When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby (brephos) leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
– Luke 1:41
The New Testament uses the word brephos eight times, six of which are found in the writings of Luke. As in the wider Greek world, the term can apply to either a fetus or an infant, a preborn human or a newborn human.
In Luke 1:41 and 44, brephos refers to John the Baptist, who was at the time still residing in his mother’s womb. Here, a brephos is a fetal human being. Even when both John and Jesus were in utero, John still recognized Mary’s son as the coming Lord and leaped for joy. (I suppose that it’s hard for child in the womb to actually jump or skip. Perhaps Elizabeth felt a set of really good kicks.)
In Luke 2:12 and 16, on the other hand, brephos refers to the newborn Jesus whom the shepherds would find wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
The remaining instances of brephos all apply to newborn infants. Luke 18:15 states that people were bringing their brephe to Jesus so that he could bless them. In 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul writes to Timothy that “from [the time that you were] a brephos, you have known the sacred writings.” And in 2 Peter 2:2, Peter calls on his readers to crave spiritual milk “like newborn brephe.”
The final citation from Luke’s writings in Acts 7:19 calls for a little more comment. Stephen is making his defense before the high priest and is reciting the history of Israel. In his account of Israel’s experience in Egypt at the time of Moses’ birth, Stephen said that Pharaoh “dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies (brephe) so that they would die.”
Luke’s account of Stephen’s speech casts Israel’s experience in terms of the Roman practice of infant exposure – the deliberate killing of unwanted newborns by exposing them to the elements – in other words, throwing them in a ditch by the side of the road to die like a wounded animal. Exposure was, in effect, the Roman world’s post-natal form of abortion.
In his book Abortion and the Early Church, Michael Gorman shows how widely both abortion and infant exposure were practiced in the Greco-Roman culture. Both practices, however, were strongly rejected by early Christians. We have documentary evidence of that beginning around the year 100 AD. The Didache, commonly regarded as the earliest Christian writing outside the New Testament, explicitly prohibits both abortion and infant exposure.
Luke uses the word brephos like people ordinarily use the word “baby” today – to refer to children both before and immediately after birth. At least one passage in Luke demonstrates a disapproving stance toward the commonly accepted practice of exposing brephe to death after they are born.
What about before they are born? Should the church not rejoice with Mary and Elizabeth and with them welcome all the brephe that are still kicking in their mother’s wombs?