We’re proud to share that author Maria E. Doerfler has won the 2021 Best First Book in the History of Religions from the American Academy of Religion for her book, Jephthah’s Daughter, Sarah’s Son: The Death of Children in Late Antiquity. In this interview with Doerfler, we take a deeper look at the award-winning book, including what motivated the project.

Late antiquity was a perilous time for children, who were often the first victims of economic crisis, war, and disease. They had a one in three chance of dying before their first birthday, with as many as half dying before age ten. Christian writers accordingly sought to speak to the experience of bereavement and to provide cultural scripts for parents who had lost a child. These late ancient writers turned to characters like Eve and Sarah, Job and Jephthah as models for grieving and for confronting or submitting to the divine. Jephthah’s Daughter, Sarah’s Son traces the stories these writers crafted and the ways in which they shaped the lived experience of familial bereavement in ancient Christianity. A compelling social history that conveys the emotional lives of people in the late ancient world, Jephthah’s Daughter, Sarah’s Son is a powerful portrait of mourning that extends beyond antiquity to the present day.

Maria E. Doerfler is Assistant Professor of Late Antiquity in Yale University’s Department of Religious Studies. 

How did you become interested in this topic?

The germ of this project emerged during my graduate studies. I was working on a translation of a Syriac homily on the death of children, now featured prominently in chapter 5 of Jephthah’s Daughter, Sarah’s Son. This topos is fairly uncommon among late ancient sources — perhaps surprisingly so, given the high childhood mortality rates that haunt premodern societies. And yet, as readers of early Christian writings know, most “subaltern” groups, whether women, slaves, migrants, or children, appear only rarely at the center of these texts. The past few decades and the work of pioneering scholars like Elizabeth A. Clark, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Christian Laes, Beryl Rawson, and so many others, have nevertheless taught us to ask new questions of these writings, and have sensitized us to witnesses that appears at the margins of the textual record — or at times hide in plain sight. I started exploring the possibility that children’s lives mattered to late ancient societies, and attending to homilists’ efforts to speak to the challenges their death posed for families and communities. Once I began to follow that trail, it became clear that only a monograph-sized project would even begin to do justice to this topic.

What was the writing and research process like?

I consider myself very, very fortunate to have had the support of amazing colleagues, wonderful institutions, including Yale University, where I serve as Assistant Professor of Late Antiquity, Dumbarton Oaks, and the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU, as well as UCP’s heroic editorial team. Writing and research are hard work, and the process of sitting with texts and thinking about their function in the lives of communities and families was both challenging and rewarding. Throughout, I have been particularly grateful for generous readers and critical interlocutors whose insights have guided much of the writing and revision process for this volume. It truly takes a village to produce a book, and the successful completion of Jephthah’s Daughter, Sarah’s Son is as much their doing as it is mine.

What is the main message you hope readers takeaway from the book?

Christian writers in late antiquity drew on the resources of Scripture to grapple with the death of children and its impact on families and communities. The “child-centric” interpretations they produced at times look unfamiliar to modern readers, but allowed ancient audiences to recognize their own struggles in the biblical narrative and, conversely, to hope for the consolation and reward offered to grieving parents in these stories.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on two projects: a book that’s already under contract with UCP on the intersection of writing law and creating sacred histories; and a book that’s still in the early stages but focuses on a collection of funerary hymns that provide readers with fascinating insights into the social and ritual world of Syriac Christian communities.