Abortion: What the Early Church Said

The woman in this picture is explaining how she ended her newborn daughter’s life.

Believe it or not, she’s actually done this to eight of her children, all girls. In her village in India, it is common practice.

You can read more of her tragic story on this blog, “The Three Deadliest Words in the World: It’s a Girl.”

As shocking as this is, infanticide has been practiced in many cultures around the world and throughout history. The low-tech way to end an unwanted pregnancy is not abortion, but by smothering or strangling an infant as soon as it is born. (And much of the time, the reason is because the baby is a girl.)

This was true in ancient Greek and Roman culture in the New Testament era too. But the practice of infanticide was roundly condemned in Jewish and Christian culture as murder. You can find many ancient sermons against it by both Jews and Christians.

But what about the New Testament? Do we find anything there about infanticide?

Scholar David Instone-Brewer says so, and in a very prominent place, actually. He believes that in Acts 15, when the early church lays down the four minimal laws for Gentiles, this was what “strangled” (pniktos, or smothered) actually means.

In verse 20, the apostles ruled that the Gentiles must abstain from “things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.” This is commonly read as referring to four aspects of pagan worship that would be obnoxious to Jews, with last two referring to eating meat from animals from which the blood has not been drained. Not all scholars find this convincing, because it seems odd to single out one food prohibition for two laws.

Scholars who study the Jewish context have what I think is a much better answer. They point out that the three most reprehensible sins in rabbinic thought were idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder. Even today, any law in the Torah can be violated in order to save human life, except for these three prohibitions. These three sins were also assumed by Jews to be common practice among pagans. The phrase “shedding of blood” (shefichut damim), or just “blood,” was shorthand for murder. So the Acts 15 laws prohibited Gentile converts from idol worship, sexual immorality and bloodshed, three fundamental moral laws that applied to all humanity. (1)

I’ve always found this explanation of the early church’s ruling more satisfying, but one question has remained. Why was “pniktos” (smothered) on the list? If it refers to infanticide by smothering, it would make complete sense to me. This kind of “birth control” was a practice that was common among Gentiles that was abhorrent to Jews. It makes sense that they would single out infanticide for special attention, so that Gentiles would realize that it is a kind of murder too.

You can read Instone-Brewer’s research paper at this link: “Infanticide and the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52/2 (June 2009) 301–21). He also gave a sermon “Teaching against Abortion in the Earliest Church” which is aimed more for the layperson. As a pastor as well as a scholar, his preaching often shares from his research on biblical culture. See his sermon archive for more interesting insights. (2)

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(1) You can also read more about the Act 15 prohibitions for Gentiles in the Jerusalem Perspective article, “The Apostolic Decree and the Noahide Commandments” by David Flusser and Shmuel Safrai. See also the chapter, “Requirements for Gentiles” in New Light on  the Difficult Words of Jesus (p 141-144.) by David Bivin.

(2) Instone-Brewer has also written some excellent books, including a scholarly series called Traditions of the Rabbis from the New Testament Era, and lay-level book called Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible. In this second book, he gives some pastoral insights on how Jesus’ words about divorce might be understood in light of wider rabbinic thought.

 

Comments

17 Responses to “Abortion: What the Early Church Said”

  1. 1
    Don Johnson|October 26, 2012

    DIB also wrote “Divorce and Remarriage: The Social and Literary Context” which is an academic work that IMO obsoletes all previous books on the subject in the sense that one might be able to find nuggets of truth in them, but it is almost certain that they will misunderstand something important that DIB clarifies.

  2. 2
    Lois Tverberg|October 26, 2012

    Don, yes, that’s the book that I mentioned in the post “Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context.” I agree – it’s very good. He has another book out called Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Pastoral Solutions from Biblical Realities. It looks like the first book is about the research, and the second about how his findings would apply today.

  3. 3
    Lw|October 26, 2012

    If I’m not mistaken, they more commonly practiced “exposure” than smothering. (?)

    Either way, using the prohibition on “things strangled” in the Apostolic Decree as a way to say they shouldn’t kill their newborns seems a bit far fetched to me as that term actually does have meaning already regarding proper slaughter.

    Additionally, the prohibitions in the letter of the Apostolic Decree, as written to the Gentiles (vs 29) is in the very same order as they are listed in Lev 17 & 18. This explanation seems more natural to me because if we are to believe something that already has meaning will suddenly take on a different meaning, I’d think there would have to be some president for it.

  4. 4
    Lois Tverberg|October 26, 2012

    Lw, it doesn’t sound like you looked at the article. In the first few paragraphs, DIB discusses the term “exposure.” It was likely a euphemism, because an infant left exposed could be eaten by animals or raised as a slave or prostitute. Death was seen to be preferable. Your other comment is addressed in the article too.

  5. 5
    Don Johnson|October 26, 2012

    I have both and while they overlap some, the acedemic book has all the details and the pastoral book summarizes the academic book. Since it was written later, it also has his later thoughts in the area. So I assess both as critical to have in this area. I have a 9 session teaching on Marriage and Divorce: 1st Century Perspectives that is mostly based on his works. These are the books that first pointed out to me how wrong I could be in interpreting Scripture due to my lack of knowledge of 1st century cultural things.

  6. 6
    Lois Tverberg|October 26, 2012

    Thanks for the clarification about DIB’s books. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them.

  7. 7
    Lw|October 27, 2012

    Lois,

    Yes I read it! 🙂 but I honestly don’t think he proves many of his statements regarding these ancients killing the newborns before exposing them. But my biggest issues are:

    1) His definition of refraining from “blood” as also including a prohibition of murder.
    Since there was already the 7 Noahide Laws that Jews considered all (Gentiles) bound to, I don’t agree with him. After all, if they (James, et al) weren’t thinking of these 4 as additions to the 7 Noahides they were ALREADY bound to, then one really has to scratch their head and wonder how, in such a culture, the Apostles could give only 4 requirements to these Gentiles converting from the paganism.

    I think a better way to see it is that these 4 were in addition to the 7 Noahides and actually brought the gentile into an elevated status; a sojourner with Israel. Reading Lev 17-18 shows these same laws –in the same order– are incombant upon those non-Jews who were “resident aliens.” Since the Apostles were deciding not to enforce gentile conversion to Judaism, this makes a lot of sense.

    2) Based on his remark: “When the church first welcomed Gentiles, they felt it necessary to lay down rules for Gentile converts concerning some issues. ”
    I have to admit I hold a different paradigm as I don’t believe that the “church” existed prior to Gentiles coming in and I don’t believe that Jews converted to Christianity.

  8. 8
    Budd|October 27, 2012

    If murder was so reprehensible to the Hebrew, how does one treat the material in the OT relative to stoning someone to death. Would a Hebrew consider this murder?

    I have also read that murder was relegated someone within the Hebrew community (neighbor) but it was not considered murder it it happened to someone outside the Hebrew community/clan/ etc. Could you bring some of your thoughts to this?

    Thank you,
    Budd

  9. 9
    Lois Tverberg|October 27, 2012

    Budd,

    The issue is too complex to address here, but one point I’d make is that capital punishment, biblically, is not murder. One is wanton, malicious violence, the other is a penalty demanded by God or by a society for a heinous crime. Human life is not so supreme that even justice cannot demand it.

    In fact, biblical scholars point out that the criminal code of the Bible demanded death for murder because life is so precious in God’s eyes. In the surrounding societies, the wealthy could pay a fine to the family of a victim, allowing the murderer to go free. The less wealthy might substitute a child or wife — a form of “property” — for the culprit. The laws of the Torah regarded life to be of such supreme value that no monetary fine was sufficient – only the life of the murderer was enough to pay for the crime.

  10. 10
    Nick|October 28, 2012

    This passage very well be referring to infanticide, but does that mean it also refers to abortion?

    In the American legal system if a doctor destroys a fetus in utero accidentally he is not charged with destruction of property but charge with murder. I might be wrong on this.

    But in the Torah it says if two men are fighting and one accidentally hits a woman nearby who is with child and the fetus is destroyed, them that man must pay restitution. He is not charge with murder and sentenced to death, as the Torah calls for in cases of murder, but he must pay fine. If all life is equal and a fetus is a living human being, them why is it not considered killing when when a fetus is destroyed in the Torah?

    Also in the Talmud the rabbis seem very clear that early on in the pregnancy, it is not considered to be a human but fluid.

    From the literature I’ve read it seems that abortion is against the Halacha, but a fetus is not considered to be a living human but is an incredibly valuable being that we have no right to destroy.

    I’m very uncertain on this issues. Personally I am absolutely prolife and not pro choice. Legally, I don’t know. However my main point is just to note some of the troubling passages from the Torah and Talmud that make this a very complicated halachic issue, and when people try to use the Bible to prove that abortion is wrong, it’s not so simple.

  11. 11
    Lois Tverberg|October 29, 2012

    Nick –

    Very good question. You’re right – I was using the word “abortion” in a broad way, and Acts 15 doesn’t specifically say anything about anything else except infanticide.

    One thing I see in the DIB article is that the early sources he quotes all prohibit abortion along with infanticide, mentioning both in the same sentence. My guess from that is that the Acts church would too.

    But you’re right that in Jewish law, a fetus is considered a “part of the mother” until it’s born, rather than another human being. Abortion is still forbidden in Orthodox law, except if the life of a pregnant mother is in jeopardy. Then it is permitted because of Lev. 19:16, which says “You shall not stand idly when life is at stake.” Because the mother’s life is precious to God, it must be defended.

    I don’t know the fine points and I’m sure there’s much more discussion. Here are a couple links where you can read more:

    http://www.thatreligiousstudieswebsite.com/Ethics/Applied_Ethics/Abortion/abortion_judaism.php

    http://caae.phil.cmu.edu/cavalier/Forum/abortion/background/judaism1.html

  12. 12
    CJW|November 11, 2012

    Lois wrote: “You can find many ancient sermons against it by both Jews and Christians.”

    Can you provide a couple of sources?

    Thanks!

  13. 13
    CJW|November 11, 2012

    The quandary expressed by Nick reminds me of two points Lois has expressed elsewhere (summarized in my words):

    1. Jesus, who expressed and interpreted Torah, emphasized its “maximums” i.e., its ultimate aims, whereas many others emphasize its “minimums” i.e., what regulations guarantee that one does not breach God’s commandments?

    2. Even the Torah reveals a kind of evolution with regard to “maximum” righteousness. “Instead of transforming his people instantly, God started with what was familiar. Building on what they were accustomed to, he then movem them in a radically different direction. For example, offering sacrifices was common practice in…cultures on the ancient world… In contrast (to this) the God of Israel instucted his people to offer sacrifices, but he radically transformed the way they did it…”

    Another example: Deuteronomy contains laws allowing slavery. Does this mean that slavery is OK?… Though the Torah didn’t outlaw slavery, which was widely practiced and accepted in the ancient world, it put humanitarian limits on it…”

    Could it be that the “minimum” requirements in Torah which Nick cites actually point to a “maximum” which the God of Israel ultimately intended regarding the helpless, and those who have no voice?

  14. 14
    Lois Tverberg|November 11, 2012

    CJW, I would agree with you – that the “Torah” of the early church often sets the bar higher, toward the maximum in righteousness. But the New Testament doesn’t detail every ethical decision the church made. We can make a guess, but we can’t say that we definitely know.

    As far as sermons on infanticide, look in the article by Instone-Brewer. He quotes from several there – from Philo, Josephus, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, etc.

  15. 15
    EH|January 27, 2013

    Your take on this passage is one that I have never heard before. I had heard about people in some places in the world killing their children like this but I had no clue that this passage talks about it. It made me look at the passage in a whole new way. I believe that killing anyone child or adult is wrong. Even fetus’. God made life and all living things, why do some people think that they have the right to decide if someone lives or dies. Life is a precious gift and we have no right to play God. He does everything for a reason and I think that it is important to look at this passage as he meant it. I have to agree with the question that you asked yourself, Why is smothering on the list? I think that infanticide is a great possibility of why it was on the list but I can not say that I am one hundred percent convinced.

  16. 16
    Genzink|February 4, 2013

    I don’t understand if murder was considered one of the horrible sins that a person-Gentile could do, why were they allowed to murder their own children especially since they’re a child of God. Why are they only killing girls too. So sad.

  17. 17

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