Abortion and the Early Church

by Luke Wayne
10/21/16

While the Bible does not explicitly mention abortion by name, the Scriptures are clear that it is wrong to kill an innocent human being and that the unborn are human beings worthy of that protection. Therefore, the Bible certainly forbids abortion. [See our article detailing that matter HERE]

Still, some people will accuse Christians today of reading contemporary political concerns about the issue of abortion into the Bible. It is valuable, therefore, to note that abortion was understood as a great sin from the very beginning of Christianity, back to the time the New Testament was written. We can establish this through multiple lines of evidence.

The Jewish Background

The first Christians, including the New Testament authors themselves, were first-century Jews. The dawn of the New Covenant in the death and resurrection of Jesus changed their relationship to the law and turned them away from certain, specific Jewish traditions of their day. Still, the ethics of the Apostles on matters like sexual morality, avoiding all idolatry, and renouncing the bloodshed of the innocent were deeply rooted in Old Testament revelation and were shared by other Jews of their time. It is certainly worth noting that the various sects and divisions of first-century Judaism appear to have agreed together that the Scriptures forbid abortion even though they disagreed on so many other issues of interpretation. For example, the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, recorded that:

"The law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind," (Josephus, Against Apion Book 2, Chapter 29, Section 202).

The Babylonian Talmud likewise reports an interpretation of Genesis 9:6 and the prohibition against shedding human blood by Rabbi Ishmael (late first/early second century):

“On the authority of Rabbi Ishmael, it was said: [A murderer is executed] even for the murder of an embryo. What is Rabbi Ishmael's reason? Because it is written, ‘Whosoever sheddeth the blood of man within a man, his blood shall be shed.’ What is a man within a man? An embryo in his mother's womb,” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 57b).

While Rabbi Ishmael's argument is somewhat inventive and based on a wordplay with the original Hebrew that we might not find convincing today, it still demonstrates concretely that the unborn child was understood to be a living human. His argument only works because he and those he is speaking to all agree that an embryo is a living human inside another living human. The fact that the Talmud records this interpretation means that the ancient Rabbinic tradition regarded it as canonical oral law.

The book of Enoch describes "the smiting of the embryo in the womb that it may pass away," as being literally demonically inspired (1 Enoch 69:12). The book of Enoch represents a completely different strand of Judaism than Josephus or Rabbi Ishmael, yet agrees with them on the evil of abortion. This book was well known to early Christians. The New Testament book of Jude even alludes to it. Christians did not see the book as inspired or authoritative, of course, but their awareness of it and positive view of some of its teachings are worth noting.

One Jewish apocalyptic visionary work known as the Sibylline Oracles (written sometime between the 100 B.C. and 100 A.D.) predicts:

"Those who licentiously defiled the flesh; and all who loosed the maiden’s girdle for secret intercourse; and all who caused abortions; and all who unlawfully cast away their offspring; and sorcerers and sorceresses with them; the wrath of the heavenly and immortal God shall drive all these against a pillar around which in a circle flows an unending river of fire," (Sibylline Oracles 2.280-84).

Among the Hellenistic Jews (Greek-speaking Jews living outside of Jewish lands) remarks were made like:

“Do not let a woman destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and the vultures as prey," (Pseudo-Phocyclides, verses 184-185).

The Jewish community as a whole saw in the biblical ethic a clear prohibition against the practice of abortion. This is sufficient in and of itself to show that this understanding of the Bible is not the result of modern sensibilities. It also gives us reason to think that, since there is no New Testament teaching or early Christian writing repudiating this interpretation, the Apostles and the earliest Christians would have probably shared this conviction. This assumption is further confirmed when we look at the earliest Christian writings themselves.

The Early Christian Witness

One of the earliest Christian documents outside the New Testament is a work known as the "Didache" (late first/early second century). The Didache is a collection of teachings on Christian conduct and church practice that goes back, if not to the apostolic era itself, at least very close to it. It reports the clear command:

“Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten,” (Didache Chapter 2).

The so-called "Epistle of Barnabas" (early second century) preserves the same command almost exactly:

"Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born,” (Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 19)

Likewise in the early/mid second century "Epistle to Diognetus," the Christian lifestyle is described, including the statement:

"They beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh," (Epistle to Diognetus, Chapter 5)

Like the Jewish "Sibylline Oracles," the second-century apocryphal "Apocalypse of Peter" describes eternal judgment on those who commit abortions:

“And near that place I saw another strait place into which the gore and the filth of those who were being punished ran down and became there as it were a lake:  and there sat women having the gore up to their necks, and over against them sat many children who were born to them out of due time, crying; and there came forth from them sparks of fire and smote the women in the eyes: and these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion,” (Apocalypse of Peter, verse 25).

Later in the second century, Christian apologist "Athenagoras" wrote:

“We say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder and will have to give an account to God for the abortion,” (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, Chapter 35).

And the Latin theologian, Tertullian, explained:

"In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed,” (Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 9).

So the voices of the early church stand unanimously against abortion, whether we look at the popular traditions, the early Christian scholars, or even the bizarre apocryphal works.

Conclusion

Far from being an imposition on the text by modern readers, the earliest Christians and the surrounding Jewish culture in which the New Testament writers lived and wrote all understood the Bible to forbid abortion and to uphold the sanctity of human life in the womb as well as after birth. Those who deny that this is the clear, biblical teaching and who attempt to justify abortion are the ones who are imposing their modern socio-political ideologies on the text. The faithful reading of the Bible leads to the conclusion that the unborn are sacred human lives made in the image of God and are precious blessings to be treasured and protected, not to be destroyed. Christians have always known this.