Jephthah's Daughter, Sarah's Son

The Death of Children in Late Antiquity

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Maria Doerfler
Christianity in Late Antiquity
  • Berkeley: 
    University of California Press
    , January
     416 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Maria E. Doerfler’s monograph, Jephthah’s Daughter, Sarah’s Son, provides a fundamental assessment of the role late antique texts (commentaries, homilies, inscriptions, letters, and poems) that dealt with the death of children in the Bible played in church and society. The author aims at “rethink[ing] the death of children in late antiquity, its impact on families, and the ways in which particularly Christian writers sought to assist families in thinking about its challenges” (5). The book shows how these writers understood childhood mortality, “and, whenever possible, explores the interpretive trajectories leading from text to interpretation to communal deployment beyond their original context” (12–13). To this purpose, Doerfler focuses on a few biblical figures: Having placed rituals of burial and mourning in their historical context (23–43), the author draws attention to the bereaved parents Eve and Adam, Sarah and Abraham, Jephthah and the Maccabean Mother, Job and his wife, and finally to the Holy Innocents. This enables Doerfler a well-structured route out of Eden back to Eden, of which Herod’s victims were the new inhabitants.

Doerfler highlights a striking aspect of the late antique interpretation of each figure, in order to underline its actualization for the audience or readership of the time and beyond. The death of a child can paradoxically be a source of gratitude (71), thanks to the example of Abel, who was the first one to return to Eden. The unexpected role given to Sarah in a few interpretations of the “binding of Isaac” (Akedah) offers “a vital voice for parental grief, lament, and recrimination” (99). The examples of Jephthah and of the Maccabean Mother face the addressees with the question of parental survival after the unnatural death of a child (141). Besides usual depictions of Job as a paragon of patience, contrasting portraits of him and his wife were adjusted to special contexts of magical belief and ancient Christian burial (171). Last but not least, “dead children benefited from the discourses that had elevated child martyrs” (202) and the motif of their innocence is linked with the eschatological hope of access to paradise. Therefore, Doerfler stresses the importance of the audience to whom the ancient authors addressed their works.

Doerfler’s outstanding merit is the use of a large and well-mastered corpus of sources: biblical but also intertestamental writings, Bohairic, Ethiopic, Greek, Latin, Old Church Slavonic and Syriac literature, well-attributed and pseudepigraphic works. As the extensive endnotes (215–324) and the bibliography (325–372) show, Doerfler is familiar with the state of the art, albeit recent editions of a few quoted works are missing. For example, M. Turcan’s edition of Tertullian’s De spectaculis from the year 1986 (Sources Chrétiennes 332) should replace A. Reifferscheid and G. Wissowa’s edition from the year 1890 (248, 339). D. Finn’s article on “Job as Exemplary Father according to John Chrysostom” (Journal of Early Christian Studies 26, no. 2 [2018], 275–305) could also have provided a deeper insight into John Chrysostom’s understanding of the grief over a child. Careless mistakes remain in the endnotes, especially pertaining to quotations (e.g., “Mayer” instead of “Meyer” 224, or regarding French words 231, 233, 238, 296, 308).

Apart from these details, the less convincing aspect of this impressive monograph concerns the selection of the biblical figures themselves. Doerfler does not really justify the choices made for the book. The couples of figures mentioned in the title, Sarah and her son, Jephthah and his daughter, are not representative of the whole work, because each of these duos only appears in half a chapter and is not as prominent as Job or the Holy Innocents. In contrast, other important biblical figures are only touched on or completely missing: David mourning his sons and especially Bathsheba’s infant is only mentioned in a single endnote (292–293), the cases of the Hebrew boys in Exodus 1 and of Joseph mourned by his father Jacob are absent (except 163). It could also be very interesting to analyze the interpretation of figures like Jairus’ daughter or even Jesus abandoned by his father.

Briefly, a critical suggestion could concern the refinement of the categorization which is proposed in the book, for example: What is the impact of the loss of infants (Holy Innocents), compared with the death of older children (Abel, Isaac, Jephthah’s daughter, Job’s children)? Doerfler does actually sometimes tackle the question (71, 178). Moreover, is there a difference in the treatment of “real death” (Abel, Jephthah’s daughter, Job’s children, Holy Innocents, David’s sons), abandon (Moses), “fake death” (Joseph and, in some sense, Isaac) and death followed by resurrection (Jairus’ daughter)? Did the age of the addressees and their ability to have other children play a special role in the exposition of the biblical passages and in the advice given for dealing with grief?

These points, as well as the missing biblical figures, might present the opportunity of writing a second monograph and could enable Doerfler to specify the “narrative’s function in addressing, channeling, and ultimately allaying parental bereavement among th[e] audience” (206). This function, as the author could have said more affirmatively in the conclusion, is not only a rhetorical phenomenon but also reveals strategies for the management of emotions. The references to liturgical sources as well as the parallels drawn between the apocryphal Testament of Job, for example, and the depiction of this figure in funerary art (164–171) are very stimulating. At the same time, a strictly literary approach to the exegesis of biblical passages on children threatened with death would be even more productive: Indeed, “the lives and deaths of children in antiquity must perforce remain at the margins” (209), but the texts should always be at the center, as this book tends to show implicitly.

To conclude, this very well-written volume on the reception of selected biblical figures concerning the death of children will be worthwhile to students and experts in the fields of theology, religious sciences, classical literature, ancient history, Near Eastern studies, psychology, and social studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marie-Ève Geiger is a research assistant at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Maria E. Doerfler is Assistant Professor of Late Antiquity in Yale University’s Department of Religious Studies.


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