Jesus loves the little children. Sic et non. Yes, Jesus does, indeed, love “all the children of the world” as the familiar children’s song goes, however, “there is so much more to the story than that,” according to Sharon Betsworth (p. 187). Betsworth’s latest work, Children in Early Christian Narratives, issues a clarion call for adults to re-read the gospel narratives and to reconsider the often minor, sentimental roles children have been ascribed in Christian scholarship. In this work, Betsworth (Associate Professor of Religion at Oklahoma City University) argues that the “children’s presence informs each gospel’s understanding of Jesus and his identity and message” (p. 1). In this sense, the canonical gospels reverse the impression that children were unimportant in society and in literature (p. 6).
Betsworth’s monograph consists of nine chapters, a ten-page bibliography, and an index of biblical and extra-biblical references. Chapter 1 serves as Betsworth’s introduction, in which she sets forth the subjects of her socio-literary analyses (the canonical gospels as well as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas [IGT] and the Protoevangelium of James [POJ]) as well as her method of “Childist Interpretation” (pp. 2–4). In nuce, “Childist Interpretation” focuses on the role of children and youth in texts, and sees them not as passive bystanders or victims, but as important characters within the narrative (p. 4). Chapter 2 lays the foundation for the remainder of her book in a masterful survey of children’s roles in their ancient Mediterranean context. Betsworth argues that archaeological evidence dispels the notion that “children were considered of no value in the Roman world” (p. 37). Chapter 3 is Betsworth’s longest chapter and builds upon her previous volume, The Reign of God Is Such as These: A Socio-Literary Analysis of Daughters in the Gospel of Mark, LNTS 422 (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2010). Chapter 4 investigates the Matthean theme of Jesus as child, which guides Betsworth’s reading of Matthew. For Betsworth, “the question is whether the disciples will be able to follow Jesus in this way, because for the disciples to become like children is ultimately to become like Jesus” (p. 97). Chapter 5 focuses on Luke, which contains the most material on children of any of the canonical gospels (p. 99). Unfortunately, Betsworth bifurcates Luke-Acts in this discussion, and argues that Luke portrays Jesus as an “only child” (pp. 120–23). Betsworth surveys John’s portrait of Jesus as Logos and life in chapter 6, with chapters 7–8 covering the IGT and POJ respectively. Chapter 9 concludes that, literarily, children are equal vis-à-vis with other biblical characters, and since Scripture depicts God as a child, this should also inform one’s theology (pp. 186–87).
There is much to commend in Betsworth’s work: her writing is well-researched and lucid; chapter 2 is excellent and serves as a beneficial and accessible prolegomenon to the discussion; Betsworth argues her thesis well and convincingly; and Betsworth’s critique of the context from which the “kingdom of God” nomenclature emerges (seventeenth-century England) is interesting and keenly insightful. Betsworth argues that this phrase is better understood as “empire/reign of God” to contrast the notion of the Roman empire rather than the anachronistic conception of “kingdom” (p. 41).
However, Betsworth’s work is not without faults. First, Betsworth claims in chapter 4: “By calling the child the ‘Son of God,’ Luke is not indicating divine paternity, but rather affirming ‘God’s self-evident, indelible commitment and engagement in this human life from before its beginning’” (p. 104). This seems to elevate Jesus’s humanity above his deity. Second, Betsworth seems to overstate Luke’s portrait of Jesus as “only child” (p. 121). Betsworth is correct that Luke’s Gospel never mentions the siblings of Jesus by name. In Acts, however, the consensus holds that James, the biological sibling of Jesus, is explicitly referenced thrice (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18–20) in contexts within which terms are used that imply a familial relationship to the other Christians (ἀδελφοῖς/ἀδελφοί/ἀδελφέ). Unless Luke is not the author of Acts, Luke does not discount the role of Jesus’s biological siblings in his narrative. Contra Betsworth, Luke actually highlights James’s role in Jesus’s “redefined” family as an important leader within the nascent Christian movement. Moreover, Luke never uses the term μονογενής to describe Jesus as he does in the three pericopes on healing children (Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38). Third, Betsworth seems to present the IGT as a “Christian narrative” on par with the canonical gospels (p. 153). The IGT presents a heretical portrait of Christ—the cornerstone of Christianity—and orthodox Christians (e.g., Irenaeus) apparently condemned it, as Betsworth concedes (p. 147). The paucity of extant manuscript evidence and lack of uniformity within the IGT texts, themselves, contradict Beckworth’s estimation of the IGT as a “Christian” narrative.
In conclusion, Betsworth makes an important contribution to scholarly discussions on the literary roles children play across the gospel narratives, and helps give her readers a more fully-orbed perspective on the issues involved. Regarding biblical studies, Betsworth paves the way for further exploration of the remaining corpora within the Old and New Testaments (p. 4). While Betsworth’s more controversial claims should give careful scholars some pause, this work deserves a hearing from anyone wanting to better understand the important (yet oft-neglected) roles children play throughout the gospel narratives.