In the Roman Empire, the world regime in which Jesus lived, many babies did not grow up at all. In the ancient world unwanted babies were left to die through a legal practice called exposure. The head of the household had the legal right to decide the life or death of other family members, including children. This decision was most often made within the first 8 days of life.¹
The most common reason for exposure would be if a family lived in poverty, or if a wealthy family did not want the estate divided up, if a child was born deformed or disabled, or if the child was the wrong gender. By the Law of Romulus in Rome, the father was required to raise all healthy male children, but only the first born female. Any other babies were disposable, especially the ones born as females.
Please don’t misunderstand me, though these are historically documented facts (dare I use the word) it is also true to say that ancient parents were as compassionate and loving as any of us. But children’s worth and value was ultimately determined by how well they would serve the State’s purpose. Christians believed that human beings served a purpose far higher than any ruling empire this side of heaven.
The 4th century Greek poet named Posidippus once wrote,
“Everyone raises a son even if he is poor but exposes a daughter even if he is rich.”²
The Jews were opposed to this practice and the practice of exposure. Their law led taught them a higher view of humanity, one that demanded they care for even the poor, widow orphan and immigrant. But due to the influence of non-Jewish cultures and their stubbornness toward God, if a child was born out of a forbidden relationship or unwanted they were just abandoned. These abandoned babies were often left on a dump or a dung hill. They most often died, though sometimes they were rescued. If rescued they were orphaned and most often became slaves. This happened so much that hundreds of ancient names written in the pages of history are variations of the word KROPOS, which was Greek for “dung.”
Abandoned & Left To Die No More
The babies that did grow up to be women in the Greco-Roman world of Jesus were generally shut off from education and public life. Some grew up to be slaves, who were needed for their labor but regarded as inferior to those who were free.
Though some of these views of children and women still happens today in some parts of our world, it does not happen so much in the Western world. Why? The answer is more simple than you think.
Jesus’ love for children rewrote the story of their future. As the ancient world become filled with orphans, a community of Jesus followers stepped forward and began collecting money for these “least of these,” all because their Teacher demonstrated this in His life. It created another one of those Christian movements.
By the late 4th century, a the Roman Emperor outlawed the practice of exposure for the entire empire. His decision shaped the entire Western world. Over time, instead of leaving babies on dung hills people began to leave them outside of monasteries and church buildings. This would be the beginning of what we now call orphanages, which were usually associated directly with a monastery or church. No more were children legally confined to exposure and infanticide, including females. All thanks to Jesus and the followers He empowered and inspired.
Whether or not I, a christian, should welcome and care for others is not a question I have to ask. It is only a question of “how.” As a christian my social orientation should be toward hospitality, not away from it. If someone comes to me from underneath a bridge in my city or from the other side of the Atlantic, I must extend God’s welcome to them and do for them and their loved ones what I would want done for me and mine (see Matt. 7:12 and Matt 22:37-40).
Without question my “holy book” teaches me that it is important to the Lord that I give my self over to hospitality—a love of strangers—rather than fear. Without question the two world-changing stories from the past told in this series of blog posts teach me that following Jesus includes welcoming those he welcomed. After all, it is to King Jesus as Lord of all that I have pledged my allegiance and it is in His eternal in-breaking kingdom that I have my primary citizenship.
¹ Much of the historical sketch I offer is owed to John Ortberg’s good book Who Is this Man: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 46-58.
² Posidippus, 11E, cited by Stobaeus, Flor. 77.7.