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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 67, 2019

SHARON BETSWORTH and JULIE FAITH PARKER (eds), Handbook of Children in the Bible and the Biblical World (Edinburgh; London; New York: T & T Clark, 2019). Pp. xxi + 467. Hardback. AU$252.00

The publication of Handbook of Children in the Bible and the Biblical World marks a milestone in the development of studies of childhood and children in the Bible. No longer in its infancy, the work signals a maturation in this area of research. The purpose of the handbook is to “recognize the progress made [in the study of children in the biblical world] and to guide continued work in the field ahead” (1). Each of the eighteen chapters in the book addresses childist/child-centred interpretations of ancient and biblical texts. This area of study could be best described as “examining the role and function of children in ancient and biblical texts” (360) and using the representations of children as a hermeneutical lens for reading biblical texts generally, as well as informing contemporary discussions on children (315). The editors, Sharon Betsworth and Julie Faith Parker, are recognised scholars in this field of study, each having published research concerning children in the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible, respectively.

The handbook comprises five major sections. Section one is an orientation to the field. Reidar Aasgaard, a leading scholar in the study of children and the Bible, supplies a comprehensive overview of the history of research in this area as well as detailing current developments and suggesting future trajectories for study. An article by Laurel Koepf Taylor follows, in which she surveys the contributions made by various fields in childhood studies to child-centred scholarship in biblical studies. The ensuing four sections provide discussions on children in the Hebrew Bible (Part 2), intertextual issues and intertestamental texts (Part 3), New Testament (Part 4) and Early Christian Apocrypha (Part 5). Not surprisingly, sections two and four occupy the bulk of the book given that the weight of scholarship lies in these two areas. The introductory essays in both these sections contribute necessary discussions concerning methodologies for determining who constituted a child in the ancient world.

The value of this publication is its expansiveness. The editors have gathered scholars from across both hemispheres to contribute their research. The breadth of scholars includes those whose previous work in the area has been critically recognised, such as Judith M. Gundry, through to essays by PhD candidates, Ericka S. Dunbar and Dong Sung Kim. The range of scholarship offers a broad geographical and cultural sweep of perspectives. It also provides a wide spectrum of methodological approaches, spanning archaeological, historical-critical, narrative, feminist, post-colonial and text-critical (4). Some essays experiment with modern-theoretical lenses to examine biblical literature. Kathleen Gallagher Elkins, for instance, uses trauma theory to widen the vista for interpreting biblical narratives involving children and violence (Chapter 9). The inter-disciplinary approaches yield new insights into the portrayals of children in biblical narratives.

While a substantial part of the handbook concentrates on research presently being undertaken in the Bible, the editors open the discussion to include explorations of extra/non-canonical literature. Of note is the essay presented by A. James Murphy, “The ‘lost Boys’ (and Girls) of Q’s ‘Never-land’” (Chapter 14). Murphy’s work is the first (and only) examination of Q to date that focuses exclusively on children. Unlike the gospels, Murphy concludes, children do not ever appear “literally or practically” in the Q material (310). Instead, the language concerning children is reserved to speak figuratively of adults anticipating the kingdom of God.

A further value of this handbook is its critique of the use of anachronism. Modern conceptions of children as “pure” and “innocent,” sometimes projected onto contemporary interpretations of biblical literature involving children, were not constitutive of ancient views of childhood. Essays in this publication reinforce the crucial role of investigating literary and material data to determine the various ways childhood was constructed. John W. Martens’ essay, “Methodology: Who is a Child and Where Do We Find Children in the Greco-Roman World” is instructive in its caution about universalising ancient views of childhood (Chapter 11). Martens rightly argues the need to examine data beyond biblical evidence to ascertain the constructs of childhood that were operative in the contexts in which the New Testament emerged. Possible sources of evidence include Jewish sources, Greek and Roman textual and inscriptional sources, and archaeology. To this list could be added the visual depictions of children that appear in artwork, monuments, tombs, altars and coins. Martens does not, however, discuss specific disciplinary methods by which these sources can be studied or issues concerning the use of ancient sources and material culture. A detailed discussion on approaches to historical investigation of non-biblical sources is lacking in the handbook. Despite Martens’ insights, few essays in the New Testament section employ a thorough, detailed analysis of, and engagement with, the types of non-biblical sources he recommends.

While Handbook of Children in the Bible and the Biblical World is necessary for those investigating children and childhood in the Bible, it is indispensable for anyone who interprets biblical texts that involve children, either literally or figuratively. It is recommended to those who examine the implications of biblical theology for how childhood is constructed today in ecclesial and secular settings.

Review by
Australian Catholic University, Melbourne