Did the Canaanite woman teach Jesus not to be racist?

The episode of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman in the lectionary reading for Trinity 10 in Year A from Matt 15.21–28 (or Syrophoenician woman as she is called in the parallel Mark 7.24–30) often brings readers up short, containing as it does what appears to be a rather shocking insult. Jesus is seeking to withdraw from public attention, needing some time for rest and recuperation, but, as has happened in the episode of the feeding of the 5,000, he is unable to keep his presence secret. A woman approaches him to ask for deliverance for her daughter and (Matthew having emphasised her pagan gentile credentials), Jesus appears to insult her with a racial slur by calling her a ‘dog’. Yet her stubborn faith persists, and her clever response to Jesus’ ‘insult’ persuades him to act, so her daughter is delivered and healed.

There seems to be quite a strong trend in ‘progressive’ readings of this text to draw a particular point from this episode: Jesus was in fact fallible and racist; the woman taught him something by her response; he changed and moved on from his narrow, exclusive view; and so we should be willing to do the same. Here is one example, which sees mainstream readings of this texts as ‘workarounds’ which are avoiding the awkward reality that we find in the text:

It’s one of the most unsettling passages in the New Testament. This isn’t the Jesus Christians like to think about.  This is Jesus apparently insulting and dehumanizing a desperate woman seeking the health of her family. This is Jesus writing Gentiles off as second-tier citizens…Jesus’ statement was full of prejudice and ethnocentrism.

This story calls us to confront Jesus’ humanity. Being human means being embedded in a culture. It means growing up with a certain worldview. It means inheriting traditions and language and biases—biases that can be wrongheaded and hurtful and alienating. Biases like the exclusion of Gentiles from the community of faith and the circle of those deserving compassion…

You see, Jesus doesn’t cling to his prejudice. He listens…Jesus listens. And he changes his mind…The hero of this story is not Jesus, but the Syrophoenician woman…Jesus had prejudices from his community that were magnified by his insulation from those who could challenge his views, but he listens when those views are challenged. He concedes his erroneous ethnocentrism and turns divine compassion toward all people everywhere. Jesus shows us in this story that inheriting bias is inevitable, but holding onto it is a choice.

There is no end to the wonderful ironies in this reading, not least that it is actually Matthew, the writer of the gospel, who is the real hero, since he can see more clearly than Jesus did at the time the importance of this lesson. In an age of resurgent antisemitism, we need to pause to recognise which ‘ethnocentric’ and racist community Jesus belongs to here, whose ingrained prejudices he inherits. And it is not too difficult to read the agenda of this commentator: conservative Christians are like the ignorant, prejudiced Jesus at the beginning of the story, but progressive Christians like me are like the enlightened Jesus at the end of the story. The goal here is less for us to be like Jesus and more to be like the commentator. We can perhaps forgive this approach, knowing that the author is a third-year undergraduate in law (not theology) at Harvard. But others take a similar line:

Jesus uttered an ethnic slur. To dismiss a desperate woman with a seriously sick child…Jesus holds all the power in this exchange. The woman doesn’t approach with arrogance or a sense of entitlement associated with wealth or privilege. Rather she comes to him in the most human way possible, desperate and pleading for her daughter. And he responds by dehumanizing her with ethnic prejudice, if not bigotry. In our modern terms, we know that power plus prejudice equals racism…

Rather than being part of the solution to ethnic prejudice, Jesus seems to be very much part of the problem, according to this story. When confronted with the gentile pagan in this story, he explains that his message and ministry are for Israelites only, a comment of ethnic exclusion and prejudice that calls to mind a similar refrain from a more modern time – whites only – that reverberated throughout the South not too long ago.

This, I think, is the great lesson of the Syrophoenician woman. It teaches us the dynamics of power and prejudice, of how even the best of humanity — the Incarnation himself — can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy. Like many of us today, Jesus would have been reared into a prejudiced worldview.

So don’t tell me you aren’t prejudiced or don’t exercise your position of power through the lens of your prejudice. Even Jesus did that.

The more I think about it, the more alarming this reading is. Apart from its extraordinary historical ignorance (Jewish culture was in a position of power and dominance over against Graeco-Roman pagan culture—really?!), the writer appears entirely unaware of his dangerous characterisation of Jewish first-century culture as racist, effectively likening Jesus the Jew to a member of the Ku Klux Klan. An editorial note at the end of the piece suggests that writer (ordained in the Episcopal Church in the US) is aware of some of the difficulties here. But he doesn’t seem aware of his assumption that Jesus’ humanity implies Jesus’ prejudice and sin, or that that might have been debated by the early church, or that it contradicts some explicit claims of the NT about Jesus (‘tempted like us, but without sin’ Heb 4.15), or that knowing that Jesus lived within a particular time and culture need not imply that Jesus was trapped in that time and culture.

A rather witty post from a Catholic priest picks up some of the problems here:

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

I heard some theologian or other say that in the Gospel a few weeks ago the Syrophoenician woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter ended up teaching Jesus to be more tolerant. Is this possible that Jesus was a narrow-minded bigot who had to learn a thing or two from a Lebanese lady? Please help!

Kay Nanite [see Matt 15.22]

Dear Kay,

I wouldn’t worry too much. Whoever said this must be just a pop theologian. They come and go like the fins on a sixties’ Buick. If he’s Fr. WOW! today, he’ll probably be Fr. Who? tomorrow… I don’t mean to sound fussy, but the reason I call the fellow a pop theologian is that he can’t be much of scholar. He hasn’t read the text. Pop theologians always assume that their opinion is unquestionable, so they never question it themselves…

Jesus left the throne He shared with His Father, taking off the prerogatives of divinity like a garment which He left on the heavenly throne. He humbled himself for love of His Father and for love of us. He never ceased to be God, the Son of God. He never ceased to be the eternal second person of the Holy Trinity. He never ceased to be perfect, since the perfection of the God is sacrificial love. In his humanity, Jesus certainly learned. The creator of the world learned carpentry from St. Joseph and Jesus, the Word of God learned Aramaic on His Blessed Mother’s lap. But he did not learn to be less racist from a Canaanite woman. He did not learn moral truth from anyone. He was and is moral truth.  The only instruction that Jesus needed was the Father’s voice, and this He always heard clearly, despite what you may have heard to the contrary.

This final comment is perhaps jumping too quickly from text to theology, so let’s spend a few moments with the text itself. First, as just about every commentator notes, this passage is indeed challenging—so much so that it is ‘nearly impossible’ (Ben Witherington) to imagine that the story was invented either by Matthew or within his community. In other words, this passage helps to address a challenge from a previous generation, that the gospel stories are unreliable historically and largely a creation of the early Christian community.

Secondly, this episode has much in common with the earlier encounter with the centurion in Matt 8.5–13. Both supplicants are gentiles; both are asking on behalf of another; both are met with an initial show of reluctance; both are in the end commended more highly than any Jew. The woman here receives a more negative initial response, but the pattern is very similar.

And in the midst of that encounter, Jesus expresses a global, multiracial vision of the kingdom when he declares that ‘many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham’ (Matt 8.11). He goes on to contrast this with the rejection of the ‘subjects of the kingdom’ who will be ‘thrown outside into the darkness’. This is particularly striking, given that the verses preceding our reading in Matt 15 depict an encounter with just such ‘subjects of the kingdom’ who are in fact ‘blind guides’. Jesus’ articulation of reversal in chapter 8 is enacted in this pair of narratives in chapter 15.

But this highlights the dynamic of Matthew’s gospel in its overall approach to ‘nationalism’. In this most Jewish of gospels, Jesus more than once emphasises that he has come ‘to the lost sheep of the [house of] Israel’ (Matt 15.24, compare Matt 10.5–6). And yet the inclusion of Gentiles runs as a counter-theme threaded all through the narrative. Non-Jews are woven into the genealogy in Matt 1.3–6; one of the major distinctives of Matthew’s birth narrative is the prominent presence of ‘magi from the East’ in Matt 2.1–12; the start of Jesus’ ministry is hailed as the dawning of light to ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ (Matt 4.15) and his early ministry has included people from ‘Syria’, this very region, as well as the largely Gentile Decapolis (Matt 4.24–25). And of course Jesus has already delivered two demon-possessed men from these Gentile regions in the north (Matt 8.28–34). If the woman is teaching Jesus something about traversing ethnic boundaries, it appears that neither Jesus nor the woman (nor apparently Matthew) has read the previous 14 chapters of the gospel. Or perhaps it is just the ‘progressive’ commentators who have forgotten to do so…

Matthew’s account differs from Mark 7.24–30 in some key details. Jesus ‘withdraws’ to this region to escape confrontation and threat, just as he has previously tried to do in Matt 14.13, and as Joseph did both to Egypt and to Nazareth at the beginning of the gospel (Matt 2.14, 22).

The fact that the woman is an ethnic Canaanite (and not just someone from the region as Mark has it), emphasises the historic enmity with Israel. That Jesus finally grants her request has all the more rhetorical and theological force. It is striking that, in Matthew’s account, she recognises his Jewish identity and credentials; as with other supplicants in this gospel, she addresses him as ‘Son of David’; she knows from the beginning that she is asking for something that is not her right.

And Matthew includes here another striking detail; it is the disciples who would send her away; if anyone in the narrative has not yet understood Jesus’ wider vision for the inclusion of the Gentiles, it is them, not Jesus. Historically, it is the followers of Jesus who have been reluctant to enact Jesus’ broad ministry of healing and restoration.

Mark does soften Jesus’ abrupt challenging, by having Jesus demand that the children are fed first, before the dogs. But in Matthew’s account, she is not offered even this crumb of comfort, as the objection is expressed in absolute terms. (I can see why Luke, directing his account most clearly towards Gentiles, does not include this episode at all!)

Jesus’ use of the term ‘dogs’ deploys the standard Jewish derogatory term for Gentiles. He does use a diminutive term, which might denote a domestic animal rather than a street cur—but this hardly lessens the offence. But here is the narrative and theological challenge: can we imagine Jesus saying something provocative? Can we imagine him testing this woman with a challenge—raising the stakes to see where her faith will take her? As one commenter on a previous blog noted:

To me it seems that in this passage Jesus uses a similar pedagogical method to Jahweh allowing/challenging Abraham (Gen 18:22-33) and Moses (Ex 32:7-14; Num 14:5-20) to be “obnoxious” and persistent intercessors. It seems at first reading that their patience and mercy is greater than God’s, and yet it is God stretching and shaping them to stand in the gap between himself and his people.

As R T France sums up:

A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher’s own view—even if the phrase ‘devil’s advocate’ may not be quite appropriate to this context! (NICNT p 591)

France also notes the correct way to understand the woman’s response to Jesus’ provocation—which has in fact shaped the TNIV translation, in contrast to some older ones. When Jesus suggests ‘It is not right to take the bread…’ she pushes back with ‘Yes [it is]’. Her ‘yes’ is not in agreement with Jesus, but disagreement—as we can see from the grammar of her following comment, ‘for even’ (rather then ‘yet even’) ‘the dogs must be fed’. The fascinating relationship between the children and dogs in her saying—the children should be fed, but so must the ‘dogs’—actually articulates the dynamics of the gospel elsewhere in the NT. Jesus is the Jewish messiah, and it is out of the overflow of God’s grace from Israel to the Gentiles that we are saved. Gentiles do not displace Jews in God’s economy of salvation, but in fact get to share the same ‘bread’ of Jesus and his provision (see the previous episode of the feeding of the 5,000!), even though some of the Jews themselves refuse to eat of it.

Jesus recognises the woman’s wisdom, insight and faith; this is the only time that faith is described as ‘great’—something of a contrast to the ‘little faith’ of Peter when he gets out of the boat!

It is worth noting here that the core issue—that of the nature of the gospel including both Jew and Gentile—remains as forceful as ever, but without having to mangle the text and turn Jesus into a bigoted racist to make the point. It turns out that Matthew is a rather more compelling interpreter of Jesus’ ministry than a number of 21st-century readers. And in this careful reading, it is neither Jesus nor the woman who are the ‘hero’ in contrast to the failure and obstinacy of the other, but both who are important and rounded characters in the narrative. Jesus’ encounters with individuals are never a zero-sum game.

Some similar points are made in a much more detailed narrative-critical study of the parallel account in Mark’s gospel by David Rhoads (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Summer, 1994), pp. 343-375):

The episode of the Syrophoenician woman fits tightly into the overall story, particularly in relation to the presentation of the Kingdom of God. The establishment of God’s rule over the world is the force which drives the whole plot of the narrative. Here are four ways in which this episode relates to the kingdom of God in Mark.

Rhoads highlights the way in which the woman’s response is a mirrored foil to Jesus, cleverly continuing the riddle that he offers her.

In her response, the Syrophoenician woman extends Jesus’ riddle. She does not oppose what Jesus has said. Rather, she develops the scenario of Jesus’ allegory so that she and her daughter have a place in it…Thus, in her response, the Syrophoenician woman not only stays within the Jewish perspective of Jesus’ riddle; she even refers to the Jewish children with a term of endearment.

It is perhaps worth noting how this pattern of ‘to the Jew first, then to the Gentile’ (Romans 1.16) might have been critically important if Mark’s gospel was written in the context of Rome, where relations between Jew and gentile Christian might have been tense.

When we interpret the episode in light of the themes of the whole story, we are also able to see more clearly the rhetorical impact this story may have had on an ancient audience as a boundary-crossing narrative.

It is, perhaps, worth asking why the ‘progressive’ readings of the story are so popular, given that they don’t actually pay attention to the details of the text, and given that they raise such serious theological problems in the understanding of the humanity of Jesus? Perhaps they are simply the manifestation of ignorance—of lack of awareness of or lack of willingness to engage with scholars like R T France. Again, there is an irony writ large in commentating on a passage like this about boundary crossing if commentators are not willing to cross a few boundaries themselves. But such views are broadcast very effectively by social media, and take root in shallow soil where the reading of good commentaries by church leaders is less and less common.

But there is perhaps also a more explicit agenda—to challenge ‘orthodox’ understandings of who Jesus is, by taking the ‘risky’ step of thinking that the Jesus we find in the New Testament isn’t actually a model for us, but is frail, ignorant and sinful too. This then means that the teaching of the New Testament is not binding on us, but is part of the ‘trajectory’ of development which continues through history, so that we, now, represent the pinnacle of revelation, and our own understandings reveal the true wisdom of God. Sadly, this ‘gospel’ doesn’t actually turn out to be very persuasive. As one comment expressed it on the second blog quoted:

If I didn’t already have nothing but utter contempt for Christ, the Bible and Christianity this exposure of Christ’s racism and bigotry surely would have rocked my world view.

If we are going to draw the crowds, perhaps we need to pay more attention to the real Jesus of the gospels.

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65 thoughts on “Did the Canaanite woman teach Jesus not to be racist?”

  1. But here is the narrative and theological challenge: can we imagine Jesus saying something provocative?

    I suppose the question for me here is how far should provocation include using offensive terms.

    • ‘Offensive’ is a very trendy card to play but, of course, it depends on perception. Based on the text there is no reason to think that the woman was offended.

  2. I have presented at Tyndale and Hawarden conferences on (Isa 49.1-7 summarised in) Isa 49.6 being the key idea in (shall we say) Mk 6.6-8.30 (within a sequential Servant Songs template). Gathering together first Israel then the Gentiles. 2 stages.

    Isa 49.6 is the key summary verse both in the original Isaiah and in Mark’s use of it.

    This is seen on the big scale with the 2 feedings, first with Israel numbers (5 books, 12 tribes) then with gentile numbers (4 corners of earth, 7 for completion).

    The Syrophoenician (Mt Canaanite) comes in between these and marks (or helps to mark) the shift from the first half of the commission/mandate to its second half.

    First to the Jew, then to the Gentile. Absolutely, and that principle would not exist but for the prior existence of Isa 49.6.

  3. In your opening paragraph you say that “Jesus appears to insult [the Canaanite woman] with a racial slur by calling her a ‘dog’”, and it is taken as a given in the blogs you quote that this a racist comment.

    Is it established that ‘dog’ was a racist term of abuse in the language of Jesus’ time? It is clearly at least provocative, if not derogatory and insulting, to liken the Canaanite woman and Jews to dogs and children respectively.

    But is Jesus simply using a provocative metaphor to challenge and continue conversation with the woman, as seems to be what the commentators say, that you refer to? Is it an ‘inherently’ racist term? Or is it an abusive term that becomes racist used in this way because the division between ‘children’ and ‘dogs’ lies along ethnic lines?

    Thinking aloud really, and I’m aware that I can’t speak from personal experience of having been on the receiving end of such ‘provocative’ language.

    • Thanks. I don’t think I myself make any judgement that this insult is racist. I am just noting how it is construed in these interpretations. My main objection is to the idea that Jesus was racist/bigoted/nationalist/rude as a reading of this passage.

  4. I’ve always pictured the disciples thinking that they are egging Jesus on, agreeing with his words because they echo their own thoughts, before being brought up short by Jesus’ declaration of the woman’s great faith, which turns their minds upside-down yet again.

  5. Fine conversation here; refreshing to this old curmudgeon who has grown tired of binary (in this case, Orthodox/Progressive) reading of Scripture. My sense of this, and several other texts I include on my “list of things we’d rather Jesus hadn’t said!” is how well they reveal paradoxical facets of salvation narrative. Here, the “bitch” becomes one of the elect, just as in another place (Acts of Apostles) the castrati does. Our flaws, whether bodily or temperamental, become avenues of grace for redemption!

  6. I think it is also worth recognising the desire of interpreters to find an alternative to the notion that Jesus knows all – anticipates all so its not a problem for him to use a racist term to ‘test’ the woman. As far as pedagogy goes its not a pleasant example. Is it? I don’t call my students dogs to test their mettle! What I found helpful from Brueggeman’s book Interrupting silence published in 2019 was his following of Elizabeth Fiorenza where the exchange is about challenging Jewish privilege, so the encounter has aspects of a duel or a debate.

    I was in a discussion with a rabbi about this story last year at a scriptural reasoning session. He was quite distressed. It’s a typical Christian story he said. Why must Christians always make out Jews to be racists? I suggested the model was about arguing with God which has a long and honorable Jewish tradition – couldn’t this be a contest where the woman wrestles with the prophet and wins? It gave the rabbi an way to reframe the story away from racism.

    The other aspect with Fiorenza (and Brueggeman following her) does is to use the story as a curtain raiser for the feeding of the 4 000 (food again) which takes place in Gentile territory – the 12 baskets for the feeding of the 5 thousand for the 12 tribes of Israel and the 7 baskets after the feeding of the 4 thousand follow the 7 tribes of Canaan displaced by the invasion. And this is repeated in the exchange in the boat about the yeast of the pharisees. Didn’t you notice why you got a different number of baskets based on context asks Jesus. Here the Messiah is articulating his provision for Israel and for the Gentiles – this is reframed more widely than racism or a classroom trick. Brueggeman follows Mark rather than Matthew which includes the healing of the deaf and dumb man with Epthatha – be opened – but healed the dumb man speaks… Greek(!) even with an Aramaic opener so to speak.

  7. This is such a shocking, shameful, hurtful, hostile, hate-fulled, offensive, unforgivable, obscene, atomic misappropriation of the words, “woman” and “her” and “daughter”. It must be fiction of the grossest type. Ben Witherinton is so, just so, wrong. This Jesus geezer, has he never heard of gender studies?
    And what was that about deliverence? I mean, what is THAT about? Give me strength. I’m just so furious.
    Just who does he think he is?
    He just offends everyone, left, right and centre.
    You’d think he was The Way, The Truth, The Life.
    You’d think the world revolves around him. You’d think he’s the BIG I AM.
    I hate him. He’s not My Jesus.

  8. And,
    I just can’t stop, the more it sinks in.
    Doesn’t he know that dogs aren’t just animals are what’s this about them being unclean? They are People, and they are some of the nicest people I know. That’s right, they are people and have rights too, not to be offended.
    This is one of the most extreme examples of overt and exclusive speciesism there has every been known.
    I’m fizzing.

  9. A few more points for reflection:
    1. There is a parallel and contrast between J’s encounter with the Pharisees (15:1-20) and the Canaanite woman (21-28). Both are about inclusion and exclusion and the criteria for both – is it race and ritual purity, or to do with the heart and attitude to Jesus?
    2. In both cases the disciples were present, observing J’s words and actions.
    3. In both cases, offence is caused, though the disciples are only concerned about offence caused to the Pharisees (15:12). Although they are with Jesus, their natural inclination is towards a racial-religious view of inclusion in God’s kingdom.
    4. In both stories, Jesus is teaching his disciples about a different, non-racial and heart-based inclusion, first by showing the self-exclusion on the Pharisees, and then by showing the inclusion of the foreign woman.
    5. So the key to the second story is the response of the disciples. They urge Jesus to exclude the woman – she is foreign, pagan, female and annoying.
    6. Jesus shows up the disciples’ wrong understanding by firstly pretending to go along with it, then turning it around by personally intervening in her life, commending her for great faith (cf the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (v7) and ‘dullness’ of the disciples in v 16.
    7. If this was a film or play, a director might add exclamations from the disciples after verses 24 and 26: “yes, you tell her Jesus! Quite right! Salvation is only for the Jews!”
    8. The shock for the disciples would then be all the greater after verse 28. Not only has Jesus done a miracle in the life of a pagan woman who recognises his identity, he has exposed their racism and wrong understanding of salvation.

    • Thanks Andrew; I am sure you are right. I first commented on this in Mark’s gospel, and some of the dynamics are different here in Matthew. Having said that, it is interesting that the two episodes are also close in Mark, though not quite juxtaposed.

  10. This is ‘social media theology’ where the bible is viewed against our latest trends and buzz words. What is ‘race’; I am waiting to read somewhere a comprehensive definition? I’m sure I’ve heard it expressed that the Good Samaritan was a story to combat racism. But the Jews and Samaritans descended from the same ancestry – so where is the meaning in the word? Was the brilliant lady in this story really from a different race to Jesus or just a different nationality? Isn’t race determined by skin colour? I mean everyone with a white skin is of one race – right, but if not what dividing parameters are used? As you pointed out in a recent blog, Ian, the bible does not categorise by skin colour.

    But contextually in a first century setting, was dog an insult or just a metaphor? We are very sensitive to word use now! My wife and I sometime amuse ourselves (in private) by relating all the terms used when we were kids to describe behaviour or attitudes. I’m not allowed to say some now, but how about: “You pig, you’ve eaten all the custard.” Or “You little monkey, you stole the chocolates.” Of course we have the sheep and the goats in Jesus’s teaching – no one seems to object to that metaphor. And in Revelation 22 ‘outside are the dogs’ as a very comprehensive category for unbelievers.

    That Catholic priest sound great, especially “their opinion is unquestionable, so they never question it themselves” – what a great maxim to use on ourselves in order to check our ‘intellectual privilege’.

    That suggestion that Jesus was testing the authenticity of her belief is well worth considering. I recall an A-level teacher using it on my son. My son gave the answer and the teacher said that he was wrong. My son replied that what he said he was correct and the teacher owned up to testing his assurance in his own reasoning. It’s a similar situation in Mark 9 with the epileptic boy where Jesus leaves him having a fit to make a point about faith and bring out the desperate faith of the boy’s father.

  11. Several of the perspectives here suggest that Jesus would have healed a Gentile at any point in his ministry as outlined by Mark. It seems to me that he heals them but only from this moment on (which may of course have been the first time he was even asked to). The development is as shown in Isa 49.6 ‘It is too small a thing for you [to restrict yourself to Israel; from now on] it will be the Gentiles too.’.

  12. I think Andrew Symes is onto something. The presentation of this incident as the direct sequel to the “hand-washing controversy” is surely inviting us to note the contrast between the attitudes of the Pharisees and of Jesus to the whole issue of purity and cleanliness, including the “impurity” of the Gentiles in the eyes of the Pharisees.
    but I also wonder whether this is also an instance of Jesus training his disciples by playing the roles of “bad cop/good cop” – he starts to treat the woman as a Pharisee would, (up to and including the insults,) but when she comes up with her faith-filled response about the dogs eating the crumbs, then Jesus reverts to his “good cop” role – perhaps when he has satisfied himself that the disciples have been so taken aback by his Pharisaical role-play that he knows that they will now understand why he has been so uncompromising in his rejection of any justification of Pharisaism. As any good teacher knows, if a role play is truly effective, there’s no need to follow it up with a prosaic stating of the obvious: the penny has dropped, so no need to waste any more breath.

  13. I agree with Andrew Symes’ points 5-8. Jesus is confident of the woman’s extraordinary faith and his actions and words are carefully timed and calibrated to teach his disciples an unforgettable lesson. Kenneth Bailey has a great deal more illumination to offer concerning this incident in chapter 16 of his ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’. Highly recommended. BUT why oh why do English versions serve us so badly by translating ‘kunarion’ as ‘dog’? This word is a diminutive. In context (an imaginary dog-owning Gentile family) the diminutive indicates endearment – ‘little doggies/puppies’ – a deft expression of warm affection in place of (and which plays off) the regular insult, as the woman immediately understands (in her reply the little doggies have been accepted into the family, being under the table where the family is eating).

    • Well if it’s through Middle Eastern eyes that you want to look, you’ll find fewer insults more stinging than calling someone a dog… Even a diminutive one. At least, that’s true in the contemporary ME. I lack the experience to know if it was true in the 1st c.

      • I am sure it was then too. So why can we not read this, given the immediate context, as Jesus borrowing the disciples’ language to show how wrong their attitude is?

        • The problem is that the woman surely does not deserve to be spoken of in terms which are abusive and rude, even if it is tangential and in a metaphor, but then again this is not the only time Jesus is “rude” or non-pc.
          So Jesus may be tired and snappy,
          he may be in need of learning about inclusion (highly unlikely given previous actions and Matthew’s gospel narrative),
          Kunarioi/ little house dogs, may not be the insult that dog is,
          there may be a twinkle in the eye, a tone in the voice, and little dogs in the house which the reader doesn’t see,
          The woman may be a member of the ruling class and – this is more potentially apparent in Mark where she is Syro-Phoenician, and where her daughter has a bed not just a mattress. In that case Jesus is gently and pointedly confronting her demand with a counter-challenge. Matthew has adapted the Marcan version and this aspect is lost, while the encounter with the disciples adds a different element entirely.
          A passage like this where one evangelist changes elements from another is not straightforward, and both the more conservative tradition and the more liberal traditions need to be careful not to read too simply as if (just) a factual account of an encounter.
          Is it significant that this is an exorcism not a healing? Is it important that this is an encounter with a woman not a man? Each version raises questions and Matthew is clearly wanting his readers to encounter the episode rather differently from Mark.
          I think these are the deeper hermeneutical questions we need to explore.
          The early church certainly had to deal with and engage with questions of Jewishness and inclusion of Gentiles and we need to listen in on their conversations as part of our understanding of what the gospel writers are seeking to do.

  14. Hmm. While I agree with your conclusion, I don’t think it’s wholly wrong to explore the humanity of Jesus and his inculturation. He has to be fully human and ‘limited’ for the incarnation to mean anything.

    I don’t agree that he cannot possibly make a mistake, even if we know he can’t sin. God changes his mind in dialogues with people in the Hebrew Bible, so we have such an example in Jesus.

    • I agree that there is no problem exploring Jesus’ humanity. But most of these readings (including, sadly, one from a C of E bishop upcoming this Sunday) go beyond limitation and claim that Jesus was ignorant, rude and bigoted.

      Can he make a mistake in understanding God’s purposes for his kingdom? Can he really mean that he should not heal the woman, when he has already delivered two gentile men of demons, healed a gentile centurion’s gentile servant, and in Matt 4.24 already healed people from this very region?

      It is a truly strange reading of the passage.

  15. Why does Matthew change the Syro-Phoenician / Greek to Canaanite, which is an anachronism? It is a different designation from the one Mark used, and sends warning bells to Jewish-origin readers. Canaanite is a different kind of other from Gentile or Greek, but it is definitely other.

    There are four audiences / layers in this narrative, and Matthew’s first readers / hearers are the third, who are informed of the background of this woman – [the woman is the first and the disciples are the second, and we the current readers are the fourth(though we can only ].
    The disciples play no part in Mark’s account, and Luke seems to have (deliberately) left this story out, which is also significant. In each case that shapes what the initial readers / audience will hear or not hear.
    Jesus initial silence in Matthew makes space for the disciples to respond, as noted, negatively. Matthew’s account is therefore as much about the disciples learning as it is about the woman.in Mark she is the key character engaging with Jesus directly.
    We do not know the status of the woman – was she a significant person in her community or not? Were there little dogs in the house where Jesus was staying? Might that explain the language used?
    In Matthew’s account there remains then a question – what should we learn from this woman, not just what should we learn from the disciples? Or are we relegating her to an object about which the lesson is developed? She stands in a wonderful line of outsiders who argue with God / Jesus, who crash in, who show up the insiders, who should be celebrated. Our preaching and teaching will have failed the test if we like the disciples send her away from the centre with Jesus, relegate her; she should crash in to our sermons and disrupt them.

  16. What is odd, is that people take offence, when the woman herself didn’t.
    Is n’t this passage to be viewed by the bookends:
    1 the contrast of the response of the Pharisees to Jesus, (Mat 15: 1 -20) with the gentile woman’s identification of Jesus as the Son of David, that is, the Messiah?
    2 the following scriptures, movement to Hallie , where in response to Jesus healings God is glorified and movement into the Decapolis the gentile region and the miracles there. (Mat 15: 29 -39)

    Gentiles were regarded as being outside the Covenant people of God, and unclean, hence, dogs, unclean animals?

    The woman herself seems to be aware of that and doesn’t seek to contradict Jesus. Nor does she take offence, but seeks mercy, help, kneeling before him.

    When pressed she perseveres.

    This is in direct contrast to the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Their hearts were unclean, defiled far from God (Mat 15: 1-20)

    And she is commended by Jesus, not as a dog, but as “O woman, great is your faith.”
    (There was already OT precedent with both Elijah and Elisha healing offspring of Tyre/Sidon women.)

  17. In response to Peter Reiss:
    “…the woman surely does not deserve to be spoken of in terms which are abusive and rude…
    So Jesus may be tired and snappy.”

    A suggested amplified version, or screenplay:

    21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. During that time he mostly rested, but he did do some open air healing and preaching, including teaching on how Yahweh is the ruler of the whole world, and plans to include many gentiles in his kingdom. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

    23 Jesus did not answer a word, but as he looked at her with compassion he gave a hint of a smile; she nodded, but kept up her insistent demands.
    So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

    24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel – is that what we think, disciples?”

    “Quite right”, said Peter. “I agree – you tell her!” said John. “Go away” said James to the woman.

    “Let her through” said Jesus to the disciples who were trying to block her way.

    25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

    26 He met her eye, and the disciples didn’t see him wink at her, as he replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

    The woman remembered well this same illustration that Jesus had used, as she stood at the edge of the small crowd listening to him preach the day before.

    27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

    28 Then Jesus smiled again, gave her a discreet thumbs up sign, and said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

    After she went away the disciples asked him about this. “Are you still so dull?” said Jesus.

  18. O Andrew,
    Your reimagined v 28: Isn’t that something of a subdued, “Jesus the Anglican” response!? And what’s this about Jesus “winking.”! ? With the theological , scriptural freight attached to winking?

    • OK Geoff your interpretation rests on us not seeing the ‘dogs’ comment as shocking or offensive in any way. And in the disciples being incidental to the story, mere spectators, rather than those whose worldview Jesus is in the process of changing. Fair enough – but I prefer my interpretation, which is that the woman was in on the irony and the disciples weren’t (use another signal if you don’t like Jesus winking). Both interpretations are better than the “Jesus was a bigot on a journey to being more woke” one which obviously denies his divinity.

  19. Andrew,
    I’m not addressing the question of the disciple’s, but the the whole point of the article.
    From the before and after scriptures, the context.
    The text itself, centres, hones in, on the identity of Jesus, which the woman correctly identifies as her belief that he is Lord, “Son of David” the Messiah, of the covenant people, chosen people, (not so the Pharisees and teachers of the law).
    Where does the text plainly teach, show that, the woman was offended, or opposed what Jesus said, but goes along with it, as her faith in who Jesus is, is tested by Jesus?
    With the resultant exultant? (my interpretation) expression from Jesus, “O Woman, great is your faith.”

    You put this down to my interpretation. I’d put it down to reading the text, and, yes with an underlying minimal understanding of OT covenants and “Son of David” as the long expected Messiah.
    With that, I’d suggest that it is not necessary to read offence of the woman into it with modern woke sensibilities ( which we are both keen to dispel).
    Of course, the good news of Jesus is ever, at the same time, offensive and foolish, exclusively inclusive.

  20. This is all so helpful. Ian and Andrew, Is it possible that there is an underlying narative? I have wondered if Paul and here the gospel writers, are playing with the Hebrew idea of offense/scandal: stumbling block. ‘You must not put a stumbling block in front of the blind’. Jesus is a stumbling block/offense…..to the blind, but not to those who can see…such as the women in the story.

    • Not directly, no—but this is the fairly clear implication. It appears to have been common currency, and I think is still used by Muslims of Christians who eat pork.

      • My wife and I became Council approved shared carers for children with disabilities and a child allocated to us was from a Muslim family. A main reason was because we were aware, as Christians, of what might be expected of us, having some understanding of their beliefs, such as avoiding dogs when outside with their child, dogs being seen as unclean.

  21. I wonder whether the key to the passage isn’t the woman simply kneeling and asking “Lord, help me!” Truly a humble and profound prayer. Only then is the door unlocked and opened, with Jesus now responding to her and the two of them, together, gleefully destroying the false barrier of exclusion that Jesus had named. She has been accepted into sisterhood with Christ, with all the empowerment that implies and with a clear demonstration of the inclusivity of God’s saving grace. Maybe there are some echoes of Job here?

    • I am sure that is true—but Matthew is pretty emphatic in noting that she says ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of David’ and is identified explicitly as a non-Jew. So I think there are further layers to her request and Jesus’ response…

  22. Rabbis did challenge the inquirers. There are various times Jesus does this. He wants any disciple to go deeper. He wants his gathering to go deeper as well, hence he presents a common saying, but then flips it. I am thankful to Ian for the greater, narrative understanding of the passage. Comparing only ‘like’ pericopes out of context, like pearls on a necklace strung together serendipitously, is a Gentile mischaracterization of the task and has led to weird interpretations.

    • Thanks Francis. Yes, I am a bit baffled by our tendency to rip single episodes out of context. I think it has its roots in the ‘higher criticism’ approach of form criticism, where is was assumed that each of these circulated independently and were just strung together by the gospel writers.

  23. There are certainly layers to this story as there so often are in biblical narrative. For me there’s a salvation lesson in the way Jesus speaks to the woman.

    If the quid pro quo for my being included in God’s offer to become his child – his heir – is to accept some insulting words in describing my worthless and lowly state, I’ll take that deal every time. Who am I to complain? And if it’s treatment that needs to happen regularly because I keep failing him, then I’ll take it regularly.

    And is not the very first test of faith for all of us who encounter and ask Jesus to intervene in our life that we allow him first to break us in whatever way is appropriate to our needs? Because that is exactly what must happen before he can help us – it’s just the way it is. Whereupon we find he turns us upside down in the way only he can. If instead we take offence at what we consider hurtful treatment, it’s rather obvious that our faith is only skin deep – we’re only after what is on offer if it’s on our own terms. Naaman finally learned that lesson to his great benefit.

    But the woman in this story was already up to speed with that and she got the kind of commendation from Jesus that would make us blush if it came our way.

  24. Hi Ian

    Very helpful. Just one minor quibble? Have you read Mark Nanos on whether Jews called gentiles dogs? Turns out there is no evidence that they did. None. The oft-repeated claim is a Christian invention to explain this story. Dogs is a common slur but it is not a racial slur. I don’t think this is a problem. If anything it makes the passage fractionally easier.

    But the article is really good.

  25. Perhaps the dots could to joined to Philippians 3: 1-9 as far as dogs and righteousness and loss and surpassing worth of knowing Christ is concerned.

  26. Hello Robin,
    Thanks for the link, which I’ve skimmed,
    He identifies as a Jew. If the article is from a viewpoint of Judaism, I’m not sure.
    His main concern seems to be to seek to avoid what he terms polemics in both passages and he seems to bring in Christ or Christians as a minor sub- branch of Judaism in Philippians.
    What are his beliefs about Jesus (is he the Messiah, God the Son, Son of David?) holiness, righteousness, clean/unclean, the Trinity, salvation, covenants, covenant people of God (who is included. excluded, how and why?) circumcision, Gentiles, the law, grace?.
    He includes this in relation to the Matthew passage:
    “The message Matthew seeks to communicate may be that the nations who turn to Israel’s God are to recognize that they do so as those who are under the reign of Israel’s king (or is it more salient that it is Judah’s king?”

    Does he see Jesus as Israel’s God made flesh?

    There is no exploration of Jesus being King, the Messiah, nor the whole context of Matthew, let alone Mat 15. There doesn’t appear to be an understanding or mention of Jesus being addressed as “Lord, Son of David”, but I could have missed it?
    I’d make two particular points in relation to Mat 15 and Philippians 3:
    1. lack of evidence elsewhere is not evidence of lack; it’s not not evidence either way.
    2 Dog was used in both passages and both are likely to have appropriations of text and allusions to the Tanak. (Indeed Nanos does a word search trawl without really seeking to contextualise with the passages.) Let alone, again, with the whole books.
    We have the whole canon of Old and New scripture to gain whole bible theologies, big pictures.
    I’d contend that the principle is similar in both passages (particularly in the context of Matthew 15.
    How does Nanos help or, as you say, make it easier to preach the passage from Matthew 15.
    I’d suggest that in Philippians 3 the OT allusion dogs would be in relation to holiness, and righteousness, worship by the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit of God, and glory in Christ Jesus (verse 3). Nanos here does not set out or deal with this whole verse taken together nor the whole passage 3:1 -11.

    I slightly know a Messianic Jewish couple. She sang at a friend’s son wedding reception (a Jonny Cash song!). They regularly attend Christian lectures and are generally shunned by their orthodox Jewish community. When asked what the community does with Matthew how it is understood: they don’t read it. – righteousness by faith, not law, knowing, to be found in

    Last, what does Nanos understand to be the Good News of the person and nature Jesus Christ? What does it include, exclude?
    Would his preaching find a home in the synagogue? Would it be an offence?

    There is much said by commentators on this site about interpretation: that is your interpretation! I’d suggest that comprehension is key. Comprehension is frequently dismissed in the service of advocating a position by engaging the interpretation ploy. Does Nanos engage with an understanding of essential Christian doctrine, and pertinent to this whole blog post of Ian Paul, the central position of Jesus Christ?

    Thank you for the link.
    Yours in Christ Jesus

  27. We cannot but read Scripture in the light of our own cultural and linguistic experience. I dare say we all gasped inwardly when we first read Jesus teaching that we must hate our mother and father if we are to follow him.

    No doubt the idioms of first century Aramaic, expressed in 21st century English via koine Greek, will lose much in translation. Even his own baffled disciples asked Jesus on occasion to speak plainly and avoid figures of speech!

    I would say that I know enough of Jesus from elsewhere in the Gospels to assure me that this unusual expression is not an ugly racial slur.

  28. I was aghast at your contention that Jesus Christ was prejudiced and had to be “educated”!

    Jesus is God in the flesh, He has NO SIN! You obviously were not reading or exigeting this account rightly at all. Jesus had ways of testing people. He was testing this woman’s faith not talking down to her. If you have a problem with how He did it that is your fault, not God’s. Who are YOU to judge God the Son?? We are under HIS judgement not the other way around. Scripture states the God is not a “respecter” of persons meaning he has no favor over one group of people over the other. Jesus never called this woman a “dog”. “Dog” referred to Gentiles in the Jewish culture. I think Jesus was being, as we would describe it in today
    s vernacular, “sarcastic”. He was demonstrating that some Gentiles had more faith in Him than Jews did. And she did. He was demonstrating to to others that salvation was for Gentiles as well as Jews. The fact she was not offended showed she had true faith in Him. He knew she wasn’t a “dog” and she knew who Jesus truly is. Shame on you! Jesus’ humanity did NOT INCLUDE A SINFUL NATURE. You obviously do not understand Scripture or Jesus rightly at all. Scripture makes it plain He (Jesus ) HAD NO SIN.

    • I think I would agree with your concern. But I think it is worth asking whether the gospel accounts of Jesus line up with this claims—and I think a proper reading of the text itself does support this view.

  29. Jesus voiced the words children and dogs, meaning the Israelites were children and the Canaanite woman was a dog. It’s a slick way to say dogs are more evolved than children. A dog is smart enough to acknowledge divinity. Jesus is letting Israelites know that he was sent here to help them but they refused him so he’s taken refuge outside of Israel where he meets other races that are loyal and aware of spirit while the Israelites are children. Has nothing to do with racism.

  30. Thanks so much for this excellent and insightful post. The late Revd Canon Dr Michael Green wrote an excellent section on this passage in his commentary (Michael Green, “The Message of Matthew”, The Bible Speaks Today (London: IVP, 2000). He explains that a careful and close look at the original Koine Greek text demonstrates that Jesus’s seemingly-controversial statement here may have actually been intended as a question, testing the woman’s faith, rather than a closed statement. So, instead of harshly judging her, he was actually inviting her to respond and demonstrate her true, deep faith by insisting upon her certainty that the Gentiles are indeed grafted into salvation. He is, if you like, daring her to hold firm, and reinforce and double-down on her statement that the Gentiles are also included in God’s saving plan. He wants her to smash the exclusive, cultural and religious taboo of the time that salvation was the exclusively for Jews and would never be extended to Gentiles. He wants her to proclaim this herself independently and of her own volition, He is not going to do it for her.
    This is similar to Jesus’s reply to Thomas’s confession of faith in the Resurrected Christ in John 20:29, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’.

    I’d add here that this is, in a way, fairly typical of Jesus’s peripatetic (and maybe even Socratic) teaching style. A style which provokes as well as challenges and unsettles our complacent, arrogant and exclusive presumptions. We see another example of this in Mark 10:18 where Jesus replies to man who asks Him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 17) by saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (v. 18). Jesus was testing the man’s faith, giving Him the chance to respond and demonstrate His faith and courage by replying, “But you are God”. Jesus does not spoon-feed those who follow or approach Him, but instead invites us to encounter Him and then make a personal, autonomous and independent decision to believe in Him as a single individual (Søren Kierkegaard).

    Thanks again,
    Ben Somervell.

  31. I came across this page while preparing for study Monday where this passage is the basis of the lesson I have to guide others through. I have lent my wonderful Kenneth Bailey book “Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes” to a mate and can’t recover it to quote here (or use for tomorrow) but it features four or so pages on this passage and, in my view, brings it to life in a way that shows Jesus wants to help and retains that magical ability to say exactly the right thing to all the people present. In this passage Jesus is walking a cultural tight rope and deals with all aspects of that minefield in a way that only He can. This passage has become one of my favorites because of the subtlety apparent, the faith of a woman on the outer edges who knows with whom she is engaging and Jesus’s wisdom on display.
    Happy Easter Sunday.


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