Jesus & the Syro-Phoenician ‘Dog’

Contents


Introduction

Mark 7.24–30 contains a small episode where Jesus exorcises an unclean spirit from a foreign woman’s daughter. The story is most known not for the account of the exorcism itself, but for the interaction between Jesus and the woman. Jesus travels to a new area, yet hides away in an unidentified house for some privacy. The woman learns of his presence and enters the home; she throws herself at his feet and begs him to heal her daughter. Jesus’ response is startling.

He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

The Gentile woman and her daughter are ‘dogs’, not worth his attention because he is focused instead on the ‘children’ of God, Israel.

The reference to the woman as a dog ranks among the most offensive sayings of Jesus.1

Her only recourse is to outwit Jesus. She accepts that he sees her as a ‘dog’, but in turn points out that even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps children drop from the dinner table. Jesus gives in, telling her that she may return home and find her daughter healed of the unclean spirit.


Jesus’ Behavior as a Moral Dilemma

On the surface level this story is shocking because of the reason why Jesus refuses to help her at first. It is not because she is an unrepentant sinner or anything of the sort. It is because she is identified by the narrator as a Syro-Phoenician. She is not an Israelite like Jesus and his disciples, but a Gentile, a foreigner. To put it bluntly, this makes his metaphor a racist slur: the Israelites are the ‘children’ of God, but Gentiles are just ‘dogs’. Jesus only heals her daughter when she is able to think of a snappy comeback.

While the moral dilemma of this interpretation is recognized by Christian theologians and apologists, they have shown that there is a simple explanation for why Jesus’ behavior is not the problem it might initially seem to be. First, the Greek word used in this story, κυνάριον, is actually the diminutive form of κύων. Jesus was not calling the foreign woman and her daughter ‘dogs’, but something more like ‘puppies’. It was a term of endearment. Second, Jesus was testing her. His apparently negative reply intentionally sets her up to make her comeback, helping her to show herself and others that even non-Israelites should be welcomed into the Israelite faith.

I typically avoid weighing my own opinion on ethical matters in the Bible when carrying out studies like this. I prefer to focus more on what the text means on its own merits, rather than my personal feelings about the text or our interpretations of it. This is difficult to avoid with this text. I find three problems with the explanations given to justify Jesus’ behavior in the story.

First, a potential slur being used in a diminutive form does not mean it is no longer a slur. Consider the racist usage of the word ‘boy’ when used of Black men. One commentator says Jesus is ‘play[ing] hard to get’,2 while another calls the episode ‘a fascinating and playful discussion’.3 Jesus using the diminutive form of ‘dog’ makes his otherwise problematic response ‘acceptable,’4 since he was only calling her a dog as ‘a joke’.5 The claim ‘it was just a joke’ is often used to sanitize bigoted comments or slurs.

Second, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus does not force other people to pass a ‘test’ before granting his help. It was Jesus, not the woman, nor anyone else, who drew attention to her ethnicity and disqualified her from receiving help on that basis. He was the one who turned it into a challenge of her intrinsic value as a non-Israelite when no one else had questioned it.

Third, there is the hypothetical question of what would have happened if she had failed the alleged ‘test’. This interpretation suggests that healing her daughter was the reward for passing the test. What if the woman simply gave up after his initial refusal? Would Jesus have let her go, leaving her daughter afflicted by a demon? Would he have healed the daughter anyway, despite saying he wouldn’t? These potential conclusions to the story, unfortunately, highlight the necessary lack of empathy to turn another person’s plea for help into a ‘test’ they must first pass.


Matthew and Luke’s Adaptation of Mark

The later Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke, each utilized Mark as one of their sources. It is interesting the way each Gospel incorporates this miracle story.

Matt 15.21–28 changes the story quite a bit. The woman is no longer a ‘Syro-Phoenician’, but a ‘Canaanite’. In Mark, the woman throws herself at Jesus’ feet and ‘begs’ for help; now she ‘shouts’ at Jesus. In this version, it is the disciples, fed up with her shouting, who ‘beg’ Jesus to do something, namely, to get rid of her. Oddly, Matthew’s changes to Jesus’ behavior make him seem even worse, because at first he completely ignores the woman: ‘he did not answer her at all’. When she persists, he says plainly what is conveyed through metaphor in Mark: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. The story continues the same, though Jesus now praises the woman for her ‘great faith’.

Luke drops the story altogether.

It is fairly easy to understand the motivations behind Matthew’s and Luke’s different treatment of the story. Matthew arranges the material from his sources to depict Jesus as a successor to Moses, a prophet for Israel to prepare them for God’s kingdom. When Jesus sends out the twelve disciples, he explicitly tells them ‘go nowhere among the foreigners’ (10.5–6). Although Matthew contains occasional proleptic comments on the inclusion of non-Israelites (e.g. 24.14), the narrative justification for this is that Israel ‘as a whole’ eagerly pronounces a curse on themselves for crucifying Jesus (26.24–25). Upon his resurrection, Jesus reverses his earlier decree: the disciples are to go to the nations (28.18–19), leaving Israel behind. Within this framework, Matthew keeps the miracle story, but he more forcefully highlights that the woman and her daughter stand outside Jesus’ mission at this time because they are now ‘Canaanites’, one of the ancient enemies of Israel.

Luke instead emphasizes the inclusion of non-Israelites.

The Christian message is universal, and it is free, according to Luke, from limitation to a particular national group (Acts 10:34–35).6

His genealogy for Jesus goes back to Adam, the father of all humanity, unlike Matthew’s genealogy, which only goes back to Abraham, the grandfather of Israel. In Matthew, Jesus sends out twelve disciples and forbids them to evangelize to non-Israelites; their number corresponds to the twelve tribes of Israel. Luke instead drops the Israel-only restriction and changes the twelve disciples to seventy, matching the centuries-old tradition that God established seventy nations in the world. Because of these changes, a story of Jesus refusing to help a non-Israelite would make very little sense, so Luke leaves it on the cutting room floor.

Matthew recognizes the ethnic discrimination and justifies it by integrating it into his overt Israel-only theme. Luke sees the discrimination and so removes the episode entirely. The two authors’ different treatment of Mark’s version of the story reflects an early awareness of its ethical dilemma surrounding Jesus’ behavior.


‘Dog’ as Pejorative or Diminutive

The word κυνάριον as a diminutive of κύων is often mentioned in commentaries, explained to be a term of endearment. However, there are several obstacles in the way of using this to justify Jesus’ behavior.

Mark never uses the word κύων, so we don’t know how he understood the base form relative to the diminutive κυνάριον. Conversely, except for Matthew copying Mark here, κυνάριον is nowhere else used in the NT, nor is it used in the Septuagint. Other NT texts instead use κύων, always in a negative context: ‘never give what is holy to dogs’ (Matt 7.6), dogs lick the wounds of a sick, homeless man (Luke 16.21), pro-circumcision Christians are ‘dogs’ (Philippians 3.2), ‘a dog returns to its vomit’ (2 Pet 2.22; cf. Prov 26.11), and ‘dogs’ are mentioned alongside sorcerers, murderers, and idolaters (Rev 22.15). With only rare exceptions, the Septuagint also paints an overwhelmingly negative picture of ‘dogs’, and this continues into rabbinic literature.

It would be an overstatement to say that “dog” was a thoroughly pejorative expression in the ancient world […] Nevertheless, “almost all OT passages […] illustrate the loathing that devout Israelites felt toward dogs.” […] In the NT its contemptuous force is scarcely mitigated. […] In the rabbinic tradition “dog” remained a term of reproach, referring to “the most despicable, insolent, and miserable of creatures. It was in this opprobrious sense that “dog” was applied to Gentiles.7

That ‘dog’ had become a common Israelite slur for Gentiles by the first century CE is acknowledged all around, yet the excuse is given that Jesus ‘softened’ the word by using the diminutive κυνάριον, playfully calling a foreigner ‘little dog’.

There is no reason to suppose that a Gentile would consider it any less offensive to be called a ‘little dog’ rather than a ‘dog,’ and descriptions of Jesus’ manner and tone of speech are, of course, sheer imagination.8

There is reason to doubt the claim that κυνάριον should be understood as ‘little dog’ instead of simply ‘dog’.

The regular term for “dog” is kuōn, and kynaria is technically a diminutive, but this does not necessarily mean that Jesus is referring affectionately to the woman or her daughter as “little dogs” or “pups” […] In Koine Greek the diminutive is often indistinguishable in meaning from the regular form (e.g. paidas/paidia = “children,” ploion/ploiarion = “boat”), and the normal term for “little dog” is not kynarion but kynidion […] Kynarion can be employed with no diminutive force at all (e.g. Plutarch Aratus 7:3; see BAGD, 457). As Rhoads acknowledges, the diminutive form may be used here simply to match that of the word for “daughter,” thygatrion, in 7:25, which is also diminutive.9

In this story alone, ‘several diminutives’ are used ‘without significant force’.10 The form κυνάριον does not here indicate a ‘little dog’, let alone a pet ‘puppy’. Jesus uses it to refer to ‘the scavenging dogs of the street’, in contrast to the children of a household. It is the woman, upon accepting her identification as an animal, who turns the metaphor around and insists to Jesus that she is still a member of the children’s household and can eat the scraps that fall from their table: ‘she is willing to abase herself in order to secure his cooperation’.11 She has to argue for her worth, if not as an equal to Israelites, at least as someone in need of whatever can be spared from their gifts from God.

The comparison of non-Israelites to ‘dogs’ is especially common in contexts having to do with keeping Israelites and foreigners distinct,12 which is exactly what we see here. Though there is at least one occasion where the people of other nations are compared to ‘dogs’ in a positive context,13 even that maintains a qualitative distinction between Israelites and Gentiles.

In the Midrash on the Psalms, a parable is attributed to Rabbi Joshua ben Levi in which the guests arriving at the banquet in the king’s palace see dogs coming out with the heads of pheasants, capons, and calves in their mouths. They exclaim, “If the dogs are so well fed, imagine what the banquet will be like!” The parable is applied to the great gifts given to Gentiles in this world and the even greater gifts that will be given to Israel in the next world.14

In this alleged positive example of foreigners being compared to ‘dogs’, the ultimate message is that Israelites will receive a better status over other nations. Whether κύων or κυνάριον, calling a non-Israelite a ‘dog’ was a racist slur, which casts a shadow over Jesus’ entire interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman.


Redactions Within the Story

Mark 7.1–23 contains the episode of Jesus criticizing the Pharisee tradition of ritual handwashing before eating, saying that ritual uncleanliness is not passed from person to person if they share food. Instead, uncleanliness comes from within a person, through their behavior.

Our next story, Mark 7.24–30, begins with Jesus traveling to the region of Tyre and Sidon in Phoenicia. Although this was outside of Galilee, they were still part of Philip’s tetrarchy. This compels us to ask a certain question. There is no mention of Jesus seeking out a synagogue or other Israelites, so why is he heading to an area with a predominantly non-Israelite population?

It is commonly accepted that the individual pericopes within the Gospel of Mark are not in any chronological order, but are broadly arranged based on thematic connections and catchwords. Commentaries notice that the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman has been placed after the handwashing story based on the idea that Gentiles were inherently unclean. This arrangement is probably intended by the author of Mark.

Mark’s sources included two collections of miracle stories, the contents of which were roughly parallel: ‘a sea miracle, three healing miracles, and the feeding of a multitude’.15 The first set of miracle stories (found in Mark 4.35–6.44) suffered only some redaction compared to the surrounding narrative, while the second set (6.45–8.26) have been taken out of their original order. Originally, the story of the blind man from Bethsaida (8.22–26) preceded our story of the Syro-Phoenician woman from Tyre (7.24–30).

Since Bethsaida is near Capernaum, it makes more narrative sense for Jesus to enter a house there and attempt to remain hidden. It makes less sense for him to do so in the region of Tyre. The description of the woman as a Syro-Phoenician may have prompted the relocation of the incident.16

The relationship between 7.24–30 and 7.1–23 is tenuous at best, their connection a design of Mark’s author. Without this connection, 7.24–30 no longer functions as a criticism of the idea that non-Israelites are ‘unclean’. In fact, it reinforces that perception.

There is also a great deal of scholarly interest in Jesus’ use of the word πρῶτον, ‘first’.

He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

Despite Jesus’ refusal to help a foreigner, he hints at the later inclusion of Gentiles in the Christian mission. This sort of theology is somewhat unusual for a first century apocalyptic, since a great deal of eschatology in the Hebrew Bible features the elimination or subjugation of the nations beneath Israel, and apocalypticism frequently stressed the sinfulness of Gentiles, imploring Israelites to keep from being sullied by foreign influence. Instead of rejecting the Syro-Phoenician woman outright, Jesus says that he is constrained by God to ‘first’ help his fellow Israelites; Gentiles will eventually receive the healing they ‘beg’ him for. In addition to this chronological use of ‘first’, it may also indicate a degree of importance. Meaning, Jesus does not just set foreigners aside as a later priority, but as a lesser priority.

At least, this is what the word ‘first’ would mean if it was original to the story. Several scholars also regard it as a possibility that ‘first’ was added to the text. The woman’s retort that even dogs can eat table scraps does not follow if Jesus had initially said the children need to eat ‘first’. She is responding as if Jesus had excluded the dogs entirely, not simply made them wait their turn.

The woman’s rejoinder, however, makes clear that she took Jesus’ answer to refer to Israel’s privilege exclusively, rather than temporarily, which supports the suggestion that πρῶτον is a later, temporal qualification. She recognized the “divinely ordained division between God’s people and the Gentiles”17

Mark only uses πρῶτον to convey the order of events in his eschatology. The essential message of ‘Israelites first, then Gentiles’ hints at contact with Paul’s theology, since the idea is extremely similar to Romans 1.16:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Judean first and also to the Greek.

This connection has led several commentators to identify either the word ‘first’ — or the entire phrase ‘let the children be fed first’ — as Mark’s interpolation to his miracle-stories source, for the purpose of making Jesus’ refusal to help the woman’s daughter less severe. Yet, even if the pejorative is minimized by this redaction, his overall response is still problematic. Whether the redaction is allowed to remain or is removed, the fact remains that ‘Jesus rejected her request because of who she was, a Gentile’.18


Conclusion

Despite its brevity, the Markan account of Jesus exorcising the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter, and the common justifications for Jesus’ behavior in the story, are faced with several problems.

On the surface level, Jesus calling a foreign woman a ‘dog’ flatly reads as a racist slur.

As we examined the way Mark’s story was adapted by Matthew and Luke, we saw how they recognized this as a problem and worked around it. As we looked into ancient Israelite perceptions of dogs, we found they were held in an extremely negative light, and that ‘dog’ was a commonplace derogatory term for Gentiles, regardless of whether the base form κύων or the diminutive κυνάριον was being used. And as we looked into redaction criticism of the story, we learned that Mark has displaced it and slightly altered it, granting it a softer message than what it originally conveyed.

The unfortunate case with this individual passage is that Jesus crassly disregards the well-being of another person because she does not belong to his ethnic group. He only acquiesces to her pleading when she turns his prejudice upside-down: she and her daughter may be nothing more than ‘dogs’ to him, but even dogs are living things whose well-being needs to be cared for.

When we dig under the surface level — through the extra layers of culture, intertextuality, linguistics, and redaction criticism — Jesus calling a foreign woman a ‘dog’ gains texture and depth, but remains a racist slur.

If a religious or political leader today were approached by a woman begging for help, only to refuse her because of her ethnicity, even going so far as to call her a slur widely used of her ethnic group, and later defended his behavior as a ‘test’ for her to pass, the public response would justifiably be outrage. The appeals to Jesus’ tone as roguish, to his intention as self-consciously difficult, to his choice of words as sentimental, is not based on any accurate handling of the text. The idea that Jesus’ behavior in our story is exempt from any criticism is special pleading, rooted in a desire to protect the ethical integrity of a revered religious figure from his plainly unethical actions.


Sources

Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary.

Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler (ed.), The Jewish Annotated New Testament.

Bas M.F. van Iersel, Mark: A Reader-Response Commentary.

Francois Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50.

James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark.

Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8.

Joel Marcus, ‘Mark–Interpreter of Paul’, New Testament Studies 46.4.

Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I–IX.

Morna Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark.

Robert Guelich, Mark 1–8:26.

R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew.


Footnotes

1 Edwards, 219.

2 France, 590.

3 van Iersel, 249.

4 Ibid., 250.

5 Ibid.

6 Bovon, 10.

7 Edwards, 219.

8 Hooker, 183.

9 Marcus, Mark 1–8, 463.

10 Guelich, 386.

11 Yarbro Collins, 367.

12 Marcus, Mark 1–8, 464.

13 Ibid.

14 Yarbro Collins, 367.

15 Ibid., 258.

16 Ibid., 364.

17 Guelich, 387.

18 Ibid.

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this! If you ever find time to read it, I'd be interested in your impression of the case I make in my recent book What Jesus Learned from Women that we can see in the longer term the impact that this encounter had on Jesus.

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