Acts 15, Infanticide, and Using the Bible in Ethics

by J. Alan Branch March 11, 2020

The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is one of the most significant moments in Church history. Most early Christians were Jewish, so when Gentiles began responding to the Gospel, new problems emerged in the church regarding how Jewish and Gentile Christians should interact with each other regarding Old Testament dietary practices and issues of ceremonial cleanliness.  In a remarkably conciliatory letter, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem gave simple guidelines which satisfied both groups:

For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:28 – 29)

In his new book Moral Questions of the Bible, British New Testament scholar David Instone-Brewer, a research fellow at Tyndale House, argues the prohibition of “things strangled” in the Jerusalem council’s decree is actually a reference to infanticide. He uses this to substantiate opposition against abortion in our day. Is Instone-Brewer correct? Did the Jerusalem council forbid infanticide?

 The Greek adjective translated “things strangled” (NASB) in Acts 15:29 is pniktos. In the New Testament, the word only occurs in the Book of Acts. It does not occur in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament often used in the early Church. The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature, the standard reference work for New Testament Greek, says pniktos “plainly means strangled, choked to death of animals killed without the blood drained from them, whose flesh the Israelites were forbidden to eat.”[1] Early Jewish Christians were concerned to remain faithful to dietary laws such as Leviticus 17:10 – 16 requiring blood to be correctly drained from animals. In Acts 15, the words “blood” and “strangled” occur side-by-side, stressing the probable reference to Levitical laws. Apparently, among Gentiles the animals were strangled in some cases and the result was the blood was not properly drained from the animal.[2] Such a meaning of pniktos fits with the context of debates among Jewish Christians raised under Old Testament law and Gentile Christians who were not.

Instone-Brewer rejects the interpretation pniktos based on a Levitical background. Instead, he argues that it was hard to strangle animals so he thinks non-kosher butchering isn’t in mind. He then claims a review of the uses of pniktos prior to the third century AD shows it is a special culinary term meaning something like “smothered meat.”[3] He then argues that it would make no sense for the Church to forbid a culinary delicacy. He contends the emphasis should be on the act of smothering, as in the smothering of infants in infanticide.  Instone-Brewer then says, “In context of the other three mortal sins [in the Jerusalem council’s decision], this prohibition [pniktos] is clear: “Do not smother babies.””[4] Instone-Brewer then says the Jerusalem council’s decision became the source of early Christian opposition to infanticide and should inform modern Christian opposition to abortion.

While I share Instone-Brewer’s pro-life stance, I find his definition of pniktos unconvincing. First, the early church fathers strongly opposed infanticide, but none of them cited Acts 15 as a reason for doing so, a startling omission if Instone-Brewer’s reconstruction is true. Second, pniktos does not occur in isolation. He downplays the degree to which “blood” and “strangled” occur side-by-side in a list of guidelines meant to ease tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers. Taken together and considering the context, some form of violation of Levitical codes makes sense. Third, the verb for “to strangle” (pnigō) does occur in Mark 5:13 in reference to pigs that drowned. This points to some form of improper killing of animals as the idea in mind. Finally, a word needs to be said about Instone-Brewer’s logical flow. He hastily dismisses the Levitical concerns, notes that infanticide was common in the Roman Empire, says pniktos means “smothered,” and then asserts that in Acts 15 prohibits infanticide. But surely this is moving too fast with the evidence.  Instone-Brewer himself does not cite one instance when pniktos was used in reference to infanticide, a point which would surely strengthen his argument if such an occurrence existed. While Instone-Brewer’s reconstruction is hypothetically possible, it is not likely and is hardly proven.

Instone-Brewer’s suggestion that pniktos refers to infanticide gives us a good opportunity to think about the use of the Bible in moral debates. Taking abortion as the issue at hand, there is no Bible verse which specifically says, “Thou shall not abort babies.” Arriving at a sound, Biblical stance on the issue requires the hard work of defining the moral status of preborn human life, studying what happens in an abortion (it is a violent act), and then arriving at a conclusion about the morality of aborting preborn human life. The most robust handling of the Scripture leads to the conclusion that preborn humans deserve protection from the point of conception and that we should not abort children.

Of course, it would be much easier if we could just find a Bible verse which forbids abortion. It appears Instone-Brewer has a well-meaning desire to find something very close to such a verse. A stronger case can be made that Leviticus 18:21’s condemnation of child sacrifice to Molech informs Christian opposition to both infanticide and abortion. But regarding pniktos in Acts 15, we do not help our case in the long run by making tenuous lexical arguments which cannot be sustained. There are any number of issues in our culture which are not specifically addressed in Scripture, such as puberty-suppressing drugs, in vitro fertilization, or human cloning. The Bible gives us the necessary worldview and the essential principles needed for thinking through these issues with the right perspective. Humanity’s creation in the image of God, the gift of gender, and the sanctity of human life are all important starting points for the hard work of Christian ethical reflection on issues not specifically addressed in Scripture.

Notes

  1. ^ BDAG, 838. 
  2. ^ Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 506.
  3. ^ David Instone-Brewer, Moral Questions of the Bible: Timeless Truth in a Changing World (Bellingham, WA; Lexham press, 2019), 42. 
  4. ^ Ibid