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My child, or the child in me?

03 April 2007

John Pridmore enjoys tussling with a knotty theological subject

Adults as Children: Images of childhood in the ancient world and the New Testament
James M. M. Francis

I WAS delighted to receive this book for review, as I had long been pestering the publishers for a publication date. My appetite had been whetted by James Francis’s sub-stantial earlier publications on children and childlikeness in the New Testament. It was good news that a summation of his splendid work in this field was “forthcoming”, and I had been waiting for it impatiently.

The book does not disappoint. But it does make demands. Here is a light aside from Francis’s discussion of the image of the child in the letter to the Hebrews: “For Montefiore, the explanation lies in the fact that failure to progress brings danger of collapse, qui cessat esse melior cessat esse bonus, so to speak. So also Grundmann remarks, ‘Dieses Abgestumpftsein lasst sie zurücksinken auf den Zustand der nepio.’”

Quite so. But the difficulty facing us in these pages is more deeply embedded than the occasional lump of unrendered Latin or German. This is a book about childhood in the New Testament. The problem about the references to children in the first Christian texts is that it is sometimes far from clear whether the allusion is to actual children or to metaphorical ones. When they brought children to Jesus, he famously said, “Of such is the kingdom of God.” Was he talking about my three-year-old grandson Alexander? Or was he referring to grown-ups who are — or should be — in significant respects childlike?

To add to our difficulties, the word “child” is, of course, also a relational term, equivalent to “son” or “daughter”. Again the word is used both literally and metaphorically. We are children of our hu-man parents, but we are also, we dare to claim, in some sense “children of God”.

It is more complicated still. The understanding of childhood in our texts sometimes reflects, but also sometimes runs counter to, atti-tudes to children prevailing in the first-century Graeco-Roman world and in contemporary Judaism. Discerning the difference between the cultural and the counter-cultural in the New Testament is not as easy as is sometimes made out.

Thus the demands Francis makes on his readers are not gratuitous. They are inherent in the complex-ities of his subject, most especially in the subtle interplay between actuality and image, between “the child as such” and the child I must become, between Alex, my grandson, and the discipleship of which my grandson Alex is emblematic.

Francis’s primary interest is in the image of childhood in the New Testament, the child as a symbol of our believing and belonging, rather than in how children themselves were understood and treated in New Testament times. But he never loses sight of the ordinary children. Only when we see what it means to be a child does the child help us to see what it means to be a Christian.

The body of Francis’s book is a series of essays on how Jesus regarded children, and on how the different New Testament writers use the image of the child to explore the nature of Christian discipleship. These erudite, occasionally dense, but always fascinating chapters carry the weight they do only because Francis knows so well — and in earlier chapters has explained so well — what life was like for real children in the first-century world.

All of us, not just this reviewer, have been waiting a long time for this book.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore was formerly Rector of Hackney.

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

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