Bible, The

The Bible has connoted different texts within different religious communities. For literate laypeople in the later Middle Ages it meant the edited Bible stories of Petrus Comestor's Historia scholastica, first published around 1170 and later translated into the vernacular all over Europe. After the Reformation the Bible could connote the canonical Bible in any of its many translations, with or without the Apocrypha; Bible excerpts in prose or verse; single books such as Ecclesiasticus or Psalms; children's Bibles; the Hebrew Scriptures for Jewish readers; or from the nineteenth century onward, often the New Testament by itself. Bible reading in the Middle Ages and sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was carefully guided by richly interpretive marginal glosses, which aided the understanding of texts of early publications of Luther, Geneva, and King James translations. This entry uses the text of The New English Bible with the Apocrypha, first published in 1970 by Oxford University Press.

Before the advent of nineteenth-century textual criticism, Bible readers commonly understood the Bible as a single coherent text manifesting the word of God. The Bible as we know it today, however, is a compilation of texts of varying antiquity, some of which are themselves based on older oral or written traditions. The Bible's most ancient components reflect the values of nomadic herding cultures and their conflicts with settled agrarian communities (e.g., God's preferring Abel's animal offering to Cain's vegetable ones). As Israelites became urbanized, Biblical texts excoriated their continuing service to alien gods such as Ba'al and Molech, as well as their devotion to city fleshpots such as Sodom and Gomorrah. Late mystical texts used striking end-of-days imagery that lived on in the writings of early Christian writers who were well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Children's Bibles and the Invention of Bible Children

With an eye to fostering Biblicity among young readers, early modern editors of the Bible's histories revised children's ages downward. Noah's grown son Ham became a disrespectful child, and Isaac was gradually made younger, from a medieval thirty-seven (derived from Josephus's estimate) to a frightened but obedient child of seven or eight.

Petrus Comestor altered Bible narratives significantly in his Latin Historia scholastica. In his telling, Ham's report to his brothers of their father's drunken nakedness became punishable filial impiety by the addition of the adjective ridens ("laughing"). Later redactors of Bible histories for children attempted to account for Absalom's rebellion by transforming his Biblical handsomeness into an external ugliness that automatically connoted internal sinfulness, despite the fact that David's paternal neglect and personal failings accounted for many of Absalom's rebellious acts. In a reverse direction, the "fine" baby Moses, Israel's heroic leader, took on ever greater handsomeness in children's Bibles between the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries.

Obedience gradually emerged as the primary virtue among children in children's Bibles, joined by hard work from 1750 onward in Bibles for children of the laboring classes; Bible stories were changed or invented to accommodate obedience and industry. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Catholic authors of devotional literature for children created biographies describing Mary's (Biblically nonexistent) childhood and vastly expanded the few facts of Jesus' early years. School religious dramas also expanded popular acquaintance with Biblical figures' fictive childhoods. Such dramas existed in the Middle Ages, but the genre gained impetus as a form of educational exercise in France in the seventeenth century and in England in the eighteenth.

The descriptions of children and childhood that are widely believed to exist in the Bible are largely the product of Bible stories in prose or dramatic form, each of which reflects the values of the age that produced it: nineteenth-century awareness of a child such as Samuel, for example, resembles a nineteenth-century childhood as its author envisioned it.

Girls and Boys in the Canonical Bible

Childhood in the canonical Bible presents different images altogether. Biblical girls were married to close relatives to form advantageous alliances that consolidated family networks by marrying a daughter to a close relative. Outside the family, fathers used daughters' marriages to forge political bonds, as when Solomon betrothed his daughter to "Pharaoh King of Egypt" (1 Kings 3:1). Beauty, modesty, and virginity comprised a daughter's most valuable attributes. A Biblical girl appeared in the role of sister only rarely and then problematically: Lot's daughters cooperated actively to carry out their plan to perpetuate their father's lineage by intoxicating him, lying with him, and mothering the Moabites and Ammonites (Gen. 19). Dinah and Tamar, each of whom suffered a sexual assault, were both avenged by a full brother for the sake of family honor and personal outrage respectively (Gen. 34; 2 Sam. 13).

Biblical boys are far more numerous than Biblical girls, consistent with the Bible's predominant male-centeredness. Generational succession followed male lineage, hence a son's name lived on far more often than a daughter's. For example, Adam (and Eve) had Cain, Abel, Seth, and "other sons and daughters" (Gen. 5:3-4). That listing heralds the Bible's numerous genealogical listings through male lines, which continue into the New Testament Gospel of the Jewish evange-list Matthew.

A dark side of generational succession appeared in Old Testament scriptures of more ancient provenance, namely that Jehovah would punish "sons and grandsons to the third and fourth generation for the sins of their fathers" (Exod. 34:7); the illness and subsequent death of the son born of David's adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12) provides a dramatic example. The secular world pragmatically adopted the same ethic, when seven grandsons of Saul (some of them no doubt adolescent or younger) were hurled to their deaths to appease the anger of the Gibeonites against Saul (2 Sam. 21), and "Zedekiah's sons were slain before his eyes" after Nebuchadnezzar defeated him (2 Kings 7; Jer. 52:10). The ethic of transferring a father's guilt to his issue shifted in later prophetical literature: Ezekiel preached that "a son shall not share his father's guilt" (Ezek. 18:20).

The stages of a Biblical boy's early life–birth, CIRCUMCISION, and weaning–provided occasions for rejoicing, and in Isaac's case, "for a great feast" (Gen. 20:8). A strict hierarchy among sons granted primacy to the first born, which– according to Deuteronomy 21:16-17–had to be respected even if that son had been born to an unloved wife. Occasionally, however, primogeniture was overridden by emotion, as when Sarah forced Abraham to drive out his first-born son Ishmael (Gen. 21:9-21), when Jacob exploited Esau's hunger and Isaac's blindness to secure his brother's birthright for himself (Gen. 25:29-34; Gen. 27), or when Jacob knowingly conferred his blessing on the younger of Joseph's two sons (Gen. 48:14-20). Predictably, the Bible enjoins a son to pay attention to his father's instruction, as well as to his mother's teaching (Prov. 1:8-9; Prov. 4:1-5). Earlier texts had harshly prescribed death for such physical disobedience as striking a father or mother (Exod. 21:15, 17).

The Old Testament is filled with dramatic instances of adult fraternal strife, but only two take place between certifiable boys: Ishmael taunted Isaac (Gen. 21:9), and seventeen-year-old Joseph's brothers cast him into a pit from which he was sold into Egyptian servitude (Gen. 38:28-30). All other episodes detail strife between brothers who had attained the full or semi-independent status of economic production (herding, farming) or separate domicile: Cain versus Abel, further strife between Jacob and Esau, and Absalom versus his half-brother Amnon. Even the friendship of David and Jonathan was an adult one, as Jonathan already was a father at the time and David was long gone from the protection of his parental home.

The Bible's few sustained narratives of children and childhood–particularly those of Moses, Samuel, and David–are told quickly. Moses' infancy was recorded in emotive language: "When [his mother] saw what a fine child he was, she hid him for three months" (Exod. 2:1-2). Afterward his older sister Miriam guarded him until Pharaoh's daughter found the crying child. "Filled with pity for it, she said, 'Why, it is a little Hebrew boy.'" "Thereupon the sister," devising a clever ruse to protect her brother, "said to Pharaoh's daughter, 'Shall I go and fetch one of the Hebrew women as a wet-nurse to suckle the child for you?'" (Exod. 2:4-8). Directly afterward, Moses was "grown up" (Exod. 2:11). A small detail from the life of the boy Samuel communicates maternal care: Samuel was "a mere boy with a linen ephod fastened round him. Every year his mother made him a little cloak and took it to him.… " (1 Sam. 2:18-19). Wefurther learn that "the child Samuel was in the Lord's service under his master Eli" and that God spoke to him (1 Sam. 3:1-4). The boy David lives on as "handsome, with ruddy cheeks and bright eyes" (1 Sam. 16:11-12; 1 Sam. 17:43), a "lad" (1 Sam. 17:56) who served Saul as armor-bearer and harp-player (1 Sam. 16:21-23). When he hung around the battlefield, however, his older brother called him an "impudent rascal" (1 Sam. 17:28).

In a variety of texts, irresistible adolescent urges push aside the Bible's general sobriety. "Will a girl forget her finery?" Jeremiah asked rhetorically (Jer. 2:32). Worse was Ezekiel's inculpation of Oholah and Oholibah, two sisters who "played the whore in Egypt, played the whore while they were still girls; for they let their breasts be fondled and their virgin bosoms pressed" (Ezek. 23:3). In the New Testament Herodias's daughter danced before Herod and gained John the Baptist's head for her efforts (Mark 6:21-28), another testimony to the effective power of an adolescent girl's SEXUALITY.

Boys' sexuality, though castigated, seems to have been more part of the daily scene. A foolish lad was easy prey for a practiced prostitute, who seduced him at twilight (Prov. 7:6-29). Paul's warning to Timothy to "turn from the wayward impulses of youth" (2 Tim. 2:22) seems part of an early warning system that included freewheeling sexuality among other dangers to adolescent virtue.

In the seventeenth century Ecclesiasticus, a now largely forgotten apocryphal book of the Bible, counted as a child-rearing manual. Often published separately for children's use, it was equally often the only part of the Bible known by the young. Ecclesiasticus offered a wealth of practical advice for living a safe and sober life. It began by urging a son to respect his parents and continued by recognizing parents' fears for their daughters' virtue and well-being (Ecclus. 22:3-5 and passim).

Differences between Old and New Testament Imagery of Children and Childhood

In a New Testament reprise of Old Testament ferocity, Herod massacred "all children in Bethlehem" (Matt. 1:16) just as Pharaoh had instigated an indiscriminate murder of Jewish boys (Exod. 1:15-22). Similarly present in both testaments were child healings. The Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha each had restored a boy to life (1 Kings 17:17-23; 2 Kings 4:18-37). In the New Testament, however, Jesus cured and revived girls and boys alike: the twelve-year-old daughter of the synagogue president Jairus (Matt. 9:25; Mark 5:42; Luke 8:40-42, 49-56), a "young daughter" possessed by an unclean spirit (Mark 7:25-30), a "boy" possessed by a "deaf and dumb" spirit (Mark 9:17-27), and an officer's son in Capernaum (John 4:43-53), while Paul and Silas together cured an Israelite slave girl possessed by an oracular spirit (Acts 16:16-18).

Jesus repeatedly used the word "children" to mean "adherents" (as in "children of the Kingdom," Matt 13:38) and to indicate spiritual advancement ("the Kingdom of God belongs to children," Mark 10:14-15). Jesus identified himself as a little child and proclaimed that whoever received "one of these children in my name… receives me" (Mark 9:36-37; Luke 9:46-48). Jesus also treated children as representations of innocence, simplicity, and helplessness in some of his preaching (Matt 18:1-6; Matt 19:14).

New Testament writing assumed that parents would lovingly nurture their children (Luke 11:11-13). Paul, for instance, referred allegorically to providential parenting to represent the relationship between divinity and followers of Jesus: "Parents should make provision for their children, not children for their parents" (2 Cor. 12:14). The first letter of John actually addressed one verse to real rather than metaphorical "children" (1 John 2:13), a rarity in the New Testament and in John's own letters, where "my children" generally refers to adults who are spiritual children.

In most respects New Testament depictions of and references to childhood differ fundamentally from those in the Old Testament. Portrayed overwhelmingly in their vulnerability, Old Testament children fall victim to war and oppression and communicate Jewish suffering as men and women also experienced it. The seventy children of Ahab who remained behind in Samaria with their tutors were beheaded, their heads transported in baskets to Israel and dumped on the ground at the city gate (2 Kings 10:1-11). Equally savage, "the Medes… have no pity on little children and spare no mother's son" (Isaiah 13:17-18). Suffering the effects of siege, "children and infants faint in the streets of the town and cry to their mothers,… gasping out their lives in their mothers' bosom" (Lam. 2:11-12); "the sucking infant's tongue cleaves to its palate from thirst; young children beg for bread but no one offers them a crumb" (Lam. 4:4). Doing Saul's bidding, Doeg "put to the sword every living being, men and women, children and babes in arms" (1 Sam. 22:19).

Even within their own families danger lurked. Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac to demonstrate his fidelity to Jehovah (Gen. 22), and later fathers returning from Exile dismissed the children they had fathered with foreign wives (Ezra 10). Even a grandmother might turn murderous, although six-year-old Joah escaped Athalial's wrath by hiding with his nurse in the house of the Lord for six years (2 Kings 11:1-3).

Old Testament children were parental possessions of the father who had sired them; they comprised his personal worth and added to his individual wealth. This understanding echoes in Jacob's declaration that his two grandsons Ephraim and Manassah counted as his own (Gen. 48:5). Ownership implied the right of disposal: on occasion hungry parents pledged their children to pay their own debts (Neh. 5:1-6). In the worst case, children became food for their starving parents. The statement that "tender-hearted women with their own hands boiled their own children, their children became their food in the day of my people's wounding" (Lam. 4:10) was followed by the anguished cry, "Must women eat the fruit of their wombs, the children they have brought safely to birth?" (Lam. 2:20). Of all children, ORPHANS who lacked familial protection were the most vulnerable. Hence, already in the Pentateuch the people of Israel were adjured not to ill treat "a fatherless child" (Exod. 22:23).

Various prophetical authors of the Old Testament drew on metaphors of childhood to describe Israel's eventual restoration: Israel would suck the milk of nations (Isa. 60:16) and be fed from the breasts that give comfort (Isa. 66:11). In Isaiah's vision, "a little child shall lead [the calf and the lion]… the infant shall play over the hole of a cobra, and the young child shall dance over the viper's nest" (Isa. 11:6, 8). Isaiah's infantine image was meant to communicate safety within a mortally threatening environment, but it also communicates a sense of utter vulnerability among the young. Prophetical authors often used metaphors of childhood to convey devastating fear: death "sweeps off the children in the open air" (Jer. 9:21), while the people of Israel were characterized as the most vulnerable of the young, "fatherless children" (Jer. 49:11; Jer. 51:22) and "babes [who] will fall by the sword and be dashed to the ground" (Hos. 13:16).

Joseph and his brothers generated an enormous literature, both fictional (e.g., Thomas Mann) and scholarly, including linguistic analysis. The sacrifice of first-born sons in the context of Mediterranean Moloch rituals and requirements in later texts to dedicate a child to God, as well as investigations of BIRTH ORDER comprise the principle research subjects addressed to date.

See also: Theories of Childhood.


Bottigheimer, Ruth B. 1996. The Bible for Children: From the Age of Gutenberg to the Present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Daube, David. 1942. "How Esau Sold his Birthright." Cambridge Law Journal 8: 70-75.

Hayward, R. 1981. "The Present State of Research into the Targumic Account of the Sacrifice of Isaac." Journal of the Study of Judaism 32: 127-150.

Heider, George C. 1985. The Cult of Molek: A Reassessment. Sheffield England: JSOT Press.

Levenson, Jon. 1993. The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Longacre, Robert E. 1989. Joseph: A Story of Divine Providence. A Text Theoretical and Text Linguistic Analysis of Genesis 37 and 39-48. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

Mendelsohn, Isaac. 1959. "On the Preferential Status of the Eldest Son." Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 156: 38-40.

Weinfeld, Moshe. 1972. "The Worship of Molech and of the Queen of Heaven and Its Background." Ugarit-Forschungen 4: 133-154.