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A COPTIC POSITION ON ABORTION FROM AT LEAST THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY

September 10, 2012

Foetus at 20 weeks (5 months), scan.

Coptic manuscripts and literature that talk about abortion are rare, and the issue has not received in Coptic society the same attention and treatment it receives in western societies, possibly because it hasn’t yet reached a level of concern. I have recently come across a Coptic manuscript that puts forward the traditional Coptic view on abortion: what is called the “First Letter of Saint Pisentios, Bishop of Coptos”.

We have spoken in a previous article about Bishop Pisentios and his famous two letters that are extant in Arabic, and which were published by A. Perier in the Revue de l’Orient Chrétien (ROC), with a French translation, in Paris, in 1914.[1] The reader can consult that article if he wants more, but for the purposes of the present subject, Pisentios (also written Pisuntios and Pisentius; and in Arabic بيسنتاوس) was the bishop of Coptos (Qift/ قفط) in the 7th Century.[2] He lived in a period full with momentous events in the history of Egypt and the Copts: during his career as a bishop, the Persians invaded Egypt (619 – 629); Heraclius (610 – 641) became the Byzantine emperor, who lost and then regained control of Egypt from the Persians, and Cyrus of Bishop of Phasis in Colchis was appointed Melkite Patriarch of Alexandria and Governor of Egypt, and launched a cruel persecution of the Copts (630 – 640); then the Arabs invaded Egypt in 640, an occupation which, unlike that of the Persians, has lasted to this day.  His Life was written by his disciple, John the Elder, and his Two Letters are supposed to have been transcripted by the same disciple.[3] Although Pisentios’ Two Letters in the version that has reached us are most probably written by some later Copt in the 13th century,[4] hitherto unidentified, they must have retained an original core that goes back to Pisentios himself, and included some sort of exhortation and a prophetic disclosure of the course of the rule of the Arabs.

While the Second Letter is purely an apocalypse on the Arab occupation, the First Letter is a discourse that urges Christians to stick to the theological and moral teachings of the Coptic Church, and warns them of the spiritual consequences that would surely befall sinners. One of the sins that St. Pisentios counsel Christians to avoid is abortion:

[5]اى امرأة تستحسن سقط حملها الذى فى بطنها قبل ان يكمل خلقة الجنين الربّ يلقيها اسفل هاوية الجحيم

Any woman who aborts what she carries in her womb of the incomplete foetus the Lord shall throw her into the depth of the pit of Hades.[6]

This is a rare occasion of abortion being mentioned and condemned in old Coptic literature. Notably, the Coptic Church Canons, which multiplied in the Middle Ages, do not at all deal with the issue, suggesting that abortion did not reach an epidemic level then, particularly in al-Qahira and Misr,[7] and so did not constitute a major concern for Coptic society and Church, as, for instance, circumcision did.[8] Can we attribute this abortion section in the First Letter to Pisentios himself or was it an addition by a later writer? It is an interesting question for which we may never find an answer! Anyway, if it is a later insertion, it may suggest that some Coptic women in the 13th century started emulating Muslims, whose religion is comparatively lax on this issue[9] – another instance of Cultural Islamisation of the Copts in the 12th and 13th centuries,[10] which we have seen before with circumcision, and which was lamented by so many Copts of the period. If it was indeed part of an authentic core that goes back to Bishop Pisentios, then it may simply echo the teaching of the Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), the first century[11] Christian treatise and oldest to condemn abortion. Here is its famous Chapter 2, which deals amongst others with abortion and infanticide (the slaying of a baby after birth):

Chapter 2. The Second Commandment: Grave Sin Forbidden. And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty,[12] you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. You shall not covet the things of your neighbor, you shall not swear, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not speak evil, you shall bear no grudge. You shall not be double-minded nor double-tongued, for to be double-tongued is a snare of death. Your speech shall not be false, nor empty, but fulfilled by deed. You shall not be covetous, nor rapacious, nor a hypocrite, nor evil disposed, nor haughty. You shall not take evil counsel against your neighbor. You shall not hate any man; but some you shall reprove, and concerning some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life.[13]

Whoever is responsible for the abortion section in the First Letter of St.Pisentios, there is no doubt that the section represents the basic stance of the Coptic Church – a stance which is pro-life, and condemns abortion at any point during pregnancy as a grave sin, in line with other major Christian Churches. To what extent do exceptions, such as hysterectomy and chemotherapy for the pregnant woman with cervical cancer, which have been considered by other Churches,[14] alter the general principle is not stated in the First Letter, but that is understandable. It remains to the Coptic Church of our times to outline the issue in more detail.

How to cite this article: Dioscorus Boles (10 September 2012), A Coptic Position on Abortion from At Least the Thirteenth Century,  http://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/09/10/a-coptic-position-on-abortion-from-at-least-the-thirteenth-century/


[1] Dioscorus Boles (23 May 2011), AN AID TO THE STUDY OF ST. PISENTIOS, BISHOP OF COPTOS: HIS LIFE AND TWO FAMOUS LETTERS, http://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/an-aid-to-the-study-of-st-pisentios-bishop-of-coptos-his-life-and-two-famous-letters/

[2] An ancient Egyptian town that lies on the east bank of the Nile, in the Governorate of Qena – 20 km south of the town of Qena and 40 km north of Luxor.

[3] The “Two Letters” are not at all in the form of a letter but exhortation and prophetic prediction by Bishop Pisentios which were written down by his disciple John the Elder. I, however, have retained the title given to them by the French translator.

[4] There is internal evidence in the Two Letters to suggest that. But that is another subject for another time.

[5] Revue de l’Orient Chrétien (ROC); Volume 19; 1914, Bureau des oeuvres d’Orient; Paris; p. 87.

[6] The English translation is mine. The French translation given by A. Perier is: “Toute femme qui trouve opportun de se délivrer du fruit qu’elle porte dans son sein avant la formation parfaite de l’enfant, le Seigneur la jettera au plus profond des abîmes de l’enfer.” Page 92.

[7] al-Qahira and Misr were distinct towns in the past, but now they are enclosed in the perimeters of Greater Cairo.

[8] The reader can review the various articles on this blog on: Circumcision and the Copts: A History.

[9] The majority of Muslim scholars allow abortion until the end of the four months.

[11] Some scholars date the Didache to the 2nd century. There is no doubt as to its antiquity – it was known to Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius and Theophilus. See: Catholic Encyclopedia on the subject of Didache.

[12] Pederasty is paedophilia, corruption of boys, any sexual activity involving a man and a boy.

[13] A Church Manual: The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, Commonly Called the Didache; translated and edited by A. Roberts and J. Donaldson (1887).

[14] The reader can think of other exceptions which may or may not all be acceptable by major Churches.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. slims permalink
    September 11, 2012 6:02 pm

    Thank you for your great blog!

    -An Eastern Orthodox reader in Denver, CO

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      September 11, 2012 7:13 pm

      Thank you. Greatly appreciate your words. Dioscorus

  2. April 24, 2013 12:13 pm

    There is definately a great deal to find out about this topic. I like all the points you made.

  3. April 29, 2013 6:23 pm

    There is definately a great deal to learn about this subject. I love all of the points you made.

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