Children in the New Testament by Robert H. von Thaden Jr.

“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 H. von Thaden Jr., "Children in the New Testament", n.p. [cited 20 Sep 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/children-in-the-new-testament

Contributors

vonThaden-robert

Robert H. von Thaden Jr.
Associate Professor of Religious Studies , Mercyhurst University

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.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Of or relating to Greek culture, especially ancient Greece after Alexander the Great.

Sets of instructions, most prominent in Ephesians and Colossians, that gave guidelines for behavior at home to different groups of people (e.g. husbands, wives, slaves, and masters).

A Christian observance characterized by penitence and sometimes fasting held in the forty days between Easter each year and encompassing the Jewish holiday of Passover and the Christian Holy Week.

Relating to spiritual guidance or oversight of a church community.

Mark 5:41

41He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!”

Mark 10:13-16

Jesus Blesses Little Children
13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.14But whe ... View more

John 4:46-54

Jesus Heals an Official's Son
46Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill ... View more

Luke 8:49-56

49While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader's house to say, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.”50When Jesus heard th ... View more

Matt 11:16-19

16“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,17‘We played the flute for you, and yo ... View more

Luke 7:31-35

31“To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like?32They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one anot ... View more

1Thess 2:11

11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children,

1Cor 4:14-21

Fatherly Admonition
14I am not writing this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.15For though you might have ten thousand guardians i ... View more

1Cor 7:14

14For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclea ... View more

1Tim 3:1-5

Qualifications of Bishops
1The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task.2Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only o ... View more

Titus 1:6

6someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious.

Col 3:18-4:1

Rules for Christian Households
18Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.19Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.20Childr ... View more

Eph 5:22-6:9

22Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.23For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of whic ... View more

Prov 10:13

13On the lips of one who has understanding wisdom is found,
but a rod is for the back of one who lacks sense.

1Cor 4:21

21What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

Matt 22:30

30For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.

Mark 12:25

25For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.

Luke 20:35-36

35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.36Indeed they cannot ... View more

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