The 27 books of the New Testament are indisputably silent on the subject of abortion. Yet many Christians feel strongly that opposition to abortion is the biblical position. Many others are confused by this puzzling silence, for they intuitively question the compatibility of abortion and Christian faith. Still others maintain that the New Testament’s silence means that abortion was, and must continue to be, a matter of individual conscience.
These polar perspectives, along with the confusion of those caught in the middle, have divided the Christian community for the last 20 years of debate since Roe v. Wade. For those who take the Bible as their authority in matters of faith and life, the New Testament’s puzzling silence on abortion seems indeed to be a serious problem. Given this silence, would it not be most logical—most biblical—to affirm freedom of conscience with abortion? Could it be that when it comes to abortion, the New Testament’s silence implies neutrality, ambiguity, or even acceptance? Doesn’t this historical silence also logically lead to the theological conclusion that God is neutral about or even accepting of abortion? And if God is, at most, neutral, how can anyone be dogmatically opposed?
The Bible and fetal personhood
The “individual-conscience” interpretation of the New Testament’s silence has been vigorously advocated by one very significant and powerful organization, the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR). RCAR, their literature states, is “a national, nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of 35 Protestant, Jewish, and other denominations and faith groups” that are “religiously and theologically diverse … [but] unified in [their] commitment to preserve reproductive freedom.” It is clear that one of RCAR’s goals is to convince or reassure people that the Bible neither affirms the personhood of the fetus nor condemns abortion. Especially devoted to this goal are two publications written by professors of theology: a short pamphlet, Is the Fetus a Person—According to the Bible? by Miami University of Ohio’s Roy Bowen Ward, and a booklet entitled Personhood, the Bible, and the Abortion Debate, by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Paul D. Simmons.
Ward writes, “One thing that the Bible does not say is ‘Thou shalt not abort.’ ” The biblical writers “did not choose to condemn” abortion. Why not? Because, Ward contends, the Jews and early Christians did not believe the fetus is a person. According to Ward, the biblical notion of a person—in Hebrew, nephesh—is a living, breathing being. Since the fetus is not such a being, it is not a person, biblically speaking, and is therefore not entitled to the rights and protection granted to persons. Ward claims that because this was the Jewish view at the time the New Testament writings were composed and collected, it was also the view of such eminent New Testament writers as the apostle Paul.
Simmons agrees that the New Testament does not teach fetal personhood. He claims that the “most plausible explanation” for the Bible’s silence on abortion is that early Christians saw abortion as “a private, personal and religious matter, not subject to civil regulation.” The apostle Paul’s failure to name abortion in his vice lists, argues Simmons, means that he “apparently … regarded abortion as a matter to be dealt with on the basis of faith, grace and Christian freedom.”
What, then, are the moral and social implications of this interpretation of the silence? Ward maintains abortion is clearly not murder according to the New Testament, and says that if the New Testament is silent on abortion, then Christians should also be silent: “Speak where the Bible speaks. Be silent where the Bible is silent.” But Ward’s own pamphlet is hardly silent; it is a clarion call to support individual conscience and choice.
Simmons concludes his booklet more forthrightly by claiming that
Abortion is never to be taken lightly but it is not a forbidden option.… Contemporary Christians will do well to follow the biblical pattern in treating the subject of elective abortion.… The biblical writers’ silence [on abortion] reveals a becoming reticence to judge too quickly concerning the morality of another person’s choice. It is eloquent testimony to the sacredness of this choice for women and their families and the privacy in which it is to be considered.
It is clear, then, that Ward, Simmons, and RCAR believe the Bible’s silence on abortion speaks quite clearly in support of the “sacredness” of choice. As persuasive as these arguments may seem to be, an alternative explanation better accounts for the silence.
The Jewish perspective
As Professor Ward indicates in his pamphlet, many of the first Christians, including all but one (Luke) of those whose writings are preserved in the New Testament, were Jewish Christians with a basically Jewish morality. We can therefore rightly expect, as Ward does, that if a Jewish consensus on fetal personhood and/or abortion existed at that time, the writers of the New Testament would almost certainly have held the common Jewish view.
Ward implies that the Jewish consensus in the early part of the Christian era was not antiabortion, but he has incorrectly interpreted texts that are only marginally relevant, and he has failed to discuss Jewish documents that explicitly mention induced abortion. Early Judaism was, in fact, quite firmly opposed to induced abortion.
The popular Jewish wisdom of the Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides (written between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50) says that “a woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures as a prey.” So, too, the apocalyptic Sibylline Oracles includes among the wicked two groups: women who “produce abortions and unlawfully cast their offspring away” and sorcerers who dispense abortifacients. The apocryphal, first-or second-century B.C. 1 Enoch says that an evil angel taught humans how to “smash the embryo in the womb.”
In his exposition of the commandment against murder, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (25 B.C.–A.D. 41) rejected the common notion that a fetus is merely a part of its mother. He taught that anyone who induces abortion must be fined if the fetus is unformed and given the death penalty if it is formed. Similarly, the first-century Jewish historian and apologist Josephus wrote, “The Law orders all the offspring to be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus.” A woman convicted of this was regarded as having committed an infanticide, because she destroyed a soul and diminished the race.
No contradictory early Jewish texts about abortion have been discovered, thus suggesting that a Jewish antiabortion consensus did exist in the first century. (Later, some rabbis pronounced an exception—abortion to save the mother’s life.) This consensus is acknowledged even by more liberal scholars, such as William Countryman, who find the New Testament’s silence on abortion puzzling and problematic.
Given the Jewish consensus on abortion, the most logical supposition is that the Jewish-Christian writers of the New Testament would have shared the antiabortion posture of their Jewish heritage and ethos, even if they did not mention abortion explicitly in the preserved writings of the New Testament canon.
Why, then, is abortion not mentioned in any of the 27 books of the New Testament? As scholars such as Yale Divinity School’s Leander Keck have emphasized, neither the New Testament as a whole, nor any of the individual documents, constitutes a comprehensive manual of ethics. Rather, Keck reminds us, each document deals only with ethical matters that had become, or were becoming, problems. That the New Testament never directly addresses abortion (or exposure or infanticide) does not mean that the first-century churches were ignorant of this practice or that they believed it to be a matter of “individual conscience.” On the contrary, the silence simply tells us that abortion was not an issue in need of resolution. The silence indicates that there was little or no deviation from the norm inherited from Judaism. Imbued with a profound Jewish respect for unborn and newborn human life as the gift of God, and inspired by Jesus’ welcoming of children, the earliest Christians were not tempted to end or endanger the life of their children before or after birth. When the abortion temptation—or at least the question—arose explicitly, the church answered with an unequivocal no.
If this interpretation of the silence is correct, should we not expect some hint of this Jewish and Christian consensus in the New Testament itself? The question is more complex than it first appears, but there is one important hint at the consensus in the New Testament.
In the birth narrative of the gospel according to Matthew, one of the most thoroughly Jewish of the New Testament documents, the story is told of Joseph’s reaction to the news of his teenage fiancée’s premarital pregnancy. The solution that comes to Joseph’s mind is divorce, not abortion. Divorce for unfaithfulness was acceptable; abortion unthinkable.
The “other” New Testaments
Another dimension for understanding the New Testament’s silence is to note that although it is silent, it once was not silent. While the New Testament in nearly universal use for 1,600 years contains no texts on abortion, many of the New Testaments produced and used by the earliest Christians did contain such texts. Even though the books containing these texts were eventually excluded from the official New Testament, they first expressed and spread their opposition to abortion throughout the Christian church.
The 27 books of our New Testament were not the only Christian writings considered by early Christian congregations to be inspired. Nor was the New Testament assembled and published all at once, at some time in the late-first or early-second century. Its formation was gradual, beginning perhaps in the early-second century and ending, more or less, in the late-fourth. As a collection, in other words, the 27-book New Testament is not really a first-century publication but a fourth-century publication of first-century writings.
For almost three centuries, each congregation, each theologian, each area, and finally each major region of Christianity had its own collection of authoritative writings, its own “canon.” Although the core of these canons—the four Gospels and Paul’s letters—was essentially the same from the mid-second-century onward, the other contents varied from place to place and from time to time.
Among the frontrunners of the several early Christian works that eventually lost their bid for canonicity were three popular documents that condemned abortion—the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Apocalypse of Peter. These widely distributed writings were all of Jewish-Christian origin and were composed during the late-first or early-second century from even earlier Jewish moral traditions. These now-obscure documents were part of the authoritative writings read and preached in many Christian congregations throughout the Roman Empire during the second, third, and fourth centuries.
The texts on abortion in these three documents are brief but very significant:
Love your neighbor as yourself.… You shall not murder a child by abortion nor shall you kill a newborn. (Didache)
You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not murder a child by abortion nor shall you kill a newborn. (Barnabas)
[In a vision of hell] I saw … women … who produced children out of wedlock and who procured abortions. (Apocalypse of Peter)
These three texts bear witness to the general Jewish and Jewish-Christian attitude of the first and second centuries, thus confirming that the earliest Christians shared the antiabortion position of their Jewish forebears. Each of the three writings containing these texts appears in some of the early church’s lists of its New Testament canon.
As time went on, for varied reasons these writings came to be known as “disputed” books—those not universally read in worship and whose authority and place in the canon were in question. Writing in the early-fourth century, Eusebius notes that although these three books were not universally accepted, they were “recognized by most writers in the church” and “publicly read by many in most churches.” Even when they were permanently excluded from the church’s official canon in the late-fourth or early-fifth century, each of these three writings remained popular and, in some cases, semiauthoritative among Christians. This clearly suggests that their antiabortion position was never deemed deviant from the Christian norm.
The significance of the silence
When we ask, “Why is abortion not mentioned in the New Testament?” we must realize that it was mentioned, and prohibited, in many of the “New Testaments” in use for several centuries. The antiabortion statements of the (now) noncanonical books do not veer from the central early Christian path; they maintain it. The writers of these documents also laid the groundwork for further statements against abortion and for the early church’s universal acceptance of the inherited position.
Furthermore, the lack of any attempt to safeguard an antiabortion text for the New Testament canon suggests that the Christian antiabortion position was so universally accepted that its absence from the emerging canon was not noticed, nor was its presence deemed necessary. Not only had moralists, apologists, and theologians—without a dissenting voice—condemned abortion, but by the early-fourth century early canon-law documents had begun to proscribe punishment for abortion.
The New Testament’s message
When the New Testament is understood in its historical, developmental context, as a fourth-century Christian collection of first-century Jewish-Christian documents, its silence on abortion testifies to the antiabortion stance of its original Jewish-Christian writers, its later compilers, and its earliest hearers and readers. In a very real sense, then, the New Testament canon did indeed speak, and still does speak, against abortion.
The Christian community was, and must continue to be, a place where the most vulnerable are welcomed and protected. Christians recognize two neighbors present in every pregnancy, and they must seek mercy, love, and justice for both of these neighbors. That, quite simply, is the way of the New Testament, the way of Christ.
Thus, the New Testament calls us to welcome children, to protect God’s gift of life, to be a community of merciful hospitality to women in need. Those seeking a religious defense of abortion “rights” or “individual conscience” must search for it in texts and communities other than those of early Judaism and early Christianity, including the Christianity of the New Testament.
Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
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