Did the Syrophoenician woman teach Jesus to be Jesus?

The episode of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman in 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 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 prejudice or don’t exercise your position of power through the lens of your prejudice. Even Jesus did that.

Come and join us for the second Festival of Theology on Wednesday October 17th!

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.

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 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:

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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60 thoughts on “Did the Syrophoenician woman teach Jesus to be Jesus?”

  1. Again, a thought provoking article. 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.

      • One important pillar of philosophy in the Christian faith regarding the Holy Trinity is God’s omniscience, and I believe that a major flaw in this analysis by Ian is the assumption that Jesus was acting from a position of ignorance when interacting with the Syrophenician woman & that Jesus therefore gains knowledge from this encounter that he didn’t possess previously. I happen to agree with Daniel Boehms perspective that Jesus’ intent was to challenge the heart and intent of the woman whose daughter was sick. I also believe it would truly be blasphemous to preach that Jesus harbored any ill-will, bias, or racism towards gentiles.

        • Yes, I think you are right. But we need to come to terms with the fact that ‘Jesus grew in wisdom’ (Luke 2.52) and that there were things he did not know (Matt 24.36)

  2. Adding to France’s commentary: 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.

    • A great comment and one that will be used in my sermon tomorrow. Daniel, do you have a surname? I’d like to credit you as the source.

      • Glad this was helpful and don’t worry about crediting me. 🙂
        As I was thinking a little further along the lines of God raising persistent intercessors I think it is simply teaching us to “love God and your neighbor as yourself” [love with the biblical connotation of “intimately knowing” as in the Hebrew ‘yada’]. This means loving God over and against a distorted impression of him. By this I am not saying that Jesus had a slip of the toungue or a rush of uncontrolled emotion but that he was teaching this woman to cling to him even though it seemed for a moment that he was rejecting her. Training her to hold on. 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. With God there “is no inconsistency or shifting shadow” (James 1:17), not need to remind him who he is, but he desires “the knowledge of God” (Hosea 6:6) in the midst of conflicting voices in our heads as to who he truly is.

  3. ‘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.

    For some, it’s unthinkable that Jesus is capable of ‘tongue-in-cheek’ remarks. Yet, His unsettling and presumption-destroying parables: spiritual roller-coasters, full of hyperbolic twists and imaginative turns and dramatic reversals of fortune.

    It’s been a long time since I heard a sermon delivered in a truly unsettling and presumption-destroying manner, but that’s exactly how Jesus preached.

  4. I’m wary of any interpretation of this passage that implies Jesus didn’t learn anything from the encounter – after all, we’re supposed to be fully human, like Jesus, and surely willingness to learn is an aspect of full humanity? This doesn’t mean I think that the Jesus at the beginning of the story is a racist – as you imply, he’s the one, in the Roman empire, from the oppressed group – but I do believe he was entirely without sin, and it would be sinful to go through life without learning! I’m less comfortable with the idea that he pretends to hold a view he doesn’t hold in order to provoke her, or is playing some kind of rhetorical game.

    • ’I’m less comfortable with the idea that he pretends to hold a view he doesn’t hold in order to provoke her, or is playing some kind of rhetorical game.

      And, if all rhetoric involved and dishonest provocation or manipulation, then I’d agree. However, it doesn’t.

      However, we have several OT examples of God making severe pronouncements, only to relent at the importunate plea of persistent faith (Genesis 18:16-33; Ex. 32:9 – 14; 2 Sam. 24:16; Jonah 3:9-10).

      I’m far more uncomfortable with the notion that Jesus, as fully human, wouldn’t respond rhetorically and imaginatively to engage the gospel with those petitioning Him and to reinforce a key aspect of His message.

    • Well, the Catholic post I quote certainly talks of Jesus learning. But an increasingly common reading of this passage has Jesus ‘learning’ not to be racist…which is rather different.

      And it assumes that he didn’t learn this from chapter 5, or from his understanding of the purposes of God, or from the *many* OT passages in which this is already pretty clear…

    • The passage says that the woman’s daughter was at home with a demon or a spiritual sickness, not a physical illness. Before I was truly saved, I unintentionally modeled sinful behavior for my son, which led him to practice the same sinful behavior. Now that I am saved, I am watching my son struggle with the same sin he watched me struggle with for years. I can and do tell him to do things differently, but for the fact that I modeled that behavior for him, his tendency is to do what I did all those years, not what I’m telling him to do now.

      I’ve observed that a lot of parents in this scenario become wrathful with their sinful children in this scenario mostly out of fear and feeling disrespected. It usually makes things much worse, not better since on some level the child knows that she was taught to behave the way she is and most likely by the parent who is so upset about it.

      Perhaps this mother was acknowledging that she knew she was responsible for her daughter’s sin and consequently the demonic hold that was on her daughter. Perhaps she was seeking wisdom with regard to how she needed to approach her daughter so that her eyes and ears would be opened to the truth, which is always loving.

      Then there’s the interesting symbolism of a “dog”. There are other passages in the NT that warn believers to “beware the dogs”. From my perspective, “dogs” are usually associated with the sin of envy, which of course comes to “steal, kill and destroy”. Perhaps this women had been afflicted by envy and after being set free from it – by Jesus’s unconditional love – that she wondered what she must do to heal her daughter who was still afflicted by envy. This interpretation would validate the assumption that Jesus was challenging her to persist and to hold onto the truth, for in her own success, she could model a new creation for her daughter to follow. And of course, to be successful – rather than envious – requires sincere humility, doesn’t it?

      I have been this woman many times in my life in various different ways and the new creation in others has certainly tested my sincerity. Thank you Jesus for your unconditional and unfailing love. I pray that none of us will rely on our own understanding but continue to ask you for the wisdom needed to understand and relate what you mean us to.

      Thank you for this interesting discussion everybody.

  5. Thanks Ian, I’d love to hear a bit more from you about this. Granted, we are all liable to read the text as we would like, but what about some of the substantive issues you touch on: did Jesus in any sense ‘learn’ through this encounter (or indeed, any Gospel encounter) or would you argue that he only ever ‘teaches’? Would you agree with your Catholic source that Jesus’ moral formation and vocation emerged without any mediation through human structures of relationship, culture and communication? Is there anything conservative commentators need to be wary of in approaching this text, given their/our tendency to want to explain away any implication of change/imperfection in Jesus, and perhaps too the idea that he is being taught/challenged by a woman?

  6. I have to say I love Andy Gr’s comment, and think the OP is being a bit harsh on the “progressive” commentators. I remember being shocked and intrigued by a sermon that described the Jesus at the beginning of this incident as “having an off day” (!) rather than being racist.

    • …Except that I point out that, theological problems aside, the ‘progressive’ readings are striking in their lack of attention to what the text actually says. There is no hint in the following chapter that Jesus has ‘learnt’ something that he didn’t know before which reshapes his ministry; he has already crossed the border in chapter 5; and the other gospels have the seeds of wider mission right from the very beginning.

      • Given your critical review of the “progressive interpretation” of this text, I was surprised to reach the end of the article without seeing your counter response to Jesus’ use of the term “Dog”, which you agreed is a challenging part of this text. I appreciate the wider reading, and am in full agreement with you in this kind of hermeneutic. However, it is striking the amount of time you gave to a divisive othering of those who might read this differently. You have made some insightful observations and done good theological work here, but as a reader who does not have a relationship with you to hold this writing in the context of, much of your credibility was lost on me as you continued mocking a differing perspective with alienating insults.

        That being said, I am still curious to read your expanded thoughts on the justification of this term- which is a direct slur not seen in similar interactions between God and Moses/Abraham where the narrative reveals a change in God’s response after a covenantal remembering initiated by Moses/Abraham. In this “reminding God of who God is”, whether we believe that is the result of an actual forgetting or the necessary engagement from a mutual covenant, it was not preceded by what was unavoidably a dehumanizing and racial slur. It seems we do still need to do the work of understanding how that is justified being that it is an atypical response. It would seem Jesus is engaging in a wider pericope but in a different way- I wonder if there is a unique redemptive work happening that does speak to us today, but perhaps you have some valuable insight here that deepening the exegetical work before bringing this narrative to present day will bring us to a more accurate interpretation.

        • Thanks for commenting. I think you might have misread my tone, which is interesting, as my argument is that this is precisely what ‘progressive’ readings do with the biblical text.

          When I point out that those who claim Jesus is learning not to be racist from the woman ignore that fact that they are claiming Jesus is learning something that he demonstrated he knew just a chapter or two earlier, am I mocking? I am pointing out that this approach is just basically ignorant of what the text itself actually says!

          I don’t really know what the right language is for this kind of approach, but I would be open to any ideas.

  7. I’m most sold on the explanation, outlined by David above, that Jesus is emulating an aspect of God’s character by acting harshly (even ignorantly) in order to encourage more persistence from his petitioners. Relenting only when the person has shown sufficient zeal for their cause.

    Whether the petitioner(s?) would have realised this is another question perhaps, but I do find Kenneth Baileys’ idea, that this is to provide a lesson for the disciples, fairly convincing.

  8. I as dismayed a few years ago to hear John Pritchard, then Archdeacon of Canterbury before he became Bishop of Oxford, in some addresses to lay people in Canterbury quote (apparently approvingly) Richard Holloway’s pop exegesis of this passage, to the effect that Jesus ‘learned’ to re=think his ethnocentric, ‘racist’ attitudes. No one at the time had the presence of mind to challenge Pritchard’s gently presented heresy, but on reflection I could see this fitted into the liberal (and kenotic or unitarian) project, that Jesus doesn’t represent ‘finality’ but only a ‘stage on the way to all truth’. In Holloway’s case, this meant atheism (once he had retired). Of course liberalism cannot believe in the Johannine Jesus who says ‘I am the truth’, and its current projects (denying the virgin birth, blessing homosexuality as ‘good’ or affirming Islam as valid ‘Abrahamic religion’) depend on a non-divine Jesus ‘learning’ like the rest of us. That is why a recent Tec bishop of Washington DC (was it Chane?) asked in a sermon ‘What was God thinking when God spoke to Muhammad in the cave?’ and asserted that ‘Jesus knew himself to be a sinner in need of God’s grace’. Such blasphemies pass without comment today.

  9. I have also heard church leaders use this story in just the way you critique here. At the time I thought they were being merely naïve and unable to see the consequences of promoting a morally fallible Jesus. But I came to realise what you say here is true, that this interpretation of the encounter is a consistent part of a wider agenda.-

    I wish I’d read your article at the time. But I did want to respond by saying what a shame it was that Jesus had such a restricted social circle, because if he’d got out and encountered more people he could have turned into a really nice person like me. But then irony, like Jesus’ conversational techniques, is lost on some people.’

  10. This is one where I gotta take the third option: it’s cringe personified when the right-on crowd cheer at naughty racist Jesus being told to check his privilege by one of the oppressed (Sunday School must fall!); but equally, I don’t buy that Jesus of Nazareth hadda be one woke dude ’cause dogma cooked up centuries after his death commands it. Whatever else he was, he was a man of his time, place and culture. That, surely, is sufficient.

    • “Whatever else he was, he was a man of his time, place and culture. That, surely, is sufficient.”
      No, it isn’t. If he wasn’t “the one whom the wind and the waves obey” as the disciples in Mark put it, he is worthy of no more interest – or worship and prayer – than Cicero.

      • I wasn’t commenting on additional areas of theology, but the fact, embraced by Christian orthodoxy since its inception, that Jesus was fully human, a corollary of which is that he was immersed in, and shaped by, the culture and religion of his time. There’s no contradiction between that rootedness, and Jesus being the Word incarnate. Indeed, the two are inseparable: if Jesus wasn’t fully human, with all that entails, then the Word couldn’t be said to be reified in his person.

        • But those who argue that Jesus was being “racist”, “nationalist” etc don’t deny that Jesus was ‘fully human [and] immersed in, shaped by the culture and religion of his time’; in fact, they see that as the very problem: that it was limited, ignorant and sinful, and they, enlightened people on the cusp of the Zeitgeist, see further and understand better. (And mutatis mutandis, this easily translates to the sexuality disputes: ‘We know so much more today’ – except that when you press them on the actual causes of paraphilia, they retreat into silence or faux outrage.) This has *always been the perspective of liberalism – whether unitarian or kenotic – about what you coyly call ‘other areas of theology’. A lot of TEC, like Bishop John Chane whom I referenced above, is actually unitarian in its Christology (i.e., heretical) and this is probably the source of its other errors – which were reflected in the piece by Richard Holloway that John Pritchard quoted approvingly. And as usual, you find that these trends have already been anticipated somewhere in the writings of C. S. Lewis. In this case, ch. 5 of ‘The Great Divorce’ (p. 43 in the HarperCollins edition), the meeting with the bishop in hell describing his paper to the local theological society: “I’m going to point out that people always forget that Jesus (here the Ghost bowed) was a comparatively young man when he died. He would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he’d lived.” Pure TEC – and Holloway – avant la lettre.

        • ‘Jesus was fully human, a corollary of which is that he was immersed in, and shaped by, the culture and religion of his time.’

          But a. it simply isn’t the case that everyone who is ‘shaped by’ their culture cannot transcend it. And

          b. the notion that Jesus was without sin is not a later projection onto the text; it is a conclusion from the evidence of the text, i.e. the apostolic testimony.

          The main failing for me of the progressive reading is *not* in the first instance that it undermines doctrine (though it does)–but that it singularly fails to read the text carefully.

        • Hi James – a rather late reply here. Yes, he was fully human, but also singularly enlightened. Enlightened a) because he was filled with the Holy Spirit, not just as a one-off blessing, but as a continual presence. b) because from his youth he had immersed himself in scripture (anyone who can debate with scribes and astound them at the age of 12 has to be a prodigy) We have seen plenty of examples in recent history of enlightened individuals transcending and transforming their own cultural settings, so to think that Jesus was just a bigoted man who had to learn to be kind by experience is too much of a stretch. Such a man could never command the worship of his disciples, the admiration of the crowds and the love of all of us from then until now.

  11. I’ve always read this story as Colin suggests. Jesus is using heavy irony (yes, despite the fact that certain contemporary politicians think that folk of Jesus’ people group are incapable of it!)

    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. The most serious questions remain about why we put up with church leaders and theological teachers who clearly believe not just that that Jesus isn’t divine, but that he’s below our level.

    • “despite the fact that certain contemporary politicians think that folk of Jesus’ people group are incapable of it!”
      Very funny! Anybody who studies comedy knows that the Jews wrote the book on it. Perhaps this was the one time Corbyn thought he was making some sociological commentary, in which case he revealed his ignorance as well as his malice.

  12. Surely the basic reason for ‘progressive’ readings of scripture is that people have dispensed with ‘the fear of God’ as a vital part of Christian knowledge, experience and humility?

  13. Thank you for this blog and helpful discussion. I love to picture Jesus and the woman engaged in a mutually(?) teasing theological riff. But I still want to allow for a Jesus who was learning and growing in wisdom through his own praying, meditating on Torah and his encounters with people in the Spirit (Luke 2.52). Can I do that?

    • I hope so David, for that is how I read it! To learn from the encounter doesn’t suggest to me that Jesus was racist; anyway I find that a somewhat anachronistic concept. Surely Jesus would have shared the ethnocentricity of second Temple Judaism, though he may, occasionally, have transcended it. The problem with the N.T. Wright trope that Jesus was fully Jewish but that he subverted the Judaism of his time is that you end up with a ‘Jewish, but not that Jewish’ Jesus.

  14. Another thoughtful and thought-provoking blog, Ian. For a long time I have stored this passage in a part of my mind ‘labelled’ “Don’t know”. I have tried to imagine the expression on Jesus’ face when he spoke, and then I remind myself that whereas I can merely imagine that expression, Mark and the Syrophoenician woman actually saw it. I have thought the same of the tone of Jesus’ voice when he spoke…
    David R. – in the passage you quoted (Luke2:52) ,Jesus was just twelve years old, I believe – I am not convinced that this verse can reasonably be applied to the time, about eighteen years later, when Jesus began his ministry.

  15. Thanks Christine But do you think then that there was point in Jesus’s life when he stopped learning and growing in any human sense. That he just knew and understood everything that could be known – past, present and future? Does scripture claim that anywhere? If so how can scripture claim he was ‘tested in every way like us’? And on one pacific point doesn’t he himself say he does not know the ‘hour or the day’ – only the Father? Isn’t quite a key part of human testing how we respond to uncertainty and live in the midst of things we do not understand or know how understand or respond to? Genuine questions.

    • Of course not–you are quite right. Jesus was clearly not omniscient (‘no-one knows the hour, not even the Son’) 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…

      Btw I think this relates to the difference between ‘inerrancy’ and ‘infallibility’ in relation to Scripture…

      • Hi Ian

        if you don’t mind me chipping in, I think having a Jesus who is not ‘limited’ by his ethnocentricity poses the danger of a ‘Jewish, but not that Jewish’, as I suggested above. Which might even stray into Docetism. Which is why the C.S. Lewis quote cited above is a bit silly (I think). Jesus didn’t spring from the womb fully cognisant of his destiny, surely?

        Indeed, although I don’t like psychologising on the basis of the Gospels, when did Jesus realise his ‘purpose’? In the Temple, aged 12? At the outset of his ministry? At his baptism? In the wilderness? A gradual revelation during his ministry?

        • I am not sure that it does. He was fully Jewish, and as a Jew knew well the Scriptures that said ‘Through your offspring will all the earth be blessed’ and ‘All nations will be drawn to your light’ and so forth.

          Being Jewish doesn’t mean simply believing that God has no plans to save the Gentiles.

    • Hi David R.,
      Thank you for your comment.
      ‘Do you think there was a point in Jesus’ life when he stopped learning and growing in any human sense?’ No, I do not make that supposition, but I think that he matured as he reached adulthood. I think that he knew his human limitations, and that he did not presume to know things that he did not know, as when he said that he did not know ‘the hour and the day’, an instance that you cited.As we know, there were also many things that Jesus knew by discernment, and in that respect, I have a question for you: do you think that we have any reason to suppose that Jesus knew less about the Syrophoenician woman than he knew about (for instance) Zacchaeus and the Samaritan woman at the well?
      And amen to your response to David R.s comment, Ian P.

  16. Hi Ian Thanks – I was not responding directly to the issue of whether he was racist or not. But there is a clear tension in how we express his ‘fullness’ in terms of his humanity is there not? With each affirmation (human or divine) we have to push back the other way. I suspect the search for ‘balance’ in some sense of poise on the scales is not helpful or possible here.
    I agree Jesus speaks with a strong understanding of his vocation but can we allow for this as something that was being constantly tested and opened up, growing by prayer, experience and the guiding Spirit?
    Specifically perhaps – what is the place of trust and faith in the incarnate life of Jesus?

    Thanks for this discussion …

  17. Dear Christine Thank you for continuing this intriguing discussion. A couple of quick responses that come to mind.
    I share your belief that Jesus grew in maturity (though it presumably means that at times Jesus was immature in his earthly life – I wonder how and and what way, and when it stopped?).
    But maturity is not the same as knowledge. Maturity is about how we manage things like what we know. I can be very mature while actually knowing very little. I can know everything and be a spoilt child with it.

    As to the comparison with the tree and well encounters. I just don’t think we know the answer to that because the narrator doesn’t tell us. They are also three very different encounters and different ministries are being expressed. But I do not assume that because Jesus showed very specific supernatural knowledge with the woman at the well or Zacchaeus that it means he always knew that kind of thing about everyone else he met (but just didn’t say so).

    Can I ask you a question? When Jesus says to the women, ‘For such a reply, you may go’ … and she goes home and finds her daughter healed, what is his tone of voice? Did her reply impact him at all do you think? Petersen’s translation in The Message runs – ‘Jesus was impressed. “You’re right! On your way!”’ So Petersen’s sense is that Jesus gets a reply he was not necessarily expecting and it moved him – impressed him.
    And what about Jesus’s response to the way the Centurion spoke to him. ‘When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Lk 7.9
    Doesn’t this plainly mean what it says – that Jesus was not expecting this reply and did know it was coming? And when he hears it he responds with startled delight and surprise?

  18. Hi David,
    Thank you for replying. Yes , in addition to learning about some people through spiritual discernment, Jesus also learned about others from the ways in which they spoke to him directly – for instance, I think he could see that both the centurion and the Syrophoenician woman had strong faith (though he did not directly mention the faith of the Syrophoenician woman) . However, in learning about them through his dialogues with them I don’t think he also learnt more about God or about his calling as Christ Incarnate, so my answer to the question in the title of this blog: ‘Did the Syrophoenician woman teach Jesus to be Jesus?’ is ‘No’.
    As you said, it is intriguing and re: your question about the tone of Jesus’ voice, I think it is inevitable that we all bring some tone (also pitch, volume and pace etc) into our voices when we read the Bible aloud, and one reader will sound different from another – I have not heard anyone come over sounding like a Dalek when reading the Bible aloud! When I read the Bible aloud, I inevitably read it with a Welsh accent, which some have told me is ‘lilting and singsong’ , and which may or may not appeal to listeners 🙂

  19. Thanks again Christine. I can’t make sense of Ian’s title actually – though much in his blog I can go with even if I might place the emphasis in different places at times. But I do believe that in his encounters with people and situations Jesus learned and grew (and was tested) in his understanding of his vocation – as he did in through prayer, scripture reflection and life in the Spirit. They were real encounters and so they influenced him. He was not pretending to be astonished, frustrated or ‘impressed’. That, for me, makes him more real not less. The difficulty of course is when we try and define or divide it all up – divine human etc.
    I am still curious to know what you make of Jesus’s astonishment with the centurion?
    I wonder how that would sound in Welsh accent?
    Thanks again ….

    • Hi David,
      Thank you for your comment. I am sorry for the late reply – I got no email notification about it (probably because of some human error on my part) and I only just came across it when browsing through this blog and comments. I just checked the Greek for ‘marvelled’ (the Biblehub Interlinear translation of ‘ethaumasen’ ) and I notice that ‘ethaumasen’ can also mean ‘admired’, which gives a different nuance to it, and does not really indicate that Jesus was surprised about the faith of the Centurion. And back to the passage about the Syrophoenecian woman – I keep thinking about the passage about the parable of the of the persistent widow, but I am still trying to work out the chronology of the two passages so I am not in a position to consider whether or not Jesus had already admired persistence before his encounter with the S/P woman.
      And ‘marvellous’, spoken with a Welsh accent – well of course I know what that sounds like, but I think some people from the Valleys might be tempted to paraphrase that as ‘Oh, there’s marvellous!’…

  20. The threads above do not really consider who the woman is, but what if she from the Syrian / Phoenician elite, a group which saw itself as superior to the Jews. Often we assume she is weak and maybe poor, and we do read that she comes and falls at his feet and asks him – what is the significance of this?
    Jesus, in his analogy, then makes clear that she must understand that what he has been doing, and is known for, is first for the Jews. Her response acknowledges this but seeks the crumbs. Jesus, socially the inferior of the Phoenician woman (whose daughter has a couch, not just a mattress, which indicates her relative wealth), ensures that she and his disciples know that his calling has a priority but not an exclusivity. As some mention above, the conversation is not just between the two, but includes those listening, disciples and others.
    In Matthew we read that the woman is a Canaanite, and presumably Matthew uses this anachronism with reason – For Matthew the good news is also for the traditional enemy, the group that was to be removed from the land so the Jews could settle.
    I think Ian is absolutely right to say we need to note the position of the gospel writers and how they position this incident. In the conversation the outsider (foreigner) is transformed into a human being not a cipher, which is itself an important element of the way the story is told.

    Our theological formulations will always teeter precariously between (or fall into) the problems of over-emphasising the humanity or the divinity of Jesus, between being too vague and being too precise. Theological formulations can force meaning out of texts which are more elusive, and free interpretation of texts can take you into very heterodox theological places – often at variance with other texts.

    Jesus clearly learnt, and grew into his understanding of who he was and what he was called to do. All of us learn through our conversations unless we approach them with a closed mind. The gospel writers choose to present Jesus’ teaching and interactions in somewhat different ways – Syro-Phoenician becomes Canaanite.
    Maybe the more urgent question is not how we think Jesus did or did not learn, but whether we are open to learning and changing, whether from or to a more “conservative” or “liberal” understanding.
    This Mark passage has so much more that is puzzling and illuminating, not least how we today approach stories of casting out demons, whether from a man in the synagogue on the Sabbath, from the Gerasene man taken over by Legion – a clear reference to Roman occupation, or the daughter of this foreign woman, or ?? the loosening of the bond of the tongue of the man in 7:32-37.

  21. But what is the defence of Jesus calling a woman a dog? Whether you wish to reference OT passages about God or not, this insult just seems wrong.

    • Yes, of course, in our culture, in our language, and with our theological assumptions, ‘it just seems wrong’. But the challenge of reading Scripture is *not* to read it from our culture, language and theological assumptions…

  22. Is it significant that the Canaanite woman and his mother at the wedding in Cana are the only two instances where Jesus changes his mind (or seems to)?

    Cana / Canaanite and both women – coincidence? Completely off the mark (and Matthew)? Or noteworthy?

  23. A speculation which, as far as I can tell, has not been directly covered in comments so far:
    As Jesus told the woman – and his disciples – feed the children first – he was not sure what God the Father wanted him to do. By the Holy Spirit, inspiring the S-P lady, the Father told him – so he then responded in obedience to what he heard, because he recognised his Father’s voice, speaking through her.
    Supporting examples:
    – when the Shunemite woman came to Elisha after her son died 2 Ki 4:27 “She is in bitter distress, but the LORD has hidden it from me and has not told me why.”
    – Job 33:14 “For God does speak – now one way, now another” which surely includes through another person
    – Jesus is portrayed as not knowing which of the many people round him had touched the hem of his garment with faith in his power to heal

  24. Your points about reading this passage in context are key. As you point out, Jesus has already healed Gentiles before even encountering the Syrophoenician woman, so he clearly is not opposed to doing so. The other thing not mentioned but likely key, is that Mark’s gospel is directed at Gentile audiences (written in Greek, explains Aramaic phases, etc). So Mark is also clearly not intending to offend them with this story; his Gospel is designed to reach out to Gentile readers.

  25. It’s kinda disturbing when people read their social programs (racism = privilege + prejudice instead of actual race-ism) into scripture, and then push for giving the disadvantaged moral superiority or revenge instead of real equality, whereas Paul has pushed constantly for colorblindness (no man nor woman nor Jew nor Greek nor Barbarian in Christ; gentiles and jews must desegregate in the assembly etc.)
    This all is just provoking whites to wrath and blacks to pride. And this junk is weaker than trying to use the book of Joshua to espouse the Indian wars.

  26. I thought this might be of some interest — Sarah Ruden (The Gospels. A New translation. 2021) says about this text: “what most translators render as “dogs” is actually a cute diminutive form, “the rare and comical ‘little doggies,’ ” something less like an insult than like the kind of playful language you find in Aristophanes—a word choice so obviously tender and funny that it explains why, instead of leaving, the woman feels comfortable responding to Jesus in kind.”

    It concerns kunarion “a little dog, puppy”, diminutive of kuon “dog”.

  27. I always thought that the key word is ‘First….’ Jesus’ ministry was first to the Jews, but after the resurrection was for all nations. This woman was jumping the gun but Jesus admired her desire that the kingdom is for all. Hence she gets healing early!

  28. Thank you for sharing this insight. I too strongly believe in my heart that this episode is nothing to do with Jesus learning and I am mightily pleased that there are others who share this view. He is the Lord, He knows everything there is to know. He has temporarily donned the clothing of human flesh but that hasn’t changed who He is.
    I say this not from the standpoint of any erudition or qualification but as a believer and with truth in my heart. Amen.

  29. Everything in it’s ordained order. Are there those who look at the encounters of Jesus with others, both Jew and Gentile, as just unplanned timing of events? Please, think again. Did He not wait for Lazarus to die first before going back to show completely just who He was? Through Abraham, was not the nations through his seed, not seeds, bless both Jew and Gentile? Yes, in it’s ordained order. What of the Roman centurion? What of Peter’s dream? What of Paul’s ordained conversion? And on and on. I’d suggest the detractors of Jesus read Romans 8 and 9. There were no mistakes in His Father’s work to save those whom He ordained to have their ears and eyes opened. Jesus did not just stumble across the Samaritan woman at the well any more than this Gentile woman, the Father is not a reactionary God who must figure things out, if you believe that, you need to re-examine your Almighty God. Dave Oktavec

  30. Great article, Ian. By way of complementing it, my questions, if I may. Is this passage in Mark a conversation that was meant to happen? That is, does Mark use this as a divinely ordained moment? Is the purpose of it to teach the implied audience, his disciples, not to teach Jesus? ie he says what they would be tempted to say so that they hear her answer and his endorsement of her answer? Is the Gospel’s purpose also in Peter performing this to a later implied assembled ekklesia in which Jewish members of Peter’s church need to hear Jesus’ endorsement of an argument they can accept for gentile inclusion? If her story is the pivot between the stories of the feeding of the Jewish 5,000 and the ritually unclean gentile 4,000, which Peter’s Jewish church audience might be shocked by, is she then the equivalent of Cornelius? That is, does her story fulfil a narrative function like that of Cornelius in Acts? I should probably write these thoughts elsewhere!


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