Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.10.52 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.10.52

Shawn W. Flynn (ed.), Children in the Bible and the Ancient World: Comparative and Historical Methods in Reading Ancient Children. Studies in the history of the ancient Near East.   London:  Routledge, 2019.  Pp. 226.  ISBN 9781138543768.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Christoph Schmidhuber, Collège de France (

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Archaeological and historical enquiries into childhood have made large methodological and analytical advances over the last two decades, equipping researchers interested in the topic with fruitful approaches. This allows for more detailed studies such as the ones collected in this volume. As the editor notes in the Foreword, the “essays demonstrate that the historical contexts are essential to understanding children” (p. x). While most essays focus on the Old or New Testaments, their wider historical context and setting is extensively addressed, and some (Bosworth, Laes) primarily focus on Graeco-Roman rather than biblical evidence, thus appealing to a wide audience.

The volume consists of 10 contributions, each dealing with specific types of sources, primarily textual evidence, but also material culture (Parker, Sheridan). All contributors have long been interested in ancient childhood and the chapters often represent self-standing complements to their authors’ previous research activities, which is reflected in the high quality of the contributions and their good command of the available literature in childhood studies.

The chapters are grouped into three sections (see Table of Contents). The first two deal with literary sources and are arranged chronologically: the first contains four contributions dealing with themes in the Old Testament and other cultural contexts in the first millennium BCE, while the three chapters in the second section deal with topics in the early centuries CE. Finally, the third section “Children and material culture” considers (bio-)archaeological approaches, while the Afterword draws connections between attitudes towards female adolescence in early Christianity and today. In the following, the different contributions are presented in detail.

The contributions by Dewrell, Bergmann and Garroway consider recurring themes in the Old Testament. By focusing on how and why children appear in the respective passages considered, they formulate new interpretations for the individual passages and highlight potential intertextuality between them.

Dewrell investigates the intersection between vows and children in the Hebrew Bible, which includes (1) vows taken to request children and (2) children being vowed. In the first category, we find the Kirta epic, in which the titular protagonist loses his entire family and pleas for a new one. The second category features a peculiar case, as Hannah, the mother-to-be of Samuel, vows to dedicate her child to Yahweh if Yahweh allows her to become pregnant. On the first sight, there would be no “material benefit” from the vow (p. 6): Hannah vows the child she requests. Based on semantic analysis, however, Dewrell convincingly argues that once her womb has been opened by Yahweh for the first child, it would remain open for future children. Thus, any children born beyond the first (vowed) child, Samuel, would stay with her.

Bergmann focuses on three birth narratives from three successive generations (Rebecca, Rachel, Tamar), that each describe difficult birth labor. By comparing the three, she suggests that the complications described reflect detailed medical knowledge, which is used for a “deeper purpose as envisioned by the authors of the entire narrative about the history of the people Israel” (17). She asserts that these complications become worse with each story, but that with each birth, Yahweh’s impact on overcoming these difficulties is increasing.

Garroway’s contribution discusses Ancient Near Eastern expectations towards how fathers should socialize their daughters, i.e., teaching them cultural identity and proper cultural behaviors, and how a deviation from these expectations is employed in Old Testament narratives. “Girling” thus involves preparing daughters for their future role in society, namely becoming wife and mother. Combining close reading with historical contextualization, Garroway shows how, in several stories, unmarried female characters have unusual agency for a biblical context, e.g., when Zelophehad’s unmarried daughters request a right to their fathers’ inheritance, which Garroway asserts to be a result of an incomplete process of “girling” due to Zelophehad’s untimely death. Her study underlines the patriarchal attitude reflected in the Hebrew Bible, by which fathers’ failure to appropriately prepare their daughters for their expected role of wife and mother could lead to unexpected societal change, like those usually reserved for men.

The fourth contribution in this chapter compares biblical and ancient Greek evidence for child abandonment. After a very helpful and succinct introduction to anthropological approaches to parental investment, Bosworth argues that historical evidence suggests that factors such as the child’s gender, illegitimacy, poverty, and disability could lead parents to abandon their children, but that this differed by society. Surveying literary abandonment stories, ranging from Moses to Telephus and Paris, he assesses to what extent these factors are involved. He asserts that in most cases, the stories served a narrative purpose of hero building: against all odds, the child was rescued and raised. Therefore, disability does not feature at all in these narratives, and because there was a “great narrative interest in male characters” (p. 51), the majority of stories concerned boys, even though in reality, girls were abandoned especially by wealthier families.

The following three chapters consider the Graeco-Roman world. Two of them deal with the interpretation of New Testament passages in relationship to other religious movements of the early centuries CE.

Betsworth studies the passage surrounding the decapitation of John the Baptist (Mark 6: 14-29), in which Herodia’s daughter urges her (step-)father Herod to kill him. Starting with her observation that this is the only story in the New Testament which presents a child in a negative light, Betsworth argues that this narrative aims to contrast Christianity with a popular cult of that time, the Eleusinian Mysteries. The latter cult surrounds the narrative of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades, which thus has a similar constellation of protagonists as the New Testament story under consideration. By highlighting intertextual aspects shared by both narratives, Betsworth suggests that the author aimed in his portrayal of Herod’s family not only to criticize the Roman ruling class at the time, but also to shed bad light on mother-daughter relationships which were a key component of the Eleusinian Mysteries (in contrast to the father-son relationship intrinsic to the New Testament).

A similar approach is followed by Martens. He focuses on two passages relating to children in the letters of Paul (1 Cor 7: 12-16, Gal 4: 21- 31) and revisits the much-debated question of how Paul envisaged the ritual entry of children into the church, i.e., either by birth, circumcision, or baptism. Given the previous research interest in the topic, the chapter largely accepts or refutes previous arguments, e.g., when following Elliott in linking Paul’s arguments against circumcision addressed to the Galatians to the Cybele cult popular in Anatolia at the time, as this cult also involved bodily mutilation (castration). 1 Martens’ interpretation of the passage from 1 Cor, in which Paul states that children born into mixed marriages (i.e., between Christians and non-Christians) would be included in the church community, is especially noteworthy. For several scholars, this suggested that church membership was bestowed by birth in general, but Martens highlights that this scenario is exceptional and not suitable for generalizations. He argues that Paul offers a transitional membership of these children and he maintains that baptism would have been the normal route to church membership for all.

The last study on the Graeco-Roman world only marginally deals with Christianity. Laes surveys the Greek and Roman literary evidence for accusations of sexual indiscretion against philosophers and teachers. He comes to the conclusion that the topic was not commonly addressed in literary sources, and mostly was a stereotype associated with “Greekness”, reflecting differing attitudes towards sexual relationships in ancient Greek and Roman culture. More importantly, however, he argues that beyond this aspect of ethnicity, if “fear about sexual relationships in schools was ever expressed (…), this was very much connected to family and honor-related anxiety of the well-to- do, who are the only producers of our literary sources” (p. 129). Therefore, concern about sexual indiscretion in school was not related to psychological concerns for the children, a key component of our objections to it, but was rooted in class-identity and family values.

One study stands out chronologically and methodologically: the bioarchaeological study of human remains at the Byzantine monastery of St Stephen in Jerusalem. Despite the scientific nature of her data, Sheridan excels at explaining the relevant biological parameters considered and their implications for interpreting the data one by one. Of over 60 children found, most died during the weaning process (1-3 years). Analyses suggest that most of the children were locals, while the “origin” of the adults was more heterogenous. Sheridan draws on historical data to consider certain scenarios (oblates, school, hospital, orphanage, neighborhood children) which might have resulted in the presence of child remains at the site. By means of elimination, Sheridan concludes that the children were most likely buried at the site because St Stephen’s hosted an orphanage, or because children from the local community were buried here for possible veneration.

Another material culture contribution is Parker’s discussion of Judean pillar figurines, pervasive in ancient Israel in the 8-7th centuries BCE. By comparing the materiality and context of Judean pillar figurines with that of modern-day barbies, Parker confronts the scholarly exclusion of the possibility that they could have been used as toys. While this possibility is important to spell out and include in the debate about these figurines, we still lack a much-wanted methodological framework (and often suitable evidence) to investigate this possibility systematically, whether for Judean pillar figurines or other figurines and miniatures.

The collection of essays concludes with an investigation on the reception of Mary in Western Culture, with a special focus on the Protoevangelium of James. The latter focused especially on the portrayal of Mary as both ritually and sexually pure by blending concepts of purity from both Judaism and Christianity. Drawing on gender studies, Kieser highlights the liminality of adolescent female bodies and the social constraints associated with them. She also suggests that the portrayal of Mary in the Protoevangelium of James even found its way into modern Alabaman legal practice. Although at times highly political, this is a valuable case study in contextualizing Christian writing in the light of the social and cultural constructs that governed its redaction and later reception.

The presentation of this volume is extremely clear and helps readers from other disciplines to follow the authors’ arguments. Each chapter contains enough background information to understand the respective contexts, and relevant text passages are mostly cited in both translation and the original language (in endnotes), although occasionally the respective biblical passages could have been quoted in full for scholars less familiar with the biblical material. An especially valuable feature is the book’s bibliographic organization. The bibliographic references cited are listed in the endnotes of each chapter. In addition, the volume is concluded by an extensive, thematically organized bibliography listing studies within the historiography and archaeology of childhood.

The volume shows that the study of ancient children has progressed over the last decades, which makes collective volumes like this possible. While further conceptual and methodological studies on ancient children in different periods and regions are still needed, the volume shows that, by applying already existing theories and approaches to their material, such as “childist” approaches referenced by several contributors, novel readings of often-discussed passages can be achieved. While the editor notes that “historical contexts are essential to understanding children” (p. x), most contributions demonstrate that in turn, by taking the presence of children in narratives as a point of departure, the historical context of the passages discussed can sometimes also be better understood. The contributions are thus relevant to Biblicists, Classicists and scholars of the Ancient Near East, as well as those interested in gender, education, and childhood studies in general.

Authors and titles

Flynn, S.W.: Foreword

PART I. Children in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East
1. Dewrell, H.D.: Vows and children in the Hebrew Bible
2. Bergmann, C.D.: Turning birth into theology. Traces of ancient obstetric knowledge within narratives of difficult childbirth in the Hebrew Bible
3. Bosworth, D.A.: Uncooperative breeders: Parental investment and infant abandonment in Hebrew and Greek narrative
4. Garroway, K.H.: Failure to marry. Girling gone wrong

PART II. Children in Christian writings and the Greco-Roman world
5. Betsworth, S.: Girls and goddesses: The Gospel of Mark and the Eleusinian Mysteries
6. Martens, J.W.: Children and the church. The ritual entry of children into Pauline churches
7. Laes, C.: “Stay away from my children!” Educators and the accusation of sexual abuse in Roman Antiquity

PART III. Children and Material Culture
8. Parker, J.F.: I bless you by YHWH of Samaria and his Barbie. A case for understanding Judean pillar figurines as children’s toys
9. Sheridan, S.G.: Coming of age at St. Stephens: Bioarchaeology of children at a Byzantine Jerusalem monastery (fifth to seventh centuries CE)
10. Kieser, D.M.: Protoevangelium of James, menstruating Mary, and twenty-first-century adolescence. Purity, liminality, and the sexual female


1.   S. Elliott, Cutting Too Close for Comfort: Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in Its Anatolian Cultic Context (London: T & T Clark, 2003).

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