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Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World [Paperback]

Michael J. Gorman
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5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing/Relevant Parallels with Current Debate July 14 2004
Format:Paperback
This is well-researched and written examination of the early Christian church's position on abortion, contraception and taking of life.
His looking into this reveals that they were passionately against abortion and even had pagan and Jewish voices joining with them in this.
Citing early fathers the likes of Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Chrysostom, Hippolytus and others who wrote and spoke articulately against abortion on grounds of the murder of innocent life, the sanctity of the marriage bed and the immorality and sin of this spreading taking of life.
I was frustrated with only one small part of this otherwise well done work, his final linking of abortion with nuclear arms and capital punishment. His writing as though the early church fathers were of this same mind is a matter that I honestly am not knowledgeable on, but will investigate. Suggest other readers understand a common theological problem with quoting the early church fathers, that of they wrote so much that most all sides of an issue find support in them. It is confusing.
Excellent gem of work that shows abortion is not a modern problem nor is the church's countercultural witness against it either. Valuable resource to the church.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Resource, but Loses it in the Final Chapter Sept. 25 2004
By C. Price - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Though weighing in at a mere 101 pages of text, Abortion & the Early Church is an excellent overview on early Christianity's attitudes on that subject. Gorman examines the Pagan, Jewish, and Christian attitudes on abortion, spending more chapters breaking down Christian attitudes into the first three centuries and the fourth and fifth centuries. He then wraps up with two final paragraphs. One that rounds off the discussion of where Christian attitudes about abortion came from. Gorman concludes that Christian attitudes were heavily influenced by its Jewish history, but given Jesus' teachings on love and peace turned out to be more adamantly anti-abortion than the Jews. I suspect there is merit to this argument, but also think that much of Christianity's strong anti-abortion stance was due to its direct encounter with the pagan world. Even Jews in the diaspora tended to have their own communities and live amongst themselves. But many Christians were not only converted pagans, they were intent on spreading their own religion even deeper into Roman society. Such clashes tend to sharpen differences.

Up until this point, I benefitted from every part of the book -- even if I was not convinced on every point. Gorman does a good job of providing primary sources about pagan, Christian, and Jewish attitudes on abortion. He also does a good job of explaining those sources and spends much good analysis not only on what the attitudes on abortion were, but what the core of the issue really was. For example, was abortion criticized because it was an impediment to procreation, a means of covering up sexual immorality, a threat to the woman's life as well, or as the killing of a human life? (for Christians it seems all of these were mentioned, but the driving concern was the humanity of the fetus). Nevertheless, Gorman lost a star because his final chapter swerves into very 80s territory as he launches an assault on those pro-life Christians who are pro-strong national defense, pro-capital punishment, and not strong enough on the issue of gun control. Up to this point, his discussion was unemotional, logical, even systematic. Not so here. He comes across as a man struggling to reconcile his personal liberal political beliefs with his strong pro-life beliefs. His solution it to blast both sides. Beyond its obvious tangential nature, this diabtribe is out of place because it -- unlike his excellent discussion of early Christian views on abortion -- is built not on Christian history but on his own emotional biases.

Nevertheless, on the issue of abortion, this is one of the best values out there for understanding what the Church has believed on this subject -- it was immoral. And perhaps more importantly, why it believed what it did -- it was the taking of an innocent human life.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing/Relevant Parallels with Current Debate July 14 2004
By rodboomboom - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is well-researched and written examination of the early Christian church's position on abortion, contraception and taking of life.
His looking into this reveals that they were passionately against abortion and even had pagan and Jewish voices joining with them in this.
Citing early fathers the likes of Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Chrysostom, Hippolytus and others who wrote and spoke articulately against abortion on grounds of the murder of innocent life, the sanctity of the marriage bed and the immorality and sin of this spreading taking of life.
I was frustrated with only one small part of this otherwise well done work, his final linking of abortion with nuclear arms and capital punishment. His writing as though the early church fathers were of this same mind is a matter that I honestly am not knowledgeable on, but will investigate. Suggest other readers understand a common theological problem with quoting the early church fathers, that of they wrote so much that most all sides of an issue find support in them. It is confusing.
Excellent gem of work that shows abortion is not a modern problem nor is the church's countercultural witness against it either. Valuable resource to the church.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Illumining Picture of Historic Christian Position Nov. 20 2000
By George - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Dr. Michael Gorman handles the question of the historic positions on abortion of major Greek philosophers (including Plato and Aristotle), Roman, Jewish, and early Christians in a very well documented text. The early Christian position stands in contrast to the others in it's overwhelming support of life at all stages. Toward the end of the book the author addresses the issue of a consistent ethic of life which elicits support for life in the context of human conflict, as well as for the unborn. Overall the book supports it's goal of presenting the issue of abortion in relation to the early church, providing many references, and a challenge for the future in addressing the issue of being pro-life in a consistent and comprehensive manner.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Abortion & Early Church March 31 2009
By Gerard Reed - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Though the Bible says little about abortion per se, the Early Church adamantly opposed it. This is made clear in Michael J. Gorman's work, Abortion & the Early Church: Christian, Jewish, & Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 1982).
The world into which Christianity came easily tolerated abortion. A society which allowed infanticide could not be overly exercised by abortions! The satirist Juvenal noted that Rome's wealthy women rarely got pregnant because money allowed them to purchase abortions. Some women apparently wanted to maintain their trim appearance and sought to avoid the swollen stomach and limited activities pregnancy involves.
The Hippocratic Oath, of course, called physicians to "not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion," and some of the great "natural law" thinkers, such as Cicero, opposed it. Nero's tutor, the Stoic philosopher Seneca "lauded his own mother for not participating in unchastity, 'the greatest evil of our time,' and for never having 'crushed the hope of children that were being nurtured in [her] body'" (p. 28). Alone among ancient peoples, however, the Jews strongly condemned abortion. Though the Hebrew Bible does not clearly address it, by-and-large the Jews did not practice abortion. The only item at issue which divided the rabbis concerned the penalty necessary when "accidental or therapeutic abortion" occurred.
Early Christians sided with the pro-life Stoics and Jews. The New Testament does not specifically mention abortion, but second century documents, the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas directly denounce it. It is considered a form of murder, forbidden by the Law. The words of Athenagoras are typical: "What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God? For the same person would not regard the fetus in the womb as a living thing and therefore an object of God's care [and then kill it]" (p. 54). Early councils, the most influential of the Church Fathers (Tertullian, Origin, Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Jerome) all adamantly condemned it. As penance, Church members who aborted a child were often barred from Communion for ten years. It was clearly considered one of the gravest of all sins.
Though Gorman's work focuses on a world long gone, it reveals an issue which is quite contemporary! As paganism resurfaces, abortion becomes more acceptable. And if the Church today is to follow the example of the Church of antiquity, the church of the martyrs and saints, its position on abortion will likely be one of the indicators of its fidelity and integrity.
4.0 out of 5 stars A History of Life and Death Feb. 10 2012
By Bradley P. Hayton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
It is only occasionally that a professor reads a student's paper and think that it is so profound, so timely, so scholarly, and so well written that it demands publication. The beginning of this book was such a paper. I am sure that when Bruce Metzger read his student's paper he knew that the readable style of Michael J. Gorman couples with his scholarly detail would make a great impact on a church and a culture struggling with the issue of abortion. Gorman makes the early church, as well as Judaism, come alive as he portrays their own response to a surrounding culture that treated human life with much disrespect.

Gorman surveys the history of abortion in the ancient world and finds many similarities in both their motives and methods to the modern world. They used abortion to conceal illicit sexual activity as well as a means of birth control. They used both poisons and mechanical means, of which Gorman graphically illustrates, in the attempt to abort. He quotes Plato and Aristotle, as well as many others, to demonstrate that in the ancient world the individual and family were viewed as existing solely for the state. The Greek city states had problems of overpopulation, while the Romans later had problems of underpopulation. Thus they changed their policy of abortion accordingly. Although Gorman does not draw the correlation, these policies sound very similar to the abortion policies of the U.S.S.R. and Red China, as well as similar to many of the Western world scientific elite who desire such control.

Even though "rich and poor, slave and free, young and old aborted themselves and were given abortions" (p. 27), various pagans in the fields of medicine, law, rhetoric, philosophy, and religion criticized some of the motives and methods of abortion. The Oath of Hippocrates included a definite promise not to perform an abortion. Inscriptions on several Greek temples indicated that abortion caused ritual, though not moral, uncleanliness. Among the Romans, Ovid, Favorinus, and especially the Stoics condemned abortion. Most believed that abortion was against the nature of sex, the logic of large families, and an offense against the gods, rather than an offense against the fetus who was considered human only after birth.

Gorman discusses two Jewish views of abortion, the Alexandrian and the Palestinian, and shows that although there are some differences, they strongly unite on the most important issues. Deliberate abortion was consistently condemned as disrespectful of life and as bloodshed. Their discussions were confined to only accidental and therapeutic abortions. They also confined their discussions about the personhood of the fetus to the legal aspects rather than the moral. The Alexandrian school, as well as some of the Palestinian school, agreed that the fetus had legal personhood. The primary division of opinion was over the severity of the penalty exacted for the accidental or therapeutic abortions.

Like the Jewish views, the early church was also consistently against deliberate abortion. Concern for the fetus distinguished the Christian position from pagan disapproval of abortion. Abortion was consistently viewed as murder. Abortion was a means of preventing or attacking human life, and thus wrong in the eyes of God. The early Christians, according to Gorman, were consistently pro-life and thus forbade Christian involvement in war, gladiator fights, and capital punishment, as well as abortion.

Gorman draws the conclusion that Christians today are inconsistent in their positions of pro-life or pro-choice. Pro-life groups who oppose abortion usually support a strong national defense, just war, and individual ownership of handguns. Pro-choice groups who say that women should have the choice over whether or not to abort also take many pro-life positions, such as working on behalf of the poor, and standing against nuclear arms build up, individual ownership of handguns, and capital punishment. Gorman pleads for contemporary Christians to be consistently pro-life, following the example of the early church.

Although Gorman had done a brilliant job discussing the early church's views on abortion in their historical context, his conclusions and applications can be criticized. "Pro-life" and "pro-choice" might not be the most accurate categories in which to place all the contemporary social issues. Those who support free market economics and a limited government that has a very limited involvement in welfare do so in the name of the poor. Those who support nuclear arms build up believe that it will prevent a war with the U.S.S.R., who have consistently broken every treaty regarding nuclear limitations and have an explicit policy of world domination. Those who support capital punishment do so in the name of justice, human creation in the imago Dei, and biblical commands. Thus, it seems that they are consistently pro-life and pro-freedom, whereas, as Gorman points out, the "pro-choice" groups are inconsistently supporting abortion.
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