Syrophoenician Woman

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Gospel of Mark, Women in the Bible


In the story of the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus states, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." (Mark 7:24ff) I've heard people interpret this in several ways. What is your take on it?


Scholars have debated this verse forever. The words are very offensive and it seems so unlike Jesus to have said something like this. So, not surprisingly, scholars have really tried to soften its sting. Most scholars admit that Jews sometimes did refer to Gentiles as "dogs," and so, it was meant to be an insulting term. Dogs were typically unclean because they ate all kinds of things – garbage, carrion, etc. Jews had little use for them. Likewise, Jews thought that all Gentiles were unclean and oftentimes saw them as ignorant, worthless, and pagan. The rabbis were fond of saying that the people of the world were like dogs. Because both Mark and Matthew clearly identify this woman as a Gentile, the term could have been spoken to her. In general, calling someone a "dog" was not a good thing.

Yet, scholars are eager to point out that Jesus used the diminutive form of the word for dogs. Some claim this refers to little dogs, like puppies, and that this was really meant as a term of endearment. That is not widely accepted for several reasons. Only Greek has a diminutive term for dogs. If Jesus and the woman had been speaking Aramaic (which is possible), there is no such word. A dog is a dog. The term would have been modified/inserted later by a Greek redactor. Since the diminutive term is best translated "house dogs," it would suggest that these dogs are not out scrounging for food, but being fed in the house. This would only have happened in Gentile households as Jews were not known to have dogs as household pets.

It might help to consider the position of this story in the gospel. Surely, it is no accident that in both Matthew and Mark, this story follows immediately after the discussion about uncleanness and Jesus' proclamation that all foods are clean. Jesus had replied that whatever goes into a man from outside does not defile him; it is what comes out of his mouth that defiles him. If the distinction between clean and unclean objects is based on one's attitude, then the distinction between clean (Jew) and unclean (Gentile) persons is also subject to review. After this encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus literally and metaphorically crossed into Gentile territory.

Whether Jesus tried to be incognito (Mark) or not (Matthew), this woman had heard about him. She did not hesitate to implore him to help her at a time when women did not approach strange men. And she did so by being completely importunate. Jesus' words, though completely offensive, might also have been a riddle or a proverb. In that case, she gets it (at a time in both gospels when Jesus' own disciples "get" very little) and extends it. She does not respond to his comment, but uses it to her own advantage. These "dogs" are not out and about scrounging through garbage cans; they are sitting near the children at the table hoping something gets dropped on the floor. They are patient, polite, and expectant. As is she. She accepts his allegory, but makes sure that she and her daughter have a place in it – even if it's just for the crumbs that are left over.

Jews won't be deprived of anything if a little crumb falls to the floor. Five thousand of them just ate a little while ago, and there was plenty of food left over. (And four thousand Gentiles will soon be fed.) She understands his primary mission is to the Jews, for Israel, but she's not asking him to abandon that. She is not trying to interfere with the divine sequence, but her daughter needs help and she knows Jesus can provide it. Her persistence paid off.

This signifies a turning point in Mark's gospel. It is the Pharisees' worst nightmare coming true. The boundaries between Jew and Gentile have been examined and found to be wanting. And all because this unclean, unnamed, gentile woman understood more than Jesus' own disciples comprehended at that point!

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