Bible on Abortion

The biblical injunction “Thou shalt not kill” (KJV: Exodus 20:13, copied into Deuteronomy 5:17; cp. Numbers 35:27; 1 Kings 21:19; Hosea 4:2, ref. Deuteronomy 4:42) forbids killing anyone outside of the womb.  The Hebrew word is ratsach (רצח) and it means to pierce with a sword.  To “kill” (שחיטה) is ritual animal slaughter: for the dining pleasure of a god or his priests (Genesis 37:31, Exodus 12:6 and 21, 29:11 and 20; Leviticus 1:5 and 11, 3:2 and 8; and so forth. Deliberate murder is violent (not therapeutic) and done with forethought and aggression without the consent of the victim (cf. מכוון) as in Genesis 4:15, and 37:12; Leviticus 24:17-18 and 21; Numbers 35:11, 15 and 30; Joshua 20:3 and 9; and so forth. 

The Old Testament considers rape as denying the father the chance for a “just” dowry:

If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.(Deuteronomy 22:28-29 NIV)

Rape was common in ancient Israel. The most popular story is that of the rape of Dinah (Genesis 33.18 to 34.31). This rape led to full-scale genocide. The Old Testament women who were violated did turn, without being damned by their gods, to abortion: The tale of the bitter waters in Numbers 5:18-27 allude to abortion. Sterilization and coitus interruptus are mentioned (Genesis 38:9 & Deuteronomy 23:1f).  Birth control was commonly known and used throughout the ancient world, as seen in the writings of major authorities.  Scrolls found in Egypt dating to 1900BCE, describe ancient methods of birth control that were later practiced in the Roman empire during the apostolic age.  The Hippocratic Writings by Hippocrates were generated between 430-330BCE.  In Aristophanes’ 421 BCE comedy The Peace Hermes provides Trigaius with a female companion. Trigaius is worried she may become pregnant. “Not if you add a dose of pennyroyal,” advises Hermes. The Greek botanist Theophrastus (370-288 BCE) who studied silphium, an ancient ‘wonder drug’ known for having abortive qualities, was praised for his liberation of women “from fear and unwant[ed pregnancies]”.  De Materia Medica by Dioscorides was written around 30-40CE, and Gynecology, for example, was written by Soranus around 98CE.

There are even detailed on how to have an abortion in the ancient world.  Soranus describes specific steps to remove the fetus from the uterus:

First the womb must be separated from the uterus. In order to create the separation, empty the abdomen and purge it with warm and sweet olive oil as injections. Then bathe the whole body in sweet water, lingering in the tub, drinking a little wine first and eating pungent food. If at this point, it is not effective, then sit in a bath of linseed, fenugreek, mallow, marsh mallow, and wormwood. have injections of old oil, alone or with rue juice or with honey, iris oil, or absinthium with honey, or panax balm spelt together with rue and honey or Syrian unguent. If it is still not effective, then take a meal of lupines with ox bile and absinthium. Before abortion, take protracted baths, little or no food, use softening vaginal suppositories, abstain from wine, and be bled in large amounts. Then follow the procedures by having the pregnant woman shaken by wild animals, followed by a soft vaginal suppository, used as a “gentle” abortive vaginal suppository, such as myrtle, wallflower seed, and bitter lupines in equal amounts. Then mold to the size of a bean with water.  

Abstinence was laughed at as both unnatural and abnormal. Sex was natural and human passions could not be controlled or contained save without great emotional damage wrote the doctors of the ancient world. To this end it is common to read scrolls from 300 BCE to the present detailing the sexual activities of men and women who took a vow of perpetual chastity and virginity–usually leading the vow taker to commit rape of both genders of all ages.  See: Berquist, Jon (2002). Controlling Corporeality; The Body and the Household in Ancient Israel. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.  Riddle, John (1992). Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.  Tschanz, David. Herbal Contraception in Ancient Times. IslamOnline.net http://www.islam-online.net/english/science/2003/08/article02.shtml.  Books on abortion that were available in the ancient world included: Hippocrates, Aphorisms, Section V, Part 31; Plato, Republic Book V; Aristotle, Politics, Book 7 section 1335b; Cicero, For Aulus Cluentius 11.32 and cp. Laws 3.8.19; Ovid, Heroides XI: Canace to Marcareus, lines 11.33-42; Seneca, De ira  (On Anger), 1.15; Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book X, Chapter 83, ibid., Book XXIX, Chapter 27, and Book XXX, Chapter 43; and so forth.

The closest the New Testament comes to these forms of murder is the word for selective and nonselective taking of life which includes assassination (αναιρεω or αποκτεινω).  The latter is for the erasure or execution of individuals and even entire communities (Matthew 10:28, 16:21, 17:23 where killing is by various instruments: και αποκτενουσιν αυτον και τη τριτη ημερα εγερθησεται και ελυπηθησαν σφοδρα, 21:35 and 38, 23:34 and 37, 24:9, and 26:4; Mark 3:4, 6:19, 8:31, 9:31, 10:34 to demonstrate the concept of killing consider και εμπαιξουσιν αυτω και μαστιγωσουσιν αυτον και εμπτυσουσιν αυτω και αποκτενουσιν αυτον και τη τριτη ημερα αναστησεται, 12:5 and 7-8; Luke 11:47-48, 12:4-5, 13:31 and 34; and so forth.  The fetus is mentioned in the bible. It is peri  פרי

When the fetus is mentioned it is mentioned as “fruit” that is not fully ripened or formed. Pregnancy was “to be fruitful” and if the zygote developed into a fetus, that fetus was referred to as “fruit of the womb.” The Greeks were equally explicit as to the timetable of the development of the fetus (see: Ide, Arthur Frederick (1993). Catechism of Family Values Based on the Bible (Arlington, Liberal Arts Press), pp. 241ff).

Each time that the Hebrews engaged in war, there was no injunction against slaughtering pregnant women (Joshua 10:8, 10-11, 13).  The Book of Samuel records (1 Samuel 15:2-3) that Yahweh demanded that his troops “slay both man and woman, infant and suckingling…”  There was special joy when “all the women therein[the conquered city] were with child [and] he [Menahem] ripped [them] up” or tore them out of the womb (2 Kings 15:16). Ezekiel was especially fond of slaughter children, new-born infants, and the fetus: “The children shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, … wives ravished. … Their bows shall dash the young men to pieces, and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb” (Isaiah 13:13-18; cp. Psalm 137:4, 9).

The prophet Amos was far more colorful: “Thus saith the Lord, for three transgressions of the children of Ammon, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof, because they have ripped up the women with child of Gilead, that they might enlarge their border” (Amos 1:13). Here the word “rip” means to “cleave through” or cut the fetus brutally out of the womb by piercing the stomach.

While avid Christians, especially evangelical literalists are avidly opposed to abortion, there is not one passage in the New Testament that opposes it. The word does not even appear in any version of ancient Greek. Jesus does not even mention it, although abortions were common throughout the Hebrew world. The closest that a Christian can come to the issue of abortion in the New Testament is found in Matthew 26:24 where abortion is considered a valid alternative to slaughter: “…but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born (ο μεν υιος του ανθρωπου υπαγει καθως γεγραπται περι αυτου ουαι δε τω ανθρωπω εκεινω δι ου ο υιος του ανθρωπου παραδιδοται καλον ην αυτω ει ουκ εγεννηθη ο ανθρωπος εκεινος).” This verse states that it would have been better for any person who betrayed Jesus if he had never been born. The verse might be interpreted as meaning that a terminated pregnancy might be better than a completed pregnancy, if the child’s life would be miserable. It was not until the second century CE when the term “abortion” appeared in any Christian literature–and then in the disreputable and never accepted Didache [Teaching {of the Apostles}] Section 2.2: “thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them [sic] when born…”  (ου φονευσεις, ου μοιχευσεις, ου παιδοφθορησεις, ου πορνευσεις, ου κλεψεις, ου μαγευσεις, ου φαρμακευσεις, ου φονευσεις τεκνον εν φθορα ουδε γεννηθεν αποκτενεις).  This passage (some dating it to 1056 CE although fragments were found from the second to the fourth centuries CE, although none have been authenticated as being true “gospels” or teachings) is disreputable but the passage comes closest to Roman law which forbade the exposure of infants, long practiced, on mountain tops as they were unwanted by their families.  The Didache is written from the view-point of a community leadership that distrusts, and yet respects, Christian prophets, one that wishes the prophets to leave town as quickly as possible, yet would have them welcomed in town when they arrive. The Pastoral and Petrine epistles stem from a slightly later time, when authority in the Christian movement was based on the prerogatives of office rather than on prophetic powers.” Earlier Coptic and Ethiopic versions also exist for a few chapters of this text. Especially important are two Greek fragments, Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1782, dated to the “late fourth century” and published by Greenfell and Hunt in 1922 (12-15). These tiny scraps, about two inches by two inches apiece, contain verses 1:3c-4a and 2:7-3:2. Despite small differences, the wording on those scraps is very close to Byrrenios’s text. That is very important confirmation for the basic accuracy of Codex Hierosolymitanus 54, given the gulf of centuries between it and the earlier fragments.  Here is the text from a copy of the fragment in my personal library and dated to 564 CE:

Didache chapter 2 (verse 2 is on "abortion")

There were no church prohibitions against abortion before the fourth century. Those were made by men, but women continued to have abortions throughout the history of the church and mortal kind. It must be remembered that what people today consider to be the New Testament of the Bible was written, primarily, in Koine (Ionia) Greek (an unofficial diglossy of Greek and Latin was established in the city of Rome and Koine Greek became a first or second language in the Roman Empire which gave rise to many errors, especially as found in the writings of Justin Martyr who mistranslated the word for “pillar” as “cross”; see my http://arthuride.wordpress.com/2010/08/29/jesus-crucifixion-and-justin-martyr/) but many ancient scrolls are in Attic Greek (Athens), while the twelve apostles (like the twelve apostles of Zeus/Jupiter) wrote in Alexandrian Greek.  We do not find the condemnation of abortion in any of these languages, but actually do find encouragement for abortions in the case of incest and rape.

In Rome, before the advent of christians (starting around 150 BCE and becoming a collective group around 100 CE), it was expected that an honorable woman who was raped would, like Lucretia, remove the stain on her honor by committing suicide so that “the evil seed” inside her would not “flower and become the spawn” of the rapist.  When various marauding country fellows (pagans) entered Rome to collect back wages promised by an idle government and despotic leaders, turned to rape to express their anger and demonstrate their power to exact vengeance (rape was never considered a sexual act, in fact it was seen as an act of war: The Greek, Persian, and Roman troops would routinely rape women and boys in the conquered towns), early  Christian women would commit suicide before or during the act; those who did survive the attack committed suicide.  Christian women, for the most part, by the fifth century and the sack of Rome, followed the dictates of bishops and did not kill themselves, but there exists no records on whether or not they became pregnant nor were their charts or writings as to whether or not they gave birth to fertilized seeds from the rapists. The failure of Christian women, having been raped during the sack of Rome in the fifth century, to kill themselves was commented on by non-Christians with shock and horror, seeing in the actions of the women not only a disregard for customs but also as an offense against the gods.  The duplicity of the bishop of Hippo, Augustine (who fathered a son, whom he named Gift of God: Adeodatus, by a whore, dedicated an entire book of The City of God to defending these women’s honor and what he called “chastity” (inventing a new definition of the word to justify their actions as would-be martyrs): that a woman was chase if she refused a man’s sexual advance. Early Christianity also maintained, as non-Christians did not, that slave women were entitled to chastity, and that therefore a slave woman could be raped, and honored as martyrs slave if the woman resisted her master and any male.

 Those who insist that women carry an unwanted fetus not only play god, but do psychological damage to the women who are forced by law to continue an unwanted pregnancy to term (See: A. Burgess & L. Holmstrom (1974). Rape Trauma Syndrome. American Journal of Psychiatry). In many ways, the legislators in Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Ohio, New Jersey and other states who are attempting to overturn Roe v. Wade are waging psychological war on women and, following the women in the Reichstag, denying basic the basic human right of choice in their efforts to enslave women to the yoke of the state (Warshaw, Robin (1994). I Never Called It Rape: The Ms. Report on Recognizing, Fighting, and Surviving Date and Acquaintance Rape, Harper Paperbacks).

There were numerous writers on abortion in the early Christian epoch. They include: Dio Chrysostom (40-120 CE) who wrote in his Discourses, Fifteenth Discourse: On Slavery and Freedom II:  “but in the case of slave women, on the other hand, some destroy the child before birth and others afterwards, if they can do so without being caught, and yet sometimes even with the connivance of their husband, that they may not be involved in trouble by being compelled to raise children in addition to their enduring slavery.” (Cf. Plutarch, 46-120 CE, Romulus22.3; Suetonius (69/75-130 CE), in his Twelve Caesars, “Domition” 22; Soranus (98-117 CE), Gynecology 3.19.60; Galen of Pergamum (129-200 CE) On Natural Faculties, Book 3, Part 12: “Now abortifacient drugs or certain other conditions which destroy the embryo or rupture certain of its membranes are followed by abortion, and similarly also when the uterus is in pain from being in a bad state of tension; and, as has been well said by Hippocrates, excessive movement on the part of the embryo itself brings on labour.”

One comment to Bible on Abortion

  • JS  says:

    Hi – just came across your informative article. Can’t say I agree with all of it but appreciated you pulling these sources together.
    One of your more glaring errors: the photo is not of Didache chapter 2 v2. It is a facsimile of a folio in Codex Hierosolymitanus, where the text of the Didache was found, but this is actually one of the last folios. It shows the end of the Pseudo-Ignatian letter to the Romans, the subscription (i.e. Leon the scribes’s “signature” and the date he completed the copy which is 1056 C.E. y the way)and the beginning of a common patristic explanation of the genealogy of Jesus starting immediately beneath it. Cheers.

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