Virtual Voices

No romantic past for children

Family

There has never been a time in human history better for children than the era in which we currently live. In a Western culture like ours that worships children and idolizes youth, the low social status of children in antiquity seems foreign. Given the reality of the Greco-Roman world, it makes Judeo-Christian teaching on children and parenting a powerful counter-cultural witness.

In his book When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, O.M. Bakke reminds us that in the Greco-Roman world children were considered the lowest form of human beings. The social pecking order went something like this: free male citizens, women, older men, slaves, barbarians, and then . . . finally . . . children. This was because it was believed that children had the least capacity, among all others, for logos---that is, word, speech, and reason.

Children symbolized the absence of logos. The idea that they lack reason is consistently found in sources ranging from the time of Homer to that of Cicero. Bakke recalls a popular Greek aphorism that said, "Old men are like children once more." In both Platonic and Aristotelian thought, the opinions of children were seen as no more of a consequence than those of animals. To refer to an adult as a child was to issue a major insult.

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Moreover, to call someone a "boy" in the Greco-Roman world was perceived as an egregious insult because children were associated with stupidity: pueritia amentia. This is a very interesting point considering the way in which white Southerner's routinely and publicly referred to blacks as "boy" from time of chattel slavery through the 1960s. Is it possible that the South retained much of the Greco-Roman perspective on children? If so, to call a black man "boy" was more than an assault on his masculinity; it was also an assault on his dignity.

The Romans also were particularly dismissive of children because they were physically weak, vulnerable, and exposed to sickness. Given the mortality rate in the Greco-Roman world, it is not too surprising that children became symbols of human weakness. Children also were not valued because they were seen as lacking courage and subsequently became a symbol for human fear. In fact, Cicero made a well-known point that it is difficult to find any reason to praise a child for his inherent qualities.

This is the cultural context in which Jews in the Greco-Roman world lived before and during the time of Jesus. Many may find this understanding of children sheds new light on Jewish and Christian teachings on value of a child. Respecting the dignity of a child in antiquity was socially counter-cultural. This is a reminder that the good ol' days may not have been that good after all.

Anthony Bradley
Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of theology and ethics at The King's College in New York and serves as a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is author of Liberating Black Theology. Follow Anthony on Twitter @drantbradley.

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