Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Childhood

CHILDHOOD. [Note: For the Greek terms relating to the period of childhood, see following article.]

i. The Childhood of Jesus.—In the Lukan narratives of the Infancy and Childhood our Lord is described both as τὸ παιδἱον Ἰησοῦς in His earliest years (Luke 2:27; Luke 2:40 : so also in Matthew 2 throughout), and as Ἰησοῦς ὁ παῖς when twelve years old. Beyond, however, the brief stories of Matthew 2 and Luke 2 we seek in vain for any information having any authority whatever concerning the early years of Jesus, or, for that matter, any part of His life prior to the Ministry. And what small fragments these beautiful stories are! This dearth of information for which so great a craving has been felt has repeatedly been remarked on: yet, after all, need we wonder very much at the silence of the Evangelical narratives concerning these matters? The early life of Jesus appears not to have come within their scope; for the purpose of the Evangelical compilation was not to furnish a ‘Life’ in the modern sense, but to set forth a gospel. Their interest in Jesus in this respect begins pre-eminently with His baptism, as the simple exordium of St. Mark’s Gospel indicates—‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ Even in the case of St. Luke’s Gospel, with its peculiar stock of early narratives in chs. 1, 2, the preface to the Acts indicates that its great concern was with the things that Jesus did and taught (Acts 1:1). Whatever may be our views as to the source and authority of what is recorded in Matthew 1, 2, and whether we care to use the term ‘envelope’ (see Bacon, Introd. p. 198) or not in speaking of this portion of the Gospel, it is clear that these two chapters are something superadded to the main body of the Synoptic tradition; and it is the same with Luke 1, 2. The main narrative begins in the case of each of these Gospels at ch. 3, where parallels with St. Mark also begin to be furnished.

All that we have in the Canonical Gospels concerning the childhood of Jesus, strictly speaking, is found in Luke 2:40-52. The first twelve years are covered by Luke 2:40, whilst Luke 2:52 has to suffice for all the remaining years up to the commencement of the Ministry. The writer has nothing to tell save the story of the Visit to the Temple, and contents himself for the rest with simple general statements in Hebraic phraseology that irresistibly reminds us of what is said of ‘the child Samuel’ (1 Samuel 2:21; 1 Samuel 2:26). He has used practically the same formula to cover years of John the Baptist’s history (Luke 1:80). As for the story of the Visit to the Temple, there is that about it which carries conviction that we have here a genuine and delightful glimpse of our Lord in His childhood—one only glimpse, which, however, suffices to show us what manner of child He was, on the principle of ex uno discc omnes. It is to be noted that there is no hint that He was regarded as a prodigy by His parents and the neighbours with whom He travelled up to Jerusalem. The element of the merely marvellous is at a minimum. The wonder that does show itself is in the region of the spirit, and appears in the beautiful intelligence and rare spiritual gleams (Luke 1:47-50) which the Boy displayed, astonishing alike to the Rabbis and to His bewildered parents.

The silence and restraint of the Canonical Gospels on this subject are best appreciated when viewed against the background which the Apocryphal Gospels supply. Perhaps the most valuable service that the latter writings render is that comparison with them so strongly brings out the intrinsic value and superiority of our Canonical Gospels. They show us conclusively what men with a free hand could and would do. This is conspicuously the case with reference to the early years of Jesus. The extravagant and miraculous stories told concerning His infancy and childhood, taken by themselves, would suffice to crush out the historicity of Jesus and consign Him to the region of the mythical. We seek in vain in these writings for anything like a sober account of our Lord’s growth and general history during this period: we find nothing but a congeries of grotesque wonder-tales concerning the doings of the Boy. His miraculous powers prove to be of singular advantage to Joseph, for when a beam or plank has been cut too short Jesus rectifies the mistake by merely pulling it out to the required length. He changes boys into kids, and anon restores them to their former condition. He carries both fire and water quite easily in His cloak. When playing with other boys and making figures of various beasts and birds, Jesus makes those He had formed walk and fly, and eat and drink. Wonderful works of healing are also ascribed to the Child; and some of them take strange forms, in curious contrast to the stories of the works of Jesus found in our Gospels. e.g. Simon the Cananaean as a boy is nigh to death through having been bitten by a serpent. Jesus makes the serpent itself come and suck out all the poison from the wound; then He curses it, and immediately the creature bursts asunder. The cure of demoniacs, of lepers, of the blind and maimed and sick, and the raising of the dead, are all ascribed to the Child Jesus, and always with more or less grotesqueness of circumstance. Strangest thing of all, a whole series of vindictive and destructive miracles are given which offer the most flagrant contrast to all that we know of our Lord, and which, if true, would have made Him a veritable terror to all with whom He came into contact. Boys who thwart Him in play are immediately struck dead: others who take action against Him are blinded. It is true the mischief is usually repaired by Him in response to earnest entreaty; but the vengeful malevolence is conspicuous throughout. In the stories, again, relating to His early education, Jesus is represented as being un enfant terrible to more than one master to whom He was sent to learn His letters. But a comparison of the story of the Visit to the Temple, as told in the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy and other such writings, with the narrative as we have it in Luke 2, serves as well as possible to show the untrustworthy character of the Apocryphal Gospels, whatever curious interest may attach to them. For the simple and natural statement of St. Luke, that ‘all that heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers,’ we find Him represented as not only getting the upper hand of the great Rabbis in relation to the knowledge of the Torah, but as giving profound instruction to philosophers in astronomy, natural science, and medicine, explaining to them ‘physics and metaphysics, hyperphysics and hypophysics,’ and many other things.

The Apocryphal writings which, in particular, abound in these tales of the childhood of Jesus, are the Gospel of pseudo-Matthew, the Protevangelium of James, the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, and the Gospel of Thomas in its various forms. The Thomas Gospel is mainly answerable for the stories of vindictive miracles referred to above. The Syriac form of this Gospel is entitled in the MS (6th cent.) the ‘Boyhood of Our Lord Jesus.’

With every allowance for whatever scanty touches of beauty and elements of value may here and there be found, a survey of this Apocryphal literature gives fresh force to Edersheim’s remark (Jesus the Messiah, bk. ii. ch. 10): ‘We dread gathering around our thoughts of Him the artificial flowers of legend.’ In default, however, of authentic records there remains one expedient for meeting the deep silence of our Gospels which modern writers who essay the construction of a ‘Life of Christ’ are full ready to make use of. All available knowledge regarding the times in which our Lord lived, the surroundings and conditions in which He grew up, and the manner in which Jewish boys were educated (see artt. Boyhood and Education), can be employed to help us to form a sober and reverent conception of Him in the days of His childhood. Perhaps, indeed, such matters in their general treatment enter into some Lives of Christ even to prolixity. It is a true instinct, however, which bids us set aside early and mediaeval legends, with all their naïveté, and frame a conception of Him as living the life of a normal Jewish boy of His own time and station, distinguished only by a rare personal charm of goodness and grace. The unfolding of a human life in growing beauty and nobility of character more truly proclaims ‘God with us’ than could such miraculous accompaniments as would tend to make the Child an object of mingled wonder and fear. Painters who have represented the Holy Child in simple human grace, without the encircling nimbus, have not on that account fallen behind others in suggesting His true Divinity.

‘He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up’ (Luke 4:16)—how much that phrase covers! The great factors entering into His education were home training, the synagogue both as a place of worship and as a school, the many-coloured life of the district in which He spent His youth, the natural features of the locality, and all the scenery round about Nazareth, so full of beauty and stirring historical associations. Later on, after He had attained ‘years of discretion,’ in our phrase, becoming a bar-mizvah (בַּר מִצְוָה = son of commandment = one responsible for compliance with legal requirements), as the Jews express it, His repeated visits to Jerusalem to attend the feasts would also count for much. If we are to understand the visit mentioned in Luke 2 to be the first that Jesus paid to Jerusalem (though the narrative does not explicitly say it was), we may take it that at the age of twelve (Luke 2:42) He was regarded as having reached that important stage in a boy’s life, although the usual age for such recognition was somewhat later.

Jesus belonged to a people unsurpassed for the care bestowed upon the education of children. His earliest teacher would be His mother; and we cannot doubt that of all Jewish mothers none could excel Mary (‘blessed among women’) in all such work. Among other things He would probably learn from her the Shema‘ (Deuteronomy 6:4)—that sacred formula which attends the devout Jew from his earliest years to his latest moment. This is quite consistent with the fact that education was one of the things for which the father was held responsible as regards his son. At an early age Jesus would be sent to school at the synagogue, there to be taught by the hazzan, or schoolmaster, to read and recite the Jewish Scriptures. The instruction given did not go beyond this, with writing and possibly a little arithmetic as additional and subordinate subjects. It was in a supreme degree a religious education, designed to fit children for the practical duties of life. The education of Jesus was just that of the great mass of the people: unlike Saul of Tarsus, no bêth ha-Midrâsh, or college of Scribes, received Him as a student (‘Whence hath this man these things?’ Mark 6:2; cf. John 7:15). As a schoolboy, too, Jesus would have His recreations. School hours were not excessive, amounting to no more than four or five hours a day. Truly Jewish games, however, were but few. They had little or nothing corresponding to our school sports; and the cult of athletics was looked upon as something alien. Little children, like those of other times and races, found amusement in playing at doing as grown-up people did: and the words of our Lord in Matthew 11:16-17 very likely contain not merely the result of His observation, but a memory of His own childhood. For the rest, as a boy He would find abundant means of recreation in rambling round about Nazareth amidst the sights and sounds of nature. The open-air atmosphere of His preaching, with its abundant allusions to the life of the field and to the varied aspects of nature, betokens an early-formed and loving familiarity.

On His visit to Nazareth, described in Luke 4, ‘He entered, as His custom was, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day’ (Luke 4:16): and that custom, we may be sure, was a growth from His earliest years. Children, in those days, were admitted to religious celebrations in the Temple at an early age. A boy’s religious life was considered to begin at the age of four. Both boys and girls accompanied their mothers to the synagogue when very young. And Sabbath by Sabbath, throughout His early peaceful years, Jesus was found in the synagogue with His mother Mary; and a benediction and a joy it must have been to all the frequenters of that synagogue at Nazareth to look upon the fair, winsome, earnest face of the Child. When we read, as we do, of boys playing in the synagogue during worship and causing annoyance to their elders, it interests us to recognize the counterpart of a familiar experience in modern times; but without taking anything from the naturalness of our Lord’s boyhood, it is impossible to think of Him in any such association. We can only think of Him as showing forth a spirit of wondrous grace, a growing responsiveness towards the prayers and praises, becoming more and more familiar and dear, a deepening love of the noble words in which He heard the laws, the hopes and the faith of Israel set forth. The whole unfolding of His life in all the religious discipline and education of the home, the synagogue and the whole round of the Jewish year of feasts and fasts, must have been beautiful to those to whose care He was entrusted. When a boy became bar-mizvah, there was a lightening of the paternal responsibility regarding him, and a sense of relief surely found expression in the benediction pronounced by the father on that occasion—‘Blessed be He for having freed me from this punishment.’ There could have been no room for such an utterance when Jesus left His mother’s side, henceforth to take His place among the men in the congregation.

Our most profitable reflections on the childhood of our Lord, however, are best summarized in the saying of Irenaeus, to the effect that, in completely participating in the conditions of human life, He became a child for the sake of children, and by His own experience of childhood He has sanctified it (adv. Haer. ii. xxii. 4).

ii. Childhood in the teaching of Jesus.—It was only to be expected that Jesus would exhibit an unquestionable love for children; and it is in complete accord with the whole tenor of His teaching that He should specially emphasize the importance and value of the child. The well-known words of Juvenal, ‘Maxima debetur puero reverentia’ (Sat. xiv. 47), gain their profoundest significance when the attitude assumed by our Lord towards children is considered. The story of Jairus’ daughter (τὸ θυγάτριόν μου is the father’s appealing expression in Mark 5:23) suggests a special tenderness in Jesus towards children for whom His healing was sought; He could not resist such an appeal as, ‘Sir, come down ere my child (τὸ παιδίον μου) die’ (John 4:49); and it was anything but indifference to the woes of a little heathen girl (θυγάτριον, Mark 7:23) which made Him apparently reluctant to yield to the entreaties of the Syrophœnician woman. Such cases, we may be sure, are only representative of many more. And that our Lord Himself had a singular attraction for children admits of no doubt. His triumphal Entry into Jerusalem and the Temple cannot have been the only time when He had child-friends to greet and attend Him (Matthew 21:15). It was no new thing for parents to seek a Rabbi’s blessing for their children, but it was a unique charm in Jesus which led mothers—surely mothers were at least among ‘those that brought them’—to desire His blessing for their little ones (Mark 10:13-16 and parallels). St. Mark’s special touch in describing how He welcomed them (ἐναγκαλισάμενος, Mark 10:16) is entirely true to the spirit of the Master. His benediction was as remote from the perfunctory as it could be.

The teaching of Jesus concerning children and childhood gathers round two occasions—when He blessed the little ones (as above), and when He rebuked the ambition of the disciples,—see Mark 9:33-37, Luke 9:46-48, and Matthew 18:1-14, with notable amplifications.

(a) In the former instance the untimely interposition of the disciples leads to the saying, ‘Of such is the kingdom of God.’ In Mark and Luke this is followed by a further solemn saying—‘Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein.’ Though Matthew lacks this in this connexion, he has a corresponding utterance in Matthew 18:3-4. Wendt (Echre Jesu, English translation ii. pp. 49, 50) considers that all the stress of these words lies on the receptivity demanded by Jesus on the part of those who would enter the kingdom. ‘Not the reception of the kingdom of God at a childlike age (sic), but in a childlike character, He declares to be the indispensable condition of entering the kingdom of God; and under this childlike character He does not understand any virtue of childlike blamelessness, but only the receptivity itself.…’ And no doubt in the second of these sayings the manner in which men are to receive the kingdom is set forth with emphasis. Those who find themselves for one reason and another outside the kingdom, can obtain admission there into only when the offer of its gracious blessings is received, not with ‘blamelessness’ indeed (which is out of the question here), but, with the simple trust, the unpretentiousness, the earnest desire and the reality which are characteristic of a child. But there is something more than this in the words of Jesus. The first saying has hardly its due weight given to it if we stop here. ‘Of such is the kingdom of God.’ The kingdom belongs to such. And we cannot accept ‘the childlike’ as the complete equivalent of ‘such.’ Wendt, it is true, acknowledges children to be ‘susceptible subjects for the preaching of the kingdom of God’ (as above, p. 50); but are we to understand that they are to be invited to receive it as having been outside from the first? We verge here on controversies that have loomed large on the troubled way of the diversified development of Christian thought and opinion. But the saying of Jesus, as it stands, surely implies that the kingdom comprises not only the childlike, but little children qua children as well. They are its inheritors. They may forfeit its blessings subsequently by their own act, or others may be specially responsible for their failing to retain their inheritance (Matthew 18:6); but that is another matter. As Bengel says (on Matthew 19:14), ‘τοιοῦτος notat substantiam cum qualitate.’ And the relation of our Lord to humanity at large makes this but the natural interpretation of His words. ‘If they who are like little children belong to the kingdom of heaven, why should we for a moment doubt that the little children themselves belong to the kingdom?’ So Morison, who is altogether admirable on this point (see especially Com. on Matthew 19:14).

(b) The way in which Jesus dealt with the disciples’ dispute concerning precedence (Mark 9:33-37 and parallels) further brings out the qualities of childhood which were most precious in His eyes, and the value and importance He attached to little children themselves. The little one He called to Him and so lovingly embraced (St. Mark’s special touch again), was held up to the disciples as an example and guide to greatness. To be great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:1; Matthew 18:4) it was necessary to have a spirit of simplicity and humility such as was seen in the child in whom self-regard and self-seeking had as yet no place. It is one of our Lord’s great paradoxes. To be childlike is to be truly great. The same truth is emphasized in a saying which in varying form is found twice over in each of the Synoptics—the man who wishes to be first shall be last; the man willing to be least shall be great. We here learn further how Jesus regards little children as in a real sense belonging to Him. To receive a little child as belonging to Him, bestowing loving care upon it, is a high service rendered to Him and to God by whom He was sent. In Matthew 10:40-42 the importance attached to such service is strikingly expressed in the progressive series in which Jesus promises a reward to those who thus receive His messengers—a prophet, a good man, ‘one of these little ones.’ It is most natural to understand that in using such an expression as the last our Lord actually referred to some children who were hard by when He was speaking. And as here, so in the more extended sayings in Matthew 18, whatever the reference to childlike and lowly-minded disciples in general, the words of Jesus must apply to children themselves. The terrible warning of Matthew 18:6 applies to those who hinder such little ones in relation to the kingdom. Though it is not expressly so stated, what is said about receiving children suggests that such a wrong done to any child is as a wrong done to Christ Himself. The preciousness of a little child in the sight of ‘our Father in heaven’ is emphatically asserted by Jesus in Matthew 18:10-14. The children’s angels, He says, are ever in the presence of God (v. 10). Whether this remarkable saying be understood as referring to guardian angels or to representative angels (in some way corresponding to the Zoroastrian fravashis or ‘spiritual counterparts’—see art. by Dr. J. H. Moulton in Journal of Theol. Studies, July 1902), it clearly declares that no little one is an object of indifference with God, no wrong inflicted upon a child can escape His notice. The closing saying of this group (vv. 12–14) embodies the illustration of the one stray sheep, found in another connexion in Luke 15, and teaches that, whatever ruin may befall ‘one of these little ones,’ it is not a matter of the Divine pleasure and ordination that even one such should be ‘cast as rubbish to the void.’ See also art. Children, which is written from a different standpoint.

Literature.—The various Lives of Christ (Edersheim, Keim, Didon, Farrar, Andrews, D. Smith, etc); artt. Boyhood, and Education; cf. art. ‘Education’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible and the Encyc. Biblica; Brough, Childhood and Youth of our Lord; G. A. Coe, Education in Religion and Morals, 1904; S. B. Haslett, Pedagogical Bible School, 1905; R. Rainy, Sojourning with God (1902), p. 151; Donehoo, Apocryphal and Legendary Life of Christ; Ramsay, Education of Christ; Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ; Wendt, Teaching of Jesus, ii. 48 ff.; G. B. Stevens, Theology of the NT, pp. 81, 93.

J. S. Clemens.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Childhood'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/c/childhood.html. 1906-1918.

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