A very hot topic—abortion as a religious value—was brought into focus today on a short Fox Entertainment interview of two people: (1) a pastor [Shane Idleman] and (2) the president of Union Theological Seminary [Serene Jones]. The latter agreed with Madonna that Jesus would be happy with women practicing abortion today, the former that Jesus would not. There is more in the video than I will mention, so you can watch for yourself if you like.
I will say up front that I intend no personal negative comment about the host or either guest. I appreciate that they would appear for interchange at all. My attention will focus on how biblical texts were used for either point of view expressed.
Because the US is awash in so much heated screaming matches about the topic one way or another, the question I want to think about is this: Is it possible to read biblical texts without simply caving to one side or another of current debates?
We all have feelings about this and similar topics and for all kinds of reasons. And debates about this will likely never end.
For my part, I want to bring up a couple of procedural matters:
First, Jones (UTS Prez) notes that
“the Bible says nothing about abortion,”
and then immediately says Numbers 5 is
"an account of how a priest is to assist in the abortion of a woman seeking an abortion."
This is spectacularly wrong since the context of Numbers 5 is not about a woman seeking anything; it is rather her jealous and suspicious husband who has brought her up on charges of being unfaithful. Furthermore, nothing is said that is clearly about pregnancy in this text, only about unfaithfulness. So the priest, here, is determining if she is lying or not. The test he gives is bizarre, and quite unclear. No one knows what it means. Allow me to explain.
As is very often the case, it is the obscure things about a given biblical text that give people a feeling of liberty to make it mean what they want. The biblical texts in question are Num 5:21-22, 27-28. Here is yet another example where a translation can make a huge amount of difference: the reason is, a particular phrase in this text is unclear and translators don’t know what it means.
For example, note how the KJV/ASV and NIV translate these:
21 Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot [fall away ASV], and thy belly to swell; 22 And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot [fall away ASV]: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen.
27 And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot [fall away ASV]: and the woman shall be a curse among her people. 28 And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.
21 here the priest is to put the woman under this curse -- "may the LORD cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. 22 May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries." "'Then the woman is to say, "Amen. So be it."
In this case,
- the KJV/ASV are fairly literal in translation "thigh fall away"—obscure, but literal.
- The NIV has offered a guess about what it means: miscarry.
- The NRS and CEB have joined in by choosing “the womb will discharge.”
- But the TEV goes a different route: “the genitals will shrink” meaning she won’t be able to have children.
- Most make it something like “the thigh falling away” (which is just as obscure as the original text or KJV/RSV).
Commentators often say Num 5:21-22, 27-28 refers to miscarriage, but they have no proof of this other than referring to each other or what seems to make sense to them. For example, Baruch Levine in the Anchor Bible Commentary, starts on this verse by saying we don’t know what it means; but he then moves to what to him is logical:
It is not certain what the combined effects of a swollen belly and sagging thighs mean, in medical terms. It is logical to interpret them as indicating a miscarriage, as may be concluded from the contrast between the stated outcome when the woman is guilty and the outcome when she is innocent, as expressed in v 28, below. If innocent, the woman would “retain her seed,” and her pregnancy would continue. The reverse of that outcome would be the termination of pregnancy by what amounted to an induced miscarriage or abortion.
The problem with this? It's purely a guess based on personal opinion. For example, the Greek OT (LXX) does not appear to support that view. It says "thigh falling to pieces” in vv. 21, 22, 27, and this Greek word could just as easily mean “be useless” (as in won’t any longer be able to bear children). It is used in numerous texts as follows:
to fall away to rot, to fall to pieces Nm 5,21.22.27; Dt 2,14.15; Jer 18,4;
to fall apart, to crumble to pieces Jb 14,18;
to perish Dt 2,14;
to be lost 2 Mc 2,14;
to breakdown, to collapse (of people) Neh 8,10;
to be useless, to be in vain Jdt 6,9
[from the source, BDAG]
The point is, this Greek word cannot be used to prove abortion. It could just as logically be used to support another position. Vv. 21-22, 27 are quite obscure in context. But then, in v. 28, the LXX says literally "to conceive seed," which appears to be the opposite of what Levine says (above). So then, v. 28 in the LXX could easily mean "conceive children." So rather than abortion, this appears to mean that if she is proved by the priest's test to be not guilty, then she'll be able to conceive children; whereas if she is found guilty, she will no longer have that ability. But even with all of this, this text, in both Hebrew and Greek, is problematic and obscure, even if in some English translations it might seem very clear.
For my part, although I might respect the person, Jones' argument loses my interest and attention when it desperately grabs hold of a problematic text for debate purposes and, as a proof text, makes it mean only one thing; namely, what the argument needs it to mean for some political or religious agenda. Jones complains that Idleman resorts to proof-texting, but so does she. There is certainly more to what she said, and my point here is not an attempt to discredit her overall position; but for my part, this is all I wish to comment on for this article at this time.
As Jones . . . lost my attention and interest
as a credible Bible interpreter
on this topic, so did Idleman . . . .
Both showed me . . .they are . . . willing
to approach biblical texts
ideologically more than contextually.
Second, Idleman aggressively disagrees with Jones’ position (saying he’d have to relook at Numbers 5), but he is quite clear that all such issues (LGBTQ, abortion, etc.) can be boiled down to one thing: they are all
“directly related to the inerrancy of Scripture—does God’s word say what it means and mean what it says; the authority of God’s word?”
Once again, respecting Idleman as a person, the argument itself leaves me gasping for air as we get to see typical popular Christian apologetics in action: let's simply run and hide behind the big made-up doctrine: INERRANCY!—a word that never occurs anywhere in any biblical text. (I always find the irony of this so incredibly interesting: we tout what the Bible says and means, but we hide behind a word that it never uses.) (Note: if this is the first time you've heard me say this, then, no, I'm not trashing the Bible. Disagreeing with some approaches to the Bible is not trashing the Bible. I'll come back to this below.)
Why do so many Christians do this? Because this is what they have trained themselves to do. This is a huge mistake, and I for one don't want to engage in it. If we want to believe specific things about the Bible as a book, that’s fine (and those things can also be discussed and even debated). Because I’ve written several books relating to the nature of what we call our scriptures (which I happen to think are the most precious texts in the history of the world), I won’t jump into all of that here.
But I will say that that is not the question, here! So let's quit changing the subject. We either have something to say about Jesus on abortion or we don't.
Third, so why not just address the question: Would Jesus approve abortion today? (At least Jones attempted to directly address that.)
Here’s the answer: No Bible text mentions or directly addresses abortion, and there is no evidence that Jesus ever mentioned it. So, in fact, I don’t know what Jesus would say. You don’t know. And Madonna, who likes to express herself, doesn’t know—and, by the way, she is not my guide to reading the Bible any more than I am her guide. And the same for our Christian friends, Jones and Idleman. Nobody knows what Jesus would say today.
Can we speculate, guess, or make suggestions based on other things we know about Jesus from biblical texts? Sure we can! For example, we might say things like:
- We know what Matthew and Mark say Jesus told law-pounding Pharisees about allowing divorce.
- We know what John says Jesus told demanding and self-righteous Pharisees about a young woman caught in the very act of adultery; and another woman who had been married five times.
- We know how Luke tells of Jesus' parable about a young man returning home to a loving father and jealous brother; or how Luke says Jesus elevated women of all classes.
- We know the sixth commandment which is properly translated, "You shall not murder." Idleman focused here, and at least in this interview, used this as the trump card for deciding the debate. However, this is debatable on several fronts, including that, from the same book (Exodus), just one chapter later, the law about two men fighting and hitting a pregnant woman so that the child is born prematurely, that there will surely be a fine levied of some sort, depending on the damage done. Even here there are questions. And on this text, we will at least note, and show some interest in the fact, that the Greek version of Exodus (at least in the form we have it now, and which was read in the earliest churches—and even by Jesus), says this:
22Now if two men fight and strike a pregnant woman and her child comes forth not fully formed, he shall be punished with a fine. According as the husband of the woman might impose, he shall pay with judicial assessment. 23 But if it is fully formed, he shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exod. 21:22-24 NETS)
[This more specific Greek translation of the less specific Hebrew text in itself shows that Jews at the turn of the era were thinking about the question of "early child development," and much more can be gleaned from other early literature, including Christian literature (e.g., the Didache and others). But this goes beyond my scope here.]
On and on this might legitimately go. So, it is quite appropriate that we marshal our reasons, list our concerns, put forth our speculations, weigh the arguments, and make our decisions. That’s how discussion is supposed to work. We might end up with strong opinions about this. But in the end we simply must realize—and admit—that, quite frankly, we don't know for a fact what Jesus would say about abortion today.
So, just as Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, lost my attention and interest as a credible interpreter of biblical texts on this topic, so did Idleman, the pastor, podcaster, author. What they both showed me (at least in this short interview) is that they are both quite willing to approach biblical texts ideologically more than contextually. It is not so much that I am agreeing or disagreeing with either of their larger opinions about abortion; it is that they gave me no reasons to agree with how they handle biblical texts in the process. And frankly, that matters to me more than their opinions.
It is not so much that I am agreeing or disagreeing
with either of their larger opinions about abortion;
it is that they gave me no reasons to agree with
how they handle biblical texts in the process.
And frankly, that matters to me more
than their opinions.
Fourth and finally, on the subject of the nature of the Bible: As I mentioned above, because I’ve written several books relating to the nature of what we call our scriptures, I am wondering whether anybody reading this article would be interested (say, sometime mid to late 2023) in spending some serious time—seminar-style—on a close look at the subject of scripture, canon, inspiration, and interpretation of the Bible. If so, I'd like to hear from you.
Gary D. Collier
Institute for the Art of Biblical Conversation (IABC)
In pursuit of responsible, contextual, and conversational biblical text study