In a humble, single room hut in the village of Capernaum, a small boy quietly tends to the animals in the lower, hay covered floor that was carved out for the animals, while in the raised family area of the hut a group of young men, guests of his father and disciples of the Rabbi Jesus, argue over which of them will hold the higher position when they’ve overthrown the Roman oppressors. The rabbi returns. His disciples run to him, demanding that he tell them the positions they will hold in his kingdom. The rabbi’s eyes scan the hut quickly as the little boy crouches low behind his goat. The rabbi smiles; he has found his answer. Pushing through the demanding young men, he reaches down and lifts the boy up to the higher level of the hut, placing him in the midst of the men, and tells them that the one of them who is most like the little boy will be the greatest; that those who cannot be like him are not fit for his kingdom. (Matthew 18:1-5, Luke 9:46-48, Mark 10:14-15).
The Synoptic Gospels each contain an account of Jesus declaring that being like a child is a requirement for entry into the kingdom of Heaven. Given that over half the world’s population consider Jesus an authority on the topic of Heaven, and a third say he is God (1), and also given the implications of being left out of the kingdom for failing to be like a child are disastrous by dominant modern interpretations, it would appear that having a correct understanding of this verse would be of critical importance. Unfortunately, those seeking to understand the meaning of this statement have left large bodies of information unused in forming their conclusions, with the result that the dominant understanding of Jesus’ statement may be incomplete. In this essay, I plan to bring together the major sources of information on the reality of what it meant to be a small child within the Roman Empire during the early part of the first century from both primary documents and archaeological evidence, in order to present four alternative readings of the phrase, and their theological applications.
These are as follows:
1) Being like a child means being vulnerable and dependant on others.
2) Being like a child means learning by asking challenging questions.
3) Being like a child means having a low status.
4) Being like a child means existing outside of the Mosaic Law.