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Is a Fetus a Human Being?

This draft has been sitting in my queue for quite some time. It’s a passage I lifted from the excellent How to Read the Bible by James Kugel — an orthodox Jew and Harvard scholar. It sat unfinished, as I desired to add some words, but time enough has expired, and I am simply going to share what I clipped (hopefully, Kugel and his publishing house will not be alarmed at the length of the cite and order takedown). It is instructive because Kugel highlights the one place in the Bible where abortion is addressed and elicits some takes that are at complete odds with exegesis of evangelical bible scholars. Wayne Grudem, heralded conservative evangelical authority and of Systematic Theology — a text that sits on the shelf of many evangelical pastors, zeroes in on the passage in Exodus 21 as a anti-abortion dictum in another book, Politics: According to the Bible.

Biblical interpretation was sometimes a manner of life and death, hotly debated by opposing sides. A number of sources report on the existence of different groups in the late biblical period, each of which followed its own biblical interpreters. The New Testament mentions two such groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees; Josephus speaks of these two as well as a third group. the Essenes, Rabbinic sources such as the Babylonian Talmud mention the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Boethusians. Scholars are still divided as to the precise relationship and affiliations of these groups, but one thing is clear: the disagreements of these groups about biblical interpretation were at the center of what was often a highly charged rivalry, even enmity, among them.

Their disagreements extended over a range of different biblical topics, but among them was one that remains a very controversial subject in our own day: is the fetus in its mother’s womb to be considered a human life? Nowadays, this question has direct implications for the matter of abortion. In ancient times it was connected to abortion as well, but, as we shall see, it influenced other matters of law too.

The Bible does not contain a specific ruling on abortion per se, but it does have one law that seemed to shed light on the question:

When men are fighting and one of them strikes a pregnant woman so that her offspring comes out, and there is no mishap, he [the one responsible] shall be fined in accordance with what her husband shall impose upon him, and it will be given over to adjudication. But if there is a mishap, then you shall give a life for a life [literally a soul for a soul], and eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise. ~Exod.s 21:22-25

What happened here? The Bible seems to be describing two possible outcomes of an accident in which a man who was fighting with someone else ended up striking a pregnant woman by mistake. The first possible outcome—that the woman gives birth but “there is no mishap”—results in the man being fined; the second, where “there is a mishap”, imposes the death penalty on the man.

At first glance it might seem that “there is no mishap” means that mother and baby are fine. But no ancient interpreter read this passage that way. The reason was simple. Normally, in the case of an accident, if no harm resulted, then no fine would be due; if both mother and baby emerged without a scratch, why should the fighter be punished? He meant no harm to her and no harm had been caused. So something bad must have happened. Here is how this passage was translated in the third century BCE by the Jewish makers of the Septuagint, the earliest Greek translation of the Pentateuch:

If two men are fighting and a pregnant woman is struck in her belly, and her child comes out not fully formed, he shall pay a fine. As the woman’s husband shall impose, he shall pay it with a valuation. But if it is fully formed, he shall give a soul for a soul. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burning for a burning, a wound for a wound, a stripe for a stripe. ~Septuagint, Exod. 21:22-25

This translation assumes that, no matter what, the accident described resulted in the death of the fetus. Then what could the Bible have meant by distinguishing between a case in which “there is no mishap” and the one in which there is? It was referring, these translators concluded, to the state of the development of the unborn child. That is, if such an accident and subsequent miscarriage should occur early in the woman’s pregnancy, at a time when the fetus is “not fully formed”, then the man cannot truly be deemed to have killed another human being. He did not cause a spontaneous abortion and thereby killed a potential human being, so he should definitely be fined—but he is not guilty of murder. If, on the other hand, the accident occurred late in the pregnancy, even though the fetus was still in its mother’s womb, it was deemed to be in every sense a human being, since it was already fully formed. Having thus taken another human’s life, the man was subject to the death penalty.

It would follow from this that the Bible deems a fully formed fetus to be in every sense a human being. The law does not define exactly how “fully formed” the fetus has to be, but certainly it would seem that, according to this passage, late-term abortions are nothing less than a form of murder.

However, there was an entirely different way of understanding the same passage. Here is how Jerome translated it in the Vulgate, which was to become the approved translation of the Roman Catholic Church:

If men were fighting and someone struck a pregnant woman and she miscarried but she herself lived, he will be subject to a fine, as much as the women’s husband shall request and as the judges decree. If, however, her death shall follow, let him pay a soul for a soul, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burning for a burning, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise. ~Vulgate, Exod. 21:22-25

According to this understanding, the “mishap” is the death of the mother. That is, in either scenario the fetus dies—apparently it does not matter in Jerome’s interpretation whether the accident occurred in the first or the ninth month of the pregnancy. The only thing that matters is whether or not the mother survives. Underlying this interpretation, therefore, must be the belief that, so long as a fetus is inside its mother, it is not a separate human being. Instead, the fetus is, as rabbinic interpreters (who had espoused the same approach as that adopted in the above translation) explained, a “limb of the mother” until its head emerges from the womb.

This difference in interpretation had the most serious consequences for daily life—and not just with regard to abortion. A common occurrence in the ancient world was that of a woman who had difficulty in giving birth—even after hours of protracted labor, her child would not emerge from the womb. Unless something could be done, the result might be the death of the mother in labor; this is in fact what happened to Jacob’s wife Rachel (Gen. 35:17-19). In some cases, killing the child inside the womb might save the mother’s life—but was that lawful? According to interpretation #1 (the interpretation reflected in the Septuagint), the answer would appear to be no, since the fetus was usually “fully formed” at the time of labor; according to interpretation #2 (reflected in the Vulgate), yes, since even a fully formed fetus was still a “limb of the mother” until its head emerged.

The same basic disagreement over the status of a fetus carried over into other matters. The Dead Sea Scrolls community, which followed interpretation #1 above, outlawed killing a pregnant animal for a sacrifice, since that would violate another biblical law that forbade offering a “bull or a sheep along with its offspring in a single day” (Lev. 22:28). Since interpretation #1 held that a cow and the calf in its womb were (or could be) two separate animals, the Dead Sea Scrolls said that slaughtering the mother would thus violate this law. Followers of interpretation #2 said, “No such thing!” So long as the calf is in its mother’s womb, they are a single animal. By the same token, interpretation #1 would consider the mother of a stillborn child to have been in a state of ritual impurity sometime before the child’s birth, since she was “touching” a dead human’s body (an act that normally imparts impurity); according to interpretation #2, she was not impure in the slightest, since the dead fetus was a “limb of the mother” and no separate human being.


33 notes

  1. educatedpeasant reblogged this from azspot
  2. -double-standard reblogged this from azspot
  3. metamorphoseandbodhi reblogged this from azspot and added:
    AZspot wrote This draft has been sitting in my queue for quite some time. It’s a passage I lifted from the excellent How...
  4. redcloud reblogged this from azspot
  5. canisfamiliaris reblogged this from azspot and added:
    This is a passage I lifted from the excellent How to Read the Bible by James Kugel, an orthodox Jew and Harvard scholar....
  6. wateringgoodseeds said: Learned this many years ago in a class on Responsa (a category of Jewish law in which respected authorities answer practical questions.) I have been puzzled for years by the fact that Christians never discuss this passage. Now I understand.
  7. ashleelisbeth reblogged this from azspot and added:
    early term-abortions are OK...every anti-abortion Christian.
  8. other-stuff reblogged this from azspot
  9. azspot posted this

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