Abortion in the Scrolls and the Didache

I realized on Friday of last week that I was late to the dance, but I believed it was important to dance at least one number on the issue of the sanctity of life. The annual American time of observing Sanctity of Life Sunday among Christian churches was celebrated last Sunday, but as it is not a British thing, I missed out entirely until I saw a few news items halfway through the week.

At present it seems that most Christians are still, for now at least, largely in agreement that the murder of unborn children in the name of the so-called reproductive freedom of enlightened (mostly) Western women who want out of an “unplanned pregnancy” (because, let’s face it, that’s the bulk of what is going on and the core line of reasoning of the pro-abortionist faction; the difficult exception cases pertaining to the endangerment of the mother, incest, or rape are exactly that: difficult exception cases) is nothing less than moral insanity on all levels. Entirely cogent arguments against elective abortion have been offered time and time again from both the perspective of the Bible (Protestants being strong here) as well as from the perspective of natural law (Roman Catholics being strong here). For many many Christians, the whole logic behind the “pro-choice” movement in favor of murdering 50 million persons (1973-2008; add another 10 mil. or more since then) who happen to be in utero is completely and utterly incomprehensible.

Among the mob that is so strongly arguing for abortion there often arises a peculiar attempt at undermining the Christian case against it: namely, that the Bible does not contain a clear command against abortion. In a lot of ways, it’s an absurd claim: the Bible condemns murder (implied: of innocent persons) in the 6th commandment (Exod 20:13); numerous passages discuss the personhood of infants in the womb (Job 10:8ff; Ps 139:13ff; others); and Exod 21:22–25, the great lex talionis provision containing the “eye for an eye” passage, is focused specifically on what should happen when someone injures or kills the unborn baby of a pregnant woman.[1]

Based on straightforward biblical reasoning, the case is completely closed. However, not everyone reasons biblically, and the question still remains – just Google “Does the Bible prohibit abortion” and you’ll get ~329,000 results (literally). The main reason, of course, is that the Bible doesn’t have the explicit language “Do not commit abortion.” Thus, bizarrely, some people conclude that the Bible has nothing to say about abortion.

The Christian reply often runs as follows:

“The Bible does not explicitly condemn abortion because the writers did not see the need to do so. NO ONE at that time who held to the ethics of the Israelite religion or, later, Christianity even entertained abortion as a legitimate possibility (though many people groups around them did regularly practice abortion), so there was no need for the prohibition.”

This line of argumentation, while in my opinion entirely correct, is apparently not entirely persuasive to everyone, since it seems to be making an argument from silence.

Or is it?

I thought it might be interesting to point out, as many others no doubt have before, that we do actually have data that suggests quite strongly that this is not actually an argument from silence. That is, we have documents from early Jewish communities (in the Dead Sea Scrolls) and early Christian communities that demonstrate that they did, in fact, consider abortion to be prohibited by God’s law even though it is not actually stated in those exact words. Let’s take a look.

Dead Sea Scrolls: The Damascus Document

Fragment of the Damascus Document
Fragment of the Damascus Document

One of the earliest attested documents in the Dead Sea Scrolls collection is the Damascus Document, also known as the Cairo Damascus document (shorthand CD). Portions had been found already in the Cairo Geniza collection before the scrolls in cave 4 were found in 1952. The composite document includes a variety of laws, admonitions, oaths and vows, and other guiding principles that by and large were meant to serve as some sort of governing legislation for the people of the community.

Admittedly some of the legislation is a bit odd, but in the main it was attempting to interpret and apply the laws of the OT Torah.

Notably, in the Damascus Document there is the following passage:

 Wise / Abegg translation, p 63: [Whoever] slaughters a domestic or wild animal with a living fetus in it … these are the ones who violate the Way … God has decreed to remove [them]

Martinez translation (of a slightly different fragment), p 1155: [Whoever] slaughters an animal carrying a live foetus … The transgressors … against them he has determined to destroy

Hebrew (of the first clause):  ישחט בהמה וחיה עברה

This is embedded in a list of prohibitions that indicate the ways in which a sinner may violate the “Way” in which they were supposed to live in covenant with Yahweh as an apocalyptic Jewish community; the passage later continues about how God will remove such sinners from the community (which, at Qumran, was essentially condemnation).

There are other passages in the Scrolls that echo a similar concept by prohibiting the sacrificial offering of animals that are pregnant (4Q394, 4Q397), but this passage is far stronger in its logic. In short, it says that anyone who kills an animal with a fetus in it has violated God’s law. But the question is: why?

The answer can be found by observing that this passage is an elaboration on Leviticus 22:27-28, which reads:

When an ox or sheep or goat is born, it shall remain seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as a food offering to the Lord. 28 But you shall not kill an ox or a sheep and her young in one day.

The Bible does not explain why one should not sacrifice a mother animal and her already-born offspring on the same day, necessarily, but that’s not the point. The point is that the writers of the Damascus Document felt the need to clarify the implication of this passage. Lev 22:28 only forbids the simultaneous offering of an animal with its young which were already born (as shown in the preceding verse about the eight days). However, the Qumran writer understood this Levitical law also to apply to pregnant animals, since, by their logic, this would violate Leviticus 22’s prohibition on killing a mother and her offspring on the same day.

In other words, for the Qumran community, the killing of a fetus is the same as the killing of the young offspring that had already been born, because they saw them as the same in essence. They were seen to be in all aspects equal in the eyes of God. Metaphysically there is nothing special about traveling the birth canal that makes a 1-day (or 8-day, in this case) offspring of an animal any different than the fetus. Thus, to kill a fetus of an animal is to violate this law of God.

Applying an a fortiori (from lesser to greater) argument, this same logic would extend to human fetuses and already-born offspring: they are in all aspects equal. Mathematically speaking:  (A) animal fetus == (A’) already-born offspring of an animal :: (B) human fetus == (B’) already-born child of a human.

One might ask whether an example from the Scrolls is relevant to Christians today. I would respond by saying that it shows, if nothing else, that some of the pre-Christian interpreters of the Torah had very sophisticated reasoning about the nature of the unborn (making it relevant to today) and that they had taken serious God’s law by applying it to things that are unstated to practical issues of the day (which is exactly what we’re dealing with here). But there’s another argument I will add.

The Didache

Didache
Didache

The Didache is, according to many scholars, one of the earliest if not the earliest Christian writing that has been preserved after the conclusion of the writing of the New Testament. It has been dated to the very early 2nd century (100-125 AD) or even to the last part of the 1st century. It served as a sort of manual of Christian living for the early church, and it was so widely popular that some early manuscripts actually include it as an appendix of sorts to the New Testament. It positions itself in its first sentence as the summary of the Lord’s teaching as given to the Twelve Apostles (hence the header image I selected). It was, in a lot of ways, the Book of Common Prayer or the Westminster Confession or the London Baptist Confession of the early church. It’s quite a fascinating read, and an online version can be found here.

One notable feature of the Didache is that it does contain an explicit prohibition of abortion:

English (Lightfoot): 2:2 thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born

Greek: 2:2 οὐ φονεύσεις τεκνον ἐν φθορᾷ [see note 2], οὐδὲ γεννηθὲν ἀποκτενεῖς

(Note that this same wording is echoed nearly word-for-word in the Epistle of Barnabas 19:5, which is also a very early Christian writing.)

Chapter 2 of the Didache deals with a collection of “thou shalt not’s” that closely resemble the Ten Commandments but also include others, such as not murdering, not committing adultery, not being duplicitous, not corrupting boys, not conducting magic and sorcery, and, as shown, not aborting children. The broader structure of the Didache gives the context for these commandments. The first chapter frames the entire work in terms of two ways of living, which itself is possibly taken from Psalm 1 and other passages in the OT and NT that talk about life in these terms:

1:1 There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways

In the Christian worldview, in other words, there is a path of living that leads to [eternal] life in Christ Jesus, and another path of life that leads to [eternal] death and punishment from an almighty God. There is no middle ground. There is no neutral standing-point from which, say, a modern educated liberal-minded Westerner imbibed with the bourgeois deception of moral relativism and pseudo-tolerance can argue that the killing of one’s child in the womb is purely an amoral, indifferent, neutral matter of personal preference and choice. One’s moral choices lead to either life or death. Nothing is neutral. Chapter 2 illustrates, then, what the “way” of death and destruction looks like, and abortion is included.

What should we make of this?

  • The Didache is not scripture, so we cannot, of course, cite Didache 2:2 as our moral authority here.
  • We can, however, draw a very important conclusion. The earliest Christians, when they saw fit to set forth what they took to be at the heart of Jesus’ teaching to the Twelve Apostles, apparently believed that he forbade abortion as part of the more general command against murder (which is the first in the list of 2:2). In other words, they understood that the OT and NT clearly taught, even if the precise wording (οὐ φονεύσεις τεκνον ἐν φθορᾷ) was not used, that the sixth commandment against murder included the murder of unborn children.
  • While church history does not always have the final say on a moral matter, this piece of evidence is pretty compelling. It tells us quite plainly that there is no argument from silence after all. Put differently, we do have evidence that the line of reasoning presented earlier (recap: no prohibition needed because it was assumed) is correct. The Didache records in writing what the Christians knew all along was already in view in God’s moral law: thou shalt not murder a child by abortion.

As a side note, it is interesting to note how this part of 2:2 concludes. Not only is abortion forbidden, but so is infanticide. The implication of this dual prohibition, as with the logic of the Damascus Document example with animal fetuses, is that the fetus was seen as equal in essence to the child who was already born.

Connecting to the pew

As the moral chaos of our culture is moving towards absolute freedom in abortion and, from there, in the direction of making it permissible to murder one’s child after he/she has been born (e.g., if they have a disability), it is significant to note that the earliest Christians were already dealing with both issues. There is no word-for-word Biblical command against killing one’s fetus or one’s newly born child; it was assumed, for reasons obvious to most morally rational people, to fall under numerous other biblical teachings about the dignity of human life, the personhood of the fetus, and the murder of innocents. But the community that recorded the Didache provided a tremendous blessing to future generations by codifying the moral imperative that they believed God’s law so clearly implied. Apparently in their Roman context, there was a need to be clear about this issue, since there may have been cultural pressures in the opposite direction. That is exactly where the church is again today, in a post-Roe v. Wade world. So let us (a) be comforted that our Christian forefathers dealt with the same thing, and that Jesus’ warning that the world will hate us – but that he has overcome the world – held true then and holds true now; and (b) be challenged to defend that truth – and the lives of the unborn – just as they did. Do not listen to the twisted logic of the pro-abortion faction when it comes to the Bible’s teachings, for they have no knowledge of what they are talking about.

____________

[1] This passage has been considered quite difficult to interpret, but I’m not quite sure why. The plain sense seems quite clear: if you strike a pregnant woman and her unborn child is harmed, then the perpetrator must receive a penalty in keeping with the crime. If the baby is just “harmed,” then the perpetrator is “harmed”; if the baby is killed, then the perpetrator is killed. The punishment should fit the crime (as is the essence of lex talionis, contrary to popular misconceptions). The implication is quite clear: the baby is considered a person just like anyone else, for that is the very presupposition upon which lex talionis functions. See Meredith Kline’s great article in JETS from several decades ago on “Lex Talionis and the Human Fetus.”

[2] This is, of course, the key word in the text. The Greek φθορα can mean “destruction,” “condemnation,” or “corruption,” but it was often used to describe the act of abortion, as in the Greek of the Hippocratic Oath (ὁμοίως δὲ οὐδὲ γυναικὶ πεσσὸν φθόριον δώσω >> “I do not give a woman medicine to produce abortion”).

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