The meaning of children in early Christianity
What is childhood? Does it correspond to age? Is it a stage of psychological development? Is childhood a social construct, a way of organizing the sentiments of adults? The critical study of childhood, like that of the family, does not have a long history. Phillipe Ariès’s L’enfant et la vie familiale sous l’Ancien Régime (1960), or, as the title was translated into English, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (1962), is the starting point. His book outlines a before and after for an idea that seems, intuitively, to have always been around. “Childhood,” Ariès argues, was “discovered” in sixteenth- and seventeenth–century Europe, the result of a conspiracy of economic and social factors and a drop in the rate of infant mortality. For proof Ariès appeals to art. Medieval images, he contends, rarely include children. Early-modern paintings, by contrast, celebrate the innocence of youth and pose children as objects of parental affection. “In medieval society,” Ariès concludes, “the idea of childhood did not exist.”
If Ariès’s mind-bending thesis takes a moment or two to process, take comfort, gentle reader, in knowing that historians, sociologists, and psychologists have been wrestling with it ever since. The book has been thoroughly critiqued on methodological and historical grounds. The idea of childhood existed prior to the early modern era; one just has to know where to look for the evidence. And search is precisely what scholars did in the wake of Ariès’s volume. Today the field of “Childhood Studies” is robust, and, somewhat ironically, much of the credit belongs to Centuries of Childhood. “It was Ariès’ achievement,” Hugh Cunningham observed in a 1998 essay in the American Historical Review, “to convince nearly all his readers that childhood had a history: that, over time and in different cultures, both ideas about childhood and the experience of being a child had changed.” Ariès’s essential insight remains a catalyzing force for scholarship. What childhood means in any given time and place cannot be assumed. It must be sought out.
What did ancient Christians think about children and childhood? A number of books published in the past decade have placed the history of childhood within the context of early Christianity. O. M. Bakke’s When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Eng. trans. 2005), as the title suggests, argues that it was ancient Christians who first regarded children as real people, worthy of love and respect. Cornelia Horn and John Martens in “Let the Little Children Come to Me”: Childhood and Children in Early Christianity (2009) contend that Christian discourse against abortion, infanticide, and child abuse improved the lives of ancient children. Reidar Aasgaard in The Childhood of Jesus: Decoding the Apocryphal Infancy Gospel (2009) suggests that Christian adults told and wrote stories specifically geared to a young audience. His evidence is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, an extracanonical gospel that contains tales about the childhood of Jesus, which Aasgaard calls “Christianity’s first children’s story.”
Like these books, Children in Early Christian Narratives by Sharon Betsworth argues that ancient Christians believed that children were special members of the Christian community. Her sources are mainly the canonical gospels of the New Testament, though she also includes chapters on two extracanonical gospels, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Protevangelium of James, a kind of prequel to the New Testament about the childhood of Mary. Throughout the book, Betsworth looks for the presence of children in early Christian narratives. These examples, Betsworth claims, illustrate what she calls a “culture of valuing the child as a child.”
Betsworth’s readings are sensitive and astute, illuminating details that a reader might otherwise pass over. In one example, Betsworth examines an exorcism in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 7:25-30). An unnamed woman approaches Jesus. She begs Jesus to heal her possessed daughter, who lays in bed at home in the Greek-speaking region of Syrophonecia. Jesus refuses: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). One can feel the contempt: not only does Jesus withhold healing, he compares the gentile mother and child to dogs. But the woman does not back down, saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28). Her reply melts Jesus’s heart and he relents: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter” (Mark 7:29).
The exchange reveals both an irritable side to Jesus and the persistence of the mother on behalf of her child. Yet, reading in haste, one may overlook the verbal subtleties—what Betsworth describes as Mark’s “literary and linguistic mastery.” It makes a difference to slow down and read the passage with Betsworth. Where Jesus speaks of “food” (or, literally, “bread”), the woman replies with a diminutive: psichiōn or “little bits, crumbs.” The allusion to “children’s crumbs” gently reminds the reader of the mother’s “little child” who awaits a miracle. The mother, in Betsworth’s words, “cleverly takes control of the conversation, retaining the focus on her daughter.”
This example showcases what is best about Betsworth’s book. Her close reading of passages in the gospels consistently surprises and enlightens. In the chapter on the Gospel of Matthew, Betsworth begins by describing the theme of childhood vulnerability in the birth narrative about Jesus, which is modeled on the biblical account of the dangerous conditions of Moses’s birth. She follows this theme through to Matthew’s version of the story of Herodias’s daughter (Matt. 14:3-11). The child dances for Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great; he is so pleased that he promises to give her whatever she desires. What she desires, it turns out, is something that her mother, Herodias, orders her to ask for: “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter” (Matt. 14:8). In this grim episode, Betsworth calls attention to the helplessness of the child, who, like the newborn Jesus earlier in the gospel, is under threat in a world controlled by scheming adults.
But do these readings, as compelling as they are, add up to a persuasive historical case? Do they show, as Betsworth suggests, that Christianity had a “culture of valuing the child as a child”? One problem with this claim is that what Betsworth means by “value” remains unclear. The term’s meaning is crucial because it is the trait that, according to Betsworth, distinguishes ancient Christianity. For my part, I think Betsworth’s use of “value” implies “love.” And once a book begins to suggest that ancient Christians loved more or better than other ancient people, it has left behind historical argumentation and has crossed over into theological territory.
Pressing the point in a different direction, I wonder just how distinctive the use of children is in Christian storytelling when so much of Christian storytelling depends on themes and plots found in the Jewish Scriptures. For example, Matthew uses the biblical story of the helpless baby Moses in his account of the threatened baby Jesus. Long before Christianity emerged on the scene, ancient Jews were telling and reading stories that featured vulnerable children playing an outsized role in the plans of God. Perhaps it is ancient Judaism and not Christianity that created a “culture of valuing the child as a child”?
Equally troubling is Betsworth’s treatment of “the ideology of the Roman family.” She lays out the ideology in chapter two. It consists of a “picture of children as undervalued,” of children as “disposable,” whose lives could be extinguished at the whim of an all-powerful paterfamilias (“head of household”). Betsworth seems to recognize that this is an exaggeration and pulls back from it elsewhere in the chapter. Romans were complicated, something that the chapter itself suggests as it unfolds. It begins by numbering Plutarch among those elite Romans who thought of children as “disposable,” but it concludes with a different portrait of Plutarch, a man who composed a moving letter to his spouse, A Consolation to His Wife, when their young daughter, Timoxena—a girl who took delight in “little things”—passed away.
So too were ancient Christians complicated. What exactly did ancient Christians think about children and childhood? Not one thing, that’s for sure. Early Christians thought a lot about “household” topics, and argued a lot about them, too. Diversity of opinion can be found in early Christian writings outside the New Testament, but there are also signs of it within the canon. On one page the New Testament gospels exude compassion for children, while on the next they do just the opposite: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Not all ancient Christians thought that they should hate children, but some, heeding the words of their savior, renounced procreative family life.
Scholars owe a debt of gratitude to Betsworth for illuminating the presence of children in early Christian gospels as well as for describing the narrative dynamics at play in these instances. More clearly than any other recent study, Betsworth’s book shows just how important children were to early Christian storytellers. Whether these stories prove that ancient Christianity established the “value” of childhood remains an open question.
Chris Frilingos, Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies, Michigan State University, firstname.lastname@example.org