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  • When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity
  • Alison G. Salvesen
When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity. O. M. Bakke. Tr. Brian McNeil. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2005. 348 pp. $18.00 paper.

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Lucy Catlin Bull, Photo from a book of her poems titled A Child's Poems from October to October, 1870–1871 (Hartford, CT.: Lockwood and Brainard, 1872). Photo courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

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This very readable study on the status of children in early Christian society has been ably translated from the Norwegian original by Brian McNeil. The introduction offers a survey and critique of the fairly limited scholarly literature on the subject. The topics covered by the various chapters include: what the Church Fathers considered the theological status of children to be; attitudes in Greco-Roman society towards sexual mores (including pederasty and the prostitution of girls), abortion, and infanticide; the ideal education of Christian children, namely curriculum, corporal punishment, and wider social influences; the liturgical role of children in worship (including infant baptism and reception of the Eucharist); and the perceived tension between working out one's own salvation and caring for offspring, with the latter issue especially evident in some accounts of martyrdom or extreme asceticism.

Bakke has taken an avowedly broad approach. This is necessary in order to reconstruct a holistic picture of the sorts of lives children led, or more accurately, were supposed to lead (286). Bakke recognizes that the texts available on the subject often represent a discussion of the ideal and do not necessarily reflect reality. Most of the sources employed are Latin or Greek, and a recurring theme of the book is the extent to which Christian attitudes towards children were shaped by or differed from those of Greco-Roman pagan culture. Many of the differences are due to the other strong influence on early Christian culture, namely Judaism and its Scriptures. While educational policies seem to have been shaped heavily by Greco-Roman norms (i.e. there was at this period no separate Christian schooling apart from the catechumenate or initiatory education), attitudes towards sexuality and the status of the child in the Christian community from the womb onwards seem to have been governed by Jewish ideas. It is thus largely from Judaism that the ban on the exposure of infants, abortion, pederasty, and homosexuality entered Christianity, though Bakke also [End Page 289] gives attention to these issues among the pagan philosophical schools. Bakke's main point—that this merging of Jewish morality with Greco-Roman education produced the Christian notion of "childhood" and thereby made children "people"—is no doubt provocative.

That argument would have been strengthened by attention to a wider range of evidence. There are some references to Coptic and Syriac literature, but these are rather cursory, reflecting the Western bias of the scholarly literature that Bakke draws on. A study of eastern Christian sources on childhood should be added to those desiderata for future research in the area suggested by the author (286). Certainly in early Syriac writers (e.g. Ephrem, the Liber Graduum, Narsai) there is a similar debate to that in Greek and Latin between proponents of childhood perfection and innocence unsullied by sexual desire, and those who believe that spiritual perfection can only be attained by the asceticism of adults. The backdrop to the Syriac debate is the status of Eden, and whether it is to be identified with Paradise. At one extreme, Eden is the divinely preordained state for humankind from where the child Adam fell into sexual maturity and sin. In this case, Christians must recover their innocence through celibacy; thus the sexless state of children, parallel to that of angels, becomes the paradigm for all believers. At the other end of the spectrum, Adam and Eve in Eden are not thought of as children, and neither is Eden the ideal state to which Christians need to return. In this latter view, the aim of the Christian life is spiritual maturity based on a moral discernment associated not with childhood but with adult rationality and self...


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pp. 287-291
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