The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An ancient mistranslation is now helping to threaten abortion rights

The Hebrew Bible didn’t urge special penalties for causing a miscarriage.

Activists opposing and supporting abortion rights protest alongside each other outside the Supreme Court at the start of the court's new term last week. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Is it possible that more than 150 million people in the United States might lose some of their critical rights, as enshrined in the Constitution, at least in part due to a single word being mistranslated more than 2,000 years ago?

It is.

Texas has pulled abortion rights from its citizens and put bounties on the heads of anyone who dare offer to help them, and Florida has recently introduced a similarly restrictive bill. Though a judge just blocked the Texas law, an appeal has already been filed, and the law is back in effect for now. The case may find its way to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court has already scheduled arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which centers on a similarly unconstitutional Mississippi 15-week abortion ban, for which Mississippi has asked the court to formally overturn Roe v. Wade.

The six-week bans in Texas and Florida are called “heartbeat bills” by their advocates, rather than the more medically accurate “embryonic cardiac activity,” attempting to equate an embryo with a fully formed baby. The 15-week ban, too, is also about trying to define viability at a time in pregnancy when, scientifically, it’s simply not possible. But there are cultural and theological roots underpinning these anti-scientific attitudes, and they are relevant, especially if part of that approach is based on an error.

To understand what this translation mistake is, and why it matters today, we must first go way back to the Hebrew Bible. The key verses are found in the Book of Exodus:

“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other harm ensues, the one responsible shall be fined when the woman’s husband demands compensation; the payment will be determined by judges. But if other harm ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.”

In other words, if a miscarriage is caused, the offender is fined for damages, but there is no other punishment as the fetus is not, in the Hebrew Bible, regarded as a person. If there is “other harm” — that is, if the pregnant person dies — the offender is seen as having committed manslaughter and punished accordingly. This is how these verses are understood in Judaism, from the Rabbinic era of the Mishnah and Talmud through Jewish law today, where abortion is permitted and, if needed to save the life of the pregnant person, sometimes required. (The Torah does not indicate at what stage of gestation the fetus is when this miscarriage happens; as a result, in Jewish law traditionally and today, personhood is regarded as beginning during birth, with the first breath.)

The key word in all of this is “harm,” which in Hebrew is “ason,” which could also be translated as “disaster” or “damage” — all more or less connoting the same general idea that something bad has happened.

This is where it gets weird.

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In the mid-3rd century B.C., the Hebrew Bible began to be translated into Greek, into what became known as the Septuagint. There, “ason” (“harm,” “damage” or “disaster”) was translated as “exeikonismenon,” which literally translated as “from the image” which is, needless to say, not a good or useful way to communicate the meaning of that word. Theories abound as to why this happened, like the claim by Richard Freund, a scholar of Hellenistic Judaism, that the translators got stuck on the similarities between “ason” and the Greek word “soma,” meaning human life, and tried to communicate something about being created in God’s image.

For whatever reason, in the Septuagint’s translation, the meaning of the verses was completely transformed:

“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but it is not in the form, the one responsible shall be fined when the woman’s husband demands compensation; the payment will be determined by judges. But if it is in the form, the penalty shall be life for life.”

Theology, based on that translation, soon followed. It’s easy to see how Saint Augustine, working out of the Septuagint, could develop his theory of ensoulment from here; a fetus early in formation, or in the early stages of gestation, did not have a soul, and thus it was not considered manslaughter to cause its accidental miscarriage. A fetus that was more “formed” did have a soul, so a person who caused its miscarriage would be, indeed, liable as though they had killed a fully formed person. Saint Thomas Aquinas, too, pointed to the moment of “quickening” — the moment at which fetal movement could be detected by the pregnant person — as the point of ensoulment.

For both Augustine and Aquinas, abortion was always regarded as an offense against God, but after the point of ensoulment, it was regarded as much more so. The Catholic Church ultimately dropped its distinction between the fetus before and after quickening in 1869, coming down against all forms of abortion. After Augustine’s theories became widespread, a formal doctrine of abortion would be unlikely to become more permissive down the road. Despite that, some argue that both Augustine’s and Aquinas’ notions of “delayed hominization” — delayed personhood, in essence, the notion that the soul doesn’t drop in until quickening — makes room for a stance that allows for abortion. (And in fact, it’s worth recalling that most American Catholics believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and a significant majority oppose overturning Roe v. Wade.)

Abortion politics polarized before Roe. When it’s gone, the fighting won’t stop.

On the Protestant side of things, translation choices that were straightforward at one point seem less so as language has evolved. The King James Bible — the go-to version for many American Protestants, particularly in many Evangelical and Baptist circles — decided to translate “ason,” presumably from the Hebrew rather than from the Septuagint’s Greek, as “mischief.” In the 1600s, this word did connote misfortune or calamity, but today, this word choice simply obscures the verse’s meaning. Someone reading this passage without any context might not be able to pick up on what the Hebrew — or, indeed, the original meaning of King James’s English — is actually describing.

In discussions regarding scripture and abortion among conservative Christian theologians and ethicists, this particular verse is rarely cited or explored. Most people sitting in the pews of Christian churches likely have never encountered this verse from Exodus in a Sunday morning sermon or a Bible study. And so the assumption among them that sacred texts uphold a staunchly antiabortion position prevails.

On Dec. 1, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments regarding Mississippi’s abortion ban. While Mississippi has been ranked as the most religious state in the country, we would dispute the idea that this legislation, or the more than 560 abortion restrictions that states have introduced in 2021 alone, are reflective of religious values.

The interplay of politics and religion around abortion changed not that long ago. In 1971, 1974 and 1976, the Southern Baptist Conventions passed resolutions affirming that people should have abortion access for various reasons and that the government should play a limited role in the matter. In the years after the 1973 Roe decision, however, the public reality of abortion, according to the historian Gillian Frank, made many White voters uncomfortable, which gave conservatives a political opportunity to broaden their base. Political strategy became a theological opportunity.

Though Catholics and Evangelicals have little in common theologically, they were able to team up politically around their shared opposition to abortion, a strategy that has been wildly successful in winning elections, not to mention decimating access to reproductive health care. Of course, there are many Catholic and Protestant teachings that have led up to and inform this partnership — we are not saying that it’s all based entirely on one mistranslation. But it does give us pause to consider what might have been different had this one word in one ancient text been rendered differently — how that might have led some communities thousands of years ago to understand the verse’s intended meaning regarding the nature of the fetus, and what that might mean for us now, in this moment.

I’m a pro-choice minister, and I’m far from the only one. We should speak up more.

The Supreme Court that will hear these cases this year has six Catholic justices on the bench, and a seventh who was raised as Catholic. Judges are tasked to rule impartially, but they are human beings with biases (some with significant biases, such as Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who signed on to several ads calling for an end to Roe before she was appointed to the court). So their relationship to a tradition’s approach to abortion is relevant.

We hope it won’t be, though. Regardless of the fact that scripture never claimed that life begins at conception, we are promised separation of church and state in this country. So, truly, what the Bible does and does not say should not dictate law; one religious viewpoint should not — should never — be forced upon all who dwell in this country. The Constitution, after all, protects the right to abortion in the 14th Amendment.

Read more:

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