BMCR 2020.08.36

Jephthah’s daughter, Sarah’s son: the death of children in late antiquity

, Jephthah's daughter, Sarah's son: the death of children in late antiquity. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019. 416 p.. ISBN 9780520304154 $29.95.


Since the turn of the century, research on the history of children and childhood in antiquity has been flourishing, with new research appearing frequently. However, monographs are few and synthetic approaches have been lacking. This has been especially true of research on late antiquity.[1] If research tackling broad issues from certain unified viewpoints is a sign of a mature field, research on children in late antiquity is still in its swaddling clothes. The publication of Maria Doerfler’s new book is, therefore, very much welcome—and all the more so as a volume discussing a central phenomenon with balanced scholarship.

The death of a child was indeed a sad reality for a majority of parents in the pre-modern world. The main question Maria Doerfler sets to answer is how late antique Christian culture would have guided the parents through such an experience—and indeed, how parents would have experienced their bereavement. Even if the latter question is a classic one in the scholarship of childhood history, Doerfler’s approach takes it far beyond the simple and embarrassing question of the (non)existence of the parental love (I will not repeat the historiographical story here; Doerfler likewise merely makes some nods towards this scholarship—for which I congratulate her). Instead, she is constantly reflecting upon the experiences and emotions of the parents and of the writers—in a manner which is methodologically and theoretically critical and up to date. She does not try to reach any “authentic emotions” (whatever we might mean by these!), but as pointed out (p. 6), she aims to track “rhetorical constructions of socially, culturally and religiously approved performances of the emotions”, and (p.7) “cultural scripts instructing Christians how they might order their emotions and actions in the face of a child’s death”.

As sources Doerfler uses a wide array of late antique theological treatises and commentaries by the ecclesiastical elites, dealing with those scriptural passages that discuss childhood mortality and parental bereavement. The material is skilfully (and touchingly) supplemented at times with the actual parents’ viewpoints, as taken mainly from the epigraphical sources. This, in a certain degree, enables a dialogue between sources with ideological and idealistic depictions, and their ‘responses’ in every-day life—even if, as Doerfler reminds us, these too are idealising and reflect the accepted and shared discourses of the emotional community in question, in a way similar to the more ‘literary’ approaches. The material spans from the mid-fourth to the mid-sixth century CE, geographically covering both the Western and Eastern parts of the Roman world.

What is laudatory, and in general rarer than one might hope, is that she stays true to the methodological precepts she has set for her work, sharing her introspection, doubts, and critical reading of the sources with the reader. Indeed, she lets the different voices of her material come through without trying to force them to agree. However, I found it a bit surprising that she introduces the concept of emotional communities only at the very last pages of her work (p. 210)—this, together with other recent theoretical discussions on emotions in the ancient world more generally, could have helped her to open up the discussion even more fruitfully. Also, some discussion about the metaphors of childhood, family and procreation in New Testament and in Early Christian literature could have been useful, as this clearly constitutes one of the main contexts for the passages under scrutiny in the present book.[2] Maybe this could be one direction for further study? This is not to claim the volume would lack erudition, depth and sophistication; after all, at present the notes and bibliography together cover 157 pages—without making the reading experience in any way tedious.

The first chapter after the introduction gives the social and cultural framework for the rest of the volume, discussing the burial practices and commemoration of children in late antiquity. The discussion is an important contribution in its own right, and useful in comparing the late antique world with the earlier, non-Christian, practices in the Roman Empire (and, importantly, earlier scholarship on these practices). Chapters two to six each pick up one or two biblical stories and analyse the late antique commentaries on them from the perspective of the death of children: Chapter two deals with Cain and Abel, and Eve as the first woman to lose her child, and Chapter three Abraham, Isaac, and the children sacrificed to God—Abraham as a parent needing to surrender his child, and Sarah as a grieving mother, sometimes shown as protesting against God. Chapter four discusses Jephthah’s daughter and the Maccabean martyrs, showing the Jephthah himself as a figure used both as a good and as a bad example, while the mother of the Maccabees offers a paradigm of motherly love, suffering and patience. Chapter five deals with Job as a family man, and a paragon of patience and submission to the divine will (even while seeing his children die), while chapter six deals with the Holy innocents of Bethlehem, at the end returning more widely to the issues of innocence and life in Paradise (awaiting the dead children), partly dealt with already in the chapter two.

Doerfler herself points out that this is a book “of parental bereavement as much as about children’s death”. I might add here that this book is, at the end, more a book on the history of parenthood than on the history of childhood and, accordingly, the ‘child’ in this book is often a relational (in the sense of ‘parents and their children’) rather than an age-related concept, a point which could have been explicitly discussed. In many of the scriptural texts discussed the children are already depicted as adults. A reader cannot help but wonder, if there were differences in metaphors and emotional discourses at play between the children depicted as very small, little older, and when they were already of age.

In all, the study is a wonderful example of how bringing a new perspective to well-known sources can yield a potentially fruitful contribution to the field. This book is not only beautiful to hold and a pleasure to read, but also it has rare intellectual clarity and high scholarly relevance.


[1] See also Doerfler, p. 4 (But n.b., ‘David Bakke’ should read here ‘Odd Magne Bakke’).

[2] Like, e.g., Buell, Denise Kimber. 1999. Making Christians: Clement of Alexandria and the Rhetoric of Legitimacy. Hellerman, Joseph H. 2001. The Ancient Church as Family. Aasgaard, Reidar. 2007. ’Paul as a Child: Children and Childhood in the Letters of the Apostle’. Journal of Biblical Literature 126(1), 129–159. Vuolanto, Ville. 2015. Children and Asceticism in Late Antiquity.