I know, I know, reddit gloms onto anything that smells of religion and hypocrisy. But bear with me, because the intellectual and political developments in play are important to *understanding*, beyond any gut jerk condemnation or automatic acceptance.
The story that Christians tell themselves, passed down in the Book of Acts and some of the New Testament epistles, is that Jesus came and fulfilled the Law, that is, the Old Testament. It’s pretty clear in context that the critical issue was nascent Christianity’s built in mission (evangelization) imperative juxtaposed with Jewish prescriptions, most importantly circumcision, although kosher laws also feature prominently in the biblical discussion.
But while what is depicted by Christian tradition as a battle between “Jewish Christians” and “Gentile Christians” ultimately comes down on the side of God apparently no longer requiring circumcision in the “new covenant,” this hardly means that developing Christianity shed its Jewish roots including the Old Testament, or the Hellenized Roman culture in which it incubated. Everyone’s favorite example here is abortion, so let’s roll with it. Early and medieval Christians recognized abortion as a moral question, connected to infanticide. But perspectives differed-and would continue to differ-on when abortion began to be a problem. Was it always immoral? Or was it only immoral after the infusion of the soul into the body? And when was that, and was it different for boys and girls? As John Riddle points out, even as one tradition that would become canon law condemned contraception and abortion, some theologians continued to repeat earlier ideas and even mention recipes for contraceptives.
The complicating and complicated, but crucial, factor is sex. Christianity inherits a deep skepticism towards sex and the human body from Greek philosophy, to the extent that Jerome (who gave us the Vulgate Bible) argues that virgins should kill themselves to avoid the pollution of *being raped*. Of course, a society without sex is self-eradicating, and Christians quickly come up with the longstanding view that sex is okay if it is in accord with nature, that is, can lead to procreation. And the wonderfully spicy Song of Songs is reinscribed as an allegory: the love song between Christ and his Church or Christ and the soul (or, because he Middle Ages love you and want you to be happy, Christ and Mary, his virgin mother).
The spread and entrenchment of thhe Latin Church as a landed power over the early high Middle Ages introduced a new wrinkle to the concept of moral authority: legal authority, and the desire to shepherd and augment it for the salvation of as many people as possible. Christians have a harder task in the establishment of religious law than Jews and Muslims, since the NT works mightily hard to reject legalism as a principle. So canon (Church) law ends up cobbled together out of the Bible, philosophers, practical situations. It’s in the efforts to codify canon law in 11-12C that theolgians start to pay attention to sodomy with a definition of (male, primarily) homosexuality. Although it is still just one form of the “sin against nature”, and there are no signs of active persecution from Latin Christians. But the codification of canon law reflects a long term trend in the west towards social order, hierarchy, purity, playing out above all on religious (anti-Semitism) and gender policing lines (misogyny, patriarchal families, strict gender roles and gender expression norms). Homosexual sex acts stack up poorly here, as you can imagine, and by the fifteenth century it can be and sometimes was punishable by death.
So what is the Bible doing in all this? As suggested by the multivalent interpretations of the Song of Songs (totally ripped from rabbinic readings of the love been God and his chosen people, by the way), medieval biblical interpretation was majestically flexible. This could lead to things like understanding the story of Jonah as a prophecy of Christ, descending into hell for three days, as well as being the story of a man who tried to say no to God and got eaten by a fish. Or it could mean trying to apply the “sons of Noah”-Shem, Japheth, Ham-as a paradigm to understand the peoples of an expanding (in Latin consciousness) world. The most famous medieval permutation here is the use of the curse of Ham to justify the existence of Latin, Christian serfdom. It often took on geographic origin meanings, however, which were as varied as the peoples of the Mediterranean world. In the early modern era, the western interpretation will harden into the “curse of Ham” that morally justifies the enslavement of black Africans by white Europeans and colonial descendants.
But that development, and even more its entrenchment, are somewhat of a departure in the evolution of European intellectual culture. Even as the Protestant reformers and the Catholic reaction supposedly streamline and “harden” biblical interpretation methods (don’t worry, the Song of Songs lives on in all its meanings), first the influence of humanism and then the evolution of natural philosophy into science never quite allowed the Bible to be Clarissa Explains It All.
Well, nineteenth century coming at you to change all that.
An important evolution that is actually played out in interpretations of the curse of Ham story is a growing sense that slavery is a moral issue. Not just related to religious in-group-ism, but ownership of humans in light of humanity, period. Now, it’s crucial to recognize the mutually reinforcing and guiding nature of religious beliefs/morality and other circumstances, be they political, economic, environmental, what have you. Mark Noll’s *The Civil War as a Theological Crisis* (which is to some extent the point towards which so much of career oriented him) lays out cleanly that the split between Christians opposed to slavery and Christians supporting it broke down along the geographic lines you would expect, but also that both sides made religion the basis for securing popular support. Abolitionists appealed to the ideals of “liberal theology” (not in the modern US political sense) and biblical exegesis, favoring holistic readings and the “sense” of scripture. Slavery’s defenders huddled down into what we call proof-texting: if you can find it in the Bible, somehow someway, it’s God’s inerrant word. Even if there are contradictory texts. This principle-fundamentalism, literalism, inerrancy-is a 19C invention. But so is the abolitionists’ holistic reading. So is Luther’s the Old Testament through the cross hermeneutic. So is medieval and patristic fourfold senses (historical and three allegorical forms).
All of these developments that I’ve talked about-sex, literalism, holistic/critical exegesis, race, moral politics, the role of religion in galvanizing political opinion and vice versa, tumble into the 20C. If anything, the Victorian and then Progressive era and its emphasis on “middle class values” (an adjusted vision of rightly ordered, moral society) demonstrated even more firmly the power of religion in spurring people’s political activism as well as introducing new dimensions of concern over the policing of sex and, now, “sexuality.” This period also saw a critical social invention in America: widespread, mandatory public education.
This was inseparable from religion, please understand. Apart from the Catholic Church’s long leadership role in all levels of education and nuns as THE champions of educating girls, late 19/early 29C Catholics often perceived public schools as a covert Protestant indoctrination, hence the longstanding tradition of Catholic schools in many American cities. This is a vital precedent. Because when the US finally gets its head temporarily out of the racist sand and makes school segregation illegal, it’s southern Christians in the same “biblical inerrancy” tradition who defended slavery, who lack qualms about expressing their racism.
I choose my word carefully here. Because you can certainly cherry pick quotes from the odd Protestant leader or Southern politician who explicitly links the rise of religious (Protestant, PLEASE) schools, mainly in the south, to a desire to prolong segregation. That’s not the dominant narrative, you understand. Religious freedom! Need to secure the morality of our good sons and daughters! Gosh, and don’t those race based admissions requirements make it a safer environment for the children. When the segregation policies were challenged in court (Green v. Connally; Coit v. Green), it was easy to sell this as religious persecution, not the government’s rightful enforcement of due civil rights. And to be clear: the issue here wasn’t about the closure of the schools. What got conservative Christians crying persecution! was the threat of revoking the schools’ tax-exempt status. America, y’all.
The lesson, going forwards, would be the power of evangelical Protestant Christianity as a political force-to motivate its believers, and the vitality of the consenting-to-legal-racism white voter as a target bloc.
adrift98: [1/3] I’m going to take a different tact from the mod, who seems to be coming at this question from a mostly Medieval view of the subject, and isn’t, as far as I can tell, really interacting with the earliest Christian communities. To start with, I think it’s important to take a look at Jewish views and attitudes on abortion which the Christian view likely developed out of.
I’m going to be quoting mostly from New Testament scholar, Michael Gorman’s *Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World*,
> Despite the absence of a specific condemnation or prohibition of abortion in their Scriptures, extensive research has discovered no mention of a nontherapeutic Jewish abortion in any texts of the Hebrew Bible or of other Jewish literature through A.D. 500. Only a few prohibitions of abortion have been preserved in Jewish literature from the about 150 B.C. Furthermore, the Talmud, the multivolume collection of centuries of Jewish rabbinic opinion which was assembled about A.D. 500, contains many discussions of miscarriage and therapeutic abortion but only one definite reference to deliberate, unnecessary abortion, and that is almost certainly directed to non-Jews. It was a given of Jewish thought and life that abortion, like exposure, was unacceptable, and this was well known in the ancient world. From 300 B.C. through the era of the Talmud, both pagans (such as Hecataeus of Abdera in Egypt and the Roman historian Tacitus) and Jews testify to the Jews’ love for and religious duty of begetting children. Tacitus notes that this led to their rejection of exposure; it was also one of their reasons for rejecting abortion. Though rare cases of abortion may have occurred in Judaism, the witness of antiquity is that Jews, unlike pagans, did not practice deliberate abortion.
> Although the Jews did not practice abortion, they did discuss the fetus and its death in a variety of contexts. Behind each of these discussions is assumed a basic Jewish orientation to life: first, the duty and desire to populate the earth and ensure both Jewish survival and the divine presence; second, a deep sense of the sanctity of life as God’s creation, a respect extending in various ways to life in all its manifestations and stages; and, finally, a profound horror of blood and bloodshed. These themes undergird the entire Jewish approach to abortion.
> Despite this fundamentally unified outlook, the Jews approached the subject of the fetus and its death in several different ways. Scholars generally hold that there were two major schools of Jewish thought about abortion, the Alexandrian and the majority Palestinian, as well as a minor school, the minority Palestinian. Within each school there were legal and ethical pronouncements. We will approach the material according to the three schools.
To summarize the Jewish Alexandrian perspective, they (as well as Palestinian Jews) saw a distinction between a partially and fully formed fetus (fully formed starting probably on the 40th day). In his reading of the Septuagint of Exodus 21:22-25 that reads “harm” as “form”, Philo points out that from a legal perspective, abortion was penalized in different ways depending on whether the fetus was partially or fully formed,
*If a man comes to blows with a pregnant woman and strikes her on the belly and she miscarries, then, if the result of the miscarriage is unshaped and undeveloped, he must be fined both for the outrage and for obstructing the artist Nature in her creative work of bringing into life the fairest of living creatures, man. But, if the offspring is already shaped and all the limbs have their proper qualities and places in the system, he must die, for that which answers to this description is a human being, which he has destroyed in the laboratory of Nature who judges that the hour has not yet come for bringing it out into the light, like a statue lying in a studio requiring nothing more than to be conveyed outside and released from confinement.* -Philo, *Special Laws* 3:108-109
Again from *Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World* by Michael Gorman,
> Philo’s comparison of the formed fetus to a sculpture in the studio is his parabolic way of expressing an impassioned moral conviction, one that goes beyond the evil of attacking pregnant women. He is also challenging the justification of abortion by legal, medical and philosophical authorities who, he declares, claim that “the child while still adhering to the womb below the belly is part of its future mother.” His overriding concern is not with the father (is he the attacker?), as in Roman law, but with the child. He sees the problem fundamentally as a moral issue related not only to Exodus 21 but, more important, to the commandment against murder. This connection between abortion and murder was also made by early Christian writers, who further developed the idea.
> While the translators of the Septuagint and the philosopher Philo distinguished the nonhuman from the human fetus (recommending appropriate penalties for the death of each), this legal concern should not be seen as the primary aim of these writers or of Alexandrian Judaism generally. Rather, their fundamental concern is the serious immorality of killing *any* unborn, especially when the killing is deliberately executed. This emphasis is strikingly reflected in two Alexandrian writings which have no legal concerns at all. The first, known as the *Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides*, is a collection of ethical maxims about conduct in daily life. It was written probably between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50 in the tradition of ancient wisdom literature. In the section on sexuality, marriage and the family, the author writes:
>>A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and the vultures as a prey.
> In this ethical context the author does not make fine legal distinctions, even if he holds them. Instead, his concern is ethical and practical; he wishes to prevent the pagan practices of abortion and exposure from infiltrating the Jewish community. Besides his obvious concern for the child, the writer is–like all Jews and like the Stoics who influenced him–extremely favorable to pro-creation.
> A similar blanket condemnation of abortion is found in a contemporary work of a different sort, the *Sibylline Oracles*. The *Oracles* are an example of first- and second-century B.C. apocalyptic literature. The section of book 2 on the punishment of the wicked includes women who abort or expose their children:
>> Having burdens in the womb [they]
>> Produce abortions; and their offspring cast
>> Unlawfully away…
> These women will suffer the wrath of God along with sorcerers (who dispense, among other things, abortifacients). Also included in his wrath are adulterers, thieves, the impure, and oppressors of the poor and of widows. Again, the writer has no interest in legal fine points but is concerned only with the fundamental immorality of abortion.
> In summary, the Alexandrian Jewish position viewed abortion as immoral and punishable. In ethical contexts it stressed the immorality of abortion without concerning itself with legal and technical questions about the fetus, while in more legal contexts it discussed the nature of the act and its appropriate penalty. However, even in legal contexts the Alexandrian school, as represented by Philo, was more concerned with the immorality of deliberate abortion than with legal penalties.