Biblical Studies Child Metaphors in the New Testament
Amy Lindeman Allen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0290


Within literary studies, the term metaphor has a variety of uses. Most narrowly, the term refers to the symbolic use of a word or phrase, applying a nonliteral meaning to a concrete group or object in order to express an abstract concept. For the purposes of this bibliography, a broader approach is applied, understanding child metaphors to encompass both figurative uses of the term child and related images and the role that child-centered readings can play in shaping the understanding of abstractions such as discipleship and the kingdom of God portrayed in the New Testament. Given this broad starting place, it should come as no surprise that exegetical study of metaphor in general, and of child metaphors in particular, is prolific. Extended studies of the use of metaphor in the Bible date to the middle of the 20th century, as Western literary studies began to influence the practice of exegesis and, in some cases, even before narrative criticism fully took hold. Nevertheless, awareness of the use of metaphor, symbol, and analogy to convey ideas about God and God’s relationship with humanity can be traced back to the earliest allegorical interpretations of Scripture performed by Paul himself. What is unique about more recent scholarship on child metaphors in the New Testament, then, is not attention to these passages as metaphors, but rather increased precision in understanding the use of the child as a metaphorical frame to understand such concepts and attention to the role that real children themselves can offer in terms of understanding child-related metaphors in their cultural contexts. To this end, Halvor Moxnes’s 1997 volume Constructing Early Christian Families: Family as Social Reality and Metaphor (Moxnes 1997, cited under General Overviews) was groundbreaking in its attention to social and cultural trends around family and children in the 1st-century Mediterranean world in order to better understand and interpret metaphors of family and children used by biblical authors embedded in this culture. Over the past thirty years, scholarly attention to the metaphorical frames of children and childhood has expanded as scholars seek to understand these frames within their cultural context and with more specific attention to the real children associated with them. This latter approach has been variously described as child-centered or childist. Child-centered interpretations employ interdisciplinary tools to focus on the socially constructed nature of childhood, while childist interpretations describes an ideological approach that touches upon “assigning voice to the (silent) child, asserting agency and filling in the gaps in a child’s narrative, pointing to the adult-centric nature or interpretation, . . . and, finally, noting the interplay between the value and vulnerability that children experience” (Kristine Henriksen Garroway and John W. Martens, “Introduction: The Study of Children in the Bible: New Questions or a New Method?,” in Children and Methods: Listening To and Learning From Children in the Biblical World, edited by Kristine Henriksen Garroway and John W. Martens [Leiden: Brill, 2020]). Across these approaches, three major modes of interpreting child and childhood metaphors in the New Testament texts have emerged, with attention to the attributes of childhood, family structure, and the spiritual application of child metaphors.

General Overviews

Although awareness of the use of metaphor in the biblical text is not new, concerted attention to the particular metaphorical frames of family and childhood saw a significant boost with the growth of childhood studies at the turn of the 21st century. This turn began with a focus on family in the 1990s, highlighted by Müller 1992 and Moxnes 1997, volumes that address the role of children in the New Testament and various family metaphors, respectively. These studies broadened in the 2000s to include specific attention to children, with four broad-reaching volumes setting the tone. The first of these, Bunge 2001, while not a solely biblical volume, situated the use of child metaphors in the New Testament texts within understandings of children and the application of such metaphors in the later Christian world. Building on this work, Bunge, et al. 2008, spanning both testaments, highlights the role of children in both the Gospel accounts and Pauline literature, while Horn and Martens 2009 focuses in on the role of children in the 1st-century Mediterranean, with a particular emphasis on the Gospel accounts. The articles Carroll 2001 and Aasgaard 2007 similarly include discussion of the metaphorization of children as a part of the overall treatment of children in the New Testament texts. Meanwhile, Francis 2006 takes a different approach, paying closer attention to the specific metaphorical use of children in both Gospel and Epistle texts, as opposed to holding this use in conversation with narratives that involve actual children as the latter volumes do. On a smaller scale, Horn 2006 also considers the specifically metaphorical frame of children in Paul’s work.

  • Aasgaard, Reidar. “Paul as a Child: Children and Childhood in the Letters of the Apostle.” Journal of Biblical Literature 126.1 (2007): 129–159.

    DOI: 10.2307/27638423

    This essay considers Paul’s treatment of both actual and metaphorical children, with an emphasis on the latter, dividing Paul’s use of childhood language into four semantic areas: kinship, social position, formation, and belonging. Aasgaard highlights Paul’s metaphors for childhood in relation to cultural attitudes about children and childhood in the wider Greco-Roman world of his time, paying particularly close attention to the social location and formation of children in ways that previous studies had not.

  • Bunge, Marcia J., ed. The Child in Christian Thought. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2001.

    Although not exclusively focused on the biblical text, this volume gives a broad reaching survey of children and childhood, including the metaphorical uses thereof, across Christianity. Gaventa 2001 (cited under Attributes of Childhood and Paul as Parent) explores metaphorical frames for family in Pauline texts, and Gundry-Volf 2001 (under Discipleship) attends to the synoptic Gospels.

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

    A companion to Bunge 2001, this volume focuses on the Bible. Included themes include adoption as children of God across testaments (see Bartlett 2008, cited under Adoption), adoption in John (Thompson 2008, cited under Children of God), synoptic use of children to describe discipleship (White 2008, cited under Kingdom of God), and Paul’s use of childhood to describe Christian community (Aasgaard 2008, cited under Family of God).

  • Carroll, John T. “Children in the Bible.” Interpretation 55 (2001): 121–134.

    DOI: 10.1177/002096430005500202

    This essay examines several biblical portraits of “the child.” Carroll moves between metaphorical and narratological portraits of children in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament texts, highlighting the following: children as a sign of divine blessing, sibling relationships as a sign of status reversal, childhood as a sign of vulnerability and threat, child discipline as a sign of vulnerability and training, childhood as a metaphor for immaturity, and childhood as a metaphor for faith.

  • Francis, James. Adults as Children: Images of Childhood in the Ancient World and the New Testament. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2006.

    This book examines the use of the child and childhood as a metaphor across the New Testament. Primary attention is paid to Jesus’ use of these terms from a cultural and historical perspective that takes seriously both the 1st-century Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds. Francis connects the child metaphor with change and renewal, which he sees as central to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God.

  • Horn, Cornelia. “Paulus und seine ‘Kinder’: Studien zur Beziehungsmetaphorik der paulinischen Briefe.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.4 (2006): 763–764.

    In German. This essay surveys the use of the child metaphor in Paul’s corpus, with particular emphasis on Paul’s use of the metaphorical frames of child and childhood.

  • Horn, Cornelia B., and John W. Martens. “Let the Little Children Come to Me”: Childhood and Children in Early Christianity. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2009.

    This monograph contextualizes the place of children within the 1st-century Mediterranean world. Drawing heavily on interdisciplinary research on the family in the Greco-Roman world, the authors counter views that diminish the place of children in this context, arguing instead that children were viewed as “a precious commodity.” Horn and Martens apply this alternate view of the place of children in the 1st-century world to both narrative and metaphorical portraits of children in the New Testament.

  • Moxnes, Halvor, ed. Constructing Early Christian Families: Family as Social Reality and Metaphor. London: Routledge, 1997.

    The five essays in Part II of this social-scientific examination of family explore the use of family as metaphor. Foci include the Roman family as ideal (Lassen 1997, cited under Fictive Kin), family imagery and Christian identity (Gal. 5:13–6:10; Esler 1997, cited under Fictive Kin), and brotherhood and sisterhood explored in three essays (Sandnes 1997, cited under Fictive Kin; Aasgaard 1997, cited under Fictive Kin; and Fatum 1997, cited under Paul as Parent).

  • Müller, Peter. In der Mitte der Gemeinde: Kinder im Neuen Testament. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany: Neukirchener, 1992.

    In German. This volume explores New Testament passages that explicitly deal with children, reading them in light of both their social and cultural background and practical application for today. Importance is given to the role of real children at the center of the New Testament community, as well as the significance of the symbol of the child as a model for faith.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.