Posted by: mattcolvin | July 10, 2013

The Apostles Forbade Infanticide?

This paper by David Instone-Brewer is a fascinating suggestion. It argues that the word πνικτος in Acts 15:20, 15:29, and 21:25 actually designated, not “strangled things” that Gentile converts were to avoid eating, but rather, the act of smothering infants.

I was surprised to learn how rare the word is, and fascinated to discover parallels to the four Jerusalem decrees in the Talmud (b.Sanh. 74a) and the Sibylline Oracles 3.757-766. I was less impressed with the philology, which is a bit loose, and does not fully solve the prima facie objection that “keep away from πνικτων” ought to mean “stay away from things (babies?) that have already been smothered,” not “avoid the act of smothering them.” I was also really, really unpersuaded by Instone-Brewer’s halfhearted suggestion that the Jerusalem council was deliberately phrasing its decrees in such a way that some readers would take it to be culinary instructions, while others would understand it as grave moral matters.

These objections notwithstanding, the article is well worth reading, and I’m inclined to agree with the conclusion: πνικτων may very well refer to infanticide.



  1. I suspect all four involve people and animals of any age: those sacrificed to idols or strangled bodies (no shedding of blood) or the shed blood itself or fornication/bestiality (dead or alive).

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