Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Earliest Christian Teaching on Abortion

From sometime in the first (or early second) century A.D.:

“There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and great is the difference between these two ways. And now this is the way of life: First, you shall love God, who made you

The second commandment of the teaching is:
You shall not murder;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not corrupt children;
you shall not be sexually immoral;
you shall not steal;
you shall not practice magic;
you shall not engage in sorcery;
you shall not murder a child in an abortion
nor shall you kill one that is born.”
(Greek ou phoneuseis teknon en pthora oude gennēthen apokteneis)

--Didache 1:1, 2:1-2 (My translation)

Notice here that the Didache uses the term “murder” (Greek phoneuō) when speaking about the destruction of the “child” (Greek teknon) in the womb. This word—unlike the more general word for "kill" (Greek apokteinō)—is taken directly from the Septuagint version of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not murder” (Greek ou phoneuseis) (Exod 20:15). In this way, the Didache roots its teaching against abortion directly in the second tablet of the Decalogue regarding love of neighbor.


Richard Fellows said...

Why need we suppose that this was written in the first century?

Were these words about abortion directed at the mother or were they directed at the father?

TJL said...

Because the Didache was written around AD 50 during the Council of Jerusalem. That would make it first century.

There is no need to direct to either parent or toward any other potential killer because it is the act of killing the child that is deemed criminal, no matter who kills the child, including the mother.

Obviously, the Apostles saw the unborn child as an independent human person and not as a part of the woman. Their understanding of biology was better than that of most college grads of today.

GEM said...

For the date of composition on the Didache, see

The words were directed to everyone who wanted to be a Christian.

Dave said...

It was written in the first century or very early second century at the latest. It was a book in consideration by the early Christians for the canon, so it had to have been from apostolic times.

Why do you assume that the injunction not to murder is directed at one parent or another? It would seem to be directed at anyone and everyone.

Brant Pitre said...

Hi Richard,
Thanks for the question. My point was not to stake out a claim in the debate over the date of the Didache but rather trying to inform people about what is widely agreed upon as the earliest Christian teaching on abortion.

In referring to it as 'sometime in the first century', I was following the common scholarly opinion that the first century date for the Didache is "more probable" than the early mid-second century. See Michael Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers (Baker Academic, 2007), 337. Some reasons for this view: the concern over dietary questions and food sacrificed to idols (6:3), the forms of early Christian leadership described at length (11-15), fit better into mid-late first-century Christianity rather than early second century. See, e.g., J. P. Audet, La Didache: Instructions des apotres (Paris: Librairie Lecoffre, 1958), 187-206.

If, however, you are still inclined to doubt the first century date of the Didache (and some scholars do), then you are still left with the late first-early second century teaching on abortion from the Epistle of Barnabas, which is virtually identical:

"You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not murder a chid in an aboration nor shall you kill one that has been born." (Epistle of Barnabas 19:5)

With all that said, I've gone back and revised the original post to include 'early second century' just to keep the question of the Didache more open-ended.

Finally, with regard to your question about audience, the text does not direct itself to mothers or fathers with specificity, but is part of a long list of general proscriptions modeled on the LXX form of the Decalogue.

Catharine said...

Most scholars date the Didache to 80-150 AD. Quasten states that the Didache "must have originated between 100 AD and 150 AD." Patrology, Quasten, Vol 1, p. 30.
Other evidence of the extremely early date of composition of the Didache would be the number and range of early Christian fathers who cite to it, and the fact that copies of the Didache have been found in a very wide geographic area, dating from a very early date. Also, the Didache conspicuously does not quote any specific New Testament scripture of any kid, while some of the very earliest Church fathers cite and/or refer copiously to it. Finally, according to scholars, there is abundant internal evidence that the Didache was most likely not composed by one author at one time, but rather was a compilation of several documents. Its antiquity was so firmly established in the minds of the fathers of the primitive Church that both Eusebius Pamphilius and St. Athanasius (c. 297-363 AD) had to inform their flocks that the Didache did not have equal authority with Scripture.

warthpublishinginc said...

You say: "your translation" are there other ways to translate this?

Richard Fellows said...

Thanks for the informative answers, everyone. What were the reasons for abortions in the first and second century Greco-Roman world, and was it the father or mother who decided?

I have no expertise on the Didache. Brant, is there merit in Alan Garrow's view that we can detect multiple layers in the Didache that were written at different times?

J_Bob said...

Here is a link to an article that adds a little more perceptive to the phrase "ou phoneuseis teknon en pthora" (οὐ φονεύσεις τέκνον ἐν φθορᾷ).

It seems the word pthora, is related to the juice of a plant, that can induce a miscarriage, an seems to have been known by Hippocrates.

While not abortion per say, the meaning and result are clear. A most interesting article.