What Did the Early Christian Communitiy Think of Abortion?

What did the early Christian community think of abortion? Might it influence our own views on abortion?

Outside of the New Testament, one of the oldest preserved Christian writings we have is the Didache, also known as the Teachings of the Lord Through the 12 Apostles to the Gentiles. It’s commonly dated to the late first century, written around the same time as the book of Revelation.

I grabbed my copy of the Didache, remembering it has a passage on abortion. I snapped the following:

The early Christian community living in the same century as Jesus and his disciples believed abortion to be murder and specifically commanded against it.

The Didache isn’t alone.

Nearly a dozen other writings from the early Christian communities call out abortion as a moral evil, a snuffing out of a soul for which we will be held accountable to God: (click to expand)

Letter of Barnabas, 74 AD
“The way of light, then, is as follows. If anyone desires to travel to the appointed place, he must be zealous in his works. The knowledge, therefore, which is given to us for the purpose of walking in this way, is the following. . . . Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born.”
The Apocalypse of Peter, 137 AD
“And near that place I saw another strait place . . . and there sat women. . . . And over against them many children who were born to them out of due time sat crying. And there came forth from them rays of fire and smote the women in the eyes. And these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion”
Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 177 AD
“What man of sound mind, therefore, will affirm, while such is our character, that we are murderers? . . . [W]hen 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, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it.”
Tertullian, Apology, 197 AD
“In our case, a 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 the 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 birth. That _is_ a man which is _going to be_ one; you have the fruit already in its seed.”
Tertullian, The Soul, 210 AD
“Among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument, which is formed with a nicely-adjusted flexible frame for opening the uterus first of all and keeping it open; it is further furnished with an annular blade, by means of which the limbs [of the child] within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care; its last appendage being a blunted or covered hook, wherewith the entire fetus is extracted by a violent delivery.
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 _embruosphaktes_, [meaning] “the slayer of the infant,” which of course was alive...
[The doctors who performed abortions] all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived, and [they] pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death, to escape being tortured alive.
Now we allow that life begins with conception because we contend that the soul also begins from conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does...”
The law of Moses, indeed, punishes with due penalties the man who shall cause abortion."
Minucius Felix, Octavius, 226 AD
“There are some women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels and thus commit a parricide before they bring forth. And these things assuredly come down from the teaching of your [false] gods. . . . To us [Christians] it is not lawful either to see or hear of homicide”
Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 228 AD
“Women who were reputed to be believers began to take drugs to render themselves sterile, and to bind themselves tightly so as to expel what was being conceived, since they would not, on account of relatives and excess wealth, want to have a child by a slave or by any insignificant person. See, then, into what great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by teaching adultery and murder at the same time!”
Council of Ancyra, Canon 21, 314 AD
“Concerning women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them until the hour of death, and to this some have assented. Nevertheless, being desirous to use somewhat greater lenity, we have ordained that they fulfill ten years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees.”
Basil the Great, First Canonical Letter, canon 2, 374 AD
“Let her that procures abortion undergo ten years’ penance, whether the embryo were perfectly formed, or not”
“He that kills another with a sword, or hurls an axe at his own wife and kills her, is guilty of willful murder; not he who throws a stone at a dog, and unintentionally kills a man, or who corrects one with a rod, or scourge, in order to reform him, or who kills a man in his own defense, when he only designed to hurt him. But the man, or woman, is a murderer that gives a philtrum, if the man that takes it dies upon it; so are they who take medicines to procure abortion; and so are they who kill on the highway, and rapparees.”
John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans, 391 AD
“Wherefore I beseech you, flee fornication. . . . Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit?—where there are many efforts at abortion?—where there is murder before the birth? For even the harlot you do not let continue a mere harlot, but make her a murderess also. You see how drunkenness leads to prostitution, prostitution to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevents its being born. Why then do thou abuse the gift of God, and fight with his laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter? For with a view to drawing more money by being agreeable and an object of longing to her lovers, even this she is not backward to do, so heaping upon thy head a great pile of fire. For even if the daring deed be hers, yet the causing of it is thine.”
Jerome, Letters, 396 AD
“I cannot bring myself to speak of the many virgins who daily fall and are lost to the bosom of the Church, their mother. . . . Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when, as often happens, they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder”
Apostolic Constitutions, 400 AD
“Thou shall not slay thy child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten. . . . [I]f it be slain, [it] shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed.”

It should be no surprise the early Christians rejected abortion as a great evil: early Christianity was once part of Judaism, and Judaism has long considered abortion to be forbidden in all but extreme circumstances. (See Is a Jew Permitted to Have an Abortion? for details.)

And why is Judaism against abortion? Because the key Torah principle of pikuach nefesh פקוח נפש, preservation of life. The whole Bible is concerned with preservation of life, such that nearly all other commandments may be broken if necessary to preserve life.

In alignment with this, the Torah states in Exodus 21 that if a man accidentally kills an unborn child, he is liable for damages. How much more so if done deliberately?

Thus, observant Judaism forbids abortion in all but extreme cases, such as when the life of the mother is in danger.

We Messianic believers affirm both the Torah and the New Testament - is it enough that the early Christians opposed abortion?

Perhaps not, but the early Christians opposed abortion because of the overriding principle of pikuach nefesh פקוח נפש found in Hebrew Bible and early Christian writings. In the New Testament, the Messiah said the Sabbath laws can be broken to save the life of an animal – how much more so the life of a human being in the womb?

It’s for this reason the early Christian communities opposed abortion: because a faithful reading of the Biblical texts informed their practice.

And what of Pro-Choice Christians and Jews?

I conclude that pro-choice Christians and Jews are not being faithful to the teachings of the Hebrew Bible or New Testament on this issue. And they're not in alignment with the original faith communities; neither the early Christians, nor the ancient faithful Israelites permitted abortion.

I suspect many pro-choice religious folks recognize this. To support their view, they don't appeal to textual faithfulness nor the practice of the original faith communities. Rather, they appeal to a modern reinterpretation of faith, one what concurs with a modern culture that celebrates abortion in the name of sexual freedom. 

In my estimation, such folks are following the crowd to evil, and calling that evil good. Their reinterpretation of faith in the light (darkness?) of modern culture has led them, ultimately, away from faithfulness to God and God's instruction.

"Thoughts and Prayers": On School Shootings and the Good Samaritan

Superhero Flash praying

Last week in the US, a teenager took a rifle into an elementary school and murdered 19 people, mostly children.


And this is just one of a long string of school shootings that have plagued this nation since the 1990s.

After the tragedy, social media was flooded with citizens and politicians offering sympathy,

“My thoughts and prayers are with the families.”

Maybe you wrote something similar on your Facebook page?

This generated a great backlash of secular cynics, many politically motivated, who responded:

"We don’t need your useless thoughts and prayers! How many kids have to die before you shut up and actually do something to prevent the next shooting?

On Reddit, one atheist wrote in a wildly upvoted post,

“Thoughts and prayers” is the equivalent of thinking you are doing something to contribute, without having to do anything at all at the same time.

There’s some truth to what they’re saying.

At shabbat dinner this week, I talked to my kids about this and asked if they had heard people mocking “thoughts and prayers”. Indeed, they had heard.

What’s our answer; are “thoughts and prayers” as useless as “sending good vibes”?

To answer, I read to my kids the parable of the Good Samaritan.

You already know the story. In the parable, a man is robbed, beaten, stripped naked, and left for dead along the road.

A kohen sees the beaten man along the road. But he doesn’t help, and instead walks to the other side of the road.

A Levite walks by. He sees the man, but likewise doesn’t help.

Finally, a Samaritan sees the man. He applies medical treatment, transports him to the nearest inn, and pays for his stay and expenses.

What does this have to do with school shootings?

This parable in its original context was to show who is our “neighbor” in the context of the Torah mitzvah, “Love your neighbor as yourself". Yeshua explains the parable: the true neighbor is the one who showed compassion.

But this parable also means that we as God’s people must be people of action. “Thoughts and prayers” are not enough. In the parable, it was the person who took action that was deemed righteous. Even more righteous than the ultra-religious, fervently praying Kohen and Levite.

Likewise, we must be people of action. If we don’t take action, we’re not really serious in our thoughts and prayers. And if our thoughts and prayers aren’t genuine or backed by action, secular cynics are right to critique it as meaningless babble.

I told my kids that God wants us to be people of action, not merely airy religious fluff sending people good vibes through social media. Prayer and action. Faith and works.

Yeshua’s half-brother Ya’akov/James says the same thing:

If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in shalom, keep warm and well fed,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is that?

It’s not enough to well-wish, even in prayer. We need action, otherwise prayer is dead.

A rational mind will ask, “If action is what matters, why pray at all?”

David Bashevkin proposes a beautiful answer in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Screenshot of David Bashevkin's article on the Wall Street Journal

He notes that when Abraham Lincoln addressed the nation during the US Civil War, he asked the nation to pray that war would cease:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

Lincoln prayed to end the war, and he waged war against the Confederates. He was a man of both prayer and action. But why pray at all if action is what matters? Bashevkin writes,

[Lincoln] couched the U.S. mission of victory in the language of prayer because those sorts of words transform a political cause into an existential need. Prayer is the language we use to express our most urgent and essential desires. I don’t pray for lower gas prices; I do pray for the end of school shootings.

Catch that? He is saying that earnest prayer drives a whole people, even a whole nation, to action. 

Good vibes don't do that. Prayer does. 

Prayer is fuel in the engine of action.

I’d add to Bashevkin’s statements: We sincerely believe that a people united in earnest prayer, willing and ready to act, can move the heart of God.

(And sometimes, we the faithful and prayerful are the very means of God’s intervention in the world.)

James, the same one who wrote that prayer without action is meaningless, also writes, “The effective prayer of a righteous man is powerful.”

To be effective, prayer must be earnest and fervent. To be righteous, a man must take action.

Earnest, hopeful, fervent prayer combined with ready action. In King James lingo, this availeth much.

Making it real: what can we do in tragedies like this?

If I’ve convinced you that we need to be people of action, you might ask what’s the next step. How do we help people affected in the recent school shooting?

One way is charity, which is considered a mitzvah – a commandment and good work – in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Unlike any other time in history, it’s easy to give to charity around the world thanks to the internet.

Some other ways to help: if you run a small business, you could donate a portion of profits, or ask customers to donate on checkout. If you work for a large company, you can donate and ask your employer to match your donation.

Change can also be on the individual level. A change of mind, a change of heart. Let me ask a hard question, dear reader: is it time to reconsider your views about guns? I’m not asking you to go woke here. I’m asking you to consider Scriptural ethics above political concerns. Our allegiance is to God, not any political party.

Are your views on guns informed mainly by the ethic of Scripture, or by the talking points on political talk shows and podcasts? Given the Bible’s overarching theme of pikuach nefesh - preservation of life above almost all else - might we consider a more balanced approach to guns and gun access?

If your answer is, “Any gun reform is veiled leftism!”, you probably have a blind spot here.

Change can also be on the political level. Write to politicians to take action to prevent school shootings. Maybe you feel posting armed guards at schools would help. Maybe better security measures at schools. Maybe stricter gun access laws. Maybe better background checks. Maybe laws to restrict access to high powered guns. Maybe it’s better mental healthcare for disturbed individuals. Tell your elected leaders how you feel. Tell them what you believe must be done. Petitioning political power is also a form of action, and Biblical figures from Esther to Nehemiah to Paul used it to accomplish good.

Dear Kineti reader, can you earnestly pray and take action to end school shootings? Let’s make progress on this, little by little. I’m going to agree with Mr. Bashevkin in fervent prayer and action that this mighty scourge of violence in schools would come to an end. Will you do the same, dear reader?

Abortion and the Motte-and-Bailey Fallacy

The US Supreme Court may strike down its federal abortion law, instead allowing each state to decide its own abortion laws. Supreme Court Justice Alito writes,

“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled...It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”

With this news comes leftist arguments in favor of abortion, citing cases where a woman's life is in danger, or cases of rape or incest.

But these are red herrings and a form of the motte-and-bailey fallacy:

Motte (stated position, more defensible):
Pregnancy can put a woman's life in danger; abortion can save lives.

Bailey (true position, less defensible): 
Abortion for any reason, at any time. 

A pragmatic approach would be to limit abortion to extreme cases, such as when the life of the mother is in danger. Indeed, faithful Jews, Christians have allowances for these extreme cases

But abortion proponents won't accept the pragmatic approach because their true position is abortion for any reason at any time, which of course is a form of murder.

My longstanding conviction is that the abortion issue is like the slavery issue: a clear moral issue with human life on the line. And like slavery, society has been on the wrong side of this issue for a very long time. 

As it is with slavery, one day society will look back with shame and guilt on our tolerance (celebration?) of abortion-for-any-reason-at-any-time.