Abortion, the Bible, and Us: The Evangelical About-Face on Abortion

An anti-abortion protest in California's Bay Area from 1986
A 1986 anti-abortion protest in the Bay Area
(Photo by Nancy Wong, CC by SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)
To recap what I’ve covered in this series so far:

All of this is hard to square with the tenor of contemporary abortion politics, where absolute opposition to abortion, grounded in a belief that life begins at the moment of fertilization, is often held to be the defining political commitment of the religious (read: Christian) right. Within this conservative coalition, evangelicals in particular tend to justify their anti-abortion stance in originalist and biblicist terms. 

Take, for example, resources developed by Focus on the Family that assert that the Bible says life begins at conception, or megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s comment that “the reason I believe that life begins at conception is because the Bible says it.”

The Bible, of course, says no such thing.

And you have to work pretty hard to get the Bible to imply it.

 If it isn’t in the Bible, then—and it isn’t—where does it come from? Is it simply a constant element of Christian belief? Again, the answer is no.

The Evangelical About-Face

From the outset, we have to distinguish between different kinds of Christians, since different denominations do not have the same historical relationship with abortion. Officially, the Roman Catholic Church has long opposed abortion and, since the mid-20th century, contraception (individual Catholics have various opinions, of course, and tend to access contraception and abortion at roughly the same rates as everyone else in the United States.

Evangelical Christians, however, who are now at least as closely identified with anti-abortion politics as Catholics, have not always been politically motivated by abortion—or even united in opposition to it.

In the era before Roe v. Wade, many evangelical leaders argued that abortion was permissible in many circumstances. For example, the influential evangelical theologian and apologist Norman Geisler, in the 1971 and 1975 editions of his Christian Ethics, wrote the following, which I will quote at length:

The one clear thing which the Scriptures indicate about abortion is that it is not the same as murder. … Murder is a man-initiated activity of taking an actual human life. Artificial abortion is a humanly initiated process which results in the taking of a potential human life. Such abortion is not murder, because the embryo is not fully human — it is an undeveloped person.

When it is a clear-cut case of either taking the life of the unborn baby or letting the mother die, then abortion is called for. An actual life (the mother) is of more intrinsic value than a potential life (the unborn). The mother is a fully developed human; the baby is an undeveloped human. And an actually developed human is better than one which has the potential for full humanity but has not yet developed. Being fully human is a higher value than the mere possibility of becoming fully human. For what is has more value than what may be. …

Birth is not morally necessitated without consent. No woman should be forced to carry a child if she did not consent to intercourse. A violent intrusion into a woman’s womb does not bring with it a moral birthright for the embryo. The mother has a right to refuse that her body be used as an object of sexual intrusion. The violation of her honor and personhood was enough evil without compounding her plight by forcing an unwanted child on her besides. … the right of the potential life (the embryo) is overshadowed by the right of the actual life of the mother. The rights to life, health, and self-determination — 
i.e., the rights to personhood — of the fully human mother take precedence over that of the potentially human embryo.

Fifty years later, such a position from a notable conservative evangelical would be almost unthinkable. Indeed, Geisler himself did not remain supportive of abortion. Long before his death in 2019, he had become an ardent opponent of abortion in any form, arguing explicitly that it should supersede all other issues in determining Christians’ voting priorities. This change was already apparent in the 1989 2nd edition of his Christian ethics, where he asserted (as part of a much longer discussion):

Scripture texts leave no doubt that an unborn child is just as much a person in God’s image as a little child or an adult is. They are  created  in  God’s  image  from  the  very  moment  of  conception,  and  their  prenatal  life  is  precious  in  God’s  eyes  and  protected  by  his  prohibition  against  murder.

In 18 years, the Bible had managed to shift from being crystal clear in one direction to being crystal clear in the opposite and contradictory direction, something which Geisler scarcely hints at (and only in the preface)..

But Geisler’s permissive position was far from anomalous in the evangelical circles of the mid-20th century. Bruce Waltke, a professor at the famously conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote in Christianity Today in 1968 “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed.”

In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted an official resolution that affirmed the value of fetal life but added “We call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

At the time, 70% of Southern baptist pastors approved of abortion to support the mental or physical health of the mother. Support was 64% for “fetal deformity” and 71% in cases of rape. 

Similarly, the evangelical response to Roe was not immediate or uniformly negative. While Christianity Today criticized the decision in 1973, many influential conservative pastors voiced their support. W. A. Criswell, pastor of the largest Southern Baptist church in the US, said “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from its mother, that it became an individual person.” He went on “it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and the future should be allowed.”

The Baptist Press actually hailed the decision as a win: “religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.”

Neither was this a case of leaders who were out of touch with the theological leanings of their congregations, as rank-and-file evangelicals were not exercised by the decision and proved hard for activist groups to mobilize. In 1980, the evangelical magazine Moody Monthly lamented that “Evangelicalism as a whole has uttered no real outcry. We’ve organized no protest. … The Catholics have called abortion ‘The Silent Holocaust.’ The deeper horror is the silence of the evangelical.”

This sentiment was echoed by other members of the new religious right at the time, including Heritage Foundation founder and John Birch Society member Paul Weyrich,  Moral Majority board member Ed Dobson, and the anti-abortion activist group the Christian Action Council.

Eventually, though, activist efforts to mobilize evangelicals against abortion did come to fruition. Harold O. J. Brown, the Christianity Today editor who wrote the original criticism of Roe v. Wade, founded the Human Life Review in 1975 and the Christian Action Council in 1976. Jerry Falwell preached his first sermon against abortion in 1978, and Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop published their influential Whatever Happened to the Human Race? in 1979. Together, these and other activists worked to bring abortion to prominence among evangelicals. 

By 1984, the landscape had changed. That year, the book Brave New People argued the once common evangelical view that abortion was ethically complicated and often permissible, but this time it provoked such a strong backlash that the publisher, Zondervan, conducted the first recall in its history.

Since then, staunch opposition to abortion has been the almost unquestioned position of the Christian right, evangelicals included.

What happened?

At this point, the facts are pretty clear. Abortion for evangelicals was not an important issue or an issue of unanimous agreement in the middle of the 20th century. Since Jonathan Dudley made this point in an influential op-ed for CNN, however, there has been a war over the narrative. Why exactly did evangelicals perform this about-face on abortion?

When evangelicals themselves tell the story, it becomes a story of heroes rousing morally sluggish congregations to realign with clear biblical truth. In other words, the problem was general ignorance of the Bible’s clear teachings and the remedy was deeper, more diligent Bible study.

These retellings rightly emphasize the significance of highly motivated activists, but their Bible-centrism falls flat. As I’ve argued throughout this series of posts, biblical texts stake out no clear position on abortion or fetal personhood, and neither do they suggest it was an issue of moral significance to the communities by and for whom biblical texts were written. The Bible could not have been the sole driver of this revolution in evangelical politics, which means that other motivations must be identified.

For Dudley, it was a story of the political tail wagging the theological dog. That is, adherence to political conservatism did not result from the belief that life begins at conception; rather, political conservatism motivated many Christians to interpret biblical texts to mean that life begins at conception.

Religious historian Randall Balmer puts a finer point on it. In his book Bad Faith and these articles for Politico Magazine, Balmer argues that political mobilization around abortion was actually kicked off by conservative evangelical resistance to government-mandated desegregation of religious schools. 

Balmer is not arguing for anything as simple as an “Aha! It was really just racism all along!” gotcha. This is America, and at some level it’s racism all the way down. The anti-abortion movement has had troubling connections with white supremacist and eugenics movements throughout its long history, but the pro-choice and birth control movements have a few racist and eugenicist skeletons in their closets as well.

What these reconstructions show, however, is that anti-abortion politics did not arise directly from diligent Bible reading and that abortion did not function as an independent political issue. Rather, it interacted with a slew of other issues that all revolved around the social and cultural changes of the 1960s and ‘70s.

The civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam movement, sexual revolution, and second wave of feminism co-occurred in ways that profoundly destabilized the traditional hierarchies of American society and, working together, motivated the political resurgence of the religious right.

While the rhetoric of the abortion debate focuses intensely on the figures of the fetus and the mother, the ethics and politics of abortion have implications that connect very strongly to these traditional hierarchies. I have more research to do here, but I have a hunch that opposition to abortion has proved so powerful a galvanizing force because its intense focus on the fetus—usually portrayed as a baby no matter the gestational age being discussed—easily obscures its connections with less palatable and less popular conservative political priorities. For decades now, the mantra “abortion is murder” has acted as a powerful Trump card and a nearly insurmountable barrier to defecting from the Republican Party, as Bradley Onishi wrote in this powerful essay. No matter how many harmful and destructive policies they espouse, no matter how promiscuously they flirt with authoritarianism, how can any other issue compete with the murder of a million babies a year? This question keeps many people voting for candidates they disagree with on almost everything because the prevalence of abortion weighs too heavily to bear.

I understand this earnest belief. I understand this discomfort. At some point, though, I had to acknowledge that the Bible’s clarity on prenatal personhood and on abortion were illusory. 

This doesn’t mean that people who read and believe in the Bible can’t believe that life begins at conception or that abortion is always wrong. However, these beliefs must be understood also as reflections of social, historical, and political forces outside of the Bible. The attempt to locate fetal personhood and anti-abortion ethics in the original message of the Bible is an attempt to remove them from historical and cultural contingency and to sink them deep in the unchanging bedrock of eternal truth. However, theological priorities are influenced by contingent and contextual forces for evangelicals as much as for anyone else. 

In short, categorical opposition to abortion is neither a necessary element of true Christian faith nor an ethical issue so clear and settled that it should supersede all others in social and political reasoning.

I can’t tell you exactly what to think about abortion (I’ll share my own positions in the next post), but I can tell you this: if it were left to the Bible, we’d spend a lot less time policing it.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Most of these sources are linked above and repeated here for ease of reference. 

Balmer, Randall. Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right. Eerdmans, 2021.

—. “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.” Politico Magazine, May 27, 2022.

—. “The Religious Right and the Abortion Myth.” Politico magazine, May 10, 2022.

Dibranco, Alex. “The Long History of the Anti-Abortion Movement’s Ties to White Supremacists.” The Nation, Feb 3, 2020.

Dudley, Jonathan. “When Evangelicals were Pro-Choice.” CNN Belief Blog, 2012.

—. “How Evangelicals Decided that Life Begins at Conception.“ HuffPost Religion, Nov. 5, 2012.

Farley, Audrey Clare. “The Eugenics Roots of Evangelical Family Values.” Religion and Politics, 2021.

Onishi, Bradley. “Pro-born: A Former Evangelical on the Single-Issue Politics of White Christians.” Religion Dispatches, March 18, 2018.

Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism

 

Further Reading

Griffith, R. Marie. Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics. Basic Books, 2017..

Parker, Willie. Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. 37 Inc., 2018.

Pittman, Ashton. “To Rule History with God: The Christian Dominionist War on Abortion.” Mississippi Free Press, Jan 26, 2022 (Part one of a three-part series).

Schenk, Rob. Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love. Harper COllins, 2019.

Abortion, the Bible, and Us: Conducting Abortions in the Ancient World

A silver coin from ancient Cyrene, dating from the 5th century BCE, which shows a fruit or pod from the silphium plant.

A 5th century BCE silver coin from Cyrene, showing part of a silphium plant. Photo from Expeditions Magazine 34 (1992).

In their accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion, all four of the canonical new Testament gospels include a scene in which Jesus stumbles under the weight of the cross and falls. In response, his Roman guards pull a man out of the crowd and compel him to carry it the rest of the way.

This may seem like a strange way to introduce a blog post on the practice of abortion in antiquity, but stay with me. I mention it more for the man than the story, and more specifically, for the man’s home town. His name was Simon, and he came from the North African town of Cyrene. Cyrene was not large, but it was famous throughout the Mediterranean world for its primary export—an herb called silphium that was reputed to be the safest and most effective contraceptive and abortifacient available. According to the Greek physician Soranus of Ephesus, drinking the juice from a chickpea-sized piece of silphium monthly would “not only prevent conception but destroys any already existing” (Riddle 1999).  

Silphium grew only on the Mediterranean-facing hillsides surrounding Cyrene, and proved impossible to cultivate agriculturally. Demand outstripped supply, and by Jesus’s time silphium had been harvested almost to the point of extinction. Writing around the same time, Pliny the Elder said the price of silphium had surpassed its weight in silver, and by the 3rd or 4th century CE, it could no longer be found, making it the first species extinction caused by humans in recorded history.

Of course, mentioning a guy from the town made famous by silphium doesn’t mean the Gospels were taking a position one way or the other on its use, but it does offer us a nice entry point into the discussion of abortion in the ancient world. Silphium was the herb of choice for those who could get it, but it was far from the only option for preventing or ending pregnancies in the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean world. Starting almost two millennia before Jesus’s time, texts and art witness to a diverse array of contraceptive and abortive medicines and practices.

some General Comments on Ancient Birth Control

People in ancient societies cherished, valued, and wanted children just like people do today, but there were also times when it was not right to bring a(nother) child into the world. To this end, women developed ways to regulate their fertility to ensure that they would be able to meet the sustenance and care needs of any new additions to their families. Women generally managed their reproductive lives and health care among themselves, with little involvement or interference from men. Most of the relevant knowledge was held by midwives and other learned women, whose traditions did not tend to be put down in text as often as men’s. We must assume, therefore, that the texts we do have represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of ancient contraception and abortion. 

Why do I keep talking about contraception and abortion when this is a series on abortion? The line between the two is difficult to draw even today, and it was much more so in antiquity.

Today, the typical abortion is usually thought of as a highly medicalized surgical procedure, and this has been generally true for the past century or so. Recently, however, the identification of certain medications that cause abortions has revolutionized the practice (as described in this very helpful episode of Radiolab). This shift has brought the practice of abortion much more into line with the way it was conducted in the ancient world, where surgical abortions would have been dangerous and probably very rare. Instead, most abortion would have been handled early, through the use of pharmacological herbs and medicinal compounds. Because of how and when these worked, it’s not always clear whether we would classify them as contraceptives or abortifacients today—or how they would have been understood in antiquity. Basically, we call anything that prevents fertilization contraception and any intervention after conception abortion. This seems clear and tidy, except that the point of conception is hazy today and was far hazier in antiquity. Women in the ancient world may have begun to suspect pregnancy with a missed period, but they could not be sure until they detected fetal movement—sometime around the third month in most cases. This is where that divergence in ancient and modern concepts of conception becomes so crucial.

In his survey of premodern abortion methods, Eve’s Herbs, John Riddle covers a wide variety of birth control practices. Some are clearly contraceptive by anyone’s definition, including withdrawal during intercourse and lactation-induced amenorrhea (that is, a pause in ovulation caused by breastfeeding), while others are clearly abortive methods, such as late-term surgeries.

In the middle are a host of other methods that could have worked as contraceptives, abortifacients, or both depending on the case. Most of these involved herbal and/or other medicinal compounds, which could be prepared and administered in various combinations and forms. Some were taken orally—eaten, dissolved in water, beer, or wine, or brewed in teas. Others were used as pessaries (that is, vaginal suppositories). They could be used prophylactically or in response to suspected pregnancies.

They also worked by various biological mechanisms. Most common were emmenagogues, a term for any substance that stimulates menstruation. These can be used to ensure regular periods on an ongoing basis, but they also impede the implantation of fertilized eggs. Some 40–60% of fertilized eggs do not implant naturally and leave the uterus with the next menstrual cycle anyway, according to UCSF Medical Center and the Gutmacher Institute. Emmenagogues simply ensure this result when pregnancy is not wanted. Other treatments may have worked as spermicides or by forcing the uterine muscles to contract. 

The herbs and other substances used varied depending on local availability and pharmacological practices, and many mentioned in texts have been discovered to have abortifacient properties when tested in modern laboratories. Riddle’s list includes  silphium, of course, along with pomegranate skin, pennyroyal, artemisia, rue, Queen Anne’s lace, myrrh, squirting cucumber, juniper, aloe, dittany, chaste tree, birthwort, asarum, willow, cypress, and various mints. 

Let’s look at a few specific texts for examples.

Egypt

The earliest textual evidence for pregnancy prevention comes from Egypt. The Ebers Papyrus, dating from around 1550 BCE but based on earlier texts, is a 20 meter long medical compendium with cases, treatments, and medical theory discussed under some 877 section headings. It covers every part of the body, including several aspects of gynecology and reproductive care. It contains instructions for a pregnancy test as well as an abortion in the “first, second, or third period” (the time frame is not entirely certain). The prescription involves applying a paste of acacia, dates, and honey to a pessary of moistened plant fibers. In modern laboratories, some species of acacia have been found to decrease fertility substantially in rats.

Recipes for contraceptive pessaries also appear in the Kahun Papyrus, which was written sometime around 1900 BCE. These utilize acacia as well as colocynth, which was also described as an abortifacient in medieval texts. It is potent, but also quite toxic if taken in too large quantities, meaning that some knowledge and experience would have been necessary to prepare it safely.

Mesopotamia

Evidence from Mesopotamia is rarer, but there is at least one medical text with a prescription to “cause a pregnant woman to drop her fetus” (BAM 246). The tablet is broken and much of the process is lost, but it seems to consist of three different concoctions that are ingested on subsequent days. They involve mixing herbs and crushed lizards into beer and wine and are meant to be taken on an empty stomach. None of the herbs in question can be identified with any certainty, but one is mentioned as a drug that promotes easy birthing in other medical texts. Thus, it may have worked by stimulating the uterine muscles to contract, expelling the fetus.

Mesopotamian law collections also contain stipulations for cases of spontaneous, unintentional, and intentional miscarriages like the biblical ones discussed in the last post. These differ by time period and ruling polity, but most do not treat a fetus as equivalent to a child or adult person. However, one law collection from the Middle Assyrian period (15th–13th century BCE) commands the death penalty for any woman who procures or causes her own abortion (Middle Assyrian Law A 53). Further, her corpse must be impaled on a stake and never buried. This was not the majority position among ancient Mesopotamian polities, but it does demonstrate that they could clearly articulate bans on abortion when they wanted to.

Greece and Rome

Greece and Rome provide much more textual evidence for all areas of reproductive medicine, but they are way out of my wheelhouse, disciplinarily speaking. Nevertheless, I can sketch out some characteristics in broad strokes.

Greek and Roman writers held different positions on abortion, but it is clear they were regularly practiced and well-known. Aristotle, for example, supports the use of induced abortion as a means of limiting family size, while Pliny the Elder opposes it as a rule.

The herbal and pharmacological treatments mentioned above occur often in medical texts, identified as contraceptives, abortifacients, or “menstrual regulators.” In addition, physicians including Hippocrates and Galen recommend strenuous exertion or jumping up and down to cause abortion by inducing premature labor. The Hippocratic work Nature of the Child says that a woman early in pregnancy should “jump up and down, touching her buttocks with her heels at each leap, for seven times,” at which point the seed should fall out onto the ground.

 Perhaps the most famous example of a ban on abortion, the Hippocratic Oath, turns out not to be one on closer investigation. The Latin translation of the oath that predominated for centuries in Europe included a blanket prohibition on abortion. The original Greek, however, especially in the earliest manuscripts, read differently:  “I will not give a woman a pessary for the purpose of inducing an abortion.” Hippocrates and his followers knew both oral and vaginal methods of birth control, so why the distinction? A likely explanation comes from Soranus’s treatise on gynecology, written in the 2nd century CE, where he says that the side effects and potential risks of pessaries are simply too great to support their use. thus, the oath seems to have been originally about the safety of abortions rather than their permissibility.

Ancient Israel

We do not have any explicit medical or pharmacological evidence of contraception or abortion from ancient Israel itself, except for one biblical text that indicates knowledge of withdrawal as a means of preventing pregnancy (genesis 38:8–10).

Aside from that, there is also one biblical ritual that can result in the termination of a pregnancy in some circumstances, although it is not clear that it should be understood as an abortion text in the same way as the medical writings referenced above. There is no identifiable mechanism by which the ritual could cause a miscarriage or abortion medically, and within the logic of the ritual the power that determines the result is magical or miraculous, depending on how you want to define it.

The ritual, Numbers 5:11–31, is known as the Sotah, after the Hebrew term for a “wayward woman.” It is intended as a means of divining whether a woman has had sexual intercourse with anyone other than her husband, and to initiate it he need only suspect her of infidelity (in biblical language, when “a spirit of jealousy comes over him,” Numbers 5:13–14).

The jealous husband brings his wife to the tabernacle courtyard, where a priest conducts the ritual test. First, he makes an offering of grain provided by the husband. Then he adds dust from the ground to a bowl of sanctified water. He makes the woman swear an oath of her fidelity, writes its words on a scroll, and then scrapes them off into the bowl of dust and water. He gives the woman this “water of bitterness” to drink, and its effects provide a judgment on her guilt or innocence.

If she has been faithful, the potion will have no effect and she may go free. If she has had sex with another man, however, the “water of bitterness” will cause bitterness within her and “her stomach will distend and her thigh will drop” (5:27).

This is not the same wording as the accidental miscarriage law in Exodus 21:22–25, which says “if…her baby comes out,” and some have suggested that it refers literally to symptoms of the intestines and legs. In context, however, termination of the pregnancy is the only viable interpretation.

The term translated ‘belly” (Hebrew בטן) is anatomically imprecise, but every time it occurs in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) it refers specifically to the womb. Likewise, the term translated “thigh” (Hebrew ירך) is a common euphemism for the genitals, as when all of Jacob’s descendants are called יצאי ירכו “those who came out of his ‘thighs’” (Genesis 46:26). And finally, if she is innocent the text states that “she will be able to retain seed” (ונזרעה זרע; i.e., become pregnant, Numbers 5:28). The implication, of course, is that the physical symptoms described in the opposite case would entail not being able to retain seed—that is, infertility.

This is unlike the previous examples of abortion texts for some obvious reasons. It is not primarily intended to induce an abortion; rather, the abortion results from being found guilty of adultery. Second, there is no identifiable abortifacient involved in the process. Within the logic of the text, the thing that makes it work is the incantation (or the god invoked in the incantation).

As with other ancient Middle Eastern and biblical texts, the concern was not for the fetus’s rights for their own sake, Neither was it for the health, wellbeing, or autonomy of the woman. The concern was for the paternity rights of the father, whose patrilineage was threatened by the prospect that his wife had become pregnant by another man. This is why this particular ritual doesn’t come up much in modern abortion debates: the moral justification for the abortion is unsympathetic, if not entirely abhorrent, to both sides of the contemporary struggle over abortion rights. Literally no one today would argue that doubts about paternity provide sufficient reason for a husband to unilaterally procure an abortion for his wife. 

 Final Thoughts

Abortion is not a new phenomenon, and neither is the demand for it. There are times when people want to have (more) children, and times when they do not. Ancient texts show us that people have devised many ways to regulate their fertility and reproductive rates throughout history, and that they have debated the ethics of these practices for just as long. The Bible speaks less of contraception and abortion than do texts that have been found in the areas surrounding ancient Israel, and in different terms. Its ethical concerns are foreign in many ways to the lines of the contemporary debate, yet they also circle around key issues that still drive political discourse and activity today: the roles of women in society, the purpose of reproduction, and who gets to make decisions about it.

On our next stop: the modern political fight over abortion inlight of the Bible’s extreme unclarity about it.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Biggs, Robert D. “Conception, Contraception, and Abortion in Ancient Mesopotamia.”

Kapparis, K. A.  Abortion in the ancient world. Duckworth classical essays. London: Duckworth Academic, 2002.

Riddle, John M. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Abortion, the Bible, and Us: On Personhood

Photograph of an angry bull in a pasture. It's not a goring ox like the laws mention but hey, close enough.

(Photo Wikimedia Creative Commons 2.0)

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the major ethical questions surrounding abortion is that of when life begins, or better, when a developing embryo or fetus acquires the right to life. In the last one, I showed how biblical descriptions of pregnancy—metaphorical though they are—tend to frame the formation of a new child as a process rather than an instantaneous event. But does this processual understanding extend to ethical considerations and the right to life as well?

There aren’t many relevant biblical texts to consult—again, there’s no biblical passage that comes right out with a direct statement on fetal personhood—but what little evidence there is suggests that it was also treated as something that develops over time.

 For this discussion, I’m indebted to the work of Tracy Lemos in her recent book Violence and Personhood in Ancient Israel and Comparative Contexts. Lemos examines the practice and punishment of violence as it relates to the social status of individuals. In particular, who is viewed as a person and who a non-person? To her, being recognized as a person in society means being recognized “as having value, not as a commodity but as a participant in social relations.” Importantly for this post, personhood is characterized by “the attribution of agency, rights, or protections—particularly protection from physical harm—and/or by public rituals that convey or reaffirm that individual’s value.” In other words, being seen as a person protects an individual from violence or makes violence a more serious crime.

Lemos conducts a holistic study, dealing in turn with personhood as it relates to gender, nationality, enslavement, and childhood. You can (and should!) read the whole chapter on children, “Visiting the Iniquity of the Father on the Son: Violence and the Personhood of Children in Ancient Israel,” at her academia.edu page. It deals mostly with children post birth, but discusses also the status of fetuses in Israelite society.

We can learn a lot by comparing legal penalties for violent acts, because these often link life and health directly with monetary payments and/or other punishments. The most relevant law relating to fetal personhood (and the most relevant biblical text, period) comes from a legal collection in Exodus 20–23 known as the Covenant Collection. Before we get to it , though, I’ll illustrate the point with reference to a few other laws. Since the Bible contains multiple collections of laws that don’t always agree with one another, choosing laws from the same collection has benefits as well as drawbacks. It allows us to expect some degree of internal consistency that does not characterize the Bible as a whole, but it also limits the discussion to just one of the Bible’s many and varied voices. We also know that the Covenant collection was not wholly a native Israelite creation, since it seems to have been based in large part upon the Code of Hammurabi for its overall structure and the content of many of its laws (there is A good book by my dissertation advisor on just that topic!).

Personhood and the Valuation of Life in the Covenant Collection

The Covenant Collection contains laws on a lot of different topics. It’s far from comprehensive, but its laws touch on altars, sacrifice, property, enslavement, liability, legal procedure, sexuality, and violence.

Often it presents illuminating variations on a legal scenario. Consider the Ten Commandments’ prohibition against murder:

You shall not murder. (Exodus 20:13)

Sweet. Good start. But what does that mean in practice. A little bit later, we get more legal detail:

Someone who strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:12)

This sets the standard penalty for taking a life as losing your own, according to the talionic principle (that is, an eye for an eye, etc.). But this doesn’t apply to every case. What if the killing wasn’t on purpose? What if it was in self defense or defense of property?

In the case of accidental manslaughter, the killer can flee to a place of refuge to avoid punishment (Ex. 21:13). Similarly, if someone beats a thief to death during a break-in, they incur no guilt or legal penalty (Ex. 22:1).

Punishments can also vary based on the identity of the victim. So, for example, if someone killed a person they had enslaved. If the victim died immediately from the wounds, the law prescribes that נקום ינקם “it shall be punished” (Ex. 21:20). This is different wording from the original law regarding murder: מות יומת “he shall be put to death.” Though of course punishment could be imagined to refer to the death penalty, that does not seem to be the intent. If the purpose of writing a separate law for the murder of enslaved people was to underscore that the punishment was identical to the murder of a free citizen, why choose a looser and more general word? More likely, laws concerning violence against enslaved people were written separately because they were conceived of differently.

The difference is even clearer when the enslaved person lives a few days after the attack, and then dies. In this case, the attacker incurs no penalty, because כספו הוא “he (the enslaved) was his (the enslaver’s) property” (Ex. 21:21).

Thus, it seems that an individual’s personhood could be mitigated by their enslavement, and that a crime against an enslaved person was not viewed in the same way as a crime against a free citizen.

This distinction between the free and the enslaved appears throughout the Covenant Collection. For example, the owner of a habitually aggressive ox that gores a free person—no matter their age or gender—is put to death (Ex. 21:29–31). If that same ox, with the same negligent owner, kills someone who has been enslaved, the owner must only pay a fine to the victim’s owner—remuneration for lost property rather than for lost life )Ex. 21:32).

In the same way, the law of “an eye for an eye” only applies to free citizens. If an enslaver puts out the eye or tooth of someone they enslave, they are not subject to the loss of their own eyes or teeth. Rather, they have to free their victim from slavery. 

This case is especially striking. In the case of free-on-free violence, the appropriate restitution for one harm is an equivalent harm enacted upon the perpetrator. In free-on-enslaved violence, the injustice is rectified by conveying a benefit upon—or, more accurately, removing an oppression from—the victim.

While enslaved people were not treated as complete non-persons in all biblical texts, as Lemos argues elsewhere, it is clear from these laws and others that they were not treated as persons in the same way or as consistently as free people. Their position allowed for mitigation of their rights in ways that were truly brutal and dehumanizing. Morally abhorrent as they are, these laws illustrate the principle that levels of personhood can be embedded in legal discourse, particularly in the permissibility and punishment of violence. This sets us up for the main event:

The Case of Collateral Miscarriage

After all that intro, here it is at last: the closest thing we get to a biblical pronouncement on fetal personhood, in the context of a law about collateral damage during a brawl.

“When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.

If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:22–25)

Here we have two variations on a common scenario: in both cases the brawl causes the end of a pregnancy, but the penalties differ based on whether “harm” (Hebrew אסון) occurs or not. There has been some debate over the nature of this harm and who experiences it, but the general consensus is that the pregnancy is terminated and the fetus is lost, and the harm that may or may not occur refers to the mother. In this case, the first variation imagines a situation where the blow causes a miscarriage but the woman remains healthy. The second a scenario in which the pregnant woman experiences physical harm beyond the loss of her pregnancy.

A minority position holds that the additional harm is done to the infant—that is, that the scenario describes an early birth rather than a miscarriage, and the additional penalties result from further injury to the child. The earliest Greek translation actually misunderstood the term for “harm” entirely and translated it “if the fetus is not fully formed” vs. “if the fetus is fully formed.” Due to our better understanding of biblical Hebrew and our knowledge of Hammurabi, however, most scholars find the first interpretation much more likely. 

In the first scenario, where the pregnancy is terminated but the woman is unhurt, the penalty characterizes it as a property crime against the father. As such, it does not seem that the fetus was understood to be a person with social and legal standing of its own. Further, it characterizes the loss of the potential child primarily as a loss of the father rather than the expectant mother.

As Lemos writes, “In Exod 21:22–5, a hierarchy is thus established in which a fetus has much lower standing than its mother, harms against whom require talionic pun­ishment rather than monetary compensation, but who also has less legal standing than her husband.19 If we examine these different sections of Exodus 21 together, then, children’s standing appears to be higher than that of either slaves or fetuses… While slaves are offered some legal protections, the fetus occupies an extremely subordinated position and has no apparent legal standing separate from its father.” Fellow biblical scholar Naomi Steinberg states it plainly: “The fetus is a nonperson.””

This is scant evidence, and perhaps it is unwarranted to discover a universal cultural belief about fetal non-personhood in one group of laws among several within a literary anthology of many voices and perspectives, but this conclusion does align with the processual view of fetal development implied in pregnancy texts and with the subordination of fetal and maternal rights under the father in texts I will discuss later.

And again, there is the question for those who see opposition to abortion as an eternal, God-given absolute: if an omniscient deity were using a sacred text to communicate abhorrence for abortion, why would this be all we get?

Abortion, the Bible, and Us: How Ancient babies were Made

A bunch of plump green grapes ripening with great fertility on the vine.
Photo credit Lynn Greyling, Public Domain license
This is the third in my series on the Bible and abortion. Here are Part One and Part Two. This one’s a long one, so settle in!
***
“Remember that you fashioned me like clay,
and will you turn me to dust again?
Did you not pour me out like milk
and curdle me like cheese?
You clothed me with skin and flesh
and knit me together with bones and sinews.”
Job 10:10 (NRSVUE)
In my last post, I wrote about the things biblical writers and readers could not have known about the process of conception. But what did they know and how did they think and talk about not only conception but pregnancy and birth?
This is a tough question to answer. There’s no biblical text that offers a treatise on human reproduction. Most of the time, what mention we do get is euphemistic, metaphorical, or just too brief to tell us much of anything. It’s like asking whether the saying “a bun in the oven” tells us anything meaningful about 21st century American ideas about pregnancy, or if telling my kids that someone has a baby in her tummy means I don’t know what a uterus is or how it differs from a stomach. At some point, the sayings don’t tell us much about the underlying biological model.
Sometimes, we can get more information from the nations and societies that surrounded ancient Israel, including Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. These all differed from Israel and one another in important ways, but they shared common cultural elements and shared ideas through trade, contact, and conquest.

How did Pregnancies Begin?

All societies, ancient and modern, understand that pregnancy cannot occur without specific types of sexual intercourse. Scholars like to quote an ancient Sumerian proverb here: “Has she become pregnant without intercourse? Has she become fat without eating?”🗡 But honestly, do we really need textual support for this point? Just to be clear, though, biblical texts also often precede accounts of pregnancy with statements that a man “knew,” “went in to,” or “lay with” a woman—all of these implying sexual intercourse.
Yet it’s also clear that sex doesn’t always cause pregnancy. In the Bible, there seems to be an idea that God must “open the womb” of a young woman to allow for pregnancy to occur. As we shall see, this reflects a general theme that the deity plays an active role in pregnancy and gestation at every stage.
We find more descriptions and metaphors once we move on to prenatal development. The passage from Job at the top of this post contains three distinct metaphors that work together.

Metaphor One: babies are Sculptures

In the first line of the quote above, Job describes his formation as an act of fashioning from clay. This calls back to the second biblical  creation story (Genesis 2:7), where God sculpts the first human—presumably as an adult—literally from a clod of earth. In that story, the sculpting was completed before the earthen form was given life. It only became a living being when the “breath of life” was breathed in to it. Note that in both Job and the creation story (genesis 3:19) death is also described as a return to dust. Thus, the idea that humans were basically earthen creatures may have been deeper than a mere figure of speech.
The most striking feature of this metaphor is that it casts God as the only active agent in the process of development. Clearly this sculpting is happening within the mother’s womb, but the active role in shaping belongs only to the deity.

Metaphor Two: Babies are Cheese

This is a weird one to modern ears, but it was not uncommon and it was actually developed in more detail in later texts. For example, the following discussion occurs in Leviticus Rabbah, a homiletic midrash on the book of Leviticus from around the fifth century CE (=AD):
“A woman’s womb is full of blood, some of which goes out by way of her menstrual flow, and by the favor of the Holy One, blessed be He, a drop of white matter goes and falls into it and immediately the fetus begins to form. It may be compared to milk in a basin; if one puts rennet into it, it congeals and becomes consistent; if not, it continues to ‘tremble.’” — Leviticus Rabbah 14:9
Here we have the relevant parts of the analogy drawn out in terms of their relationship to the process as it was understood by one particular rabbi. Like the milk that forms the base material for cheese, it is the menstrual blood that forms the material basis for a developing child. The white matter (a clear reference to semen) is characterized as a catalyst or reagent that begins the process of fetal coagulation. 
This metaphor complements the prior one, as it relates to the production of the material from which a baby is created but does not specify how individual features are determined or developed.

Metaphor Three: Babies are Textiles

Job also says that God clothed him in skin and flesh and knit his bones and sinews together. This is reminiscent of perhaps the most famous biblical text on prenatal development, from Psalm 139:
For it was you who formed my inward parts
You knit me together in my mother’s womb
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
(Psalm 139: 13–15, NRSVUE)
Again, forming a fetus is compared to an act of artisanship., and God is the one doing the forming. The mother provides the cave (the “depths of the Earth”—i.e., the womb), but God weaves the tapestry that is a new human being.
That covers the metaphors in the above selection from Job, but there is another one that plays a central role throughout the Bible:

Metaphor Four: Babies are Fruit

Right from the beginning, the Hebrew Bible employs agricultural language for human reproduction. In the first creation story, God commands the newly created people to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth.” The horticultural resonance of “fruitful” is not just a product of translation, but appears in the Hebrew as well, where the verb used in the command (פרו) comes from the same root as the noun for “fruit” (פרי). 
Plant metaphors far predate the Hebrew Bible, and  are probably the oldest reproductive metaphors in written history. 
“Farmer, plow my field!” says one woman to her partner in an early Sumerian erotic Poem.‡ As this suggests, the man is usually characterized as farmer or plow, the woman as field, and the child as the fruit or crop that results from successful cultivation.
For this reason, it is not surprising that semen is often referred to as a man’s “seed” (Hebrew זרע), as in the famous case of Onan’s coitus interruptus in Genesis 38. It is also continued in later texts, such as a Dead Sea Scroll known as the Genesis Apocryphon, a rewriting of certain narrative parts of the book of Genesis, When Noah’s father, Lamech, doubts that he is truly the wondrous child’s father, his wife Bitenosh tells him “this seed is from you, and this pregnancy is from you, and the planting of this fruit is from you” ((column ii, line 15).
Yet the woman is not always the passive recipient of seed. Leviticus 12:2 begins “A woman who brings forth seed and gives birth…” Though the first verb is often translated “conceives” (see NRSV, etc.), the Hebrew word is not the usual one for a woman getting pregnant (הרה), but the same verb in the same form as is used for plants that bring forth seed in the creation story of Genesis 1 (תזריע = Hifil of זרע).  suggesting that (for some biblical writers at least)  men are not the only ones whose seed contributes to the formation of a child. 
This debate shows up in different ways all over the ancient world. Is it only the male who provides the “seed” that generates a new child, or do both the mother and father provide genetic material? In the 5th century BCE(=BC), Aristotle argued forcefully that only the male provides seed, since each person can produce only semen or menstrual blood, not both. The Hippocratic medical writings (3rd century BCE) and the famous Roman Physician Galen (1st century CE) take the position that both male and female provide seed. 
The Hebrew Bible is more ambiguous and may not be all of the same mind on the topic. Some texts imply male seed, others imply male and female seed. It is worth asking as well just what the seed does in this context. Does it, as we consider genetic material today, contribute the plan for specific characteristics of appearance and personality? In this case, many biblical texts also make these the responsibility of active divine formation throughout the course of the pregnancy. Is it, like a plant seed, an object that grows by drawing in matter and nutrients from its surroundings? Or is it, like the cheesy metaphor above implies, some kind of catalyst or reagent?

So what?

As I hope I’ve shown, many details of the ancient Israelites’ understanding of pregnancy and birth have been lost and will likely remain uncertain and mysterious forever. The texts are fascinating in their own right, but at this point it’s worth asking what we can glean from these metaphors. Are there any common threads that might be useful for understanding biblical views on reproduction and abortion?
First, and importantly, we have to acknowledge that the Bible is not clear or straightforward. Beyond that, its various descriptions and metaphors suggest that different models may be at play in different books and different texts. There may not be one biblical view on the mechanics of reproduction at all.
In terms of commonalities, all of the descriptions communicate an active role for the deity at every stage of development. From the opening of the womb through the formation of the developing fetus, biblical texts situate God right there in the mix, curdling, shaping, knitting and stitching the fetus together. It’s important not to gloss over just how different this is from our scientific modern view of pregnancy. Many people, of course, still understand God to have an active role in maintaining the health of both the mother and the fetus during pregnancy, but we now know that individual characteristics are largely determined by genetics, which are more or less fixed from the moment of recombination. We do not believe that the fashioning of physical traits or features is an open-ended process that depends on moment-by-moment choices made by God during the course of the pregnancy.
Speaking of which, this focus on process is also common among the texts. None of them compares a developing fetus to an object that gains all of its final attributes or qualities in an instant. Milk does not become cheese the instant a culture is added. A lump of clay is not immediately a sculpture. A line of knitting or single woven thread is not a garment. And of course, a seed does not become a crop until it has grown and fruited.
All of these things take time. They change and transform across the span of the process, and none of them is the same at the end as it was at the beginning. Thus, biblical texts do not lend themselves easily to the interpretation that fetuses at every stage of development are morally equivalent to an adult, a child, or a fully developed, birthed baby.
I will develop this more in the next post, on development and personhood.

Footnotes

🗡 Lambert, W. G. Babylonian Wisdom Literature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1960. 241, lines 40–42.
‡ Sjöberg, Å. W. “Miscellaneous Sumerian Texts.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 27 (1977), 24.

Further Reading

 

This is a long post but it could have been so much longer, because there is a lot more to read on this. If you are interested, here are a few places to look for further reading.

 

Henriksen-Garroway, Kristine. Growing Up in Ancient Israel: Children and Material Culture in Biblical Texts. SBL Press, 2018.
Quick, Laura. “Bitenosh’s Orgasm, Galen’s Two Seeds, and Conception Theory in the Hebrew Bible.” Dead Sea Discoveries 28 (2021).
Stol, Martin. :Embryology in Babylonia and the Bible.” Pages 137–156 in Imagining the Fetus: The Unborn in Myth, Religion, and Culture. 2008. This book also contains chapters on early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.

Abortion, the Bible, and Us: Concepts of Conception

Human sperm and egg uniting to form a zygote, the single-cell first stepp in the process of human development.
As I mentioned last time, I’m going to be writing a series of posts on abortion ethics as they do (and do not) relate to the Bible. I’ll be publishing posts as I get to them, which means they probably won’t be punctual or regular. Regardless, I welcome your comments and discussion!
***
Perhaps the most significant question in the abortion ethics debate has to do with when life begins. This may not be the best phrasing of the question, since in some sense life is continuous—every step of the process of reproduction involves living cells, from the parents’ gametes to the newborn baby, with no break or period where the tissue in question is not alive.

The question, rather, is when a new person begins, and within that are several other questions. Is the beginning of a new person’s life determined by natural laws or determined by societies and cultures? Does full personhood appear in an instant, or does it accumulate gradually? Does personhood bring with it all of the rights of a full, adult member of society? How do the rights of this new full or in-process person stack up against other people’s rights (particularly those of the person who is pregnant?

Those who hold strong anti-abortion beliefs often answer that “life begins at conception.” In other words, personhood is attained at the earliest possible moment, and with it the unmitigated right to life.

Yet even within this formulation there is uncertainty. The American College of Pediatricians (an unabashedly conservative and anti-abortion organization that should not be confused with the mainstream American Academy of Pediatrics) admits that conception is a process that takes nearly 24 hours and that there is disagreement about when in the process life begins: when the sperm enters the egg, when genetic recombination is complete, or when the first DNA replication leading to cell division occurs. Others have tried to push “conception” even further forward in time, making it synonymous with an embryo’s implantation in the uterine lining.

These debates are interesting, but they are difficult to square with the idea that the Bible (or any biblical text) affirms the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. None of the fine biological distinctions or the logic that underlies them would have meant anything to anyone living in, around, or for at least 1500 years after the times when biblical texts were being written. Ancient medical practitioners were keen observers and knew a good deal about the process of reproduction, but there is only so much they could learn without access to ultrasounds, microscopes, and arthroscopic cameras. The uterus was something of a black box, and the earliest phases of gestation were the most unknowable. Presumably some information about later stages of fetal development could be gained from miscarriages and still births, but there was little concrete knowledge about early pregnancy.

I’ll get into some evidence about what various ancient writers did know or theorize about reproduction in the next post, but for now I just want to underscore the vast chasm that separates our own understanding of conception from the one(s) held by the composers of biblical texts and their peers. Honestly, I think that “conceive” may be an unintentionally misleading translation in modern Bibles, because those of us educated in the medicalized modern world reflexively link the word itself to precise and imperceptible biological events and processes. I usually opt for the translation “be/get pregnant” instead, because it feels more vague and informal and focuses more on the change in the woman than on the product of conception.

***

Recognizing this difference in views of conception raises several questions: How could a crucial ethical distinction be based on an event no one knew was happening? How could a text (divinely inspired or not) communicate that distinction to an audience who had no context for it? 

To be clear, these questions don’t inform the ethics of abortion directly (I’ll get to that in later posts). They do, however, present problems for those who seek to base their opposition to abortion directly in the Bible (and especially in an inerrantist or other originalist reading of the Bible), and I don’t see these problems addressed or even acknowledged often enough. 

That’s it for today! Stay tuned for next time: ancient writing on sex and pregnancy!

Thoughts on Abortion: Satire and Seriousness

I wrote a piece of satire that was published today, and I felt it was worth writing some serious thoughts on it as well. Abortion is an issue of critical importance to a lot of people I know and care about, and it’s not a topic I take lightly. My beliefs and positions have changed substantially over years of thought, reading, and discussion, and I’m going to start sharing that process and where I’ve ended up.

Though the McSweeney’s piece is satire, I stand behind the serious point that it makes. Essentially, I find that Christian pro-life arguments often assume three things that cannot all be true at the same time.

1. God is a good communicator

2. God inspired the Bible to communicate (among other things) deep and enduring ethical concerns

3. God cares deeply about abortion and opposes it entirely

In other words, if God is a good communicator who wanted to convey the sanctity of fetal life and the absolute impermissibility of abortion, then God would have had to create a text quite different from the Bible.

On the flip side, if God wrote (or inspired) the Bible as we have it to express (again, among other things) prohibition of abortion, then God is not a very good communicator. So the silly thought that inspired this piece was “how would a God who wrote this Bible to express opposition to abortion justify those writing decisions?”

This disconnection between anti-abortion ethics and the text of the Bible may come as a surprise; it was certainly a surprise to my students this year. Anti-abortion organizations claim that the Bible is crystal clear on the topic of abortion so often and so forcefully that it is generally believed to be true. That is certainly the understanding I grew up with and operated under before I became a Bible scholar and looked into it systematically.

After the draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe vs. Wade leaked this Spring, the students in my  “Bible, Politics, and the Internet” course insisted that I expand our one class session on abortion into a week. I’m glad I did, because we all got a lot out of the experience.

For the first session, I gathered every biblical text that I could find quoted or cited on either side of the abortion debate. There were quite a few but not an absurd number, so I asked them to read through them all before class. I had also assigned articles on contraception and abortion in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, so they knew that both were known and commonly practiced throughout the societies from which the Bible emerged.

In class, the students broke up into small groups and answered two questions: which of these texts pertain to abortion directly? Which of them pertain to other ethical issues that influence the debate over abortion?

In the general discussion that followed, most students agreed that none of the verses or passages we read had anything at all to do with abortion. Some were indirectly relevant (the accidental miscarriage laws in Exodus 21:22–25, for example), but most were either shoehorned into the debate in a wholly inappropriate way (creation verses in Genesis 1:26–28 and 2:7) or were only relevant if you had already made your mind up that abortion was murder in advance (Exodus 20:13, Proverbs 24:11 and 31:8).

Their reaction echoes the position of many biblical scholars, such as John J. Collins. I take a slightly different stance, since I understand the ritual in Numbers 5:11–31 to describe the induction of an abortion for failing a divinely abetted paternity test. However, even if this one text literally prescribes an abortion, it does so in a way that helps neither side of the contemporary debate (as Rhiannon Graybill has helpfully explained. 

My students, to a person, were shocked. All of them had assumed it was in there somewhere—a clear and unambiguous prohibition of abortion. How could it not be, when abortion took up so much space in political discourse, especially among Bible-believing communities?

The fact is, the clarity of the Bible on abortion is largely an invention. More sophisticated anti-abortion advocates know this and so focus on natural law and Christian tradition over biblical precedent, but the broad assumption that the Bible prohibits abortion continues to be widespread and common.

So, what does it mean that the Bible does not present a clear position on abortion? What does it mean that the Bible does not seem to care about abortion enough to mention it almost at all, especially considering the prevalence of contraceptive and abortifacient practices throughout the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean? It’s a complicated question, since no religion has ever derived all of its doctrine and ritual from the Bible, and all types of Christianity have added, adapted, and sidelined biblical texts liberally for all manner of culturally and historically contingent reasons. It’s complicated further still by the Bible’s nature as a composite anthology with numerous different (and often disagreeing voices) represented within its pages. It is not a single text, with a single meaning and a single way of reading it. Rather, I see biblical texts as a generative base from which all manner of interpretations grow. It is certainly possible (as simple observation makes abundantly clear) to hold the Bible sacred and arrive at a pro-life, anti-abortion ethic, It is also possible to hold the Bible sacred and hold fast also to choice and reproductive justice. Neither derives necessarily from any Bible and no Bible alone can definitively adjudicate between the two for us.

As a historical Bible scholar, though, I also try to work out how these texts emerged and fit into the world in which they were written and spread. So in posts that follow this one, I’m going to discuss the place of abortion in antiquity, how the Bible’s various texts fit into it, the relevance of Bibles and biblical texts to the current debate over abortion policy, as well as my own thoughts and positions as they have developed over the past few decades. Maybe take it with a grain of salt since I’m not capable of getting pregnant, but I hope you’ll stick around and join in the conversation!

Best Books of 2021: The Mess We’re In

It’s no secret that we’re in a mess right now, politically, economically, and societally. In this third batch of favorite reads from 2021 (see 1, 2, and my full reading list), I’m sharing a few books that have helped me think through the present moment and how we get somewhere better together.

Front cover to Ill Fares the Land

Ill Fares the land, by Tony Judt

In this book, Judt tells the story of how the United States developed a faith in social democracy in the mid-20th century, then lost it in favor of a fetish for privatization and a devotion to free market solutions. The result is what he calls the ”eviscerated society,” characterized by private wealth and public squalor. Inequality has reached unsustainable and destructive levels through the consistent workings of unregulated capital markets (or more accurately, capital markets whose regulations are set by the most powerful interested players). His analysis is based on a life’s work as a historian of the post-war period, and his argumentation is lucid and eminently quotable. That said, it is not a perfect book—Judt is more statist than I am always comfortable with, and he falters on topics of race and identity as determinants of American economics and politics (see the forward to the 2020 edition by Ta-Nehisi Coates). On these, the next two books (and especially Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us) do much better.

Front cover of the 9.9 Percent

The 9.9%: The New Aristocracy that is Entrenching Inequality and Warping our Culture, by Matthew Stewart

This is another entry on the theme of inequality. However, Stewart takes a broader approach, examining a wide array of socio-cultural phenomena in addition to economics and politics. He argues that it is not only the 1% or the .1% of America’s wealthiest who are hoarding undue wealth and unraveling the fabric of society, but the 9.9%—the top decile in terms of net worth excluding the ultra-rich of the .1%. 

As inequality has grown, the upper decile has observed the shrinking chances of upward mobility and the increasing precarity of remaining in their place in the hierarchy. Stewart makes the case that this has led to a pervasive and corrosive anxiety that is spreading throughout every part of our lives and our institutions. To ensure their continued position near the top, 9.9 percenters (and those who wish to become 9.9 percenters) have imported ultra-competitive and anti-social logics into their child-rearing, education, marriages, living situations, health and fitness practices, etc., etc.

The tone can be a bit glib and some evidence and analysis could be disputed (his interpretation of ancient texts and archaeology made this scholar of the ancient Near East’s eyes twitch a little, for example), but Stewart’s overall case is strong. I learned a lot from this book, and it gave me a lot more to think about. Definitely worth a read.

For further reading in this vein, see Richard V. Reeves’ excellent Dream Hoarders (which was one of my top picks in 2017) and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s The Sum of Small things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class.

Front cover to The Sum of Us

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can prosper Together, by Heather McGhee

In this book, Heather McGhee gives not only a clear and convincing analysis of how racism has and continues to increase and entrench inequality in the United States, but also a compelling path forward.

She shows that the only way to an economy that does not tilt entirely in the ultra-wealthy’s favor is by building multiracial coalitions that work on behalf of everyone. She also provides communication strategies for getting past places where conversations on race in the US tend to stall or backfire.

The key is dismantling the myth of zero-sum racial progress. There is a common perception (particularly among white Americans) that any improvement in the economic wellbeing of black and brown people must be accompanied by a corresponding decrease for whites. This, as McGhee shows with much data and many examples, is entirely false. It is in those very places where legal and cultural oppression of black and brown Americans was most severe that we find also the poorest conditions for working class white people. In effect, capitalists and business owners exacerbated and exploited the social divisions and resentments between racial groups to preempt solidarity and thus, to keep wages low and benefits minimal. In places where racial division has been intentionally overcome in the creation of multi-racial labor and political organization, Mcghee identifies what she calls a “solidarity dividend”—economic benefit to the communities of color involved, certainly, but also to the white population and to the region as a whole. As one organizer she quotes put it:  “as long as we’re divided, we’re conquered. The only way we succeed is together.”

This book would pair well with Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness.

Front cover of Becoming Abolitionists

Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom, by Derecka Purnell

Uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last summer brought police abolition and PIC abolition (i.e., abolition of the prison-industrial complex) into the public conversation in a way it had never been before. I have spent a lot of time reading and learning about what abolition means in theory and practice over the past year, and I have come to resonate with it as an ideal and a horizon toward which our society and our politics should always be oriented. I also understand that it can seem opaque, unclear, foolhardy, or destructive. Questions about public safety and protection are valid and deserve answers. In many cases, though, conversations and publications on abolition were being conducted by small groups of like-minded scholars and activists who shared common presumptions and language, and they were hard for curious newcomers to break into.

 Luckily, this year has seen the publication of several books that aim to make abolition more accessible and understandable to people who are curious but perhaps skeptical or uncertain about whether it can work in reality. I particularly like this book by Derecka Purnell, which conveys abolition theory through her own personal journey. Purnell is honest about the reservations she had toward abolition as her experience and consciousness have shifted over time and makes a compelling case for the insufficiency of reform and the need for an entirely new paradigm. I also enjoyed Mariame Kaba’s essay collection We Do This ’Til We Free Us and highly recommend Angela Y. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?

Front cover of You are Here

You Are here: A Field guide for navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and our Polluted Media Landscape, by Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner.

When we talk about this mess we’re in, the role of the internet in getting us here inevitably makes its way into the conversation. Many problems with the internet and social media cannot be solved by individuals making individual choices, but each of us who lives some part of our life online needs to know how it works, how it goes wrong, and how it can lead us astray. Phillips and Milner have written a short, clear, and very illuminating guide for internet users who want to consume, share, and publish information responsibly and productively. This is going to be required reading in my spring course on “The Bible, Politics, and the Internet,” so it’s fair to say I think it has something worthwhile to say!

 

And now some runners up in the education department:

Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch

Public schools are wonderful. Charter schools are vicious parasites that suck public dollars into wasteful, undemocratic, and often corrupt private ventures, impoverishing us all in the process. Read this book, support your local teachers’ union, and vote to fund public education.

Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from my Daughter’s School, by Courtney Martin 

A mom’s journey to make good educational choices for her daughter in Oakland, CA, where good means good for society too, not just for her own family. Good for anyone feeling squeamish about sending their kids to “bad” or “low performing” public schools.

Best Books of 2021: Disability and Embodiment

In today’s installment of Eric’s Favorite Books of 2021, we move into nonfiction. Stop 1: readings on disability and the body. Check out yesterday’s fiction picks and the full list if you haven’t already!

Front cover of Extraordinary Bodies by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

 

Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

It is no understatement to say that this book transformed my thinking on disability and embodiment. Garland-Thomson brilliantly disentangles, names, and examines physical, biopolitical, and socio-cultural aspects of living with a body in societies that do not view all bodies as equal.

For Garland-Thomson, the discourse of disability has little to do with the physical parameters of our bodies per se, and everything to do with “cultural rules about what bodies should be and do” (p. 6). Human bodies come in a dizzying diversity of forms, differing in myriad ways across a  variety of spectra. This alone cannot explain the concept of disability or its function in the differential allocation of status, power, and material resources in society. The discourse of disability, rather, does the work of collapsing that manifold diversity into manageable binaries—bodies that are essentially “normal” in contrast to those that are not. In short, it is “the attribution of corporeal deviance” (p. 6).

By beginning her analysis with the deviant, Garland-Thomson silhouettes the phantom majority against which this deviance is defined. She coins the concept of the “normate” body, one that bears no marked or stigmatizing characteristics within a given cultural frame. The normate presents itself as the universal subject, the unqualified and definitive human being. In reality, the normate creates the normalcy it claims to reflect, as only a small minority of people in any given society actually inhabit such bodies.

The first third of the book lays out her theory: disability and the normate identity, its connection with stigma and social limitation, and its interactions with gender and race. The remainder then explores the theory in relation to American culture (e.g., the phenomenon of freak shows) and literature (the writings of Harriet beecher Stowe and Audrey Lord). This should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to write about or just understand disability better.

Front Covers of the two Disability Visibility anthologies—one for adults and a second adapted for younger readers

Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories for the 21st Century, edited by Alice Wong

This remarkable collection is composed entirely of first-person narratives describing the experience of living as a disabled person in the early 21st century. Alice Wong, a powerful advocate and activist for disability justice and the volume’s editor, has done an extraordinary job ensuring representation of contributors with many diverse identities, living  in a broad variety of situations with many different disabilities. The essays cover many topics, including personal experiences of joy and struggle, discrimination and institutionalization, and disability activism and mutual aid. Struggle runs throughout, but it is often combine with strength, defiance, connection, and collective action—Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s “wild dreams of disability justice at the end of the world.” Read it yourself and buy it for all of your friends!

Front Cover of Their Plant Eyes

 

Their Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness, by M. Leona Godin

This fits broadly within the genre of “blind memoir,” as Godin tells the story of her progressive vision loss and life with blindness, but she interweaves it with stories and biographies of blind people at different points in history to very enjoyable effect. Come for the salacious story of how Athenian Tyreseus was blinded and given prophecy by the gods; stay for Helen Keller’s often-glossed-over Vaudeville years, and meet a host of fascinating blind people in between. My one small critique? Like everyone, she starts her history of blindness with the Greeks, those late-comers to history who somehow get first credit for everything. Guess I’d better get working on that book on blindness in the ancient Middle East!

Front cover of Down, Girl!

Down, Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate manne

I wasn’t quite sure which category to put this book into, but since it deals broadly with the ways we police people based on the bodies they inhabit, I thought it might as well go here. I first heard of this book in connection with its coinage “himpathy,” which denotes the excessive sympathy given to men who are accused or convicted of gendered or sexual violence against women. The term struck me as a little too cute and didn’t motivate me to read the book right away, but I’m glad I did.

Now I use Manne’s model of misogyny all the time. It is so clear and powerfully explanatory that once you have read it you see the pattern at work everywhere. Misogyny and its manifestations in gendered violence are not illogical, incomprehensible, or inexplicable, as news outlets tend to conclude when gendered atrocities take place. Rather, misogyny in its various forms serves, in Manne’s words, as “the enforcement wing of patriarchy.” Misogyny is not the same thing as patriarchy, then, and it must also be differentiated from sexism. Patriarchy specifically describes any system in which roles and possibilities are determined by gender, with greater authority and autonomy going to men and submission and subservience allotted to women. Patriarchal systems are justified by sexism—that is, beliefs regarding the different natures of men and women and their relative social positions and value. Within a patriarchal system, gender roles are policed on both sides for deviance. Improper manhood and womanhood can both be stigmatized and sanctioned. Here, Manne focuses primarily on misogyny—acts of aggression and violence intended to control women who venture outside the prescribed boundaries of their gender’s assigned role(s). As such, it appears most predictably when women seek to resist or escape the control of men. With detailed argumentation and plentiful examples, Manne develops the intricacies of this broad thesis and its manifestations in different areas of life. As a work of academic philosophy it can get pretty dense, but the payoff is 100% worth it.

Best Books of 2021: Fiction

Yesterday I shared the full list of books I read in 2021. Today I’m going to start sharing some favorites, beginning with the best from the fiction category.

Front Cover of the novel Piranesi

Piranesi, by Susanna Clark

Reading this book is an otherworldly experience—not only for the prosaic reason that it takes place in another world, but also because the writing creates a dreamlike atmosphere that is at once tantalizing and elusive. It takes the form of a detailed field journal kept by a man called Piranesi. He is mostly alone, navigating and charting a massive complex he calls the House. The House contains many halls, filled with thousands upon thousands of stone statues—some human, some animal, some creatures of story and myth. Through cracked roofs he sees an unending sky, and the floor below is flooded by an ocean of violent and interacting tides. Piranesi keeps meticulous notes, mapping the complex but always returning to the beginning lest he lose himself in the unending series of halls. Occasionally he is joined by a man he calls the Other, who is eager to hear the results of Piranesi’s exploration though he himself never ventures far into the House. This is a book I recommend highly, but mainly for the experience of reading it. The plot itself I found mildly disappointing, and the ending perhaps more so. I say perhaps because I haven’t been able to decide whether it ruined the book for me, and so perhaps this is also a testament to the novel’s magnificent indeterminacy.

Front Cover of the Dictionary of Lost Words

The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams

A book that hits the sweet spot for all you lovers of both historical fiction and lexicography. Williams tells the story of Esme, the daughter of a lexicographer working under Dr. Charles Murray to create the Oxford English Dictionary at the turn of the twentieth century. Esme’s father is a young widower, and She spends her early days playing at his feet under the large table in the Scriptorium while he works. Occasionally, she finds slips of paper with words and definitions written on them, sent in by the dictionary’s many volunteer contributors. As she grows and learns more, she begins working on the dictionary herself and notices that some words—particularly to do with the lives and experiences of women—are conspicuously left out or defined in ways that do not satisfy her. She begins a secret project of her own, collecting and defining women’s words that do not rise to the standards of masculine “importance” demanded by the intellectual giants of the dictionary. The novel is beautifully and gently written, yet uncompromising in its lament for the lost stories and language of women.

Front Cover to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, the first book of the Wayfarers Series

 The Wayfarers Series by Becky Chambers

 This is a delightful science fiction series set in a vibrantly imagined and beautifully constructed universe. Each book is tenuously related to the last, usually picking up on and developing the story of a minor character from a previous book. Though events of extraordinary interplanetary significance are going on around her characters (and indeed they sometimes find themselves in the middle of such events), Chambers keeps the focus tightly on the characters themselves, navigating adventures they often did not choose and do not want within a complicated web of alien cultures and political agendas. It is exactly this quotidian bent and narrow focus that make the Wayfarers books so enjoyable to read—indeed, the final book covers a lot of ground even though it takes place during what amounts to a prolonged travel delay. If you want high-quality, character-centered sci-fi that explores issues of gender, intersectionality, colonialism and its aftermath, and a whole host of other big topics in little ways, give these a read!

Bambi: A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten

Honestly, I’d never had any desire to read this book. Never, that is, until I learned it was banned by the Nazis because they (rightly( identified it as n allegory for the persecution of European Jews in an era of accelerating anti-Semitism and fascism. Bambi was first published in 1923 to immediate success, but it was banned in 1935 lest it create sympathy for Germany’s Jews. The novel is a different animal entirely from the 1942 Walt Disney adaptation (pun intended)—an unflinching account of lives of forest animals born into a hostile, dangerous world and the price they pay to survive within it. Even its moments of joy and exuberance are muted by the tense undercurrents of threat that run through every page. The creatures of the forest fear death in every shadow and across every sunlit meadow, and even the leaves on the trees debate the mystery of death. Above all other predators is “He,” the human who brings death with his gun, who seeks only to kill and makes fools or traitors of all animals who serve him. In the end, Bambi learns not of love and the bliss of family life (as Disney would have us believe), but of life conditioned by constant wariness and the solitary sorrow of survival. It’s a masterful book, but I’ll probably wait a few years before I read it to my kids.

2021: My Year in Books

The covers of every book I read this yearm, arranged in a grid pattern

 

 Hi! What is your pandemic coping strategy? Apparently, mine involves piping a constant stream of audiobooks into my ears at every moment I’m not working or actively conversing with my family. 

Cooking? Audiobooks.

Dishes? Audiobooks.

Laundry? Audiobooks.

You get the picture. 

I guess that’s how I made it through 78 books this year (on top of the reading I do for research, etc.). Looking back over the list, I see too many amazing reads to make just one book post (as I’ve done in previous years), so this time I’m going to break up my top picks into a few posts that I’ll publish over the next couple of days.

But before that, here’s the whole list. See if you can guess which ones were my favorites.

And please let me know what you read and loved this year. I’m always looking for the next thing!

The List

(In the order I read them)

  1. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, by C. L. R. James
  2. The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently, by Marc Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine
  3. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, by bell hooks
  4. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson
  5. The metanarrative of Blindness: A re-reading of 20th Century Anglophone Writing, by David Bolt
  6. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
  7. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott
  8. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom, by bell hooks
  9. Religion is Raced: Understanding American Religion in the 21st Century, edited by Grace Yukich
  10. What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World, by Sarah Hendren
  11. Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, by Sasha Costanza-Chock
  12. Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories for the 21st Century, edited by Alice Wong
  13. Dawn (Xenogenesis #1), by Octavia E. Butler
  14. Adulthood Rites (Xenogenesis #2), by Octavia E. Butler
  15. Imago (Xenogenesis #3), by Octavia E. Butler
  16. How the University Works: Higher Education in the Low-Wage Nation, by Marc Bousquet
  17. The Instruction Myth: Why Higher Education is Hard to Change and How to Change It, by John Tagg
  18. Understanding and Preventing Faculty-on-Faculty Bullying: A Psycho-Social Organizational Approach, by Darla J. Twale
  19. The Formation of Scholars: Rethinking Doctoral Education for the 21st Century, by George E. Walker
  20. The Senses of Scripture: Sensory Perception in the Hebrew Bible, by Yael Avrahami
  21. Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi
  22. Blood in my Eye, by George L. Jackson
  23. The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
  24. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, by Adrienne Maree Brown
  25. Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism, by Annette Yoshiko Reed
  26. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and how WE Can Prosper Together, by Heather McGhee
  27. Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky #1), by Rebecca Roanhorse
  28. Feminist, Queer, Crip, by Alison Kafer
  29. Piranesi, by Susanna Clark
  30. Decolonial Pedagogy: Examining Sites of Resistance, Resurgence, and Renewal, by Njoki N. Wane
  31. Music in Ancient Greece and Rome, by John G. Landels
  32. The Divine Institution: White Evangelicalism’s Politics of the Family, by Sophie Bjork-James
  33. Down, Girl! The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate Manne
  34. The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart, by Alicia Garza
  35. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity in this Crisis, by Dean Spade
  36. Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins, by David M. Carr
  37. The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler-Colonial Conquest and Resistance, 1917–2017, by Rashid Khalidi
  38. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
  39. America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion since the 1960s, by Elizabeth Hinton
  40. The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope, by Daniel Greene
  41. Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document that Changes Everything, by William Germano
  42. The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams
  43. All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1), by Martha Wells
  44. Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2), by Martha Wells
  45. Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries #3), by Martha Wells
  46. Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries #4), by Martha Wells
  47. Network Effect (The Murderbot Diaries #5), by Martha Wells
  48. Their Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness, by M. Leona Godin
  49. One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Kevin M. Kruse
  50. You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and our Polluted Media Landscape, by Bryan M. Milner and Whitney Phillips
  51. No Study Without Struggle: Confronting Settler Colonialism in Higher Education, by Leigh Patel
  52. The Traitor Baru Cormorant (The Masquerade #1) by Seth Dickinson
  53. Where do we go from here” Chaos or Community, by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  54. Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch
  55. Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from my Daughter’s School, by Courtney E. Martin
  56. Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World, by Michael Edwards
  57. The New Ph.D.: How to Build a Better Graduate Education, by Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch
  58. Tell the Machine Goodnight, by Katie Williams
  59. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1), by Becky Chambers
  60. A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2), by Becky Chambers
  61. Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers #3), by Becky Chambers
  62. The Galaxy and the Ground Within (Wayfarers #4), by Becky Chambers
  63. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination, by Toni Morrison
  64. Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, by Charlene Carruthers
  65. We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, by Mariame Kaba
  66. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, by Robin D G. Kelly
  67. Bullshit Jobs: A theory, by David Graeber
  68. Woke Racism: How a New Religion has Betrayed Black America, by John McWhorter
  69. Liquid Scripture: The Bible in a Digital World, by Jeffrey Siker
  70. Christitainment: Selling Jesus Through Popular Culture, by Shirley R. Steinberg and Joe L. Kincheloe
  71. Evangelicals, Incorporated: Books and the business of Religion in America, by Daniel Vaca
  72. A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops obsolete, by Gio Maher
  73. Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the pursuit of Freedom, by Derecka Purnell
  74. Ill Fares the Land, by Tony Judt
  75. The Bright Ages, by Matt Gabriele and David M. Perry
  76. The 9.9%: The new Aristocracy that is Entrenching Inequality and Warping our Culture, by Matthew Stewart
  77. Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, by Harsha Walia
  78. Bambi: A Life in the woods, by Felix Salten