“If by chance you bear a child, if it is a boy, let it be, if it is a girl, expose it.”
Those chilling words are a husband’s instructions to his wife in a letter dated 1 B.C. (documented below).
Tacitus, a Roman historian who lived from about AD 56 to 120, records some Greco-Roman and Egyptian perspectives of the Jews in Histories 5.4–5. Although his perspective is marred with fallacies, he accurately reports this: “It is a crime among them [i.e., the Jews] to kill any newly-born [unwanted] infant.” The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans often exposed and abandoned unwanted infants, which included those born after a patriarch had written his will. The Jews (and Christians), in contrast, respected life.
Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) calmly explains the Greco-Roman practice of infanticide. You can read the whole thing here at Google Books; start with the very last line on p. 80 and continue through the first paragraph of p. 82. Here’s an excerpt:
[M]any children were abandoned, exposed to die. . . .
The answer to overpopulation was infanticide. Abortions were often attempted, but not infrequently were fatal to the mother . . . More frequent was the exposure of the newborn child. The unwanted child was simply left to die on the trash heap or in some isolated place. Sometimes slave traders would take the child to be reared in slavery. Girl babies might be taken to be reared for a life of prostitution (see Justin, Apology 1.27). Infanticide was not viewed in the same moral light by Greeks and Romans as it was by Jews and Christians. The modern debate on abortion has raised anew the question of when human life is a person entitled to the protection of the law: at conception (the traditional Judeo-Christian view), with the ability to live outside the womb (the view sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court), or at birth (the view of many people). The Greeks and Romans put that moment even later. The newborn was not considered a part of the family until acknowledged by the father as his child and received into the family in a religious ceremony. Thus, they did not consider exposure murder but the refusal to admit to society. Jewish law, on the other hand, prohibited abortion and exposure, a position adopted also by Christians. Otherwise no moral voice was raised against infanticide until Musonius Rufus and Epictetus. . . .
A papyrus from Egypt, notable for its date (1 B.C.) as well as for its content, illustrates the pagan attitude. Hilarion writes from Alexandria to his wife Alis at home in the interior:
I beg and entreat you, take care of the little one, and as soon as we receive our pay I will send it up to you. If by chance you bear a child, if it is a boy, let it be, if it is a girl, expose it. (P. Oxy. 744)
- This infanticide is outrageous and barbaric, right?
- Is this terribly different from what’s already routinely and legally practiced in modern America?