Hellenistic Jews, Abortion, and Passover

This started as a Facebook argument between myself and some of my right-wing Christian and Catholic friends.  (For the record, I admire my friends and respect their faiths, even though they are different from my own.)  But the question arose: what is the Jewish position on abortion?  The truth is it's something I never researched heavily, so I did a little quick research and summarized it for my friends.  Nothing worth publishing, to be sure, but in the process I got to know my own faith even better, and I thanked my friends for prodding me into it.  (What does this have to do with the Jewish holiday of Passover?  Keep reading.)

Next step: now I have to explain why Jews around the time of Jesus seem to agree with Christian attitudes on abortion, and are completely at odds with Jewish attitudes both prior and subsequent.  The following evidence was offered:

Scott Klusendorf writes: 
» that the first Christians, including all but one of the New Testament authors, were Jewish Christians with an essentially Jewish morality. Hence, if there was a Jewish consensus on abortion at the time, the early Christians most certainly would have shared that consensus. 

» that early Judaism was, in fact, quite firmly opposed to abortion. As Michael Gorman points out in his excellent article "Why Is the New Testament Silent About Abortion?" (Christianity Today, Jan. 11, 1993), Jewish documents from the period condemn the practice unequivocally, demonstrating a clear anti-abortion consensus among first century Jews:

-- The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides (written between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50) says, "A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures."

-- The Sibyline Oracles includes among the wicked those who "produce abortions and unlawfully cast their offspring away" as well as sorcerers who dispense abortifacients.

-- 1 Enoch (first or second century B.C.) says that an evil angel taught humans how to "smash the embryo in the womb."

-- Philo of Alexandria (Jewish philosopher, 25 B.C. to A.D.41) rejected the notion that the fetus is merely part of the mother's body.

-- Josephus (first-century Jewish historian) wrote, "The law orders all the offspring be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus." A woman who did so was considered to have committed infanticide because she destroyed a "soul" and hence diminished the race.

My goodness, so much reading!  So many new names and historical works that I had never even heard of.  (And why hadn't I heard of these things?  Why are these works not more widely read in the modern Jewish community?)  So many delicious morsels, let's dive in.  Chronological order, please.

First up: Pseudo-Phocylides.  This writer claimed to be the famous philospher Phocylides from the 6th century BCE, but was actually much later, probably in the first century BCE or CE.  It's a collection of maxims, similar to the Book of Proverbs found in the Hebrew Bible.  But unlike Proverbs, PP's "Sentences" are not considered Jewish cannon, and reading them it's pretty easy to see why: they're not very Jewish.  Much of it is based on the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, but there are some "rules" that pretty clearly contradict the Bible, such as the prohibition against circumcision.  That's the symbol of the Covenant with Abraham, and every Jewish boy's "first good deed."  There are other deviations--lots of them--but that's the one that jumped out at me.  It seems more like a work that was inspired by the Bible, with a heavy dose of Greco-Roman belief thrown in.  If PP was actually Jewish, then he was pretty heavily Hellenized.  Not an authority I'm going to rely on for wisdom regarding abortion, or anything else for that matter.

Along the same lines is the Book of Enoch, which also borrows heavily from the Jewish tradition.  There's the One True God, Abraham and the other Patriarchs, the Messiah and an Isaiah-style apocalypse.  Noah and the flood feature prominently.  But what's this?  Fallen angels?  Let me explain the problem with that.

There are no fallen angels, to put it simply.  Rabbinical tradition is pretty clear on this point: angels are, by definition, perfect creatures.  That means they have no free will, and according to later commentaries has been a source of jealousy among the angels; they are jealous of humans' free will.  When an angel is good, it's no big deal because they are hard-wired that way.  When a human is good, it is praiseworthy because a human had to get there under his own steam.  That's why the good deeds of humans matter so much in the eyes of God.

The Book of Enoch, on the other hand, trips on gailey with a whole cast of fallen angels that take part (or even lead) the final battle between good & evil.  You can see where Christianity got a lot of her ideas about things like Satan, but none of it is Jewish.

So when the Book of Enoch says that an evil angel gave abortion to humanity, I ignore it.

Next up are the Sibylline Oracles.  They are written in the same vein as Pseudo-Phycylides and the Book of Enoch: a collection of truisims of uncertain origin.  What sets them apart is that they were written by different people; only Books 3-5 are thought to be Jewish.  The condemnation of abortion comes from Book 2, right after a page on the glory of Christ.  Moving on.

Philo was a philosopher who lived in Alexandria between 20 BCE and 50 CE.  He considered himself a Jew, but in his writings he attempted to fuse Jewish faith with Greek philosophy, particularly Plato, Aristotle, and Stoicism.  Like Pseudo-Phycylides, Philo probably didn't speak or read Hebrew, and instead relied on the Septuagint for his knowledge of scripture.  Just like the Book of Enoch, Philo's writings were ignored by the Jewish community because, quite frankly, they are not Jewish.  Inspired by, maybe; based on, perhaps.  But not Jewish.

But what makes Philo special is he is the first identifiable person who is attempting to mix Jewish theology with the larger, dominant culture - in this case Greek & Roman.  This was a strong trend in ancient Israel, and was opposed by a group of people who turned into the Orthodox Jews.  When the Temple was burned, the Orthodox Jews continued to shun Greek & Roman ideology and created their own new tradition, the Talmud, which was rooted firmly in the Jewish scriptures.  Thus, we see the beginning of two divergent paths in Judaism: one which embraces outside ideas, and one which stays true to its own heritage.  This is going to be important.

The tension grew until it boiled over in the revolt of 66 CE.  In response, the Romans burned the temple, sacked Jerusalem, and quite literally wiped Israel off the map: they renamed the territory Palestine.  Sound familiar?  Millenia later, those echoes still reverberate.  This Jewish "diaspora" lasted until 1948.  Maybe Philo was right; maybe assimilation would have been a better strategy.  But of all the peoples that the Romans conquered, the Jews are the only ones still alive.  Assimilation made us soft; exile hardened us.

But not every Jew drew the same conclusions.  Flavius Josephus was a member of the Jewish upper class, a priest and a minor noble.  He was a military officer in the rebellion against Rome, and was captured by the Romans and later pardoned.  In the time he spent in captivity, he kissed up to his Roman conquerors (while his troops rotted in the ground), and eventually became governor of the Gallilee.  He wrote several important works in defense of Judaism and even the revolt against Rome.  At the same time, this man was at best an apologist and at worse a collaborator, who betrayed his own men and later served the very people who had destroyed his country.  Perhaps that's too harsh; Israel was gone, but the Jews were not, and Josephus labored to defend the rights of Jews in a world that had suddenly grown very hostile.

The Hellenistic Jews have a lot in common with the Mormons.  Both consider themselves members of parent faiths, but have introduced so many new ideas (based on the new culture in which they find themselves) that many people would call them a completely new religion.  (That is, in fact, what the Romans did with the first Christians.)  But that's just the point; I would no more rely on the Book of Enoch than a Catholic would rely on the Book of Mormon.

Who else lived in this world?  The first rabbis.  As Hellenizing influences began to seep in, they realized that Judaism would have to change in order to survive.  So instead of being run top-down by priests, Judaism became a decentralized religion that relied on discourse and writings - not from prophets, claiming to represent God, but writings by men, seeking to explain what came before.  In particular, they turned to God's greatest miracle of salvation, the Exodus of the Jews from bondage and slavery, into the Promised Land.  It was a reminder of the time when God loved us and saved us from our enemies.  So the rabbis created a ritual that could be performed at home, with friends or family, rather than in the Temple.  They called it a Seder, which means "order," and wrote it in the common tongue (Aramaic).  The seder was already ubiquitous by Jesus' time.

One of the main themes of the seder is the Four Children, a parable for the four types of people who lived in Ancient Israel: the righteous, the wicked, the simple, and the ones who didn't even realize that there was a problem.  The righteous child represents the Jews who, in spite of the dominant culture of assimilation, clung fast to the old beliefs.  The simple child represents the everyday folk who hadn't taken a side yet.  (Hundreds of thousands of these people were killed when the Romans sacked Jerusalem a few years later.)  The child who doesn't even know how to ask a question represents the peasants in the countryside, who didn't even know that a discussion was going on.  And the wicked child represents the Hellenistic Jews, the ones who thought it was a good idea to water down Judaism with a bunch of pagan philosophy.  Plato, Aristotle, and Stoicism aren't the solution, they're the problem.

(Ironically, the format of the seder is itself a Roman invention.  The practice of lying on couches while eating and engaging in philosophical discource was a popular Roman practice.)

So what happened to the Hellenistic Jews?  They mostly became Christians.  There are a lot of Hellenistic ideas in Christianity, such as the opposition to abortion, the notion of a god-man, the devil, even the idea of Heaven and Hell.  Christians continue to read Pseudo-Phocylides, Philo, and Josephus, and the Book of Enoch has even been cannonized in some Christian traditions.  And entirely ignored by the Jews.

So, what about the original debate, having to do with abortion?  Well, I learned a lot, not only about my own religion, but how competing ideologies in the last days of Ancient Israel were successfully merged by an idealistic few, and then adopted by a new religion: Christianity.  Is it such a bad thing for the strict tenets of Judaism to be made more palatable to the Gentile masses?  Perhaps not.  Philo and Josephus wanted to be leaders of their faiths; they wanted to take Judaism in a new direction, and arguably they did - just not the way they thought.  Would they have been happy with the result?  Arguably it doesn't matter; Christianity is its own thing now.  But this is a reminder that the earliest Christians were in fact Jews who grappled with new ideas and new situations, and through millenia of struggle, turned it into the dominant world religion.  I may not agree with the result, but I respect it.