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The Sins of the Fathers


  • 9 b/w illus.
  • Page extent: 226 pages
  • Size: 216 x 138 mm
  • Weight: 0.32 kg
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 (ISBN-13: 9780521548243)

  • Also available in Hardback
  • Published April 2009

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$37.99 (P)

For nearly two millennia, Western law visited the sins of fathers and mothers upon their illegitimate children, subjecting them to systematic discrimination and deprivation. The graver the sins of their parents, the further these children fell in social standing and legal protection. While some reformers have sought to better the plight of illegitimate children, only in recent decades has illegitimacy lost its full legal sting. Yet the social, economic, and psychological costs of illegitimacy still remain high even in the liberal, affluent West. John Witte analyzes and critiques the shifting historical law and theology of illegitimacy. This doctrine, he argues, misinterprets basic biblical teachings on individual accountability and Christian community. It also betrays basic democratic principles of equality, dignity, and natural rights of all. There are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents, Witte concludes, and he presses for the protection and rights of all children, regardless of their birth status.


Preface and acknowledgements; Introduction: the paradoxes of illegitimacy; 1. Suffer the innocent children: illegitimacy in early Judaism and Christianity; 2. Woe to bastards: the classic Roman law of illegitimacy and legitimation; 3. The wages of sin: sex, marriage and illegitimacy in medieval canon law; 4. Heir of no one: the English common law of illegitimacy and its reforms; 5. The rights of all children: the new law of non-marital childhood in America and beyond; Concluding reflections; Bibliography; Biblical index; Index.


"John Witte has done it again! Sins of the Fathers demonstrates what his readers always expect from him: painstaking historical research, lucid presentation, plus jurisprudential and theological gravitas. But here we see even more: the profound humanity of this man, born of his familial experience, and revealed in the book's moving dedication, which gives us the leitmotif of this exceptional work."
David Novak, J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Professor of Jewish Studies, University of Toronto

"Witte, one of the world's foremost thinkers on law and religion, has now produced this authoritative investigation of the often deeply disturbing history of illegitimacy in the Western world. It is not only grounded in rigorous scholarship and perceptive theology but also offers wise reflections on how civil responsibility, adoption and the institution of marriage might contribute more to the welfare of children today."
David F. Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge

"This little book is a large achievement. It exemplifies the modern ideal of scholarship – complexly interdisciplinary, masterfully cross-cultural, lavishly learned, startlingly insightful, movingly personal, lucidly argued, and luminously written."
Carl E. Schneider, Chauncey Stillman Professor of Law and Professor of Internal Medicine, University of Michigan

"This book is an exemplary combination of concise exposition and critical assessment applied to the different ways in which law and theology have understood legitimacy and illegitimacy and their consequences."
The Journal of Ecclesiastical History

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