Dogs with Crumbs of Faith: What Jesus Learned from a Syro-Phoenician Woman

Dogs with Crumbs of Faith: What Jesus Learned from a Syro-Phoenician Woman August 12, 2019

When it comes to the subject of Jesus learning from women, the Syro-Phoenician or Canaanite woman who appears in the Gospels is the one example that most people (although by no means all) would point to as an example. The story certainly seems to many readers to involve Jesus having an encounter with a woman in which he learns something from her that changes his perspective. Many are uncomfortable with this notion, to be sure, whether because they don’t think Jesus learned, or because they don’t think he learned from women. Both those views, however, are seriously problematic both in relation to what the Gospels depict, and the humanity of Jesus.

I particularly appreciated Elizabeth Watson’s mentioning (in her discussion of this story in her book Wisdom’s Daughters) how twelve-step programs define humility in connection with Jesus’ humility illustrated in this story. “Humility is the willingness to become teachable.” This story illustrates Jesus’ humility, his teachability, in ways that directly challenge forms of Christian theology which can only affirm Jesus’ humility as a point of abstract dogma, and not as a reality when the rubber hit the road in his human life.

If one reads this story and that of the Centurion and his servant in sequence, one can trace a development in Jesus’ attitude towards Gentiles, and in particular, one can see the impact of what Jesus learned from this woman on his encounter with that man. Mark doesn’t include the story about the centurion. Matthew and Luke both add it in different places. I would love input on the question of whether that story was in Q. If so, it would be the only narrative of that sort. If both Matthew and Luke introduced it independently, placing it earlier than the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, did they do so to lessen the extent to which Jesus is seen to owe something to a woman’s influence?

Also about the story and related matters:

Did Jesus Ever Say “I’m Sorry”?

Because Jesus Choosing Male Disciples Doesn’t Mean What We Think….

A dog at the table

Yung Suk Kim’s perspective on the story

Ian Paul’s perspective on the story

Even Jesus fell short of perfect love

Morna Hooker on Mark’s Syro-Phoenician Woman

Mike Bird on Rachel Held Evans on Jesus the racist

Calling People Dogs: Juxtaposing Jesus and Trump

What we can learn from being offended

Civility and jokes

Hearing a Dog, Seeing a Human: Crossing a Border with Jesus

Thrown to the Dogs: Matthew 15:21-28

How To Handle Divine & Political Barriers: A Womanist Perspective

When a Woman Speaks

By Their Fruit … (RJS)

Also of possible interest is Daiana Felecan’s article, “The Canaanite woman’s request or about prayers as forms of linguistic politeness.” Also connected is a story that should probably be viewed as a sequel to this one, one in which we see clearly what Jesus learned from his encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman. See too Jared Byas on how Jesus responded to “interruptions.”

Somewhat distantly related, here is a post of mine from a while back about salvation and dogs (in the Book of Revelation and thus a rather different context).

Revelation 22:15: No Dogs Go To Heaven

Finally, and perhaps most distantly related to this topic, here is a review of a recent book on researching female faith.

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  • Perhaps the encounter with the syrophoenician woman was a pivotal point in Jesus ministry MHO. He was in the Learning Zone all the time living life on life’s terms. Maybe this is an example of God correcting / informing him through the syrophoenician? As Jesus was embedded in his cultural milieu Jesus had to go through a sorting process / unlearn from his cultural origin. As he was in the world so we are in the world.
    Not only was he receiving information from a woman he was also getting the message of inclusion of ethnicity. Jesus set the example: humility and respect for all human life. We must all go there I think.

  • Gary

    Just a few observations, maybe right, maybe wrong:
    Mark 7:27 And he said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs. 28 But she answered and saith unto him, Yea, Lord; even the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.

    Read a commentary that said “dogs” was a diminutive form (little dogs, or puppies), emphasizing Gentiles (new to Gospel). Also, puppies under the table while children are eating seems biased toward Gentiles, since the Jews would, I assume, consider any dogs unclean. So they were under the table while eating?

    The previous story, from NSRV since a little more graphic,
    Mark 7: 18 He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
    Definitely geared toward Gentiles (poop reference, plus seems to be geared directly opposite to Jewish kosher laws. Commentary says “thus he declared all foods clean” was perhaps added later. Seems like all this was added later, to coincide with Acts (Gentile recruitment).

    This, my point –
    “I would love input on the question of whether that story was in Q.”

    Seems unlikely, considering the push for Gentile recruitment. Comparing Gentiles to puppies in Gospel recruitment has to be late, not early, as in Q. Actually, this probably is good reason to think the entire story is not related to the Historical Jesus, so it was made up later, much after he was crucified. And when Acts was written.

    • There is definitely a longstanding attempt to turn Jesus’ insulting reference into one about cute, cuddly household pets. Unfortunately, the cultural and historical context makes such attempts look anachronistic, attempts to make Jesus come off better than he otherwise would. Keep in mind that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic with the woman, and so the Greek diminutive may already represent a toning down of what Jesus said. The setting is probably a domestic one, and so the dogs may well be household dogs, but I see nothing in the likely original form of Jesus’ words to indicate that that was specified. It seems to be the woman who, in answering Jesus, elevates the status of dogs. Either way, though, the reference is insulting. Saying that others are children while you’re merely a pet is still problematic, isn’t it?

      For more on this see Larry Hurtado’s blog post:

      • Gary

        Other than dogs, I’m more interested in if this story is real, or made up. An attempt to put words into Jesus’ mouth that reflect (or predict) the recruitment of Gentiles, but it occurs at an early date (when Jesus was alive), seems madeup. I don’t think there is any doubt that the story is meant to say “first Jews, then later Gentiles.” Same for the earlier story, “he declared all food clean”.
        To me, anyway, this is clearly written later, to coincide more with Paul’s later recruitment of Gentiles. Certainly not Q. And probably certainly not a true story of what Jesus would actually say. Not for a good Jewish boy!

      • Gary

        Even Hurtado’s point reinforces my point. i.e.
        “Finally, we also have to ask ourselves how likely it is that the authors of Mark (writing for a Christian readership at least largely made up of converted gentiles) would have inserted a scene in which supposedly Jesus insults a gentile woman in the harsh terms imputed by some modern readers. She is “put in her place” as a gentile, but it’s a temporal place. The scene functions to explain that, although Jesus’ own ministry was confined to his Jewish people (apparently, a tradition that Mark couldn’t deny/ignore), the subsequent mission to gentiles was (Mark wants to imply) on the agenda, only it had to wait its time, and Jesus is pictured as anticipating that gentile-mission…”

        The point, “and Jesus is pictured as anticipating that gentile-mission”..

        Is highly unlikely coming out of a historic Jesus’ mouth. If this was a true story, then you would also have to accept the appearance of the resurrected Jesus in Acts, and the mass conversion of Gentiles at the beginning of Acts.

        • I think that there are two questions here – what is the meaning of the story in the later Gospels which are looking to depict Jesus in as positive a light as possible and support a Gentile mission that he did not directly, and what if anything is historical in the story. I think that in the process of asking about the former, it also helps us see a layer relevant to the latter which has been overlaid and transformed in the process of Christian usage and adaptation of the story.

          • Gary

            I think the actual conclusion of the story would indicate pretty clearly that the story is made up, either by the author of Mark, or a madeup oral story.
            “Mark 7:29–30 (ASV): And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the demon is gone out of thy daughter. 30And she went away unto her house, and found the child laid upon the bed, and the demon gone out.”

            Can’t believe an actual remote healing. If the most important part of the story (the healing) is not true historically, then why would an interpretation that Jesus actually reached out to a poor Gentile woman be true (and the important part of the story)? Obviously (to me), not a historically true story. Not a Q story either. A Mark’s author feel-good story.

          • John MacDonald

            I think it’s a general hermeneutic principle that we should probably suspend judgment on the historicity of a pericope that the early church would have had reason to invent, such as one with theological overtones, teaching a moral, or, to use your phrasing: A Mark’s author feel-good story.

          • Gary

            But you’re not suggestion the the story is true, are you?

            “it’s a general hermeneutic principle that we should probably suspend judgment on the historicity of a pericope…”

            If that’s the case, then the moral of the story is the Universal Church’s moral, not necessarily Jesus’. Big difference. And relating to the blog post title, if not historic, then Jesus didn’t really learn anything from the woman 🙂

          • Gary

            Suggesting that – spell check episode.

          • John MacDonald

            I think that it is fair to say that most of what the church preserved regarding the biography of Jesus, either demonstrating Jesus in theological terms, illustrating a moral, or dressing him up as a super-nice guy, is stuff the church wanted to preserve, so it is left open as to whether it actually happened, or even if there is a kernel of historical truth to it. I think the early story tellers invented the Jesus miracle stories, for instance, because I am secular and don’t believe in miracles. Some of the stuff seems basically falsified, like when Matthew has Jesus’s biography recapitulate the story of Moses.

            Did the historical Jesus encounter the woman in the story, and did the encounter reflect the story handed down to us? Maybe, but I don’t see any reason to think so. Perhaps there is a particularly sophisticated line of argument that can get past the Hermeneutic Wall that the early church would have had reason to invent the story, but I don’t know what that argument would look like.

          • Gary

            “the early church would have had reason to invent the story…”
            I didn’t exactly mean that. More like oral stories generated by people. Although I think this story was preserved because of the Jesus prediction of the Gentile mission.

            I find the earlier poop story combined with the dog story interesting. Not Q but possible tie in with Gospel of Thomas sayings, either early or late (although also not so historic, I think).
            “(4) And if you go into any land and wander from place to place, (and) if they take you in,
            (then) eat what they will set before you. Heal the sick among them!
            (5) For what goes into your mouth will not defile you. Rather, what comes out of your mouth will defile you.”

            (1) “Do not give what is holy to the dogs, lest they throw it upon the dunghill.
            (2) Do not throw pearls to swine, lest they turn into [mud].”

            Maybe the author of Mark got inspired after reading Thomas!