for instance, b. Berakhoth 54a, Niddah 70b-71a, etc.) (footnote 67)). This theory - strange at first sight - of crosswise sex determination was supported by exegesis of Leviticus 12:2 and Genesis 46:15 (Leviticus 12:2 being the only Old Testament text discussed above). In b. Niddah 31a we read the following discussion:

Rabbi Isaac citing Rabbi Ammi [or Assi] stated: If the woman emits her semen [hiphil of , as in Leviticus 12:2!] first, she bears a male child,
[PAGE 237]
if the man emits is semen first, she bears a female child; for it is said: "If a woman emits semen and bears a male child" [Leviticus 12:2]. Our Rabbis taught: At first it used to be said that if the woman emits her semen first, she bears a male child, and if the man emits his semen first, she bears a female child, but the Sages did not explain the reason, until Rabbi Zadok came and explained it: "These are the sons of Leah who she bore unto Jacob in Paddan-Aram, with his daughter Dinah" [Genesis 46:15]. Scripture thus ascribes the males to the females and the females to the males.
This last sentence makes clear how Genesis 46:15 was understood: because the biblical text speaks of 'sons of Leah' and of 'his daughter Dinah', scripture evidently implies that the fact that sons were born was due to Leah and that a daughter was born due to Jacob. This fact, combined with the datum that the unique hiphil form of zr' in Leviticus 12:2 implies female seminal emission, seems to lead inevitably to this specifically rabbinic doctrine of sex differentiation. (footnote 67)). The obvious problem of a double pregnancy with both a male and a female embryo was solved as follows: "It may equally be assumed that both [man and woman] emitted their semen simultaneously, the one resulting in a male and the other in a female" (b. Niddah 25b and 28b).

In this context it should be added that, although the Targumim on Leviticus all have a verb meaning 'to become pregnant' for the hiphil of zr' in Leviticus 12:2, and the halakhic midrash Sifra has no remarks ad locum, the haggadic midrash Lev. Rabba 14:9 remarks on our verse: "It [namely, the determination of the embryo's sex] may be likened to two artists, each of whom executes the likeness of the other; thus it is always that the female is formed from [the seed of the] man and the male from [the seed of the] woman. This is indicated by what is written: ... [Leviticus 12:2 and Genesis 46:15]. The process may be likened to two entering a bath house: whichever perspires first is the first to come out."

Several other aspects of rabbinic embryology betray the influence of Greek medical and philosophical ideas, but I have limited myself to the concept of female seed. It may be clear that this concept was not the fruit of an indigenous development of Jewish ideas about semen, nor was it the result of exegesis of Leviticus 12:2 and Genesis 46:15. The fact that these biblical texts are only adduced in a context of discussion of epikrateia as the dominant principle of sex determination makes it highly probable [PAGE 238] that these biblical passages were only taken into service a posteriori as a scriptual prop to this theory. The Greek theory had probably already been adopted by the rabbis before the exegetical justification was there. It seems to me that in this respect, too, the rabbis were indebted to Hellenistic culture. (footnote 69)).


I have surveyed evidence for a theory of female semen from approximately 500 BCE to approximately 500 CE. I have demonstrated that there was continuous support for this theory during this millennium (and the demonstration could have covered the next millenium as well). (footnote 70)). What has become overwhelming evident is that nothing prevents us from assuming that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews could easily have had knowledge of this widely current idea (much more current than Cadbury and Spicq had surmised). The fact that this author uses the term καταβολην σπερματος, whereas in most other texts about female seminal emissions this term is not used - the most current terms are προιεσθαι, αποκρινειν, εκκρινειν σπερμα, σπερμαινειν - is not a valid objection, since these other terms were used indiscriminately for male and female emissions as well. Hence we cannot but concur with Cadbury, who said 70 years ago: "The author of Hebrews meant what he seems to say." (footnote 71)).

It should be added in fairness, however, that nine centuries before Cadbury, an early commentator on our Epistle, the Byzantine exegete Theophylactus, wrote [in anticipation of Cadbury] in his Exposito in Epistulam ad Hebraeos 11:11:

'She received strength for a seminal emission': That is, she obtained strength to receive and retain Abraham's seed that was emitted into her. Or, because those who have studied these matters in details say that a woman, too, in a sense, produces seed of her own, perhaps the words 'for a seminal emission' should be taken to mean this: 'so that she herself too could emit semen'. (footnote 72)).


1. P.v.d. Horst, Sarah's Seminal Emission - Hebrews 11:11 in the Light of Ancient Embryology in Greeks, Romans and Christians, Minneapolis, 1990. Republished in Hellenism - Judaism - Christianity: Essays on Their Interaction, Kampen, 1994; republished in 1998.

1. See the instances collected in Bauer-Aland's Worterbuch s.v. καταβολην 2, and especially the many passages in J.J. Wettstein, Novum Testamentum Graecum, Amsterdam 1752, II 425-6.

2. B.M. Metzger, Textual Commentary to the Greek New Testament, London etc., 1975, 672-3. M. Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, Oxford 1967 (3rd ed.), 87-8. Black here refers to K. Beyer's discussion of the 'Zustandssatze' in his Semitische Syntax im Neuen Testament, Gottingen 1961, 117ff.

3. E.P. Ellingworth & E. A. Nida, Translator's Handbook on the Letter to the Hebrews, London etc., 1983, 261. Cf. also the remark in the Translator's New Testament, London, 1973, 528. -

4. H. Windisch, Der Hebraerbrief, Tubingen 1913, 92-3.

5. O. Michel, Der Brief an die Hebraer, Gottingen 1966 (6th ed.), 395-6; H. Braun, An die Hebraer, Tubingen 1984, 358-9. H.F. Weiss, Der Brief an die Hebraer, Gottingen 1991, 587-8. H.W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Philadelphia 1989, 325.

6. A.F.J. Klijn, De brief aande Hebreeen, Nijkerk 1975, 123.

7. H.W. Montefiore, The Epistle to the Hebrews, London 1964, 194.

8. H.A. Kent, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Grand Rapids 1972, 226.

9. A good and recent survey is to be found in P. Ellingwoth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Grand Rapids 1993, 586-9.

10. C. Spicq, L'epitre aux Hebreux, Paris 1953, II 348-9; H.J. Cadbury, The Ancient Physiological Notions Underlying John I 13 and Hebrews XI 11, The Expositor (ser. 9) 2 (1924) 430-9.

11. C. Spicq, L'epitre aux Hebreux, Paris 1977, 188.

12. Cadbury was the first to study Hebrews 11:11 in the light of "ancient physiological notions" (see note 10), but his evidence is extremely limited and he does not disucss at all the relevant rabbinic material.

13. On Herophilus, the famous third century BCE Alexandrian anatomist, and his role in ancient medical science, see H. von Staden, Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria, Cambridge 1989.

14. See for the details J. Needham & A. Hughes, A History of Embryology, Cambridge 1959 (2nd ed.). When ovaries were discovered in the Hellenists period, they were regarded as the depositories of female sperm and called testes!

15. See A.K. Ladas, B. Whipple & J.D. Perry, The G-Spot and Other Recent Discoveries about Human Sexuality, London 1983.

16. Thus G.E.R. Lloyd, Science, Folklore and Ideology: Studies in the Life Sciences in Ancient Greece, Cambridge 1983, 86.

17. Translation (slightly adapted) by H. Lloyd-Jones, The Eumenides by Aeschylus. A Translation and Commentary, Englewood Cliffs 1970, 51-2. Cf. also Euripides, Orestes 552-3.

18. Lloyd, Science, Folklore and Ideology 87.

19. What follows is based largely upon E. Lesky, Die Zeugungs- un Vererbungslehren der Antike und ihr Nachwirken, Mainz 1951. Other and shorter presentations can be found in W. Gerlach, Das Problem des 'weiblichen Samens' in der antiken und mittelalterlichen Medizin, (Sudhoffs) Archiv fur Geschichte der Medizin
30 (1937-38) 177-93; Th. Hopfner, Das Sexuallegen der Griechen und Romer von den Anfangen bis ins 6. Jahrhundert nach Christus I,1, Prague 1938, 132-36; P.M.M. Geurts, De erfelijkheid in de ourdere Griekse wetenschap, Nijmegen - Utrecht 1941; E. Lesky & J.H. Waszink, Embryologie, RAC 4 (1959) 1228-42; H.J. von Schumann, Sexualkunde und Sexualmedizin in der klassischen Antike, Munchen 1975, 102-4; Lloyd Science, Folklore and Ideology 86-94. A. Rousselle, Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity, Oxford 1988, 27-32, is idiosyncratic. A short survey of other (more primitive, often magical) theories of conception in the ancience world is F. Kudlien, Zur Erforschung archaisch-griechischer Zeugungslehren, Medizinhisorisches Journal 16 (1981) 323-39. A survey of the study of ancient gynecology in general can be found in D. Gourevitch, Les etudes de gynecologie antique de 1975 a aujourd'hui, Centre Jean Palerne, Universite de Saint-Etienne, Informations 12 (March 1988), 2-12 (I owe this reference to the kindness of Dr. M. Stol).

20. N. Sallmann, Censorini de die natali liber, Leipzig 1983, 8 ad locum, gives the pertinent references to the fragments of the authors mentioned, as does R. Rocca-Serra, Censorinus: Le jour natal, Paris 1980, 45 (his French translation is at p. 8). In 6:5 and 6:8 Censorinus discusses Parmenides' and Anaxgoras' ideas on the role of female sperm.

21. Discussed by Lesky, Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren 9-30; but see especially the extensive discussion in R.B. Onians, The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, World, Time and Fate, Cambridge 1951 (reprinted 1988), passim. A concise doxographical account of several theories on this matter is to be found in Aetius, Placita 5:3-11 (in H. Diels, Doxographi Graeci, 4th ed. Berlin 1965, 417-22).

22. Translation by F.M. Cornford, Plato's Cosmology, London 1937, 356.

23. On which see Lesky, Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren 20-22.

24. For example De gen. 1:20, 727b33ff.: "Some think that the female contributes semen in coition because the pleasure she experiences is sometimes similar to that of the male, and also is attended by a liquid discharge; but this discharge is not seminal."

25. On this difficult fragment, preserved only in a late and free Latin rendering (and beginning with femina virque simul Veneris cum germina miscent ["When a woman and a man together mix the germs of love"]), see the discussion by J. Mansfield, Parmenides en Zeno: Het leerdicht en de paradoxen, Kampen 1988, 76-7.

26. On the problems caused by the lack of clarity in the doxographical tradition on this point see Lesky, Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren 31-8. The relevant fragments are 31A81, 31B63, 31B65 D-K.

27. See especially Lesky, Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren 39-69; O. Kember, Right and Left in the Sexual Theories of Parmenides, Journal of Hellenic Studies 91 (1971) 70-9; G.E.R. Lloyd, Parmenides' Sexual Theories, Journal of Hellenic Studies 92 (1972) 178-9.

28. On the ambiguities in the doxographic tradition about Anaxagoras' embryology see Lesky, Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren 51-61.

29. Lesky, Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren 62, points to passages in Varro, Pliny the Elder, and Horapollo that seem to indicate that these theories had become popular lore.

30. On the question of who is to be credited with the invention of this theory, Lesky, Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren 70ff., is to be corrected; see A. Preuss, Galen's Criticism of Aristotle's Conception Theory, Journal of the History of Biology 10 (1977) 68-85, especially 72.

31. See the references in Lesky, Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren 77, and in I.M. Loney, The Hippocratic Treatises "On Generation", "On the Nature of the Child", Diseases IV, Berlin - New York 1981, especially 19ff.

32. Translation by Loney (see previous note). At page 119, Loney makes the pertinent comment: "The question of what the mother contributes to the formation of her child has an obvious importance socially, legally, and economically, as well as on a more personal level. The kind of relevance this question had is illustrated by the passage in the Eumenides of Aeschylus (657-666) in which Apollo supports the case of Orestes by the argument that it is the father who forms the embryo, while the mother nourishes it and preserves it."

33. The three Hippocratic treatises De gen., De nat. pueri and Morb. IV originally formed one whole: see, besides the work of Loney, also R. Joly, Le niveau de la science hippocratique, Paris 1966, 70-119, especially 111-6 ('L'inferiorite de la femme').

34. Lesky, Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren 84.

35. For discussion see Lesky, Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren 120-5

36. On Aristotle see Lesky, Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren 125-9, and V. Happ, Hyle: Studien zum aristotelischen Materie-Begriff, Berlin - New York 1971, 746-50.

37. Happ, Hyle 747, puts it concisely: "Die Katamenien sind also sozusagen 'halbgares' Sperma, das Sperma ist 'gares' Menstruationsblut".

38. See J. Morsink, Was Aristotle's Biology Sexist?, Journal of the History of Biology 12 (1979) 83-112.

39. It should be noted, however, that whereas Aetius in Plac. 5:5,2 states that Zeno, like Aristotle, did not believe that women produce sperm, the same doxographer says about the Stoics in general (Plac. 5:11,4) that they believe προιεσθαι και την γυναικα (that the woman also produces [sperm]). On the Stoics see also Censorinus, De die natali 5:4, quoted above.

40. Lesky, Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren 163-77. F. Kudlien demonstrates also the Stoic influence on the Pneumatics in his article 'Pneumatische Arzte', PWSup. 11 (1968) 1097-1108.

41. See R.E. Siegel, Galen's System of Physiology and Medicine, Basel - New York 1968, I 224ff.; A. Preuss, Galen's Criticism of Aristotle's Conception Theory (see note 30 above); M. Boylan, Galen's Conception Theory, Journal of the History of Biology 19 (1986) 47-77; J. Kollesch, Galens Auseinandersetzung mit der aristotlelische Samenlehre, in J. Wiesner (ed.), Aristotles: Werk und Wirkung (FS P. Moraux), Berlin 1987, 17-26.

42. See also the notice on Galen by Nemesius, De natura hominis 25, 247 (ed. M. Morani, Leipzig 1987, 86-7); "But Galen scorns the view of Aristotle, and says that women do produce semen, and that it is the mingling of the two kinds of semen that produces the embryo". Galen's reproductive system as presented in his De usu partium books 14 and 15 is excellently summarized by M. Tallmadge May, Galen on the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body, Ithaca 1968, I 56-8, cf. also II 631-2 note 24.

43. Gerlach, Das Problem des weiblichen Samens (see note 19 above) 190ff. The physician Soranus, too, takes an eclectic position: females as well as males emit sperm (Gyn. 1:30-1), but female sperm does not contribute to the formation of the embryo (Gyn. 1:12). See O. Temkin, Soranus' Gynecology, Baltimore 156 (repr. 1991).

44. Short but interesting doxographic accounts on this matter can be found in Aetius, Placita 5:3-9, esp. 5:5 (on the question ε*iota; και θηλεα προιενalpha;ι σπερμα); cf. H. Daiber, Aetius Arabus: Die Vorsokratiker in arabischer Uberlieferung, Wiesbaden 1980, 487 (on Placita 5:3).

45. Lucretius: The Nature of the Universe, Harmondsworth 1951, 168.

46. Cf. also Lucretius, De rerum natura 4:1227-32.

47. Aristotle himself denies that the occurrence of wet dreams in women has anything to do with the emission of sperm (Gen. anim. 2:4, 739a20-26), but it is apparent from this passage that the occurrence of nocturnal emissions in women had been used as one of the arguments that females, as well as males, emit sperm. Cf. also Hist. anim. 10:6, 637b28.

48. See Hopfner, Sexualleben 134, and especially A. Rousselle, Observation feminine et ideologie masculine: Le corps de la femme d'apres les medicin grecs, Annales (economies, societes, civilisations) 35 (1980) 1100-1

49. B.H. Stricker, De geborte van Horus (5 volumes), Leiden 1963-1989; see especially volume 2 (1968) 131.

50. See R.D. Biggs, SA.ZI.GA: Ancient Mesopotamian Potency Incantations, Locust Valley 1967, 66. The text is usually referred to as BAM 205:40.

51. Biggs, SA.ZI.GA 68. See also the comments in the review by R. Labat in Bibliotheca Orientalis 25 (1968) 357a, and M. Stol, Zwangerschap en geboorte bij de Babyloniers en in de Bijbel, Leiden 1983, 5.

52. In the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary 5 (184) 349b, our passage (BAM 205:40) is quoted but not translated, being too uncertain.

53. See, for example, A.B. Ehrlich, Randglossen zur hebraischen Bibel 2, Hildesheim 1968 (= 1909), 40: "Bei der durch zr ausgedructen Handlung kann das Weib nur als der passive Teil gedacht werden: vgl. Numbers 5:28. Aus diesem Grunde ist fur das hier unmogliche tazri'a entschieden tivra' su lesen" (!).

54. A very short and incomplete survey of this material can be found in Cadbury, Ancient Physiological Notions (see note 10) 433-4, and in Lesky & Waszink, Embryologie (see note 19) 1241.

55. On the text-critical problem here see M. Black, The Book of Enoch or 1 Enoch, Leiden 1985, 152.

56. Translation (slightly adapted) by E. Isaac in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (ed. J.H. Charlesworth), Garden City 1983, I 21. The square brackets are mine, the round brackets are Isaac's. The passage refers, of course, to Genesis 6:1-4.

57. The translation is by D. Winston, The Wisdom of Solomon, Garden City 1979, 162. See also his commentary on 164-4.

58. Translation by M. Hadas, The Third and Fourth Books of the Maccabees, New York 1953, 213.

59. The translation of the Armenian version is by R. Marcus in the LCL edition.

60. Translation by F.H. Colson and G.H. Whitaker in the LCL edition.

61. For the plural αιματα cf. Euripides, Ion 693, δλλων τραφεις εξ αιματων, and see, besides the commentaries on John 1:13, especially Cadbury's article mentioned in note 10.

62. See e.g. J. Feliks, Biology, Enc. Jud. 4 (1972) 1019ff.; I. Simon, La gynecologie, l'obstetrie, l'embryologie et la puericulture dans la Bible et le Talmud, Revue d'histoire de la medicine hebraique 4 (1949) 35-64; J. Preuss, Biblisch-talmudische Medizin, Wiesbaden 1992 (repr. of the 1911 edition), 434-504 = Biblical and Talmudic Medicine (tr. F. Rosner), New York 1978, 375-431 (Gynecology and Obstetrics). Unfortunately I have not been able to consult the dissertation by E. Szarvas, Les connaissances embryologiques et obstetricales de Hebreux jusqu'a l'epoque de cloture du Talmud, Paris 1936.

63. Greek influence on rabbinic anthropology in general was proved long ago by R. Meyer, Hellenistisches in der rabbinischen Anthropologie, Stuttgart 1937.

64. Some passages are discussed by F. Rosner, Medicine in the Bible and the Talmud, New York 1977, 173-8. Cf. also D.M. Feldman, Birth Control in Jewish Law: Marital Relations, Contraception and Abortion as Set Forth in the Classic Texts of Jewish Law, Westport 1980, 132-40. Several passages are also mentioned by Stricker, De geboorte van Horus (see note 49) II 121ff. with notes.

65. I use throughout the Soncino translation of the Talmud and the Midrash Rabbis.

66. German translation of this midrash in A. Wunsche, Aus Israels Lehrhallen III, Hildesheim 1967 (reprint of the 1909 edition), 221.

67. These and other passages are discussed by Rosner, Medicine in the Bible and the Talmud (see note 64) 173ff.

68. The sequel of this passage in Niddah 31a goes on to discuss this theme but need not be reproduced here. All embryological, sexological, and gynecological lore in the tractate Niddah betrays a great deal of knowledge of Greek medical theories.

69. For another example in the field of embryology see P.W. Van der Horst, Seven Months' Children in Jewish and Christian Literature from Antiquity, in my Essays on the Jewish World of Early Christianity, Fribourg - Gottingen 1990, 233-247.

70. For the persistence of this doctrine in the Middle Ages in Greek, Latin, Hebrew literatures, see the studies by Needham, Gerlach, Lesky and Rosner referred to in notes 14, 19 and 64.

71. Cadbury, Ancient Philosophical Notions (see note 10) 439. On p. 430 Cadbury rightly remarks on sexological notions of the ancients: "Such notions as the had, they were wont to express with directnewss without euphemism and false delicacy even in untechnical writing, as in poetry and religious literature."

72. PG 125, 348. On the knowledge of double-seed theories among patristic authors of the earlier period (2nd to 4th century) see especially Waszink in RAC 4 (1959) 1242-4, and also his monumental Tertulliani De anima, Amsterdam 1947, 342-8.