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The Pro-Life Issue in Early Christianity

posted by Dillon Burroughs

I posted this on Facebook the other day and had some interesting dialogue. I’m sharing it here both for shared insights and comments you may have. At the least, it is clear that even early Christians had strong convictions about the unborn and people (at all stages of life) being created in God’s image. Enjoy!

From the ESV Study Bible:

Extrabiblical Jewish Literature

The noncanonical Jewish wisdom literature further clarifies first-century Judaism’s view of abortion. For example, the Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides 184-186 (c. 50 B.C.-A.D.
50) says that “a woman should not destroy the unborn in her belly, nor
after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures as a prey.”
Included among those who do evil in the apocalyptic Sibylline Oracles were women who “aborted what they carried in the womb” (2.281-282). Similarly, the apocryphal book 1 Enoch (2nd or 1st century B.C.)
declares that an evil angel taught humans how to “smash the embryo in
the womb” (69.12). Finally, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus
wrote that “the law orders all the offspring to be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus” (Against Apion 2.202).

Contrast these injunctions with the barbarism of Roman culture. Cicero (106-43 B.C.) records that according to the Twelve Tables of Roman Law, “deformed infants shall be killed” (De Legibus 3.8). Plutarch (c. a.d.
46-120) spoke of those who he said “offered up their own children, and
those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut
their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile
the mother stood by without a tear or moan” (Moralia 2.171D).

Early Christian Literature

Against the bleak backdrop of Roman culture, the Hebrew “sanctity of
human life” ethic provided the moral framework for early Christian
condemnation of abortion and infanticide. For instance, the Didache 2.2 (c. A.D.
85-110) commands, “thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill
them when born.” Another noncanonical early Christian text, the Letter of Barnabas 19.5 (c. A.D.
130), said: “You shall not abort a child nor, again, commit
infanticide.” There are numerous other examples of Christian
condemnation of both infanticide and abortion. In fact, some biblical
scholars have argued that the silence of the NT on abortion per se is
due to the fact that it was simply assumed to be beyond the pale of
early Christian practice. Nevertheless, Luke (a physician) points to
fetal personhood when he observes that the unborn John the Baptist
“leaped for joy” in his mother’s womb when Elizabeth came into the
presence of Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus at the time (Luke 1:44).

More than merely condemning abortion and infanticide, however, early
Christians provided alternatives by rescuing and adopting children who
were abandoned. For instance, Callistus (d. c. A.D.
223) provided refuge to abandoned children by placing them in Christian
homes, and Benignus of Dijon (3rd century) offered nourishment and
protection to abandoned children, including some with disabilities
caused by unsuccessful abortions.

 

 



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