What Did the Early Christian Communitiy Think of Abortion?

This post first appeared on Kineti and is authored by Judah Gabriel Himango, one of Tabernacle of David’s teachers.

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.

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