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Children and the Kingdom in Mark and the Roman World

Throughout art history, children have not been depicted realistically. Rather, as is the case in classical Greek art, children were largely depicted as miniature adults, toting mature bodily proportions that failed to match the chubby figures and facial features of live infants and children. Although the rise of naturalism in the fourth century B.C. led to more lifelike artistic portrayals of children,[1] one could say the former depictions proved more accurate. That is, in the ancient Greco-Roman world, children were perceived as adults not yet fully formed, and thus held little intrinsic value. In the words of Roman philosopher Cicero regarding childhood: “the thing itself cannot be praised, only its potential” (Cicero, De Republica 137.3).[2] To the modern museumgoer, such works—and the attitudes they represent—may rub one the wrong way, grating against the operative sociological framework, viz., that children are innocent, pure, and open to the future. It is this set of assumptions that can obscure the reading of New Testament texts, such as the Second Gospel; Mark is littered with references to children, especially as they relate the kingdom of God. In this book of the Bible, we find children not molded in bronze or pigmented on plaster, but mentioned on Jesus’s lips—and often sitting before him. An understanding of this motif is lost on modern interpreters unless they take seriously the familial and social structures that permeated Jesus’s day. Otherwise, the art becomes a mere pentimento—the original canvas having been painted over, only a trace remaining—or, at best, just a little off. C. Reader rightly admonishes: “When one approaches these texts, it is misguided to have a sentimental, romanticized understanding of childhood.”[3] Therefore, my exploration is guided by two questions. First, what were the Roman attitudes towards children in the first century? Second, how does this contextualize Mark’s material on Jesus and children as they relate to the kingdom of God? Comparing ancient Roman norms with Mark 10:13–16 and 23–31, I will argue that the inclusion of children in Mark conveys a kingdom marked by the reversal of social hierarchies with its subjects marked by radical dependence on God.

On the topic of children, one of the foremost errors in New Testament interpretation is to impose an Enlightenment grid of individualism onto the texts. In Roman antiquity, each individual was integrated into a larger social body—chiefly, the family.[4] In most sources from Roman antiquity, children are mentioned within natural and nuclear familial contexts. Another setting in which they are found is as a member of the Roman familia, which included all those dependent on the head of the household: the wife, children, slaves, and sometimes freedmen and freedwomen.[5] Each context displays a pyramidal structure, and in each structure, children were at the bottom. Worth flowed downwards from the paterfamilias or patria potestas, who held the religious, financial, and disciplinary authority until he died. This role enabled one to hold the purse strings, maintaining full control over property, while offspring could own nothing in their own right.

To some extent, children had a higher value in the Jewish context. For Philo of Alexandria, young children were inherently innocent (cf. Deut 1:39; Isa 7:15-16; 1 Cor 14:20) until they reached age seven, when they may become overcome by passions (Philo, Her. 294).[6] In the Old Testament, children are considered a blessing and gift from God (cf. Gen. 1:28, Pss. 127:3–5, 128:3–6) and could participate in religious life (cf. Gen. 17:10–14, Exod. 12:26–27, Deut. 4:9–10).[7] However, as qualified by Judith Gundry, even in Jewish contexts, “children were not seen as innocent but, like the rest of humanity, caught in the web of sin and guilt (cf. Ps. 51:5, Job 25:4, 2 Bar. 54:15), and not spared divine judgment (v[JG1] f. Isa. 13:16, Jer. 6:11, 44:7, Ps. 137:9).” Similarly, in Greco-Roman thought, a child was considered an unfinished adult, lacking self-control and reason (e.g., Seneca, Const. sap. 12.2; cf. 1 Cor 13:11; Heb 5:11-14).[8] Children had worth insofar as they provided for those on higher rungs of the ladder: “Children were to contribute to the parents’ welfare, just as parents enabled them their children’s contribution by training and disciplining them.” In turn, “children’s incapacitation or death could spell disaster for parents,”[9] which may explain why in Mark, parents repeatedly beg for healing for children (5:22-23; 7:25-26; 9:17-18). Poor children and slaves were valued for their work, whereas wealthy children were valued for their political positions (i.e. for a daughter: her marriage; and for a son: his position as heir).[10] This system is evidenced in abortion: though practiced in Roman society, the law only took interest in the unborn child as a prospective heir. There were extensive rules regarding the behavior of a pregnant woman who had recently been widowed or divorced—not to protect the life of the child, but to protect the father and his family against potentially losing a successor.[11]

Even those who survived birth, however, were open to death as soon as they entered the world. During a child’s infancy, the father had the legal right to abandon his offspring in a public space (doorsteps, temples, crossroads, garbage piles) either to die or be claimed by their finder; in the case of the latter, the child would effectively lose her freeborn status and live the rest of her life as a slave.[12] Called “exposure,” this form of infanticide was mostly practiced on female children. In a letter from Alexandria around 100CE, an absent husband addresses his wife following their child’s birth, writing: “If it was a male child, let it live; if it was a female, cast it out” (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 4:744).[13] For this reason­­––combined with the threat of sexual abuse and violence––it is estimated that only fifty percent of children in antiquity lived past age ten.[14] Their defenselessness was not interminable, however, as a general correlation existed between greater age and improved status.

This socio-historical context is pertinent to the Gospel of Mark, in which child/children is mentioned 28 times, evenly spread throughout the entire text (2:5, 5:39, 40 [2x], 7:27 [2x], 28, 30, 9:21, 36, 37, 10:13 [2x], 14 [2x], 15, 16, 24, 29, 30, 12:19 [2x], 20, 21, 22, 13:12 [2x], 17). For example, Jesus raises Jairus’s twelve-year-old daughter from the dead (5:22–24, 35–43), exorcizes an evil spirit from the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (7:25–30), casts out a demon causing deafness and muteness from a man’s son (9:17–29), and teaches and blesses groups of children. In treating children this way, Jesus sets an example of a humble king; one willing to uplift those lower than he on the totem pole of social status. Gundry treats many such instances as mutually interpretive motifs because they are tied together with common terminology and lack of precise ages.[15] For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on two pericopes: Mark 10:13-16 and 10:23-31.

Thus far in Mark, Jesus has initiated his ministry, which proceeded his baptism by John and his exclamation of “God’s good news”: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (1:14–15). Deemed by historians to be Jesus’s trademark, this statement summarizes the kingdom message in Mark: i.e., God’s kingdom is on the horizon, so act like it. The word “kingdom” occurs 20 times in Mark, uttered from the lips of Jesus every time but one. For Joel B. Green, this solidifies the fact that “Jesus alone renders the kingdom near.”[16] At any rate, Mark identifies Jesus as the anticipated Jewish Christ (i.e., the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy referenced in 1:2b–3) who establishes[JG2] God’s reign by combatting evil in a variety of ways. After calling the disciples, they together embark on a healing tirade, traveling around while teaching and eating with various crowds.

Jesus’s healings are intermingled with parables about God’s kingdom, but the two themes explicitly intersect in 10:13–16. The pericope begins with people bringing children to Jesus “so that he would bless them” (v. 13). Throughout Mark, the touch to or from Jesus harnesses healing power (3:10; 5:27–34, 41–42; 6:56; 7:32–35; 8:22–25; and a child in 5:22–24, 35–43), which sheds light on the motivation for this act—one that is met by scolding from the disciples (v. 13). Gundry interprets their disdain as self-interest: “The exciting prospect of Jesus’ imminent establishment of the kingdom in Jerusalem and the disciples’ assumption that they in particular would benefit by sharing in his reign made eminently undesirable any delays caused by people’s clamoring for Jesus’ attention or bringing others to Jesus—especially when these people were little children, who seemed relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things.”[17]

The disciples’ response provokes indignation in Jesus. While Gundry cites only one other occurrence of this emotion from Jesus (3:5),[18] it may also be interpreted in 1:41—depending on the translation. Regardless, these two incidences—together with the disciples’ anger mentioned in 10:41—mark serious condemnation when there is resistance to the principles of God’s kingdom. Echoes of God’s rebukes to Israel resound. In Ezekiel 16, Israel is even depicted as an exposed newborn, who had forgotten how God found and saved her (vv. 15, 22, 43, 60, 63). In Ezekiel, God’s fury is due to Israel’s failure to remember their suffering and lowly status; here in Mark, Jesus/the evangelist seemingly reminds the disciples and readers respectively that the lowly are indeed the elect. He says: “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it” (vv. 14b-15). Subsequently, Jesus hugs and blesses the children.

A chief interpretive question one must ask of this passage is: What does it mean to “welcome” (CEB) or “receive” (NRSV) God’s kingdom? Before delving into his “rereading” of Mark 10:13-16, James L. Bailey explains the interpretation he received as a theological student in the 1960s—one articulated by Vincent Taylor and subsequently spread throughout Christian circles, and one that is still alive and well today. To Taylor, the “receptiveness of the child” was integral to understanding how a child would receive the kingdom of God; in other words, the characteristic(s) of children is the key to unlock the meaning of the passage. This framework allows readers to seamlessly project the aforementioned qualities of innocence, purity, and openness onto Jesus’s analogy. In his alternative reading, Bailey rightly shifts the focus from characteristics of children to the social status of children—a move that drastically reorients the meaning, such that it is in line with the kingdom messages pervading the rest of Mark. That is—as exemplified by the passion narrative in Mark—the kingdom belongs to those who suffer (and receiving it just might require it [cf. 8:35]). Jesus’s ministry and plight especially emphasizes suffering at the hands of earthly abuses of power (viz., Rome) and shows how God uses power for good examples. The cotext in Mark, in tandem with this essay’s brief socio-historical survey of the Roman world, shows how receiving the kingdom like a child is to maintain a state of radical dependence. Why does Jesus bless children? Because they need it: “Need is the reason for Jesus’ welcoming at his table tax collectors and sinners (who were shunned by the strictly law-observant as well as ordinary respectable people).”[19] Thus, the kind of power Jesus champions is, in effect, powerlessness.

In an adjacent scene, a rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus urges him to sell all of his possessions, which deeply offends the man. Turning to the disciples, Jesus capitalizes on the scenario to further describe the kingdom of God: firstly, “it will be very hard for the wealthy to enter the God’s kingdom!” (v. 23). Sensing the disciple’s uneasiness, he reiterates: “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom!”—harder for a rich person, in fact, than for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle (vv. 24–25). Still distraught, the disciples seek clarification: “Then who can be saved?” they ask (v. 26). The response, clearly unsatisfactory, is that it is impossible for human beings—but not with God (v. 27). After a disheartened Peter reminds Jesus that they have sold all they have to follow him, Jesus says:

I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news 30 will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first. (vv. 29-31)

In this statement, Jesus promises his followers both suffering and reward. However, Jesus also promises that they will gain God as a father. This is evidenced by Jesus’s omission of “father” from the list in verse 29 cataloguing what the disciples have left behind. Therefore, verse 30 assumes they left their earthly father but have already been given another one—a detail presaged by Jesus addressing his followers as “children” earlier (v. 24). Earlier in his ministry, Jesus told those in his circle that “whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother” (3:35). In both instances, Jesus reorients of their family of origin. Not only does it become even wider than familia—such that it includes other faithful followers and, as Richard Horsey notes, “extends kinship relations to the whole community”[20]—but it also places God at the head of the household. God is cast as the ultimate pater familias. Furthermore, it reiterates the motif of reversal threaded throughout Mark in regards to the kingdom, made plain in verse 31. Wealth does not equal faith, nor does health equal blessing. Given the aforementioned treatment of Roman children, this statement further confirms that children—as the last—will be first in “the coming age” (v. 30).

In the scene that immediately follows Mark 10:23–31, Jesus predicts his own death (vv. 32–34). He proclaims that the chief priests and lead experts will condemn him to death, “ridicule him, spit on him, torture him, and kill him”—and yet, “after three days, he will rise up” (from v. 34; fulfilled in vv. 15:15–32). Green claims: “Jesus’s suffering and death thus signify the truly radical nature of this revolution, for Jesus’s passion defines the powerful coming of God to restore and rule with reference to sacrificial service, suffering and death.”[21] The top-down earthy power that is described in Mark 10:42 opposes the ranks of God’s kingdom. Rather, “whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people” (v. 44). In another sense, the Markan narrative does away with the pyramidal structure altogether, frequently situating Jesus in the middle of a circle—each follower seemingly equidistant from where his person stands (cf. 3:31–35, 4:10). However, Jesus notably shares the center with none other than a “little child.” Concerning Mark 9:33–37, Timothy J. Geddert comments: “In the city, in the house, in the circle, in the arms of Jesus, that is where the child is seated. At the center of power is a no-power, no-greatness, no-influence child—in Jesus’ embrace.”[22]

While the Romans disenfranchised their children, Jesus—as God’s surrogate––adopts them. While Roman officials use their rank to order and even crucify citizens, Jesus blesses, serves, and embraces those beneath him in social stature. While art throughout the ages has represented children as insignificant and deficient adults, Mark paints a picture of children as beneficiaries of every asset the kingdom of God has to offer.


[1] Nancy L. Thompson, Carlos A. Picón, Philippe De Montebello, and John Kent Lydecker, Roman Art: a Resource for Educators (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007), 153.

[2] Judith M. Gundry, “Children in the Gospel of Mark, with Special Attention to Jesus’ Blessing of the Children (Mark 10:13-16) and the Purpose of Mark,” in The Child in the Bible, ed. Marcia J. Bunge (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 163.

[3] C. Reeder, “Child/Children,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green, Jeanine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 109.

[4] Gundry, “Children in the Gospel of Mark,” 144.

[5] Beryl Rawson, “Children in the Roman Familia” in The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives, ed. Beryl Rawson (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 170.

[6] Reader, “Child/Children,” 111.

[7] Gundry, “Children in the Gospel of Mark,”162.

[8] Reeder, “Child/Children,” 111.

[9] Gundry, “Children in the Gospel of Mark,” 161.

[10] Reeder, “Child/Children,” 111.

[11] Beryl Rawson, Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 9.

[12] Rawson, “Children in the Roman Familia,” 172.

[13] Gundry, “Children in the Gospel of Mark,” 158.

[14] Reeder, “Child/Children,” 110.

[15] Gundry, “Children in the Gospel of Mark,” 173.

[16] Joel B. Green, “The Kingdom of God/Heaven,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. ???????, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 476.

[17] Gundry, “Children in the Gospel of Mark,” 167.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 151.

[20] Ibid., 159.

[21] Green, “The Kingdom of God/Heaven,” 476.

[22] Timothy J. Geddert, Mark, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 236.


Geddert, Timothy J. Mark: Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001.

Green, Joel B. “Kingdom of God/Heaven.” Pages 468–81 in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Edited by Joel B. Green. Rev. ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013.

Gundry, Judith M. “Children in the Gospel of Mark, with Special Attention to Jesus’ Blessing of the Children (Mark 10:13-16) and the Purpose of Mark.” Pages 142-176 in The Child in the Bible. Edited by Marcia J. Bunge. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.

Kelber, Werner H. The Kingdom in Mark: A New Place and a New Time. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974.

Rawson, Beryl, ed. The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Rawson, Beryl. Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Reeder, C. “Child/Children.” Pages 109-12 in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Edited by Joel B. Green. Rev. ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013.

Thompson, Nancy L., Picón Carlos A., Philippe De Montebello, and John Kent Lydecker. Roman Art: a Resource for Educators. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007.