Doerfler addresses an original and thought-provoking topic—examining how Christians in late antiquity came to terms with child mortality. As she notes in the introduction, “this is a book as much about bereavement as it is about children’s death” (6). Indeed, most of her study focuses specifically on how clerical authors in the fourth through sixth centuries constructed and adapted liturgical narratives to be useful to a laity familiar with an alarmingly high mortality rate. In a subject as delicate as this one, Doerfler is consistently respectful of her subject matter and how grieving parents emotionally and intellectually negotiated a life cut short. That attention to care serves her well for the most part, although a slightly less sympathetic eye toward the architects of this discourse would have been welcome.
After starting with a brief discussion of the prevalence of the phenomenon and an overview of early philosophical responses to such losses, Doerfler then turns her attention to late antique practices and rituals preceding and following death. She notes an unsurprising variation in customs but, more significantly, offers a context for understanding the deployment of homiletic consolation. To that end, Doerfler examines the development of several familial archetypes drawn from scriptural sources. The first model of parental loss was that experienced by Adam and Eve after Abel’s murder. The suffering of the “first family” ties into a broader cultural concern about a child’s premature demise. The loss of their second son and the loss of Eden were blurred as a means for navigating parental grief, offering the hope of Paradise regained in the life that followed.
A second narrative frequently deployed was the Akedah (the Binding). God’s commandment to Abraham that he kill Isaac became a model for stoical submission to divine will at the loss of a child—especially in death but also in any circumstance that separated a child from the earthly world (such as becoming a monk). Moreover, the absence of parental grief in the original tale necessitated invention and the insertion of Sarah (Abraham’s wife) by late antique writers into the story. As with Eve, maternal grief is a genuine concern, as well as an expected gendered response to a child’s passing.
The Akedah, Doerfler argues, also found resonances (“parallels” is too strong) in two other biblical accounts—Jephthah’s unwitting vow to sacrifice his daughter and the unnamed mother of the martyred Maccabeans. In her examination, Doerfler highlights the theological ambiguity of parental grief. Some found it understandable and acceptable; others deemed it inappropriate, or at least unseemly.
The experience of Job was especially useful to invoke in matters regarding bereaving parents. As Doerfler notes, “his versatility arose…from his perception as an Everyman” (146). In his tale, the intersectionality of divine will, demonic interference, and human agency could facilely be applied to the experience of overwhelming parental grief. The complexity of Job’s response to losing his ten children served as a heuristic bonanza—restrained and patient about his fate as a loving father and protector of his children, and faithful in “ultimate vindication” (172). The final biblical exemplum came in the widespread adaptation of the slaughter of the innocents, described in Matthew. Not only were the innocents considered martyrs and thus guaranteed paradise, but, unsurprisingly, the death of infants in general became associated with these children, with an understanding that they, too, could share their reward.
One of the many strengths of this book is its impressive breadth. Although it tends to focus on the East, Doerfler draws from a wide number of sources. Her familiarity with the funerary epigraphy and her interest in amulets and other prophylactic devices reinforces this impression. What emerges from her study is how plastic these biblical figures became: Their form largely depended on the cleric interpreting their experiences and, we may surmise, on the audience receiving them.
Doerfler’s reconstruction of a discourse of consolation creates the strong sense of Christian authors often having to bend biblical exemplars to the point of breaking—most egregiously in the case of Sarah. Doerfler acknowledges this tendency, but this liberality seems like a missed opportunity for deeper reflection on these hermeneutical exercises and their relationship with late antique exegesis more broadly. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, this monograph is a welcome addition to the study of family and children in late antiquity and takes them in a new and creative direction.