Augustine on Abortion

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

In response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement about the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion made on “Meet the Press” on August 24, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has published a two-page fact sheet titled “Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching.

Since Pelosi’s statement quoted Augustine’s view on abortion, the statement issued by the Catholic Bishops discusses Augustine’s interpretation of Exodus 21: 22-23, a difficult passage that has been interpreted by some scholars as allowing abortion at the earlier stages of pregnancy. According to the statement, Augustine’s interpretation was based on the translation found in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) instead of the original Hebrew reading:

In the 5th century AD this rejection of abortion at every stage was affirmed by the great bishop-theologian St. Augustine. He knew of theories about the human soul not being present until some weeks into pregnancy. Because he used the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, he also thought the ancient Israelites had imposed a more severe penalty for accidentally causing a miscarriage if the fetus was “fully formed” (Exodus 21: 22-23), language not found in any known Hebrew version of this passage. But he also held that human knowledge of biology was very limited, and he wisely warned against misusing such theories to risk committing homicide. He added that God has the power to make up all human deficiencies or lack of development in the Resurrection, so we cannot assume that the earliest aborted children will be excluded from enjoying eternal life with God.

Exodus 21:22-23 is difficult passage to interpret. The New Revised Standard Version translates the Hebrew text as follows: “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.”

There are several issues in the these two verses that require clarification before the proper interpretation of the text can be reached. For instance, the words “miscarriage” translates the Hebrew “her sons go out.” The text does not say whether the sons (the text is plural) are born alive or dead. Since the person responsible pays a fine, does it mean that no death occurred and that the lex talionis does not apply? Or, if there was a death, that the fetus was not considered a person?

Since I do not have the time today to explore all the issues in the text, I may return to this passage at a later time with a more detailed discussion of this problematic text.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

NOTE: Did you like this post? Do you think other people would like to read this post? Be sure to share this post on Facebook and share a link on Twitter or Tumblr so that others may enjoy reading it too!

I would love to hear from you! Let me know what you thought of this post by leaving a comment below. Be sure to like my page on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, follow me on Tumblr, Facebook, and subscribe to my blog to receive each post by email.

If you are looking for other series of studies on the Old Testament, visit the Archive section and you will find many studies that deal with a variety of Old Testament topics.

This entry was posted in Book of Exodus and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.