Saint Paul is a strange bird. I like him. A lot.
I say this because while he was most likely aware that he was writing the inspired Word of God (consider such texts as Galatians 2:1-9 and 2 Peter 3:15-16), he is also aware of his literary skill, and the Holy Spirit allows him a certain measure of personal liberty to scribe things that span a vast spectrum of literary themes, forms, devices, and imagery. I am particularly intrigued by the way he employs devices of emphasis.
For example, being someone who appreciates poetry, I am quite fond of Paul’s engaging with poetic sources. He does this while preaching to the people of Athens in Acts 17:28. In fact, there are a few notable times when Paul leans on poetry from secular sources (1 Corinthians 15:33; Titus 1:12), calling to mind poets like Epimenides (c. 600 B.C.) who was the first to muse “In him we live and move and have our being” in his poem Cretica; and Aratus (c. 315 B.C.) who wrote “We are his offspring” in his Phaenomena.
I am equally charmed by the possibility that Philippians 2:6-11 may actually be a quotation from a popular hymn of the early church, and how in that same chapter, verse 12 leaves one with the sense that Paul may be planting his tongue firmly into his cheek as he pens a little bit of sarcastic instruction, urging his readers who already know very well his preaching of salvation through faith in Christ that they ought to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (v. 12).
“Hey, that’s funny. Work out your salvation. Is Paul a hoot, or what?”
Stay with me, here. There are plenty of opinions about this particular text, but this sure seems like a possibility.
Along these same lines, I appreciate the fact that Paul, being aware of his station as an Apostle, sometimes emphasizes the point he is making by picking on himself. In Ephesians 3:8 he calls himself τῷ ἐλαχιστοτέρῳ πάντων ἁγίων. This usually gets translated as something like “less than the least of all the saints,” but in the slang usage of the same phrase in other sources, we essentially hear Paul calling himself a “very small amount” in comparison to the rest of God’s people. In other words, he just called himself “pint-sized holy one.” He does the same thing again in 1 Timothy 1:15, except he goes in the opposite direction. Referring to a world full of sinners, he says πρῶτός εἰμι ἐγώ – I am the most prominent, the first, the best, the highest ranking loser of losers.
Funny or not, whatever you decide, we know the fundamental point Paul is making in these instances, and his usage of such illustrious language helps to drive home the point.
But there is another moment in Paul’s writings where I think he may have been trying to combine a certain level of seriousness with a pinch of humor, and yet in today’s world – a world that is most certainly matching the woeful Biblical enunciation of good being called evil and evil being called good (Isaiah 5:20), as well as an Apostle’s words to a young churchman in 2 Timothy 3 – I’m not so sure most folks would get the joke.
The moment occurs in 1 Corinthians 15:8. Here again Paul is setting himself lower than everyone else, except this time he appears to be applying what was most likely a hostile insult used against him by others. I almost wonder if when he and Peter were duking it out, that Peter called out such an insult from across the room to the sounds of the other Apostles’ choked snickering. Paul refers to himself as τῷ ἐκτρώματι – typically translated as “one abnormally or untimely born.”
Okay, that’s a nice way of highlighting that he was the last of the Apostles to be visited by Christ and his birth into Apostleship was stranger than the others. But that isn’t exactly what Paul said. There’s a little more to ἐκτρώματι (or ἔκτρωμα). Paul just said in an emphatically negative way that he is a miscarried baby, or even worse, the product of an abortion.
“C’mon, Pastor Thoma. That’s not what this means.”
I knew you’d say that.
Apart from the Septuagint (which I’ll get to in a second), this is the only place that this word is used in the Bible. It’s a rare word. In order to figure out what it means, you really need to visit with the sources that used it the most. This means visiting with folks like Dioscurides, a first century pharmacological writer. And then of course, there’s Hippocrates – you know, the guy who pops out and onto the planet around 460 B.C. and is pretty much the source for modern medical science and its practice. You’ve heard of the Hippocratic Oath, yes? Yeah, he’s that guy. When you dig through the documents of men like these, you’ll find that ἔκτρωμα is always connected with birth, and is the standard for communicating the event of a child either being born dead because of a miscarried pregnancy or the deliberate act of killing the child in the womb and inducing the birthing process.
I mentioned the Septuagint before, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The word ἔκτρωμα is used a whopping total of three times throughout. The first time we run into it is in Numbers 12:12 when it’s used to replace כַּמֵּת – that is, a baby dead in the womb and then birthed. The next time we encounter it is in Job 3:16, and the third time is in Ecclesiastes 6:3. In both of these occurrences it is used as a replacement for נֵפֶל – which is very plainly “miscarriage.”
Now I know that some readers will do what is often quite popular, that is, teeter upon the edge of the allegory cliff or eisegize the text to avoid such an unacceptable image because it could be offensive, but I prefer to keep the word clean from imposition and just take it as it comes while keeping it securely rooted in its historical context. Following this course, Paul isn’t simply saying that he was born into the faith at a later term than all the others. He’s not necessarily trying to show that he was born into the Christian faith in an unusual way in comparison to the other Apostles. He is putting himself where he knows he belongs in comparison to Christ and His church…and it isn’t pretty. Ἔκτρωμα is meant to shock you. It’s bad. Very bad. It is a swiftly comprehensive and emphatic usage of a familiar but grotesque image. Paul, having already affirmed for us that he is both the ἐλαχιστοτέρῳ and the πρῶτός, he believes that there is still a more visceral and disgraceful descriptor by which he may compare himself. He is as an unloved baby, a miserably sad remnant of an abortion, a child worthy of only the heavenly Father’s rejection and equally unworthy of the church, the Son’s body and the Father’s household. Indeed, no matter the century or culture, ἔκτρωμα is both disturbing and insulting when imposed upon anyone as a designation.
Now, although this has been a rather enjoyable exegetical exercise, I did have a reason for dragging you through it.
I read a couple of interesting articles recently. The first was a shorter item in “The Telegraph” written by Damian Thompson. His purpose was to relay the words of Reverend Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ragsdale is an ordained Anglican priest and a flaming liberal thinker and supporter of pretty much everything counter-Christian. In the article, Thompson so generously provides Ragsdale’s full manuscript from a sermon/speech she gave in front of an abortion clinic in Alabama back in 2009. Her words pressed from a supposed Biblical perspective that “abortion is a blessing…” In fact, when you read the full text, you’ll see that she demands that her listeners chant along with her three times, “Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done!”
I found the second article on LifeNews.com, but then tracked it a little further to some various news outlets in Ohio. The focus of the media attention here was Reverend Laura Young, a Methodist minister appointed by her Bishop, Reverend Gregory Palmer, to serve as the Executive Director of the Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. I’ll bet you can guess what they’re trying to accomplish. Anyway, Young believes as Ragsdale, that abortion is a blessing and that the decision to abort a child, while not deliberately an iterated topic in the Bible, is nonetheless a deeply spiritual one that takes great courage and even greater faith.
These women claim to be followers of Christ. These women preach from Christian pulpits.
Yes, you can go throw up. Take your time. I’ll wait here until you get back.
Feel better? Okay, where were we?
When I couple articles like these with the typical arguments of pretty much any so-called “Pro-choice” Christian, my stomach churns and my blood begins to steam and blister my veins. Encouraged by such Biblical ignorance, in my experience, Pro-choice Christians almost always press first that the Bible never speaks directly to the topic of abortion, but it does concern itself both directly and indirectly with women’s health; and then secondly, they push further to deduce that a woman’s right to choose must therefore be Godly. Finally, hovering in the same oxygen-deprived stratosphere, they reach to pair this with the argument that abortion was heralded within a majority of early societies as acceptable, nay, praiseworthy, and thus the Christians most certainly found it acceptable as well.
Too bad we don’t have a doctrine which allows us to put these folks on an island with an active volcano and burn all the boats.
In the end, if it is at all helpful, my point is very small and relatively simple. Um, yes, the Bible does refer specifically to abortion, and, um, no it doesn’t consider it positively. For starters, consider Paul’s usage of ἔκτρωμα. Consider that if a particular word is used as an insult, most likely, the object upon which the word’s wrath is turned is not meant to be considered as praiseworthy, but rather designated as someone or something worthy of scorn and to be thoroughly despised.
Abortion is not a blessing. It is an ungodly abomination.