Saturday, December 15, 2012

Abortion is Murder, Rabbi

In an ill-advised recent article, Rabbi Boteach attempted to argue in the Huffington Post that the Catholic Church ought to abandon its stance on abortion because it is based on a mistranslation of the Hebrew in the Septuagint. There are countless reasons--logical and illogical--why the Catholic Church, not to mention other "Bible-believing" Christians, can ignore Boteach's argument, not the least of which is that the very last Christian denomination that would take doctrinal advice about its tradition from a rabbi is the Roman Catholic Church. There are better reasons of course, including that the Catholic Church does not view the Septuagint with the same disdain that modern Jews do (the opinions of late-antique Jews notwithstanding). It is also worth noting that even if the tradition were based on a faulty reading of the text in question, the Catholic Church has traditionally been loathe to interpret Scripture without tradition as a hermeneutical lens. Wrong or not, the tradition gives the normative starting point for reading the sacred text.

The best reason, however, for ignoring Boteach is that the Christian pro-life tradition does not spring exclusively (or even primarily) from the verse in question. Boteach rightly identifies a passage in Exodus as the prooftext to which many contemporary Christians turn to ground their opposition to abortion in Scripture:

The Hebrew Bible makes only one reference to abortion, and this is by implication. Exodus 21:22-23 states: "And if two men strive together and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, accordingly as the woman's husband shall lay upon him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, though shalt give life for life."

He even goes through the trouble of tracing the Catholic tradition of interpretation for this verse back through Byzantine law to the writings of the second century Latin father Tertullian--a noble effort for a HuffPo article. Not being in a position--nor thinking it particularly relevant--to challenge this historical account, I grant it to him, arguendo. I will even grant him his exegetical work on the meaning of the original text. In both cases the points are moot. 

What truly matters is that Boteach fails to consider a Christian tradition against abortion that antedates even Tertullian and is based on another text in the Hebrew Bible which references abortion by implication: "Thou shalt not kill." Outrage is sure to follow at the suggestion that the commandment can be simply construed to prohibit abortion, but the argument being made here is not an exegetical one. It is historical. I need not demonstrate that the prohibition on murder extends to the unborn, only that the text was not corrupted in its translation to the Septuagint and that an early Christian tradition construed the verse to prohibit abortion.

If anyone seriously doubts the first point, I will be glad to argue it, but for my purposes here, the latter point is the more novel and more contentious. Yet, had Boteach bothered to dig only a little deeper he would have found an earlier contemporary of Tertullian, Athenagoras, writing passionately against all murder, including abortion. The following is from his A Plea for Christians, specifically from a section when he is answering charges that Christians kill and eat babies as part of their "love feasts:"

For when they know that we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly; who of them can accuse us of murder or cannibalism? Who does not reckon among the things of greatest interest the contests of gladiators and wild beasts, especially those which are given by you? But we, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles. How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death? And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it.

The passage is interesting for its implications both for the Christian position on capital punishment and our modern delight in virtualizing our love of torture. For the moment, however, consider that abortion falls into a single category, "murder," considered here by Athenagoras: execution, abortion, infanticide. They are all equally beneath the broad heading of murder which, naturally, Christians abstain from. All these are not only opposed by Christians on the grounds that all are murder, but Athenagoras thought them so central to Christian belief and practice that anyone who knew a Christian would know that he abhorred execution and opposed abortion and that on those grounds could be freed from any suspicion of infanticide. There is no complex exegetical wrangling, no attempt to define the way Hebrew law applies to Christian ethics. Just the simple maxim Christians do not murder and the obvious (at least in the second century) implication that this includes abortion.

The precedent goes back even farther than even Athenagoras. The late first century Didache includes a clear statement on abortion and it links it again, not with the passage Boteach cited, but with the general prohibition on murder:

Thou shalt do no murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not corrupt boys, thou shalt not commit fornication, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not deal in magic, thou shalt do no sorcery, thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's goods, thou shalt not perjure thyself, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not speak evil, thou shalt not cherish a grudge, thou shalt not be double-minded nor double-tongued

Here the connection with the Ten Commandments is even clearer, as the various applications of the commands are interspersed haphazardly with quotes from the Decalogue. Not only does the general command not to murder apply, but it applies specifically to murder of "a child by abortion" and, as with Athenagoras, infanticide.

The two passages offered provide wonderful avenues for further contemplation. The language of creation and the perception of the fetus as a child as early as the first century would seem to lend legitimacy to much of the rhetoric used by the pro-life camp. More important, however, at least for my purpose here is the fact that the anti-abortion stance of Christianity, the tradition that Boteach ties specifically to the Catholic Church, is neither bound to the passage Boteach considers nor is it as late in its articulation as he imagines. The belief that God has tasked his people with the preservation of life--in all the richest, theologically-informed meanings of the word--is not something the exegetical acrobatics and critiques of tradition can remove, especially not ones that fail by their own critical criteria.

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