Abortion and the Early Church
In this post, I’m going to address two misconceptions that people often hold concerning abortion. First, many people assume that elective abortions are a fairly recent phenomenon—something made possible only by modern medicine. And second, oftentimes people view abortion as primarily a political issue. In both cases, nothing could be further from the truth. For several thousand years people have used various means to induce the abortion of unwanted children. And thoughtful people have engaged in discussions about the ethical implications of abortion long before they had any ability to change public policy.
One of the earliest references to abortion is found in an Egyptian papyrus that was written more than a millennium before the time of Christ. Dated about 1550 B.C., the Ebers Papyrus is a medical document that describes ancient remedies for a wide variety of ailments. It contains advice on how to cure everything from asthma to tape worms. Among such remedies, the document includes several herbal recipes for causing the abortion of an unwanted child. Writing a few centuries before the time of Christ, both Plato and Aristotle recommended abortion under certain circumstances for the “good” of society (Republic 5 , Politics 7.16 [1335b]). And in the first century, Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79) listed various substances which were commonly used in his day as abortifacients (Natural History, passim).
Abortion is not a new issue. It wasn’t even particularly novel in the first century. In fact, various ways of causing an abortion had been in use for a long time before Christ walked the earth. But what did the earliest Christians think of such practices? Were they ambivalent or did they express definite opinions about the morality of abortion?
A number of early Christian documents specifically mention the practice of abortion. Two of the earliest such documents are usually classed among the Apostolic Fathers. Dated fairly close to A.D. 100 and sometimes referred to as The Teaching of the Twelve, the Didache claims to preserve both oral and written teachings of the twelve apostles. The Didache begins with the following statement: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways” (1.1). The text then goes on to give instructions about how to live in the “way of life”. After exhorting readers with the dual command to love both God and neighbor, the document gives some specific instructions about the implications of loving one’s neighbor. Among these instructions, we find the following command:
You shall not murder…you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide (2.2).
In this context, the Didache seemingly equates abortion with murder and infanticide, and it commands God’s people not to engage in such activities. Just a few paragraphs later, the text describes the way of death as being followed by those who are “murderers of children” (5.2). The Didache speaks rather clearly to the moral status of abortion.
The Epistle of Barnabas was almost certainly not written by Paul’s companion of the same name. Nevertheless, internal evidence suggests that it was produced around the beginning of the second century. Like the Didache, it provides another example of early Christian teaching about the Two Ways. In his description of the way of light, Barnabas speaks about the practice of abortion. He writes,
You shall not abort a child nor, again, commit infanticide (19.5).
In place of such behavior the author exhorts his readers to fulfill their responsibilities to care for their children and to bring them up in the way of the Lord (19.5, cf. Didache 4.9).
Numerous biblical passages give principles that lead modern-day Christians to view abortion as the sinful taking of an innocent human life (e.g., Job 31:15; Psalm 22:9–10; Psalm 139:13–16; Luke 1:15). As seen above, the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas also provide evidence of a very early Christian conviction that abortion is morally wrong and is comparable to infanticide. Such documents demonstrate that Christians strongly opposed the practice of abortion many centuries before the development of modern political parties. A biblical understanding of abortion certainly has implications for how one exercises his or her right to vote in twenty-first century America, but biblical and historical evidence also indicate that abortion is first and foremost a moral issue—and one about which the Scriptures and the writings of early Christians are quite clear.
Bakke, O. M. When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005.
Gorman, Michael. Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish, & Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982.
Holmes, Michael, trans. and ed. The Apostolic Fathers in English. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.
Riddle, John. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Riddle, John. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
The interesting thing is that neither abortion nor infanticide seems to be mentioned in the NT, although 1) each of these practices, and particularly infanticide, seem to have been widespread in the broader culture, and 2) each of these practices was opposed by both Judaism and the early church.
David Instone-Brewer wrote an intriguing article several years ago in JETS arguing that the apostolic decree of Acts 15 actually references infanticide:
David Instone-Brewer, “Infanticide and the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15,” JETS 52 (2009): 301-21.
Abstract: The study argues that the Apostolic Decree (see Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25) specifically refers to infanticide when it condemns ‘smothering’ (pniktos)–a rare word that is used especially with regard to killing infant animals–not ‘strangling.’ It discusses infanticide in the Greco-Roman world, explanations for why the four prohibitions in the Decree were singled out as especially relevant for Gentile believers, the meaning of pniktos in extrabiblical literature, and why the Decree used the word pniktos.
I’ll have to look up that article. Thanks for mentioning it.
Interestingly, a number of writers have pointed out that the Greek word pharmakeia (often trans. “sorcery” in the NT) is sometimes used outside the NT to refer to the use of drugs/potions to induce abortion. And this has led some to argue that a certain kind of abortion may be directly mentioned (and prohibited) in the NT.
See, e.g., Carl Sommer, We Look for a Kingdom: The Everyday Lives of the Early Christians, pp. 313-15; Alvin Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, pp. 57-58; Ben Witherington, The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus, p. 267, n. 8; John Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance, p. 23; O. M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth Of Childhood In Early Christianity, p. 114; Michael Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, p. 48.
A look at “A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs” (David Bercot, ed.) reveals that the early church was acquainted with both surgical and drug-induced abortions- neither are a modern novelty. They condemned all abortion as murder, and were despised for rescuing infants who had been exposed from death. A remarkable example to us today!Thanks for posting this, very interesting.
Sometimes it seems as though abortion is a relatively new issue, but it’s obviously one that has been around through the ages