July 02 2022

The Death of Children in Late Antiquity with Maria E. Doerfler

Interview with Maria E. Doerfler

Kristian Peterson interviews Maria E. Doerfler, AAR Book Award winner

Maria E. Doerfler joins Kristian Petersen to discuss her award-winning bookJephthah’s Daughter, Sarah’s Son: The Death of Children in Late Antiquity (University of California Press, 2020). Through the book, Doerfler plumbs the fragmentary historical record for evidence of how members of Christian communities in Late Antiquity responded to the deaths of children.

Doerfler's book won AAR's 2021 Award for "Best First Book in the History of Religions." She is an assistant professor of Eastern Christianity in Yale University’s department of religious studies.


Kristian Petersen:
Welcome to Religious Studies News. I'm your host, Kristian Petersen, and today I'm here with Maria Doerfler, assistant professor of religious studies at Yale University and winner of the Best First Book in the History of Religions award. She's here to speak to us about her book, Jephthah's Daughter, Sarah's Son, The Death of Children in Late Antiquity, published with University of California Press. Congratulations, Maria, and thanks for joining me.

Maria Doerfler:
Thank you so much, Kristian. I'm absolutely delighted to be here. I am also tremendously honored and still kind of feel this "What? Who, me?" sort of sentiment that I imagine a lot of the winners feel, but delighted to talk with you.

Kristian Petersen:
Yeah, it's very exciting I would imagine. So this is a really interesting topic. You tap into how Christian authors are using biblical characters to make sense of the death of children in late antiquity. I'm wondering if you could just start with where did this project begin for you, and what were the types of interventions you were hoping to make with this project?

Maria Doerfler:
Thanks so much for this question, because of course, trying to figure out origin stories is always a huge temptation. This is a project that actually began when I was still a graduate student. It is not my dissertation, but one of the things that I've been drawn to ever since I have been doing what we might, in a loose sense, call scholarly work, is this question of how people, both individuals and communities, interpret their authoritative texts, whatever those authoritative texts might be. They might be laws. They might be philosophical teachings. They might be sacred scriptures. And specifically, how they interpret those in times of crisis. So I sometimes refer to myself a little bit tongue in cheek as a historian of exegesis as an extreme sport. One of the places, of course, that usually constitutes an exigency, a situation that really tends to force interpretation, is the context of death.

When I was a graduate student and working, as all graduate students do, on my language skills, I had a wonderful instructor recommend that I might translate a particular verse homily by a sixth-century dude by the name of Jacob of Serugh. Everybody who works in Syriac studies or has been loosely acquainted with that field knows him in large part because he's just wildly prolific. We have hundreds upon hundreds of extended, beautiful, and for a grad student, difficult to translate verse homilies from him. One of the unusual things about this is, it's something that I will truly attribute simply to the fact that we have so many homilies by him, is that there is one that specifically addresses the death of children. This is a topic that is really unusual among early Christian writings. I can think of just a couple of other examples within the genre of homiletics.

There's a little bit more if we expand this out in terms of commemoration of the children of really important persons, of kings, et cetera. So much of the study of early Christianity and late antiquity is dominated by one very particular voice, and it will not shock you when I say that it's the voice of Augustine of Hippo. So for me, too, coming into the translation of this homily, my general assumption was that the death of children is something that's relatively unproblematic, the questions about it hinge on whether or not the child has been baptized, as you know tends to be the case for Augustine. And what I found in this homily was just something completely different. It was on the one hand, for the first time really in late ancient sources, an extended valorization of not just the death of children, which as you may imagine in premodernity is very, very common, but it was also just an extended reflection upon the nature of children that had very little to do with the assumptions that I had brought to that conversation.

So I was intrigued by this and at the time I published an article on this topic, but it's something that just kept tugging at me, specifically because of my fascination with these crisis situations. And I think I can say, with about as much comfort as I think I will ever have about an academic topic, that even in a context in which childhood mortality was very common, the figures for this are wildly disputed but we'll probably pitch somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent of children dying within the first 10 years of their lives with a lot of that happening during the first years of their lives, so even in a context in which such death is very, very common in premodernity, the death of a child constitutes a crisis event for both the mother, the family, but also in a very real sense for the community.

These are the situations in which I was beginning to think more about the ways in which different authors make sense of that occurrence, and the ways in which they also use their understanding that this crisis event, this incredibly quotidian crisis event, is something that would have afflicted virtually all members of their communities. How they use that understanding to allow it to shape their interpretation of authoritative texts, specifically, of scripture in that setting. That's really how it started. From there I began to pull on that thread, starting with some very obvious topics and then making my way to biblical passages I had not expected to show up, but that nevertheless kept showing up in this context. I'm not going to say before you knew it, there was a book, because as you know that's a very lengthy and labor-intensive process that did not just hinge on me, but on many wonderful readers and commentators and editors, to whom I'm exceedingly grateful. But truly, sort of tripping down that particular primrose path, that rather dark primrose path, is how I ended up with this.

Kristian Petersen:
It is really interesting because this kind of back-and-forth between the interpreters and the texts comes out in really interesting ways. You do set the story up with a little bit of social-historical context about death and ritual, burial, and mourning practices. But I'd like to jump into some of the interpretive work around biblical characters because many of these will be well known to listeners. But these authors really interpret them in very interesting ways. Of course, people would probably imagine the start with Adam and Eve and the context of their children. Can you talk a little bit about how parental loss was explored through these subjects?

Maria Doerfler:
It's interesting to me that you think people will first and foremost think of Adam and Eve. Inasmuch as—

Kristian Petersen:
I guess start at the beginning...

Maria Doerfler:
Begin at the beginning, I love it. And as you know, that's actually chapter two, right after the socio-historical chapter in the book. In some ways that really was a surprise for me, because as many of our listeners will know, Eve does not get a good rap in quite a lot of writings from early Christianity. She is the devil's gateway, to throw around one rather common quotation here. But in this context, Eve takes on a different valence. One of the things that's fascinating and continuously fascinating to me, for late ancient and premodern authors more generally, is that they are so deeply committed to the nuances of a story that they notice where there are absences in those stories.

For example, we might in due course get to the chapter on the binding of Isaac, which is a chapter that focuses to a significant extent upon Sarah, Isaac's mother. But Sarah as a character is completely absent from the narrative of the binding of Isaac in the context of the Hebrew scriptures. In the same way, I think when most readers encounter the story of Cain and Abel, this could be in a contemporary setting, the drama of crime and punishment, or raise questions about acceptance versus not acceptance with the divine.

For a lot of late ancient readers, it really stuck out that Eve and Adam were in fact the first be bereaved parents in history. That it is not just a matter of Abel being killed by Cain, but that at the time that occurs, Abel is the child, is the offspring, of parents who would have, within the early Christian imaginative framework, never before encountered death. So this is something that is new and dramatic and also dramatically bad. In a sense, really, this is the first dramatic instantiation of that curse that the first couple experiences in the context of Genesis. Here we see Eve unexpectedly sympathetic. We see her grieving. We see her horrified. We see her deep sympathy with her offspring, which is truly an unexpected perspective on Eve, both for the context of early Christianity, and I would expect also for a lot of contemporary readers of that narrative.

Kristian Petersen:
As you move into these other narratives, the one about Sarah really is very striking because it really relies on the role of these interpreters. Most listeners will probably be familiar with the story of Abraham's sacrifice of his son. Can you tell us how your authors made sense of sacrifice through Isaac's mother, Sarah?

Maria Doerfler:
As I've already suggested, for the reader of Genesis 22, that is the chapter that discusses the sacrifice of Isaac, the binding of Isaac, what's known as the Akedah. My expectation is that most contemporary readers would move through that entire chapter and never notice the absence of Sarah. And part of that may have to do with fact that Genesis is, helpfully or unhelpfully, indeterminate when it comes to the question of just how old Isaac actually is or how one ought to picture Isaac at the point of his being taken to the mountain in order to be bound, in order to be sacrificed. The story perches right between narratives of Isaac's birth and childhood on the one hand, and on the other hand, the death of Sarah. Particularly in rabbinic interpretation, that link has been explored in really interesting ways. This could be, in other words, a very young child, or it could be, let's call it a middle-aged, fully-adult man.

They're close within the story, within the biblical narrative. That might point us in one direction or another direction, but many Christian interpreters are actually very committed to seeing Isaac as a young child. In fact, there's one source that notices the text's internal cues, which is to say that Isaac ends up carrying stuff up that mountain and says, basically, it was a miracle that Isaac had, even as this very young child, the ability and the power to carry this.

Of course, when we also think about Isaac as a young child, that raises the question of how does his father abscond with a little kid without even doing so much as giving notice to the child's mother, to his spouse. For late ancient readers, this is a lacuna that calls for explanation, that calls for interpretations. Not least of all because for many of them, this neglect of Sarah and the potential of Abraham absconding with Isaac without notifying Sarah, either in her capacity as Isaac's mother or in her capacity as Abraham's wife with whom he would have wished to share this experience, this is something that is troubling to late ancient interpreters. What this creates room for, and the midrashic interpretive techniques that are very common in rabbinic interpretation, also show up a lot in early Christian interpretation. More so perhaps in the Syrian and Greek realm, at times a little bit less for this in Latin context, but it really is something that we see very broadly. This allows the opportunity to write Sarah into the story and to create in Sarah a character that would be relatable for audiences.

If you look at the biblical narrative, Abraham throughout the entire experience of being told to take his son up the mountain is relatively stoic. There are no real expressions of emotions that one would expect of a father, or at least that late ancient interpreters would have expected of a parent. In many regards, this contributes to Abraham's glorification in early Christian context. That he is so committed to the divine, that he is so committed to following God's command even against his own personal inclinations, that arises as a virtue for him. That notwithstanding, there is I think, among late ancient readers, also a sense of horror that attends this. Sarah is inserted into this story as a character that more often than not is able to voice the horror, and the grief, and the desire to bargain with God in the face of a child's impending death. She becomes this compensatory figure that takes on the emotions of the situation. Her character in many regards allows Abraham to be who he is in the biblical narrative, while at the same time also humanizing the entire story.

Kristian Petersen:
Another key figure for late antique writers was the family of Job in general. Can you talk a little bit about how Job and his wife and his children were used by late antique authors to explore ideas about loss and grief?

Maria Doerfler:
Sure. In many regards, Job is a counterpoint to Abraham. He is the figure that early Christian writers, indeed later Christian writers too, tend to call upon most enthusiastically when they wish to have someone who illustrates patience and who illustrates complete submissiveness to whatever the divine will might be in this setting. The death of Job's children is something that in many regards becomes a footnote to contemporary readings of this story. As you may recall in the very beginning of Job, there is a bargain being struck between God and Hasatan, that is to say the Adversary, who incidentally in the context of Job cuts a very different sort of figure than what contemporary Christian readers might think about when, at least what my students tend to think about when they hear the term Satan. All this proceeds into the testing of Job.

The testing comes across, it leads to the death of his slaves. It leads to the death of his herds. It leads to Job's own affliction with great physical illness. But in the midst of all this, there's also the account of the death of Job's children, all of Job's children, in one fell swoop. For a lot of ancient writers, this, rather than actually Job's being struck with illness himself, is really the climactic moment in all this. This is the person-breaking intervention of the Adversary into Job's life. And so there are some very interesting things that interpreters do with this.

In some rare instances, they try to write into it narratives of justification. Indeed, the Book of Job does in the last chapter something that probably was not part of the original text, by way of Job passing the test and getting compensatory children to make up for the ones that had died. But realistically speaking, this doesn't satisfy modern audiences, and I think it also really did not satisfy early Christian audiences. This particular narrative of the death of multiple kids is something that I think we see in early Christian interpretations as really the climax of human suffering, both for Job himself and also for Job's wife, who again, of course, gets a very bad rap both in the narrative itself and in quite a lot of interpretations. But there are versions of the story that also craft her as the long-suffering and as the supportive spouse, and as the supportive bereaved mother that we don't necessarily see in the biblical text or in perhaps some of the most familiar interpretations thereof.

Kristian Petersen:
There's a lot more to the book that I'd love to get into, but we just don't have the time. But I do want to ask you a little bit about how you see other people within the AAR drawing from your book, either in the way you've constructed it, or your approaches, or this theme focusing on the death of children. How might you imagine others could get into your work?

Maria Doerfler:
This is such a good question, especially since, like most of us, we write our work for both a broader and a narrower audience. We think about readers who might primarily think of themselves as historians, or classicists, or philosophers, or theologians. And these are people that I certainly hope will also be interested in the discourses surrounding parental bereavement and childhood mortality in antiquity. But I think for those who engage in the study of religion, which is really where I locate myself, and I have to say the process of writing this book has been helpful also in confirming and constructing my disciplinary identity, so for those engaged in the study of religion, I would say there are perhaps two additional related hopes on my part.

The first and perhaps most obvious takeaway has to do with allowing ourselves to be surprised by our sources. I think at a certain point in our scholarship of any given topic, we sort of know what to expect. And when we come across things that frustrate those expectations, the exception that, if you will, and this is an infelicitous turn of phrase, that proves the rule, we, or I guess I should say I, tend to sort of relegate them to footnotes. That is to say, when we take notice of them at all. I do that. I get that. And frankly, often that's the entirely right thing to do with those exceptional cases.

On the other hand, I will say that every truly exciting project I've embarked upon, and I've already talked a little bit about how this came out in the context of this book, it really began with this moment of stumbling over one of those minority reports in a text or a place in a manuscript that kind of gave me that knee-jerk reaction of "Wait, that's wrong." And then sort of sitting with it and letting it expand my thinking about what might be possible or imaginable, or what stories might be told in light of that. That's something I've tried to do in the context of this book, and that may be provocative or interesting or potentially helpful to other readers.

Related to this, the second potential takeaway involves precisely these stories that I've referenced that we end up telling about our subjects. My work takes place mostly in the field of late ancient studies. As many of our readers will know, this means that I stand in a long lineage of scholars who have been and continue to be truly exceptional storytellers. Religion is obviously both a global and really profoundly local phenomenon, as well as, if we think in temporal terms, one extended, as my undergraduates like to say, from time immemorial to these absolutely punctiliar, defined-in-time kinds of acts.

So, when constructing stories, we inevitably need to think about scale and the question of how can you do justice to the particular setting, the particular event, the particular text, without isolating it from that larger narrative arc to which it belongs. I'm by nature and probably also by training, someone who really seeks to resist big stories, even as I find them very seductive. I find myself drawn a lot of times to that which at first glance seems very particular and very personal. The consolation letter. The burial inscription. The sermon crafted for a very particular audience. Those stories are interesting and worthwhile, and my work has been to try to honor those particularities.

But at the same time, each of them is implicated in larger discourses. That sermon is not just written for an audience, but it is written down, and it is copied, and disseminated, and preserved for future generations. That burial inscription does not, in its own form, attest to some pure emotion experience by just one or two individuals, but it partakes of the broader discourses of how one speaks about these kinds of emotions and what can be made speakable within those emotional communities.

And so for me, one of the challenges and one of the pleasures of this book has been playing with these stories, modulating them, and thinking about scale moving through that while trying to be honoring both of the particularity and the much broader arc. And again, I think this is something that is shared by many of us in the field of religious studies. I love seeing this in other people's books and maybe this is an experiment that will be interesting for some of our audience who do not otherwise take a primary interest in early Christianity or childhood mortality or anything along those lines.

Kristian Petersen:
Yeah, I think that's a great way to put it, and I hope some people outside of your subdiscipline will pick it up, because it is a great book. And congrats again on the award.

Maria Doerfler:
Thank you so much, Kristian. And I should also mention thanks to the University of California Press, who has been amazing. I would like to strongly plug, in this conversation, it's also really, really affordable. I think the hard copy comes in at about $27 at this point. So get one for your library, even if you don't necessarily need one for your personal library.