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Children in the New Testament

Child characters appear throughout the New Testament and are more important than most readers realize.


“Little girl,” Jesus says, “get up!” (Mark 5:41). This is the only time we overhear Jesus actually talk to a child in the New Testament. The problem is, the little girl is dead. Why doesn’t Jesus have conversations with any living children? And, for that matter, why aren’t there very many children populating the pages of New Testament texts to begin with?

How are children used in the New Testament?

Children are not main characters in any of the narratives in the New Testament—neither in the gospels nor in Acts. This is not unusual for the ancient world. Although Jesus does interact with children—blessing them (Mark 10:13-16), healing them (John 4:46-54), raising them from the dead (Luke 8:49-56)—they are never the focus of the story. When they do appear, their function is to tell us something about Jesus, the coming kingdom, or what ideal discipleship should look like (see, e.g., Matt 11:16-19; Luke 7:31-35). Children are never in the story to teach us something about children themselves. They are used to think through other issues important to the community.

When we turn from the narratives to the letters, we find a similar situation. Although Paul does often use images of children to describe his relationship with the communities he founded (e.g., 1Thess 2:11; 1Cor 4:14-21), he does not seem to give much thought to the children actually living in those communities. The one time he does mention them in passing (1Cor 7:14) he is using them to make an argument about why a Christ believer ought to remain with a non-Christ believing spouse. Paul’s focus is not the children themselves.

What was expected from children?

In letters that carry Paul’s name, but whose actual authorship scholars question, children do come into focus a bit more. Roman ideology held that one need only look at a man’s household to see if he was leadership material. If his own household was not well managed—that is, if his wife, children, and slaves did not obey him—why should anyone trust him to manage other responsibilities? The Pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) borrow this kind of reasoning and argue that any leader of a Christ believing community should be able to keep his children obedient (e.g., 1Tim 3:1-5; Titus 1:6). This idea is also found in the “household codes” of Colossians (Col 3:18-4:1) and Ephesians (Eph 5:22-6:9). The big difference is that the writers of these latter two letters speak directly to children, not just about them. This is unusual for the New Testament. But it is a good evidence for the assumption that children could be educated to make appropriate decisions, even if that decision is obedience. The necessity of obedience would have made perfect sense to Jewish, Roman, and Hellenistic audiences since children were understood to lack the rational capacities of (male) adults. Education, accompanied at times by physical force (see, e.g., Prov 10:13; 1Cor 4:21), was necessary for a child to mature into a complete (adult) human being.

We should perhaps not be surprised that children are not the main focus of the New Testament. After all, neither Jesus nor Paul have any children of their own to worry about. It’s significant that both Jesus and Paul teach that God will radically reshape reality very soon. This lent urgency to Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom and Paul’s proclamation of the return of Christ. In light of this urgency, children, for all the good they promised families, were often seen as impediments to full commitment to this new reality. Indeed, Jesus declares that in the new age people will not marry (Matt 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:35-36) and thus, presumably, will not have children. 

  • Robert von Thaden

    Robert H. von Thaden Jr. is associate professor of religious studies at Mercyhurst University. He is the author of Sex, Christ, and Embodied Cognition: Paul’s Wisdom for Corinth (Blandford Forum, UK: Deo, 2012; repr. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017) and coeditor of Foundations for Sociorhetorical Exploration: A Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity Reader (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016), with Vernon K. Robbins and Bart B. Bruehler.