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Science & Religion
Conception in the Bible vs Fertilization after 1827
by Peter Eyland
In the ancient world, it was held that the male provided the whole of the seed that fell into the ground of the female (i.e. the womb).
On the male side, for example, in the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews 7:9 the author argues for the superiority of Joshua′s (i.e. Jesus′) priesthood and wrote "one might even say that Levi, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met [Abraham]". In ancient world terms, this did not imply that Levi was a living breathing person when Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek. It meant that because the male delivered the whole seed from one generation to the next, there was an ancestral presence from Abraham′s seed that intimately linked Levi with Abraham. Modern Biology, of course, teaches that Levi could not physically be in Abraham′s body as a great-grandson would only have one eighth of Abraham′s genes.
On the female side, for example in the Hebrew Bible Psalm 139 :13 "For ... you knit me together in my mother′s womb ... (15) my frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth" (Hebrew: eretz). Here the womb is called earth.
The sex of a child was taken to be completely due to the woman. If the woman had a womb which was good earth or soil, then she produced a boy. If mediocre, then she produced a girl. If she produced no child, then she and her womb were barren earth or soil. This language is seen in Judges 13:3 "the angel of Yhvh appeared to the woman and said, "You are barren and have no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son".
With a slightly different view, Empedocles (490 - 430 BCE) held that when the seed entered a warm womb it becomes male. When the seed enters into a cold womb it becomes female. The cause of heat and cold in this context, is the flow of the menses, being hotter or colder, older or more recent.
In order to accommodate the obvious contribution of the female, Hippocrates (490 - 430 BCE) and Galen (129 to 200 CE) held that this was the result of a propitious mixing of male and female "seeds". In this case, male seeds were identified as white seminal fluid and female seeds were identified with the red blood associated with the menses.
Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and other Greek philosophers believed that hereditary traits were somehow passed on in the blood. Thus terms like "blue-blood" and "blood relative" are used even today
The Qur′an mentions blood in 23:14 "Then We made the sperm into a clot of congealed blood; then of that clot We made a (foetus) lump; then we made out of that lump bones and clothed the bones with flesh; then we developed out of it another creature".
The word conception is about catching or taking hold. This applied both to ideas in the mind (concepts) and what happened in the womb. In the ancient world, human conception occurred when the seed (by itself or mixed with blood) was implanted in the womb and started to germinate.
Notice that there was no idea in the ancient world that women had eggs. The first undisputed observation of the human egg was made by Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876), and reported in a letter in 1827. It is only after this date that the idea of fertilization as the joining of sperm with a single egg came into usage. From modern Biology it is understood that fertilization occurs outside the womb with the joining of sperm and egg. Continuing the Biblical usage, conception is then the implantation of the fertilized egg into the womb lining.
The Bible writes about a woman conceiving by implantation in the womb, but the idea of union of sperm with a single egg was completely unknown. It clearly cannot be argued then, that the Bible says life begins with fertilization. The union of sperm and egg was only known after 1827.
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