In a humble, single room hut in the village of Capernaum, a small boy quietly tends to the animals in the lower, hay covered floor that was carved out for the animals, while in the raised family area of the hut a group of young men, guests of his father and disciples of the Rabbi Jesus, argue over which of them will hold the higher position when they’ve overthrown the Roman oppressors. The rabbi returns. His disciples run to him, demanding that he tell them the positions they will hold in his kingdom. The rabbi’s eyes scan the hut quickly as the little boy crouches low behind his goat. The rabbi smiles; he has found his answer. Pushing through the demanding young men, he reaches down and lifts the boy up to the higher level of the hut, placing him in the midst of the men, and tells them that the one of them who is most like the little boy will be the greatest; that those who cannot be like him are not fit for his kingdom. (Matthew 18:1-5, Luke 9:46-48, Mark 10:14-15).
The Synoptic Gospels each contain an account of Jesus declaring that being like a child is a requirement for entry into the kingdom of Heaven. Given that over half the world’s population consider Jesus an authority on the topic of Heaven, and a third say he is God (1), and also given the implications of being left out of the kingdom for failing to be like a child are disastrous by dominant modern interpretations, it would appear that having a correct understanding of this verse would be of critical importance. Unfortunately, those seeking to understand the meaning of this statement have left large bodies of information unused in forming their conclusions, with the result that the dominant understanding of Jesus’ statement may be incomplete. In this essay, I plan to bring together the major sources of information on the reality of what it meant to be a small child within the Roman Empire during the early part of the first century from both primary documents and archaeological evidence, in order to present four alternative readings of the phrase, and their theological applications.
These are as follows:
1) Being like a child means being vulnerable and dependant on others.
2) Being like a child means learning by asking challenging questions.
3) Being like a child means having a low status.
4) Being like a child means existing outside of the Mosaic Law.
While it is a common assumption that children are the same in every culture and context, it is also incorrect. Modern
Western audiences generally consider childhood to be a time of innocence and naiveté, a receptiveness and unquestioned acceptance of whatever their parents say, and of absolute contentment with life as it is (2). The irony of course is that this is not even universally true in cultures which promote this romanticised stereotype. To understand the meaning of childhood in the context of Jesus’ teaching, it is necessary to put aside preconceived ideas of what modern culture claims about the nature of childhood (3). This is especially important when considering the implications of Jesus’ association of the Kingdom of God with little children (Matthew 18:4; Mark 10:15; Luke 9:46-48). What does it mean to be like a child in the context of Jesus’ command?
There are a number of challenges involved in trying to understand the life of a child living in the Roman Empire at the beginning of the first century. The main problem, which is so obvious that it is frequently overlooked, is that researchers aren’t able to actually speak to a child from the first century in order to ask them about their experiences. This is true of all historical research, but is particularly relevant in this case as there is also no access to literature specifically written by members of the target group, as might be available for researching the experience of other members of ancient society. This leaves the anthropologist to piece together a picture of the likely experiences of children in ancient times by examining what adult writers had to say about their own experiences and opinions of children, and what archaeological evidence can say about the kinds of experiences children may have had and their place in the society. Any interpretation of this data is then vulnerable to the author’s own expectations and biases (4).
Little is known about children in the first-century Mediterranean world (2). The use of archaeology in the study of children in antiquity is a newly accepted discipline within the academic community because certain difficulties in drawing information from younger skeletal remains have only recently been overcome (5). As a result, the current dominant archaeological narrative presents a picture of the ancient world in which children are conspicuously absent (5). Theologians have also shown little interest in child focussed readings of the Bible until relatively recently (3).
Fortunately, it will not be necessary to specifically determine whether Jesus is using Roman or Jewish definitions of children in his teaching, as it is widely acknowledged that by the beginning of the first century, the Jewish culture had become thoroughly Hellenised (6) and its approach to children was much the same as the rest of the Roman empire (7), with a few notable exceptions in its approach to infant exposure and parental responsibility (8; 9). In this article, unless otherwise stated, general comments about children will refer to both Jewish and non-Jewish children, with specific comments about Roman, Greek and Jewish children when there is a disparity between the subgroups.
1. Being like a child means being vulnerable and dependant on others.
A casual glance at the available archaeological evidence of mass child graves shows that a major factor of being a young child in the first century Mediterranean area must be vulnerability (5). Every child in the area of this study would be considered “at risk” by modern standards (10). Infant mortality was common, with an estimated 30.6 to 35.8% of infants dying in their first year of life (9; 11). The variation in these estimates is based on how widespread instances of child exposure are believed to be in the specific area and how likely those instances were to result in the death of the infant. Greek mothers did not commonly form a strong bond with newborn children before they reached the age of two (11) and it is a reasonable assumption that some Hellenised Jewish and Roman communities also adopted this measure for dealing with the reality of high infant mortality. The Jewish Mishnah does not permit any form of grieving for children born before the eighth month of pregnancy or who die within thirty days of birth, they are considered stillborn (Halacha 6-8); this suggests that such deaths were sufficiently common that this kind of legislation was necessary to prevent excessive disruption to society by frequent ceremonial grieving practices. It could be argued however, that the Jewish practice of naming male children on the day of circumcision provides some level of humanisation to Jewish infants at an earlier stage than traditions of the surrounding cultures (12).
As well as death by natural causes, newborn infants faced the threat of infanticide. Marriage existed in Rome for the primary purpose of producing children (8). Since Rome valued the production of male children as citizen-soldiers (8) children with birth defects which were not immediately fatal were required by Roman decree to be killed immediately (9). This practice was generally performed by the midwife, and usually by drowning (9). The Jewish scholar Philo, considered the killing of infants to be excessively cruel (13).
More common than infanticide was child exposure, the practice of taking a new-born infant to a secluded location to be exposed to the elements. While many exposed infants would have died, this practice was considered distinct from infanticide as it was possible, though not necessarily probable, that the child may survive (9). Exposure can be roughly divided into two forms. Parents who expressly wished their child to die, usually if the child is either disabled in some way or illegitimate, would leave the infant naked or in a location where it would be unlikely to be found (9). The softer form of exposure was to leave the child clothed in a public area or a secluded area which was a known place for child exposure where people seeking infants to raise as their own, or more commonly as slaves and prostitutes, could possibly rescue them for this purpose (9). Martial, in his letter to Domitian during the first century, praises a relatively new Roman law for protecting infants from castration (14).
Child exposure was common across the Roman Empire, and was generally accepted as unavoidable (9). Poverty was a major cause of child exposure, and people would often expose a child rather than raise one in poverty (9). Since Roman culture considered it the obligation of a parent to provide the children they raised with an inheritance of property equal to what they received from their own parents, exposure would often be used to prevent an excessive division of an inheritance between too many heirs (9). Most families would only raise two children for this reason (7). Exposure also allowed parents to choose the sex of the children they raised and was therefore a more common practice than contraceptives and abortion, which were both also practiced at the time (9).
Cornelius Tacitus actively condemned the Jews for failing to expose unwanted children(15), though the reality was that while Jewish scholars did try to take a stand on the issue more than those of any other cultural group of the time, the exposure of deformed and illegitimate children still seems to have been considered to be unavoidable (9). Some claim that Philo’s aggressive language toward men who killed infants also extends to a condemnation of exposure as well, however there are little grounds for this claim, as while it was the man who made the decision (8), the actual procedure of infant exposure was considered to be women’s work (9). Also, due to the Mishnah’s distinction between a live birth and stillborn being determined when the infant reaches 30 days of age (Halacha 6-8), it is possible that child exposure occurring in the first month of an infant’s life would not be considered as severe in Jewish law because the child was not technically a person yet. However, there is also evidence in contemporary poetry of the period that single Jewish mothers were more commonly recognised to attempt to raise an illegitimate child in poverty than their Roman counterparts (14).
Children who survived infancy were by no means guaranteed survival. Twenty three percent of children who reached their first birthday would still die before the age of five*. The most common causes of death at this age are violence and neglect (9). Since male children were more highly valued, it was female children who were at the greatest risk at this stage (9; 2). Jewish scriptures advised parents whose children were disrespectful to them allow other members of the community to discipline their children to avoid overly harsh punishment (7); it can be inferred from this and the fatality statistics available in the archaeological record that this is in response to a common problem of overly enthusiastic corporal punishment, resulting in death (5). As children, particularly female children, were considered the “least” in family and social structures, when times of poverty and scarcity occurred, it was usually the youngest who would go without food or clothing; the results were often fatal (2).
Children who survived to the age of five would now have a much better chance of surviving to adulthood (16). Male and female foundlings** would be sold on the slave market at this age (9). Child prostitution was also a commonplace for both male and female children (14) which would increase the child’s material worth and consequently their chances of survival would also increase.
It is possible that Jesus was referring to their vulnerability and absolute reliance on the benevolent charity of adults. Somebody looking for a biblical justification of this interpretation need look no further than the gospel account which has Jesus send his disciples out into the surrounding villages without an outer coat or shoes. This put them in a position similar to a child who has been left out for exposure. They were reliant on somebody in the town they were visiting to take them into their home or else they could possibly die from exposure to the elements (Matthew 10:10).
2. Being like a child means learning by asking challenging questions.
Rise; the baker is already selling breakfasts to the children; and the crested birds of dawn are crowing on all sides (14)
In the Roman Empire, formal education began at the age of five. In this section I plan to focus on the education of children raised by Roman parents compared to the education of Jewish children.
It was usual for children in Ancient Rome to attend both primary and secondary school (17). While there is no record of girls being required to attend school, there is also no record of them not being permitted to do so; it likely depended on the father’s willingness to pay tuition for a daughter (17). Roman law stated that only children who had attended both primary and secondary school were required to support their parents in their old age (17) so it is likely that girls who had no brothers would be sent to school to ensure their parents’ retirement plans. Repeated mention of female poets Sulpicia and Theophilia in the works of Martial, and of Cynthia in the works of Propertus indicate that there were at least some literate females in Rome at the time (18).
A normal school day would begin before dawn (19). The students would wake up before sunrise and begin the journey to school, often purchasing baked goods from local businesses that began their day early specifically to cater to hungry school children (14). Classes would be conducted in a loud, teacher centred, pedagogical style which was apparently very effective at robbing local poets of their beauty sleep (14).
In nearby Jerusalem, it was considered the responsibility of Jewish parents to teach history and religion to their children (12), and it was the responsibility of the father specifically to teach them the law (20) According to the Mishnah, a child at the age of five years was fit to begin memorising the Torah; by age ten they could study the Mishnah (Avot 5:21). Since it would not have been practical for every household to have a copy of all the scriptures, synagogues became the central learning institutions for the Jewish population of the Roman Empire. Teachers were not paid for their services and were often tradesmen who taught part time in a synagogue or elderly men who were supported by their children (21). Children learned to read the Torah but only developed limited writing skills unless they were specifically training to be scribes; this is implied from the limited language ability demonstrated by laymen in funeral carvings (7). Scribes and rabbis were expected to also have a trade to support themselves if necessary (12). Synagogue lessons for young boys were primarily focussed on reading the Torah and Mishnah and how to live life “under God and among men” (21). Classes were conducted in a student focussed discussion style (21). As well as being responsible for ensuring that their children either attended synagogue or learned religion, the law and history at home, Jewish fathers were also responsible for teaching their son a trade (12). Children in poor families would be expected to work from a young age (7).
Some Christians like to claim that Jesus’ call to be like small children is a command to simply accept what you are told by your pastor on faith alone and stop asking difficult theological questions for which they don’t have an answer. While this may be true of the nature of Roman education, Jewish children however were encouraged to ask difficult theological questions as part of their learning. The account in Luke of Jesus staying behind at the temple as a child and being involved in discussion with the rabbis shows that Jesus, or at the very least the writer of the gospel, did not consider accepting what somebody else says without rational inquiry and questioning to be a positive characteristic of children (Luke 2:41-52). Therefore it is curiosity rather than blind acceptance which defines the childlike learner.
3. Being like a child means having a low status.
Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:4 NIV)
The dichotomy of adult and child fails to do justice to the complexities of social age in a first century context (5). Infants and small children were a marginalised subgroup. In a culture dominated by powerful, adult men, they were not powerful, not adult, and not men (5). They held the lowest social status in a first century Mediterranean family in every area that was valued. Considered ignorant, capricious, in need of education and strict discipline (3), they were considered the “least” (2) in all of society and were completely at the mercy of the adults who took responsibility for them (2).
In a Roman family, marriage existed for the specific purpose of producing children (8). For mostly financial reasons, Romans would seldom have more than two children in a family (9). It was the responsibility of the father to decide if a new born infant would be killed, exposed or raised as his child (8). Sons were more highly valued than daughters (2). To a father, a son could work to support him in his old age, carry on his name and bring honour to the family. To the empire, a Roman son was particularly valuable as a citizen-soldier, essential to the continued Roman conquest and domination of surrounding lands; this is likely the reason that it was necessary to kill handicapped infants (8; 9). A father who accepted his daughter was obligated to nurture her to marriageable age, provide her with an appropriate dowry and arrange a man for her to marry after she’d reached the legally marriageable age of twelve *** (8; 7). Considering the expenses involved and the fact that Roman culture placed a very low value on newborns, particularly females, exposure of daughters was very common (9). The fact that this action was not romanticised with ideas of surrendering them to the will of the gods seems to suggest that the fate of abandoned infants was not of concern to the parents (9). The children they did raise, however, were cherished. Both Roman men and women chose parenthood for the pleasure and joy of raising, teaching and generally enjoying their children (8). Roman parents place a high value on the quality of life of the children they raised, and sought to provide them with at least the same level of security and opportunity which their parents had provided them in their own childhood (9).
For a Jewish family the parents’ responsibility to raise the child began somewhere between birth and when the infant reached the age of thirty one days (Halacha 6-8). Parental responsibility to children was to put food in their mouths and clothing on their backs. The father was culturally responsible for financial support, such as the cost of redeeming the first born, teaching sons a trade and eventually providing dowry for daughters (7). Fathers who did stay around to assist in raising their children were expected to handle the majority of the discipline, which leaned exclusively on corporal punishment (7; Ecclesiasticus 30:1), though in cases where they were personally offended by their child’s behaviour they were encouraged to seek assistance from men in the community to avoid over disciplining their children (7). Jewish parents did not play or laugh with their children (Ecclesiasticus 30:9-10). Their focus was on discipline and education. Children were expected to obey their parents without question (12). Daily care was provided by mothers and only very wealthy Jewish families would employ nursemaids (12). Because most Jewish families were comparatively poor, they were likely to be involved in informal marriages (7). Under Roman law, this meant that the decision over life and death was the responsibility of the mother (8), who was master of the house in an informal marriage (7). In such a situation, the father was only responsible for the upbringing and financial support of his offspring while he stayed with the mother (12); if the parents divorced the mother would be left to support the children by whatever means she could. In the absence of a husband, prostitution and begging would be the only viable options (9; 14).
According to Martial, it was a common sight to see a poor Jewish mother teaching her son to beg in the streets of Rome. There are a number of factors which would lead to this situation. As a result of their position on child exposure (9), Jewish families were more likely to have larger families than they could support; with limited land in a time when wealth was reliant on land holdings, families with more than two children would see their per capita resources reduced significantly with each generation. Without being able to expand their territory or reduce their population through war (due to being part of an Empire), and being culturally incapable of controlling their population growth through other means, the Jews were comparatively poor and often unable to support their own children (7). Poor people were likely to have informal marriages rather than paying a registration fee; Roman law stated that children from informal marriages were the responsibility of the mother in case of divorce (7). The average life expectancy of thirty five (16) incorporated with a high age difference between married couples, with girls marrying as early as twelve years of age though usually in their late teens and men marrying in their late twenties (8), it can be expected that there would be a lot of Jewish women left to raise their young children without a father or any legitimate means of income. Since trade skills were passed from father to son (7), women did not have the skills to teach their sons a trade. So while a daughter raised by a single mother could still potentially be married off at a young age, a son had to be taught a means of earning an income. Without the assistance of men in the community or older male siblings, the only trade a mother could teach her son was begging.
4. Being like a child means existing outside of the Mosaic Law.
The final aspect of what it might mean to be like a child could relate to the fact that small children are not required to keep the law (22). According to the Mishnah, children under the age of thirteen are not expected to fulfil the Mosaic Law (Halacha 6-8). There is not a lot written on the theological ramifications of this, though the influence of such a radical interpretation of Mishnah and Mosaic Law could well lead Jesus to develop theology similar to the one which is attributed to him in the gospels without necessitating an expectation of his own death as a substitutionary atonement for the sins of mankind.
There is a way to test this theory. If it can be shown that Christian libertinism amongst the followers of Kephas existed prior to the development of a doctrine of substitutionary atonement through the human sacrifice of Jesus; entering the kingdom “like a small child” would be a likely origin for such a belief (23). If that is the case then the substitutionary atonement story is likely an etiological adaption of the existing resurrection myth to add emphasis to an existing philosophy by which Jesus was initially able to exclude himself and his followers from any obligation to the Mosaic Law (24). What can be shown is that there were Christian leaders in the very early stages of the church that gave up all pretence of legal observance and held great influence over Christian churches by their direct, physical association with the Messiah well before the earliest Pauline letters were written, (23). While that does not prove that Jesus’ original teachings did not involve substitutionary atonement, it does present an alternate method for libertine beliefs to have developed prior to any record of a belief that Jesus’ resurrection carried any form of atoning meaning other than to justify his teachings.
If Jesus was referring to the unaccountable under the law characteristic of children when he told his followers to be like a small child, it would alter the primary focus of his teaching and suggest that the libertine Christians, more than the Judaizers and Paul, had the most faithful interpretation of the earliest teachings of Jesus. For a modern Christian who accepts this as the most likely meaning of Jesus statement, it would mean a greater emphasis on grace and a significantly reduced ability to justify excluding people from the faith and church community on the basis of sexuality or external behaviour.
What does Jesus really mean when he calls his followers to be like children? Does he mean for Christians to be vulnerable like little children by releasing their attachment to the things that grant them worldly security, like money and career, and place their trust in something greater? Does he mean for Christians to learn like little children, asking the difficult questions and searching for an answer without fear of a conclusion they don’t like? Does he want Christians to be humble like little children, voluntarily placing themselves as lower than others rather than constantly trying tear down others to build themselves up? Does he want Christians to be free from the law of guilt and shame like little children, able to find their way and make mistakes without fearing that their God will smite them if they fail to live up to some impossible standard? Maybe it is all of these. Or maybe he just wants everybody to just shut up and stop asking difficult questions. It is my hope that this essay has shown that there is always more than one way to read a Bible verse, and God isn’t going to get angry at anybody for looking at a few of them to see what makes the most sense.
* Using the statistics that approximately 35% of children die in their first year (9) and that approximately 50% die before age five(16) to calculate an approximate mortality rate of 23% for children aged between 1 and 5 years of age. The second figure is based on burial rates in wealthy families who can afford a formal burial for their children; the mortality rate is likely to be much higher in poor families.
** Foundlings are children who have been rescued from exposure, usually after being “found” by a slave trader.
*** Roman women were allowed to own property so in the event that the father died before he was able to organise a husband for her, which was fairly common with short life expectancy and high age difference between husbands and wives, she could organise a husband for herself and have an accountant arrange dowry payment from her inheritance.
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