In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children in the New Testament World

  • Introduction

Biblical Studies Children in the New Testament World
Amy Lindeman Allen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 May 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0281


At the turn of the 20th century, Clarence Herbert Woolston penned the words to the now famous children’s song, “Jesus Loves the Little Children” (published in Gospel Message 1-2-3 Combined, edited by J. Lincoln Hall, Adam Geibel, and C. Austin Miles [Philadelphia: Hall-Mack Company, 1915], p. 355). Woolston’s song is reflective both of the American Sunday School movement of the 19th and 20th centuries and the growing trend in popular biblical studies to read Jesus as a friend of children. However, a few early monographs not excepting, children did not receive sustained attention in New Testament scholarship until the 21st century. This is distinct from studies and application of the metaphorical use of “children” and “child” as rhetorical or metaphorical images in New Testament texts, especially the Epistles, which is considered in a separate entry (“Child Metaphors in the New Testament,” forthcoming). With the advent of the interdisciplinary fields of childhood studies and child theology in the 1980s and 1990s, the stage was set to study more closely both Jesus’s relationship with children as portrayed in the New Testament texts and the child characters, Jesus included, therein. In terms of sheer demographics, children are estimated to have made up roughly two-thirds of ancient agrarian societies, such as the 1st-century Mediterranean. As such, when the feminist principle of reclaiming characters from the “shadows” of the text is employed, the imprint of children can be seen across the New Testament. This widespread presence of children in 1st-century Judea and Galilee has also been confirmed by social science and archaeological investigations. Moreover, such investigations have revealed that the character and nature of childhood, or more properly, childhoods in these contexts, was radically different than many of the 21st-century assumptions. Most notably, the assumptions that the Jesus movement was solely positive for children, or that such positivity was unique, have been called into question. To this end, the study of children in the New Testament seeks to bring to light both the presence and lives of child characters in these texts and the children among their original audiences while avoiding anachronistic and supercessionist assumptions. What has resulted is a more nuanced reading both of the experience and character of childhoods in the 1st-century world and, as a result, of the New Testament texts.

General Overviews

The 21st century has seen a rise in dedicated volumes on child-centered interpretation. The first volume to propel child-centered readings into the mainstream of biblical scholarship is Bunge, et al. 2008, which, spanning both testaments, highlights the role of children in both the gospel accounts and Pauline literature. Larsson and Stenstrøm 2012, Flynn 2019, and Betsworth and Parker 2019 build on this momentum with anthologies on children in the Bible that span both testaments. In essay form, Carroll 2001 marks an early contribution to this cross-testament genre, while Francis 1996 and Gundry-Volf 2001 draw attention to children in the New Testament in particular. Earlier monographs on children in the New Testament, Strange 1996 and Zuck 1996, are significant for the growth of the field, but focus more on metaphorical and practical applications than the historical or literary lives of concrete children.

  • Betsworth, Sharon, and Julie Faith Parker, eds. T&T Clark Handbook of Children in the Bible and the Biblical World. London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2019.

    This volume begins to define the field of childist interpretation. It combines an overview of research (Aasgaard 2019, cited under Reference and Bibliographies) and methodologies (Martens 2019, cited under Fathers) with essays that employ a childist approach. Essays treat themes such as: identity (Martens 2019); play (Betsworth 2019, cited under Work and Play); ownership (Lindeman Allen 2019, cited under Gospel of Luke); absence (Murphy 2019, cited under Children in Families); interreligious households (Gundry 2019, cited under Religion); and marriage (Martens 2019).

  • Bunge, Marcia J., Terence E. Fretheim, and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, eds. The Child in the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.

    An introduction to the place and role of children, concrete and metaphorical, in both testaments. Essays related to concrete children in the New Testament include: Mark (Gundry 2008, cited under Mark); Luke (Carroll 2008, cited under Gospel of Luke); Acts (Green 2008, cited under Gospel of Luke); John (Thompson 2008, cited under Gospel of John and Revelation); Pauline tradition (Aasgaard 2008, Roberts Gaventa 2008, and MacDonald 2008, cited under Epistles); and children and the Kingdom (White 2008, cited under Gospel of Matthew). Two thematic essays cross between testaments addressing adoption (Bartlett 2008, cited under Unwanted Children) and vulnerability (Brueggemann 2008, cited under Children in Daily Life).

  • Carroll, John T. “Children in the Bible.” Interpretation 55.2 (2001): 121–134.

    DOI: 10.1177/002096430005500202

    Examines, in brief, several portraits of the child in biblical tradition, relying upon an interpretation of the historical context that reads children as of low status and powerless. Carroll moves between metaphorical and concrete children in both testaments, arguing that despite his interpretation of the historical context, the shared Jewish and Christian biblical tradition reflects “deep cultural ambivalence” about the place of children in communal practice.

  • Flynn, Shawn W., ed. Children in the Bible and the Ancient World: Comparative and Historical Methods in Reading Ancient Children. New York: Routledge, 2019.

    This volume spans both testaments with the goal of setting out a comparative cultural and historical approach to childist criticism. The section on the New Testament contains three chapters examining the Gospel of Mark in dialogue with the Eleusinian Mysteries (Betsworth 2019, cited under Gospel of Mark); ritual entry of children into Pauline churches (Martens 2019, cited under Religion); and education and sexual abuse in Roman antiquity (Laes 2019, cited under Education).

  • Francis, James M. “Children and Childhood in the New Testament.” In The Family in Theological Perspective. Edited by Stephen Barton, 65–85. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996.

    Utilizing a sociohistorical lens, Francis highlights attitudes toward children and the metaphorical use of childhood in the New Testament. He touches upon the place of children at home and in the community both related to the teachings and discipleship of Jesus and in the broader patriarchal culture.

  • Gundry-Volf, Judith M. “The Least and the Greatest: Children in the New Testament.” In The Child in Christian Thought. Edited by Marcia Bunge, 474–475. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001.

    Using as her starting point Jesus’s lesson on greatness, which places a child at the center, Gundry-Volf provides an overview of the characterization and metaphorization of children in the New Testament. She calls for a closer examination of the role that children play in the advent of the Realm of God.

  • Larsson, Mikael, and Hanna Stenstrøm. Ett myller av ilv: Om barn I Bibelns texter. Uppsala, Sweden: Svenska kyrkan, 2012.

    Surveys the place and role of children in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Metaphorical treatments are covered, but greater emphasis is placed on the role of actual children in the biblical narratives. Four chapters are devoted specifically to the New Testament, arranged according to textual unit (Gospels, Letters, Revelation). Additional chapters treat diverse images and use of the child in biblical texts across the testaments, including general inquiry into the definition and role of the child and the child pictured as blessing and gift, growing up, role model, negative example, in need of education, vulnerable, and right holder and recipient of promise. In Swedish.

  • Strange, W. A. Children in the Early Church: Children in the Ancient World, the New Testament, and the Early Church. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1996.

    One of the earliest introductions, this monograph consists of five chapters on the role of children in the 1st-century world, gospel accounts, early Church, sacraments, and the 20th-century context.

  • Zuck, Roy B. Precious in His Sight: Childhood and Children in the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996.

    Surveys the place and role of children in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. With regards to the place and treatment of children, Zuck takes a socially conservative view—for example, advocating the use of corporal punishment.

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