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Being taught by the Syrophoenician woman

Today’s gospel lectionary passage is Mark’s telling of the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30). I I have loved this story since writing about it in my first New Testament class with David May. Even after the extensive (though certainly not comprehensive) study, I don’t fully understand the passage–and that is perhaps why I like it so much. It is a reminder that I do not have all the answers and never will. It is a reminder that God’s message is not something I can package, but instead it is something far bigger. And so, I present my paper here. I received an A-, which my husband commented is “really good from Dr. May.” I have not edited it, although David May certainly provided me with some additional things to think about. The Bibliography and endnotes (which were footnotes in the paper) also look a little funny here, but I don’t post long papers often, so I hope you will bear with me today! I’d love to hear your thoughts about this passage, too.

An outsider’s guide to logos: Being taught by the Syrophoenician woman

Introduction

 The Gospel of Mark begins by calling itself a “gospel.” [1] The text declares itself to be good story or good news – but for whom? The early church was struggling to determine what role Gentiles held in the newly developing faith. Was being a Gentile good enough, or must a person first convert to Judaism? Mark[2] reflects this conflict, depicting not only would-be followers of Christ, but also Jesus himself questioning who the rightful recipients of the kingdom truly were. The question is argued and seemingly answered in Mark 7:24-30 in an encounter with a woman known only by her gender and ethnicity. She is of Syrophoenician origin – a Gentile. This paper will examine the historical, cultural and narrative elements of the text-segment in an attempt to determine how first century readers may have understood the text and how modern readers can best interpret it today.

Observations of a Considerate Reader

 At the opening of this text-segment, Jesus travels from the land of Gennesaret to Tyre and Sidon – from Judean to Gentile territory. Jesus presumably enters this area as a form of retreat from the crowds that have been following him. Mark tells us that Jesus “entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” [3] Earlier in the gospel, however, those from “the region around Tyre and Sidon” are part of the crowd that followed him to the sea after he had “cured many.” [4] This suggests that Jesus is not unknown even in this Gentile region, so it is not surprising that someone hears that he is in town and approaches him.

The Syrophoenician woman approaches Jesus as a broker for a potential patron/client relationship. She bows down at his feet and offers a positive challenge by begging Jesus to cast an unclean spirit from her little daughter. Her bowing may be a physical depiction of the difference in status. A patron/client relationship assumes that the patron has the means to bestow some sort of favor on the client. A client – or in this case broker for the client – issues a positive challenge for aid to someone who can provide that need. “The relationship is asymmetrical since the partners are not social equals and make no pretense to equality.” [5] This is the only way the woman would be able to approach Jesus in the first-century world. In the culture of the time, it would be unheard of for a woman (unless she were an elite) to challenge a man as a social equal.[6] And her gender was not the only dividing line between the status of the woman and Jesus. Claudia Setzer suggests the woman is “triply marginalized” as “a Gentile, a foreigner and a woman.” [7]  This is perhaps why the woman does not seem to react negatively to being called a “dog.” [8] She would have seen herself as inferior to Jesus, so the insult would not seem out of the ordinary.

Also at play in this text-segment is the belief that all goods are limited. This belief extended to “all the desired things in life, such as land, wealth, prestige, blood, health, semen, friendship and love, manliness, honor, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety – literally all goods in life – exist in finite, limited quantity and are always in short supply.” [9] To have any such good is to diminish what is available for others. Jesus references this belief when he suggests that the Judeans must be “fed” first. [10] Giving this “food” to a Gentile doesn’t merely break a rule of order, it may mean that one of the “children” does not have food to eat. The Syrophoenician woman’s response seems to question the idea of a limited good society. Her statement that “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” suggests that there is enough for all.[11]

Observations of a Sensitive Reader

Perhaps the most debated portion of this text-segment is Jesus’s use of the word “dog.” Scholars disagree on how the word should be translated since the diminutive form of the word (kynaria, not kyon) is used. Thus some believe the word should be translated as “puppy” or suggest that “dog” carries an endearing quality.[12] Others have suggested that maybe the word “dog” is referencing followers of Diogenes Sinope’s philosophy. These “dogs” or “cynics”[13] were known for criticizing and satirizing social customs.[14] Still others simply state that Jesus’s use of this term was a common insult to Gentiles, as scavenging dogs were viewed as unclean[15]. Alan Cadwallader suggests that comparing a human to an animal reveals character. “Characters usually on the receiving end of such abuse were slaves, brothel-keepers and other procurers, prostitutes, foreigners and men who act outside the parameters of convention.”[16] Despite all the arguing over the precise meaning of the word, the context is derogatory. As T.A. Burkill points out, “[A]s in English, so in other languages, to call a woman ‘a little bitch’ is no less abusive than to call her ‘a bitch’ without qualification.”[17]

The real question is why did Jesus call the woman a dog? It is hard to find a satisfying answer. This is neither the first Gentile nor the first woman healed in Mark. In Mark 5, Jesus casts demon(s) out of a Gerasene man. Later in the same chapter, he brings a little girl back to life and heals a woman who suffered from hemorrhages. Many have tried to cover over the issue by suggesting that Jesus is testing the woman. But playing upon the emotions of a worried mother hardly seems more compassionate. Rhodes suggests that the term may be descriptive of the role the woman is playing by bowing to the ground and begging for something that is not hers to request – “She is scavenging for food like a dog.”[18]

The woman accepts Jesus’s words, but reframes them to make room for her and her daughter:  “Lord,[19] even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”[20] Jesus appears to change his mind and responds that because of this word – this logos – her daughter is healed.[21] Jesus is not just admiring the woman’s wit – although she certainly is witty – he is giving weight to her words. Setzer references this as synonymous with the “divine word” that creates the world. She states, “it is not too far-fetched to translate it here as ‘teaching.’”[22] The woman’s word has changed things. Cadwallader points out that “dog” and “logos” cannot exist in the same person. “Jude’s[23] collation of instinct-driven humans with irrational (aloga) animals is merely a canonical instance of an almost universally held understanding. Animals are the antithesis of logos.”[24] The woman may have been considered a dog before her response, but she most certainly is not one now. And the woman’s word does not merely change things for her, but provides a new lens for readers to see Jesus’ ministry, as seen below.

Set in its Markan context, the reader can begin to understand why this text-segment is significant. Chapter 7 begins with the Pharisees and scribes noticing that the disciples are eating with unwashed hands, which goes against oral tradition. Mark further describes that custom dictates the washing of food from the market and the washing of cups, pots and bronze kettles.[25] Jesus calls them hypocrites and accuses them of ignoring God’s law in order to follow their tradition. He then states that nothing that goes in the body can defile it, only what comes out.[26] When the disciples asked him what he meant, he chastises them for their lack of comprehension and declares that all foods are clean, because it is what is in the heart that defiles a person.[27]

Immediately following the text-segment is the healing of a deaf man in the region of the Decapolis and the feeding of the four thousand using seven loaves and a few small fish. After the food had been passed through the crowd, they took up the broken pieces that were leftover and filled seven baskets.[28]

These passages seem to emphasize the message in the story of the Syrophoenician woman. The Pharisees and disciples both think they know who the insiders are. The Pharisees are confident in the oral traditions they uphold. The disciples think being with Jesus is enough. Jesus tells both groups that they completely miss the point. The Syrophoenician woman, on the other hand, gets it. Setzer describes her as being juxtaposed to the disciples because she acts out what Jesus has been trying to teach them. “We assume that as a Gentile foreigner she does not worry about what goes into her…. But what comes out of her, her logos, or teaching, identifies her as one who really understands Jesus.”[29]

The  healing of the deaf man can almost be taken as a softer, quieter[30] parallel to the story of the Syrophoenician woman. The passage begins with Jesus leaving Tyre and traveling toward the Sea of Galilee – by way of Sidon, which is geographically the wrong way. He gets to the area of the Decapolis when an unidentified “they” bring a deaf man for Jesus to heal.[31] The text says they beg Jesus to heal the man, not unlike the Syrophoenician woman begging Jesus to heal her daughter. In both passages, a broker acts on behalf of the sick individual. Both healings take place in private. In the case of the Syrophoenician woman, the conversation takes place in a house and the healing is achieved from a distance. The deaf man is taken to a private location, away from the crowd[32], and is urged to keep silent about what has happened[33]. Both of these passages seem to reference Mark’s “messianic secret,” Jesus’s urging that his true identity be kept quiet.[34][35]

Jesus then finds himself in the midst of another hungry crowd. He has compassion on them, knowing that if he sends them home without food, they may faint on the way.[36] He gathers together the food that the disciples have – seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. He blesses them, and miraculously, there is enough food to feed four thousand people.[37] Jesus’s gospel doesn’t fit the boundaries of a limited good society. The Syrophoenician woman believed that the crumbs from the children’s table would be enough. Now crumbs of loaves and fish are enough to fill the hungry stomachs of a massive crowd. Jesus asks the disciples “do you not yet understand?”[38] Again, the woman has understood something that the disciples just can’t comprehend.

Matthew places his version of the story of the Syrophoenician woman in much the same context – after a story about things that defile and before the feeding the the four thousand. The text-segment itself varies in a few significant ways. First, the dialogue between the Canaanite woman[39] takes place in public. In Matthew’s account, the woman shouts after Jesus, but he remains silent until the disciples urge him to send the woman away.[40] The dialogue between the two is similar, but Jesus does not commend her words or logos, but her great faith.[41] The differences in the two passages depict the differences in the author’s intent. Mark’s emphasis on a messianic secret necessitates a private setting for the story. Mark also tends to have a more human version of Jesus,[42] so allowing Jesus to learn from the logos of the woman is line with Mark’s portrayal.

Observations of a Perceptive Reader

The Syrophoenician woman’s story emphasizes that the good news Jesus brings is plentiful enough for all. All can become beloved children. This message would have been particularly shocking to the first century readers who didn’t view anything as plentiful. If the message itself wasn’t surprising enough, the reader is told that it was first understood by a Gentile woman, perhaps the least likely candidate. This text-segment turns the common ideas of who is in and who is not upside-down. Readers must ask themselves who they identify with in the story. Are they like the disciples and Pharisees, the religious elites who fail to see the full picture of Christ? Or are they like the woman, on the edges of society, but with a great view of the kingdom of God?

Bibliography

Attridge, Harold W., ed. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised and Updated. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

Burkill, T. Alec. “Historical development of the story of the Syrophoenician woman, Mark 7:24-31.” Novum testamentum 9, no. 3 (July 1967): 161-177.

Cadwallader, Alan. “When a woman is a dog.” The Bible and Critical Theory 1, no. 4 (2005): 35.1-35.17.

DeSilva, Davia. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation. Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Gnanadason, Aruna. “Jesus and the Asian Woman: a post-colonial look at the Syro-Phoenician woman/Canaanite woman from an Indian perspective.” Studies in World Christianity 7, no. 2 (2001): 162-177.

Malina, Bruce. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. 3rd ed.Louisville: John Knox Press, 2001.

Rhodes, David. “Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman in Mark: A Narrative-Critical Study.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 343-375.

Setzer, Claudia. “Three Odd Couples: Women and Men in Mark and John.” in Mariam, the Magdalen and the mother, edited by Deirdre Joy Good, 75-94. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

Tolbert, Mary Ann. “Mark” in Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition with Apocrypha, edited by Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe, 350-362. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1998.

Williamson, Lamar. Mark. Of Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1973.


[1] Mark 1:1 – “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

[2] References to Mark as a writer are for the sake of convenience. Matters of authorship are beyond the scope of this paper.

[3] Mark 7:24. All Gospel quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[4] Mark 3:7-10

[5] Bruce Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed.(Louisville: John Knox Press, 2001), 95.

[6] Malina, 35

[7] Claudia Setzer, “Three Odd Couples: Women and Men in Mark and John” in Mariam, the Magdalen and the mother, ed. Deirdre Joy Good (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 76.

[8] Mark 7:27

[9] Malina, 89.

[10] Mark 7:27

[11] Mark 7:28

[12] David Rhodes, “Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman in Mark: A Narrative-Critical Study,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 356-257.

[13] “Cynics” is the term English-speakers commonly use to refer to this group.

[14] Mary Ann Tolbert, “Mark,” in Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition with Apocrypha, ed. Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1998), 356.

[15] Aruna Gnanadason, “Jesus and the Asian Woman: a post-colonial look at the Syro-Phoenician woman/Canaanite woman from an Indian perspective,” Studies in World Christianity 7, no. 2 (2001):  163.

[16] Alan Cadwallader, “When a woman is a dog,” The Bible and Critical Theory 1, no. 4 (2005): 35.2.

[17] T. Alec Burkill, “Historical development of the story of the Syrophoenician woman, Mark 7:24-31,” Novum testamentum 9, no. 3 (July 1967):173.

[18] Rhodes, 356.

[19] The NRSV uses “Sir”

[20] Mark 7:28

[21] Mark 7:29

[22] Setzer, 77.

[23] A reference to Jude 10 – “But those people slander whatever they do not understand, and they are destroyed by those things that, like irrational animals, they know by instinct.”

[24] Cadwallader, 35.2.

[25] Mark 7:4

[26] Mark 7:6-14.

[27] Mark 7:17-23

[28] Mark 7:31-8:8

[29] Setzer, 77

[30] No pun intended.

[31] Mark 7:31-32

[32] Mark 7:33

[33] Mark 7:36

[34] David DeSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 201.

[35] It is beyond the scope of this paper to fully explain the idea of the messianic secret.

[36] Mark 8:1-3

[37] Mark 8:5-8

[38] Mark 8:21

[39] In Matthew’s account, the woman is a Canaanite.

[40] Matthew 15:22-23

[41] Matthew 15:28

[42] Not to negate Jesus’s divinity, as even the demons in Mark recognize Jesus as God’s son.

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Beauty in the breakdown

The drives are long. Tiring. Seven weekends in a row of back and forth. Back and forth. Back. And. Forth. Two months of whirlwind travel. Tears in the car. Of frustration. Of homesickness. Occasionally of fear. Fear of traveling in inclimate weather. Fear that this schedule will rip me in two.

On Thursday I nearly lost it completely because after an hour and 15 minutes of driving, we realized we forgot to grab our dress clothes from the closet door. The dress clothes we needed for chapel dedication and a class discussion with clergy. The dress clothes our seminary president requested we wear. And so we turned around and drove back home. Twoandahalfhours to land back where we started — home. And I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to spend another 4.5 hours on the road. I didn’t want to get in late and have to wake up early and feel as if I left my mind somewhere on I-70. So I cried while Allyn hugged me and pretended that his wife hadn’t gone completely crazy. And then we got back in the car and drove across the state. Again.

And that is what it is like to be in seminary. Glamorous, no? Sometimes I wonder if it is worth it. If I can handle it. If it will be more than I can take.

Luckily there are moments of sanity, moments of clarity. This weekend they came as they often do, through the help of a friend. My friend Kate spoke at the new chapel dedication about her own seminary journey. She is graduating with her M.Div. next month and shared about the encouragement she has received at Central — about how she has found her voice. And I think back to two years ago when I was first approached to start this journey full time. I think of the questions I had — of the questions that had been buried deep inside me for nearly as far back as I can remember. Questions of calling and giftedness.

Central helped Kate develop her gifts and to discover things about herself that she didn’t know. And Central is doing the same thing for me now. Much is in the classroom, but much also comes from the encouragement of the community. From fellow students. From professors. From directors of seminary relations. From all those who are walking alongside me, lifting me when I’m at a breaking point.

I continue on because I am reminded of what God is doing in the world — walking alongside the hurting, offering shalom (to quote my friend Leroy). And I want to be part of that. No, it doesn’t requite a degree. But why miss out on the community that is forming me, that is helping me see myself — and perhaps see God — more clearly… or at least more authentically (since both God and me seem to be too far beyond my brain capacity to be clear)?

So I press on. Knowing that breaks are coming. Both breaks in schedule and breaks mentally. I know I will break down many more times along this journey. But I’m also confident that there is a community waiting to hold me and remind me of who I am.

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