Skip to comments.How Christianity invented children
Posted on 06/26/2015 8:14:13 PM PDT by annalex
We have forgotten just how deep a cultural revolution Christianity wrought. In fact, we forget about it precisely because of how deep it was: There are many ideas that we simply take for granted as natural and obvious, when in fact they didn't exist until the arrival of Christianity changed things completely. Take, for instance, the idea of children.
Today, it is simply taken for granted that the innocence and vulnerability of children makes them beings of particular value, and entitled to particular care. We also romanticize children their beauty, their joy, their liveliness. Our culture encourages us to let ourselves fall prey to our gooey feelings whenever we look at baby pictures. What could be more natural?
In fact, this view of children is a historical oddity. If you disagree, just go back to the view of children that prevailed in Europe's ancient pagan world.
As the historian O.M. Bakke points out in his invaluable book When Children Became People, in ancient Greece and Rome, children were considered nonpersons.
Back then, the entire social worldview was undergirded by a universally-held, if implicit, view: Society was organized in concentric circles, with the circle at the center containing the highest value people, and the people in the outside circles having little-to-no value. At the center was the freeborn, adult male, and other persons were valued depending on how similar they were to the freeborn, adult male. Such was the lot of foreigners, slaves, women...and children.
High infant mortality rates created a cultural pressure to not develop emotional attachments to children. This cultural pressure was exacerbated by the fact that women were more likely to develop emotional attachments to children which, according to the worldview of the day, meant it had to be a sign of weakness and vulgarity.
Various pagan authors describe children as being more like plants than human beings. And this had concrete consequences.
Well-to-do parents typically did not interact with their children, leaving them up to the care of slaves. Children were rudely brought up, and very strong beatings were a normal part of education. In Rome, a child's father had the right to kill him for whatever reason until he came of age.
One of the most notorious ancient practices that Christianity rebelled against was the frequent practice of expositio, basically the abandonment of unwanted infants. (Of course, girls were abandoned much more often than boys, which meant, as the historical sociologist Rodney Stark has pointed out, that Roman society had an extremely lopsided gender ratio, contributing to its violence and permanent tension.)
Another notorious practice in the ancient world was the sexual exploitation of children. It is sometimes pointed to paganism's greater tolerance (though by no means full acceptance) of homosexuality than Christianity as evidence for its higher moral virtue. But this is to look at a very different world through distorting lenses. The key thing to understand about sexuality in the pagan world is the ever-present notion of concentric circles of worth. The ancient world did not have fewer taboos, it had different ones. Namely, most sexual acts were permissible, as long as they involved a person of higher status being active against or dominating a person of lower status. This meant that, according to all the evidence we have, the sexual abuse of children (particularly boys) was rife.
Think back on expositio. According to our sources, most abandoned children died but some were "rescued," almost inevitably into slavery. And the most profitable way for a small child slave to earn money was as a sex slave. Brothels specializing in child sex slaves, particularly boys, were established, legal, and thriving businesses in ancient Rome. One source reports that sex with castrated boys was regarded as a particular delicacy, and that foundlings were castrated as infants for that purpose.
Of course, the rich didn't have to bother with brothels they had all the rights to abuse their slaves (and even their children) as they pleased. And, again, this was perfectly licit. When Suetonius condemns Tiberius because he taught children of the most tender years, whom he called his little fishes, to play between his legs while he was in his bath and those who had not yet been weaned, but were strong and hearty, he set at fellatio, he is not writing with shock and horror; instead, he is essentially mocking the emperor for his lack of self-restraint and enjoying too much of a good thing.
This is the world into which Christianity came, condemning abortion and infanticide as loudly and as early as it could.
This is the world into which Christianity came, calling attention to children and ascribing special worth to them. Church leaders meditated on Jesus' instruction to imitate children and proposed ways that Christians should look up to and become more like them.
Like everything else about Christianity's revolution, it was incomplete. For example, Christians endorsed corporal punishment for far too long. (Though even in the fourth century, the great teacher St John Chrysostom preached against it, on the grounds of the victim's innocence and dignity, using language that would have been incomprehensible to, say, Cicero.)
But really, Christianity's invention of children that is, its invention of the cultural idea of children as treasured human beings was really an outgrowth of its most stupendous and revolutionary idea: the radical equality, and the infinite value, of every single human being as a beloved child of God. If the God who made heaven and Earth chose to reveal himself, not as an emperor, but as a slave punished on the cross, then no one could claim higher dignity than anyone else on the basis of earthly status.
That was indeed a revolutionary idea, and it changed our culture so much that we no longer even recognize it.
If you want to be on this right wing, monarchy, paleolibertarianism and nationalism ping list, but are not, please let me know. If you are on it and want to be off, also let me know. This ping list is not used for Catholic-Protestant debates.
I think NAMBLA with the help of the MSM is going to make a move here. The age of consent will be lowered, you watch.
The axial age figures into this very true comment on the family:
“Confucius and Lao-Tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo Ti, Chuang Tse, Lieh Tzu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, scepticism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance from Elijah by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers - Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato, - of the tragedians, of Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India and the West.”
Karl Jaspers, Origin and Goal of History, p. 2
This is an excellent post and one that I shared with my FB friends. The matter of corporal punishment is contested somewhat these days. Between my wife and I we seem to be able to administer discipline without blows. I reckon we would if we had to, but that is something for the NSA to investigate when they have a moment to stop by and have a cup of coffee.
Plus many of our precious illegal immigrants come from countries with substantially lower ages of consent. We will have to adjust for them.
Well, we agree 95%.
The development of respect for children... predated the arrival of Christ in His Jewish faith tradition, however.
Indeed, much of the strong Jewish emphasis on family and children was already well-established. It did not suddenly leap into existence at Calvary. You can see it in Jesus’s own Jewish family (at least as tradition provides). Jesus’ Jewish (and later, many gentile) followers then spread this family-orientation (along with all the rest of the received Jewish morals and ethics) to multitudes of pagans as part and parcel of the spread of Christianity (especially insofar as Europe, etal were concerned).
See, for instance,,,,
in short, if we adopt the modern “Judeo=Christian” phrase for most of your essay, we get it right on.
Yeah, but what Christ made out of Judaism is not paralleled in India and China.
They'll find a case of a child who will state publicly that he enjoys sex with his older "partner."
The "it's illegal for me to love whom I wish" argument will be used with the result we've already seen.
Why, I don’t disagree. The Old Testament, without doubt, has great emphasis on the unique relationship that the children have with God. Christianity was building on a fertile ground.
I like children....other people’s children...for maybe 10 minutes....
Let me disagree respectfully. Christianity was not just “building on a fertile ground.” The religion of the Old Testament - better put, the faith (objectively speaking) of the Old Testament - was not something different than Christianity. It was pre-Christianity. Or, better, Christianity is the Old Testament faith brought to full flower, the Pharisees and Sadducees notwithstanding. They were the errorists. Joseph and Mary, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, were the faithful, the true children of Abraham, people after the heart of God even as King David was.
Indeed, we must never forget the importance of the simple statement: Jesus live don this earth as a Jew among Jews.
You remind me. I had a wonderful grandfather. He volunteered to serve under General Kolchak, the last legitimate ruler of Russia, then made a living as a math teacher. He spat on the name of Stalin, with a passion, even on the day of Stalin’s death in 1953. He taught me geometry, the Euclidian way, with compass and ruler. He beat his students, furtively, with a jab under the rib. Good man. Well, he did not like any children. “Granpy, granpy, hold him!” caused him to twitch his face and whisper under his mustache: “Sure, and he’ll shit himself right there. Eeeegh”. He smoke cheap cigarettes and smelled them, and he shaved with a real razor, sharpening it against a belt-like contraption.
So no, take it from my blessed granddad. We are not to
fawn over children. We are to see God in them.
It’s a repost, but one worth repeating...
(There, fixed that . . .)
Are we talking degrees here? I think, the pivot was "Suffer children to come to me, and forbid them not" (Luke 18:16). I agree that in the role that the children play in the Old Testament there is a precursor to that. Surely, the scenes of depravity commonplace in pagan Rome would not be possible in Jerusalem, but the idea that there is something mystical about the soul of a child (Matthew 18:10) had a unique impact on the Christian culture, as the author notes.
I am sorry if it is. I think, the homosexual “marriage” ukase gives this article a new prominence.
Exactly. I was going to insert a reference to the abortion of justice perpetrated by the SCOTUS, but my packet-radio connection drops out at times...
You know, perhaps given my background, I am not so despondent over this. The Constitution is a beautiful document, but that is all it is: a document. Of course, the ruling class will find enough hacks in robes to tell us that pink elephants are in it. People just have to live how they always had lived: do what's moral, don't do what's immoral, and if what you do is at variance with the ruling class, don't get caught. Not complicated.
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