In one particular episode recorded in the Gospels, Jesus laid hands on and blessed children being brought to Him by their parents (Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17). Various theological interpretations and historical understandings of these passages have been suggested over the years. For example, some scholars have argued that the disciples rebuked the parents because they thought Jesus was too busy for children or that children were unimportant, while others have suggested that the rebuke was directed towards a false belief of the parents that a magical touch from Jesus would give their children salvation (Derrett, “Why Jesus Blessed the Children”). Regardless of whether or not the parents thought the touch of Jesus would convey salvation, Jesus did not want the children to be excluded from His ministry and blessing due to a misunderstanding of either parents or His disciples. Whatever the intentions of the parents may have been, they did regard both Jesus and their children as important. Further, historical points about the perceived value of children in ancient society can be seen by how Jesus treated and interacted with children versus how the general culture of the Roman Empire regarded children.
In ancient Israel, children were usually seen as a blessing from God (Psalm 127:3-5). The Mosaic Law also protected children, even those who were orphans (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 14:29, 24:19-21, 26:12, 27:19). It appears obvious that Jesus blessing these children has parallels in the earliest times of the Israelites, going all the way back to Jacob/Israel blessing his grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48:1-20). At the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh, Jacob laid his hands on their heads, embraced them, and blessed them with words, just as Jesus also did to the children brought to Him. Of course, Jesus knew that children were not perfect and He was not sentimental or naïve about them (Matthew 11:16-17). Later writings of Judaism, such as the Talmud, suggest that it was common tradition for parents to bring their children to the synagogue to have a blessing pronounced on them by the elders. In light of these traditions, it is not surprising that people in 1st century Judea would want Jesus to bless their children. While they could have had some syncretistic idea in their minds, Jesus may have used it as an opportunity to make a point that children were also included in the Kingdom of God, and just as important to Him as adults by treating children as beings created in the image of God who had as much worth as adults. The Gospels specifically record Jesus healing many children, casting out demons from children, and even one particular instance of bringing a child back to life (Matt 15:21-28; Mark 9:14-29; Luke 9:37-42; John 4:46-54; Luke 8:41-56 etc.). These were the same types of miracles Jesus performed on adults, and these children included both boys and girls from families of varying economic status and culture, demonstrating the value that Jesus placed on all children.
This was in stark contrast to the prevailing views circulating in the Roman Empire and beyond during the 1st century in various polytheistic societies, including Hellenistic and Roman culture in the time of Jesus. The pagan cultures of the Roman period often dedicated their children to the gods for various types of service, such as singing, dancing, assisting the priest in divination and sacrifices, and in the most extreme cases service to a god could mean sacred prostitution or even human sacrifice (Mantle, “The Roles of Children in Roman Religion”; Meyers and Chancey, Alexander to Constantine; Strabo, Geographica; Lucian, De Syria Deo; Plutarch, De Superstitione; Diodorus Siculus, Library of History; Tertullian, Apologeticum; Porphyry, in Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica). Beyond the religious duties and involvement, which were seen as honorable for children, generally people in the Roman Empire did not place a high intrinsic value on children, and people of all economic and cultural groups left many unwanted children to die in a practice known as “exposure.” While boys who would become heirs were prized, females or any child seen as a potential burden were often thought of as expendable. The role of children in religion and as an heir does demonstrate that they had an important role in Roman culture, but it was more of a utilitarian and practical value. However, as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, views about children began to change. Eventually, in about 374 AD during the Byzantine period, the Christian emperor Valentinian outlawed this practice of “exposure” that had been part of the culture for centuries after listening to Bishop Basil of Caesarea (Harris, “Child Exposure in the Roman Empire”). However, Jesus also warned against worshipping or making idols of children and putting them above God—a practice that parents in any ancient culture could have struggled with (Matthew 10:37). It is obvious that the teachings and actions of Jesus regarding children were not only completely different from the pervasive culture of the day, but that as Christianity spread, they transformed views about children throughout the Empire and beyond.