Did the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7 teach Jesus not to be racist?

The gospel lectionary reading for Trinity 14 in Year B is Mark 7.24-37, which includes the episode of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman that 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 characteristic of his portayal in Mark’s gospel) he is unable to keep his presence secret. A woman approaches him to ask for deliverance for her daughter and (Mark 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 Mark, 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. 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 so much as 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 form 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 Ben Witherington notes in his socio-rhetorical commentary (Eerdmans, 2001, p 231), this passage is indeed challenging—so much so that it is ‘nearly impossible’ to imagine that the story was invented by Mark’s mostly gentile 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.

But (as R T France highlights in his excellent NIGTC commentary), the episode also exhibits many connections with early and following parts of Mark. The episode begins in Mark 7.24 with the phrase ‘he rose and went from that place’, a phrase that first occurred in Mark 1.35 (though the parallel is obscured in some English translations). In both cases Jesus is seeking solitude as a prelude to the widening of his missions into new regions. Secondly, it is a feature of this early part of Mark that Jesus is moving beyond and then back into Jewish territory, which is part of the force of the eight occurrences of Jesus ‘crossing the lake’ (an aspect of Mark’s ‘fishy’ gospel in which, probably under the influence of Peter as his eye-witness source, Mark gives prominent attention to fishing, boats, and sea crossings). Thirdly and more particularly, Jesus has already been involved in deliverance ministry amongst non-Jewish pagans, in healing the Gerasene demoniac. If the woman is teaching Jesus something about traversing ethnic boundaries, it appears that neither Jesus nor the woman (nor apparently Mark) has read the episode from two chapters early. Or perhaps it is just the ‘progressive’ commentators who have forgotten to do so…

In fact, this episode fits with a number of themes in this section of Mark. ‘Bread’ is a repeated theme, first occurring in the feeding of the five thousand in Mark 6.35–44, then recurring in the feeding of the four thousand in Mark 8.1–10, as well as featuring in Jesus warning to the disciples about the Pharisees, highlighting the disciples’ own lack of understanding, in Mark 8.14–21. In each place, bread stands for the blessings of the Messiah’s ministry, first to his own people the Jews and then (secondly) to the Gentiles. The two feeding episodes function as (if you will pardon the pun) a sandwich to the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman.

So when we read the text carefully, and read it in the context of the wider arc of Mark’s narrative, what do we learn?

Misunderstandings of the pericope spring largely from the failure to read it as a whole. It is a dialogue within which the individual sayings function only as part of the whole, and are not intended to carry the weight of independent exegesis on their own. The whole encounter builds up to the totally positive conclusion of verses 29 to 30, while the preceding dialogue serves to underline the radical nature of this new stage in Jesus’s ministry into which he has allowed himself to be ‘persuaded’ by the woman’s realism and wit. He appears like a wise teacher who allows, and indeed incites, his pupil to mount a victorious argument against the foil of his own reluctance. He functions as what in a different context might be called a ‘devil’s advocate’, and is not ‘disappointed’ to be defeated in argument. As a result the reader is left more vividly aware of the reality of the problem of Jew-gentile relations, and of the importance of the step Jesus here takes to overcome it. (France, p 296).

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 Mark is a rather more compelling interpreter of Jesus’ ministry that 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 episode 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.

And there are further points worth noting, some of detail and others of the broader context. First, Jesus calls the woman a κυνάριον, a pet, house or lap dog, who is part of the family, and not a κύων, a wild street dog. The first term occurs only here and in the parallel in Matt 15.26–27; the second occurs in the other well-known references, Matt 7.6, Luke 16.21, Phil 3.2, 2 Pet 2.22 and Rev 22.15, and can have the metaphorical meaning of prostitute.

Secondly, although the woman is identified explicitly by Mark as a ‘gentile’ (literally, ‘a Greek’), she does not appear to be of low social status, and might well have seen herself as socially superior to Jesus, a Jew. Her status might be indicated by the fact that her daughter is lying on a κλίνη, which is sometimes translated as ‘couch’, though the word is used flexibly (for example, in Luke 5.18, though not in Mark 2.4), so I am not sure this is decisive.

Thirdly, we need to pay attention to the community context in which Jesus is operating. Colin Edwards commented on a previous posting of this analysis:

Kenneth Bailey does a good job in explaining that Jesus is a setting that is community in action (as opposed to individualistic), and that Jesus usually has the disciples and his community to the fore of his attention. Therefore Bailey argues that Jesus is working with the woman to have her help him teach the watching disciples that the kingdom is for all. He doesn’t need pursuading but his disciples and watching community do. This interaction is an object lesson that helps pursuade and teach them.

And Andrew Symes notes the importance of this in the parallel in Matthew 15:

If Mark’s version is an abbreviation of Matthew 15:21-28, then Matthew’s version helps with the interpretation, because it shows the disciples seeing the woman as annoying, and trying to get Jesus to send her away. Is it too fanciful to imagine him making the comments about dogs looking at the disciples with a raised eyebrow, inviting them to agree with his pretend-racist and misogynistic assessment, and then winking at the woman, who comes out with her brilliant line about crumbs from the table?

Again in Matthew’s version, Jesus prefaces his announcement of healing with “woman, you have great faith”. Jesus honours a foreign woman and heals her daughter at a distance; he is showing up his disciples for xenophobia, lack of compassion and lack of faith; at the same time he demonstrates the intention of the kingdom for racial inclusivity and the blessing of all nations based around faith in Christ. All in an exchange which would have lasted less than a minute. The disciples come out badly, and someone can perhaps enlighten me as to why Mark’s account isn’t as clear as Matthew’s, but Jesus remains the perfect Lord and Saviour, preaching and demonstrating the kingdom in a very human setting.

I think the answer to the last question might be found in Matthew’s strongly Jewish perspective, which makes the lesson even more important.

Finally, Jesus’ approach here fits well with God’s dealings with his people, as Daniel Boehm commented previously:

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…

In this I see a connection to Lk 11:5-24 and Lk 18:1-8 where God allows himself to be compared to rather unpleasant chracters, because as we intercede we wrestle with (our image of) God. Again, not to ‘convince’ him to be merciful but to train us to trust in his justice and mercy against all odds. To me it would be one of the most joyful moments if one of my children told me – “Dad, I know you better than that.” … reminding me of who I aspire to be.

Does all this mean that Jesus is never ‘learning and growing’ in the accounts in the gospels? After all, isn’t that part of what it means to be human? Jesus was clearly not omniscient (‘no-one knows the hour, not even the Son’ Matt 24.36) and that was part of his finitude as fully human in the incarnation. But if ‘in him the fulness of the godhead dwelt bodily’ then I think we are getting into serious problems if we think he didn’t understand God’s purposes for humanity, and in particular if he was limited in his understanding by a certain kind of Jewish ethnocentricity which would equate to what we could consider ‘racism’. Apart from another else, it questions Jesus’ own understanding of the OT, which includes some very clear critiques of such a narrow view.

Besides, a careful attention to what the text actually says here offers no grounds for believing that Jesus was ignorant and racist, and that this incident taught him something about the kingdom of God that he did not already know.

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 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, to engage with theologians from other traditions, 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 is on the second blog quoted above:

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.

If you would like to learn more about how to read the New Testament well, why not pick up Exploring the New Testament which I have contributed to. It explores issues of background, context, content and interpretation for the letters of the NT including the Book of Revelation.

(A previous, shorter version of this was posted in 2018. See also the commentary on the parallel passage in Matt 15.)

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65 thoughts on “Did the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7 teach Jesus not to be racist?”

  1. “Rhoads? Where we’re going, we don’t need Rhoads!”
    -Progressive commentary 😉

    I joke of course. This article remains helpful in the revision and I am glad for it.

  2. Thanks Ian. I appreciated looking at this again (though I must admit I hadn’t expected to be quite so surprised in the middle bit 🙂 ).

    Re the “progressive” reading. The more I look at it the more it strikes me as based on stereotype and anachronism.
    1. It sees Jesus as having “all the power” based on his sex, ethnicity and ability. The first 2 are shot through with problems based on stereotype. As you point out, to assume she is powerless is just that; an assumption. She may well have been a women of status and power. But todays morality based on victimhood needs to paint her as a victim (something not inherent in the text).
    2. It conflates our modern understanding of race and racism with the divisions that existed in Jesus’ day. Racism based on colour doesn’t seem to have been an issue. Societal divisions were based more on place of origin (city: Nazareth-low, Tarsus-high), region (look and see no prophet comes from Galilee); faith/law, allegiance to god/s and cultus (Jew / Gentile); status and honour. Calling Jesus racist is like calling him Kaffir (A Muslim term for unbeliever), in that its an analysis didn’t exist in those days and isn’t to be applied backwards.

    • Well, now I will have to include this comment of yours in three years’ time…!

      I think many find it hard to imagine themselves into a world where race and ethnicity was defined in very different ways…

    • Yes, right on. The very term ‘Syro-Phoenician’ is a geographical, not a racial, term.

      In any consideration of Christ’s perceived ‘racism and bigotry’, we might first ask what racism is that is so terrible, and in many people’s eyes the worst of all sins. It’s an emotive, rhetorical term designed to divide humanity into two camps, the enlightened and the bigoted, so it needs examining. I won’t attempt a full deconstruction, but I do think we should not take the content and meaning of the word for granted. The emotive content derives from popular history – Nazi Arianism, the American civil war, South African apartheid, the European slave trade, none of which are around today. Not being a racist makes one feel good. Calling someone else a racist also makes one feel good. The NT word for this is self-righteousness. Defining sin in such terms is a way of evading the terms in which God speaks of sin.

      Anyone who subscribes to the atheistic view of origins is implicitly a ‘racist’. Palaeoanthropologists consider modern man to be a species they call Homo sapiens, even a subspecies, H. sapiens sapiens, and a subspecies is a ‘race’ in colloquial language. Such people say there is no such thing as race, but they are happy enough categorising our forebears in racial terms. Earlier forms of Homo are all given Latin names that convey the message “these were not as intelligent as us, they were inferior and to some degree subhuman” – Homo habilis, H. neanderthalensis, H. ergaster, H. rudolfensis, H. erectus, H. floresiensis and so on and so on, all based on differences in teeth and skull shape. Readers, do you subscribe to this safe, acceptable form of ‘racism’ – safe, because looking down on fellow human beings as inferior doesn’t matter if they are far enough in the past and all these races or species can be seen as stepping stones to our racially superior condition?

      The Bible doesn’t talk about races at all. Ancient Israel, like other ancient peoples, defined its identity in terms of genealogy, not skin colour or fuzzy hair. Israel was distinct because the nation could all claim to descend from one individual – skin colour unknown – whose name was Israel, grandson of Abraham. ‘Israelite’ wasn’t a racial category, it was a genealogical category. To be a Jew was to be a descendant of a subset of Israel, the tribes of Judah, Benjamin et al.

      The Table of Nations, likewise, divides man according to tribes, languages, lands and nations – the last term being the largest people unit and implicitly genealogical. A ‘Canaanite’ was a descendant of Canaan, descendant of Noah, descendant of the first man, Adam.

      The biblical view is that we are all descended from one ancestor, and he was created in the beginning by God (Acts 17:26). Consequently we’re all ‘God’s offspring’ (Acts 17:29). Homo habilis, H. neanderthalensis, H. ergaster, H. rudolfensis, H. erectus, H. floresiensis and so on were also, consequently, God’s offspring. God was not racist in creating a distinctive nation, set apart from the other nations. He did not choose Abraham because of any physical characteristics. The whole concept of race and racism is foreign to biblical thought.

      • Adam named the animals just before Eve was given to him. It makes me think the ‘animals’ were the Neanderthals etc you mention. They were human enough for Adam to mingle with until he could define them with a name but they lacked something infinite- a spirit. Adam proved his Godlikeness by refusing a mate from them.
        Ideas from Arthur Custance

        • I am not aware that the term ‘animals’ in the OT ever refers to hominids or anything other than what we would consider animals. I think the story looks very much like a founding narrative of human understanding, not a history.

          • No he didn’t, because in a pre-scientific age ‘history’ means something different. He and Jesus took it as scripture, as do I. I would happily use exactly the same language as they do.

          • A suitable mate for Adam was the reason for the search. Surely he was presented with hominids to name and evaluate. Archaeologists see all human-like remains as proof of a continuum to the present day but Adam didn’t find any of them suitable as coworkers.
            Sorry. Going off topic.

          • Hominids are animals. They existed as part of the creation. They looked like Adam but behaved like animals but not wild and dangerous to Adam. They had no concept of God. Only Adam had a spiritual dimension so therefore when he came to evaluate them he only named them, put them in a box and moved on. After the fall they interbred to produce us, the hybrid , shot lived, prone to disease, 2% neanderthal, human race.
            Ahem…er…according to Custance.

          • No he didn’t [take the Genesis narrative as history]. In a pre-scientific age ‘history’ means something different. This is one of the strangest things I have ever read from you, the author of this fine rebuttal of woke interpretations of Mark 7. Histor(oriograph)y was not the invention of the scientific age, it was the invention of the Hebrews. How can you suggest otherwise? It was God in the pre-scientific age of the Pentateuch that taught Israel the difference between history and myth, fact and fiction. Our own civilisation was founded on the distinction. If you are searching for a word that more precisely expresses what you mean by ‘something different’, it is the Greek word muthos, as in II Tim 4:4, Titus 1:14, II Pet 1:16. Profoundly influenced as he was by the Pentateuch and as a child of Hellenistic Tarsus, Paul knew the difference between history and myth; you as a theologian evidently don’t, apparently on the basis of living in a ‘scientific’ age when we know better. This is just the kind of thinking which in other contexts you challenge.

            Your statement undermines the entire presupposition that the New Testament revelation of Jesus is dealing with truth as a ‘scientific age’ would recognise it. When Jesus says that God made man male and female from the beginning, you say that while he took Genesis as ‘Scripture’, he did not realise that this pre-scientific Scripture was not dealing with factual history. His words ‘from the beginning’ do not factually mean ‘from the beginning’, and ‘made’ does not mean literally made. Jesus was just repeating what Scripture said, without realising that factually, literally and historically it was in fact false.

            This is why modern Christianity has no authority and has nothing coherent to say to the present generation. It has abandoned its theological and metaphysical foundations. It preaches ‘Jesus’ and thereby believes itself orthodox, but it’s Jesus as orphan, not the Son of God. It talks about ‘man being made in the image of God’ while all the while assenting to the mindset that divides our forbears into races and species and subhumans and descendants of the apes, as if that sort of ‘racism’ was theologically perfectly acceptable. As with the rest of humanity, we must believe that Jesus’s ancestry went back to the apes – that they were his father. God is whatever the wise men of modern science tells us he is, not the one who in the beginning made the world and everything in it, who gave man life and breath and everything. Nature – blind, meandering ‘Evolution’ – is the thing that gave us life. Far from being the one without whom we cannot account for existence, God is merely optional metaphysics for the ‘religious’. Scientifically, he is irrelevant.

          • Hmmm…can I ask you two questions?

            First, do you think Jesus and Paul believed the earth to be billions of years old? If they didn’t, does that mean we shouldn’t?

            Second, do you think Jesus and Paul believed in quantum physics and special relativity? If they didn’t, does that mean we shouldn’t?

          • First question. Evidently they didn’t, because Genesis, while not telling us how old the earth is, tells us that there was a genealogically traceable, historical, oral tradition going back to the Creation itself. It therefore can’t be billions of years old. Yes, we should believe what Paul believed and put in writing. Paul only wrote what we received from Jesus (with the partial exception of I Cor 7) and Jesus only said things which he received from the Father.

            As a geologist who has researched these questions in depth, I have the advantage of knowing that the empirical evidence does not support anything like billions of years; nor does it support the evolution of trees and grass and fish and mollusks and insects and birds and worms and elephant and apes etc all from a single ancestor. When a Christian who believes in these things comes before the judgement seat, he will have to explain not only why he did not believe what Genesis says and why he wasn’t moved by Paul’s and Jesus’s belief in Scripture but why he did believe in something that was scientifically false and contrary to the testimony of Nature itself (Ps 8:3, Rom 1:20). It is absurd that atoms over time assembled the miraculous human body all by themselves. Yet you believe it, no matter the cost – rendering Scripture philosophically incoherent, stripping it of much of its power to convict and convert, stripping Jesus of his divine ancestry on his mother’s side, and reducing him to a man of limited/fallible understanding who took Genesis at its word when in fact it was just a fable, ‘a founding narrative of human understanding.’ Not to mention assenting to the racism of palaeo-anthropology. Really it’s the same issue as in John 8:40-44.

            Regarding the second question, you seem to be implying that the age of the earth as determined by ‘scientists’ is has the same degree of probably being true as quantum physics and special relativity. That is not the case.

            Moreover, you’re not asking the question in a scientific spirit, because, in principle, science questions everything, including its own certainties. You are implying that we should just believe it. Paul advises, “Test everything.”

            Faced with the choice of who to believe concerning the age of the earth and the origin of man – ‘scientists’ or Scripture (i.e. God, assuming a high view of Scripture) – you choose ‘scientists’. It’s a bad choice. The wisdom of man is folly with God. ‘Science’ when it comes to the nature of reality (whether there is such a thing as spirit, whether demons exist, whether God exists) and the origin of all things (whether Nature has the quasi-divine power to bring plants, animals and man into existence all by itself) is a philosophical system and fundamentally atheistic. What concord has Christ with Belial?

          • I don’t choose between ‘scientists’ and scripture; I recognise that scripture is not a science text book. And you don’t appear to recognise that it is not scripture, but your very particular, literalist, interpretation of scripture that I am rejecting. I am quite happy with that!

            I note you have avoided my second question. And I don’t think you’ve yet realise why I asked it. I am indeed ‘testing everything’.

            Can I ask one more. When you look at the sky and see the Andromeda spiral galaxy, can you trust what your eyes are seeing? Is it really there?

          • What do I mean by incoherence?

            Theologically you accept that all things were made through Jesus (John 1, Col 1) and that nothing was made without him, but in terms of historical fact you think it was Evolution – natural selection working on chance mutations – that made everything. Nature ‘created’ itself.

            You believe that Jesus healed the Syrophoenician’s daughter and all the other incurables by the power of his word, as if he really was manifesting the power of the one who created all things, but you deny the exercise of that power in creation itself.

            Theologically you maintain a staunchly conservative line in matters of sexual purity and deviancy (and all credit to you for trying to hold the line), but in terms of historical fact you believe, like the LGBTI party, that marriage was just a custom that arose in the course of social evolution and sexual difference arose by chance somehow (evolutionary biologists are also puzzled) after the evolution of bacteria – it’s meaningless to talk about the created order.

            You think racism is a bad thing, because ‘we’re all made in the image of God’, but you think that historically we were not made in the image of God and are quite happy with the idea that our forbears were subhuman and, further back, ape-like creatures – certain footballers may not deserve to be called apes but their, and your own, distant forbears did, because apes they were.

            Doctrinally you accept that Jesus was the Son of God but, in terms of historical fact, you believe he wasn’t; Luke’s genealogy is false, being based on a ‘literalistic’ understanding of Genesis.

            Satan, you believe, was not a murderer and liar ‘from the beginning’ and God did not create man and woman ‘from the beginning’ – these are examples of Jesus not understanding that Genesis was a story without historical foundation: in reading it as history he simply did not know better. In our scientific age he would have treated it the same way you do.

            The prophecy in Gen 3:15 was a false prophecy because it was never said.

            Doctrinally you believe, I think, that death was the consequence of sin, but historically, you do not believe it was, since death in your view was in the world long before man. Thus Jesus may have died for our sins on the cross, but he did not conquer death on the cross because there is no necessary connection between sin and death.

            Jesus was also deceived before his incarnation, when his spirit (I Pet 1:11) inspired the prophets to say – to give just one example – “I am Yahweh who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself … who turns wise men back and makes their knowledge foolish” (Isa 44). You think today’s wise men know better, and that these words were just Isaiah reflecting Israel’s entirely false understanding of how the world came to be. By implication, the entire corpus of biblical prophecy is tainted.

            Likewise Paul did not know better when he treated Genesis as factual history (Acts 17, Rom 1, Rom 5, I Cor 11, Heb 4, I Tim 2), Peter was also deceived (Acts 4, II Pet 3). Even God was not telling the truth when he gave John a vision which had the elders saying “You created all things” and had this reiterated by Jesus in Rev 10 and by an angel in Rev 14. To say nothing about what God said to Moses (Ex 20:11). They were all wrong, I am wrong for believing them, and you are right. Are you really not just the slightest bit troubled?

            Apparently the answer to all this incoherence is to ask whether, when I look at the sky and see the Andromeda spiral galaxy, I can trust what my eyes are seeing.

  3. Thanks Ian, another concise but powerful analysis. I think your use of the term ‘shallow soil’ sums things up quite well.

  4. Don’t really see how it is progressive reading of Mark, from beginning to end, more like textual isolationist.
    It is a reduction of Christ, to merely human, rather than Mark’s Christocentric presence of Isael’s God in person.
    Maybe so far as thelology is concerned it represents an application of “process” or “open” theology.
    But the passage, to me, has hints of Ruth.

  5. The second of Mark’s 4 main sections (which taken inclusively is 6.6b-8.30) is unified by the topic of gentile inclusion in the feast cf. Acts 10-11 (unified, as seen by the mention of bread in 2 water scenes) and this section in Mark corresponds to the second of the servant songs (Isa 49). Both in the Isaiah and in the Mark the summary verse is Isaiah 49.6. It is necessary that the Messiah/shepherd go through a 2stage process – initially covering Israel only and then as a second stage branching out to the Gentiles and gathering them in too. So the feeding with Jewish numbers takes place before this watershed shift within Mk 7, and the feeding with Gentile numbers takes place after.

  6. I discovered in the commentary to a targum of Ruth, based on Naomi telling Ruth three times to return to her people, and after Ruth insists three times she want to go with Naomi, Naomi accepts her and allows her to go with her. The discussion says that this was used by Rabbis with potential students, etc, to test their resolve to study with a rabbi. Ostensibly they assume that is was used for a number of situations to test one’s resolve.

    It can also be seen in Jesus’ “do you love me” questions to Peter in John’s gospel, and a couple of other places, so I think there is something to this. Of course, the dating of the targum and geneology of the story would dictate whether is is appropriate to apply it to Jesus with the Syro-Phoenician woman, but it does seem to have merit.

    • Many thanks, Howard.
      I wasn’t thinking in such detail, as I didn’t know it, but along half formed thoughts about bread, house of bread, outsider, gleaning Israel’s harvest ” crumbs” and welcomed, joined into marriage by her redeemer husband. A micro – historical/ figural- gospel of Christ.

  7. Thanks Ian, a helpful analysis.

    Once again modern virtues are allowed to dominate and at a naive level. There is no exploring of the ‘Jew first’ motif which shapes gospel history. Of course the very idea of ‘Jew first’ is anathema to egalitarian woke theology. That any should be ‘first’ is regarded with horror that a Jew should be first is contemptible.

    The wider context that God is free to choose simply because of his own sovereignty is regarded as unjust as it was in the C1. Humanity thinks it will question God. It forgets that God is God and we are mere creatures. It is an arrogance that is the essence of sin – no humility before the Creator (Roms 9).

    The logic of truth and the logic of the age are ever more clearly divergent and in conflict.

    • Perhaps, John, a greater anathema today, especially to current intense chronological snobbery of self-righteous merit and morality and humanistic ethnocentric judgement of Jesus in the Biblical redemptive salvation history is: the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
      All is enfolded in Jesus, the first and last.

  8. Hi Ian,
    One aspect of the story which I think is important to this discussion is that the Syro-Phonecian woman did not request healing for her daughter. She asked for an exorcism. Granted Matthew in his account concludes by saying she was healed but in Mark it says simply “the demon was gone”. Driving out an evil spirit from a child (and what would modern progressives make of that?) was something that could leave the child more vulnerable to increased future demonic infestation (given the demon saturated cultural situation in Syro-Phonecia) unless the child was brought up to have faith and trust in Jesus. See Matthew 12v33-35 and Luke 11v24-26 where Jesus teaches that mere exorcism of one spirit can lead to it returning with seven other spirits and make the person’s condition worse than at first. Jesus was perhaps checking the depth of the woman’s faith as a way of making sure the child’s interests were protected – a truly ‘progressive’ way of behaving!

  9. Whilst I agree the encounter does not show Jesus as a racist, rather He is emphasizing his mission to the Jews first, then the non-Jews will come later, it does seem to show his reluctance to heal, even when asked. It would seem if this mother had not been so persistent with him and willing to argue, then she would have gone away with still a child being demonised/ill.

    Sometimes I dont understand him.

    • Whilst I agree the encounter does not show Jesus as a racist, rather He is emphasizing his mission to the Jews first, then the non-Jews will come later, it does seem to show his reluctance to heal, even when asked. It would seem if this mother had not been so persistent with him and willing to argue, then she would have gone away with still a child being demonised/ill.

      Or: He knows the heart of those who come to Him, and how far they need and are willing to go, and then He responds accordingly. If the mother had not been so willing to argue, He would not have required it of her; He would have picked another way to allow her to demonstrate her faith, and that encounter also would have ended in her child being healed, as long as she did indeed have faith.

  10. I think there is as much danger in trying to remove the edge from the conversation as there is in assuming Jesus is unpleasant to the woman, maybe more.
    There are also the dangers that we are reading from our culture and so through our lens.
    Matthew seems to develop Mark and the disciples are to the fore as a key group in a way they are not in Mark.
    We are learning that the gospels were written for the first Christian communities about Jesus, so have a double focus. At times we can see the editorial comment clearly for the readers and hearers, as was obvious in the early part of Mark 7, though not obvious to what extent. At other times it is less clear.
    We are allowed to note the questions we would like to ask, even if we won’t get answers.
    What sort of house was Jesus in, and whose was it? Was the woman from a richer stratum of society, possibly expecting Jesus to do her bidding (though her posture is that of a supplicant)? Were there house-dogs present and even being fed during the conversation?
    Has Mark abbreviated what was a longer conversation?
    Is Mark (and even more Matthew) more interested to bring the “first to Israel, but then to Gentiles” teaching to the fore, even at the expense of making the account of the original altercation a bit more stark – after all it was normal in ancient story-telling for more peripheral characters to be rather two-dimensional. While this woman is – to us – central – if the teaching emphasis is to the fore, then is she in some way reduced to a cipher, to foreground the teaching?

    What is clear is that in both Matthew and Mark, Jesus has already healed Gentiles, freed them from demons. Mark suggests Jesus has struggled to find anywhere where he can rest, that he is tired, and looking for a break so he may have been frustrated that his hideaway had been rumbled.
    Theologically this event seems close to the coming of the Greeks in John 12. Where that is expressed with the image of the seed dying so that it can bear fruit, here we have the human tension of what a focused ministry feels like when others too want healing.
    To my modern ear and eye, it is not acceptable for Jesus to put the woman through a test when she is so desperate, and it is pushing it to say that Jesus knew she would pass it so it is ok to do it.
    There may be a clue in how the woman is described. Mark makes much of her origin from around Tyre – a Syro-Phoenician, and so from a haughty city which in the OT was proud and arrogant. As a suppliant she is tested but received. Matthew makes her a Canaanite which is bizarre but theologically puts her even more in a group which was not acceptable to the OT Jews. The racial descriptors are then (in both cases but differently) much more a theological descriptor than a geographic one, and they are set within the exploration of the particularity of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
    By the way, I think there are real problems with the comments about Cretans in Titus, and possibly the place of Cretans and Arabs in Acts 2 but that is a different tangent!

  11. Thank you Ian. It calls to mind Luke 4:25f early in the ministry of Jesus. ‘I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[g] in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

      • Given that Jesus knew the servant-songs, he would not have been surprised in any way by their implied trajectory for the development of the Messiah’s ministry (first to the Jew and then to the Gentile). But it was still unavoidable that there would be some particular moment in the ministry when that shift took place. How could it be otherwise if the blueprint was (as what better?) the servant-songs?

    • Kenneth Bailey in his analysis (of the Matthean version) of the encounter also draws out the link to the widow. He points out that Elijah gives this widow a test just as Jesus’ encounter with woman draws out and strengthens her faith.

  12. Thank you again, Ian – not “concise”, but error is so prevalent that it cannot be dispelled with a few words and what was apparent to one generation (given its education and life experience) may be mysterious and opaque to another.
    I was dismayed years ago to hear John Pritchard (before he became Bishop of Jarrow) addressing an educated lay group and quoting (apparently approvingly) Richard Holloway’s “progressive” take on this passage, that Jesus had to be “corrected” by this outsider woman on his bigotry. (This was before Holloway came out as an atheist.) I remember thinking if this is what senior Anglican clerics believe about Christology, we don’t have much grounds for confidence in this branch of the church.
    The lack of knowledge of Greek and a comprehensive biblical theology bedevil good exegesis, and standards are continually watered down. But that’s a problem across the board in “higher” education.

  13. I offered this on the fb discussion …. A virtue of more ‘liberal’ readings of this story is that they do keep the faith, character and theological insights of the woman at the centre – as Jesus did. By contrast our discussions and theological sources here are almost entirely men with men. The focus of racism adds to this.

    Meanwhile I am more and more drawn to reading this encounter as a provocative, feisty exchange that both enjoyed and maybe ended up laughing together – touché! Nice one! High fives – while the disciples watched as their conservative theological assumptions unravelled. Read like that it becomes wonderfully energising.

    By contrast I note the use of this story in traditional communion liturgy which we have not discussed but which is surely hugely influential on generations of believers reading this story. ‘The Prayer of Humble Access’ – ‘We do not presume … to eat the crumbs under the table’. A beautiful prayer of submission and humility. We do not trust in our righteousness. But as a prayer based reading of the story it is surely very misleading. Does ‘humble access’ describe this woman’s approach? She did presume actually – big time – and Jesus was delighted and surprised by her faith. So I am reminded of Walter Wink’s description of biblical prayer as ‘impertinent, persistent and shameless … more like haggling in the outdoor bazaar than the polite monologues of the church.’

    • Thanks David. I don’t really see the connection between having men in the discussion, and the contribution of the woman in the narrative.

      The good male commentators on this passage notice the feisty challenge of the woman, as do good women commentators. Poor male commentators interpret this as de-centring Jesus as the one who has the power to deliver. When we see the woman as central, we find she points us to Jesus as ‘Lord’ and as the source of deliverance, so it isn’t a zero-sum game.

      I haven’t found any systematic difference between male and female commentary on this.

    • David.
      Thanks for this. You’re right that its always useful to look for women’s views on things. Here’s a quote from the blog of the wonderful Marg Mowczko https://margmowczko.com/when-god-is-silent/

      “Jesus was silent because this episode with the Gentile woman was a test. It was a test primarily for the disciples. Jesus wanted to see what his disciples had learnt from him and what they would do. I believe Jesus was testing their compassion and their understanding of the extent of God’s mercy and grace.

      When Jesus did speak, he used the woman’s extraordinary faith, as well as her gender and race, to demonstrate to his disciples that God’s mercy is available to everyone who calls on him! It is interesting to note that this narrative in Matthew 15:21-28 is the only record of Jesus travelling beyond the borders of Israel. Jesus demonstrated that God’s mercy extends beyond Israel and the Jews

      Jesus may have come to the woman’s region especially to see this woman and to deliver her daughter and to test and teach the disciples.[2] Perhaps Jesus was also testing the woman’s faith. It is delightful to see that she was undeterred by both Jesus’ silence and his terse comments. Her faith was bold and tenacious, and she passed the test with flying colours!

      [2] It is interesting to compare Jesus’ journey to Tyre and Sidon (Matt. 15:21) with Jesus being compelled to travel through Samaria to speak to another unnamed woman: the Samaritan women at the well (John 4). Both journeys seem to have been for the purpose of a divine appointment with women to demonstrate that the gospel was not just for respectable Jewish men. The gospel and grace of Jesus is for all people, regardless of gender, ethnicity or social class.”

    • Cue a series of articles on Anglican haggling…in prayer. Wrestling in prayer may be too undignified

      Just for David R, here is one “conservative” take on the passage, notes from a series of sermons on Mark, I understand, from a chapter entitled, The Approach,

      1 How do you approach God?
      Most can think of two options
      a) God is a bloodthirsty tyrant who needs to be constantly appeased by good behaviour, if not outright sacrifice.
      b) a modern understanding of God; a spiritual force we can access any time we want, no questions asked.
      Here Mark shows that approaching God might mean something else entirely

      2 Jesus couldn’t keep his presence secret. A Greek mother, as soon as she heard about him, came and,
      “fell at his feet… begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.”

      The verb *beg* here is a present progressive – she *keeps on begging*

      4 Jesus had been spending all his time ministering in Jewish provinces, drawing overwhelming crowds and was exhausted, so he went into Gentile territory initially to get some rest.

      5 Due to Tyre’s proximity to Judea, she’d have known the Jewish customs
      a) known she had none of the religious, moral and cultural credentials necessary to approach a Jewish rabbi
      b) known that as a Phoenician, a Gentile, a pagan, a woman with a daughter with an unclean spirit.
      c) known that according to the standards of the day, she is unclean and therefore disqualified to approach any devout Jew, let alone a rabbi.

      6 Nothing can keep her away. (In Matthew 15 the disciples urge Jesus to send her away) She falls down to the floor, keeps on begging Jesus, pleads. She won’t take no for an answer. She’s desperate for Jesus intervention.

      7 This sets up the *dog* dialogue
      a) On the surface, it appears to be an insult (dogs = unclean Gentiles)

      b) Jesus first response was “first let the children eat all they want” NB Children of Israel- this is the context of Jesus mission and from where he came from – sent to show Israel that he was the fulfilment of all Scriptures promises, prophets, priests, kings and of the temple.

      c) Here Jesus is using the word *dog* as a parable – a metaphor, a likeness. How so? The word used for dogs is very unusual, in the diminutive form that really means *puppies*.

      8 Jesus here is saying, please understand I’m going to Israel first, then the Gentile, other nations later.

      9 Jesus is giving her a combined challenge and offer. And she gets it.

      10 (in effect) she says, Okay, I understand. I am not from Israel. I don’t worship the God the Israelites worship. Therefore, I don’t have a place at the table. I accept that. But there’s more than enough on the table for everyone. She is wrestling with Jesus.

      11 She doesn’t take offence, doesn’t stand on her rights, doesn’t assert her rights, her goodness, entitlement. She is not saying this is what I’m owed.

      12 ** She is not saying, “Lord, give me what I deserve on the basis of My goodness,” She’s saying,
      —-” give me what I don’t deserve on the basis of Your goodness – and I need it now.”

      13 She recognises and accepts both the challenge and the offer hidden within it. She doesn’t get her back up and say, “How dare you use a racial epithet about me? I don’t have to stand for this.” Neither does she insult God by being too discouraged to take up the offer.

      14 A good translation of Jesus rabbinical reply would be “Such an answer”. Some translations have Jesus saying, “Wonderful answer, incredible answer”

      15 Biblical scholar James Edwards in his study of Mark, puts it wonderfully:

      “She appears to understand the purpose of Israel’s Messiah better than Israel does. Her pluck and persistence are a testimony to her trust in the sufficiency and surplus of Jesus: his provision for the disciples and Israel will be abundant enough for such a one as herself…
      … the woman is the first person in Mark to hear and understand a parable…That she answers Jesus from “within” the parable, that is, in the terms by which Jesus addressed her, indicates that she is the first person in the Gospel to *hear* the word of Jesus to her.”

      16 There are two ways to fail to let Jesus be your Saviour: (a) being too proud, having a superiority complex – not to accept the challenge. (b) through an inferiority complex, being so self- absorbed that you say. “I’m just so awful that God couldn’t love me.” That is, not to accept the offer.

      17 Thomas Cranmer’s prayer of approach to the Lord’s Supper is an invitation to step into this woman’s shoes and approach Jesus boldly, with a rightless assertiveness, to take up both the offer and challenge of God’s infinite mercy.


      18 The Gospel of Jesus is seen in this- that you are more wicked than you ever believed, but at the same time more loved and accepted than you ever dared to hope. (The challenge and offer in combination)

      All the above notes have been complied from, “King’s Cross – The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus, by Timothy Keller, Hodder and Stoughton 2011

  14. A last aside – if anyone has Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” to hand, does he discuss this story? Where did Mark and Matthew get this story from? Maybe from the woman herself in a church in Tyre?

  15. I have read this with interest (and tried to follow the comments) and while I follow much of the article I have two basic concerns:

    First and most important there is no disputing that Jesus said “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” but this seems to be arguing that Jesus believed the exact opposite of what he said. I think there needs to be much stronger textual evidence to support such a claim and it does not seem to be provided here.

    Second this article polarises interpretations in a way that makes it all to easy to disagree with those who don’t follow the line that Jesus said the exact opposite of what he meant.

    Jesus is limited in Mark, here he is unable to keep his presence secret (an important and classic Markan element of the narrative which does not seem to be given it’s due weight), at other times he is ‘not even able to eat’ (eg Mk 3:20).

    To say that here Jesus is reluctant to heal the woman’s daughter is entirely explicable without any need for the inference that Jesus is racist or that his understanding of his mission is limited – simply that he needed a break – and so did his disciples.

    Bread is hugely significant in Mark, (6:32-44, 8:1-9, 8:14-21 and what could easily be called ‘the feeding of the 12’ 14:22-25) and the fact that this comes between the feeding of the 5,000 and 4,000 makes that point clearly. But a part of this theme is Jesus care for his disciples (note the reference to crumbs in these passages) which was his priority at the start of this passage. Surely the point here is that here is a woman who is revealed to be alongside the 12, she proves her right to be in the ‘secret place’ and she shares the crumbs.

    • Thanks Richard—but I don’t think I understand your main point. You say that the article claims Jesus said the opposite of what he said. Where do I say that?

      I agree that Jesus was not racist—that is my whole point really.

  16. Memorable, so memorable is the encounter, it would not take great feats of memorization in an oral culture to recall and reliably recount by someone who was present.

    Even if at first blush to modern sensibilities it painted Jesus in a less than good light, and may even have been offensively odorous to the noses of Pharisees and their preceeding contentions with Jesus over cleanliness. What is more the woman came from the ancestral territory of Jezebel, another reason for the Pharisees to oppose and be aggrieved by Jesus and his healing of the demonised daughter.

    But Mark continues to recount another healing on Gentile territory, where many Kews also lived, 7: 31-37 of a deaf and mute man.

  17. I must take responsibility for the diversion into Genesis.
    But I still have a question for Steven. In Matthew 4:8 Jesus was taken to see the whole earth from the vantage point of a very high mountain. If we take this literally we must assume that the world is flat; established immoveable; with four corners. I for one simply refuse to take it literally. Is not the whole of scripture a mix of different genre where the most primitive literary works have a great deal of overlap? Even today, to even try to understand the existance of fractons for example, the language used borrows from our present understanding. In 20 years we will look back and think its description curiously naive. Vague poetic terms replaced by robust scientific description.
    I gave up worrying about Genesis when I read how the Galatians had added to their faith extra bells and whistles. Are you not in danger of doing the same? You seem to insist that salvation can only be achieved by keeping to a strict interpretation. I don’t think I could ever win an argument with you. I’m not up for that. I don’t want to. I want to see you smile.

    • Steve
      I suspect that most people posting here (including Steven Robinson (he will correct me if I am mistaken)) agree that the whole of scripture is a mix of different genres. I don’t think Steven is insisting that salvation can only be achieved by keeping to a strict interpretation. As I understand him what he is doing is stating his conviction that the New Testament revelation of Jesus is dealing with truth as a ‘scientific age’ would recognise it. I agree with that, whether that truth is expressed in statements of fact or e.g. in metaphors. He is challenging Ian Paul because some of Ian’s posts appear to undermine that conviction. My post on September 3 asks Ian to clarify his view.

      Phil Almond

  18. I repeat below two earlier posts so that I can ask Ian Paul a question:

    Steven Robinson
    September 1, 2021 at 12:38 pm
    Paul, however, took the narrative as history, as his speech to the Athenians shows. So did Jesus, as his teaching on marriage shows, prefaced by “Have you not read?”

    Ian Paul
    September 1, 2021 at 1:54 pm
    No he didn’t, because in a pre-scientific age ‘history’ means something different. He and Jesus took it as scripture, as do I. I would happily use exactly the same language as they do.

    My question (sorry if it is on topics already covered and/or I am missing an obvious point) is:

    The Bible makes many assertions which appear to be about matters of fact (recognising that other genres are numerous)

    In Ian’s view do any of these assertions describe events which actually happened, i.e ‘history’ in the ‘modern’ sense?

    Phil Almond

    • Christians who accept evolution as an established biological fact do not question Jesus’ words “He made them male and female” but only How He did that and over what time period. Was it through evolutionary mechanisms over a long period of time, or literally from the dust of the ground (in the case of man) and a part of man’s side (in the case of woman) instantaneously by the direct intervention of God?

  19. Peter
    The issue of evolution/special creation is a specific debate/disagreement, especially whether the evolution view is consistent with a wholly trustworthy Bible. I am not going to comment on that on this thread. The point raised by Steven Robinson and me is wider: see my two posts above. Let me give a specific example. What I am saying (and probably Steven Robinson would, I think, agree): the Bible says that when the women and the disciples visited the tomb in which Jesus’ dead body had been laid the body was no longer there. This is an instance, as I see it, that the Bible is asserting a matter of fact. What we are saying is that this is a truth, a fact, which both a pre-scientific and a scientific age would recognise as the same truth, the same fact. It is not clear whether, from his posts on this thread, Ian Paul agrees agree. I think it highly probable that he does agree. I don’t know whether he is going to comment.
    Phil Almond

    • Phil – the comment you quote from Stephen Robinson was directly about evolution vs literal understanding of Genesis as history, hence my point.

      Regarding the empty tomb, I agree. But that is because of the genre of the Gospels, which are written primarily as ancient biographies in the Greco-Roman tradition, or as Brant Pitre would call them ‘historical biographies’. That can hardly be said of Genesis, particularly the early chapters.

      Hence if Id been the invisible man standing outside the tomb I’m pretty sure I would have seen the women arriving at the tomb and finding it empty. But if Id been around at the beginning of this earth, I doubt I would have seen God literally walking in a magical garden calling out to a naked couple hiding behind some bushes.


  20. Peter
    There are some important things recorded in the early chapters of Genesis. The recorded words and actions in Genesis chapters 2 and 3. God’s command to the man (Genesis 2:16-17); God’s statement (Genesis 2:18); the man’s statement (Genesis 2:23); the words of the serpent, the woman, the man and God in Genesis chapter 3; God’s action of banishment (Genesis 3:23-24). The words attributed to God are the first of many instances in the Bible where God is stated to have spoken. These instances are perhaps the most important claims that the Bible makes. My view is that all these instances describe events which actually happened, i.e ‘history’ in the ‘modern’ sense.; or, to put the matter how Steven Robinson has put it, they are dealing with truth as a ‘scientific age’ would recognise it. (As you might know, I have been here quite a few times on fulcrum and psephizo. Sometimes we start to debate how God spoke. Was it an audible voice, was it a vision that the recipient correctly verbalised etc. Then and now I state my view that the method of communication is of secondary importance. What matters is that the communication was from God and was correctly received by the recipient). My question to Ian and you is: In your view do you agree with my description of these instances for all the instances where God is stated to speak; or for some of them (in which case what is the criterion of deciding); or for none of them.
    Phil Almond

  21. Wow. What an essay. Let’s start at the beginning.

    “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.”

    Sir, no one said this at all. If you feel called out, that’s on you. And I hope you are not pretending that you are a progressive Christian, because one cursory glance at your Twitter feed shows that to be a ridiculous lie.

    “The goal here is less for us to be like Jesus so much as to be like the commentator.”

    No, the goal is to be more like Jesus. 100%. Being Christlike is listening to people who are in pain and doing the hard work necessary to relieve their pain. Again, if you feel called out, that’s on you.

    “(Jewish culture was in a position of power and dominance over against Graeco-Roman pagan culture—really?!)”

    Yes. Please stop pretending that Jewish people have always been perfect, powerless victims. They were bigoted against other people. Many Israelites and Jews today hold problematic views because news flash – Jews are human beings, and some human being suck. Please stop pretending that being Jewish is a free pass to be exempt from critical thought on one’s actions. Jews are people, just like the rest of us.

    “effectively likening Jesus the Jew to a member of the Ku Klux Klan”

    No. Please stop pretending that being prejudiced is the same as torturing and murdering people. It’s not. What you are doing is telling people that as long as they aren’t lynching black people, they are fine. That’s false. There is a whole grey area in between where we aren’t allies, but we aren’t murderers, and those people in the middle need to work on being better allies. Your hyperbole makes everything you say untrustworthy.

    “ Whoever said this must be just a pop theologian. …[T]he reason I call the fellow a pop theologian is that he can’t be much of scholar. He hasn’t read the text.”

    Well, I heard that interpretation, the one about which you are so disdainful, from a 55ish-year-old Jesuit, a member of the most educated order of priests ever to walk the earth. During mass at the conservative prep school that my son attends. This is not a bastion of progressive ideology. Your dismissiveness allows you to convince yourself you are infallible, but highly educated people disagree with you. Can you cope with that?

    I have to say, I stopped reading there. When you are spouting this much ridiculousness that proves you are incapable of critical thought, I won’t waste my time further.

    • Dear Maggie, I am glad that I have offered you the chance for your emotional catharsis!

      If a 55-year old Jesuit offers this reading, then I think it shows what a poor state we are now in as a church in engaging with Scripture. (Jesuits are not infallible you know!)

      I am quite capable of critical thinking. If you’d like to come back and offer an argument against the substantive points I make, I will happily engage.


      • “Being Christlike is listening to people who are in pain and doing the hard work necessary to relieve their pain. Again, if you feel called out, that’s on you.”
        “Please stop pretending that Jewish people have always been perfect, powerless victims. They were bigoted against other people. Many Israelites and Jews today hold problematic views because news flash – Jews are human beings, and some human being suck. Please stop pretending that being Jewish is a free pass to be exempt from critical thought on one’s actions. Jews are people, just like the rest of us.”
        “Your dismissiveness allows you to convince yourself you are infallible, but highly educated people disagree with you. Can you cope with that?”

        That would be substantive. I’m waiting for you to engage.

        • I am not sure where I am ‘pretending Jewish people have been perfect’. What I am pointing out is that the idea that a gentile teaches Jesus to stop being a bigoted Jew is, well, antisemitic. I am not sure you have anywhere answered that substantive point.

          I am well aware that many people disagree with me. That is why I engage with their arguments. The arguments in this case do not stand up—not least because the supposed lesson that Jesus is being taught is one that he himself has already, earlier in this very gospel, been teaching others. I find it bizarre that readers miss this.

          • It is not at all anti-semitic to suggest that a Gentile help Jesus expand his understanding of the world. He wasn’t born knowing everything, nor did he claim to know everything when he was an adult. I am 100% certain that Jesus found inspiration in all people. I am 100% certain that Jesus recognized the good in all people, and the value of letting other people’s perspective enlighten him. I am 100% certain that Jesus would be horrified that you are suggesting that acknowledging that the woman’s perspective could affect Him for the better, is anti-Semitic.

            I do not pretend to know exactly what happened during this interaction. What I am saying is that your essay is insulting and demeaning and you need to do better If you want people to engage with you seriously. You need to commit a lot less logical fallacies when presenting your views. For example:

            Straw Man Logical Fallacy: You are mischaracterizing the views of those who disagree with you, pretending that people who interpret this differently than you are saying Jesus was a “frail, ignorant and sinful” and a bigot. But I don’t see people saying that, I think you pretty much made that up yourself. In the first article you yourself quoted above, one reads “Jesus also teaches us an important lesson here by modeling graciousness in a broken culture.” Also, “this is arguably Jesus’ first face-to-face encounter with a Gentile, and it … changes him. … Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry is one of ever-expanding inclusiveness. In Mark chapter 6, Jesus miraculously feeds thousands of Jews. In chapter 7, he encounters the Syrophoenician woman. In chapter 8, he miraculously feeds thousands … of Gentiles. An encounter with a Gentile woman fundamentally alters how Jesus sees and treats Gentiles.” In no way does this text present Jesus in a negative light. You are pretending it said something it did not. You might disagree, but you should be able to read and think well enough to understand what the author was saying.

            How can someone take you seriously when you don’t even understand the views you are pretending to rebut? You should watch to the following video: https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?ref=watch_permalink&v=580440839503224 Respond to that, not the drivel that you pretend other’s believe. “Does Jesus change his mind? It certainly seems like that… Is Jesus learning from her? Why is that such a difficult thing for people to understand? Because it turns on his two natures…human and divine… If Jesus is human, that means he has a fully human consciousness…[that] knows only what it has been taught or has experienced…It needs to learn… At the very least, Jesus is open to listening to the testimony of a woman who is outside of his milieu.” Fr. Martin also talks about using the interaction to teach the disciples or that Jesus is testing her, pushing her, presenting several viewpoints on the passage with equal gravitas and graciousness. That’s why people learn from him.

            Ad Hominem Logical Fallacy: You repeatedly refer to people who disagree with you with as ‘progressive’ and with demeaning tones, as if this lends weight to your arguments. It does not. You claim that Austin Steelman, the author of the piece you quote first above, is a “third year undergraduate in Law” which is just a flat-out lie. He was a third year law student, which is a doctoral program (ps you can’t major in law as an undergrad, that’s like saying an undergrad is in medical school – they aren’t even if they plan to go to med school). You fail to mention that Steelman had graduated with a history degree from a conservative Christian college (which positions him as someone who likely understands history quite well) or that he is currently earning a PhD and writing a dissertation that is steeped in Conservative biblical history.

            False Equivalence Logical Fallacy and Appeal to Emotion Logical Fallacy (congratulations, you committed 2 at once, that’s quite an accomplishment): You said that asserting that Jesus could ever look down on someone is “likening Jesus the Jew to a member of the Ku Klux Klan.” It is not. This trivializes the violent white supremacy that terrorized generations of black people. Having a thought or an emotion is not the same as lynching people, period. In addition to false equivalence, you are engaging in hyperbole to manipulate your readers (Appeal to Emotion) that should be beneath you. If you want any black person to read this and learn from you, well, too bad; you just lost them (and anyone else who is genuinely disgusting by the KKK for what it was, not for what you are pretending it was).

            You simply don’t understand history or scripture well enough to earn a substantive discussion around this story. You don’t understand the way Jezebel ties into this story, or discuss the story of Elijah when he helped the Sidonian widow, or the Roman centurion, or the commonplace exclusivity that existed at the time among different “races” or groups. Or, maybe you do understand those things, but you were too busy spouting insults and silly lies to actually present a convincing argument. Others did much better than you, like this guy for example: https://gracehb.org/2021/03/the-syrophoenician-woman-the-woman-who-persisted-in-believing-in-jesus-lenten-devotional-3-23-21/ He holds the same viewpoints as you, but he knows how to talk to others like a normal person. He’s much more convincing.

          • I will look at the link, thanks. But I am not motivated to do so by this cascade of angry insults. It is supremely ironic that you talk like this when accusing me of doing so!

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