Jesus and the early church on abortion

It is sometimes claimed that the Bible has nothing to say on abortion, and often assumed that Christianity has never really made its mind up on the topic, paving the way for disagreement among Christians on abortion. But in fact the church has always been unanimous on abortion, from a very early point – from the same time as the New Testament was written, in fact. Although abortion isn’t explicitly referenced in the Protestant New Testament, it was explicitly prohibited in the Didache, written in the late first century (i.e. the same time as other works in the New Testament), and which has always been seen by the church as a helpful work, just not rising to the level of scripture (at least, not everyone thought it was scripture).

The reason for this post is mainly to provide a (non-comprehensive) list of early church writing on abortion to demonstrate just how forcefully and how unanimously it was rejected from the very earliest stages of the Christian church. My other post on how Christians rejected all forms of killing humans (which obviously relates!) is here. There is much more to be said on the Christian approach (both ethically and historically) to abortion, which I can’t recite here yet, though I have done so to some extent here. I recommend David Albert Jones’ “The Soul of the Embryo”, John Wyatt’s “Matters of Life and Death” and a short chapter in Scott Klusendorf’s “The Case for Life” on this if you’re not convinced. But I want to offer what the early church said and a few preliminary thoughts. Again, much more could be said about all this (and I will in future), but I wanted to get this blog post out ASAP. So don’t assume this is all there is to the story.

1) Some things aren’t mentioned explicitly in the Bible because they weren’t common cultural problems or because they are covered by other commands. The Bible doesn’t mention FGM because it wasn’t common in Hebrew culture. Likewise, because the culture was very pro-life and in particular valued having children, abortion was not a common problem (bear in mind how much pride people in the OT took in having many children, and how much of a curse lacking children was seen as). But the Bible does claim that human beings are made in God’s image and that all killing of humans is wrong. And since the unborn are living human beings (which we can learn from science, independently of the Bible, but the Bible also seems to gesture in this direction: see Psalm 139, the prophets being called in the womb, and John the Baptist leaping for joy at Jesus’ conception – when he was presumably just a few cells big!), the Bible prohibits it indirectly. This is certainly how it has been interpreted throughout church history. The Bible is silent on lots of specific things and this has been exploited for great evil in the past (for example, Christian proponents of slavery used the lack of clear prohibition of slavery as an argument for it, even though the Bible clearly denounces all the wrong things about slavery and so bans slavery by implication).

2) The reason it was unnecessary for Jesus to denounce it in Jewish culture was because Jewish culture already forbade abortion except to save the life of the mother. Hence various Jewish documents from the time make this clear: Pseudo-Phocylides (written around the time of Jesus) explicitly prohibits abortion and infanticide together, clearly seeing them as parallel, and the Sibylline Oracles does likewise. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian who tells us about Jesus himself,  and by far the best source we have for 1st century Israel, says clearly that the law prohibits abortion and infanticide, and in fact calls those who perform abortions murderers. So there was no need for Jesus to repeat what was already clear Jewish law – just as he didn’t have to reaffirm the rest of it!

It is sometimes claimed that Exodus 21:22-25 shows that the unborn are not treated as full rights-bearing human beings in the Bible. David Albert Jones has the best discussion of this; I can only offer a few points for reasons of space: 1) This appears to be literally all the pro-choice proponent has: one tiny, controversial passage in Exodus. That is not a strong precedent. 2) The Old Testament is not the final authority for Christians. 3) Even if the pro-choice interpretation is correct, the action is still strictly illegal. 4) Believing that there should be different penalties for different kinds of killing doesn’t mean that one sees some victims as less than human. Most people guilty of killing in UK law are given different penalties. 5) The passage is deeply controversial and always has been. It could well refer to premature live birth vs miscarriage, in which case the lesser penalty is because the baby survives. Indeed, the verb used (‘yatsa”) is more often used for live birth than for miscarriage in the Hebrew scriptures. And the author specifically avoids a more standard term for ‘miscarriage’ which the author has already used (‘shokol’)! So the textual evidence itself suggests that causing miscarriage is not what is in mind. 6) Even those later Jewish scholars and interpreters who did think it referred to miscarriage thought that abortion should be strictly illegal in any situation except where the mother’s life is at risk. The Mishnah, which allows this exception, still describes abortion as dismemberment, ‘limb from limb’. And there are certainly parts of the Talmud which prescribe capital punishment for abortion.

3) We often learn a lot about how people view the unborn from their language about them. Pro-choicers tend to call them ‘clumps of cells’, ‘parasites’, ‘tumours’, and so on. Pro-lifers tend to call them babies. The New Testament in Greek calls them βρεφος (‘brephos’, singular, Greek), as when John the Baptist is described in Luke 1:41-44 as being a ‘brephos’, leaping for joy in the womb. What does ‘brephos’ mean? The rest of the New Testament makes clear. In the next chapter, Luke calls Jesus a ‘brephos’, lying in the manger while people come to worship him. And, astonishingly, in Luke 18:15, it is the exact word used when Jesus illustrates those who inherit the Kingdom of God: “People were also bringing babies (brephé) to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”” Likewise 2 Timothy 3:15: “From childhood (brephous) you have known the sacred writings…”; 1 Peter 2:2: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” and, remarkably, Stephen’s description of Pharaoh forcing the Israelites to expose (i.e. leave to die) their babies as a paradigm example of Pharaohs wickedness: “He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive.” The New Testament is as clear as medical science is: unborn babies really are babies, and are no different in standing from newborn babies.

4) Surrounding cultures practised infanticide for much the same reasons as people today justify abortions: infants are poorly developed, can’t really think for themselves, aren’t ‘persons’, etc. But yet the Jewish and Christian proto-‘pro-life’ movements regarded this as heinous and likewise condemned abortion. The evidence for this is clear throughout the Bible and early Christian literature. Indeed, Christians were the reason infanticide (which was often done for reasons of disability or female gender, just as in today’s world) in the Roman Empire was outlawed, and pagans would leave their babies at the doors of Christians because Christians had such a reputation for looking after babies.

5) The early church (even by the end of the first century) was clearly in opposition to abortion, presumably addressing this issue slightly later than the gospels and epistles because the gospel finally spread to cultures where abortion was more common. Hence the Didache (which, we recall, was probably written in the first century and even accepted as scriptural by some early Christians) forbids abortion expressly. The rest of the church fathers do so in very strong terms, time and time again. I list here merely some of the condemnations of abortion by early Christian writers.

  • You shall not kill a child by abortion nor kill it after it is born.’ Didache
  • ‘even worse than murder … Why then do you abuse the gift of God … and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter?’ John Chrysostom
  • ‘Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born’ Epistle of Barnabas
  • ‘And these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion’ Apocalypse of Peter
  • ‘There are some women among you who by drinking special potions extinguish the life of the future human in their very bowels, thus committing murder before they even give birth’ Minucius Felix
  • ‘those women who use drugs to bring about an abortion commit murder’ Athenagoras
  • ‘There is also (another instrument in the shape of) a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is managed in this furtive robbery of life: They give it, from its infanticide function, the name of εμβρυοσφακτης, ‘the slayer of the infant,’ which of course was alive … [they] all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived, and pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death, to escape being tortured alive.’ Tertullian
  • ‘See, then, into what great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by teaching adultery and murder at the same time!’ Hippolytus
  • ‘(Christians) marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring.’ Diognetus
  • ‘Those who use abortifacient medicines to hide their fornication are causing the outright destruction, together with the foetus, of the whole human race’ Clement of Alexandria
  • ‘Some when they sense that they have conceived by sin, consider the poisons for abortion, and frequently die themselves along with it, and go to Hell guilty of three crimes: murdering themselves, committing adultery against Christ, and murder against their unborn child’ Jerome
  • ‘The rich women, to avoid dividing the inheritance among many, kill their own foetus in the womb and with murderous juices extinguish in the genital chamber their children’ Ambrose

It appears, then, that the early Christian approach to abortion was clear. We cannot pretend otherwise. There is much more that could be said, and I recommend again the books I mentioned at the start. But the early church was also clear about something else: about God’s complete and unassailable grace. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”, Paul writes in Romans 8. Complete freedom, complete forgiveness, and a complete wiping away of every sin we have ever committed is promised to those who put their trust in Jesus Christ. That is a promise as certain and as complete as the rest of God’s promises. What a Saviour we have, and how free we are!

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. ” Ephesians 2:4-7


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