Thursday, March 11, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Cornelia B. Horn, John W. Martens, "Let the Little Children Come to Me": Childhood and Children in Early Christianity. Washington, D.C: The Catholic University Press, 2009. Pp. xv, 438. ISBN 9780813216744. $44.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Dennis P. Quinn, California State Polytechnic University, California

[Table of contents is provided at the end of the review.]

Through an exhaustive analysis of nearly every quote pertaining to children in the canonical New Testament, with some references from early patristic texts and some extracanonical, especially the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the authors attempt to answer a basic and important question: what "significant differences Christianity made in the lives of children, historically, sociologically, and culturally" in the first few centuries (2)? The answer they posit is that "Christianity made life better for children" (346). Through the multitude of biblical and select early Christian texts, the authors support their answer. However, when they attempt to place the texts within the larger cultural context of the Greco-Roman world, their thesis is a bit less assured.

Chapters of this work are set up topically and it contains an excellent bibliography, index of biblical references and ancient authors, and an index of subjects and modern authors. Thus, it serves as a useful resource for students and scholars on the main biblical texts and some important works on children in ancient Christianity. Chapter One, "What is a Child?" begins with the central notion: "The significant differences Christianity made in the lives of children, historically, sociologically, and culturally" (2). Although only hinted at this point in the work, in the conclusion we find the authors' main answer: "Christianity made life better for children" (346). This assessment will be taken up later in the review. Suffice it to say the thesis that Christianity was a moral force for the good for ancient children is a recurring theme throughout the work. As the chapter proceeds, it sets out a careful description of the construction of the child in Philo, the Mishnah, and Greek and Roman Childhood. The differences between Jewish views and treatment of the child are compared with and at times distinguished from that of Greek and Roman attitudes.

Chapter Two, "The Christian Framework: From 'Child of God' to 'Son/Daughter of the Church'", analyzes the concept of child of God in the relationship between the people of Israel and then the canonical Christian context. From the Old Testament through the New, the authors trace how the idea of the Son of God influenced and was influenced by ancient conceptions of childhood. The theme of obedience to the father dominates the narratives, demonstrating that "Jesus is God's son because he does the work of the father, just like the child of any father in the ancient world was expected to do" (54). After the Gospel accounts, the work examines Pauline literature as well as some Post-Apostolic works and demonstrates that the metaphor of the Son of God, which arises from the ancient conception of the dutiful son, permeates the overall vision of how Christians should be obedient to God.

Chapter Three, "Christian Family Life and the Christian Household" and Chapter four, "Children and Daily Life: Christian Children's Education" address the early life of the Christian child through early adolescence. Here again, the authors are well versed in the Jewish and early Christian context of the construction of childhood. Close scrutiny of these sources is the model which continues through this chapter, and to great effect. For example, the excellent summary and analysis of John Chrysostom's On Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring up their Children is exemplary for how they position the text within Jewish and Christian learning (149-59). Some reference is made to how the main parts of the chapter fits within Greek paideia (141-43); however, it is more apparent at this point that the Greco-Roman context is rarely eluded to, treating many of the Jewish and Christian attitudes toward childhood in isolation from the larger ancient cultural context in which these groups are embedded.

Chapter Five, "Children and Daily Life: A Time to Work and a Time to Play," is a fascinating chapter which shows the latest research on toys and play in antiquity. It is also more even-handed when it comes to the Greco-Roman context, including a useful, though short, summary and analysis of Columella's insights on childhood and work (167-69). The information included about how children played, their toys, music and games are some of the highlights of the book. Chapter six, "Exposing Children to Violence," shows the opposite end of the spectrum. Outlining the physical and sexual abuse common to children shows that their life was not at all fun and games, and doubly so for slave children. The main thrust of the chapter deals with Jewish and Christian teachings against such atrocities being inflicted on children. Although the authors admit that Christians were not immune to inflicting violence on children themselves, they stress that "Christian criticism of practices of abuse, infanticide, abortion, and exposure led to improved lives for numerous children, in significant part because the Roman state embraced the Christian moral code in the course of the fourth and fifth century" (251). From the opening of the chapter which equates abortion with violence against children, the authors hope to continue the thesis that Christianity was a blessing to children.

Chapter Seven, "Children and Worship in the Early Christian Church," and Chapter Eight, "Children and Christian Asceticism," which are the last chapters of the work, address how children fit in with liturgical and ascetic impulses of burgeoning Christianity. Here the authors show how children were present and participants in nearly every aspect of the development of the orthodox Christian tradition. Christian focus on the child's innocence and honesty become models for the righteous Christian. They even become idealized as "signs of the myth of the First Humans" (300). The great value Christians placed on children was also expressed in the ascetic tradition, for this purity of childhood throughout life and idealized virginity become standard tropes.

Although there is much to be praised in the present work, with its attention to Jewish and Christian sources and well-researched accounts within those traditions, it is not without some considerable limitations. The chapters generally follow a biblical structure: Old Testament, then the Gospels, and then the Pauline epistles. Then it uses a few extra-canonical works, especially the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and then moves to early patristic authors. It is curious that the authors decided to use the Infancy Gospel at the exclusion of other extra-canonical texts, especially without placing it first within its peculiar historical and geographical context. In fact,the Christian texts are never dealt with as products of a particular milieu but rather homogeneously, as part of a single Christian culture. The particular contexts in which the individual writings arise is rarely addressed. Also, the omission of Gnostic and other "heretical" Christian texts is unfortunate, since it limits its vision of early Christianity as a whole.

Perhaps even more problematic is how the authors position Christian views of children vis-à-vis the larger Greco-Roman world from which they sprang. Its goal of placing the Christian understanding of children and childhood within the ancient Greek and Roman context falls a bit short. One example that is illustrative of this is how the authors treat abortion. Placing the section on abortion in the chapter entitled "Exposing Children to Violence" is telling enough. "It is only when Christians became fully engaged in Greco-Roman culture that their opposition to abortion, exposure, and infanticide was stated outright" (222). The authors maintain that Christians were "rather uniform" in their condemnation of abortion, and then goes on to quote the Didache 2.2, Barnabas 19.5, Clement of Alexandria's Paedagogus 3.3, and Justin Martyr's Apologia 1.29 to show where they all opposed abortion. The assumption is that this was a Christian innovation in the Greco-Roman world, influenced by "Jewish moralists and biblical teachings" (222). What the authors fail to note, however, are the several Roman pagan authors who were opposed to abortion for various reasons before Christianity as well as alongside the development of the religion, such as Cicero, Pliny, and Musonius Rufus. These views are not mentioned in this book, but Greco-Roman views on abortion were varied and complex (for a more nuanced view, see Beryl Rawson, Children and Childhood in Roman Italy, Oxford, 2003, 114-15). Thus, it appears that the impulse to show that Christianity was the savior of children in antiquity, working to protect them from immoral treatment by their pagan neighbors may have obscured the authors' vision of many of the pagan moralists who actually influenced Christian thought on the protection of children. Of course, it also makes the assumption that all early Christians opposed abortion and that abortion itself is akin to violence against children.

This is not to take away from the larger importance of the work. As a study of predominantly orthodox Christian views of children and childhood, its level of learning and attention to detail is brimming with merit. As a work which tries to envision children in the larger Greco-Roman cultural context, or the other varieties of the ancient Christian expression, this book may provoke more questions than answers.

Table of Contents

1 What Is a Child?
2 The Christian Framework: From "Child of God" to "Son/Daughter of the Church"
3 Children and Family Life in the Christian Household
4 Children and Daily Life: Christian Children's Education
5 Children and Daily Life: A Time to Work and a Time to Play
6 Exposing Children to Violence
7 Children and Worship in the Early Christian Church
8 Children and Christian Asceticism
Index of Biblical References
Index of Ancient Authors
Index of Subjects and Modern Authors

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