Jesus Bested by a Woman! The Story of the Syro-Phoenician Woman

There is a very unusual story in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 7:24-30) picked up by, and amplified in, the Gospel of Matthew (Mat 15:21-28). It concerns a desperate woman requesting an exorcism from Jesus. Now that doesn’t sound so unusual. People, both men and women, requested healings and exorcisms from Jesus seemingly on a regular basis.

What makes this story unusual is the number of narrative oddities it contains. To begin with, Jesus is described as being outside his normal sphere of influence, that is, the “region of Tyre” (Matthew adds “and Sidon”). This is Gentile territory, a type of place Jesus rarely visits (see Mark 5:1 etc.). Mark casually notes that Jesus “went into a house” and “did not want anyone to know.” What does this mean? Whose house? Why was he in this territory and who opened their doors to him? Did he know someone in the area? What drove him to visit there? He is described as doing nothing in the region except interacting with the woman of this story.

The woman who confronts Jesus is emotionally overwrought. The Greek word used to describe her pleading means literally “shouting” or “screaming.” She is beside herself with grief and anxiety. That may not seem unusual but what is striking is that she is a gentile, described by Mark as a “Greek,” meaning someone from “the nations.” Matthew even calls her a “Canaanite.” There were no Canaanites in the time of Jesus. But the Canaanites were the traditional enemies of the Israelites who came to displace them from their land. How did this gentile woman in gentile territory come to hear about Jesus? Was it through Jewish channels? Was she familiar with Judaism, perhaps as a God-fearer? How did she know he would be in the area? How did she pinpoint the exact location (the home) where Jesus was?

This desperate gentile mother came nonetheless. She did not bring her possessed daughter but presumably left her back home. How she thought Jesus would heal her daughter is not disclosed. Did she expect him to travel to her home to do her this favor? Whatever her expectations, she asked Jesus to exorcise her daughter. In the public arena of the ancient world, it was not considered appropriate for a woman to address a man especially one she had never met. Presumably her native tongue was Punic but she may have had a facility in Greek to be able to make herself understood to those around Jesus. The ability to leave her daughter in another’s care and travel, her facility with Greek, and the fact that her daughter is described having been lying on a couch (kline) rather than a mat (krabattos) suggests she had some means. But it is her quick-witted and clever response when speaking with Jesus that seems to clinch this supposition.

Unlike most healing or exorcism stories about Jesus in the gospels, Jesus refuses this woman’s request to heal her daughter! In Matthew, he refuses three times! His response is abrupt and even crude. He tells her, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and to throw it to the dogs.” It is tempting perhaps to want to smooth over this harsh, derisive response. After all this is Jesus! But hasn’t he just called her a dog? And a female dog at that (we all know what that word would be in English). What does he mean by calling her a dog? Who are the dogs? Who are the children? And what is the bread?

For a Jew to call someone a dog was not a complement. It was a commonly used epithet for non-Jews, especially hostile non-Jews. Dogs were the ubiquitous scavengers found roaming in vicious packs in most towns and cities (Ps 59:6, 14). They ate carrion (Ps 68:23) and were generally held in no higher regard than pigs (Mat 7:6). Dogs became a metaphor for all that is rotten in human beings (Phil 3:2; Rev 22:14-15). For Jesus to refer to this pleading woman, even indirectly, as a dog was a patriarchal, bigoted remark.

Some may wince at thinking Jesus would make such a statement and mean it the way it would have sounded in the first century. But remember, it is a doctrinal affirmation that Jesus was “completely God, completely human…the one Christ is both God and human” (Athanasian Creed, 5th-6th c.). Is this supposed to mean that Jesus was human only in a biological sense? The word “completely” seems to imply more than that. The gospels seem to allow for Jesus to be human emotionally as well. He seems to suffer the same passions as most people. Mark shows that he was baptized for the forgiveness of his sins (Mark 1:9 though later gospels tried to obfuscate this); he was tempted in the desert (Mark 1:13); he violently accosted the money changers and livestock vendors in the temple (John 2:15); he cursed and withered an innocent fig tree (Mark 11:20). These episodes demonstrate that the gospel authors understood, to various degrees, that Jesus was not only physically human but also behaved as a human. Humans are products of their culture and time. If this story of the Syro-Phoenician woman is historical, Jesus called her a dog.

So if the dogs represent gentiles, who are the children? The children must be the Children of Israel, God’s chosen people since the time of Abraham. Whatever the bread is, it is intended for them, as Mark says, “first.” In other words, some leftover bread is conceivable (Matthew has no such remainder in mind). Further, Matthew has Jesus declare that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the omission of these words from Mark and the inclusion of “first” may reflect a more original form of the story. The word “first” triggers the woman’s clever, quick-witted response, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She doesn’t spar with Jesus over ethnic equality or divine intent. She doesn’t argue ethics or challenge his religious prioritization. Yet she finds a window of opportunity in his excuse. She may not be first, she may not be a child of Abraham, but as a mother she knows that when children eat they leave crumbs behind. Cleverly, she takes Jesus’s negative metaphorical imagery of roving packs of canine scavengers and creates her own image of the domesticated pet who follows the infants around eating what they inevitably leave behind. But what is it that is left behind? What is this bread?

Jesus’s use of the word bread for what the woman has requested is interesting and may have parallels in the gospels. Some have suggested it is the gospel message itself. But she requests healing not preaching. Is the bread Jesus himself? Matthew has her acknowledge Jesus as the messiah but this is an editorial addition and likely not part of the original story (Mark does not have this). The Gospel of John has Jesus specifically claim to be “the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48, 51). But is Jesus really referring to himself as bread here? Do the crumbs refer to the reluctant, partial attention he pays to people like her? I think a clue to its meaning in this situation is found in the story of the multiplication of the loaves (Matt 14:13-21; Mark 6:35-44, 8:1-9; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-10). In one of the rare miracle stories told by all four gospels, Jesus calls in to existence an amazing amount of bread (and fish) to feed a crowd of Jewish listeners. After they are satisfied (“let the children be satisfied first”), there is leftover bread (and fish). Where do these leftovers go? Who gets to eat it? There is no answer in the gospels. But if we view the food as a metaphor for the abundance of the kingdom, as Jesus surely intended it to be seen, we get an idea of what the bread is that Jesus intends for the children (“salvation is from the Jews,” John 4:22). It is entry to the kingdom. The leftover bread and fish from the feeding of the multitudes might be meant for those who were not present, that is, for non-Jews who will hear of the gospel later (I am not suggesting that Jesus foresaw the gentile mission but the gospel authors were fully aware of it).

Whatever its underlying meaning, Jesus cannot resist the woman’s clever retort. If he did speak of the kingdom as bread for the children then he did not deny that some food/room would be left for the gentiles like her. Mark simply has Jesus reply, “Because you said this, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.” Matthew has Jesus credit the woman’s great trust/faith (Greek = pistis) but this probably not original to the story. Yet it is a logical conclusion. The woman did not give up. She persisted. It may have been in desperation but she would not be denied. She insisted this man could help her child. And she was right.

The final unusual narrative element in this story is Jesus’s healing from a distance. The only other time Jesus is shown to do so is in the story of the centurion’s son/servant (Mat 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10; John 4:46-54). In both cases Jesus refused to enter a gentile home. This is contextually credible as most gentile homes had shrines containing idols to some tribal, clannish, or local god. Jews did not wish to risk ritually defiling themselves by contact with idolatrous practices.

The story of the anonymous Syro-Phoenician woman is rich with portent and symbolism. We can learn much about the first-century situation surrounding the story and about Jesus’s humanity at times prickly but also humble; he is persuaded by the woman’s intelligence and provocation. Her cleverness and sincerity. Her desperation and her love. How could he resist?

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