—Published in Fides et Humilitas, no. 3 (2016): 134–137

Garnering endorsements from specialists in the particular niche of early Christian studies involving family, MacDonald’s work on children within the Christian families of the Graeco-Roman world is a welcomed addition to the literature. Mixing historical realities from the larger Graeco-Roman culture of antiquity with biblical texts, The Power of Children provides an insightful look at the role that children played within the early church, as well as the implications of their presence within early Christian communities. While every reader may not agree with some of the New Testament hermeneutical implications that MacDonald makes based on her historical inquiry, the work will be of particular interest to those seeking to understand and/or research the early Christian family. It could be argued that the work blends the fields of Early Christian Studies and New Testament together. The intended audience for the work appears to be academics and researchers within the field of ancient Christian studies, yet pastors and laypersons alike could find benefit among the pages.

MacDonald begins by giving four questions that her work will seek to address. First, she states that, “In this book, one new question that will be asked is how a focus on children can influence perception of the household codes as an apologetic response” (p.4). Following from this, she presents three other inquiries that she will pursue regarding the household codes (Haustafeln) seen in various epistolary writings within the New Testament. Her first introductory chapter seeks to map out the terrain of this research emphasis. She summarizes by writing that, “This study of the household codes is ultimately an exploration of the relationship between the ideal relationships described in the ethical exhortations and social reality” (p.31).

In her second chapter, she explores the place of the slave child within the early Christian community as seen through the lens of Col 3:18–4:1. Inherent to the observations is the belief that recipients of the epistle, “usually belonged to more than one category” (p.33) contained within the Colossian household code. From the vantage point of considering slave children, she makes observations concerning the early Christian community. One such observation is her discussion of the sexual use of slaves within the time period, and how this factor may be connected to the canonical writings she engages.

In her third chapter, from a social constructivist perspective she addresses socialization and education from the lens of Eph 5:21–6:4. Of particular historical import is her discussion in this chapter of both “pseudo-parenting”, particularly of surrogate fathers, and the larger discussion of the education of children within the time period.

She moves into chapter four to a discussion of the early house church as a type of school using the Pastoral Epistles as a backdrop. Here, she relies heavily upon the idea that Paul was a type of “fictive-father” to both Timothy and Titus. She also provides a lengthy discussion on the roles of women and education among the older/younger women found in Titus. She closes the work in her fifth chapter by giving concluding remarks in summative fashion. Her thesis in short is that in order to rightly understand the household codes and instructions found in various New Testament books, one must consider the presence of children in the oikos (household) and the ekklesia (church) and what that may imply regarding the understanding of such texts.

This work has many strengths which benefit the academic field. First, she provides a focused view of an oft-overlooked group within early Christianity: children, and particularly slave children. Her questions provide thought-provoking material for further research. A second strength is her willingness to stay focused on her topic, and to state when further research is needed. For example, she writes, “There are many unanswered questions about the content and the methods of teaching employed by the communities reflected in the Pastoral Epistles.” (p.141)

While MacDonald includes non-canonical writings in the work, even more references to such works could further round out the research. Some scholars will disagree with some of the positions MacDonald takes, or seemingly implies with regarding to exegesis and interpretation of some New Testament texts (i.e. role of women, the inference that the pastoral epistles accept the institution of slavery (p.4), the view that Ephesians is responding to “imperial ideology” (p.105), authorship issues regarding Paul, a lack of Christological focus, and possibly whether Colossians and Ephesians may be seen as a united whole (p.68). Lastly, while providing an excellent addition to the consideration of families within early Christian communities overall, it may be argued that MacDonald blurs oikos and ekklesia too much. While she accomplishes her goal of using children as an interpretive lens, she often seems to downplay traditional interpretive insights into canonical texts (i.e. elders as an office within the body of Christ) in favor of family roles (i.e. elders as a kind of new paterfamilias, or head of household, with a focus on household roles more dominant than spiritual office (pp.124–26).

These issues aside, MacDonald has given the field of early Christian studies a valuable resource, and one that humbly invites further scholarship. Her depth of knowledge in the field is evident, and even those who may disagree with some of her interpretations of Scripture or historical data will nonetheless be aided by her research.

Bibliographical Information

Margaret Y. MacDonald. The Power of Children: The Construction of Christian Families in the Greco-Roman World . Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014. Pp. viii + 239. ISBN: 978-1-4813-0223-4. $49.95 [Hardback].
About the Author:
J. Ryan Davidson

J. Ryan Davidson is a Ph.D. candidate at the Free University of Amsterdam.