For Jesus’ modern admirers the story of the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman remains a stone of stumbling. It is difficult to assimilate a Jesus who denigrates gentiles as “dogs” into the vision of Jesus as the proto-liberal par excellence. John P. Meier pricks at this modern sentiment perfectly: “Christian exegetes would probably have decried the use of ‘dogs’ to designate Gentiles as shocking and intolerable if it had appeared in a Gospel story on the lips of a Pharisee instead of on the lips of Jesus” (A Marginal Jew Vol. 2, 660).
So damaging is the story to Christ’s reputation of compassionate impartiality that many readers have cast a shroud of irony over the whole episode. Jesus parrots Jewish ethnic prejudices merely as a way to challenge the woman’s faith. Passing the test, she sees through Jesus’ flimsy façade and recognizes the egalitarian economy of God’s kingdom. Whether Jew or gentile, all are equal before Jesus—or so many hope.
Despite the popularity of this reading, little to nothing in the text suggests it. While Jesus does eventually fulfill the woman’s petition, she achieves this not be defying Christ’s insult but by accepting it. The dogged woman insists upon the cure not because she deserves an equal place at God’s dinner table, but because she is, as Jesus notes, a dog—and having thus every right to snatch at the fallen crumbs: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28).
The demeaning timbre of this episode is dampened, however, by the expectant tone of Jesus’ initial refusal: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). While still relegating her to an inferior status, Jesus implies that pious gentiles will one day receive the provision of Israel’s God. In suspicious accordance with Paul’s gospel, after the death and resurrection of Christ salvation comes “to the Jew first, and also to the [Syrophoenician]” (Romans 1:16).
A Canaanite dog
This Markan framing of the episode may not represent the most primitive version of the story, however. For reasons discussed below, Matthew may preserve the more authentic spirit of the encounter even though he writes later and redacts Mark.
Consider the following. In Matthew’s account—and not Mark’s—Jesus at first ignores the woman’s cries (15:23) and then attempts to send her away at the request of his disciples (15:23-24). When he informs her that he was sent only to the house of Israel1 she presses on, groveling before him (15:25). Jesus still does not concede, and states bluntly: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (15:26). Here in Matthew the eventual feeding of gentiles is thus no longer hinted at. There is no implied “first Jews, then gentiles” formula. Instead, the possibility of future aid is excluded. The father has no intention of feeding the dogs.
The woman’s response in Mathew then—the same as in Mark—makes a bit more sense. Being a dog with no supper on the way, she appeals not for expedited assistance, but for accidental assistance. She believes she might stand to benefit from the sloppiness2 of the children, those she calls her “masters.”3
Impressed by the woman’s wit and humility, Jesus expels the demon from her daughter: an exorcism owed to an Israelite thus seized by a faithful Canaanite.
An ethnocentric Jesus
The uncompromising ethnocentricity of the Matthean Jesus here has some marks of primitivity.
First, while the story as redacted by Matthew possibly represents a Jewish reaction against the unrelenting growth of gentile Christianity in the first century, it nonetheless depicts Jesus in a light unflattering to most later Christians. It is a portrait of a conventionally-Jewish Jesus that later Christians were unlikely to create (or preserve4).
Second, other texts corroborate Jesus’ generally-negative attitude toward heathen peoples. Jesus, for instance, advises his (Jewish) followers to treat unrepentant members of the community as they would gentiles or tax collectors (Matthew 18:17), that is, with contempt and suspicion. Jesus here not only affirms the standard Jew-gentile division, he applies it to divisions among his Jewish clients.
In another text, Jesus warns his disciples to not cast their pearls before swine or that which is holy before dogs (Matthew 7:6). Jesus’ Jewish audience, of course, would have associated both of these unclean animals with gentiles. It would seem then that in protecting the bread belonging to the Jews from the Canaanite woman, Jesus was abiding by his own advice.
A Roman dog
As a final thought, let’s consider another Matthean healing story—the healing of the centurion’s slave (Matthew 8:5-13). When juxtaposed with the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter, some striking parallels emerge. For one, both stories feature a gentile patient who is healed over a long distance. More than this though, the two stories probably share a rhetorical blueprint when we take Jesus’ initial reaction to the Roman supplicant as a question rather than as a statement. Instead of declaring “I will come and cure him,” Jesus incredulously inquires “Will I come and cure him?” (Matthew 8:7). If this is the intended reading—as the NIV translation committee maintains5—Jesus initially rebuffs both the Canaanite woman and the Roman centurion.
In desperation then, the centurion reduces his request: instead of having Jesus come6 and heal his slave, he merely asks Jesus to heal his slave from a distance: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it” (8:8-9). As before, Jesus is impressed by the gentile’s wit and humility and so grants the cure (8:10).7
Why read the story in this unconventional way? Besides the neat parallels with the story of the Canaanite woman, other versions of the episode preserved by early Christians offer some corroboration. In the Lukan account, for instance, it is implied that Jesus was convinced to help the centurion on the basis of his love for the Jewish people (Luke 7:3-5). Given Jesus’ apparent tendency to avoid dealings with gentiles and to refuse their requests, the Jewish leaders recount to Jesus the centurion’s good deeds done on behalf of God’s people: “he loves our people and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” In the eyes of the Jewish elders and very likely in the eyes of Jesus such benevolence made the Roman “worthy” of a favor. The centurion, like the Canaanite woman, accepts the superiority of Israel vis-à-vis the other nations and thus merits exceptional help.
What Luke’s version implies, John’s version makes explicit. Though Jesus does not rebuff the “royal official” on account of his ethnicity (the official is now probably Jewish),8 Jesus rebuffs him all the same: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe!” (John 4:48). The primitive version of the story then, drawn upon by Matthew, Luke, and John, may have included an initial refusal to heal on the part of Jesus. This, along with the clues discussed above, should shape the way we understand Jesus’ words to the centurion in Matthew. Pressured to violate his Israel-only policy, Jesus at first refuses: “Will I come and heal him?” (Matthew 8:7). Such a reading solves a glaring inconsistency: Why does Jesus repeatedly refuse to aid the Canaanite woman but seemingly decides to aid the centurion without question?
Israel’s table beset by dogs
To conclude, Jesus almost certainly did not share our sensitivities concerning race and ethnicity. Like other Jews of his day, Jesus did not generally regard gentiles positively—nor was he particularly interested in them. To him, as to other Jews, gentiles were complicit in their own corruption (Romans 1:18-32, Wisdom 13-15). While God’s kingdom would neutralize the pagan threat, heal heathen ignorance, and subordinate the nations to Israel, Jesus had no intention of granting even righteous and God-fearing gentiles equal membership among God’s people—nor of letting dogs snatch bread from the children’s table.
1—This is not an ironic statement for Matthew. The Matthean Jesus commands his apostles to go “nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:5-6).
2—Metaphorical “crumbs” (i.e. God’s blessings upon gentiles) are incumbent upon Israel’s inability to “swallow whole” Jesus’ gospel. Israel’s failure to hear the prophetic word tends to result in a redirection of God’s blessings to outsiders.
4—Luke eliminates the episode altogether.
5—See Meier’s A Marginal Jew Volume 2, 765-766 for a scholarly overview.
6—Some particularly pious Jews avoided pagan spaces (cf. Acts 10:19-20; 27-29). The centurion brazenly presumes this austere Jewish teacher might enter a gentile’s home.
7—The verses that follow (8:11-13) make explicit what was implicit in the “crumbs” metaphor (15:26-27). The invitation of some righteous gentiles to the messianic banquet will be accompanied by the failure of some Israelites (i.e. “sons of the kingdom”) to attend it.
8—Elsewhere John attests that Jesus refused an audience with Greeks, presumably for religio-ethnic reasons (John 12:20ff).