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Abortion, Infanticide, and the Social Rhetoric of the Apocalypse
Journal of Early Christian Studies, Volume 9, Number 3, Fall 2001, pp. 313-337
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
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GRAY/SOCIAL RHETORIC OF THE APOCALYPSE OF PETER 313Abortion, Infanticide, and the Social Rhetoric of the Apocalypse of Peter
The Philogelos, a Greek collection of jokes compiled sometime in late antiquity, tells of a man who has fathered a son by a slave girl. To his father’s advice that he expose the infant he replies, “First, you kill your own children, then you can talk about me killing mine.”1 Aside from the occasional political cartoon, abortion and infanticide are not considered appropriate topics for comedy in contemporary western culture. Few issues are better predictors of one’s place in the recent American “culture wars” than abortion, and neither side considers it a laughing matter.2
1. Philogelos 57. The translation is Barry Baldwin’s: The Philogelos or Laughter- Lover (Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1983).
2. For a comprehensive treatment, see J. D. Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Deﬁne America (New York: Basic Books, 1991); and, from a different perspective, Alan Wolfe, One Nation, After All (New York: Viking, 1998).
Journal of Early Christian Studies 9:3, 313–337 © 2001 The Johns Hopkins University Press
314 JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIESWhen abortion is under debate, the medical and the moral are only two of the questions to be considered. Abortion activates a number of differ- ent kinds of discourse, ranging from the ethical to the judicial, the reli- gious, the psychological, the ecological, the sociological, and the seman- tic. These various kinds of discourse intersect with one another and with other kinds of discourse that are, on the surface, only tangential to the abortion issue. Put another way, ancient and modern discussions about abortion are never “about” simply abortion. Consciously or not, there is always more under negotiation than the participants articulate.
Quite literally, the abortion debate has created much sound and more than a little fury, but incendiary rhetoric on the topic is not a peculiarly modern phenomenon. The author of the apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter groups “those who have caused their children to be born untimely and have corrupted the work of God who created them” together with those guilty of infanticide, placing both of them in hell.3 The women are buried up to their necks in a pit of excrement near a great ﬂame while the aborted children sit nearby crying to God, with ﬂashes of lightning going out from the children and piercing their mothers’ eyes. As for parents guilty of infanticide, they are subjected to eternal torment by beasts formed from the congealed breast milk of the mothers. Like the modern debates about abortion, texts like Apoc. Pet. are neither read nor written in a linguistic, social, cultural, or ideological vacuum. Various “threads” run into and out of the discourse in Apoc. Pet. 8. It is not simply “about” abortion or hell, and by virtue of the author’s participation in the linguistic, social, cultural, and ideological “worlds” of second-century Christianity, the text is an exceptionally complex one. This passage provides valuable evidence for illuminating a developing Christian culture, but it is evidence which must be cross-examined in order for its full import to be assessed. Since the literary artifact is all that remains, interpreters do not have the luxury of questioning the author of Apoc. Pet. to gain a more textured appreciation of the composition. The task of this essay is to employ the insights of sociorhetorical criticism as a heuristic device for
3. Apoc. Pet. 8. Unless otherwise noted, versiﬁcation and quotations appearing here are taken from the translation of the Ethiopic text published in J. K. Elliott, ed., The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 593–615. The most recent edition of the Ethiopic text is that of Dennis D. Buchholz, Your Eyes Will Be Opened: A Study of the Greek (Ethiopic) Apocalypse of Peter, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 97 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988). Substantive variations between Elliott’s and Buchholz’s translations are indicated below. References to the Akhmim (Greek) text are taken from Erich Klostermann, Apocrypha, Kleine Texte 3 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1933), 1:8–12.
GRAY/SOCIAL RHETORIC OF THE APOCALYPSE OF PETER 315sorting out and following the various threads of the discourse about abortion and infanticide in Apoc. Pet. 8.4 Text-critical questions have dominated scholarly attention devoted to Apoc. Pet., and not without good reason.5 Its textual history is extraordinarily complicated.6 Tradition history and the history of Apoc. Pet.’s subsequent inﬂuence down to the time of Dante have also received a fair share of attention.7 Its popularity among early Christians is apparent from its use in other Christian apocalypses such as the Apocalypse of Paul and from its inclusion in the Muratorian Canon. Sociorhetorical methods complement this valuable historical research by providing a critical framework for describing the emergent Christian culture of the second century, of which Apoc. Pet. was an important part.8 In addition to its apparent popularity and its value as one of the earliest Christian writings not to be retained in the NT canon, Apoc. Pet. is important because it is the earliest Christian writing to contain a description of hell.9 The NT mentions Hades or Gehenna in a number of places, but, with the possible exception of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16.19–31, these do not amount to anything more than passing allusions.10
4. The general guidelines followed here are found in V. K. Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation (Valley Forge: Trinity
Press International, 1996); and idem, The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse:
Rhetoric, Society, and Ideology (London: Routledge, 1996). Essays by R. Alan Culpepper, Margaret E. Dean, and Gordon Newby (published together in JSNT 70 : 69–115) consider the potential and the limitations of a sociorhetorical approach to early Christian literature.
5. Cf. R. J. Bauckham, “The Apocalypse of Peter: An Account of Research,” ANRW II.25.6 (1988): 4712–50.
6. The original language of Apoc. Pet. was most likely Greek, but only a few fragments of the Greek have survived. Most scholars agree that the extant Ethiopic text is the closest to the original text of the apocalypse. See Buchholz, Your Eyes Will Be Opened, 376–430; and R. J. Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead: Studies in Jewish and Christian Apocalypses, Novum Testamentum Supplements 93 (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 162–65.
7. Cf. especially A. Dieterich, Nekiya: Beiträge zur Erklärung der neuentdeckten Petrusapokalypse (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1893); A. von Harnack, Bruchstücke des Evangeliums und der Apokalypse des Petrus, 2d ed., TU 9.2 (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1893), 80–87; and Martha Himmelfarb, Tours of Hell: An Apocryphal Form in Jewish and Christian Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983).
8. Robbins, Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse, 13–14, 40–42.
9. Bauckham, Fate of the Dead, 176–94, dates it during the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132–35.
10. Matt 5.22–29; 10.28; 11.23; 16.18; 18.9; 23.15, 33; Mark 9.43–47; Luke 10.15; 12.5; Acts 2.27–31; Jas 3.6; 2 Pet 2.4; Rev 1.18; 6.8; 20.13–14.
316 JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIESThe most memorable scenes are the vivid descriptions of the punishments inﬂicted in Apoc. Pet. 7–12, but as spectacular as these may be, many of the elements are not unique. Apoc. Pet. appears to draw ideas and imagery from the same pool as do earlier Jewish, Near Eastern, and Greco-Roman writings which describe the fate of the dead in the underworld.11 But not even apocalypses are simply the sums of their sources.12 The author has appropriated this imagery in a distinctive way for new purposes: that the topic of abortion arises in the context of a description of hell is intriguing because the NT makes no direct references to abortion. Slightly later than the NT and roughly contemporaneous with Apoc. Pet. are the explicit references to abortion (fyorã) in the Didache (2.2) and the Epistle of Barnabas (19.5), where the practice is prohibited.13 A little later Athenagoras defends Christianity against outrageous charges of cannibalism by pointing out that the church even deems women who induce abortions—a much less heinous offense than cannibalism—to be guilty of murder.14 Apoc. Pet. 8, then, represents an intensiﬁcation and elaboration of antipathy towards abortion already present in the Christian communities for whom these texts carried authority.
The contours of Christian antipathy can be seen through Apoc. Pet.’s various “textures”—inner texture, intertexture, and social-cultural texture.15
11. Dieterich, Nekiya, for example, places a heavy emphasis on the OrphicPythagorean parallels—which he explains by postulating the conversion of Orphic communities in Egypt to Christianity—while C. Bigg claims that the author has read Virgil’s Aeneid (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude, International Critical Commentary [Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1901], 207– 9). For Orphic ideas about unborn children, see J. H. Waszink, “Abtreibung,” RAC 1:55–56; and A. Cameron, “The Exposure of Children and Greek Ethics,” CR 46 (1932): 109–14; and on punishments in the Orphic afterlife for abortion and infanticide, Robert Turcan, “La catabase orphique du papyrus de Bologne,” Revue de l’histoire des religions 150 (1956): 149–55. For afﬁnities with Jewish literature, see A. Marmorstein, “Jüdische Parallelen zur Petrusapokalypse,” ZNW 10 (1909): 297– 300, though none of the texts he studies deﬁnitely predates Apoc. Pet.
12. For a critique of exclusively genetic approaches to apocalyptic language and imagery, see J. J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to the Jewish Matrix of Christianity (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 16–17.
13. Postpartum infanticide, as distinct from abortion, is also mentioned in these passages, as well as in Did. 5.2 and Barn. 20.2.
14. Athenagoras, Leg. 35. On Christian attitudes towards abortion in the third through the ﬁfth centuries, a topic beyond the scope of this essay, see Michael Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1982), 53–73. John Boswell examines various problems posed by the patristic evidence concerning exposure (The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance [London: Penguin, 1988], 138–79).
15. Cf. Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts, 7–94.
GRAY/SOCIAL RHETORIC OF THE APOCALYPSE OF PETER 317
The population of hell, according to Apoc. Pet. 6, is segregated according to sins committed. Jesus describes for Peter the punishments for abortion and infanticide in Apoc. Pet. 8, after the punishments for fornication and murder. Repetition of “torment” (Buchholz: “judgment”; “punishment”) in this brief scene sets a “hellish” tone that is perhaps not remarkable after centuries of Christian history, but which must not be taken for granted, since Apoc. Pet. is the earliest developed description of the Christian hell. “God” occurs ﬁve times, always in some connection with the torment: interference with God’s creation and disobedience to divine commands are the torment’s ultimate cause, the cries of “children” (repeated six times) to God call for it, and God actively wills it. The repeated use of demonstrative pronouns also makes it possible to introduce spoken commentary, by Jesus or by the children, in a propositional form that gives the background for what is narrated.16 A number of characters appear in this passage, but, with the exception of the brief speech attributed to the second group of children, the narrational texture consists entirely of direct speech by Jesus.17 Unlike the fornicators and murderers in Apoc. Pet. 7, those punished here have no voice. Aspects of sensoryaesthetic texture accentuate their former activeness and their present passiveness. The guilty are described in terms of the body zone of purposeful action.18 They “caused” abortions, “corrupted” (Buchholz: “wipe out”) God’s creation, “transgressed” and “forsook” divine law, and “slew” and “delivered over” their children. When, in the past, they acted in the zone of self-expressive speech, the effect was similarly destructive: they “despised” and “cursed.” Now, buried up to their throats, they have no
16. These “demonstrative explanations” are key in Himmelfarb’s distinction between “tours of Hell” in Jewish and Christian tradition and their Greco-Roman counterparts (Tours of Hell, 41 ff.).