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Abortion and the Early Jewish World1 (50 B.C. – c. 100 A.D)

Steeped in the Noahic covenant and the Sinaitic law, early Jewish communities viewed abortion as evil. The former text warned, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6 ESV). The latter insisted, “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13 ESV). And though contemporary abortion enthusiasts try to appropriate Exodus 21:22-25 to excuse their killing, Moses’ hearers and early interpreters would have found such reading absurd. Indeed, abortion on demand was “very likely not even contemplated in the Mishnaic law,”2 much less approved.

Accordingly, Jewish scholars in ancient and classic times were adamantly opposed to abortion. Though influenced by Greek philosophy, Philo of Alexandria (25 B.C. - 41 A.D.) held the following:

If a man comes to blows with a pregnant woman and strikes her on the belly and she miscarries, then, if the result of the miscarriage is unshaped and undeveloped, he must be fined both for the outrage and for obstructing the artist Nature in her creative work of bringing into life the fairest of living creatures, man. But, if the offspring is already shaped and all the limbs have their proper qualities and places in the system, he must die, for that which answers to this description is a human being, which he has destroyed in the laboratory of Nature who judges that the hour has not yet come for bringing it out into the light, like a statue lying in a studio requiring nothing more than to be conveyed outside and released from confinement (Special Laws 3).3

Also influential among Jews in Alexandria was the Sentences of Psuedo-Phocylides, a collection of ethical injunctions for daily life written sometime between 50 B.C. and 50 A.D.:

A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after birth throw it before the dogs and vultures as a prey.4

Similarly, the apocalyptic Sibylline Oracles (first century B.C.), included among those who would suffer God’s wrath (with sorcerers, adulterers, and thieves) women of this description:

Having burdens in the womb [they] produce abortions; and their offspring [are] cast unlawfully away.5

Palestinian Jews had even stricter guides. In his apology for Judaism, Against Apion, historian Josephus (c. 37 – c. 100 A.D.) said:

The Law orders all the offspring to be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the foetus; a woman convicted of this is regarded as an infanticide, because she destroys a soul and diminishes the race (Apion 2.202).6

With this cultural backdrop, it is easy to see why the New Testament made no mention of abortion; its sinfulness was obvious to followers of Jesus.


The following quotes are gleaned from Michael J. Gorman, Abortion & the Early Church: Christian, Jewish, and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982).


David Feldman, Birth Control in Jewish Law (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1998), 284.


Gorman, 36.


Ibid., 37.




Ibid., 43.