More on the (Puppy?) Dogs

More on the (Puppy?) Dogs September 13, 2019

I’ve been thinking more about the dogs or puppies in the story about the Syrophoenician woman. One aspect that is rarely discussed is the likelihood that the conversation – even if the woman was a “Greek” – that a Galilean and a Syrian or Phoenician would have had their conversation in Aramaic. The Syriac New Testament simply uses the word “dog” in its version of the story, even though Aramaic had a diminutive form of the word. Interestingly, the New Testament coins a diminutive rather than using the standard Greek one. And so I find myself wondering whether Jesus’ language might not have been toned down already by the Gospel authors, even as subsequent interpreters have sought to do so even more.

Before I draw any sweeping conclusions, though, I’d love to hear from those who work on Aramaic and related matters, and/or the Syriac Gospels, to hear more from you about how much weight to put on the fact that the Gospels in Aramaic simply say “dogs” where the Greek Gospels sought to suggest “little dogs” and perhaps render the term slightly less jarring or more endearing.

Regardless of this particular question, however, it must be noted that even household dogs in the ancient world were not the full-fledged family members that modern-day dogs and cats (and occasionally other animals) are prone to be.

On this story in the Matthean version see Jonathan Rowlands’ article “Difficult Texts: ‘A dog at the table’ in Matthew 15.21-28,” available through

To conclude today’s thoughts on the subject, no matter what information we find from ancient times, I think that it is safe to say that this will always be an example of an instance in which a natural reading of the reference to “dogs” today will never be precisely the impression the story conveyed in ages past. Even a well-informed reading, if we can determine what that should look like, will still be a different reading experience than one that reacted spontaneously to the language as readers could safely be expected to in the author’s time and location.

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  • robrecht
    • Thanks for the reminder about these! I think the long and short of it is that Jesus may well have had household dogs in view, rather than it being the woman who changed what sort of dogs were being discussed in her reply to Jesus. Calling someone a household dog in contrast to one’s own people as children in the home is still insulting.

  • John MacDonald

    Canine: The land of milk and honey and Kibbles ‘n Bits

  • I wrote a blog on the Matthew passage some time ago, and a scholar who liked it critiqued it on the basis that the Greek indicated domestic dogs, and I had made a big point about the evolution of the rabbinic view of dogs over time and their connection to Gentiles.

    • John MacDonald

      Phil said

      I wrote a blog on the Matthew passage some time ago

      Can you provide a link to your blog? I’d be interested in checking it out!

        • John MacDonald
          • Thanks, John.

          • John MacDonald

            I think there’s a lot of truth in what you say when you wrote:

            As you begin to make inquiries into biblical scholarship, historical studies, the history and current state of philosophy, the rise and fall of other religions, the mythologies of Israel’s neighbors, early Greek histories, the evidence progressively unearthed by the natural sciences, and so forth, you begin to realize that nothing is as simple as you thought it was.

            Too often we over-simplify, over-generalize, etc., securing for ourselves a false sense of security. For whatever inquiry concretizes, it just as much profoundly problematizes.

          • John MacDonald

            Speaking of blogs, I just finished reading a wonderful essay on the grammar of Being. It inspired me to do a brief blog post on it. If anyone else is a “grammar-phile” like me and enjoys closely argued linguistic analysis, check out my post:

          • arcseconds

            I’m sure religion nerds are usually passionately engaged in their religion, but is it the important bit that they’re passionate about?

            If you think Christianity is more about service than it is about theology (and I’m pretty sure you do in fact think that), isn’t there a great risk in an intellectual faith, in the sense that you might be tempted to read another controversial book than turn up to the soup kitchen? And moreover that you might be tempted to think that you or something about you (e.g. your theology, or your faith, or your engagement with your religion) is superior to someone who never reads controversial books but always turns up to the soup kitchen.

            Who is your interlocutor in the blockquotes? At first I thought it might be you, but I presume you’re not particularly interested in liberal Christianity as a stepping stone to atheism.

            I’m not really sure of the point of the quote about arguing theological truths and one’s favourite scotch. Is the point that scotch is a triviality and theology important, and there are trivial people who have trivial discussions on the one hand and serious people who have important discussions on the other? I must say this doesn’t meet with my experience, as I definitely have met intellectual types who are quite inclined to argue about both scotch and intellectual matters.

            I also think these people are blowhards — discussing scotch rather than arguing about it is quite another matter, mind.

          • Well, those are quite a lot of questions about something I wasn’t really planning on discussing, and I don’t want to minimize the questions, either, which are good ones.

            I guess in short, I’d say:

            1) The things you listed as temptations and dangers are temptations and dangers, but you also have to keep in mind that I’m coming from the standpoint of American Evangelicalism, which is enthralled with neither the intellect nor service, generally speaking. These are also potential temptations with a life of service as well. I’ve known more than one person who constructed their whole identity out of being a “helper” and had rather a lot of ego wrapped up in that.

            2) The interlocutors are various in the blockquotes. I said none of them, although I’m sure I’ve said something very similar to the Roman provinces quote a time or two, as I also had to do those things.

  • John MacDonald

    The filter caught one of my comments again! This filter is more powerful than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! lol

  • bobyount

    While I could not speak to the use or softening of the words by the Gospel writers or subsequent interpretations of these accounts, it might be interesting to consider the harshness of the statement from a cultural understanding not held in America or much of western society. In the Congolese culture (of which I am aware) dogs are not pets or even given any respect. Their reading of the passage, regardless of the Greek or Aramaic translation, might give them a clearer understanding of Jesus’ tone and meaning. Just a thought.

    • What a great point! While (some) Americans and British people might need an explanation why anyone wouldn’t take bread from children and give it to the dogs, in other cultural contexts what might need to be explained is how dogs could have access to crumbs that fall from the table.