Morality Ch. 4: Abortion and Infanticide

In Bible times, babies were killed just after birth instead of just before. Newly converted Gentile Christians were given only four absolute moral prohibitions – including a condemnation of this practice.

I helped deliver twelve babies when I was a medical student – an extraordinary experience. And I also watched a healthy but unwanted baby being broken up and sucked away in a late-term medical abortion – sickening. Later that same day I attended an infertility clinic. It was full of hopeful but mostly sad couples, any of whom would have been overjoyed to take that baby home. I didn’t complete medical training (my doctorate is in New Testament history) so I never had to decide whether I would opt out of that work that no doctor enjoys doing: helping people kill their unwanted babies.

In New Testament times there were just as many unwanted babies as today. This was due to poor birth-control methods and a sexual free-for-all that makes modern societies look prudish. Abortion was rarely practiced, because it was dangerous for the mother. Instead, the solution to the problem of an unwanted child was infanticide – the baby was born normally and then killed. In Roman society the final decision on whether a child lived wasn’t made by the mother, but by the head of the household – usually the mother’s father, if she wasn’t married. Every newborn had to be laid on the floor before him, and the custom was that if he picked it up and named it, the baby lived. If not, the child would be “exposed.”

The word “exposed” became a euphemism like the modern word “abortion” – which originally referred to the natural ejection of a fetus that was too malformed to survive birth. The term “abortion” is so consistently misused as a euphemism for killing an unborn infant that doctors now have to talk about “spontaneous abortion” when they mean natural abortions. In a similar way, “exposed” originally meant leaving an unwanted baby on a hillside for the child’s fate to be decided by the gods. Perhaps a kindly stranger would rescue the baby, or even – as in the story of the twins Romulus and Remus, who founded Rome – a kindly she-wolf. In practice, the infants died, though some were “rescued” by brothel keepers as a future investment.

When Roman life became urbanized, this rural practice became difficult. Rather than someone trying to covertly leave a crying infant in a quiet street, the baby would be smothered before being thrown out. Philo, a first-century Jewish preacher, fearlessly criticized this Roman practice: “with monstrous cruelty and barbarity they stifle and throttle the first breath which the infants draw.”1

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Four new rules

When Gentiles became Christians, they had to learn a whole new lifestyle, just as a modern convert may have to adopt new standards of sexual morality or stop swearing. The first church council (described in Acts 15) decided that Gentiles didn’t need to be circumcised (whew!), but they did need a crash course on morality in four essential areas. The council summarized the prohibitions in just four memorable and pithy words (which aren’t so pithy in translation): idol offerings, sexual immorality, blood (i.e., bloodshed, or possibly eating blood), and something called pniktos (on which see below). They sent this list to all the new Gentile churches, together with representatives of the council to explain what each one meant. Unfortunately, this explanation wasn’t recorded for us to read, which has resulted in some confusion.

The first three would be recognized by all Jews as the three most heinous sins: idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. Jews regarded these as “mortal sins” because they believed that any of God’s laws could be broken if life was in danger – your life or someone else’s – except for these three laws.

Gentiles thought differently. Idolatry was what glued Roman society together – you made friends by joining in whatever religion they enjoyed in their variegated cosmopolitan culture. Sexual immorality was officially frowned on, but the number of brothels and the affairs reported by contemporary social commentators suggests Roman morality was very flexible. Sex with slaves, for example, was not regarded as reprehensible because this was part of a slave’s natural duties. Even bloodshed was a normal part of Roman lifestyle – as a spectator sport when gladiators fought to the death, or as the right of any slave owner if he wished to “dispose” of his property.

But the fourth prohibition – the word pniktos – is mysterious, because the word is so rare. Bible translators up until now have assumed it meant something similar to the related verb pnigō, “to strangle,” suggesting something like “strangled meat.” However, strangling was not a normal way to kill animals – birds’ necks were broken, and it is very hard to strangle a sheep or an ox! For an academic study I looked up every occurrence of pniktos in the whole of ancient Greek literature on a massive computer database.2 There are only twenty instances before the third century AD, and every author except one used it as a specialist culinary term that could best be translated as “smothered meat.” This wasn’t meat smothered with sauce – it referred to baby animals who were smothered as soon as they were born. This was done to produce the tenderest meat possible, rather like an extreme version of suckling pig.

Of course the new Christians weren’t being warned to avoid this particular expensive delicacy – that would be like telling believers that one of the four worst sins is eating pâté de foie gras! (However, I expect that they would avoid this food, just as many Christians tend to avoid eating veal, because of the way it is produced.) In the context of the other three mortal sins, this prohibition of “smothering” is clear: “do not smother babies.” Like the three other sins, infanticide was common and acceptable in the Gentile world, but it was absolutely abhorrent to Jews and Christians.

Interestingly (though admittedly irrelevant), the one ancient author who used pniktos differently was an engineer called Heron of Alexandria in the first century BC. He invented the steam engine and the self-emptying cistern almost two thousand years before James Watt and Thomas Crapper. These modern engineers applied their inventions to moving heavy objects and making toilets flush. But Heron’s patron had slaves to do all the heavy and dirty work. So Heron’s steam engine made mechanical singing birds move around his patron’s garden fountain, and his cistern dispensed wine in limited quantities for his patron’s alcoholic son. His inventions needed airtight joints, which he described as “smothered” (pniktos) joints. This helps confirm the meaning of this rare word and also shows how the world might have progressed faster without slaves.

Back to the church council: They sent representatives to explain the meaning of these four words – these four prohibitions – and to urge all believers to memorize them (Acts 15:27). They were very successful: the early church stood out in the ancient world as people who rejected idol worship, sexual immorality, bloodshed, and infanticide.

Full human rights

Forbidding abortion and infanticide is therefore an example of a countercultural command. In the prevailing Roman culture, the normal practice was infanticide – killing babies as soon as possible – and abortion is simply doing that a little sooner. There is no command against infanticide in the Old Testament, though people sometimes point to the law about the loss of a baby when a pregnant woman was accidentally struck (Exod 21:22-23). This certainly shows that an unborn life was regarded as having the same value as a person, because the maximum penalty in this case was death. But it doesn’t say anything about deliberate abortion. However, in the case of countercultural commands, we don’t need to show that the command is unchanging – we should presume it is timeless because God has asked believers to act differently from those in the surrounding culture.3

In the past, the law regarded children as the property of their parents, with limited rights before adulthood. Modern society has learned, largely from Jesus, that children have full human rights, and their vulnerability makes us especially responsible for looking after them. However, somehow we’ve managed to concede that a fetus is not a child, so it’s not due the same legal protection. Perhaps this is because churches have so often condemned those who are accidentally pregnant instead of offering to help take care of the child.

The successful change in the status of children was not imposed on society by making laws. The laws reflected a change that had already occurred in UK society, led by the church. The eighteenth-century church provided free general education for the poorest children on Sundays, which was the only day when they didn’t work; and they opened orphanages for street children. This was the origin of Sunday schools, which later promoted religious training when all children had gained the right to free weekday schooling.

Perhaps the way to change society’s views about abortion is not by demanding stronger laws but by continuing to provide adoption agencies and accommodation, care, and advice for those who are facing the crisis of an unplanned pregnancy. Often these are the most vulnerable in society. As with all those whose lives are in a mess, if we can show Jesus’ love to them and their unborn children, society will hopefully realize that life itself is precious, even before it is born.

1^ Philo, Special Laws 3.114, trans. C. D. Yonge (
2^ For more detail, see my article “Infanticide and the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52 (2009): 301-21 (
3^ See chapter 2, “Finding Fixed Morals for a Changing World.”

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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