Notes From The Didache On The Early Christian View Of Abortion

The Didache was not indifferent about abortion nor does it hesitate to list abortion (and infanticide) with other gross violations of the natural and moral law

The moral rigor of the Didache is also in contrast to the way some late-modern Christians speak about sexual ethics generally. The Didache unequivocally condemns sexual immorality. Again, it is hard to imagine the Didache countenancing the nomenclature, “gay Christian.” This much seems clear from the blanket condemnation of sexual immorality in 3:3.

 

One of the more difficult and fascinating texts in the collection of texts known as the Apostolic Fathers is the Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles usually known as a the Didache (Διδαχὴ). It is difficult because there are genuine questions as to its original location. Some scholars place it in Alexandria others in Syria. It has been dated from 70 AD to 300 AD. The internal evidence indicates to me that it is probably a Syrian text. It was known to fathers by the mid-2nd century so it seems as if could not be dated much after 150 AD. The situation envisioned by the document fits the early 2nd century better than the 1st century.

The Didache is in two or three parts. The first part draws heavily from the gospels and follows the “two-ways” ethical tradition of Proverbs and the Psalms. It quotes and elaborates subtly upon the Sermon on the Mount, which elaborations (e.g., substituting “fasting” for blessing one’s enemies) seem to locate it more in the 2nd century than the first. The second part of the work is a fairly detailed account of the early Christian practice of baptism (by effusion) and the Lord’s Supper. The Didache knows nothing of transubstantiation or a memorial eucharistic sacrifice. The third part is a brief apocalyptic section. Naturally, there is much discussion among scholars about the source criticism and how to relate the three aspects of the document to each other.

Yesterday, in class, as we worked through chapter 2 I was struck by this portion of 2:2: “You shall not murder a child in destruction nor shall you kill one just born” (οὐ φονεύσεις τέκνον ἐν φθορᾷ οὐδὲ γεννηθέντα ἀποκτενεῖς). Michael Holmes, in his excellent edition of the Apostolic Fathers (3rd edition) translates these clauses, “you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide.” This seems perfect. Lately, however, I’ve been comparing that edition with the revised Loeb edition of the Apostolic Fathers translated by Bart Ehrman, who translates the same clauses, “do not abort a foetus or kill a child that is born.” I was struck by Ehrman’s choice of foetus, which is Latin for “unborn infant” or “unborn child” instead of “child.” Holmes and Ehrman agree that the Didache intends to forbid abortion. The contrast between the “τέκνον (child) in destruction” with that one that has been brought to delivery (γεννηθέντα) seems clear enough.

This passage should give pause to those self-identified Christians who glibly announce that they are pro-choice. The Didache was not indifferent about abortion nor does it hesitate to list abortion (and infanticide) with other gross violations of the natural and moral law: murder, adultery, pederasty, sexual immorality, magic and sorcery, coveting, perjury, greed, and conspiracies (2:1–7). The pagans were known to try to induce abortions, which the Didache prohibits. It is hard to imagine the author of the Didache announcing that he is personally opposed to abortion but supported it as a matter of public policy any more than they would say the same about murder of adults, pederasty, and the like.

The moral rigor of the Didache is also in contrast to the way some late-modern Christians speak about sexual ethics generally. The Didache unequivocally condemns sexual immorality. Again, it is hard to imagine the Didache countenancing the nomenclature, “gay Christian.” This much seems clear from the blanket condemnation of sexual immorality in 3:3.

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