Since the Roe v. Wade leak took the internet by storm, there have been countless Americans (some of which have a Christian background) puzzled over what to believe. With the Bible being used by both pro-life and pro-choice advocates, I thought it might be beneficial to reach out to respected Bible scholars, this being the second post in this series (see here for the first). Dr. Tremper is a respected and well-known Old Testament scholar with commentaries on many Old Testament books including Job, the Psalms, Song of Songs, and Proverbs. Dr. Longman has just come out with Revelation through Old Testament Eyes which I highly recommend.
My questions are in bold.
Not long ago you wrote a book titled The Bible & the Ballot: Using Scripture in Political Decisions. Can you speak into what initially led you to write this book?
One of my publishers, Eerdmans, asked me to write the book to come out in time for the 2022 elections. They asked me to write a book about the Bible and important public policy issues that Christians need to think about as they vote. As I say in the book, the Bible does not give us specific public policy, but rather principles to think through as we think about public policy issues like (1) nationalism, patriotism, and globalization; (2) religious liberty; (3) War; (4) criminal justice and capital punishment; (5) same-sex marriage; (6) the environment; (7) poverty; (8) racism; and (9) abortion.
As I got into the project, I realized that the Bible actually does more than give us principles to think through, but also guides our attitudes toward others with whom we disagree, and also should shape our rhetoric as we talk about these controversial issues.
I also realized that it was very important to talk about proper interpretation of the Bible. It is not as easy as picking up the Bible and prooftexting our ideas or reading about ancient Israel and applying what is said about how they were to behave onto modern America. So I spend the first part of the book talking about how to read the Bible to derive principles for our consideration.
Many pro-life advocates make a case (at least in part) by appealing to Scripture, Psalm 139 being a popular pro-life text. In your view, does the Bible clearly speak into this issue? Do you find that Psalm 139 teaches a pro-life stance?
Psalm 139 certainly expresses God’s great care and concern for our lives that includes even life in the womb. However, Psalm 139 is often misleadingly used to argue that life in the womb from the beginning of conception has the same moral status as a child outside the womb. For one thing, Hebrew poetry is rife with hyperbole and here is a good example (as is Ps. 51:5 where the psalmist says he has been “sinful from the time my mother conceived me”). In other words, Psalm 139 is not well-used as a prooftext for the idea that, say, an early-term abortion is the moral equivalent to the murder of a two-year old child.
Numbers 5:11-28 has begun to make the rounds on social media, some arguing that here Yahweh winks at abortion, and even performed them in the Old Testament. As someone who is immersed in the world of the Bible, can you unpack this text for the average layperson? Is this text “pro-choice?”
A woman suspected of adultery could be taken by her husband to the tabernacle where the priest will give her a drink that if she is guilty will cause her womb to miscarry and her abdomen to swell” (a correct interpretation of the Hebrew euphemism “your thigh shrivel and your belly swell”). So yes if the woman had conceived it would end the pregnancy. But this text does not give support to a pro-choice perspective because it is by divine choice and action not human choice and action.
In your mind, can the Bible be used to make a case for being pro-choice?
The Bible never explicitly speaks about abortion though abortion took place at the time and in the culture, both in Israel and in the surrounding ancient Near East. This absence is surprising and can’t be explained as some try to do by saying it was so obviously wrong that the Bible does not address it. There are lots of other things (necromancy for instance) that are also obviously wrong that are explicitly prohibited in Scripture. The Bible also, in spite of attempts to use what are almost certainly hyperbolic texts like Psalm 139 (see above) never explicitly addresses the question of the beginning of life. Of course, the Bible speaks of human beings as created in the image of God, but the image is a status given by God, not an inherent attribute of human beings, and there is no reason to dogmatically assert or deny that that status is given at conception or at birth.
The text that is most relevant for the question is Exodus 21:22-25, but unfortunately as regards the issue of abortion, the Hebrew is not clear, or at least modern readers struggle to know the exact significance. The law describes two people who are fighting and accidentally hit a pregnant woman with the result that the “child comes out.” Contrary to interpretive translations, it does not say whether the child comes out dead (miscarriage, NRSV) or alive (born prematurely, NIV). If the child comes out, but there is no further harm, then there is a fine. In the NRSV interpretation, that means no further harm to the woman, which practically means that the penalty for causing an accidental miscarriage is a fine, and thus the situation is not treated as equivalent to manslaughter or murder.
Again, we cannot be dogmatic about the Hebrew. But what I think is interesting is how the Septuagint (the oldest Greek translation of the OT predating Jesus) translates and thus understand the passage.
If two men fight and they strike a woman who is pregnant, and her child comes out but while not yet fully formed, he will be forced to pay a fine, whatever the woman’s husband imposes, he will pay with a valuation. But if it is fully formed, he will give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
The Septuagint thus understands that a fetus is a growing potential of life and does not have the full status of a human being from the time of conception. If the fetus is the growing potential of life, then that means while an abortion is a moral violation at every stage that that violation increases the further along the pregnancy.
The significance of the Septuagint is not that it clearly and definitively gives us the original meaning of the Hebrew, but it does show what Jews during the time of Jesus were thinking (indeed, Philo and Josephus held similar views). The Septuagint was the Bible of the early church after all.
The idea that the child in the womb is the growing potential of life is also behind what most, though not all, people today think about the fetus. If abortion at any stage of a pregnancy is the moral equivalent of murder, then why don’t we typically have funerals at the time of a miscarriage? Why don’t people who think abortion is murder at any stage agree that a mother who gets an abortion should be prosecuted (I know that there are a few who think they should, but most don’t). And these types of questions could be multiplied.
Thus, I do not think a pro-choice ethic can be drawn from the Bible (for those interested for an attempt that I think ultimately fails, see Margaret D. Kamitsuka, Abortion and the Christian Tradition: A Pro-Choice Theological Ethic). Nor do I think a case can be made that abortion from the time of conception is out-and-out murder, the moral equivalent of murdering a two-year old child. The Bible supports the idea that the fetus is the growing potential of life, which of course means that an abortion at any time is a type of moral violation.
Given just how divisive this issue is not only in society but in Christian circles as well, do you think it’s possible for pro-life Christians and Christians of a different position to overcome their differences, or has the gap simply grown too wide?
It’s unfortunately that abortion has become a central plank of the culture wars and it is unfortunate that there is a culture war at least the type that some Christian wage because it is counter-productive.
As many people have pointed out, abortion was not a central issue among evangelicals even right after Roe v. Wade until political operatives made it so in order to whip up their partisan base (and unfortunately to distract from the issue of racial segregation as practiced by some in the church at the time).
As a matter of legislation and coercion, it is counterproductive because people who want an abortion will find a way to get an abortion. It looks like Roe v. Wade may be overturned, but of course approximately half the states will pass laws legalizing abortion, which means women of means will be able to get an abortion where the poor may not and will either bring their unwanted children into the world or will self-abort, which has tremendous social and health consequences. I’ve read some pro-life literature that expresses indifference whether women who self-abort will die or that children who are brought into the world are abused and become criminals. This is inexcusable. If you believe that there should be no abortion whatsoever, then you are responsible to make sure that women are able to care for those children.
I personally wish that pro-lifers had spent a lot of energy pushing legislators to pass laws that would help women economically and psychologically to bring their children into the world. With some notable exceptions pro-lifers are more interested in discussing whether women who get an abortion should be prosecuted as murderers.
I guess I have wandered here. But a more direct answer to your question is that as long as people think that abortion is the moral equivalent of murder there will be no compromise with those of us who believe that abortion is a moral violation but not equivalent to murder. I hope I am wrong.
Finally, I think that the issue of abortion ought to be handled pastorally and not legislatively. That was the attitude of the early church before Constantine poisoned the Christian witness by allowing it political power to coerce.
For believers who want to know what the Bible teaches about integrating one’s faith in society and the realm of politics, what pointers can you give?
Well, I will start by saying that I have written a whole book on this subject: The Bible and the Ballot: Using Scripture in Political Decisions (Eerdmans, 2020). Of course I can’t summarize the whole book, but I will say that the Bible does not give us specific public policy, but does give us principles to think through as we reflect on the questions facing us today. Also the Bible should shape our attitudes and temper our speech as we talk about controversial issues. One chapter is devoted to abortion.
Thank you for your time!