Ancient Near East

Childhood is a social construct, meaning that conceptions of childhood vary over time and from culture to culture. Therefore, perceptions of children and childhood in the ancient Near East most likely differed from modern Western ones, such as the idea of childhood as a special time in an individual’s life. Though the study of childhood is a newly developing field of inquiry, particularly in biblical studies, ancient Near Eastern views of childhood are still not well understood (Bunge, 2008; Garroway, 2010; Koepf-Taylor, 2013). Other factors were likely involved in determining a child’s social position, such as class and gender. Moreover, there is very little evidence that associates children and sexuality; thus, one must make inferences from a variety of texts. More information exists surrounding the onset of puberty and sexual maturity, which seems to mark an important point in the transition from childhood to adulthood, especially for women.

Sexual Differentiation among Children.

Across the ancient Near East, children—and sons in particular—were highly desired. Distinctions according to biological sex can be seen for young children, though this differentiation occurs in various ways and at different ages. In Sumerian texts, children until age of three were called lu.tur “small people.” The same term was used regardless of gender. After age three, the usual time of weaning, different gendered nouns were used for children, dumu.nita for boys and dumu.munus for girls (Asher-Greve, 2002, p. 15). However, already at birth, biological sex was associated with future gendered social roles. An Ur II birth incantation distinguishes between male and female babies thus:

"If it is a male, he holds in his hand a weapon and an ax, which is his strength of heroship."

If it is a female, she holds in her hand a spindle and a decorated comb.

(Asher-Greve, 2002, p. 13; Römer, 1982, pp. 204–207)

The son, mentioned first, is associated with physical strength and military prowess, while the daughter is linked to domestic activities and beauty (Asher-Greve, 2002, p. 14). Children were socialized by their parents into distinct gender roles, which included different attributes and occupations for men and women (Asher-Greve, p. 13; Zsolnay, 2009, pp. 108–109).

There is increasing evidence for a third, and perhaps even a fourth, category of gender in Mesopotamia (Nissinen, 1998, pp. 28–36), though these examples are primarily rendered by their association to the primary two gender categories of masculine and feminine as “not a man or a woman.” Omen texts mention congenital sexual differences present at birth, such as neither penis nor vulva, neither vulva nor testicles, or both penis and vulva (Stol, 2000, pp. 104; 164 ff.). Beyond an awareness of anatomical variance, individuals who can be considered to belong to a third gender category, such as men with undescended testicles, castrates, eunuchs, or transsexuals, would not have been established at birth but later in life (Asher-Greve, 2002, p. 20).

In Egyptian tomb scenes, children of different genders appear separately, doing different sorts of activities, usually the boys with their fathers and girls with their mothers (Zinn, 2010, p. 1). Children are often depicted as naked, which could be an indicator of their sociocultural status; however, the slightly different hairdos and adornments assigned to boys and girls suggests that children had some level of sexual distinction and were not regarded as asexual beings (Landgráfová and Navrátilová, 2010, p. 66). Moreover, since Egyptian is a gendered language, it is clear in texts whether a child is male or female.

In ancient Israel, gender appears to have been marked at birth. According to Leviticus 12:1–5, the mother must observe different purification periods depending on whether she has given birth to a son or daughter—for a male child, the mother remains ceremonially unclean for seven days and blood purification is required for thirty-three days; for a female child, the period of time is exactly doubled. Regardless of whether this legal text should be understood to be normative practice, it underscores that the biological sex of the child immediately confers upon it a gendered societal role (Zsolnay, 2009, p. 109). The names children are given by their parents are also imbued with meaning. For example, a seal belonging to the daughter of a king of Judah identifies her as Ma‘danâ. The root √‘dn has a connection to the paradise of Eden, a place of abundance and plenty, so the name could be the parents’ acknowledgment that Yahweh had provided them with an abundance of children. For a daughter, however, this name could also indicate the baby girl’s potential fertility, her ability to bear future children.


Since circumcision affects an individual’s sexual life and is usually performed during childhood, it should be given consideration. Male circumcision was practiced in ancient Egypt and Israel but not in Mesopotamia. There is very minimal evidence of female circumcision in Egypt, and no evidence in Israel or Mesopotamia (Landgráfová and Navrátilová, 2010, p. 67).

In Israel male infants were circumcised at eight days of age. Circumcision was a marker of ethnic identity in ancient Israel, specifically as a sign of the pact between Yahweh and Abraham (Gen 17:1–14). Since the identification is made on male genitalia, it is therefore gender specific, indicating that Israel’s pact with Yahweh is envisioned as masculine (Zsolnay, 2009, p. 111). In Egypt, on the other hand, circumcision was performed either just before or after the onset of puberty and marked the end of childhood in males (Landgráfová and Navrátilová, 2010, p. 67). The type of circumcision also seems to have differed between Israel and Egypt as well as the age at which it was performed (Sasson, 1966, p. 474; Stager and King, 2001, p. 45).

Marriage and Virginity.

The onset of menstruation was likely a factor in marking the end of childhood for girls, as they were often married shortly after beginning puberty in order to take advantage of the fertile period in woman’s life (Landgráfová and Navrátilová, 2010, pp. 67–68). Though married couples could be around the same age, considerable age disparity was permitted, as in an Egyptian example where the groom was fifty-four and the bride was twelve (Zinn, 2010, p. 1). Since betrothals at times seem to have taken place before girls reached marriageable age, it appears that such betrothals would have been made during childhood (Balkan, 1986).

One biblical law provides an example of a specific type of marital arrangement made before the intended bride reached maturity. Exodus 21:7–11 addresses a man who sells his daughter as a debt-pledge, and the situation concerns her marriage into the family into which she is sold:

"When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money."

The father is selling his daughter for sexual and reproductive purposes in the form of marriage, if perhaps a second-tier type of marriage (Westbrook, 2009, pp. 64–65). The daughter does not yet seem to be of marriageable age or else the father could just seek an advantageous marriage. Therefore, the daughter could be considered to be a child (Garroway, 2010, pp. 164–180). Though sold in the form of a future marriage arrangement to pay off her father’s debt, the daughter is not a slave. If specific conditions are not met, she is released without debt.

In Mesopotamia and Israel the term usually translated “virgin” (bĕtulâ in Hebrew, ki.sikil(tur) in Sumerian, and batultu and ardatu in Akkadian) technically indicates nubile young women of marriageable age. However, since young women at the time of their first marriage were expected to be sexually inexperienced, the terms could carry a sexual connotation in addition to being an age designation for a young woman who has reached sexual maturity (Cooper, 2002, pp. 91–93; Frymer-Kensky, 1998, pp. 79–80). Physical virginity was indicated by negative statements specifying what a woman had not done, such as the statement describing Rebekah before her marriage to Isaac “a bĕtûlâ who had not known a man” (Gen 24:16). The cultural assumption that young women of marriageable age are virgins is probably the cause of variability and ambiguity surrounding our understanding of these terms (Frymer-Kensky, 1998, p. 80).

Throughout Mesopotamia and Israel, female virginity was prized and even carried monetary value, as demonstrated by various laws which specify fines for illicit sex with a virgin (Exod 22:16; Deut 22:28–29; Roth, 1997, pp. 33, 106, 174–175). In ancient Egypt, however, there is no evidence of a special importance attached to virginity, though a woman’s young age at the time of her first marriage probably resulted in the husband being her first sexual partner (Landgráfová and Navrátilová, 2010, p. 68). According to Mesopotamian texts, there was no way to test virginity; its loss could only be proven by verbal admission or by being caught in the act (Cooper, 2002, pp. 94–99). However, one biblical example, Deuteronomy 22:13–20, indicates that a bride’s virginity is evidenced by the presence of blood on the bed sheets. The case involves a bridegroom who accuses his bride of not being a virgin at the time of marriage. To prove their daughter’s virginity, the girl’s parents must produce the bed linens from the marriage night. If the bride is vindicated, the bridegroom can never divorce her, but if not, the bride is stoned by the community at the entrance to her father’s house. However, such proof seems rather dubious since not all women bleed with the loss of virginity and the evidence could be easily falsified using animal blood (Frymer-Kensky, 1998, p. 95). Whether or not the law reflects actual practice, Deuteronomy 22:13–20 highlights the cultural significance of female virginity.

Though many adolescent men were probably also virgins, virginity was not emphasized for young men in the same way it was for young women. In Mesopotamia, virginity had an important ritual purpose regardless of gender (Cooper, 2002, pp. 102–103).

Illicit Sex.

Incest is forbidden in Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Israelite legal codes. The law code attributed to Hammurabi of Babylon (1792–1750 b.c.e.) and the legal codes from the kingdom of Hatti (ca. 1650–1180 b.c.e.) forbid a man from sleeping with his daughter and a son sleeping with his mother. According to the biblical purity laws of Leviticus, sex with any near kinsman is prohibited (Lev 18:6–18; 20:17–21). However, in these legal texts, the age of the family members is not specified, so these laws are not expressly concerned about children. Incest is prohibited regardless of age.

Sexual relations between siblings is forbidden in the biblical purity laws; however, in narrative texts marriage between half-siblings is mentioned. Abraham and Sarah are said to be half-siblings in Genesis 20 and the idea of marriage is entertained in the story of David’s son Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar in 2 Samuel 13. In the narrative contexts of both of these examples, however, it is clear that all parties have reached maturity. Brother–sister marriage was not excluded in ancient Egypt, although the occurrence was very rare. Within the royal family, however, consanguineous marriages had a different nature and significance, having a ritual connection with the king and queen representing the brother–sister pair Osiris and Isis as well as enhancing the power and wealth of the royal family (Landgráfová and Navrátilová, 2010, p. 69). However, examples of consanguineous marriages do not necessarily imply that the sibling couples were children at the time of marriage.


There is no clear indication of age in ancient Near Eastern texts concerning homosexuality or homoeroticism. Nearly all of the meager and ambiguous documentation of homoeroticism in the ancient Near East concern male–male sexual acts whereas female–female sexual relations are not mentioned. The confessional section of the Egyptian Book of the Dead twice includes the statement “I have not had sexual relations with a boy,” but in this case the word “boy” could be rendered “male lover” since it is same-sex relations and not age that is the focus of the statement (Nissinen, 1998, pp. 19, 144). Some Mesopotamian legal texts prohibit male–male sexual relations in which the penetrated male is the social equal of the penetrator, which probably indicates two adult males (Roth, 1997, pp. 159–160). However, other evidence from Egypt and Mesopotamia suggests a level of tolerance for same-sex interactions. The Levitical purity code of the Hebrew Bible twice forbids male-male sexual intercourse (Lev 18:22; 20:13), which would presumably apply to all males regardless of age (Olyan, 1994).

“Sex Education” in Instruction Literature.

The setting of the biblical book of Proverbs is a father giving advice to his son, and this premise has similarities to Mesopotamian and Egyptian instruction literature. Among the tenets of wisdom is advice on sexual matters, particularly the avoidance of adultery. For example, the Sumerian Instructions of Šuruppak (ETCSL 5.6.1) warns “You should not play around with a married young woman: the slander could be serious. My son, you should not sit alone in a chamber with a married woman.” This series of instructions also warns against having sex with a slave girl or raping another man’s daughter.

The Egyptian Instruction of Any (New Kingdom) advises the “son” or student about the importance of marriage and children as well as the avoidance of unknown women:

Take a wife while you’re young,That she make a son for you;She should bear for you while you’re youthful,It is proper to make people….

Beware of a woman who is a stranger,One not known in her town;Don’t stare at her when she goes by,Do not know her carnally.A deep water whose course is unknown,Such is a woman away from her husband.“I am pretty,” she tells you daily,When she has no witnesses;She is ready to ensnare you,A great deadly crime when it is heard.

(CoS 1.46:111)

In Proverbs, the “son” is particularly exhorted to avoid the “strange woman,” seemingly an adulteress, and this lesson is repeated and embellished. Instead of promiscuous women, the “father” exhorts his “son” to seek Wisdom, personified as female, and to find a capable wife. Several examples can be found in Proverbs 1–7:

My child, be attentive to my wisdom,incline your ear to my understanding;So that you may hold on to prudence,and your lips may guard knowledge.For the lips of a ‘strange’ woman drip honey,and her speech is smoother than oil;But in the end she is bitter as wormwood,sharp as a two-edged sword …

Let your fountain be blessedand rejoice in the wife of your youth,a lovely deer, a graceful doe.May her breasts satisfy you at all times;may you be intoxicated always by her love.Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another womanand embrace the bosom of an adulteress?

(Prov 5:1–4; 18–20)

… For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light,and the reproofs of discipline are a way of life,To preserve you from the wife of another,from the smooth tongue of the adulteress.Do not desire her beauty in your heart,and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes;For a prostitute’s fee is only a loaf of bread,but the wife of another stalks a man’s very life.Can a fire be carried in the bosomwithout burning one’s clothes?Or can one walk on hot coalswithout scorching the feet?So is he who sleeps with his neighbor’s wife;no one who touches her will go unpunished.

(Prov 6:23–29)

The probable social context for these texts is their use as part of scribal training. Apprentice scribes were called the “sons” of the scribal master whether or not they were the biological offspring of the teacher. Instruction literature would have been part of the education–enculturation of the young scribe and would have been copied starting fairly early in the curriculum, after the student had mastered basic signs and letters. Therefore, the student probably had yet to reach sexual or social maturity and can perhaps be considered a child. Thus, young scribal apprentices would have repeatedly copied and memorized specific principles regarding proper sexual conduct.

Love Poetry.

In ancient Near Eastern love poetry, the speakers at times give indications that they could be considered minors. The female speakers in several instances mention that they live at home, and this seems to be the case for the male speakers in a couple of Egyptian love poems. The poems also focus on sensuality more than on sexual intercourse, speaking of embraces and caresses rather than intercourse (Carr, 2003; Cooper, 1997). Although the speakers of ancient Near Eastern love poems are often young and unmarried (with the exception of Sumerian royal love songs), it is not clear that they would have been regarded as children. However, the songs do present a view of romantic sexuality that seems to be associated with youth.

Narrative Literature.

Ancient Near Eastern narratives provide perceptions of the transition from childhood to maturity and its connection to sexuality. In the Sumerian myth of Enki and Ninhursag, Enki deflowers and impregnates successive generations of his daughters when they come to the riverbank. Except for the final daughter who actually resists Enki, all of these goddesses are referred to by the gender neutral term lu.tur sag.a “beautiful child” until they become pregnant, after which point they are called munus “woman” (Cooper, 2002, p. 97).

In the myth of Enlil and Ninlil, the god Enlil seizes the goddess Ninlil by the riverbank, but Ninlil protests, saying:

My vagina is small and has not learned to stretch!My lips are small and have not learned to kiss!My mother will learn of it and slap my hand!My father will learn of it and lay hold of me!

(Cooper, 1980, p. 185)

Ninlil’s protest could indicate that she is to be considered still a child and not yet sexually mature. However, Enlil copulates with Ninlil despite her protests and impregnates her with the god Su’en, but then Enlil is banished from Ninlil’s city as a sex offender. Ninlil, however, follows Enlil, and, disguised, he impregnates Ninlil three more times.

In the beginning of the Akkadian The Epic of Gilgameš, the citizens of Uruk complain of being oppressed by their semi-divine king Gilgameš, and the gods create Enkidu to be a rival/equal to Gilgameš. The birth goddess pinches off clay and creates Enkidu, a primitive human who has hair all over his body and lives with animals. On Gilgameš’s suggestion, Enkidu becomes civilized through sexual intercourse with the prostitute Šamhat. After he sleeps with Šamhat, the animals run away from him, he can no longer run fast, but he has wisdom and understanding. Enkidu’s week-long intercourse with Šamhat can be interpreted as metaphorically representative of Enkidu’s childhood (Asher-Greve, 2002, p. 14). Šamhat clothes Enkidu and instructs him on eating bread and drinking beer, and persuades him to dwell in the city of Uruk, where he meets and befriends Gilgameš. After Šamhat’s “mothering” of Enkidu, providing him with basic instructions on civilized life, she brings him to Gilgameš to begin Enkidu’s masculine socialization (Asher-Greve, 2002, p. 15).

In the biblical story about Jephthah’s daughter (Judg 11), the leader Jephthah makes a foolish vow to sacrifice the first living thing he sees when he returns home from a victorious battle, which happens to be his daughter. Jephthah grants his daughter a two-month stay before her sacrifice so that she can wander around with other young women and “bewail [her] virginity” (Judg 11:37). Though sometimes connected to a coming-of-age ritual (Day, 1989), in the passage itself Jephthah’s daughter requests time to mourn the adult life that she will not experience, which specifically includes reproductive sexuality since her virginity is emphasized. Similarly, in Mesopotamia, young men and women who die before reaching maturity were specific kinds of malevolent spirits to be warded off, and the lack of sexual experience for the female ghosts (Ardat-lillî) is particularly underscored in incantations against them (Cooper 2002, pp. 92, 103, 107–108).

The biblical story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:4B–3:24 can also be interpreted as a story about the transition from childhood to maturity, and this transition is envisioned as closely connected with sexuality. The forbidden tree is associated with wisdom and understanding, and snakes are also symbolic of wisdom (Carr, 2003, pp. 45–46). Instead of death, eating the fruit brings the man and woman in the garden awareness of their sexuality through shame at their nakedness. Because of their newly acquired sexual maturity, the man and woman can no longer enjoy the simple existence in the garden but must live a life of hard work in the “real world.” The story of the Garden of Eden can thus be seen as a metaphor for “growing up,” envisioned as leaving behind childlike simplicity in exchange for wisdom and responsibility, with the first human couple’s awareness of their sexuality representing the sexual maturation that signals the end of childhood.




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Erin E. Fleming

Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew Bible, the bearing of children is both the first commandment and a great blessing (see Genesis 1:28, where the first man and woman are commanded to “be fruitful and multiply”). Having many children is both a sign of God’s regard and a means of achieving immortality (see Genesis 12:2 and Genesis 15:5, where God’s promises to Abraham are inextricably bound to his fathering a child). Yet, given the centrality of children to both ancient Israelite story and ideology, there is remarkably little attention paid to children qua children, and even less attention given to the sexuality of children.

The study of children in general and the sexuality of children in particular is methodologically difficult. Biologically, the human species goes through a prolonged period of immaturity and dependence (compared to other animals), then undergoes a time of sexual maturation called puberty. In some societies, sexual maturity is equivalent to adulthood; other societies define an interval between puberty and full adulthood now called adolescence. The idea of adolescence as a distinct life stage did not emerge until the nineteenth century, but there is evidence that there was some acknowledgment of this phase even before it was clearly defined. Physically, there are no definite ages for these stages, because the onset of puberty ranges depending on individual biology (genetics), and environmental influence (nutrition). In fact, almost every aspect of childhood needs to be understood as a combination of biological, environmental, and cultural effects.

The paucity of data impedes any historical study of children. Children rarely if ever provide direct recorded testimony about their lives, and adult reminiscences are not always accurate. When children do end up in written or pictorial sources, they are often the children of the elite, since these are the classes who have access to bookmaking and art. Consequently, historians have little to no access to the vast majority of children’s lives and experiences. These general challenges are even more acute when the topic is sex and sexuality, since sexual attitudes and actions are often kept private (even secret) from all except those immediately concerned. Therefore, they leave no trace on the historical record.

There are aspects of Hebrew narrative that make an exploration of sex and children even more challenging. The ages of characters are rarely provided and must be inferred. Even when the age of a character is clear, chronological age is not what determines life-cycle stage in the biblical world; whether someone is a “child” or an “adult” is dictated by a combination of physiology and societal role. There are a number of words in Hebrew that refer to children: yeled (masculine; occurs 89 times) and yaldāh (feminine; 3 times), naʿar (masculine; 239 times) and naʿarāh (feminine; 62 times), and ṭap (collective; 42 times). However, these words cannot be used to determine age or fix classification because they are not used consistently. For example, the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19 is called “girl,” “concubine,” and “woman” interchangeably throughout the chapter. There are no Hebrew words that are equivalent to the English “adolescent” or “teenager” with the possible exception of the rare ‘almāh, which means a young nubile woman (occurs seven times). An ‘almāh may or may not be already married (compare unmarried Rebekah in Genesis 24:16 and the pregnant wife in Isaiah 7:14).

Further complicating a study of the sexuality of children, the Bible is comprises materials composed by multiple hands, edited and re-edited over time. Consequently, it is difficult to separate sources and attribute them to particular historical and cultural contexts. Over the course of centuries, the definition of and expectations concerning childhood in ancient Israel and early Judaism are bound to have changed, as they have in other cultures that we can better document, but scholars cannot chart these changes with any certainty. In fact, the very idea of childhood may not have existed in the earliest texts and times. In the biblical material, the word “childhood” (yaldût) appears only in Ecclesiastes 11:9–10 (twice). Ecclesiastes is usually dated to the late Persian or early Hellenistic period. The appearance of the new word may indicate a new understanding of childhood as a distinct phase that can be reflected upon in the abstract. If so, it is the only change in Israelite ideology that can be documented.


It is much easier to chart adult attitudes toward childhood masturbation than it is to document the occurrence of childhood masturbation. Even in today’s more open society, children do not generally discuss their masturbatory activities. Investigating such sexual activity in the biblical world is even more daunting. Despite the term “onanism,” which currently refers to masturbation and is derived from the story of Tamar’s sexual encounter with Onan (Gen 38), masturbation is completely absent from the biblical scripture (Onan is actually practicing coitus interruptus in order to prevent pregnancy). It can be assumed that the phenomenon was not unknown among Israelite children and their parents, but the biblical writers did not deem such sexual activity worthy of discussion in either law or narrative.

Sexual Activity between Children.

Children have been known to engage in sexual play, although, like masturbation, such play is rarely discussed and therefore difficult to document. There is no biblical mention of sexual activity between children, with the possible exception of Genesis 21:9, where Sarah sees Ishmael “playing” with Isaac. The verb ṣāḥaq has a broad semantic range that includes laughing, playing, and fondling (sexually). In fact, the sexual connotations emerge just a few chapters later, in Genesis 26:8, where Abimelech sees Isaac “playing” with (“fondling” according to the NRSV) Rebekah and knows immediately that Rebekah is Isaac’s wife, not his sister. The implication is clear: lovers “play,” not siblings.

The boys are playing on the day that Isaac is weaned, which means that he is about two years old, but the age of Ishmael is ambiguous. Ishmael is circumcised at age thirteen (Gen 17:25), about one year before the birth of his younger brother. Ishmael should then be sixteen years old on the day of Isaac’s celebration; however, a few verses later, Abraham puts Ishmael on Hagar’s shoulders and sends them away (Gen 21:14). The subsequent story of their ordeal in the wilderness also seems to assume that Ishmael is a young boy. As Ishmael’s age changes, so does the tenor of the story: a five-year-old and a two-year-old may be innocently curious about each other’s bodies, but a young man of sixteen sexually touching a two-year-old constitutes abuse. If Sarah has seen sexual play and not just simple play, then her immediate and uncompromising reaction (ordering disinheritance and expulsion) is more understandable and justifiable.

Premarital Control of Children’s Sexuality.

The laws and the narratives in the Hebrew Bible indicate that, in the sexual arena, a father’s control over his progeny was close to absolute. A father controlled the sexuality of his daughters and played a decisive role in finding marriage partners for both daughters and sons.

According to the legal material, girls living in their father’s home were expected to be chaste, in part because their virginity was a commodity owned by the father and sold to the bridegroom. If a girl engages in sexual congress without her father’s knowledge—whether she consents or not (the laws are ambiguous about whether the rape is statutory or whether the girl is a victim of violence)—the man who violated her must pay compensatory damages to her father and marry her, and the man is not permitted to divorce her (Deut 22:28–29; in Exod 22:15–16 her father has the power to refuse the marriage although he still collects the bride-price). If she is already engaged to another man, she may be guilty of adultery and stoned, depending upon the location of the rape (Deut 22:23–27). If it can be demonstrated that she was not a virgin on her wedding night, she is also subject to stoning (Deut 22:20–21).

A father could, however, offer his daughters’ sexuality to other men outside of the marriage contract if he so desired. Lot resorted to this tactic in his attempt to shield his (angelic) visitors from the violence of Sodom’s mob (Gen 19). His two daughters were living at home, engaged but not yet married. A similar situation is recounted at the end of Judges, and again the host offers his virgin daughter (and the concubine of his male guest) to be raped by the violent crowd outside his house (Judg 19:24). Girls were not commodities in ancient Israel (a father could only sell his daughter into slavery with the understanding that she would become the wife of either the buyer or his son [Exod 21:7–11]); but as these stories and laws reveal, their sexuality was a commodity that belonged to fathers to be sold or given away in whatever way they determined. The absolute rule of the father over his daughter’s sexuality may account for a strange lacuna in the incest prohibitions in Leviticus 18. Father-daughter incest is not explicitly forbidden (although it is implicitly illegal).

Although there is no unequivocal data, there is some evidence to suggest that a girl who had begun to menstruate was eligible for marriage in ancient Israel. In the prophetic book of Ezekiel, Israel is figured as a child whom God finds as an abandoned newborn. God then cares for the child until she grows tall, develops breasts, and grows hair (presumably pubic and armpit hair). Once the breasts and hair appear, God marries his foundling (Ezek 16:7–8). Menstruation is not explicitly mentioned. Since breast formation and hair growth precede menses, it is possible that God is marrying a girl who is only on the verge of sexual maturity. Boys lack a physical change comparable to menses to mark sexual (and therefore marital) readiness. Instead, they did not marry until they were older, presumably because it was expected that they would establish themselves in some kind of economic enterprise before they started their own family.

There are no biblical laws concerning the way in which marriage arrangements are made, and the narratives contain stories where fathers find their sons a bride (Abraham arranges Isaac’s marriage in Gen 24), mothers arrange marriages (Hagar finds Ishmael a wife in Gen 21), and men pick their own women (Esau in Gen 28). In some cases when a son picks his own wife, the parents are still involved in contracting the marriage (Shechem’s father approaches Dinah’s father in Gen 34; Samson’s parents make the arrangements in Judg 14). All of these sons appear to be adults, thus demonstrating that parental control over reproductive sex (marriage being the primary arena) does not end when a boy becomes a man. There are no examples of girls initiating a marriage proposal, although certainly girls are active in forming relationships with suitors (Rachel in Gen 29) and in giving consent to arranged marriages (Rebekah in Gen 24:58).

Sex between Adults and Children.

Sex with children is not prohibited in biblical law. Presuming girls married during or soon after puberty, men, then, frequently had sex with children (or at least teenagers). Concerning sex with younger, prepubescent children, biblical law and narrative is completely silent. This gap in the legal tradition does raise the possibility that adult sex with prepubescent children was condoned unless the child was already forbidden for another reason. For men, categories of forbidden children would include most relatives (Lev 18), all boys (Lev 18:22, Lev 20:13), and girls still living in their father’s house (Deut 21–22). For women, forbidden categories would include most relatives as well. However, same-sex prohibitions apply exclusively to males; the concerns with virgin daughters focus on intact hymens; and there was no expectation that a boy would remain a virgin until marriage. Therefore, adult females may have had more latitude is pursuing their sexual proclivities with boys and girls. Children who were slaves would have been particularly vulnerable to sexual use by adults.

Contribution to Contemporary Concerns.

Industrialized economies need a highly educated and trained workforce, both male and female; therefore, the delay of marriage and childbearing is encouraged. With the rise of financial institutions like banks and corporations, the family is no longer the center of the economic life of the community, and inheritance of wealth is no longer a family affair. To accommodate biological drives in the economies of the modern West, attitudes about premarital sexual activity, including the sexual activity of adolescent children, have changed. Parents no longer take an active role in procuring spouses for their children; fathers no longer own their daughters’ sexuality, and thus a girl’s virginity is no longer bought and sold.

Premarital sexual activity is broadly accepted among adults, but there are still strict prohibitions as such activities relate to children. Masturbation and some sexual play among prepubescent children is generally accepted and seen as natural and normal. The same is true for adolescent girls and boys, and older adolescents (sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds) even have intercourse without too much societal censure (as long as they do not conceive children). However, any sexual contact between people in different life stages is strictly and legally prohibited. In other words, sex between children and adults, even between pre- and postadolescent children, categories defined according to chronological age, are considered abusive and are illegal.

Such prohibition based solely on chronological age would have been incomprehensible in biblical times. Premodern societies rarely kept accurate records of age, and Israel seems to be no exception. As noted above, marital matches were frequently made between females we would consider children and males we would define as adults. Although there is no clear evidence, there is reason to suspect that sexual contact with slaves regardless of the slave’s age was acceptable. As contemporary communities are rocked by sexual abuse scandals, the Bible is not an adequate resource, because it lacks explicit prohibitions against adults having sexual contact with children, and even assumes such contact is normal in certain situations. Economies have changed and with them so have societal structures, family relationships, and sexual mores. The biblical view of sexuality and children proves insufficient to ground a contemporary ethic.




  • Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Translated by Robert Baldick. New York: Vintage, 1962.
  • Baxter, Jane Eva. The Archaeology of Childhood: Children, Gender, and Material Culture. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira, 2005.
  • Colón, A. R., and P. A. Colón. A History of Children: A Socio-Cultural Survey across Millennia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2001.
  • Eng, Milton. The Days of Our Years: A Lexical Semantic Study of the Life Cycle in Biblical Israel. New York: T&T Clark, 2011.
  • Fewell, Danna Nolan. Children of Israel: Reading the Bible for the Sake of Our Children. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2003.
  • Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. “Law and Philosophy: The Case of Sex in the Bible.” In Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader, edited by Alice Bach, pp. 293–304. New York: Routledge, 1999.
  • King, Philip J., and Lawrence E. Stager. Life in Biblical Israel. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
  • Matthews, Victor H., Bernard M. Levinson, and Tikva Frymer-Kensky, eds. Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.
  • Perdue, Leo G., Joseph Blenkinsopp, John J. Collins, and Carol Meyers, Families in Ancient Israel. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1997.
  • Stearns, Peter N. Childhood in World History. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Jennifer L. Koosed

Greek World

While the study of children in relation to gender studies in the ancient Greek world is challenging in many respects, perhaps no other area is more challenging for modern sensibilities than the intersection of children and sexuality, on which this essay shall concentrate. For a subject rarely handled in the study of the ancient world, linking the terms “children” and “sexuality” raises several questions. It is necessary not to confuse their sexuality with ours, and it is also critical to be careful to define correctly what we understand by “children.” For the Greeks’ children are not our “children,” and, as far as that time of their life is concerned, age represents the essential variable of development and the forms of sexuality. It is thus of major importance to know who is included in the category “children.”

The linear sequencing of the ages of life that we know of in the contemporary Western world, in the form of childhood > adolescence > mature adulthood > old age, with its representations and sexual practices at every stage, did not exist in ancient Greek culture. In that context, nothing looked like this social hallway, more or less long, between childhood and grown-up maturity, which constitutes our “adolescence,” itself a term and concept practically absent before the mid-nineteenth century.

To further clarify, we must distinguish boys from girls. The word most frequently used to name a male child, pais (plural: paides), is a polysemic term, the most common sense of which is “child.” A Greek boy was a pais until a very late age, at which point he immediately became an adult. We can see this premise operative, for example, at Athens in the classical period when the time came to inscribe, at eighteen, a citizen’s son among the ephebes (“youths”) of the deme (“district”), the last step before reaching the age of citizenship at twenty. If the demotes (members of the district) noticed that a boy had not reached the required age of eighteen, they pronounced negatively, and then “he returns among the children” (palin eis paidas; Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians 42.1). As an age group, paides had an institutionally visible value in education and athletic competitions. Other words were used to differentiate paides according to age and developmental status. Kouros, for instance, indicated a pubescent boy; puberty, on the social and sexual plane, marked the real separation between the two ages of the pais.

Girls were also called paides, as well as korai (“girls”), thugateres (“daughters”), and parthenoi (“maidens,” “virgins”), but there was no word for them that evokes what we would call adolescence. Rather, an ancient Greek girl entered into sexual maturity through marriage. Thus, to locate the development of her growth and “beauty” (i.e., her entry into the field of Aphrodite), we shall use the expression pro tou gamou; that is, the girl pro tou gamou was a parthenos “before marriage.” The average age at which a girl would marry was fourteen to fifteen years old, and she essentially passed without transition from the toys of her childhood into the bed of her husband, a reality that leads modern readers to see her as a child. Thus, there was no “adolescence” in ancient Greece; we shall speak only of children, of girls and of boys.

The second clarification concerns the living environment of children. The breeding and education within the predominantly feminine environment of the oikos (household) was common to both sexes until approximately seven years of age, when their courses diverged. A boy would then go out to pursue an elementary education (to which few girls had access), and then he would proceed to the palaestra (“wrestling school,” often associated with the gymnasium). Even though accompanied by an adult, he thus crossed from private space into a public one.

With the exception of the opportunities offered by certain cults (where she might find the company of girls of her age), an ancient Greek girl would stay at home, where the women of the oikos would teach her domestic skills, especially textile work. Until marriage, she would remain confined there and closely watched. The virginity of their daughters mattered quite a bit to Greek fathers. This was not only a question of honor, of course, but also one of marital exchanges: a girl’s virginity appears to have been of great value in the eyes of future sons-in-law.

Boys, who would marry much later than girls, enjoyed relative freedom, and, whether on an intellectual or physical level, they received an education, bloomed among their age group, and met adults. One consequence of this difference between male and female trajectories is fundamental to understanding the sexuality of children: with the exception of brothers and sisters, boys and girls remained largely ignorant of one another, as they had few opportunities to meet in the same space. Amorous adventures between two partners of the same age were almost impossible for these paides.

A Taxonomy of Polymorphous Loves.

To place the sexuality of children in the framework of loving and sexual exchanges in the polis amid the rich list of possible partners for the adult citizens, an epigram of Agathias Scolaticus (Palatine Anthology 302) is particularly helpful, directing our focus to the modern designation “polymorphous” loves. In this way, in the ancient Greek context a distinction must be made between the sexuality related to procreation—that is, sex for the purpose of having a legitimate child, which does not concern the children under discussion in this essay—and the sexuality of recreation, which directly relates. As a kind of love, recreational sex has no other motivation than the lust of at least one of the partners. Within this taxonomy, several possible combinations of age and sex between amorous and sexual partners are possible: partners of the same sex and age (male/female homosexuality), of the same sex and different ages (pederasty), and of different sexes (heterosexuality).

For the Greeks, to prefer relations with a person of a certain sex (and of a certain age) did not exclude the possibility of attraction to other sexes, whether over the course of one’s life or simultaneously, nor to other age preferences. As Plutarch notes, “Where there is beauty, I am ambidextrous” (Eroticus 767a). Further, male and female homosexuals were not, ipso facto, masculinized or feminized. A male engaging in homosexual activity would only be feminized if he was an adult who preferred sodomy, playing a passive role in sexual acts with other adults; only then did the vox populi say that he took the attitudes of women and adopted a feminine skhēma (“form”). However, a man’s preference for sex with women granted him no certificate of virility. Rather, his physical strength, his courage on the battlefield, his beard, his marriage, his children, and his authority in the household were better measures of masculinity. Thus, ancient Greek sexual and gender orientation involved far more than one’s sexual partners and behaviors.

In Greek documents, a more or less tacit hierarchy for such matchings can be derived: for example, the love of women for men is less good (or beautiful) than that of men for children. This hierarchy continues: regarding homosexuality, for example, it is better to be the penetrator and not the penetrated; even better are masculine relations between an adult and a child in codified roles and positions—which is, in fact, the dominant preferred erotic model. These lines, attributed to Solon, encapsulate this point: the definition of the “lover” is “one who falls in love with a sweet young boy in his prime, desiring supple flanks and sweet mouth” (Plutarch, Eroticus 751c). This hierarchy of desire also carried political weight, since slaves, freedmen, and male prostitutes were forbidden to make love with free boys as male Greek citizens could.

Within this framework prostitution played an important role, primarily since, for elites, it was with prostitutes that boys exited childhood and were initiated into heterosexual relations, and also because children were among the slaves of both sexes used as prostitutes. While in later discourses there was a certain moral condemnation attached to prostitution, the Greek polis did not condemn the practice.

“The Flower of Lovely Youth”: The Seduction of Boys.

Having clarified terminology and sketched a taxonomy, it is possible to outline the sexual development of the son of a citizen (unfortunately, for the much more numerous noncitizens, the evidence is too scarce to draw any conclusions). He began by being courted and loved, possibly by an adult, as soon as he appeared in public space; in this relation he played a passive role. His freedom of development also allowed him erotic games with classmates of his age. But, at the same time, a neighbor’s slave or attractive daughter was forbidden to him. When he reached the age where adults turned away from him, should he have the means he could frequent male or female prostitutes and courtesans. His youth was his “time of the flower,” his aesthetic peak, which, as with girls, was not expressed by an arithmetical age but by a botanical image. When, then, did a boy bloom?

The Greeks divided life into hebdomades, periods of seven years to which they attached specific qualities: the first and the second went from birth to puberty, the time of childhood. The third began with the appearance of the first beard on the face, and was the physical age that qualified the boy as looking adult-like: his beauty, his charis (“grace”), and his power of seduction varied according to the evolution of his body, particularly the action of his hormones. An adult ruminating on the looks of male children expresses clearly this “erotogenic” evolution of a child’s body:

"“Twelve years, a lovely age, which enchants me! But the thirteen-year-old has many more attractions! With twice seven years you have one of Love’s most exquisite flowers. Still more of a charmer is the one completing his third lustrum. Sixteen years, the year of the gods! Seventeen is not for me, reserved for Zeus’ hunting ground! If one falls for an older boy, it is no longer a game for children, it is ‘look for your like’”" (Strato of Sardis, in Palatine Anthology, 12.4).

The Greeks found in Homer the same sensitivity to the body of the child: “Achilles surpassed in beauty not only Patroclus but also all other heroes taken together; he still had no beard on the chin, and consequently he was the youngest, as says Homer” (Plato, Symposium 180a).

For adult aesthetes and lovers of the childish body, puberty (hēbē) was of especial importance, for in their eyes the supreme beauty of childhood lay in the juvenile passage. The age of radiant boyish beauty was one of suspended time, an intermediate period when secondary sexual characteristics are still developing, where hair blooms on the pubis and cheeks; this is “the time of their flowering.” Obviously it does not last, for as soon as the pilosity spreads, as soon as the face of the pais passes from soft downiness into a prickly beard, and as soon as a caress on the leg collides with the “thatch,” his beauty is dealt a sacred blow, as indicated in this epigram attributed to Strato: “Why are you covered down to your ankles, Menippos, you who used to tuck your tunic up to your tights! Head lowered, you hastened past me, without so much as a word; why? I know what you are hiding from me: they have come, those things I was talking about!” (Palatine Anthology 12.176). Without denying the beauty of other ages for both sexes, the Greeks more than other ancient cultures equated youth with beauty, which makes the youthful body’s evanescence all the more appealing and sensuous. We attribute to Socrates this aphorism: beauty is “short-term tyranny” (Diogenes Laertius 5.19). The Greek skhēma of the body centered on this fundamental relation to pilosity: what mattered was soft, smooth, delicate skin, which the poets praise over and over again.

Pederastic Relationships.

The accepted, valued form of Greek pederasty consists of a connection between a pais—who played the role of eromenos (passive form of eraō, to love) and who also was the beloved, the one who was requested, but who could also seduce—and an adult, the erastes (active form of the same verb), the lover, who pursued the eromenos with diligence. This privileged relationship was more or less long-lasting and visible in public places; we can speak as much about loyalty as about multiple partners. Such relationships were part of the framework of social practices, and thus obeyed rules that betray a common set of values. This framework enabled a father to be proud of seeing his son courted by adults; he prided himself on the rows of elected lovers. The strategies of seduction and their consequences for both sides are not unusual (looks, modesty, desire, jealousy, sadness, enjoyment, and so on).

When a mature man succumbed to the not-always-innocent seduction of a pais, sexual desire could show itself. Of course, nothing forbids us from thinking, with good reason, that chaste pederastic relations existed and lasted, but this is not the most obvious conclusion from the ancient evidence. Of the numerous extant visual representations of pederastic relationships, most of the time the lovers are depicted face-to-face, embracing; their difference in size obliges the adult to fold his knees and the child to raise his head toward him. Besides other touches and caresses, the partners practice intercrural coitus (between the thighs), the adult introducing his penis into the narrow space left free by the pais, who squeezes his thighs together. This form of copulation is characteristic of the difference in age of the partners. On rarer paintings representing copulation between boys of the same age, anal penetration is shown, which is also consistent with expressions used in graffiti related to male sexual behavior.

Girls and Sexuality.

Regarding the sexuality of children, there are two main reasons why boys receive more attention than girls. First, there is vastly more ancient evidence regarding boys. Second, the Greeks valued male pederastic relationship as an erotic model, even to the point that it exercised an influence on the heterosexual marriage bed. Greek wives in particular seem to have been dependent on what for the most part eluded them: the love between a man and a child of the same sex.

It is extremely difficult to reconstruct the sexuality of ancient Greek girls, for no direct evidence of their voices survives. Surviving records were written by men and represent their concerns—and these sources say practically nothing. A word sometimes escapes a heroine of theatre, which enables a guess as to what she knows about adult heterosexuality: “She will need to be a prophetess to discover, unless she has learned at home how to act correctly with her bedfellow” (Euripides, Medea 238–240). Females would witness sexuality in their living environment: in the oikos, there are sisters and brothers, parents, the nursemaid, the tutor, and many sorts of slaves, all of different ages and roles; there are marriages and births following one another—many events and people with diverse sexualities. Yet we have no tangible testimony on these realities, so it is necessary to turn our attention away from the oikos toward other possible sources.

Studies since the late twentieth century have indicated that the sexuality of ancient girls may not be as inaccessible as was once thought. For a fraction of the Greek world, a part of the veil has been lifted due to the translation of homoerotic links contained in some ritual poetry of the archaic period. Calame’s study (Calame, 1997) of a partheneion of the poet Alcman performed by girls’ choirs in preclassical Sparta highlights its homoerotic feminine contents and restores the frame of the exchanges between the choir girls and the adult who manages them (chorege). In this text a choir of virgins sings of the beauty of their adult chorege—of her hair, voice, and skill at running. It is obvious that, in this simultaneously educational and religious environment, the girls are singing about being in love with their teacher. More still than these exceptional qualities of their choir leader, these girls sing with “the voice of an owl” (because they cannot sing as well as she sings), and for those who have not reached this “beauty,” the body of the chorege, her maturity, and her appearance are those to which they aspire.

Here there is a parallel between the boys and girls, with key differences: while the girls love, the boys are beloved; while every boy is beautiful (ho pais kalos) and the others compete with him, the chorege concentrates the looks of all on her; it is she who is beautiful and who seduces. There are resemblances as well, particularly the educational, even initiatory, character of their relations, especially the difference in ages, so that the adult functions for the young person as a parent, or at least a guardian or teacher, implying that the relationship also plays an educational role for the child. We can conclude from this that in the absence of relationships with paides of their age, the adults of both sexes played an initiatory role with the children.

Marriage in Light of Children and Sexuality.

We find this same initiatory aspect with marriage. Spouses can love one another, of course, but in ancient Greece, there was no marriage for love (which is, moreover, a rather recent rationale). While many men did not have much taste for marriage, there were reasons to get married: interest, ambition, to do a service, to establish a bond with another family through a wedding, and, especially, to have legitimate children, because only children produced through marriage—especially boys—were poised to inherit and to succeed the father in citizen’s rights and duties.

For a man, to get married was at the same time to establish a new oikos, different from that of his father, autonomous and viable, as well as to acquire economic independence. These characteristics partially account for the prevailing custom about the age of the husband at marriage, which is mostly thirty years or more. At this time of his life, the one whom he marries will be far from being his contemporary, because the age gap between them can be as much as fifteen to twenty years. Such appears the confrontation that provokes marriage: between a child who has just left the toys of childhood and an accomplished man (Greek teleios “perfect”); between two bodies, one in the fullness of strength, sculpted by athletic exercises, and the other still immature; between two sexualities, one only evanescent and the other already polymorphic. We should not be surprised by the words of the heroines of theatre expressing the shock of this new cohabitation: “Children … the life we live in our father’s home was the sweetest,” says a heroine of Sophocles (Tereus, frag. 583). Similarly, we read of a “real” person speaking about his new wife: “When she got acquainted with me, and had been sufficiently tamed to converse … I was able to begin her education” (Xenophon, Oeconomicus 7.10). The child was paralyzed. How long had she remained mute?

In such a context, the golden rule of a girl’s conduct was and would have to remain that of sōphrosynē, self-control and moderation, a virtue required also of boys, but to which were added silence and chastity. A girl kept silent and did not ask questions. The same bride who confided to her husband that everything depended on him would have been told by her mother that her “business is to be good.” To be good is to live in permanent sōphrosynē but with the additional sudden responsibility for the internal functioning of the oikos.

The desire of the Greek male for this young fragile nymph, still partially a child, with a partly androgynous body, may seem strange to us. But it becomes more understandable when we consider the Greek preference for the youthful body. Her features mirror those of pederastic eroticism, linking the aesthetic and erotogenous qualities of the pubescent of either sex.




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Pierre Brulé

Roman World

When we experience people or cultures as utterly strange to us, it is most often attitudes toward the body or sexuality that cause this feeling of alienation or strangeness. Recently, scholars versed in both the ancient and the biblical tradition have pointed to the fact that in striving for self-fashioning early Christians indeed set themselves apart from their contemporaries by the rejection of same sex relations (Horn and Martens, 2009, pp. 225–232; Martens, 2009). In the Greco-Roman tradition, most of such relationships were between a somewhat older adult male and an adolescent boy. Or, to put it in another way: pagans were boy-lovers (the terms “pederasts/pedophiles” come to the mind), good Christians were not.

This article focuses on the pagan Roman world. In order to understand ancient attitudes toward children and sexuality, one must be very clear about the terms and definitions we are willing to use. Contrary to what one would like to believe, our present-day concepts of the matter are all but clear-cut. Assessing the ancient vocabulary on childhood, youth, and puberty is likewise a difficult matter, requiring methodological soundness. And in the discussion, a clear distinction needs to be made between boys and girls.

Pederasty/Pedophilia: What’s in a Name?

The term “pedophilia” is used quite often these days, especially in the popular media. However, the term is a psychiatric one. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMV V, 2013), pedophilia is a form of paraphilia in which a person either has acted on intense sexual urges toward prepubescent children, or experiences recurrent sexual urges toward and fantasies about such children that cause distress or interpersonal difficulty. It is added that such urges should be felt in a period of at least six months, that the pedophile is at least sixteen years of age and five years older than the child, and that the child involved is generally age thirteen or younger (the biological aspect of prepubescence being the important marker) (Blanchard, 2010, on DSM IV). Pederasty, on the other hand, is not a psychiatric term. Anthropologists consider it an example of male age-structured homosexuality: it appears as typical of a passing stage in which the adolescent is the beloved of an older male mentor. The relationship comes to an end when the young man reaches a certain developmental threshold. As such, it is accepted as authentic in many cultures throughout the world and needs to be distinguished sharply from pedophilia (but see Montgomery, 2007, for an account on the twentieth century).

Such subtle distinctions are not made in the present-day legal discourse, which is more concerned with the issue of age of consent. In law enforcement, the term “pedophile” is used for those convicted of sexual abuse of a minor, including both prepubescent children and pubescent or postpubescent adolescents under the age of consent. In modern society a difference of only a few days may make the difference between penal sexual acts and a legally permitted relationship. In the legal systems of various countries, including those in Europe, however, there is no general agreement about this exact age of consent. Consequences of this should not be underestimated. When Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (1934) stated that most of the child abuse cases in the Roman Catholic church were closely linked with homosexuality, he created quite a stir in the gay movement. When he referred to relationships with pubescent boys just under the legal (canonical) age of eighteen, he was indeed correct; but much of the public indignation was understandable, since people tended to confuse with the medical-psychiatric use of the term “pedophilia,” not to mention yet another meaning of it (Laes, 2012, p. 104).

Indeed, there is also the popular discourse on pedophilia, which connects it to child molesting as the ultimate vice and thus evil. Thus, “the monster and the wise man,” referred to in the title of Vattuone’s book, are the odious figures of the modern pedophile and the great Athenian legislator Solon. Both loved boys, but no one in antiquity ever considered the wise man Solon to be a monster. The term “pedophile” developed into a label for an amalgam of persons, ranging from those favoring deeply affective relationships with adolescents to pederasts, child molesters, and even serial killers. In a way, one can state that child abuse became a prime issue only in the second half of the twentieth century. The ever increasing numbers of instances and the growing awareness of the problem in the public opinion may be partly connected with the medical attention that was brought to the fore by American pediatricians in 1961 and 1962 (Hacking, 1999, pp. 136–138).

Applying Our Concepts to Ancient Categories.

Applying the somewhat confused present-day concepts to ancient categories is even more problematic.

First, the ancients did not have a concept of sexual orientation. In fact, they even lacked a proper term to denote “sexuality.” What people did in bed was much more linked with preferences as food, drinking, and other bodily pleasures; it never was an essential of a person’s identity (Skinner, 2005; Golden and Toohey, 2010).

Second, there was no (developmental) psychology as a separate branch of science, and third, the Roman legal definitions of adulthood were not linked that closely to the matter of age as they are today (Laes, 2011, pp. 278–280). It is safe to assume that Roman boys reached the stage of adulthood at about age fifteen, with the donning of the toga virilis for those belonging to the upper classes. However, this donning was not exclusively linked to age: “He [Vergil] was right to link the state of the body with the years, for in law too, we define the notion of adulthood through both aspects” (Serv. Buc. 8.40). It was only in the sixth century C.E., under Justinian, that the physical examination of boys came to be seen as inappropriate, and that the age of adulthood was fixed at fourteen (Cod. Iust. 5.6.30). Roman law provided for protection of young people, mainly in business transactions, where a tutor was needed up to age twenty-five (Inst. Iust. Roman law then took into account a certain concept of informed consent: it distinguished between infantes and those young people who were near to puberty (pubertati proximi) and thus already responsible for their deeds (e.g., Gaius Inst. 3.208). None of such regulations, however, refers to informed consent in sexual relationships. Technically, boys could marry when reaching adulthood, though in practice the age of first marriage was in the mid-twenties, possibly somewhat younger for aristocrats (Scheidel, 2007). When Roman law provided for protection against sexual harassment, the social status of the boy was taken into account, not the age. For girls, the age of twelve was set as a legal marker for becoming viripotens or marriageable (Dig. 23.1.9; Ulpian and 23.2.4; Pomponius); the actual marriage age for girls was in the late teens for first marriage (Scheidel, 2007).

Fourth, the interpretation of pedophilia as a vile and monstrous deed, implying child abuse and molestation, turns up only in late ancient vocabulary. The term paidophthoros (“child molester”) appears for the first time in Testamentum Levi 17:11, a text generally dated to the second century B.C.E., the Hebrew Vorlage of which is dated to the period ca. 225–175 B.C.E. Both ktènophthoros (“committer of bestiality”) and paidophthoros are now interpreted as second or early third C.E. Christian interpolations in the T. Levi. In such cases, self-fashioning of the new religion against pagan practices was at stake, not the psychology of the victim (Martens, 2009, pp. 237–243).

The Dossier of Boys.

Although some scholars have tried to prove the opposite, the evidence for boy love in the Roman Empire is massive (Laes, 2011, pp. 247–252, 262–268). The sources go from objects of art, over marriage contracts to satire/epigram, and all kinds of cursory remarks in almost any literary genre. The omnipresence of slaves in society might well have contributed to the phenomenon. One in ten families in the Roman Empire owned slaves, and possibly twice that number in towns. Horace persuades his readers rather not to burst with sexual tension but to make use of the available slave boy or girl (Serm. 1.2.116–119). In Artemidorus’s dream book, slaves male and female play the part that masturbation plays in many cultures (On. 1.78). Ages are seldom mentioned, with the famous exception of charming and sexually enticing boys of age twelve in epigrams of the Anthologia Palatina (AP 12.4 and 12.205). Age twenty is once mentioned as an upper threshold (Ps.-Lucian, Am. 26): the evidence mentioned points to the moment of having the first full-grown beard as a marker for the end of pederastic relations. In the Roman Empire, the depositio barbae, the offering of the first beard, usually took place at around age twenty (Laes, 2011, pp. 267–268). If we believe Philo of Alexandria, young male gentiles after their fourteenth year engaged in completely shameless sexual acts with whores and other women who made a profit with their bodies (Philo, Ios. 43).

True, the Roman legal and moral code set quite severe boundaries, stressing the fact that every single freeborn boy with Roman citizenship was sexually off-limits (Laes, 2011, pp. 241–246). The Sentences of Paul explicitly mention the puer praetextatus, a boy up to about age fifteen, as the object of protection. The punishment envisioned by this text are severe and clearly late classical, if not postclassical: capital punishment or deportation (PS 5.4.1, 4 and 14). Most of the evidence suggests that whatever the law commanded, sex with freeborn boys still went on. One wonders whether the vast majority of the lower-class people ever resorted to law to resolve their cases. The law was rather used ad hoc, often in political circumstances when one tried to blame an opponent. Before the Justinian reforms, the state was never interested in nor in the possibility to prosecute “sexual offenders” (Harper, 2013, pp. 39, 221).

The Dossier of Girls.

It is somewhat remarkable that most of the evidence on the issue focuses on the problem of man–boy relationships, while girls were and could undoubtedly be used for sexual purposes too. The obvious reason for girls being less mentioned is the male-oriented focus of the ancient sources. Slave girls and those belonging to the lower classes were probably subject to the same regime as boys; here we may suspect early sexual initiation as frequent and unproblematic, that is in the eyes of the male authors of the texts that have come down to us (McKeown, 2007).

For the higher classes, virginity at the moment of marriage and gradual introduction into the world of sexuality by advice from other women were considered important (Lentano, 1996). According to Epictetus, women are considered “ladies” (kyriai) by men when they reach age fourteen. “Therefore, when they see that there is nothing else for them besides sharing a bed with men, they start to adorn themselves and in this they place all their hopes” (Epict. Ench. 40). One will notice the strongly sexual connotation of this description. The legal evidence sets age twelve as a liminal age for contracting a marriage, and the same age applied for “openly” (palam) having a concubine (Dig.; Ulpian). While there are indeed laws threatening with severe punishment “those who corrupt virgins not yet ready for sexual activity” (nondum viripotentes virgines) (Dig.; Paulus), there is also a large bulk of evidence that Roman fathers did not necessarily disapprove of marriage of girls in their early teens, even before the age of twelve. Only medical doctors seem to have cautiously objected to the practice of very early marriage, pointing to the dangers for the girl’s health and the risks of early adolescent childbearing; in general they did not disapprove of sexual activity in marriage for girls after the onset of puberty (Caldwell, 2013, pp. 112–149). Roman jurists indeed discussed the problem of underage cohabitation (Dig. 23.1.9; Ulpian; Caldwell, 2013, p. 161), and the emperor Augustus by law prevented certain men from betrothing themselves to infant girls and thus enjoying the privileges of married men while not fulfilling the obligations (Dio Cassius 54.16.7). But to take such cases to cite most instances of marriage with early teenage girls as a kind of secured arrest, with the husband patiently awaiting the maturing of his young bride, is to dismiss the large bulk of explicit evidence on the first wedding night. To the ancients, this first night was indeed a battlefield of sex, aggression, and machismo (Caldwell, 2013, pp. 223–238).

According to Plutarch in his Advice to the Bride and Groom, the husband who gives up after the first disagreements that are so typical of girls is short-sighted; “unripe girls” (the fruit metaphor often occurs) who show distaste for the first experience are like people who endure the sting of the bee but allow the honeycomb to go (Coni. Praec. 138.2). The emphasis on coercion to sexual activity as it emerges from Ausonius’s Cento Nuptialis is distasteful to modern sensibilities; but the author comments “for this is a story of wedding, and like it or not, the ritual does not happen any other way” (Cent. Nupt. 20). An epigram tells how a young bride was torn apart by watchdogs when she fled the house during her wedding night, afraid of first sexual intercourse. The poem unabashedly states that this fear is common with young girls: one should not flee from one danger to encounter another (AP 9.245).

Continuity or Change in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages?

The concepts and practices concerning children and sexuality turn out to be crucial for a better understanding of ancient society at large. This was a world where chronological age never took the major role it takes in present-day Western society—not in matters of consent to or involvement in sexual acts but also not in education or in a dossier as child labor (Art. On. 1.78 is a rare exception pointing at age ten as the age at which a child was perceived to be a sexual being). This was also a world that recognized the possible sexual attraction of children but never made it into an issue in its own right: while a boy age twelve was definitely still a child in Roman perception, no one would classify a twenty-year-old as such. Finally, this was a world where childhood was essentially a social rather than a psychological category. A Roman citizen twelve-year-old was protected by his medal of childhood, the bulla, but his age-peer slave, freed slave, or even freeborn citizen of lower status was subject to sexual advances. This dichotomy was based purely on social grounds: a future aristocratic leader should not be degraded by sexual submission in earlier stages of life.

“Where has Eros gone to?” In the sixth century C.E., the poet Agathias expresses his grief about the changed sexual mores of his time: gone were the days of adultery, gone was the love for boys (Anthologia Graeca 5.302). By then, the new religion of Christianity had definitely changed the ancient world. To early Christians, same-sex relations (not just pederastic) and prostitution had become symbols of a culture to be fought against. In the second century, but most strongly in the fourth century, the new religion focused on free will. Jerome most saliently denounced the paradox of pagan sexual practice: they denounce adulterium and stuprum when Roman citizens are concerned, but do whatever they wish in brothels and with slave girls. In other words: pagans act as if social status and not sexual desire was the core to deciding whether something is wrong (Ep. 77.3). The Justinian law of 535 was “the most sweeping action yet undertaken by the Roman state” (Harper, 2013, p. 269): it radically forbade all forms of pimping, prostitution, or brothel keeping (Nov. 14). This was a regime performing moral crusades, using same-sex relations and pederasty to blame and prosecute political opponents, including bishops (Proc. Anec. 1134–36). And in the west of the Roman Empire, a Visigothic law of 533–534 prohibited masters from having sex with their slave girls; again without precedent in Roman legislation (Cass. Var. 9.18; LV 3.4.17).

The somewhat vague concept of porneia had become a fumigation bomb (Harper, 2013, p. 13), which was to poison the whole zone of ancient sexuality (see Rom 1:26–32 for severe condemnation of sexual offenders, including death). The result was a profoundly changed world, in which no first-century Roman would have recognized himself. The transformation was complete. And indeed, it was mostly about sex.




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Christian Laes

New Testament

The topic of children comprises a relatively new and burgeoning area in the study of the New Testament and early Christianity (Horn and Martens, 2009). As part of the rising profile of the “history of childhood,” this field is often traced back to the groundbreaking and controversial work of Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood (1962), which is based on the notion that it was not until the modern era that most adults came to recognize childhood as a distinct phase of life. Experts in premodern eras have largely resisted this hypothesis. But many, in some way or other, have at least given a nod to Ariès by stressing the profound differences between premodern and modern conceptions of childhood. Scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity have both benefitted from and contributed to the critical engagement with the Ariès thesis, as the work of Bakke (2005), for example, indicates.

Studies on childhood have dedicated space to what ancient Christian sources disclose about the nature of children, education, work, play, and worship. Meanwhile, questions related to sexuality, such as ancient notions of puberty and sexual development, have received scant attention. An exception is the subject of sexual abuse of children. More than one treatment describes the denunciation of sexual abuse in extracanonical Christian writings of the second and third centuries C.E. If the sexual abuse of children is what comes first to mind, little wonder that the topic of children and sexuality has not attracted more interest from scholars of the New Testament, as there is hardly a topic more disquieting or more freighted with modern-day fears. The addition of the term “New Testament” may only intensify the unease of today’s readers. The combination will remind many of the numerous contemporary cases of Christian clergy preying on children across North America and western Europe. Moreover, while patristic texts may join together to declare a reassuring message of disapproval of adult-child sexual activity, scholars of the New Testament will look in vain for the staunch prohibitions that surface in later Christian literature. A clear statement of outrage is absent from the New Testament, and only a handful of passages have ever been taken to imply opposition to adult–child sex.

What does the New Testament say about children and sexuality? There may be more to the question than whether or not New Testament writers take a stand against the sexual abuse of children. In what follows I will first discuss the methodological issues of approaching the topic of children and sexuality in the ancient context. The article will then turn to specific topics in the study of the New Testament. What does the New Testament say about adult-child sexual relations? Does the sexual use of slave children illuminate aspects of the New Testament? Does the New Testament imply a notion of presexual “innocence” in passages that encourage followers of Jesus to become like children? The investigation of children and sexuality in the New Testament faces serious challenges, including that of a small sample size. Yet the framework of children and sexuality may suggest new ways of thinking about the familiar texts of the New Testament.

Methodological Issues and the Ancient Context.

The historical study of children has often been about “childhood” as a mental construct of adults. So it is for the study of children in antiquity. The voices of actual children are all but lost to us. There are some very rare exceptions: graffiti from schoolrooms in Pompeii and the second-century B.C.E. report of a girl’s dream in the Temple of Serapis in Memphis, Egypt (Urkunden der Ptolemäerzeit 177, in Rowlandson, 1998, p. 102). Historians rely on sources that reflect childhood through the “mirror of adult actors,” as Christian Laes (2011, p. 19) puts it. Occasionally, the mediation of adult preoccupations or filtering may strike the reader as minimal, as in Minucius Felix’s poignant account of boys “skipping shells” along the seashore at Ostia (Octavius 3). At the other pole would be Augustine’s prayerful and stylized recollection of childhood in Book 1 of the Confessions.

Relying exclusively on literary sources for the study of ancient childhood runs the risk of reinscribing the narrow outlook of elite authors. To broaden the view, classicists and historians have turned to the daily life of children under the Roman Empire. The field of evidence for social history includes documentary sources such as papyri, inscriptions, and archaeological finds. Some have developed statistical models about demography and life expectancy based on ancient documentary evidence and cross-cultural comparisons. Even so, representing the experiences of actual children—slave and free, male and female—remains a matter of numerical estimates and broad contours. Moreover, as important as documentary evidence is for social historians, the perceptions of childhood as articulated in literary sources will continue to exert a strong influence over scholars who seek to comprehend the images and metaphors of childhood in the New Testament.

“Childhood” as a life stage is a meaningful notion in some ancient sources. Greek terminology that can be found scattered throughout the New Testament includes brephos (“baby, infant”), paidion (“little child”), teknon (“child”), and neaniskos (“youth”). In On the Creation of the World (106–107), the first-century C.E. Jewish author Philo of Alexandria outlines a set of phases in increments of seven years, a model that corresponds to similar paradigms of childhood in classical sources. Philo describes the development of the pais (“child”) from nēpios (“infant”), which ends at the age of seven, to hēbē (“youth”), which ends at the age of fourteen. Historians warn that it is anachronistic to treat philosophical typologies as precursors to modern, psychological models about childhood development. Other sources suggest the harsh reality of adult calculations of the value of children in antiquity. The second-century C.E. physician Soranus sets out criteria for determining whether to keep or expose a newborn (Gynecology 2.79).

Establishing a bright line of demarcation between childhood and adulthood was no less problematic in antiquity than today. The best-known rites of passage may have affected only elite males in Rome (e.g., putting on the toga virilis during the festival of Liberalia). The onset of puberty in elite males, sometimes described as meirakioumai (or “becoming a youth”), was both celebrated and scrutinized. The second-century C.E. advice manuals of Galen and Soranus prescribe ways of diminishing the excessive wetness of children’s bodies as they matured (Rouselle, 1988, pp. 58–62). The physicians instruct that the sexual appetites of young males should be regulated but not suppressed. Sperm, it was thought, achieved greatest vitality only after the age of twenty-one. The ideal age of marriage for men was the mid- to late twenties. Many females, on the other hand, may have been married prior to puberty, between the ages of twelve and fourteen.

That most readers today would view the marriage of prepubescent females as a form of child abuse indicates the gulf between ancient and modern views of gender and sexuality. The study of sexuality in the ancient world, like the study of childhood, focuses on ancient interpretations. The title of a highly influential collection of essays, Before Sexuality (Halperin, et al., 1990), captures such complexity. The essays suggest that the modern category of “sexuality”—which implies identity, orientation, and essence—may only distort our attempts to “listen” to what ancient sources say. Public discourse on sexuality today is propped up by forensic and scientific claims. Its prescriptive force is often concealed by the rhetoric of description. By contrast, historians of sexuality routinely note the prescriptive character of ancient “talk” about sexuality. Some of the most illuminating discussions are based on sources of the Roman era that are avowedly judgmental: the moral essays of Plutarch (e.g., Dialogue on Love); the invective of Roman poets such as Catullus; and the dream interpretation of Artemidorus.

Ancient sources about sex imply a scheme of penetration that supports a hierarchy in terms of status and gender. The penetrator, in the active role, was associated with power and strength; the penetrated, in the passive role, was associated with weakness and effeminacy. Both men and women, it was thought, could occupy either role, though conventional wisdom typically cast the adult male of higher status as the penetrator. Conformity to these protocols was counted as admirable; suspected deviation suffered ridicule. Idealized by Greek authors as the loving and honorable pairing of an adult male (erastēs) with a free youth (erōmenos) in his teenage years, pederasty conformed to the penetration grid. It was viewed positively in Greek sources well into the Roman era. While for many modern readers “pederasty” and “pedophilia” are synonyms, analysis of ancient literary sources and documentary evidence suggests that the admiration of pederasty was not understood to give cover to adult–child sex with male children younger than age twelve (see Dover, 1978).

Roman authors, on the author hand, largely rejected the classical Greek model of pederasty. This had little to do with the modern notion of “age of consent.” Rather, it reflected anxiety about how a “passive” role might undermine the status of free male children. So too Roman scorn for Greek pederasty served to buttress the imperial claims of Rome over the Greek east. At the same time, Roman poets such as Statius express no reservations about sex with children, so long as they are deliciae, or “beloved slave boys.”

Pedophilia and Pederasty.

Is “pedophilia,” the modern designation for a psychosexual pathology, a target of ancient Christian criticism? Many early Christian writings seem to employ a particular term for the sexual abuse of children: paidophthoreō (see, e.g., Didache 2:2, Epistle of Barnabas 19:4, and Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 10.108.5). The term, which can also be found in Testament of Levi 17:10–11, may include pederasty but, according to some, was in fact designed to say something profoundly new, even “countercultural” (Martens, 2009, p. 231). Where paiderasteō and cognates refer to the “sexual love” of minors, paidophthoreō seems to suggest something else: the sexual corruption and destruction of children. Ancient Christian opposition to paidophthoreō may have taken its cue from Jewish sexual ethics, which rejected forms of sexual activity that were associated with pagan idolatry and not designed to lead to human reproduction.

Paidophthoreō and cognates do not occur in the New Testament. Is it nevertheless possible to see some passages in the New Testament as anticipating a “countercultural” stance against sex with children? In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus declares: “If any of you put a stumbling block [skandalizō] before one of these little ones [mikros] who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” ((9:42). Jesus goes on to urge followers to cut off hands and feet and pluck out an eye rather than be “scandalized” by these body parts and “thrown into hell” (Mark 9:43–48). A similar idea is found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:27–32). More than one scholar has noted a parallel in the Babylonian Talmud that connects the mutilation of body parts to sexual activity deemed questionable, including masturbation and sex with children (b. Niddah 13b). Even if one accepts what might be a dubious juxtaposition of the New Testament and the much later rabbinic literature, the warnings in the canonical Gospels about “stumbling blocks” are exasperatingly elliptical by comparison. “Little ones” in Mark 9:42 has sometimes been taken as referring to adult disciples and not children.

There is no question that ancient Jewish writings define the non-Jewish “other” as enthusiastic abusers of children. These sources typically use the vocabulary of pederasty (paiderasteō and cognates). The late-Antique Sibylline Oracles declare that Jews, unlike Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks, do not practice pederasty (3.595–600; cf. 3:185–187).). Philo likewise condemns pederasty (Special Laws 3.37–42; Contemplative Life 48–62).

The contrast with wider ancient society is stark. It is clear that for many Greek and Roman authors pederasty, under certain conditions, was acceptable under ancient “protocols” of penetration. The conventional nature of pederasty is illustrated by sources throughout the Roman period. The second-century C.E. Greek romance by Achilles Tatius, Leukippe and Clitophon, includes a lengthy debate between two male characters over the merits of female and pederastic love (2.35–38). Plutarch, in the Dialogue of Love, seems to sympathize with proponents of male–female sex but still allows for the vigorous defense of the alternative.

Where do the authors of the New Testament stand in this field of ancient discourse on adult–child sexual activity? Following a path struck by John Boswell’s important study, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980), some New Testament scholars have argued that pederasty was the principal target of Paul’s condemnation of sex between men (Scroggs, 1983). There are important lexical and conceptual problems with this view (see Martin, 2006, pp. 37–50). The key texts are Romans 1:25–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10. Debate over precisely what Paul has in mind has revolved around the terms arsenokoitēs and malakos, which are employed in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10.. (Arsenokoitēs is found nowhere else in the New Testament.) Both are notoriously difficult to translate. Arsenokoitēs has been glossed in a rather sweeping and generic fashion, as “a man who has sex with men.” But elsewhere the term occurs in lists concerned with economic transgressions such as theft (Sybilline Oracles 2.70–72; Acts John 36), leading some to wonder if Paul directs his ire at a specific kind of exploitation such as prostitution. Commentary on malakos (or “softness”) in Pauline literature has been shaped by prejudice and stereotypes of homosexual “effeminacy.” Some have pointed out that ancient authors commonly assumed that malakos in males was the result of excessive male-female intercourse (see, e.g., Chariton, Charaeas and Callirhoe 1.4).

Does either passage imply that pederasty is the problem? For the present discussion, the most striking thing about 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 and 1 Timothy 1:10–11 is that Paul does not employ the standard vocabulary of pederasty. Paideresteō and cognates are not present. Whatever the reasons behind Paul’s seeming objection to same-sex intercourse, it is not evident that one of them was disgust at sexual relations between adults and children. Thus, a clear statement against either pederasty or what modern readers would regard now as pedophilia cannot be found in Pauline literature.


Like pederasty, slavery is another distressing aspect of childhood in antiquity. Most modern histories of ancient childhood assume free children. We know very little about slave children. Slaves, no matter their age, were not unlike children in relation to free adult males: both were subject to corporal punishment. Many children in the slave system under the Roman Empire may have begun their lives as victims of exposure—only to be claimed by slave traders and fed into the maw of the slave economy. “House-born slaves” (oikogeneis or vernae) could be raised to perform sexually for the adult slave owners. “Beloved slave boys,” or deliciae, were given specific hairstyles to advertise their status.

Slaves were routinely referred to using the terminology of childhood. Pais or “child” stands as a synonym for slave (doulos) in sources from the Roman period, including the writings of the New Testament. In Luke 7:7, the centurion asks Jesus for the healing of his “slave” (pais). Luke 7:10 concludes the pericope with the report that members of the centurion’s household later found the “slave” (doulos) in good health ((Luke 7:10; see too Luke 15:26; Matt 8:6, 8, 13).). The term for “girl” (paidiskē) is used only in the context of slavery in the New Testament, as in the story of the fortune-telling girl in the book of Acts ((16:6). The interchangeability of “child” and “slave” reflects not only the rhetoric of the “benevolent” slave owner but also the blurred lines of family life under Rome. The practice of slavery was absorbed comfortably into the institution of the family.

Pauline literature is shot through with references to slavery. Paul’s letter to Philemon showcases the easy admixture of images of kinship and slavery. Some have suggested that Paul’s casting of Onesimus as his teknon (“child,” Phlm 10) disrupts Philemon’s own claims as head of household and slave owner. One study has set the competing claims of Paul and Philemon to Onesimus against the backdrop of the conventional sexual use of slaves in the Roman world (Marchal, 2011). Paul’s letter turns on a punning opposition between terms of usefulness and uselessness: Onesimus (which, like chrēston, means “useful”), who was formerly achrēston (“useless”) to the slave owner Philemon, has become euchrēston (“useful”) to the apostle (Phlm 11). The dialogue on love by the second-century C.E. Lucian of Samosata leaves little doubt that, within the context of slavery, sexual servitude was a primary connotation of Greek terms for “usefulness” (Erōtes 25, 27). Is it possible that Paul and Philemon wrangled over who had the stronger claim to the sexual use of Onesimus? The troubling implications of this interpretation are made more distressing for modern readers when we recall Paul’s use of familial rhetoric, including “my child” (teknon), in this letter and elsewhere (e.g., Gal 4:19, 1 Thess 2:7, 11–12).


Another area of discussion involves the identification of childhood with innocence in the scholarship of the New Testament. When Jesus instructs his followers to become like “a little child” (paidion; Mark 10:15; see too Matt 18:3, 19:14), what does the comparison to childhood mean? The theme of becoming like children can be found in closely related extracanonical Gospels (see, e.g., Gos. Thom. 22; Gos. Eg., 2 Clem 12.2–6). Some have taken the comparison to childhood to refer to a presexual state (Bakke, 2005, pp. 104–105; Crossan, 1991, pp. 266–269.) A gesture to children is meant to evoke the absence of sexuality.

A caveat to this view is in order. Separating children and sexuality in the ancient context is not easily done. Adult sex with children was widely accepted in the Roman era, so long as certain conditions (e.g., slavery) were met. Greek tradition viewed pederasty as noble. Would the authors and audiences of the canonical Gospels have thought of childhood as a presexual stage of life? One should also bear in mind that Greek sources on pederasty assume both the sexual pleasure of the penetrator and the lack thereof in the penetrated (Halperin, 1990, p. 47). It may be the case that ancient Christian authors viewed children as lacking in the passions of adulthood. Such a perspective was not incongruous with the widespread expectation that at least some children would engage in sex with adults.

At least one text of the Roman era suggests that sexual activity between children was likewise part of ancient thinking. The third-century C.E. Greek romance of Longus, Daphnis and Chloe, is tale of exploration and discovery between two young lovers. The unfolding of the sexual “education” of the pair—which involves pain as well as pleasure—is ambiguous when it comes to the protocols of penetration. Should sex be reduced to penetrative acts of intercourse? Does the sexual experimentation of childhood call into question the order of things? Does it undermine the claims of a society based on a dichotomy of activity and passivity? Daphnis and Chloe suggests that some pagan authors used the nonpenetrative sexuality of children as a space to examine the tension between the authority of tradition and playful innovation. Perhaps references to becoming like children in the New Testament are doing the same.


Before the advent of the history of childhood, a reader may have expected the topic of children and sexuality in the New Testament to refer chiefly to what New Testament writings have to say about human reproduction. Does the New Testament teach readers to procreate, or does it instead teach something else, such as sexual renunciation? Paul seems to resist a “procreationist” ideology, urging “self-control” and allowing for marital sex only if the alternative is “to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor 7:7). The Pastoral Epistles construct an ideal of womanhood that promotes sexual intercourse and childbirth (1 Tim 2:14–15).

Scholarship will likely continue to focus on the place of the New Testament in the history of adult sexuality. Yet if scholars wish to understand images and metaphors of childhood in the New Testament, they will have to reckon with the banality of adult–child sexual activity under the Roman Empire. Childhood, slavery, and sexuality were overlapping domains for authors under the Roman era. That this was also the case for the writers of the New Testament is both a plausible and sobering suggestion.




  • Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Translated by Robert Baldick. New York: Vintage, 1962.
  • Bakke, O. M. When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity. Translated by Brian McNeil. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005.
  • Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
  • Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.
  • Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.
  • Frilingos, Chris. “‘For My Child, Onesimus’: Paul and Domestic Power in Philemon.” Journal of Biblical Literature 119, no. 1 (2000): 91–104.
  • Halperin, David M. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, and Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Halperin, David M., John J. Winkler, and Froma I. Zeitlin, eds. Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.
  • Horn, Cornelia B., and John W. Martens. “Let the Little Children Come to Me”: Childhood and Children in Early Christianity. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2009.
  • Laes, Christian. Children in the Roman Empire: Outsiders Within. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Marchal, Joseph A. “The Usefulness of an Onesimus: The Sexual Use of Slaves and Paul’s Letter to Philemon.” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 4 (2011): 749–770.
  • Martens, John W. “‘Do Not Sexually Abuse Children’: The Language of Early Christian Sexual Ethics.” In Children in Late Ancient Christianity, edited by Cornelia B. Horn and Robert R. Phenix, pp. 227–254. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2009.
  • Martin, Dale B. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2006.
  • Rousselle, Aline. Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity. Translated by Felicia Pheasant. New York: Blackwell, 1988.
  • Rowlandson, Jane, ed. Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Scroggs, Robin. The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983.
  • Wiedemann, Thomas. Adults and Children in the Roman Empire. London: Routledge, 1989.

Chris Frilingos

Early Judaism

In early Judaism, as in most cultures historically, the transition from childhood to adulthood occurred around the time of puberty. Since puberty is a process that takes a variable amount of time and occurs at different ages for men and women, and also varies among individuals and populations, it is difficult to generalize about the age at which a child becomes an adult sexually. On the other hand, marriage was an event that clearly defined a person, male or female, as an adult in early Judaism. Therefore, this article will focus on discussions of sexuality prior to (first) marriage, since the bulk of the evidence in our sources relates to that transitional period now known as adolescence. Attitudes toward sexual activity involving prepubescent children will be highlighted, to the extent that the sources address it.

It is possible to make a few generalizations about children and sexuality in early Judaism, despite the very different sources available for the Second Temple period as compared with the classical rabbinic literature. First, early Jewish authors share the assumption that sexual activity within marriage is both divinely mandated for the purpose of procreation and a divinely sanctioned form of pleasure, in contrast to many early Christian authors who praised virginity more highly. Nevertheless, Jewish authors generally condemn any form of nonmarital sexual activity, although some forms (e.g., sex between males) are condemned more emphatically than others. Virginity at (first) marriage is the ideal for both sexes, but female virginity is emphasized much more. Sex between prepubescent children and adults (or adolescents) is condemned not because it corrupts the “innocence” of children (since children were seen as sexual beings) but because children are vulnerable to exploitation. These sexual mores are rooted in biblical law and narrative, but the way in which they are discussed in the early Jewish sources is influenced by the contemporaneous Mediterranean and Persian cultures.

Second Temple Judaism.

The Second Temple was in existence from about 515 B.C.E. to 70 C.E., but since the Bible was still developing during the early centuries of that period, scholars of “Second Temple Judaism” tend to focus on the last two or three centuries B.C.E. and the first century C.E. Many of the texts from this period were preserved by Christians, but this article will not consider texts that were heavily redacted by Christians (such as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs), because they may reflect Christian sexual mores rather than Jewish ones.

Age at first marriage.

Although the literature of the Second Temple period lacks the specificity of later rabbinic Halacha (law) about what constitutes a “marriageable age,” the existing evidence suggests an age disparity between men and women at first marriage. Thus, the period between the onset of puberty and marriage was much longer for men than for women. There was almost certainly geographical variation among the Diaspora communities, as well as variation over time, since marriage customs among Jews tended to be influenced by the surrounding cultures.

In one of the rules of the congregation found at Qumran, a young man raised and educated in the community becomes a full member at the age of twenty, before which age he is not permitted to have sexual intercourse with a woman (1QSa 1.7–11). This passage is generally understood to be prescribing a typical (or ideal) age of marriage for men in the Qumran community, since it goes on to describe other milestones in the life of a man in the congregation. A fragment of the Damascus Document discusses the responsibilities of a community member in giving his daughter in marriage: he must disclose to her prospective husband any blemishes she has and guarantee her virginity, having her physically examined by “trustworthy and knowledgeable women” if there is any doubt (4Q471 III, 8–15). This passage says nothing about the age of a bride, but the fact that she has no agency in the matter may suggest that she is assumed to be younger than twenty. A piece of circumstantial evidence comes from the retelling of the rape of Dinah in Jubilees (see below), which assumes that twelve is a marriageable age for a girl.

There is some evidence that the age discrepancy may have been greater among more Hellenized Jews. Philo (writing in the first century C.E.), in describing the stages of a man’s life, puts “ripeness for marriage” between twenty-nine and thirty-five years of age (Opif. 103), and Josephus mentions that his first, short-lived marriage (to a virgin) took place in 70 C.E., when he would have been about thirty-two (Vita 414–415). Elsewhere, Josephus mentions without comment that Herod Agrippa’s eldest daughter, Bernice, who was sixteen when her father died, had already been married for some time (Ant. 19.354; cf. 19.277).

The rape or seduction of a virgin.

Philo and Josephus both comment on the biblical laws concerning the seduction or rape of an unbetrothed (Exod 22:16–17; Deut 22:28–29) or betrothed (Deut 22:23–27)) virgin. Philo does not distinguish between rape and seduction, initially comparing the seduction of a virgin to adultery (Spec. 3.65), and later condemning it as “treating free-born women as slaves” and “doing acts of war in time of peace” (3.69, tr. Yonge). The comparison assumes that sexual exploitation of female slaves and prisoners of war is to be expected (see below), whether or not Philo himself condones it. Josephus does distinguish between the seduction and rape of a betrothed virgin, requiring the death penalty for both parties if the virgin is willing, but only for the man if she was forced, omitting the biblical distinction about whether the rape took place in the town or the country (Ant. 4.251–252). For the rape of an unbetrothed virgin, Josephus understands the fifty shekels that the rapist must pay her father not as “the bride price for virgins” (Exod 22:17; Deut 22:29), but rather as “the price of her mistreatment,” payable only if the father chooses not to allow the rapist to marry his daughter.

The ambiguous story of the rape or seduction of Dinah (Gen 34) is retold in several Second Temple–period texts. In Jubilees, Dinah’s innocence is emphasized by omitting the detail that Dinah “went out” (Gen 34:1)) and by adding that “she was a small girl, twelve years of age” (Jub. 30:2). Yet the problem that Jubilees focuses on is not her age but the fact that her assailant was a gentile; the story introduces a lengthy polemic against intermarriage (Jub. 30:7–17). The book of Judith characterizes the incident as the defilement of a virgin by “strangers” (9:2) and agrees with Jubilees in holding the entire town of Shechem responsible for it. Josephus, while siding with Jacob’s view in the story that the revenge against the town of Shechem by his sons was excessive, portrays Jacob as unwilling to give his daughter to a “stranger” (Ant. 1.337–341). While all three retellings clarify that Dinah was raped rather than seduced, their main concern is to establish that because Shechem was a gentile, the law requiring a man who rapes an unbetrothed virgin to marry her (Deut 22:28–29) does not apply.

Ben Sira’s comments on daughters are in keeping with his generally negative comments regarding women, but they also reveal the pressure on fathers to guard their daughters’ chastity: “A daughter is a secret anxiety to her father, and worry over her robs him of sleep; when she is young, for fear she may not marry, or if married, for fear she may be disliked; while a virgin, for fear she may be seduced and become pregnant in her father's house; or having a husband, for fear she may go astray, or, though married, for fear she may be barren” (Sir 42:9–10). In another place, Ben Sira suggests that a father is responsible for regulating the sexuality of both sons and daughters: “Do you have sons? Chastise them and take for them wives in their youth. Do you have daughters? Guard their chastity [lit., body] and do not let your face shine upon them” (7:23–24, Hebrew ms A).

Sexual abuse in war.

The frequency of war during the Hellenistic and early Roman periods meant that children, along with women, were vulnerable to sexual assault by victorious enemies. For example, in the book of Judith, the Israelites, under threat of invasion by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, put on sackcloth and pray to God “not to give their young children [nēpia] as spoil [diarpagē] and their wives as booty” to the enemy ((Jdt 4:12 lit.). In 4 Ezra, an apocalypse written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, Ezra laments, “Our children have suffered abuse … our virgins have been defiled, and our wives have been ravished” (4 Ezra 10:22). Josephus frequently assumes that women and children taken as captives of war will be sexually abused; for example, he adds captives to the list of women that a priest may not marry (A.J. 2.276). So when he describes the suicide pact at Masada, the likelihood that the children would be sexually abused was probably a factor in the parents’ decision to kill them along with themselves (B.J. 7.334–36). The references to the enslavement of children and women by enemies in the third Sibylline oracle probably also envision sexual abuse (Sib. Or. 3.268–270, 525–530). The abuse of children in war was likewise recognized as a tragedy by non-Jewish Hellenistic historians.


Jewish authors of the Second Temple period harp on the issue of pederasty (sex between adult men and adolescent boys) in order to emphasize Jewish distinctiveness from the surrounding Hellenistic culture. On the one hand, they frequently allude to the biblical prohibition of sex between males (Lev 18:22)), regardless of age or status. But very often, they present male homosexual encounters as the exploitation of adolescent or even preadolescent boys. For example, Pseudo-Phocylides (213) advises parents, “Guard the youthful prime of life of a comely boy [pais], for many [men] rage for intercourse with a male” (tr. Van der Horst). According to a eulogy of the Jewish people in the third Sibylline oracle, the Jews differ from all the surrounding cultures in that “they do not engage in impious intercourse with male children (arsenikous paidas)” (3.596–600, tr. Collins; cf. Sib. Or. 5.430–433). Similarly, Philo’s apology for the Jews (Hypothetica, preserved in fragments by Eusebius) begins its summary of the laws of Moses with a list of sexual sins that are punishable by death: the first is pederasty, followed by adultery and the rape of a child, “for do not speak of doing so to a boy, but even to a female child” (Eusebius, P.E. 7.1, tr. Yonge).

Philo takes every opportunity to condemn pederasty, but his most revealing description of it is found in a passage contrasting the communal meals of the Therapeutae with banquets in his own time and with Plato’s Symposium, both of which seem to him to be mainly about the love of boys (Contempl. 48–63). Significantly, the elegantly made-up and coiffed boys present at the banquets of his own day are identified as slaves (Contempl. 50), which adds another dimension to the exploitation that Philo assumes is inherent in pederasty. It is worth noting that in De specialibus legibus 2.50, Philo condemns the same men who engage in pederasty for committing adultery, and he elsewhere accuses the emperor Gaius of “lasciviousness toward boys and women” (Legat. 14). Thus, he does not see pederasty as an expression of same-sex attraction, but rather as a symptom of uncontrolled lust. The same can be said for most other authors of the Second Temple period: they take for granted that boys and young men arouse sexual desire in some (or most?) men, but they condemn men who act on that desire as sexual predators.

Classical Rabbinic Judaism.

For the period from the second century C.E. until the rise of Islam, our main textual sources are the classical texts of rabbinic Judaism: the Mishnah, Tosefta, Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, and the classical Midrash. Since the late twentieth century, there has been a great deal of debate among scholars about the historical reliability of these sources and, at the same time, a growing recognition that they reflect the values and practices of only a small segment of the Jewish population during those centuries. The remainder of this article will draw on the evidence of the classical rabbinic sources without claiming that they describe historical realities or are representative of “Judaism” as a whole during this period. It will highlight differences between the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds on several issues related to children and sexuality.

Age at first marriage.

There is a significant difference between Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds regarding the expected or ideal age of first marriage for women and especially for men. In Palestine and in the Mediterranean Diaspora, the expectation of an age discrepancy between brides and grooms seen in Second Temple period texts continues. Women were expected to marry by their late teens, and men around the age of thirty; epigraphical evidence confirms that such a disparity in ages was in fact common in the Western Roman Empire. (The list of life stages in m. ʾAbot 5:21 that puts marriage at age eighteen for men is a late addition to the Mishnah, since it does not appear in the Talmuds or ʾAbot de Rabbi Nathan.) In the Babylonian Talmud, by contrast, the ideal is for women to be betrothed by the age of twelve and married in their early teens, and for men to marry by the age of twenty (b. Qidd. 29b).

There were economic and cultural reasons for this difference. The Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean viewed marriage as the establishment of a new household with the goal of procreation, seen as a social good, and Palestinian Jewish sources share that ideology. The lower economic status of Jews in the Mediterranean world, which made it hard for young men to establish a household before they inherited property from their fathers, led to a later age of marriage for men in Palestine. For women, marriage in their late teens was optimal for the sake of fertility, since younger girls were both less fertile and much more likely to die in childbirth. In the Babylonian Talmud, marriage is seen as an outlet for sexual desire, so men are encouraged to marry by the time they are twenty in order to avoid sin (b. Qidd. 29b–30a). This ideology of marriage was shared with the surrounding Persian culture, among both Zoroastrians and Nestorian Christians. Mesopotamian newlyweds typically joined the husband’s father’s household, rather than immediately establishing their own household. These factors combined to encourage earlier marriage for both men and women in Mesopotamia.

Sexual maturity and virginity in girls.

The Babylonian Talmud establishes clear stages of sexual maturity for girls. A girl younger than twelve years old is considered a minor (qĕtānâ) and is completely under her father’s control; her father may sell her as a maidservant, or betroth or marry her off (b. Ketub. 29a, 46b–47a). A minor girl whose father has died may be married off by her mother or brothers, but she has the right to refuse her husband for as long as she remains a minor (b. Nid. 46a). Marriage and betrothal of a minor girl were strongly discouraged, however, both because of the risk to her life if she should become pregnant (b. Yebam. 12b) and because it was deemed prudent to let a girl have a voice in the choice of her husband (e.g., b. Qidd. 41a).

At twelve years and a day, if she has at least two pubic hairs, a girl is considered a maiden (naʿarâ) and eligible for betrothal and marriage. She is also considered to be at the age of menstruation, whether or not she has actually begun to menstruate (b. Nid. 5a). Girls could be married before menarche (b. Nid. 64b). Once a girl becomes a maiden, her father may no longer sell her as a maidservant, but if she is raped or seduced during this period, the fine is paid to her father, since she is still under his authority (b. Ketub. 29a–b). Once she has been a maiden for six months, normally at twelve and a half years of age, she is considered an adult (bôgeret). She is now legally allowed to betroth herself, because “her father no longer has authority over her” (m. Nid. 5:7). She is also entitled to the proceeds of her own labor, and her father can no longer annul her vows.

In rabbinic sources, the virginity or nonvirginity of a young woman on her wedding day is assumed to be a matter of public knowledge, since there were certain wedding customs that were observed only for virgin brides (b. B. Bat. 92b). The amount of the kĕtûbâ (the settlement payable to a wife in the event of divorce or the death of her husband) was 200 zûz for a virgin bride, but 100 for a widow, divorcee, or other nonvirgin (m. Ketub. 1:2), so virginity at first marriage had monetary value as well as honor attached to it. An even more obvious distinction is that virgin brides were to be married on a Wednesday, so that if the groom had a claim against the bride’s virginity, he could go to court first thing Thursday morning, when the courts convened (m. Ketub. 1:1). The rabbis also recognized a category of brides whose status as virgins was disputed because their hymens were not intact due to injury (m. Ketub. 1:4). Since the high priest must marry only a virgin, there is also a debate about whether a bôgeret who has not had intercourse counts as a virgin (b. Yebam. 59a–60b), since only a naʿarâ can be presumed to be a “perfect virgin.” Although this statement is traditionally taken to indicate that the hymen disintegrates naturally over time, the context suggests that a bôgeret, being no longer under her father’s authority, is presumed to have had some sexual experience stopping short of intercourse, and hence is not a “perfect virgin.”

Sexual maturity and legal majority in boys.

From a Halachic perspective, a boy becomes a man at the age of thirteen years and a day, provided he has grown at least two pubic hairs. That is, a thirteen-year-old boy is considered a man for the purposes of forming a minyan (a quorum of ten for prayer), and he is bound by the commandments and by his own vows (b. Nid. 45b–46a). Nevertheless, he is not considered ready for marriage, because his physical and mental maturation is understood to last through his teens. In Palestinian sources, the teenage years were seen as a crucial period of character formation and thus should be devoted to Torah study to the extent possible, although Torah study was expected to continue after marriage. The Babylonian Talmud is more inclined to see a tension between the demands of Torah study and those of marriage, but at the same time the Mesopotamian sages see adolescence as a highly sexualized period, and hence favor early marriage. An often cited passage (b. Qidd. 29b) poses the question of whether one should study Torah first and then marry, or vice versa; the debate is presented as being resolved differently by Palestinian and Mesopotamian sages. There is little evidence that Torah study was seen as incompatible with marriage in Palestine, however; the reasons for delaying marriage were economic and cultural (see above).

Sex involving minors.

The rabbis acknowledged the sexual abuse of young children, as well as the fact that children engage in sexual experimentation with one another. Before the age of majority (twelve for girls, thirteen for boys), however, children are not legally responsible for their actions; only adults who engage in sexual acts with minors are liable for punishment. Nevertheless, children are viewed as (potentially) sexual beings well before puberty. The sages determined that girls are capable of sexual intercourse from the age of three years and a day, and boys from the age of nine years and a day (b. ʿAbod. Zar. 36b–37a). If a girl is sexually abused before the age of three, it is not legally significant, because her hymen is believed to regenerate (m. Nid. 5:4; b. Nid. 45a). Nine was the minimum age at which boys were believed to be capable of insemination (m. Nid. 5:5).

On the other hand, when the sages debate the ages at which a girl and a boy may no longer sleep naked in the same bed with their parents, the ages range from nine to twelve for girls and twelve or thirteen for boys (b. Qidd. 81b). That passage implies a rabbinic recognition that incest could happen between parents and children, but assumes that it is much less likely with prepubescent children. Nevertheless, there is a debate (b. Sanh. 69b) about whether a mother who “plays lewdly” with her son who is under nine becomes unfit to marry a priest (who must not marry a woman who has been sexually involved with a male who is forbidden to her). Most rabbinic discussions of incest deal with “forbidden unions,” in the sense of marriages that are possible but not legally legitimate. The rarity of mentions of father-daughter incest in rabbinic literature (but see m. Ketub. 3:2) may be due to the fact that the lists of forbidden unions in Leviticus 18 and 20 do not include the union of a father with his own daughter. Although the rabbinic literature considers many situations not addressed in the written Torah, scripture remains the touchstone of rabbinic deliberations about children and sexuality.




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Karina Martin Hogan

Early Church

Early Christian communities spent little time defining the nature of childhood or the proper ages for children to engage in sexual relations, but followed the established patterns of the Greeks, Romans, and Jews. In what is said regarding children and sexuality, however, it is important always to keep in mind that the experiences of children differed pronouncedly in the early church, depending upon whether the child was a girl or boy and whether the child was free or enslaved.

Children were initiated into the sexual world in the Roman Empire with legal and cultural support at younger ages than would be acceptable today in most of the world. Puberty was typically seen as the onset for sexual relations for girls and boys in the Greco-Roman world, though there was not a strict age of consent as we see in most modern cultures. Girls in the Roman Empire were legally marriageable at age twelve, while boys in the Greco-Roman world typically married in their late twenties. Boys, however, were considered of age for pederastic relationships in the Roman Empire at the same age at which girls were considered of age for marriage.

Sexual behavior for Jewish children was only licit within marriage, and puberty was also generally the dividing line. M. Ketubot 3:8 and m. Niddah 5:7 distinguish carefully the physical development of a girl, speaking of a bogeret (twelve and a half years of age), a katanah (less than twelve years and a day) and a na‘arah (a girl twelve years and a day). The bogeret was a girl who had reached physical maturity and was ready to be married. Unlike the Greeks and Romans, the age at which Jewish boys could marry was also the transition to sexual life. Some Rabbinic authorities claimed that boys should marry at the age of eighteen (m. Avot 5:21), while other authorities stated that a boy nine years old and a day might marry his childless sister-in-law (m. Niddah 5:5) in the context of levirate marriage (Deut 25:5–10). These age ranges are in line with general age and physiological considerations found among the early Christians as to readiness of children for sexual relationships (Horn and Martens, 2009, pp. 3–21).

Marriage of Children.

We begin, therefore, with the marriage of girls in the early church, an area in which traditional practices transcended religion and remained intact into late antiquity. For freeborn girls, Roman, Jewish, or Christian, sexual initiation ideally occurred at marriage, and the guarding of a girl’s virginity was considered the paramount duty of the father and family of the girl. There is little discussion of marriage of girls in the New Testament. Jesus’s teachings on marriage deal particularly with divorce and do not discuss either the age of the participants in a marriage or sexuality within marriage (Mark 10:2–10; Matt 19:3–10). However, some have also posited that Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 7:36–38 is not concerned with some sort of spiritual marriage, a Christian innovation of late antiquity, but with whether a father can carry through with a marriage contract for his virgin daughter in light of Paul’s teaching on the eschaton (Peters, 2002; Horn and Martens, 2009).

Ages, of course, could vary in marriage, but the early to late teens remained normative for Christian girls. The major purpose of marriage for freeborn girls also remained the same: to procreate. Procreation was at the heart of marriage in the Roman Empire, though the additional goals of social stability and inheritance were significant adjuncts to this primary purpose. These goals would be challenged by the Christian practice of celibacy. There is little or no Christian reflection on the erotic purposes of marriage for girls or boys, other than to control it strictly within the boundaries of marriage (1 Cor 7: 29). In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul breaks with social convention to highlight the responsibility of each marriage partner to meet the sexual needs of the other, with no discussion of procreation. Yet as marriage increasingly became the second best option for Christian girls, celibacy came to encompass the major sexual innovation for children in late antiquity.

Slave girls, like all slaves, could not legally be married in the Roman Empire, but their sexual life often began at a young age owing to their sexual use at the hands of their masters, which was limited only by the legal restriction that the slave be five years old (Justinian, Digest 38.10.10, 5). Twenty-first-century research is divided as to whether the slaves of Christians were free from sexual use at the hands of their masters, since Colossians 3:22–25, Ephesians 6:5–9, Titus 2:9–10, and 1 Peter 2:18–21 delineate the authority of masters in all things (Brooten, 2010). Others have suggested that, as treacherous as the situations were for young slaves sexually, Christian teaching might have ameliorated sexual practices within the Christian household (MacDonald, 2007). Basil of Caesarea, however, in the fourth century C.E., noted that Christian masters still forced their slave girls into unwanted sexual relations (Letters 199.49).

While slave girls in antiquity did engage in informal marital relationships with fellow male slaves (Lat. contubernium), these had no legal standing and could be broken at a master’s whim. The church, however, began to bless, or “sacramentalize,” the marriages of Christian slaves (Justinian, Digest 48.5.6, 1; Codex Justinianus 9.9, 23). That such marriages took place against the wishes of their Christian masters is seen in Letter 199.18 of Basil, who lamented that slave girls were joined in “secret” marriages and brought impurity on their owner’s houses by filling them with “wickedness.” Basil does not describe why these secret marriages were impure, but his comments reflect longstanding ancient beliefs about the sexual immorality of slaves.

Freeborn Christian boys/young men followed the Jewish model of younger marriage around eighteen. Given that Paul thought of marriage as the only licit means to manage burning sexual passions, marriage for boys was something that late-ancient Christians thought of as essential at the youngest possible age, should they not choose the path of celibacy. John Chrysostom urged Christian boys to become engaged to a girl as young as possible; for Chrysostom, early marriage was not only a way to channel sexual energy away from improper sexual relationships (porneia) but also to distinguish between a slave and a freeborn boy (On Vainglory 71–75).

Same-Sex Relations of Girls and Boys.

Same-sex relations of children with adults or between children were a part of the sexual landscape of the ancient world, but we have less data on sexual behavior between children themselves or between women and girls. Sexuality in antiquity and late antiquity was defined by men and was seen as significant insofar as it impacted men, which also led to a relative lack of writing that speaks of the sexual experience of women and girls. Same-sex relations between girls or women took place beyond the literal and figurative view of men.

The most significant passage for Christian understanding of lesbian relationships is Romans 1:26, in which Paul denounces sexual behavior between females as contrary to nature. While some scholars have argued that Paul is talking about bestiality or anal intercourse, the most convincing reading of this passage is that it speaks of sex between two females (Brooten, 1996). On the issue of lesbian sexual relations, the Christian categorization of these acts as unnatural was in tune with the attitudes of the wider Roman Empire. The Christian response to same-sex sexual relations between women in noncanonical and proto-orthodox writings, such as the Acts of Thomas, Apocalypse of Paul, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria, is unanimously negative; in none of these cases are girls directly referenced. But in a monastic text of Shenoute of Atripe (fourth to fifth centuries C.E.), he unambiguously speaks of women who seek out girls with whom to have sexual relations and criticizes not the girls but the women for their behavior (De vita monachorum 26). Augustine, too, warns against “carnal relations” among married women, widows, and girls, especially since some of these girls are chaste virgins dedicated to Christ (Epistles 211.14).

Whereas the data on same-sex relations among girls is minimal in the writings of the early church, the texts dealing with pederasty are vast. There are two passages in the New Testament in which pederasty might be indicated. A number of scholars have proposed that the “scandal” against which Jesus warns his disciples in Mark 9:42 was the sexual abuse of children (Loader, 2012, pp. 119–135). This reading is possible, but not certain, as it reduces a general prohibition to a specific offense. 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 may give us a clearer condemnation of pederasty by use of the terms malakoi (“soft” or “effeminate” males) and arsenokoitai (“those who lie with men”). The secondary literature on these two terms is voluminous, dating back to Boswell’s discussion (Boswell, 1980) and continuing unabated since then (Loader, 2012, pp. 326–332). Many scholars see the two terms together referring to male prostitution and specifically those youths who sold themselves to older men. Other scholars interpret the terms more generally, with malakoi referring to the “passive” partners and arsenokoitai denoting the “active” partners, with no particular focus on youth or prostitution. While malakoi does probably refer to younger males, who were often described as “soft,” understanding malakoi as only referring to prostitutes skips over a large part of the reality of sexual behavior and social reality in antiquity and late antiquity wherein most passive partners of men were slaves, boys, or men, who were used within households by masters. Legally, freeborn Roman boys were protected from pederastic relationships and men could face a charge of stuprum, a law dating from the third century C.E. that outlawed intercourse with a freeborn boy (Digest,, 48.5.9). There are simply too many voices, however, that indicate the constant practice of pederasty among freeborn boys to conclude that the laws had ended such practices in late antiquity.

Indeed, in late antiquity the church created new language to criticize same-sex sexual behaviors of men with boys. Christians used both the language of pederasty and a new term, paidaphthoria. Tatian (Oratio ad Graecos 28), Athenagoras (Legatio pro Christianis 34.1), and Clement of Alexandria (Paedagogus 3.3–4) criticize the treatment of the numerous slave boys used in the Greco-Roman world for sexual purposes by using the common Greek term paiderasteō. Yet when Christians used the noun paidaphthoria or the verb paidophthoreō, a different picture emerges. The word emerged in the late first or early second century C.E. and was used by Christians alone throughout late antiquity (Martens, 2009, pp. 252–254). The compound word is intended to convey a sense of the sexual “destruction” or “corruption” of boys, though it is possible it also reflects the sexual use of girls, and so it could be translated by our modern phrase “sexual abuse.” The moral condemnations indicated by paidaphthoria, though, point to sexual sins within the Christian community.

Paidaphthoria was used by Christians through late antiquity in the context of expanded “Ten Commandments” lists, such as in Didache 2.2, Barnabas 19.4, Clement of Alexandria (e.g., Paedagogus 2.10.88, 2.10.89, 3.12.89), and Origen (e.g., Commentarium in evangelium Matthaei 18:15) in which Christians are enjoined not to sexually abuse children (oude paidophthorēseis). The same phrase continued to be used throughout the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. Apart from formulaic denunciations, though, Gregory of Nazianzus criticizes rich Christian households that featured effeminate slave boys serving at their meals, a task that often included sex (Oratione 14, 17). The problem was significant enough for Christians that the Council of Elvira produced canonical legislation dealing with pederasty. Canon 71 forbade “stupratoribus puerorum,” which refers to pederasty, and denied Communion to those Christians, even at the end of their lives, who used boys for pederasty. It does not distinguish between slave and freeborn boys, though stuprum according to Roman law would only impact boys who were of freeborn status.

Monastic communities also faced the reality of pederasty. Pachomius (292–348 C.E.) writes of sexual temptation in the earliest monastic rules. In Judicia 7, activities of intimacy between monks and boys, such as laughing, playing, and having friendships, are strictly regulated and curtailed with threats of punishments. Instruction 1.35 says not to make friends with boys, for these friendships can become sexual. This prohibition is similar to that of John Cassian, wherein the monks are encouraged not to be alone with young men or hold hands with them (De institutis 2.15, 2). While monastic texts, such as those attributed to Ephrem Graecus, continued to warn of paidaphthoria, Christians enacted laws against pederasty, and same-sex behavior in general, in which both active and passive partners were condemned. In the Codex Theodosianus 9.7.3 and 9.7.6 those men who sexually act the part of women are to be burned. Justinian extends the punishment even to the active partner for “acts contrary to nature” (Novellae 77.1).


Also considered contrary to nature by most ancient legal codes was incest, though definitions varied on the degrees of consanguinity that it encompassed. The laws in the Hebrew Bible governing incest are found at Leviticus 18:6–18 and 20:11–12. The New Testament speaks of incest on a few occasions, possibly in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, where porneia might refer to Levitical restrictions on degrees of consanguinity, and in the cases of John the Baptist (Mark 6:17–29; Matt 14:1–10) and the Christian stepson who is purportedly living with his stepmother (1 Cor 5:1–8). All of these New Testament examples maintain Jewish restrictions on incest, but it is not clear whether children or young people were involved in any of these cases. Jewish incest restrictions, however, would continue to be upheld by Christians in the early church.

Christians, however, do raise a potential cause of incest that aligns with their criticisms of Greco-Roman sexual behavior in general and serves to counter claims of incest made against Christians in antiquity. Ancient slave traders often found slaves among the children who were exposed by their families. These infants were often taken by pimps who raised these children to be prostitutes. Clement of Alexandria denounces the exposure of children in itself, but also suggests that men who frequent prostitutes might have sexual relations with a child whom they had previously exposed (Paedagogus 3.3). Justin Martyr repeats this charge, saying that most exposed children are brought up to a life of prostitution, with the boys often castrated for this purpose (First Apology 27–29). Tertullian speaks of an event during the time of the prefect Fuscianus (187–189 C.E.) in which a freeborn boy had been sold into slavery after wandering away from his attendants (To the Heathen 1.16). This boy appeared some years later at a slave market, where he was purchased by his birth father, who, unaware of who the boy was, had sexual relations with his son. When the boy was sent to work in the fields, he was recognized by his former pedagogue and nurse. When the truth came out, his parents killed themselves. These cases seem designed simply for Christian criticism of Greco-Roman sexual practices, but given the numerous exposed children who became slaves and prostitutes, such occurrences could have arisen.

Some early Christian authors even enlisted incest taboos to convince children or parents that marriage was not the best choice. In Gregory of Tours’s Latin summary of the Acts of Andrew, one reads of a case of a planned incestuous marriage at Philippi between two sons of one family and two daughters of a second family (Acts Andr. 11, l. 9). The fathers of these children were brothers, so the children are first cousins (Acts Andr. 11, l. 1). The reason for the marriage between their children was to increase the social status of the two families and to maintain their great wealth and nobility (Acts Andr. 11, ll. 4–7). Prior to the marriage, though, they were asked to wait for word from the apostle Andrew, who warned them that the marriage was improper because it involved the joining together of blood relatives (Acts Andr. 11, ll. 9–23).

Consecrated Virginity and Asceticism.

Among early Christian authors, celibacy was favored over marriage, even if incest was not involved. The preference begins with statements of Jesus that diminish the role of sexuality (Matt 19:5; Mark 12:7). Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, continues the process of marginalizing sexuality among Christians in general. Celibacy would have its most immediate impact on children who were arriving at or who had achieved marriageable age. Christianity in late antiquity was engaged in a constant struggle with the place of sexuality, and it was the bodies of children that were caught in the middle of the fight.

The Apocryphal Acts of Apostles (second to third centuries C.E.) preserves examples of young boys and girls who had to choose between married life and virginity. In the Acts of Thomas, for instance, salvation can only be attained through enkrateia, or sexual renunciation, and it is not just porneia and paidaphthoria that must be avoided; all sexual acts are considered impure. In the Acts of Paul the reader meets the young girl Thecla, who is portrayed as having listened to Paul when he was preaching in Iconium. Thecla, a young parthenos, had been engaged to a young man, Thamyris. After hearing Paul, Thecla refused to get married to Thamyris, and no pleas from her fiancé or her mother could change her mind (Acts Paul 6–10, 22).

The examples gleaned from apocryphal literature do not represent marginal trends in second- and third-century Christianity. With the rise of Christian monasticism in the fourth century C.E., both boys and girls participated in the ascetic life, either chosen by their parents or by themselves. Jerome’s letters provide a number of examples that assume the practice of choosing young girls for the consecrated life, including his letter to Laeta concerning her infant daughter Paula (Letters 107; 403 C.E.) and a letter to Gaudentius concerning his infant daughter Pacatula (Letters 128; 413 C.E.). Consecrated virginity had become a trend in some educated and wealthy circles of Roman Christians. Apart from detailing how to raise consecrated virgins, Jerome may have had another purpose in writing these letters. Letter 128 speaks of those living a life of supposed virginity, especially men who were supposed to be living as virgins, but whose live-in helpers were lovely young girls. Parents might have desired asceticism for their children more than the children themselves. One the other hand, some parents opposed their children’s wishes to choose the life of consecrated virginity. John Chrysostom portrayed Christian parents, especially from upper classes, as resisting their children’s vocation. Those parents considered the monastic life shameful and unworthy for those of noble origins. In his consolation to the monk Stagirius, Chrysostom recalled how Stagirius’s father had said the monastic life made his son “shameful and unworthy” of his ancestral family (Ad Stagirium a daemone vexatum 2.3).

New Developments Regarding Sexuality and Children in the Early Church.

Early Christianity changed the complexion of sexuality in the ancient world for children in two profound ways: one was the recategorization of pederasty as paidaphthoria, or sexual abuse; the second was the preference for celibacy over marriage. While the first shift ultimately reduced the sexual use of boys by men, it had the consequence of framing all same-sex relations not only as sinful but illicit. The second shift in attitude and behavior gave girls options beyond marriage, which allowed them to pursue a life of learning, for instance, as a consecrated virgin, but it also reduced sexuality in itself to something unworthy for many young Christians. This should not, however, mitigate the positive shifts which took place in the sexual lives of Christian children.

It must be noted, however, that such shifts took place in the context of general moral condemnations of sex not necessarily growing out of concern for children. No authors, for instance, consider the young age of girls marrying as a reason for avoiding marriage. Most ancient and late antique marriages, not just pederastic practice, would from a modern perspective fall under the rubric of child sexual abuse. Ancient authors, Christians included, rarely consider the topics of psychological harm or emotional trauma of children engaged in sexual relations. Notions of emotional and psychological development and the impact of sexual coercion and force upon child development were unknown to ancient thinkers (Laes, 2010). Force and coercion were hallmarks of the sexual system in general, not just for children (Harper, 2013). Considerations of social status, power differentials, gender, authority, and slavery, which defined the nature of sexual relationships in the Roman Empire, raise moral issues for modern readers, but Christian shifts in sexual practices for children were based upon moral denunciations, not concerns for the age of children. It is important to recognize that positive shifts in attitude that lessened the sexual use of children in the early church were accompanied by attitudes in which sex itself became the enemy of the Christian life.




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John W. Martens and Melvin G. Miller