Recently the ABR organization published an issue in their signature magazine trying to relate abortion with child sacrifice. I took them to task when on their website they published an blurb which did a hatchet job on the issue. The following paper was the result from a candid discussion with one of ABR’s staff via private e-mail.
I did not like what was being said nor the attitude in which their rebuttals came but it did motivate me to investigate further. The general terms like ‘lots of evidence, put me off as well as I wanted to see what evidence there was that supported the idea/theory of child sacrifice in Carthage.
What I found was both interesting and surprising as you will read for yourselves shortly. What also motivated me was that here was a Christian organization that did not care about honesty, justice, fair play and so on, using the past to fit their modern day anti-abortion agenda. It is a stretch and a dirty trick and it certainly wasn’t something Jesus commanded His followers to do.
What follows is a simple discussion of the evidence for the idea that child sacrifice took place in Carthage, followed by the same for those who oppose that theory. Then a brief look at what the Bible says about the issue and finally an analysis of the evidence presented.
I will have more to say about modern applications for the believer in my conclusion. Read it for yourselves, look up the references and read their points of view and come to your own conclusions.
II. Evidence for Child Sacrifice
It seems that Dr. Stager and his writing partners are the go to men when it comes to quoting evidence for the practice of child sacrifice in Carthage. I have not read all the works on this issue but enough to see that when other writers discuss the issue, they end up quoting Stager, Greene and Wolfe for the pro argument.
In The Odyssey debate Drs. Stager and Greene state that there are four main sources for evidence when it comes to supporting their claim that child sacrifice took place in Carthage. These four are: i). Classical authors; ii). Biblical prophets; iii). Stele associated with Carthaginain burial urns and iv). Inscriptions expressing vows to Phoenician deities. (Stager & Greene o3:o6)
The classical authors include Plutarch who lived from 46-122 AD approx. and who wrote extensively. Then there was Tertullian who lived later, about 160-225 AD approx., next comes whose life spanned from 375 – to after 418 AD approx. before these gentleman it is said that Diodorus Siculus lived and wrote around the 1st century BC (Reference.com child sacrifice) and finally Kleittarchos was paraphrased by some unknown author (Stager & Wolfe 1984).
They all mention or allude to some sort of sacrificial act conducted by the people of Carthage. The Biblical prophets will be dealt with at a later time but they include Jeremiah and Ezekial, whose words are restricted to the Biblical lands.
The third source for evidence for the practice of child sacrifice comes from the steles found in the children’s cemeteries at Carthage. I do not want to use the biblical word ‘tophet’ here because some do and it distorts the issue at hand. Its use by archaeologists is basically prejudicial and not objective. On these steles are written different words by parents usually addressing their god and there seems to be thousands of them (Stager & Greene 03:06)
Then the fourth source mentioned by Stager and Greene come from inscriptions other than found on the stele. A minor source for the assumption that child sacrifice took place was the presence of animal remains found in the same locations, along with a sheep’s picture on one stele (Stager & Wolfe 1984)
Then in a dig at Zarapath an inscription was dug up containing a 4 line reference to Tanit one of the gods of the Phoenician people. (B & Sp. Vol. 4). This inscription has been used as evidence that child sacrifice took place at that location and to support the theory that such practice was carried out at Carthage.
Another picture used to support the theory is one of an adult holding a baby carved on a stele which Stager and Wolfe interpret to mean a priest is holding a baby and taking it to be sacrificed. (Stager & Wolfe 1984).
This is the extent of the evidence for child sacrifice being practiced in Carthage. Unfortunately, at the end of the third Punic war, the Romans destroyed almost all of written texts of the Carthaginians. “The historical study of Carthage is problematic. Due to the subjection of the civilization by the Romans at the end of the Third Punic War, very few Carthaginian historical primary sources survive” (N.W.E.-Carthage)
This fact hinders discovery of the real purpose of the children’s cemeteries found at Carthage and it denies us knowledge of the meaning of the stele as well as many of the carved pictures as well.
III. Evidence Against Child Sacrifice
There is a lot of opposition to the above theory and one of the leading opponents in 1984 was M’hamed Hassine Fantar who participated in the Odyssey debate with Drs. Stager and Greene. He points out that the classical scholars mentioned by Stager and Greene were not the only historians of the time who wrote on Carthage and whose work survives. Two earlier writers Livy (64 BC -12 AD) and Polibius (200- 118 BC) who were well informed of Carthage did not write one word about child sacrifice taking place. (Fantar 03:06)
He also wrote in the same article that Gustav Flaubert passed on the idea of child sacrifice in his novel Salammbo without citing any evidence and that Diodorus’s account was more myth and legend than history (Ibid)
Other evidence is that the burials were more ritual in nature and that the cemeteries were not exclusive to the people of Carthage but open to all who lost a child while living in the area. (Ibid)
But that isn’t all the evidence against child sacrifice. Jarret A Lobell in a recent article for Archaeology magazine wrote that researchers have found that many of the burials featured deaths that were prenatal or a day or two after birth and that the mortality rate was consistent with the same type of deaths in modern societies. (Lobell:64:01:2011)
This idea is backed up by the Italian archaeologist Piero Bartoloni after excavations at Zama, came to the same conclusion after studying the remains of 6,000 or so urns. (Bartoloni:2007). He concluded that they were still born babies and not sacrificial victims.
Others state that the presence of animal remains undermine the idea of child sacrifice. (Lexicorient:Carthage).
The argument against child sacrifice is a strong one, and the evidence supporting it seems to be well researched and reasoned. The silence of the Carthaginians, due to no fault of their own, does not help this side of the debate either. Their own words would go a long ways in settling the issue. Of course, many would argue that the Carthaginians altered their own history to make themselves look better but there is no evidence that they acted like the ancient Egyptians, who are well known to do such revisionist recording.
The Romans did not do anyone any favors by their destructive nature and the truth is now lost to history because of their actions. The Greek and Roman authors do not help as they did not use any references, or at least recorded any, that they used to come to the conclusion that the Carthaginains sacrificed their children. This point helps the ‘No’ side because their words can be put down as hearsay evidence or unsubstantiated rhetoric by the enemies of the people of Carthage. In other words, they are biased and their words cannot be taken for fact.
Now it is time to take a look at what the Bible says about this topic as it is used, along with the biblical word ‘tophet’ to support the idea that the Carthaginians practiced child sacrifice.
IV. What The Bible Says
In this section I am going to quote the biblical passages first so that people can read for themselves what God says on the issue. Then put a few thoughts at the end. Quotes will be form both the KJV and the 1984 NIV versions, and compared when noted.
Lev. 18:21– And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord. (KJV)
Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed[a] to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. (NIV)
Lev, 20:1-5–The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any alien living in Israel who gives[a] any of his children to Molech must be put to death. The people of the community are to stone him. 3 I will set my face against that man and I will cut him off from his people; for by giving his children to Molech, he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. 4 If the people of the community close their eyes when that man gives one of his children to Molech and they fail to put him to death, 5 I will set my face against that man and his family and will cut off from their people both him and all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molech. (NIV)
Jer. 7:31–And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart. (KJV)
Jer. 19:4-6– Because they have forsaken me, and have estranged this place, and have burned incense in it unto other gods, whom neither they nor their fathers have known, nor the kings of Judah, and have filled this place with the blood of innocents;5 They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind:6 Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that this place shall no more be called Tophet, nor The valley of the son of Hinnom, but The valley of slaughter. (KJV)
Jer. 32:35–They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters[a] to Molech, though I never commanded, nor did it enter my mind, that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin. (NIV)
And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin. (KJV)
Ez. 16:20-21– And you took your sons and daughters whom you bore to me and sacrificed them as food to the idols. Was your prostitution not enough? 21 You slaughtered my children and sacrificed them[a] to the idols. (NIV)
Ez. 23:36-39– The Lord said to me: “Son of man, will you judge Oholah and Oholibah? Then confront them with their detestable practices, 37 for they have committed adultery and blood is on their hands. They committed adultery with their idols; they even sacrificed their children, whom they bore to me,[a] as food for them. 38 They have also done this to me: At that same time they defiled my sanctuary and desecrated my Sabbaths. 39 On the very day they sacrificed their children to their idols, they entered my sanctuary and desecrated it. That is what they did in my house. (NIV)
36 The Lord said moreover unto me; Son of man, wilt thou judge Aholah and Aholibah? yea, declare unto them their abominations;37 That they have committed adultery, and blood is in their hands, and with their idols have they committed adultery, and have also caused their sons, whom they bare unto me, to pass for them through the fire, to devour them.38 Moreover this they have done unto me: they have defiled my sanctuary in the same day, and have profaned my sabbaths.39 For when they had slain their children to their idols, then they came the same day into my sanctuary to profane it; and, lo, thus have they done in the midst of mine house. (KJV)
Deut. 12:31– Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God: for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. (KJV)
There are several things that need to be pointed out from these passages. First, the word ‘tophet’ only refers to one place in Israel—the valley Ben Hinnom and does not refer to children cemeteries anywhere else in the world.
Second, We find no mention of the Phoenicians practicing child sacrifice. We do get a general term for the people occupying the promised land but no specific civilizations are named. Yes, a god is named but that does not mean that all people who worshipped hat god sacrificed their children.
That is like saying ‘since it is a fact that some people who are christian had abortions, all people who are called christian practiced and favored abortion. Generalities are not evidence.
Third, We know that the people of Canaan in the Promised land practiced child sacrifice/passing through the fire but no mention of such practices migrating to other areas of the world.
Fourth, Does ‘passing through the fire actually mean child sacrifice? We have the 1984 NIV translators equating the two but does it really, when God makes separate mention of killing children and passing through the fire?
That is a detailed study for another day.
V. Analysis of the Evidence—Problems
In looking at the evidence for the ‘yes’ side of the issue it is hard to agree with Andrew White when he wrote the following: It is well established that this rite of child sacrifice originated in Phoenicia, ancient Israel’s northern neighbor, and was brought to Carthage by its Phoenician colonizers (White:ABR:2012)
For the evidence is more speculative, assumed or a result of a wild and large leap to a conclusion. If we use the carved images of a sheep or supposed priest holding a baby as an example, it is mere reading into the images that they represent child sacrifice. There is no textual representation that could lead one to conclude that they do.
Or that a single reference to a common deity in an another geographical location implies that child sacrifice took place outside of the Promised Land and on a large scale. Such thinking demonstrates a bias against the Carthaginians simply based upon the unsubstantiated word of the enemies of the people of Carthage.
Stager and Greene mention something about ‘lurid details’ but then they go on to say that such are unverifiable. (Stager & Greene 03:06), so why include them in with the supposed evidence supporting their pro position? Such information only colors or distorts the archaeological record and the issue itself and only serves the purposes of those who cannot bring themselves to think that child sacrifice did not take place at Carthage.
Then there is the problem of the amount of burials taking place at the children’s cemeteries in Carthage. According to Stager and Wolfe, approx. 20,000 burials took place over a 200 year period, from 400 BC to 200 BC. (Stager & Wolfe:BAR10:01) and another source has it pegged form 800 BC to 146 BC (White:ABR:2012). A range of 654 years.
That amounts to approx. 100 burials a year for Stager’s and Wolfe’s estimate and approx.. 40 a year for White’s. Even if you add in some multiple burials in the same urns those figures do not support the supposed horrific picture any of them are trying to paint about the ancient Carthaginians. Especially when you compare those figures to the example of the European children’s hospitals of the 19th century where one in St. Petersburg had 25,000 children on its rolls and admitting 5,000 more annually. Unfortunately 30-40% died within the first 6 weeks. (Stager & Wolfe:BAR:10:01).
30-40% equals an approx.. tally of 7,500 to 10,000 children dying a year. It would take only 2 years of these children’s hospitals to surpass the amount of remains found at Carthage yet the latter is accused of sacrificing their children while the former were are lauded for their attempts to save unwanted babies/youth? Why couldn’t those cemeteries at Carthage be the sad results of the same endeavor?
Next we come to the idea of labeling these cemeteries as Tophets and one internet blogger came up with this wonderful question: “However, what I do not understand is why these burials from Carthage are identified as ‘Tophet’ burials?”(rogueclassicist:2010)
This is a good question because there is no explanation for this extrapolation of the biblical term. It is highly prejudicial and seems to seek to manipulate the reader’ opinion because the physical evidence supporting child sacrifice is weak and basically non-existent. It also seems that the researchers who use this term are being very dishonest in their work as the Bible does not refer to this term being applied to any area outside of the Promised Land.
Nor does it imply that all child cemeteries are Tophets and without real evidence it is just wrong to call those in other areas Tophets. A careful study of the biblical use of the term is needed to clear up this obvious attempt to distort the reality and insult a people who cannot defend themselves.
Another problem with the pro side of the issue is the idea that ancient historians must be taken at their word because they are supposedly primary witnesses to the event in question. If we are to do so, then why are historians like Livy and Polybius ignored and not taken at their word? Why is it only those historians who agree with the pro side get such status?
Mainly because they tell the pro side what they want to hear and no attempt is made to verify their claims and accusations. This is just poor academics and scholarly work. None of the ancients have supporting documentation to back them up nor do they cite any works so to follow through on such a principle is not smart. It distorts the issue and allows for accusations to stand without proof.
Since we know that the Romans destroyed almost all of the textual evidence when they finally defeated the Carthaginians what we have is a people who cannot defend themselves and explain what the remains means. It is not just nor right to mar their name based upon the unverifiable accusations made by the ancient writers who also happened to be their enemies.
Finally, we have the issue of why was Carthage founded in the first place. Supposedly I was founded by Queen Dido who fled Tyre at the murder of her husband (N.W.E.:Carthage) but could a good reason be that those people who left Tyre did so because they did not want to be part of the child sacrifice taking place in Canaan at the time?
In other words, the people of Carthage and Zarapath are guilty by association. They are using the same name of a Canaanite god thus they must be practicing child sacrifice as well. There is no evidence to support that contention and it is highly irresponsible to take one small inscription and a few pictures and infer child sacrifice took place within those borders.
None of the inscriptions refer to child sacrifice specifically and such charges are read into the existing inscriptions by archaeologists and scholars long removed from event in question. It seems that the researchers for the pro side went in with pre-supposed conclusions and found what they were looking for without critical examination of the all the mitigating factors.
In other words, the Carthaginians were guilty and they were not allowed to prove their innocence.
As for the con side of the issue, the physical evidence seems to side with them though of course much could be placed in the subjective category and be a matter of opinion not fact. They are lucky in that the pro side abuses the data they uncover to fit their ideas of what took place over 2000 years ago.
The silence of the Carthaginians does not help them nor do the ambiguous nature of the inscriptions but again, such items od not help the pro side at all. The heightened sensitivity concerning child sacrifice and which leads to the distortion of the evidence is exampled by the building of the Ammon airport in 1955. At the time a building with a bunch of bones were uncovered and immediately the archaeologist in charge put forth a theory that they were evidence for child sacrifice.
Unfortunately for the archaeologist and those who supported his theory, the bones turned out t be adult and the building may have been an ancient funeral home and crematorium. (BAR:40) Such leaps to a pre-determined conclusion only helps the con side of the issue as it can use such mistakes in judgement to point out the bias nature of those working in the field of archaeology and demonstrate that the ancient people, not only of Carthage but other cities, do not have a chance to express their innocent stature.
The evidence is immediately turned against them. This is one of the problems in this issue as one employee of a Christian organization stated the following: ‘Besides, if they are guilty of such horrific crimes, who cares whether they can defend themselves or not’.* The chips are stacked against the Carthaginians as even some claimed Christians do not want to allow justice or fairness to enter the playing field
We need to care because we need to present the truth not our version of what took place in the past.
In looking at the evidence again and re-examining it from a different perspective it is clear to see that those who support the idea that the Carthaginians practiced child sacrifice do not have the physical evidence they claim they have.
It is mostly speculative theory and assumption coupled with leaps to conclusions without verification they turn to in justifying their stance. They also use a lot of eisegesis to support their ideas. A picture of an adult holding a child is not evidence of child sacrifice but it is evidence of an adult holding a child in ancient times.
A carved picture of a sheep is not evidence of child sacrifice but it is evidence of the fact that domesticated sheep were present or known in the ancient world. Without the correct textual information to tell us what these images mean, that is as far as we can take them. To read anything more into them is bias and wrong.
But what does this issue mean to the modern day believer? There are several lessons to be taken away from this discussion and the many articles and books written on the issue.
#1. We must find and learn the truth. Jesus and God are truth thus we must represent that fact even in our historical studies. To do otherwise undermines our message and Christ’s claims about Himself.
#2. Bias and prejudice permeate the archaeological field and we must not take scholars at their word, even if they have pages and pages of references cited in their work. If it isn’t true, then it is wrong. Also we do not know when they are omitting opposing information when it doesn’t sit their purpose thus we must study to learn all the facts.
#3. We cannot take ancient historians at their word because we do not know their motivations nor can we verify much of what they claim.
#4. People get the opportunity to defend themselves. To withhold that defense is equal to subjecting them to a kangaroo court or vigilante justice.
#5. What artifacts and other pieces of evidence say depends upon who is wielding it. It takes honesty to get to the truth.
#6. It is wrong to mis-use the Bible to support one’s theory.
Can we say unequivocally that child sacrifice took place in ancient Cartage? No for that would be like saying that because a few modern people practiced abortion in Fargo north Dakota all their people did and it was approved by the city officials.
Not everyone practices or approves of abortion thus even though there may be evidence that some people do doesn’t mean they all did or that it was an accepted practice. We cannot condemn al people based upon the actions of a few.
BUT we cannot say that child sacrifice did not take place either. Even though there is nothing specific stating that it took place there is also nothing specific stating it didn’t. We cannot prove that all the people rejected that form of worship or that some were deceived into doing it by the priests of the time.
When priests hold to a ritual it doesn’t mean that the people willingly went along with the practice. Their own parental nature would not allow it to take place. They would have to be convinced that it was a good idea which means that they were deceived and this is an attitude ignored by the archaeologists researching this issue.
Just like many people today who are deceived and convinced that having an abortion is a good thing. As believers, we do not condemn, we do not judge we practice what Jesus and God taught so that the world can experience His grace, His love and forgiveness.
If the Carthaginians practiced child sacrifice there is nothing we can do about it now. They are dead and any punishment or action taken today against them means nothing, even the judgmental attitude of supposed Christians. What we can do though is learn how not to act through this issue and extend the teachings of Christ to all those who do not follow His ways.
We pray for them, we treat them like Christ wants we help them when they need it and so on but we do not look down upon them nor judge them for our lives are no better than theirs and we received grace, love and forgiveness for our sinful acts thus we must do the same for those who do not live by God’s way.
We can’t say for sure what the ancient Carthaginians did with their children (Hartland:2005) people will make their own decisions based upon what little evidence we have but we shouldn’t mis-use the information to fit some ultimate goal when the issue doesn’t fit. Child sacrifice is not abortion and their purposes are different, we should not equate the two practices except to say that both are wrong and sin.
1. An Odyssey Debate: Were Living Children Sacrificed to the Gods? Yes by L. Stager and J. Greene Odyssey Magazine 03:06
2. An Odyssey Debate: Were Children Sacrificed to the Gods? No by M.H. Fanter Odyssey Magazine 03:06
3. Child Sacrifice at Carthage: Religious right or population Control? By L. Stager and S. Wolff BAR 10:01, 1984
4. Evidence of Child Sacrifice Found at Zarapath Bible and Spade 1974/5 Vol. 4
5. Jottings From Jordon BAR Vol. 40
6. Excavations In Zama Reveal That the Carthaginians Did Not Sacrifice Their Children by Piero Bartaloni http://phoenicia.org/childsacrifice.html
7. Carthage: Tophet with Child Sacrifice http://lexicorient.com/tunisia/carthage02.htm
8. Child Burials Carthage, Tunisia by Jarrett A. Lobell http://www.archaeology.org/1101/topten/tunisia.html
9. Child Sacrifice at Carthage 02/07/2010 http://rogueclassicism.com/2010/02/17/child-sacrifice-at-carthage/
10 Carthage- Child sacrifice
11 Carthage http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Carthage
12 Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean by Phil Harland http://www.philipharland.com/Blog/2005/05/27/real-child-sacrifice-at-carthage/
13 Discussion forum listing the Biblical references used in this paper http://www.biblocality.com/forums/showthread.php?2044-Child-Sacrifices
14 Abortion and the Ancient Practice of Child Sacrifice by Andrew White MD http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2012/01/05/Abortion-and-the-Ancient-Practice-of-Child-Sacrifice.aspx