A common narrative in our society is that, by opposing abortion and infanticide, Christians are conducting a “war on women.” However, in a fascinating study entitled “The Rise of Christianity,” published by Princeton University Press, sociologist Rodney Stark argues that the phenomenal growth of “the obscure, marginal Jesus movement” was due in large part to women. Stark argues that early Christianity was “especially attractive to women” because “within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large.”
Furthermore, Stark argues that the Christian opposition to abortion and infanticide was one of the key factors that produced this higher status. Put simply, Christians granted women the right to live.
Infanticide in the Ancient World
Female infanticide was extremely prevalent in the ancient world – so much so that the ratio of men to women in the Roman Empire is estimated at 7 to 5. Stark notes that in a study of 600 ancient families from Delphi, only six had raised more than one daughter.
Infanticide typically took the form of “exposure” – that is, leaving infants outside to die. As Stark explains, “Exposure of unwanted female infants and deformed male infants was legal, morally accepted, and widely practiced by all social classes in the Greco-Roman world.” For example, Stark notes that Plato and Aristotle both “recommended infanticide as legitimate state policy,” and Seneca “regarded the drowning of children at birth as both reasonable and commonplace.”
The following letter by a man named Hilarion to his pregnant wife Alis illustrates pagan attitudes towards baby girls:
I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered of a child [before I come home], if it is a boy keep it, if a girl discard it.
This casual view of infanticide is underscored by a discovery archeologists made while excavating a bathhouse in the city of Ashkelon. They detected that the ancient sewage line had been clogged with refuse, and when they examined that refuse, they found the bones of “nearly 100 little babies apparently murdered and thrown into the sewer.” Based on the prevalence of female infanticide, Stark concludes that these babies were “all, or nearly all, girls.”
Abortion in the Ancient World
In addition to infanticide, abortion was quite common. While sex-selective abortion was not possible at the time, Stark asserts, “Abortion was a major cause of death among women in the Greco-Roman world.” Chemical abortions often poisoned the mother as well as the child, and surgical abortions often led to fatal infections.
Given this fact, why did so many women have abortions? According to Stark, “The very high rates of abortion in the Greco-Roman world can only be fully understood if we recognize that in perhaps the majority of instances it was men, rather than women, who made the decision to abort.”
The Christian View of Abortion and Infanticide
Like the Jews, the Christians maintained that infanticide and abortion were great evils. The Didache, an early Christian document dating from perhaps the first century, states, “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born.” In the second century, the church father Athenagoras wrote, “[We] regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care…and [we do not] expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder.”
As Stark notes, “[b]y prohibiting all forms of infanticide and abortion, Christians removed major causes of the gender imbalance that existed among pagans.” Furthermore, in a sharp contradiction to pagan society, Christians maintained that husbands were obligated to love their wives, prohibited to divorce them, and required to abstain from all extramarital sex. According to the apostle Paul, wives had the same conjugal rights as husbands (1 Cor. 7:2-7), a belief that, as Stark notes, “was at total variance, not only with pagan culture, but with Jewish culture as well.” Additionally, women held positions of authority and leadership in the church and were considered equal participants in the gospel.
The ultimate result of such doctrines was a predominantly female church in the midst of a predominantly male society.
In closing, I do not doubt that there is a “war on women” in our society. However, I would suggest that it is not being conducted by the church; it is instead being conducted by those who seek to objectify women for entertainment and profit. Furthermore, it is being conducted by those in the abortion industry who (1) enable sex-selective abortion, (2) enable statutory rape, (3) and enable sex-trafficking.
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