Infanticide And The Apostolic Decree Of Acts 15 -- By: David Instone-Brewer

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 52:2 (Jun 2009)
Article: Infanticide And The Apostolic Decree Of Acts 15
Author: David Instone-Brewer

Infanticide And The Apostolic Decree Of Acts 15

David Instone-Brewer*

* David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in rabbinics and the New Testament at Tyndale House, 36 Selwyn Gardens, Cambridge, CB3 9BA, UK.

Infanticide was a pressing ethical problem for Jews living in the Graeco-Roman period because this was a normal method of birth control for Greeks and Romans, while Jews considered it to be murder. Their exegetical basis for this was not strong—a general prohibition of murder, the case of a pregnant woman whose baby was harmed in a fight (Exod 21:22-23) and prohibitions of child sacrifice—but their opposition to it was implacable. Jews strongly condemned this practice when writing for Gentile readers, even though this stance could cause offense, and the earliest post-NT Christian documents do the same. It is therefore strange that the NT, which was written largely for Gentile converts living in the Graeco-Roman world, appears to be silent on the subject. This paper argues that the Apostolic Decree specifically refers to infanticide when it condemns “smothering” (πνικτός)—a rare word which is used especially with regard to killing infant animals—not “strangling,” which is a very difficult way to kill an animal.

I. Infanticide

The normal method of birth control in the Greek and Roman world was infanticide. Contraception was uncertain, and abortions were dangerous, so it was normal to let an unwanted pregnancy come to term and then dispose of the baby. This was especially common for any deformed, weak, illegitimate, or unwanted infants, such as girls who were an economic liability. A private letter sent in the first century AD expressed the common way of thinking: “If she bears offspring, if it is a male let it be; if a female, expose it.”1 The motives for this were mainly financial; the poor could not afford to bring up too many children, and the rich did not want to divide up their estates among too many children. Caesar Augustus exposed his granddaughter Julia’s illegitimate child2 and he was, for most Romans, the highest model of moral rectitude.

The term “exposed” started as a literal description of the practice—that is, the newborn infant was placed outside the house, perhaps on a hillside, and left to die or perhaps (as in many fanciful stories) to be found by a childless woman or suckled by wild animals. We do not know how many infants were disposed of in this way, but it is a commonplace in Graeco-Roman history and fiction. Stor...

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