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Gene Veith recommends the book, Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World:

One of the best books I've ever read about abortion is Abortion and the Early Church by Michael J. Gorman. It turns out that, far from being a modern medical procedure, abortion was rampant in the ancient world. Especially in Rome. And Christians, as well as Jews, consistently opposed it, standing up for life from the very earliest days of the church. The book was out of print for awhile, so I'm delighted to see it is available again.

If you’ve had a chance to read the ESV Study Bible essay on “The Beginning of Life and Abortion” (in the Ethics section), there is a brief overview on the extrabiblical Jewish and early Christian literature in contrast to Roman culture:

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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3 thoughts on “Abortion and the Early Church”

  1. Ryan says:

    A look at “A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs” (David Bercot, ed.) reveals that the early church was acquainted with both surgical and drug-induced abortions- neither are a modern novelty. They condemned all abortion as murder, and were despised for rescuing infants who had been exposed from death. A remarkable example to us today!

  2. Rob N. says:

    Reading this reminded me of the similarities that our culture has with the pagan culture of Rome… Being mindful of the 92% abortion rate of Down Syndrome babies…

  3. Boaly says:

    Thanks for posting this, very interesting.
    Sometimes it seems as though abortion is a relatively new issue, but it’s obviously one that has been around through the ages

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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