For the purposes of this entry, a child refers to a person from birth through puberty. In social terms this translates to an unmarried dependent provided for by a parent or legal guardian. The legal and social status of children can be determined by examining textual data that mention children either explicitly or implicitly. Such an examination demonstrates that children were considered important members of the household in the ancient world. Legal sources providing information on children include the so-called law codes of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near East; Mesopotamian and Levantine legal documents; Jewish Law (the Mishnah and Talmud); and Greco-Roman laws and traditions. Non-legal sources reflecting the legal status of children and the laws governing their treatment can be found in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and the works of the early Jewish, Greco-Roman, and Christian historians. At times the texts set forth a consistent view of children and legal status; however, most categories examined below demonstrate that a child’s legal status could change in an instant.

Legal and Social Class.

Children in the ancient world were born into one of two classes: free or slave. As a member of the free class, the child was beholden only to his or her parents. As a slave, the child belonged not to the parents but to the master (see Exod 21:2–6). A child’s place within a class was not necessarily static; it could change through adoption, sale, or manumission. As the following discussion demonstrates, the categories of “free” and “slave” have some flexibility within them.

Free child.

The majority of the biblical texts discuss children who are considered “free,” which means they were born to parents of the free class. For the most part, free children were afforded the same legal rights and responsibilities as their adult counterparts. Two laws from the Hebrew Bible exemplify the status of the free child within Israelite society: the laws governing the goring ox and kidnapping.

  • 1. Exodus 21:28–30 discusses what happens when an ox gores a free adult to death. Verse 31 states that these laws also apply if a child is gored to death. By explicitly mentioning children, this biblical law demonstrates that the value of a free child’s life was considered similar to that of a free adult. In contrast, the Mesopotamian laws on the goring ox (Laws of Eshnunna [LE] §54 and Laws of Hammurapi [LH] §251), do not reference children. This is not to say that Mesopotamian society did not also value children, the non-mention of children is probably the result of the structure of these legal texts. The biblical law is found in a section discussing crimes of one man against another, while the Mesopotamian law is found under property laws. In the latter type of law, the emphasis is clearly on property, not people. Further, while Mesopotamian laws are focused on the legal rights of the adult male, the biblical laws are often concerned with the larger society as a whole. Jewish Law continues using the goring ox as a case study (m. B. Qam. 4:4), but emphasizes who owns the ox, not who or what it gores.
  • 2. The law on kidnapping states that absconding with a person who does not belong to you is tantamount to stealing. Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7 do not specifically mention children, but employ terms that are not age specific. Exodus 21:16 says that anyone who kidnaps an ʾiš, “person/individual,” shall die. Deuteronomy 24:7 states that a person found kidnapping a nepeš, “life,” from the children of Israel, shall be killed. In both cases age of the person kidnapped is not the point; the emphasis is placed on taking away a person’s freedom. The use of ʾiš and nepeš should not be cause for excluding children from the kidnapping laws, however. Kidnapping a person is a capital offense in Israel regardless of his or her age.

The Laws of Hammurapi (LH) place the kidnapping law within the section discussing stolen and lost property. LH §14 states that whoever kidnaps the son of a free man shall be killed. The law does not, however, deal with the theft of a slave child or the theft of another family member. The law also gives the age of the son; he is a mār awīlim ṣiḫram. This phrase specifies that it is not an adult son, but a young son, a child. By addressing children and not adults, the law focuses on the child and the child’s status. The law makes clear that kidnapping a free child is punishable by death, and implies that taking away someone’s son is tantamount to taking away his inheritor (see further below).

It is noteworthy that in the Mishnah, free children (along with the deaf mute and mentally defective person) are exempt from liability under the premise that a child is not of an age of reason, and thus not legally culpable for his or her actions.

Free child as debt slave.

Under some circumstances, a child’s legal status could temporarily change. For example, a child could be born to a free man, but then “sold” as a debt slave to pay for the father’s debt. While indentured, the child would leave his or her family and live with the master—that is, the person to whom the father was indebted. During the period of indentureship, the child would act as a servant, “working off” the debt owed by the father. Texts describing this practice vary with respect to the length of this indentureship and its exact nature.

What about children belonging to an adult male debt slave? Exodus 21:2–3 states that if the man goes into debt slavery unaccompanied he will leave by himself, and if he went into debt slavery with a wife she will leave with him. One can infer from this that if he brings children into the creditor’s house, they, too, will leave when his service is up. The debt slavery laws in Leviticus 25 make this clear: “Then he and his children with him shall be free of your authority” (Lev 25:41). Both Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25 limit the amount of time a person can be indentured to six years. In the seventh or jubilee year, the debt is considered paid off and the debt slave is free to return to his place in society. These laws imply that family members have the same legal status as adult male debt slaves and so they leave when he does. Note, however, that the laws leave it ambiguous as to whether or not the family members who accompany the man are also bound as debt slaves or if they are free to carry on their normal activities.

Debt slave laws are also found in the ancient Near East. LH §117 explicates what happens when a man sells his wife, son, or daughter into debt slavery. The sold party enters the creditor’s house, serves for three years, and then returns home in the fourth. In some cases, a child may permanently remain in the creditor’s house. Situations like this arise when the father promises his daughter in marriage to a creditor, such as in the Old Babylonian text YOS 8 51. In each of these cases, while the child may have been understood as a servant or slave during the indentureship, the child retains his or her legal rights as a member of the free class; when their time of service is up, the child is thus free to return with or to the family and their pre–debt slavery life. The Middle Assyrian Laws suggest that a female child sold as a debt slave might not return to her family if she is given in marriage before her term of indentureship is over (see further below).

The Latin term threptoi, found in Roman legal texts, reflects a quasi-servile status. It may refer to children who were house-born slaves raised within the house (like the Latin verna), or a person in servile status, such as the Latin alumnus/a. A child in this social institution may also be considered a foster child. In all cases, the threptoi reflects a status in between free and slave, and for this reason can be considered similar to a debt slave during the time of indenture. However, the threptoi did not by definition come from a free family, nor was such a child necessarily working off a debt.

Slave child.

Children could be born or sold into slavery. The latter practice, selling a free child into slavery, was not common in the ancient Near East and took place only under community-wide distress, such as a famine or siege, when laws and cultural norms were less likely to be upheld. This can be seen in a family archive from Nippur, an ancient city on the Tigris, dating to 656–617 B.C.E. (see Oppenheim, 1955, as well as 2 Kgs 6:24–30). Some have argued that Exodus 21:7–11 condones the practice of selling a free-born girl into some kind of (debt) slavery; however, the passage might be referring to a situation in which a father in financial straits could no longer care for his daughter and thus released her from his care, transferring her legal guardianship to another man. Whatever the case, the daughter in question appears to be very young, because provisions for her marriage are made. It may be that Exodus 21:7–11 presents a transaction similar to the adoption marriages practiced at Nuzi, an ancient Mesopotamian city located on the Tigris (JEN 432, JEN 433; see Chiera, 1934). For its part, Exodus 21:4–5 reflects the standard understanding of slavery: a child born to a female slave remains the property of the master.

Slave sale contracts from the Old to the Neo-Babylonian periods demonstrate that young slave children were understood as an extension of their mother: the two were sold as a unit. Older children were sold on their own. Slaves, regardless of age, were understood as chattel. In Neo-Babylonian contracts children under age two were not generally named in sale contracts, suggesting they did not yet have a personal identity. Around age three children’s names begin to appear in the sale contracts, meaning they had reached an age of economic viability. This was also the age at which infants began to be weaned from their mothers; the child could thus be sold as an individual “worker.” A slave child remained bound to the master unless sold or granted his or her freedom. Manumission could occur as an act of kindness, when someone (usually a parent) purchased the child’s freedom, or upon the master’s death.

Like their counterparts in ancient Israel, Hellenistic Jews both owned slaves and could become slaves themselves. Brief references to slavery occur in the New Testament, yet none of these references pertain explicitly to slave children. Rather, the references attest to the facts that slavery existed and that those writing the New Testament felt the system needed to be changed, deeming it morally and ethically wrong. The authors struggled against hundreds of years of tradition during which slavery became highly institutionalized.

In the Greco-Roman world, slave children, like adults, had no legal rights. They could not inherit or own property. Slave children also did not legally belong to their parents, but were bought and sold, like other chattel. Female slaves were typically purchased between 14 to 20 years old for the purpose of childbearing. Males, by contrast, were purchased between 10 to 15 years of age when they were old enough to be economically viable and able to be trained for specific chores. Laws did not prevent very young children from being sold, but buyers were hard to come by. Investment in young children was considered risky due to the high rate of child mortality. Codex Theodosianus, a compilation of Roman laws completed in 427 C.E., states that corporal punishment, even for child slaves, was perfectly normal (CTh 9, 12, 2). One might contrast at this point the household code found in 1 Peter 2:18–25, which exhorts slave owners to change their practices, enjoining on them a non-abusive disposition toward their slaves. There is no reason to doubt that this was to hold true for both adult and child slaves. The New Testament does not, however, argue for the total abolishment of slavery. The legal status of slave children owned by those following Christ remained the same as those belonging to pagan masters.

Father’s Rights.

The legal status of the father dictated what rights he had over the child. A free man had complete control over his children; a slave father did not. In all periods, households operated under a patriarchal system. At times a father could allocate supervision of the child to the mother, but ultimately, the father had the final say in what happened to the children that he sired.


Marriage in the biblical world follows a pattern seen throughout the Mediterranean; younger females were married to older males. Girls were typically married by the time they were in their mid-to-late teens. Boys married a bit later, in their late twenties to early thirties. The later age of first marriages for boys often coincided with their coming into their inheritance (i.e., after the death of their fathers). In most cases, a marriage did not mean the creation of a totally new, independent household, but rather the takeover or splitting of an existing household resulting in multigenerational or multifamilial households.

Marriages were prearranged though rare cases exist in both ancient Greece and Rome in which the daughter was allowed to choose her husband. Typically, however, the bride’s father would make a marriage agreement with the groom’s father. However, initiation of the marriage could start with either family (cf. Gen 34). LE §§27–28 and LH §128 highlight the need for a formal agreement between the bride’s family and the groom. Without such an agreement a marriage was not considered binding. Written records describing a marriage between a free-born girl and a free-born boy are few and far between. Most marriages in the ancient world were formalized through a verba solemnia, a verbal agreement (cf. Song 6:3). When the legal status of the bride needed clarification because she was a manumitted slave, former debt slave, orphan, or adoptee, then the agreements were written down. In Mesopotamia and biblical Israel, it was always the responsibility of the father to arrange his daughter’s marriage. Only in extreme circumstances, as, for example, when the father was deceased or for some reason agreed to give permission to another, was the father released from this duty. Similarly, in the Greco-Roman world, the paterfamilias would contract marriages for those dependents in his care. If the paterfamilias were still alive, marriage would mean that the daughter left the manus, “control,” of her paterfamilias so as to enter her husband’s.


Inheritance is most often understood in terms of tangible items, such as land, money, or valuables. In the ancient Near East inheritance was passed on from father to son. Thus male heirs were prized and privileged. In most cases the eldest son inherited a larger portion, with the remaining inheritance divided among the other sons. Both the Hebrew Bible and Nuzi texts suggest that the father could choose the prime inheritor (Gen49; HSS 5 60, 67). Mesopotamian and biblical texts also indicate that in the absence of an heir, one could be adopted or produced through a surrogate (see below). In the Greco-Roman period, inheritance traditionally passed from father to sons. The male children would divide up the inheritance equally in order to set up their own families. When a man had no heir, he would adopt one; however the adopted son was most often an adult.

The Hebrew Bible addresses the case of female inheritance in the narrative of Zelophehad’s daughters. In Numbers 27 Moses decides that females may inherit their father’s property in the same manner as a male if no son exists. Numbers 36 specifies that a female who has inherited her father’s property must marry within her tribe (endogamy), thereby keeping the property within the extended family. Later rabbinic law repealed the biblical position and allowed exogamous marriage for heiresses (b. B. Bat. 102a and b. Taʿan. 30b).

That the Numbers 27 account has Zelophehad’s daughters, not their legal guardian, bringing the case before Moses, indicates that in certain circumstances unmarried girls had legal autonomy. Texts from Nuzi also suggest that females can inherit in lieu of a male heir but the female does not inherit like a first-born son (who receives a double portion from the estate), receiving only a single portion (HSS 5 60). In this respect, female children are not treated as equal to male children.

Inheritance can also refer to more abstract things, such as ideas, beliefs, and values. The Bible highlights the importance of children and the responsibility the parents have in properly raising their children. The law in Deuteronomy 6:6–7 commands parents to teach their children specific guidelines on how to live. Proverbs 1:8, Colossians 3:20, and Ephesians 6:1 all advise children to heed the discipline and instruction of their mothers and fathers. Texts like these reflect the concern to perpetuate family and societal mores. Everything from daily chores to moments in the lifecycle, to professions to religious practices, needed to be passed down from adult to child.


While children were highly valued in the ancient world, in certain circumstances (poverty, pregnancy outside of wedlock, famine, siege, etc.) parents chose to give up their children. Studies on infanticide and exposure have suggested that female infanticide was much more common than male infanticide since sons were deemed more economically beneficial than daughters.

The practice of exposure is explicitly prohibited in the Bible (Lev 18:21; 20:2–5; Deut 21:31, 18:10; 2 Kgs 16:3). However, the legal prohibition to pass a son or daughter through the fire has been related to a form of child sacrifice wherein the infant was offered to the god Molech at a place called Tophet, located near Jerusalem. No firm archaeological evidence corroborates that this practice took place and some scholars have argued that the biblical text reflects a Punic practice of child sacrifice. This argument is based on more than 6,000 urns containing the burnt bones of infants found at Carthage in a cultic area (730–146 B.C.E.). The interpretation of these burials, however, is hotly debated. Excavations from Roman period sites (especially at Ashkelon in the fourth through sixth centuries C.E.) have uncovered evidence of infanticide carried out by prostitutes, but these were evidently Roman, not Jewish.

Evidence for exposure can be found in the lands surrounding biblical Israel. Documents from Mesopotamia discuss children who were “thrown to the dogs,” which means that their legal guardians gave up their legal responsibility for the children and left them for dead. Once abandoned, a child had no legal status and belonged to no one. This child would either die, or could be taken in by someone else. In the latter case, the “rescuer” could either choose to adopt the child or use the child as a slave. The legal position and social class of rescued children were decided by the adult who assumed responsibility for them.

In the Greco-Roman world, the paterfamilias had the right to decide whether or not to keep a baby. Under the laws of the Twelve Tablets (ca. 450/49 B.C.E.) the paterfamilias was required to raise children who would be healthy citizens of Rome. Plato (427–347 B.C.E.), Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.), and Plutarch (46–120 C.E.) stated that unhealthy children, such as those with disabilities, should be exposed. The power of the paterfamilias gradually waned, until the third century C.E., when exposing a child was considered murder. As in Mesopotamia, children in the Greco-Roman world could also survive exposure. Towns had designated areas where exposed children could be placed. People looking for inexpensive slaves would frequent these sites and “rescue” the children. In fact, an entire class of women called hetairae, made up of captured Greek noblewomen or girls who had survived exposure, were trained as professional prostitutes. Justin Martyr (100–165 C.E.) and Clement of Alexandria (150–215 C.E.) believed that such children ran the risk of committing incest later in life as they were often raised to be sexual slaves.

Jews and Christians both opposed the system of exposure so commonly practiced by their Greco-Roman counterparts. Josephus (37–100 C.E.) states that the notion of exposure is foreign to Judaism and the Mishnah equates destroying a single soul with destroying a full world (m. Sanh. 4:5).


The command to “be fruitful and multiply” is the first commandment concerning procreation (Gen 1:28). The command is again given in Genesis 9:1 and 9:7. For the Israelites, progeny was of utmost importance and the ability to bear children was highly prized. Rachel’s outburst to Jacob (“Give me children or I will die!”) highlights the desire for children (Gen 30:1). Part and parcel of the natural desire to reproduce was the need to insure that the father had someone to pass on his inheritance to. When a couple did not produce offspring they could adopt a child. They could also try to produce an heir by means of a surrogate. It appears that the wife was responsible for providing the surrogate, who was usually her handmaiden (see Gen 16:3; 30:4). Documents from Nuzi and Mesopotamia also attest to the use of a handmaid or slave as a surrogate (HSS 5 67; LH §§146, 170–171). Whether a handmaiden or outright slave, the surrogate mother was of a lower status than the primary wife and her husband. Consequently, the child born from the union of the free man and the surrogate was born into something of a mixed marriage and the status of the child was unclear.

The legal status of the surrogate child.

The narratives of Sarah and Rachel suggest that the primary wife decided the fate of the handmaid and her child. In Genesis 16:2 Sarah reasons that she may be “built up” through her handmaid Hagar—that is, she may have a son by means of Hagar. Rachel suggests the same thing when she gives her handmaid Bilhah to Jacob, so that “she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children” (Gen 30:3). The status and fate of the sons born to Hagar and Bilhah are dramatically different, however. After the birth of her own son, Sarah banishes Ishmael (and Hagar), effectively disinheriting him. The exile of disinherited kin reflects a practice wherein a lower-status son(s) was ousted in favor of a higher-status son(s) who was subsequently born (cf. KTU 1.12 and 1.23). Unlike Sarah’s exiling of Hagar and Ishmael, Rachel adopts Bilhah’s sons as her own, and they are counted among Jacob’s heirs and inherit from him alongside Rachel’s biological children (Gen 30:3–8, 49).

According to LH §§170–171, the legal status of a surrogate child was determined by the father. If the father recognized the child as one of his own, then the child would inherit alongside any other children. If he did not, the children would not inherit from him. Upon his death the children and their mother were granted their freedom.

In rabbinic sources, surrogacy was understood as involving a transfer of the embryo. Both Targum Yonathan on Genesis 30:2 and the Babylonian Talmud (b. Ber. 60a) state that Dinah was conceived by Rachel, and Joseph by Leah, but according to Genesis 30:21–24, Rachel bears Joseph and Leah bears Dinah. The rabbis conclude that the embryos switched so that Rachel’s first child would be a male. As for the command to be fruitful and multiply, the majority of rabbinic interpretations state the command applied to the man only; the woman was exempt from fulfilling this commandment (b. Yebam. 65b and m. Yebam. 6:6). Because women were deemed to already possess an innate desire to have children, this injunction does not apply to them.

The New Testament does not regulate surrogacy, but does prohibit divorce, as it is tantamount to adultery (Mark 10:1–12). Having intercourse with someone other than one’s wife (i.e., a surrogate) would thus be unacceptable. The Damascus Document from Qumran discusses promiscuity, which it equates with having more than one wife (CD 4.12). Here, too, taking a surrogate for the purpose of siring children would not seem to be encouraged. Both texts point to Genesis 1:27 as proof that a man should have only one wife. The rabbis of the Talmud theoretically allow polygamy, which may mean surrogacy was also allowed (see Rabba’s comments in the b. Yebam. 65a), but it is not explicitly discussed.


The Bible does not include any laws regulating adoption of children though a few narrative texts allude to the process. God promised to make Abraham a great nation (Gen 12), yet he had no son because Sarah was barren. Before the attempt to father a child using a surrogate, Hagar, Abraham seems to have adopted his servant, Eliezer (see Gen 15:3). Eliezer is later displaced as heir by the birth of Ishmael and then Isaac. Rachel and Jacob both adopt children through the use of a verba solemnia in combination with a ritual act, the placing of children on one’s knees (Gen 30:3–7; 48:1–12). Rachel’s adopted sons and Jacob’s adopted sons join the family of the adoptive parents, thus gaining the legal right to inherit equally.

While neither the Hebrew Bible nor New Testament include explicit laws concerning adoption, later Jewish Law references something akin to adoption. Though adoption is not technically recognized, a person could take in a child and act as a guardian, looking after their welfare, housing, education, and financial security. The Babylonian Talmud states that if one raises a child, it is as if he fathered it (b San. 19b; b. Meg. 13a). This is how the rabbis explain the relationship between Moses and Pharaoh’s daughter (Exod 2:5–10) and Esther and Mordecai (Esth 2:5–7).

Despite the silence in the biblical laws, adoption is found in law codes and documents from the cultures surrounding biblical Israel. Unlike adoptions in modern times, adoptions in the ancient world did not center on the child. Men and women adopted out of their own self-interest. In most cases, people adopted to gain an heir and someone to take care of them in old age. The hallmark of any adoption was that it formally severed the child’s ties to the natal family. LH explicitly states that an adopted child who is subsequently reared by the adoptive parents cannot be reclaimed by the natal family (§§185, 187–188). The place of the child within the new family, however, was not always a given and at times had to be explicitly laid out. Most adoptions took place by means of a verbal contract, but more complicated adoptions were often written down in document form. These adoption contracts often included clauses designating the adoptee’s place in the line of succession. In some cases, even if the adopted son was older than a biological son born subsequent to the adoption, the biological son was designated to receive the portion of the “eldest” son (HSS 5 7, 60, 67). In other cases, the adopted son remained the chief heir. Adoption in the Greco-Roman world was well attested and undertaken for the same reasons as adoptions in the Mesopotamian and Levantine worlds, though there is one major difference that is noteworthy—namely, the age of the adoptee. Roman adoptions in particular favored adult males as adoptees. Children were considered too risky an investment as they easily succumbed to childhood diseases and could grow up to be unsuitable heirs.




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Kristine Henriksen Garroway