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Teaching against Abortion in the Earliest Church

READING: Acts 15.1-5, 12-13, 19-31

 When I was a medical student, I delivered 12 babies
- an extraordinary experience.
- but I also had to learn about abortion. Fortunately I only had to witness one 
- I won’t describe it to you – it is sickening even in a clinical environment
- later that day we accompanied the same consultant to an infertility clinic
- I remember walking through a room full of sad-faced couples
- any of them would have been overjoyed to take away the aborted baby

The term ‘abortion’ is a euphemism. Medically it refers to natural termination
- about 1/10 foetuses have abnormalities which won’t survive birth
- a few of these come to term, but most of them are aborted naturally
- we call these ‘spontaneous’ abortions, now that we do medical abortions
- and we usually use the passive “they are aborted”, or “terminated”
- this helps us to believe that it really isn’t our choice. It just happens.

In the ancient world they used a similar kind of euphemism
- instead of abortion (which was very dangerous) they used infanticide
- but they didn’t speak about ‘killing’ babies – they said they were exposed
- we have an example in Act.7.19 saying Pharoah forced babies “to be exposed”
- but of course we know that Pharoah wanted them killed at birth
- Miriam was breaking this command when she put Moses in a basket

Originally, in rural Greek & Roman society they did “expose” infants
- and some people still did so in the 1st century, but it was difficult in towns
- it was easier to quietly smother the baby at birth and throw out the corpse
- some people did still leave babies on a hillside, leaving them to the ‘gods’
- but in practice this left them to the dogs, and to brothel keepers who sometimes rescued infants as an investment for their business.

A sad letter from a husband survived 2000 years in a rubbish dump in Egypt.
- he is giving instructions about his wife’s delivery, which he will miss:
- “If she bears offspring, and it is a male let it be; if a female, expose it.”
- authors like Ovid who despised euphemism and moral pretensions was blunter
- in a play a woman is told: If by chance your child should prove to be a girl… let her be killed (necetur)” [Metamorphoses 9.679;  the letter is P.Oxy.4.744]

Jews thought that this Roman custom was barbaric, and they said so
- Philo pulls no punches when he described what actually happened in practice:
“Some of them do the deed with their own hands; with monstrous cruelty and barbarity they stifle and throttle the first breath which the infants draw or throw them into a river or into depths of the sea, after attaching some heavy substance to make them sink more quickly under its weight. Others take them to be exposed in some desert place, hoping, they themselves say, that they may be saved, but leaving them in actual truth to suffer the most distressing fate. For all the beasts that feed on human flesh visit the spot and feast unhindered on the infants; a fine banquet.”(Spec.3.114-5)
- Josephus contrasted Jewish & Roman cultures in Conta Apionem, incl: [2.202] 
“The [Mosaic] Law… forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to kill it afterward; and if any woman appears to have done so, she will be a murderer of her child, by killing a living creature and diminishing human kind.”


The early church was equally set against the practice of infanticide
- among the first Canons of the church (from Elvira, 306-312 CE) we find a warning against those who "conceive in adultery and then suffocate the child"
- and in the earliest church documents after the New Testament was written:  “Do not abort a fetus or kill a child that is born… For they are …murderers of children and corruptors of what God has fashioned.” [Didache 2,2; 5.2 & Barnabus 19.5; 20.2, prob both quoting an earlier source]

But where did they get this from? How did all believers agree on this?
- we know how difficult it is to find teaching against abortion
- the early Christians were converted pagans for whom this was normal practice
- the NT has to repeatedly tell them to avoid prostitutes and other immorality
- and yet there apparently is no warning against killing babies in the NT
- we have some hints, if we are looking for them, but Gentiles weren’t looking
- it would be a total surprise to most converts to find it was considered immoral
- even the Emperor Augustus – who was famous for his strict morality – exposed the son of his granddaughter Julia because it was born out of wedlock.

This is the point where a scholars like me starts to rub our hands with glee
- a mystery worthy of Hercule Poirot, with clues scattered all over the place
- I found a clue in an early Jewish part of the Sibylline Oracles, in Book 3
- he told Hellenistic Jews which aspects of secular culture they should avoid:
“Do not apply your hand violently to tender children” and “Do not let a woman destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and the vultures as a prey (150, 184–85)”.
- then I looked at the context, and recognised a parallel in the NT
- in the same place he warned against sexual immorality and idolatry

- it reminded me of the Apostolic Decrees in Acts 15
This is where my scholar’s whiskers really started twitching
- because there is an age-old mystery in this list of decrees
- lots of people have tried different solutions, and none really work
- of course it looks OK in translation, but that’s what translators do
- they make it look as though they know what they are doing
- but actually, there’s many places, like this, where they have to guess

The Apostolic Decree has the same task as the Sibylline Universal Law
- a load of Gentiles have become Christians and they need some rules
- of course they know that they shouldn’t steal or blaspheme etc
- but there are things which Gentiles do which they don’t know are wrong

To make it memorable, the rules were presented as four words:
 (though unfortunately they don’t all translate well as a single word):
- idol-offerings, sexual-immorality, blood and something called pnictos

Gentile converts certainly needed to know the first three
Idolatry was simply part of normal social life outside Judaism
- temples were where you met with your friends, like going down to the pub
Roman sexual morality said it was OK to sleep with a slave, male or female
- and a good dinner host provided hetairi (high-class prostitutes) for male guests 
Murdering a citizen was wrong, but it was OK to kill a disobedient slave
- and watching men kill each other was the most popular circus entertainment

So Gentile converts needed a catch-up on these aspects of morality:
- no idolatry, no sexual immorality, and no unnecessary bloodshed
- and blood could be interpreted in two ways – eating blood and bloodshed

The fourth word, pnictos is very rare but is usually translated “strangle”
- why? because it sounds similar to pnigos and that means “strangle”
- actually, this isn’t too far off, because I later concluded it means “smother”
- but what does it mean in this context? How does it make any sense?

Lots of scholars have had a go at explaining this.
- most link it to blood, saying that it refers to “strangled meat”
- ie they have been strangled instead of bled, so the blood is still in the corpse
- but this is already covered by the word “blood”, so why say it twice?
- if you have only four words to use, why waste one in this way?

While trawling through all the previous explanations I found something strange
- all of them come down to saying that we can account for three rules,
- but pnictos always stands out as refusing to fit into a pattern, and confusing

- but the other three (idolatry, sexual immorality and blood) were very famous
- all Jews knew these as the three rules which can never be broken

The Jews recognised life as more important even than the commands of God
- if your life or someone else’s was threatened you could break the commands
- you could lie, steal, break the Sabbath or any other command if life was at risk 
- any command except three: idolatry, uncovering nakedness (ie sexual immorality) or bloodshed
- and this trio occurs repeatedly throughout Jewish literature


But I noticed that half the time, this trio is accompanied by a fourth command
- what they say is: It is wrong to break these three and especially this fourth one
- the fourth one varied, according to what they were trying to emphasise
- eg here is one from the 1st C, which emphasises how bad slander is: [arn A 40]
“There are four things that a man performs, for which punishment is exacted from him in this world and also in the world to come. They are: idolatry, uncovering nakedness, bloodshed, and slanderous talk, which is the worst of them all.”

The fourth command isn’t standard – there are lots of different ones, including:
slander, neglecting Sabbath Years, unwarranted hatred, robbery, rejection of the Torah, and unfulfilled promises of charity
- this means that whatever pnictos or ‘smothering’ means, it is VERY important
- it is the unexpected fourth command – ie the one they are trying to emphasise
- and we have no idea what it means, mainly because the word is so rare

At this point, I’m rubbing my hands together twice as fast
- because not only do I have a mysterious Greek word
- I have one which is very rare, which means less work for me
- nowadays computers can search all of Greek literature in a few seconds
- but if you study a common word, you have thousands of examples to read
- and most of these Greek texts are untranslated so you have months of work
- but this word is very rare. Only 20 instances in all Greek literature before 3rd C
- after that date it is frequent but only because it is in comments on Acts 15
- to find what it means we need early example, and there are only about 20.

First I went down a dead-end, though a very interesting one
  (you can go to sleep for a bit. Wake up when I say “flush toilet”)
- half of all the examples were by one author called Heron of Alexandria
- he was an engineer who specialised in hydraulics and siphons
- for this he needed air-tight joins which he called pnictos ie smothered  joints
- I was amazed to find he invented the steam engine at about the birth of Christ
- he didn’t make it do useful work, like James Watt in the mid 1700’s
- his master had slaves for that. He made mechanical singing birds for the garden
- he also invented the water clock and a fixed volume siphon dispenser
- he fixed this to a wine dispenser to the son of the house couldn’t drink too often
- Thomas Crapper eventually used this fixed-volume siphon to make flush toilets
- his inventions often required smothered  joints, but I don’t think this helps us. 
- I’m sure early Christians weren’t warned against becoming hydraulic engineers

All the other examples of pnictos were used with regard to food
- in particular a certain type of meat called “smothered meat”. What’s that?
- that was the question posed by a sophisticated diner called Ulpian in Banquet of the learned of Athenæus – a book all about the food served at high-class banquets
- Ulpian overheard someone talking about a dish of “smothered meats” and exclaimed: “I myself shall be smothered if you do not tell me where you found any mention of meat of that kind”.
- it sounds as though he thought this was witty. Perhaps he was at that stage of drinking where you think everything you say is witty.
- thankfully for us, his host answers, in detail and in the process quotes most of the ancient sources which the computer found for me
- it turns out that smothered meat is particularly delicate and tender because it is made by lightly boiling a baby animal shortly after it has been born
- ie it is born, smothered, very lightly boiled, and then eaten as a delicacy
- it sounds disgusting, but it isn’t very different from suckling pig
  (though suckling pigs are normally allowed to live a little longer)
- the discussion moves to a very sinister point when his host quotes Clearchus who said that “Phalaris the tyrant had arrived at such a pitch of cruelty, that he used to feast on suckling children.”

There you have it: two ways in which this word pnictos was used in NT times
1) for a smothered joint in hydraulic engineering
2) for smothered meat in culinary haute cuisine
What can it mean in the Apostolic Decree?


You’ve guessed what I think, but what would the original readers think?  
- well, I think they would be confused at first
- it is rather like saying: the four worst sins you can commit are idolatry, fornication, murder and eating Pate de Foie Gras!
- so what will they do? They’ll ask the messenger
- a letter carrier in the ancient world was much more than just a postman
- they were a representative of the author and they helped interpret the letter
- and this was certainly true in this case, as we are told in vv. 22-30
- the letter-carriers are named twice, before the letter and in the letter itself
- and the letter says: “they will tell you the same things by word of mouth”
- in other words, they’ll explain it to you.

What would they explain? They tell them why “smothering” is so bad
- not the smothering of new-born baby animals, ready for eating
- but the smothering of new-born babies, or killing them any other way

Why did they use this strange rare word for “smothering”
- I think the euphemism “exposed” didn’t contain any negative value
- that’s just the normal thing you do, as a sensible father and good citizen
- instead they wanted to use a word which took away the pretence
- like anti-abortionists talk about murdering babies instead of aborting fetuses
- it may not be the most accurate language, but it conveys the moral truth
- no-one, after hearing these four words explained, would forget the message

The Apostolic Decree told new Gentile believers about a new morality
- they weren’t allowed to sacrifice to idols or eat in pagan temple dining rooms
- they weren’t allowed to have sex with slaves, or prostitutes, male or female
- they weren’t allowed to kill slaves or eat blood (probably both messages)
- and they weren’t allowed to kill babies as a means of birth control

The message spread very successfully. The whole church condemned infanticide
- even though the majority of converts were Gentiles for whom it was normal
- this quick-fix, four-word summary update on morality communicated well
- everyone remembered it, and kept it.
- it was one of the best church ad campaigns ever carried out.
- perhaps one big lesson from this is for preachers: use fewer words.

For more details see the academic paper on this:
"Infanticide and the apostolic decree of Acts 15" by David Instone-Brewer (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 52, 2009, 301-321)


(C) Dr David Instone-Brewer 2009

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David Instone-Brewer