abortion in early jewish and christian theology

put-on-fleshEarly Jewish and Christian writings are very useful to help enlighten modern audiences about culture and ideas of these ancient civilizations. Whereas modern people have perverse incentives to reinterpret the Bible to fit their ideology, these writings help illustrate double standards in reading comprehension.

One such area is abortion. Some modern people attempt to make the claim that the Bible does not condemn abortion as murder. They willfully misunderstand Exodus 21 to make this claim. In this Exodus text, God gives the death penalty to negligent homicide of the unborn baby:

Exo 21:22 “If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.
Exo 21:23 But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life,

Some individuals claim that the “harm” does not refer to the unborn baby, but that is not genuine to the text. A woman has a premature birth and the text links this to the harm that may or may not follow. The premature birth (there is no evidence this first part is referring to a miscarriage death) causes the assailant to pay restitution. But Exodus adds, if any harm follows (as opposed to “no harm” against the unborn baby), then it is a “life for a life”. The Jews took killing people’s children very seriously.

Conversely, if the woman was not pregnant then presumably no restitution is due. If this text was about the woman and not the baby, then why include the fact that she is pregnant? Why include the premature birth statement? What is the contrast between the premature birth and the later scenario? Aren’t there other texts that deal with unintentional manslaughter? To make this passage dismissive of the life of the baby is a gross injustice to the text.

Interestingly enough, “an eye for an eye” is only found in this text dealing with unborn babies. Killing unborn babies, even accidentally, was a capital crime in the Old Testament.

The Jews were notoriously pro-life. Tacitus (56–117AD) criticizes the Jews on this point:

Still they provide for the increase of their numbers. It is a crime among them to kill any newly-born infant. They hold that the souls of all who perish in battle or by the hands of the executioner are immortal. Hence a passion for propagating their race and a contempt for death. They are wont to bury rather than to burn their dead, following in this the Egyptian custom; they bestow the same care on the dead, and they hold the same belief about the lower world.

In one of the earliest Christian texts, The Didache (50-120AD) this belief is attributed to Christians in general:

thou shalt do no sorcery, thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born,

The “sorcery” mentioned is about potions or poisons. Probably this is referring to chemical abortifacient (with the same meaning being possible in both Gal 5:20 or Rev 9:21). This practice is both mentioned by Minucius Felix and Basil (condemned in both cases). In any case, the text distinguishes between babies aborted in the womb and babies aborted after birth. This is repeated in the The Epistle of Barnabas (c80-120AD):

Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion, nor again shalt thou kill it when it is born.

The text distinguishes between born and unborn babies. Both forms of abortions were prohibited.

No only this, but in the Apocalypse of Peter (c100-150AD) there is a horrifying image. All those women who have had abortions are forced to wallow in excrement/vile/gore up to their eyes. Their unborn babies encircle them, crying endlessly (the image is of their own children, whom they have murdered, piercing their ears with the infant cries they never were able to hear). And from the babies, fire shoots into the eyes of the mothers who aborted them:

26 And hard by that place I saw another strait place wherein the discharge and the stench of them that were in torment ran down, and there was as it were a lake there. And there sat women up to their necks in that liquor, and over against them many children which were born out of due time sat crying: and from them went forth rays of fire and smote the women in the eyes: and these were they that conceived out of wedlock (?) and caused abortion.

Born “out of due time” is referring to in utero abortion. The idea is that the abortion cuts short the pregnancy. It is these babies that are present and taking vengeance.

In a lost fragment of the same text, snakes crawl over the bodies of the mothers and eat their flesh:

But the milk of the mothers, flowing from their breasts and congealing, saith Peter in the Apocalypse, shall engender small beasts (snakes) devouring the flesh, and these running upon them devour them: teaching that the torments come to pass because of the sins (correspond to the sins).

While this lost fragment may be spurious and the previous text limitedly received (the Muratorian fragment accepts it as legitimate), it does show the cultural values of the Christians of that day.

Athenagoras of Athens (c 175-180AD) describes how Early Christians detest abortion (even abortion via chemicals in the womb) as murder:

And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God s for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it.

There is an emphasis on children in the womb.

Both early Jewish and Christian theology was dead set against abortion. The Jewish values clashed against the Roman values. But the early Christians were strongly ingrained by the earliest Church Fathers to oppose abortion. It took Augustine (354–430AD) and the Talmud to shift opinion away from these values.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
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2 Responses to abortion in early jewish and christian theology

  1. Tom Torbeyns says:

    Feel free to elaborate on that last sentence, Chris :-)

  2. dinoconstant says:

    Hi Chris

    I like the way you explore beyond the Bible.

    I agree that the Jews were pro-life about unborn and newly-born infants. What puzzles me is why they were so punitive towards their fellow adults. Below is a link:

    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Leviticus+20&version=KJV

    And an extract from it:

    10 And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.

    11 And the man that lieth with his father’s wife hath uncovered his father’s nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

    12 And if a man lie with his daughter in law, both of them shall surely be put to death: they have wrought confusion; their blood shall be upon them.

    So they were killed for breaking certain laws and the executioners were excused, even though this act contravened the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Why not banish them instead? This was the punishment for breaking other laws such as having sex when a woman is menstruating.

    What are your thoughts on this issue, please?

    Peace and love to all,

    Dinos

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