Children in the Gospels
Often, 21st century people think that Jesus is saying that we need to become innocent like children or just have faith like children. But his first century audience would have thought about the vulnerability, dependence, and marginal status of children in their world. They wouldn’t have thought of an idealized view of children and childhood, but rather that Jesus was telling them to become among those of low status.
See Also: Children in Early Christian Narratives (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).
By Sharon Betsworth
Director of the Wimberly School of Religion
Oklahoma City University
Many stories about Jesus found in the Gospels are well-known and well-loved stories: the birth narratives, the call of Jesus’ disciples, the parables of the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son, the story of the little man Zacchaeus, the Sermon on the Mount, and of course, many healing stories. Often overlooked among the stories in the Gospels, however, are those in which Jesus heals children or interacts with children in other ways. The narratives of Jesus as an infant and child are a significant part of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as well. In fact, all four Gospels contain several stories about children. I will first discuss the children in the Gospel of Mark, which was likely the first Gospel written, then look at Matthew, Luke, and John.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke drew a good deal of their materials from Mark. Indeed, most of the stories of children found in Mark are also in either Matthew or Luke or both. There are four children mentioned specifically in Mark’s Gospel: the daughter of Jairus (5:21-43); the daughter of Herodias (6:14-29); the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman (7:24-30); and a boy with an unclean spirit (9:14-29). I will discuss each narrative briefly and conclude with two additional encounters that Jesus has with children in Mark.
In Mark 5:21-43, a leader of the synagogue, who is named Jairus, approaches Jesus. Jairus’ daughter is ill and near death. He begs Jesus to come with him and heal his daughter. Jesus goes with Jairus but before he can make it to the house, a woman – who is also in need of healing – approaches Jesus from behind and touches his clothes. The woman is instantly healed, and Jesus commends her faith. Meanwhile, however, Jairus’ daughter has died. Jesus admonishes Jairus to have faith (like the woman had), and they continue to Jairus’ house. Although mourners have already gathered and begun the funerary rites, Jesus goes into the girl’s room, grasps her hands, and tells her to arise. The girl is then restored to life. At the end of the story, Mark discloses that the girl is twelve years old. This first child-healing story demonstrates that even children were important enough to Jesus to receive healing from him.
The second parent who comes to Jesus on behalf of a child is a Greek woman from the region of Syrophoenicia in Mark 7:24-30. There are clear echoes back to the story in 5:21-43. Like Jairus, the woman has a “little daughter” (7:25) who needs healing, and she comes and bows down at Jesus’ feet. Like the woman from the crowd, she comes without a male companion, and she comes to Jesus because she has heard about what he is doing. Due to these similarities between the previous parent who requested healing for a child, and the woman from the crowd whom Jesus healed, the reader likely expects that Jesus will also heal this child. However, Jesus does not agree to go with her but instead challenges her request. He tells her that it is not right to take the children’s bread, meaning that which was given to the Jewish people, and throw it to the dogs, meaning the Gentiles. In essence, Jesus calls the woman and her people dogs, which is still an insult in the Middle East today. The woman cleverly retorts that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs from under the master’s table. After she says this, Jesus announces that her daughter is well. Jesus’ reluctance to heal the girl is confusing. Yet it seems to be a moment in which Jesus has to reevaluate what his mission is and to whom he is sent. He realizes in that moment that all people – indeed all children – are his people too.
In Mark 9:14-29 there is the story of the third child whom Jesus heals. This child is also one who has a demon, or unclean spirit, which were terms ancient people used to describe aliments they did not understand or the source of which they did not know. This boy seems to have epilepsy: he falls down, foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. Jesus’ disciples had tried to heal the boy but they could not. Like the other children, the boy’s father clearly cares deeply for him and seeks out Jesus as a last resort to heal his child. Jesus heals the boy and then uses the experiences to teach his disciples a lesson about prayer.
There is another child who is the central character in her story as well, the daughter of Herodias in Mark 6:14-29. This girl, however, never meets Jesus. She is introduced at her stepfather Herod’s birthday party, in which Herod responds favorably to her entertaining dance. He tells her she can have whatever she wants, even half of his kingdom. She asks her mother for a suggestion, who tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. The girl asks Herod for John’s head, and it is brought into the feast. Unlike the other children whose interactions with Jesus demonstrate Jesus’ life-giving power, the author of Mark uses this story to demonstrate that when Jesus is absent, death and destruction abound. It also highlights ways that parents sometimes mistreat or manipulate their children for their own gain.
Mark has two final encounters between Jesus, his disciples, and children. First, in 9:33-37, after telling his disciples that he will be betrayed and killed, he catches the disciples arguing about who is greatest among them. In response, Jesus puts a child among them and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and a servant of all.” Second, in Mark 10:13-16, the disciples do not seem to have understood Jesus’ previous teaching. They speak harshly to people who want to bring their children to Jesus. It is here that Jesus makes the earth shattering statement regarding children and their place in his ministry and God’s world: “let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Often, 21st century people think that Jesus is saying that we need to become innocent like children or just have faith like children. But his first century audience would have thought about the vulnerability, dependence, and marginal status of children in their world. They wouldn’t have thought of an idealized view of children and childhood, but rather that Jesus was telling them to become among those of low status. The previous stories in the Gospel of Mark about children support this view. The children are ones who are vulnerable to illness, death, and even parental mistreatment; they are dependent on their parents and Jesus, and are marginal persons in the community. But these children become examples of what the reign of God is all about, and who are acceptable members of God’s community of justice and peace.
The first Gospel in the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew, was likely the second Gospel written. Matthew contains the same stories about children (Mt 9:18-26; 14:1-12; 15:21-27; 17:14-20; 18:1-5 and 19:13-15) found in Mark, but with Matthew’s own alterations. Each of Matthew’s redactions of Mark’s stories serves to further Matthew’s particular understanding of who Jesus is. Unique to Matthew’s Gospel, however, is the story of Jesus as baby who flees with his family to Egypt, in order to avoid the murderous wrath of King Herod. Matthew 2 tells the story of the magi coming to Herod asking where the king of the Jews had been born. Since that was also Herod’s title, he feared that another ruler was going to rise up and throw him from his throne. Thus, Herod orders the murder of the children in Bethlehem who were two years old and younger. Jesus’ father, Joseph, however, was warned in a dream that this would occur and was commanded by the Lord to take the child and his mother away to Egypt.
Throughout the infancy narrative, Matthew draws distinct parallels between Jesus and Moses. Each story tells of a special child, who will be adopted by a stepparent who has royal lineage. Both children are threatened with death at the hands of the ruling authorities (Ex 1:15-16; Mt 2:16). As an adult, when Moses’ life was again threatened he sought refuge in a foreign land (Ex 2:11-15). Similarly, when the infant Jesus’ life is threatened, Joseph takes him to a foreign land for safety (Mt 2:13-15). Both are later called out of the place of refuge to return to the land of their birth, after the ones who had sought their life had died (Ex 4:18-20; Mt 2:19-23).
The most notable aspect of this story in Matthew’s Gospel, however, is the juxtaposition of Jesus and Herod: an infant from an insignificant village threatens a murderous ruler residing in Jerusalem. Indeed, the reigning king is depicted as conniving and homicidal demonstrating the need for a just king. And while Herod is named throughout Matthew 2, Jesus is only named in the first verse. Thereafter he is simply called “the child.” This way of referring to Jesus highlights his vulnerability, his dependence on his parents and on God, and that he is threatened with death at the hands of this unjust ruler, Herod.
These three aspects of Jesus’ identity as a child will follow him into adulthood. Jesus will ask his disciples to “change and become like children” (18:3). Again, this is not about being innocent or having a certain kind of faith, but being willing to be vulnerable, dependent, and threatened with death as Jesus was as a child. As Jesus faces the end of his life, this will again become his reality: he becomes vulnerable, threatened with death at the hands of the ruling authorities, and utterly dependent on God.
The Gospel of Luke contains more material about children than the other canonical Gospels do. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus heals children and includes them in his parables and as metaphors in his teachings, referring even to babies. The births of John the Baptist and Jesus are announced and then recounted. Jesus’ birth is narrated in more detail than in Matthew’s Gospel, and Luke is the only Gospel in the New Testament that contains a story of Jesus’ childhood.
In Luke 2:41-52 a twelve-year-old Jesus travels with his parents, Mary and Joseph, to Jerusalem for the Passover. This was the family’s custom each year. The story demonstrates that Jesus’ family were pious Jews, with the whole family attending the feast of Passover in Jerusalem even though it was only required for the adult males in the family to do so. After the festival, Jesus stayed in Jerusalem while his parents began the journey home with the large group of travelers from their village. After a day, Mary and Joseph realize their child is not with them, and they return to the city. They finally find the boy in the temple. When Mary inquires about his actions, Jesus replies, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The interaction indicates that Jesus has knowledge even as a boy of his close relationship to God. But it also says that he went home with Mary and Joseph to Nazareth and was obedient to them. As the son of Mary, he became obedient as a child was expected to be in those days. He also increased in wisdom, in divine and human favor (2:52).
An interesting aspect of this story is that Jesus is depicted as an only child. No other children of Mary or Joseph are mentioned, even though the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John all mention Jesus’ siblings by name. In contrast, Luke only says that Jesus has “brothers” (8:20), which at that time could have referred to male relatives such as cousins. This is interesting because the children whom Jesus heals in Luke’s Gospel are all specifically described as “only” children. In a story unique to Luke, Jesus brings back to life the only son of a widow from the village of Nain (7:11-17). Luke borrows two stories from Mark, the daughter of Jairus (8:40-56) and the boy with the demon (9:37-43), but adds to both of those stories that the child was an “only” daughter or child.
Luke closely follows Mark’s version of the raising of Jairus’ daughter, but with a few notable changes. First, like Matthew, Luke condenses Mark’s story, omitting what he may have perceived as redundancies. Second, Luke states that the girl is Jairus’ only daughter, and he moves the information about the girl’s age to the beginning of the story. This allows the reader to readily recall the story of Jesus as a boy in the Temple. Jesus was also depicted as an only child and he was twelve years old. Both twelve-year-olds, Jesus and the daughter of Jairus, also have both parents living, which may have been unusual for a twelve year old in the ancient world.
The twelve-year-old girl not only recalls the boy Jesus and interacts with the adult Jesus, but the story of her death and resurrection contains similarities to that of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Most obviously, both are raised from the dead. As the girl is brought back to life, Luke reports, “her spirit returned to her” (8:55) which is echoed when Jesus gives up his spirit at this death (23:46). When the girl is resuscitated, Jesus commands her parents to give her something to eat (8:56). Likewise when Jesus is resurrected, he eats with his disciples (24:41-42). Finally, the parents’ amazement at the miracle of the girl’s resurrection is echoed by the disciples’ amazement in Emmaus. There they tell “the stranger” that “some women of our group astounded us (24:22)” with the news of Jesus’ resurrection. Thus, the twelve-year-old girl uniquely ties the Gospel together, looking back to Jesus’ childhood while looking toward to his death and resurrection.
Among all the children in the Gospels, the most easily overlooked ones are likely found in the Gospel of John. There are only two children who appear as characters in the Fourth Gospel, which was the latest Gospel written. The Gospel of John is divided into two major sections, according to the New Testament scholar Raymond Brown. Following the prologue (1:1-18), the first section is the Book of Signs (1:19–12:50). The second section is the Book of Glory (13:1–20:29). The Gospel closes with a concluding statement (20:30-31) and Epilogue (21:1-25). The two stories about children are in the Book of Signs, and draw upon one of the major themes of that section: life. In John 4:46-54, Jesus heals a royal official’s son. The narrative is similar to the healing of the centurion’s slave in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. Those passages do not specify that the slave is a child, however there is some ambiguity there since one of the words in Greek for “slave” (pais) can also mean “child.”
John 4:46-54 also bears resemblance to the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter in Mark 7:24-30. In the story in John’s Gospel, a royal official, who is likely a Gentile in service to the Herodian family, comes to Jesus begging him to heal his son who was at the point of death. As in the story of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark, Jesus initially rebuffs the parent’s request. In this case, he tells the father, “Unless you (which is plural in Greek, and refers to the Gentiles) see signs and wonders you will not believe.” The father, like the mother, repeats his request. Jesus grants his request and sends the official on his way, just as he did with the Syrophoenician mother. In both cases, Jesus does not go to the home where the child is, but another character or the narrator reports that the child has been healed.
The repetition of the words “life” (4:50), “alive” (4:51), “live” (4:53) in John’s story connects the official’s son to the broader theme of life in this portion of the Fourth Gospel. The young son who lived is also connected with Jesus, the Son who gives life and is brought back from death to life. Indeed, as the narrative concludes, “now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee,” the significance of this child’s healing is made even clearer. The healing of this young son is one of the miracles designed to bring others to faith in God’s Son.
A second boy who appears in John is also associated with the theme of life. All four Gospels recount the miracle of Jesus’ feeding a great crowd. John 6:1-15 is the only account, however, among the six feeding miracles in the Gospels that includes the comment about a boy having barley loaves and fish. Jesus goes up to a mountain with his disciples and a large crowd follows. He asks his disciple Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” It is a question of hospitality; they have come to see Jesus, and as the host of the gathering, he should have something for them to eat. Another disciple, Andrew answers, offering the food that a nearby boy has with him.
The presence of the boy indicates that children were among the crowd of people who followed Jesus. He was likely with family members, as children did not tend to go places on their own in those days. Yet he is not just somewhere among the vast crowd. He is close enough to Jesus that Andrew notices the food he has. In contrast to the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), in which the disciples are trying to keep the children away from Jesus, Andrew seizes this moment to draw Jesus’ attention to a child. The boy seems to be from the lower class of society. John specifically mentions that the bread was made of barley, another detail unique to the Fourth Gospel. Barley was cheaper than wheat, and the poor commonly ate barley loaves.
Like the healing of the official’s son, the feeding of the 5,000 in which the boy plays a key role is one of Jesus’ signs, an action designed to bring people to faith in Jesus. Shortly after this sign, Jesus begins to teach and uses the first “I am” statement found in the Gospel of John, “I am the bread of life.” The narrative that began with a child and his bread providing the substance for Jesus’ miracle concludes with a discussion about a lasting form of bread and eternal life.
The story of the child and his bread and fish also anticipate the narrative at the end of the Gospel, when Jesus has a last meal with his disciples on the beach after his resurrection (21:4-14). In that scene when Jesus approaches his disciples, he greets them as “children,” recalling the child who provided bread for Jesus. Jesus knowingly asks his disciples, “You haven’t caught any fish, have you?” Then he tells them to lower their nets, and they catch an abundance of fish, reminiscent of the abundance of food earlier in the Gospel. Once the disciples come ashore, they see fish on a charcoal fire and bread prepared. The language describing the meal is remarkably similar to the description of the food and Jesus’ actions in 6:11. In both cases Jesus takes bread, gives or divides it, and does the same with the fish. The feeding story thus foreshadows to the new life that the resurrected Jesus shares with his disciples. Though the child in the first story is mentioned only briefly, he ties these two portions of the Gospel together.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus interacts with a variety of persons: men and women, slaves and free persons, able-bodied and disabled, Jewish and Gentile, adults, youth, and children. Among all of those, the easiest to overlook are the children. For the most part they are silent characters; one is a vocal, but she does not interact with Jesus; most of them are ill and in need of healing; some of them are healed but not present; others seems to be merely objects of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus does not have any conversations with children that are recorded in the Gospels. Yet by reading and re-reading these stories of children in the Gospels, we will develop a fuller, more accurate picture of what it means that children are a part of the family of God, a part of the reign of God, and a part of the human community.
Sharon Betsworth, Children in Early Christian Narratives (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).