I wrote an op-ed piece that I submitted to the Wall Street Journal last week in which I address two misconceptions surrounding the contemporary debate over abortion.Â I haven’t heard yet if they have decided to run it or not, but reading a post today by Scot McKnight reminded me once again why I wrote the essay.
I’m not trying to pick on McKnight, but his post illustrates one of the two fallacies that I addressed.Â He wrote:
Iâ€™m with you and our method is fine until we come to something â€” like abortion or prolonging life indefinitely with drugs or with machines or prolonging life through heart transplants and blood transfusions or the threat to Godâ€™s good world with nuclear war â€” that clearly isnâ€™t discussed in the Bible because it was a document of its times (the point of my book Blue Parakeet). The Bible doesnâ€™t address your issue directly because the biblical times didnâ€™t have that kind of sophistication about this kind of issue.
I’m not interested in discussing all the various issues that he brings up–what I am interested in is his assumption that “biblical times didnâ€™t have that kind of sophistication about [abortion].”
I have found that this assumption is quite pervasive, that is, ancient peoples were not as technologically savvy as we are and therefore they did even contemplate many of the moral, cultural, and ethical issues that we face today.Â While there might be isolated instances in which this is true, ancient peoples dealt with a surprising breath of complicated issues–at their core, humans really aren’t that different, even when a few years separate them.
As a matter of fact, abortion was known and practiced in the ancient world.Â I go into this in more detail in my essay but let me give a quick example.Â Middle Assyrian documentsÂ give a recipe for a drinkable substance that would cause an abortion.Â It was made from eight plants (one of which was likely saffron which does have an abortifacient quality) that were crushed together, mixed with wine, and then drunk on an empty stomach.Â Furthermore, Middle Assyrian laws prohibited a woman from unilaterally initiating an abortion: “If a woman has caused an abortion at her own initiative and they have established the truth about her, they shall impale her on stakes, they shall not bury her.Â If she has died in aborting, they shall impale her on stakes, they shall not bury her.â€Â Also, Sumerian laws outlaw a man purposefully causing an abortion by striking a woman.1
While McKnight’s post contains some very thoughtful and helpful reflections, his assumption that ancient peoples “didnâ€™t have that kind of sophistication about this kind of issue” does not cohere with the historical record (neither is this statement fully factual but that might be for another post: “Since these authors had no idea how humans formed, their words are metaphorical to some degree”).
- For more on this topic see M. Stol, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible (Brill/Styx, 2000), 39-48. [back]