Children in the Bible and the Ancient World

Comparative and Historical Methods in Reading Ancient Children

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Shawn W. Flynn
Studies in the History of the Ancient Near East
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge / Taylor & Francis Group
    , April
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Children in the Bible and the Ancient World, edited by Shawn W. Flynn, highlights some of the research methods and approaches employed by biblical scholars in the field of childhood studies. The book sets out to provide a “helpful introduction to any who [wish to] study children and childhood in the ancient world” (i). Contributors to the anthology generally employ historical and comparative methodologies. Consequently, the majority of the chapters favor a conceptual or cultural approach that underscores the value of children as opposed to offering a “childist” reading that proceeds from the perspective of a child. As a result, the volume has a decidedly historical bent, with a strong focus on the child’s “economic, domestic, and even cultic value” (xii).

The first section of the anthology discusses children in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near East. Notably, the majority of the authors in this section stress the economic value of children as they relate to issues around human reproduction. For example, Heath D. Dewrell’s chapter on vows underscores how the children operate as a “good” that is either “requested in exchange for some promised item” (4) or “offered in exchange for other sorts of goods” (8). Contrasting biblical stories with other ancient Near Eastern texts, Dewrell concludes that biblical vows attest to the value of children as “the most personal of items” (11). Alternatively, David A. Bosworth’s chapter “Uncooperative Breeders” focuses on the other side of reproduction. He analyzes examples of infant exposure, linking this practice to the pressure parents face when they are not afforded social and cultural support after the birth of a child. Offering numerous comparisons between Hebrew and Greek abandonment narratives, Bosworth argues that illegitimacy and poverty are major determining factors in a parent’s decision to abandon a child. His analysis thus centers on the social and economic impact in the decision mothers and fathers face in their decision to expose a child (see 54).

The second section centers on the conceptualization of children in Greco-Roman and early Christian literature. Unlike section 1, these chapters cover a wider range of contexts. For instance, John W. Martens’ chapter on Pauline churches asks: “was there a means or process in Paul’s churches for children . . . to enter formally into the Church” (96)? Noting the issues related to circumcision in Pauline communities, Martens suggests that baptism may serve as a means for initiation. Taking a very different approach, Christian Laes examines narratives on pedophilia and Roman educators. He notes that this topic derives “from Western present-day concerns about children’s rights” but concludes that “no similar way of thinking [about pedophilia] existed in ancient society” (128–29). Said differently, Laes’ approach notes contemporary concerns regarding child molestation but remains primarily concerned with the historical proliferation of this practice. 

The third section marks another shift in the scope of scholarly analysis. Moving from ancient texts to material culture, these chapters explore how children studies and bioarchaeology draw attention to the material remains of youths. For example, Julie Faith Parker’s chapter on Judean pillar figurines (JPF) “suggests that perhaps children . . . engaged with JPFs in ways similar to how children today interact with toys” (138). As one of the few scholars who explicitly employs a childist framework, Parker contends that while JPFs certainly may have had a role in ritual practices, the function of objects can often change. Said differently, she suggests that children often play with all kinds of material objects, even those not considered toys. Parker then offers an intriguing conclusion, that these objects “may have been both toys and sacred objects, tools of play but also objects of religious importance” (142). Susan Guise Sheridan focuses more on bioarchaeology in her chapter on children’s remains in a Byzantine Jerusalem monastery. Through an analysis of diet, disease, activity patterns, burial practices, and “biodistance”—the distance from an individual’s place of origin and their burial site—Sheridan suggests that these remains could be indicative of a children’s hospital, orphanage, or site for children’s burials. While Sheridan does not offer any definitive conclusion, her study points to the need for future research exploring “aspects of childhood health . . . as well was the possible role of the monastery vis-à-vis the children” (180).

The three sections in Children in the Bible and the Ancient World offer a wide range of topics on the study of children in the ancient Near East and Greco-Roman world. Methodologically, all of these chapters are historical. This restriction is purposeful, with the editor Flynn stating that “contributors have been carefully selected due to . . . their sympathy for the questions of history” (x). With this scope in mind, the book certainly succeeds in its goal to illustrate the variety of historical approaches to the study of children in biblical and extrabiblical literature. Of course, the limited number of chapters that employ an explicitly childist methodology, interpreting the text from the child’s perspective, is disappointing. Still, Children in the Bible and the Ancient World is an excellent anthology for introducing scholars to the various historical approaches to childhood studies in the field of biblical literature.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David A. Schones is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Austin College in Sherman, Texas.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shawn W. Flynn is an Associate Professor of the Hebrew Bible at St Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, Canada, and the Academic Dean of the College.


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