Some stories in the Bible were meant to be history, others fiction. But modernity has obscured the original distinction between the two kinds of biblical writing, depriving readers of the depth of the text.
One way to understand the difference between history and fiction in the Bible is through the Old Testament’s natural division into three parts:
- The world and its nature (Adam to Terah).
- The Israelites and their purpose (Abraham to Moses).
- The Kingdom of Israel and life in Jerusalem (roughly from King David onward).
Even a cursory look reveals a clear and significant pattern.
In the first section, characters live many hundreds of years, and in the second, well into their second century. Only in the third section do biblical figures tend to live biologically reasonable lives.
For example, Adam, in the first section, lives to the symbolic age of 930, and Noah lives even twenty years longer than that. Abraham, from the second section, lives to be 175, his son Issac to 180, and Jacob “dies young” at the age of 147. But the lifespans from King David onward, in the third section, are in line with generally accepted human biology.
Furthermore, historians mostly agree that only the third section represents actual history.
The reasonable ages in the third section of the Bible, and, in particular, the wildly exaggerated ages in the first, suggest that the authors of the Old Testament intended only the third part as history. Underscoring this crucial difference, some of the lifespans in the first two sections are so absurd as to defy literal interpretation. These hugely advanced ages are central clues about the point of the stories. Continue reading
Many people point to Luke 1:41 (“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.”) as evidence that, in the view of the Bible, a fetus is a child. But these people have misinterpreted the verse.
On one hand, the reasoning behind the flawed claim is straightforward: If it was a “child” that leaped while still in Elizabeth’s womb, whatever is in a womb must be a child. So a fetus is a child. And, in turn, abortion must be the same a killing a child. But though straightforward, this reasoning is misguided.
Language commonly disassociates a word from the time at which it applies. For instance, in Genesis 25:23, God tells Rebekah that “two nations are in your womb.” Surely this doesn’t mean that a fetus is a nation (and that, therefore, a single abortion is identical to genocide). Rather, the “two nations” are “two future nations.”
Similarly — as I explain in my Huffington Post piece, “What Does the Bible Really Say About Abortion?” — this is why in English a drawing of George Washington at age two might be captioned “The Founding Father as a Child” even though he wasn’t yet the founding father. And it’s the reason a mother might say that her motivation to get married and have children was that she pictured her life with her children and liked what she saw. “Her children” here — like “the founding father” and the “two nations” — represent the future. This is also why we might talk about “Mark Twain as a young child,” even though he wasn’t Mark Twain yet, not having yet assumed that pen name.
It might perhaps be clearer in all of these cases to specify the time. So, “the future Mark Twain as a young child,” a woman’s “future children,” or “the future founding father,” but language doesn’t require it. In just the same say, the Bible doesn’t need to specify “two future nations are in your womb” or “Elizabeth’s future child leaped in her womb.”
People are generally able to recognize this linguistic pattern, but when it comes to abortion and the status of a fetus, people are sometimes driven to read more into the text than was originally there.
So while Luke 1:41 is consistent with a fetus being a child, it is equally consistent with a fetus not being a child. Luke 1:41 does not tell us anything about the status of a fetus, so it doesn’t tell us anything about abortion.
[You may also want to read part 1 of this series.]
Perhaps most relevant to the Bible’s view on abortion is Exodus 21:22, which is in fact relevant for two reasons.
According to the NRSV the text proclaims:
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.
That is, someone who causes a woman to miscarry has to pay a fine.
But we’re not sure “miscarriage” is the right translation here. The NIV thinks this is about a woman who “gives birth prematurely” as a result of being hit.
This is a huge difference. Either the text is about causing an early birth or about causing a woman to lose her fetus.
The text literally refers to the fetus “leaving” the woman, without specifying the condition of the fetus, which is why it’s hard to know just from looking at the words which translation is right. (And the word for “fetus” is yeled, a fact I address below.)
If the NIV is right, then this passage doesn’t speak to abortions at all. But if, as seems likely, the NRSV is right, then Exodus 21:22 addresses what happens when someone causes a woman to miscarry, that is, causes an abortion. And the answer is that the person pays monetary damages.
Because the Bible specifically forbids monetary damages in the case of murder (in Numbers), we learn from this that, in the eyes of the Bible, a fetus is not a person.
In fact, this is a passage about fairness and lex talionis. In general, the biblical principle of justice is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth.” But what happens if a man causes a woman to lose her fetus? The principle would dictate that he should lose his fetus, but he obviously hasn’t got one. This text, it seems, explains what to do instead. And the answer is that he has to pay monetary damages.
There’s another confusing aspect of the text, and that’s the clause “and yet no further harm follows.” Exodus 21:23-25 considers what happens if, by contrast, there is damage:
If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
Some people think that the “damage” refers to the fetus, and, in particular, that the “life for life” clause indicates that the fetus is a life. But this doesn’t seem likely, because of the follow-up. In particular, “tooth for tooth” doesn’t seem to be a provision that could reasonably be applied to a prematurely born child. Infants don’t have teeth.
More likely, this is about further damage that occurs to the woman. That is, just to be clear, the text says, the monetary damage is only for the fetus, not for any other damage that the woman may incur.
This text is relevant for a second reason: Some people suggest that the phrasing of the text tells us about the status of a fetus. In particular, the text refers to a woman’s yeled that leaves her. And yeled means “child” (generally as opposed to adult, like the English “youngster”).
If — some people claim — the fetus is already a yeled, then a fetus must be a human.
But this reasoning is flawed. To see how, we can look at similar passages, such as Genesis 25:22, in which the newly pregnant Rebecca worries because her twin children struggled within her. God tells her that, “Two nations are in your womb.” Surely this doesn’t mean that a fetus is a nation.
Rather, we commonly disconnect a word from the time at which it applies. The “nations” in Rebecca’s womb are “future nations,” just as a fetus is a “future child.” Similarly, in English, we might speak of a parent who loved his daughter even before she was conceived, but that doesn’t mean that a plan to have a child is a daughter.
So we see two things in Exodus 21:
- The text does not tell us that a fetus is a child, in spite of the Hebrew word yeled.
- The text tells us that causing a miscarriage is different than killing (if the passage is about miscarriages) or it tells us nothing about causing a miscarriage.
So people who cite Exodus 21 as prohibiting abortions have misunderstood the text.
Equally, people who cite Exodus 21 as permitting abortions have misunderstood the text, because Exodus 21 is about what happens by accident, not about what people do on purpose or what a woman does to or for herself.
At most, then, we learn from Exodus 21 that a fetus is not the same a human.
I’ve received a lot of feedback on my recent piece, “What Does the Bible Really Say about Abortion,” in which I make the claim that even though the Bible shouts the importance of knowing when life beings, it doesn’t offer much specific guidance, and, in particular, doesn’t tell us if a fetus is a human.
You can read the article here, and listen to a discussion on the same themes here:
(The full episode from which that clip is taken is here.)
I didn’t have room in the article for the kind of depth that many people want, so my next posts here go into more detail about some of the passages that commonly come up in the context of abortion and the Bible:
- Exodus 21:22 — potentially about causing a woman to miscarry: “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage…”
- Luke 1:41 — potentially about the status of a fetus: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.”
- Numbers 12:12 — potentially about the status of a fetus: “Do not let her be like one stillborn,…”
- Psalm 139:13 — potentially about the status of a fetus: “…you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
- Exodus 23:26 — potentially about miscarriages: “No one shall miscarry or be barren in your land.”
- The Ten Commandments — potentially about abortion: “You shall not murder.”
- Leviticus 19:28 and Deuteronomy 14:1 — potentially about abortion: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you” and “You must not lacerate yourselves.”
- 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 — potentially about abortion: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple … and that you are not your own.”
Rick Warren tweeted:
To see consumerism on steroids, come here to Tokyo. “Life is not measured by how much one owns.” Luke 12:15
But neither Luke nor Jesus said that. Rick Warren did. (To be fair, so did the New Century Version translation.) The original Greek reads, “life is not estin…,” and estin just means “is.” So the phrase means, “life isn’t how much one owns.” (The meaning of the verb is not generally a disputed point.)
The translators of the NCV, though, decided to interpret Luke by adding the word “measured.” Maybe they’re right, maybe not, but either way, it seems to me that the quotation marks have to go.
I suppose there’s a theoretical sense in which quotation marks never belong around a translation (unless it’s the translation that’s being quoted). What was said in Greek can’t literally be directly quoted in English. But as a matter of practicality, most people know the difference between what someone said and what someone implied. And only the former gets quotation marks.
“Wherefore art thou Romeo?” It’s a quotation. The subtext is, “why aren’t you someone I can marry? Why are you Romeo?” But to put quotations around my interpretation is simply to misquote and mislead. Even if I’m right, I’m wrong if I claim: Shakespeare wrote, “Why can’t I marry you?”
Similarly, even if Jesus meant that “life isn’t measured…” to put quotation marks around what he meant is to misquote and mislead.
I think we see the same sort of thing in Bill Mounce’s claim today that “the nuance of autos is […] they alone” in the beatitudes in Matthew. (His post appears here, too.) Dr. Mounce’s point is that, for example, in saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs [autin] is the kingdom of heaven”:
Jesus is not saying that the poor in spirit, among others, are blessed. He is saying that they and they alone will inherit the kingdom.
Probably. But when Dr. Mounce adds:
[T]he fact of the matter is that this is what the Greek text says. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs, and theirs alone, is the kingdom of God.”
he is confusing what the text means and what the speaker (may have) implied. The Greek is no more or less ambiguous than the English, “…theirs is the kingdom of God” (though I might quibble about the English grammar.) And by putting quotation marks around his (probably correct) interpretation, it seems to me that Dr. Mounce is misquoting and misleading.
There’s an important place for interpretation. But I think part of its value lies in being distinguished from translation.
So, please — Pastor Warren, Dr. Mounce, and so many others — take those quotation marks off of your interpretations.