For ages, Mark’s miracle narrative about the Syrophoenician woman has interested and baffled scholar and parishioner alike. The woman in the passage is an unusual character, approaching Jesus in a bold and surprising manner, in spite of social expectations. Jesus’ words in this passage include what appears to be a racially-charged name-calling or a test of the woman’s faith. Jesus appears to deny the woman’s request at first, creating what could be a theological mine field if not carefully studied and reflected on in light of all of the elements of this text. What is found upon detailed analysis and prayerful contemplation is a rich passage with a beautiful message. It reflects a deep and wonderful exchange between Jesus and a gentile woman and exemplifies Jesus’ great compassion and concern for all people.
24 Ἐκεῖθεν δὲ ἀναστὰς ἀπῆλθεν εἰς τὰ ὅρια Τύρου. Καὶ εἰσελθὼν εἰς οἰκίαν οὐδένα ἤθελεν γνῶναι, καὶ οὐκ ἠδυνήθη λαθεῖν· 25ἀλλʼ εὐθὺς ἀκούσασα γυνὴ περὶ αὐτοῦ, ἧς εἶχεν τὸ θυγάτριον αὐτῆς πνεῦμα ἀκάθαρτον, ἐλθοῦσα προσέπεσεν πρὸς τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ· 26 ἡ δὲ γυνὴ ἦν Ἑλληνίς, Συροφοινίκισσα τῷ γένει· καὶ ἠρώτα αὐτὸν ἵνα τὸ δαιμόνιον ἐκβάλῃ ἐκ τῆς θυγατρὸς αὐτῆς. 27 καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτῇ· ἄφες πρῶτον χορτασθῆναι τὰ τέκνα, οὐ γάρ ἐστιν καλὸν λαβεῖν τὸν ἄρτον τῶν τέκνων καὶ τοῖς κυναρίοις βαλεῖν. 28 ἡ δὲ ἀπεκρίθη καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ· κύριε· καὶ τὰ κυνάρια ὑποκάτω τῆς τραπέζης ἐσθίουσιν ἀπὸ τῶν ψιχίων τῶν παιδίων. 29 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ· διὰ τοῦτον τὸν λόγον ὕπαγε, ἐξελήλυθεν ἐκ τῆς θυγατρός σου τὸ δαιμόνιον. 30 καὶ ἀπελθοῦσα εἰς τὸν οἶκον αὐτῆς εὗρεν τὸ παιδίον βεβλημένον ἐπὶ τὴν κλίνην καὶ τὸ δαιμόνιον ἐξεληλυθός.
(Nestle, et al. 1993)
24: And going up from that place, He (Jesus) went away into the region of Tyre and entered into a house. He wanted no one to know, but he could not be hidden.
25: But immediately hearing about him, a woman who had a little daughter with an unclean spirit (or whose spirit was unclean) came and she bowed down (fell down) at His feet.
26: The woman was a Syrophoenician gentile by birth and she begged Him that he would cast out the demon from her daughter.
27: And He said to her, “Let first the children be filled for it is not fair/right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
28: And she answered and said to him, “But Lord, the dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.”
29: And he said to her, “Because of what you have said, go. The demon has gone from your daughter.”
30: And she went to her house. She found her child lying on the bed and the demon had gone out.
There is one parallel passage to this particular narrative that is found in Matthew 15:21-28.
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
There are two significant textual differences between these two passages. There are also some literary and socio-historical differences that will be addressed later. The first of the textual differences is the addition of “και Σιδωνος” in the Matthean passage. This should be noted when looking at the differences in verse 24 in various texts and will be addressed fully later.
The second difference to note is that the woman in Matthew’s account of the story is Canaanite, whereas Mark’s woman is Syrophoenician. While the socio-historical importance of this woman’s ethnicity will be covered later in this paper, it is important to note that the Canaanite people did not exist as a people in the time of Christ, whereas the Syrophoenicians did. While the point of the woman’s ethnicity is the same in either case, it is more likely that the woman was actually Syrophoenician than Canaanite.
Verse 24: “ὅρια Τύρου (και Σιδωνος)”: Some texts include the words “και Σιδωνος” in verse 24. This is more likely a scribal insertion or an attempt to harmonize the passage. It is unlikely that the words “και Σιδωνος” would be dropped from this common phrase, but quite likely that they would be added either due to the commonality of the phrase “Tyre and Sidon” or because that is what the Matthean text reads. The most reliable texts do not include the words “and Sidon.”
Verse 28: “ναι, κυριε, και γαρ”: There are several versions of this phrase. The simple “κύριε· καὶ” is the most well attested version and is what I have used in my translation. Other versions add emphasis to the woman’s statement, but do not change the overall meaning of what she said. Even without the added emphasis, it is unusual that the Helenistic woman would call Jesus “Lord.”
The Gospel of Mark is full of miraculous healings and exorcisms performed by Jesus. Often the miracles in Mark are broken down into a “cycle” of miracles, the second half of which this particular narrative falls into. This narrative can be loosely linked to the feeding miracles in Mark through the use of the word “ἄρτον,” and the verb “χορτάζω ,” but this link is a weak connection and should not be considered too seriously
Immediately before this passage is a narrative in which Jesus declares all foods clean. The declaration of this cleanliness is highlighted by a parenthetical comment by the author stressing that Jesus words in the narrative declared all foods clean. The Syrophoenician woman’s story is immediately followed by another healing in Galilee and the feeding of the four thousand.
Verse 26: “ἠρώτα”: This verb is from the root “ἐρωτάω” meaning, “to ask.” It is third person, singular, imperfect, active, indicative. The verb indicates and ongoing and incomplete action. This has been translated in a variety of ways including:
· she begged: ESV, NIV, NRSV, NLT
· she besought: KJV 1900, AV 1873
· she kept asking: NASB95, NKJV
· she was asking: LEB
In my translation, I have chosen to express the urgency of the plea by using the English verb, “begged.”
Verse 27: “κυναρίοις”:
use of this word will be explored later in the paper, but it is important to
note the grammatical form of this word. This is considered to be a diminutive
use of the root noun “κυνάριον.” The only other diminutive use of this word
is found in Matthew’s account of the same miracle
There is not much that needs to be said about this passage from a source-critical viewpoint. With the exception of vv. 24-25a, the passage is generally considered to be one piece that is attributed to the same author as the rest of the Gospel of Mark. There is some debate as to whether vv. 24-25a are original to the story. “Almost without exception. . ., 7:24a . . . or 7:24–25a has been attributed to Mark’s redaction.” This section is an attempt by the author to smooth the “seams” of the gospel’s narrative rather than an indication of a concrete sequence of events
(Guelich 1998, 383). This is interesting primarily from a
socio-historical perspective and will be addressed in that section of this
Mark and Matthew are thought by some to have drawn on the same source for these parallel passages, however it is more widely believed that Matthew drew from Mark, as well as Q and M
There is a distinct pattern to most Markan miracle accounts. This passage bears important and interesting differences from that typical pattern. The typical Markan miracle includes:
1. A Problem
2. A Solution
3. Evidence of the cure or solution
4. (Sometimes) A note of the observer’s reaction
Mark 7:24-30 follows this general pattern with some important differences. In this narrative, there is a problem, a controversy, then a solution and evidence of the cure. As mentioned before, this is the only account in Mark of anyone confronting Jesus with the sort of argument the Syrophoenician woman used. This controversy that is inserted into the miracle story formula is very important. Mark’s main focus is not on the actual miracle, but on the circumstances surrounding it. The narrative is not about Jesus healing a little girl – albeit important that he did – rather, it is about social conventions and how Christians are to approach them.
Historical/Sociocultural Critical Notes
There are several issues in this passage surrounding Jesus’ journey to the area of Tyre and Sidon. The first was mentioned in the textual notes. While Matthew’s version of the narrative says that Jesus went to the area of “Tyre and Sidon,” the most reliable manuscripts of the Markan version simply say the “area of Tyre.” There is also the question of the source of this section of the passage. Finally, there is a historical and sociological discussion of why Jesus would go to Phoenicia and if the story really took place there.
It seems strange that if the narrative took place in the region of Tyre (and Sidon), that the author would specify that the woman was Syrophoenician by birth. It seems obvious that if Jesus was in Phoenicia, the woman would be from there.
(Williamson 1983, 137). However,
considering how Mark is careful to place stories and words in order to get at
his theological points, it is probable that even though this event happened
near Tyre and Sidon, Mark used the reiteration of the woman’s ethnicity as an
Bruce suggests that Jesus may have simply desired to free himself of the crowds so that he could better focus on the disciples and their training.
(Bruce 1979, 1165) McKenna says that this is the only time
we know of Jesus leaving Israel and he suggests three possible reasons for
Jesus’ leaving: He was trying to get away from everyone and everything, he had
just really shaken things up and was trying to lay low to avoid arrest, or he
used this location to live out the statements about all foods being clean. He
was symbolically breaking down barriers between the Jew and Gentile (McKenna
While the author certainly wants the reader to make the connection between the previous passage about clean and unclean foods and this passage about clean and unclean people, it is unlikely that Jesus had the narrative that neatly planned out as he went about his business. Avoidance of arrest and “laying low” after shaking things up is not consistent with Jesus’ previous or following actions. It then follows that Jesus was simply trying to step away from the crowds that had been following him in Galilee when he went to the region of Tyre. Guelich notes that “He wanted no one to know about it” and that “He simply sought privacy away from the public. (Guelich 1998)” After being followed by crowds all over Galilee, Jesus was seeking some space in which to rest.
There is no mention of Jesus’ disciples going with him on the journey, however it is unlikely that He went alone. “We find the same construction in 2:1, 15; 3:20; 7:17; 9:28 only to learn in the broader context that Jesus was not alone. We have no reason to assume here that he had left his disciples behind.
(Guelich 1998)” At no other point
when Jesus travels to escape crowds does he leave the disciples behind in
another region. This is no exception.
As a gentile, and especially one from Phoenicia, the woman in the narrative would not have been held in high regard by Jews of the time. Ethnic relations between the two groups were strained at best. Not only was she a gentile, but she was a gentile from a nation that Israel did not like. The Syrophoenician woman had no markers of status. She was a woman and the author makes no mention of a husband. This story is sometimes compared to story of Jairus: a similar story, but Jairus is, by contrast, a Jewish male of high repute. Newsom and Ringe write that “Since Jesus has already healed a foreigner, the demoniac from the Decopolis (5:1-20), the woman’s nationality and religious affiliation alone are insufficient to explain his negative response of the disparagement with which it is delivered. . . only her gender differentiates her from the demoniac.” The gender of the one asking for healing is a key piece of the passage.
The woman addressed Jesus as “Lord.” This was not just a polite greeting. The woman was acknowledging the lordship of Christ. She was bold in her approach. Not only was she a gentile approaching a Jewish teacher without invitation, but she was also a woman approaching a strange man in what would have been considered a highly inappropriate manner. In addition to this, she called the man, “Lord.”
In spite of the woman’s brash speech and low social status, it seems odd that Jesus would call her a “dog.” This one word is the epicenter of many debates about this passage. The word “dog” was frequently used by Jews of the time in reference to unclean gentiles. This word is, according to most commenters, essentially a racial slur. There have been many attempts to address this seeming inconsistency in Jesus’ address of the woman.
One common way of dealing with the word “κυναρίοις” is to emphasize the diminutive use of it and soften the force of the word by arguing that Jesus was talking about pet dogs rather than the street dogs generally referred to when a Jew called a gentile a dog. This is an unsatisfactory solution to a large problem, however. Calling the woman a “little dog” is only slightly better than calling her a “mangy cur” and it doesn’t offer any insight into why Jesus would say such a thing.
Bruce offers another suggestion about Jesus’ use of the word. Jesus is not using the name as a slur, but is rather setting up a common scene in which the people would see the dogs and children as distinct groups.
(Bruce 1979, 1165) Guelich says “Jesus’
reply makes use of a household scene to contrast between the “children” and the
“dogs” with the former referring to the Jews and the latter to the Gentiles, a
contrast in kind rather than degree. (Guelich 1998, 385)” While it is an interesting idea that
Jesus was using the word as an analogous distinction rather than a judgment,
that does not satisfactorily address the problem of Jesus’ use of such a harsh
term. Could the Word in Flesh, the Master of Parable not have come up with a
better analogy to pinpoint the distinction between the two groups?
Perhaps there is another meaning behind Jesus’ use of the word. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary offers interesting insight into this term.
cyn•ic \ˈsi-nik\ noun
[Middle French or Latin, Middle French cynique, from Latin cynicus, from Greek kynikos, literally, like a dog, from kyn-, kyōn dog — more at hound] 1542
1 capitalized : an adherent of an ancient Greek school of philosophers who held the view that virtue is the only good and that its essence lies in self-control and independence
2 : a faultfinding captious critic especially : one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest — cynic adjective
The Greek cynical movement was called so because of their social convention-breaking beliefs. They were considered quite rude and were referred to as dogs. This reference to their “doglike” behavior led them to be called dogs or doglike. Could Jesus have been associating the woman with this movement? She was bucking all sorts of social conventions by approaching a strange man in such a way.
(Newsom and Ringe 1998) He was not referring
to her originally as a dog, but in an interesting play on words, referred to
her as a social convention breaking “little cynic.” This play on words seems
more in line with Jesus’ way of interaction than does an interpretation that
takes the word to simply be an ethnic slur.
Jesus took what was commonly a derogatory term and, in a clever and interesting
way, called attention to the woman’s boldness.
In Matthew’s account of this healing, the woman is so persistently begging for her daughter’s healing that the disciples ask Jesus to make her stop. They are tired of her. These Jewish man are irritated by the cheeky gentile woman who is ignoring all the cultural expectations of behavior. Expecting Jesus to send her away, imagine their shock when instead of speaking down to her because of her social status and ethnicity, Jesus takes a derogatory term and cleverly turns it into a lesson on social acceptance. This seems far more consistent with the rest of Jesus’ life and teaching than the idea that he simply called her a name and was rebuked for it or that he was testing to make sure she was really faithful enough.
It is unusual for someone to confront Jesus in the way that the Syrophoenician woman did. This woman is the only person in the gospel of Mark to actually argue with Jesus in such a way. Her manner of speech is pretty bold for a woman, as is her approach of him in the first place. “Jesus has already taught others that religious customs should not stand in the way of doing good for those in need (see 2:23-28; 3:1-6).”
(Newsom and Ringe 1998, 356). Now He teaches that
neither should social customs. Social conventions and practices are what hold
this passage together. Without
considering this important aspect of the story, the entire narrative falls
Some suggest that Jesus was testing the woman’s faith before performing the healing. This seems an unlikely motivation for his words, however. Jesus does not, in other miracles, first test the faith of the person making the request. There is also, at the end of this version of the narrative, no mention of the woman’s faith. Faith is not, for Mark, the focus of the story. This suggests that Jesus’ words are not a test of the woman’s faith, but are rather an illustration to better make his point about the cleanliness and redemption of all people.
The woman, continuing with her disregard for social norms, took Jesus words and turned them right back around. There is a line of argument that sees Jesus’ words as a slur and the woman’s response as humility and lowliness. “In her emergency, she did not resent the slur, but humbly accepted it. She wanted only a crumb for her daughter. In the face of such lowliness Jesus could not reject her plea.”
(Minear 1968, 87) However, if Jesus’ use of the word “κυναρίοις” was a clever play on words referring to the Greek Cynic movement, the
woman’s response is not simply that of a pitiful person simply accepting some
sort of verbal abuse. The woman returns Jesus’ clever wordplay right back to
him with boldness and continued disregard for social convention. In reminding
Jesus that even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table, she is reminding Jesus
that even a gentile cynic can call him “κύριε.”
When considered in light of the previous passage regarding the cleanliness of all foods, this narrative takes on an important social meaning. This is not the only time in the gospel of Mark that Jesus takes on the “unclean.” “If in the preceding passage Jesus “declared all foods clean” (7:19), in these stories he declares all persons clean, whether a Gentile woman in a pagan city or a man of indeterminate race in the unclean territory of the Decapolis. The stories are two examples of the same principle: Both advance Jesus’ repudiation of traditional taboos.
(Williamson 1983, 137)” This not only gets at the heart of Jesus’ message
in this instance, but it supports his use of the word “κυναρίοις” in a manner that points out her disregard for social convention and
declares all people clean.
The Gospel of Mark does not focus on the faith of the healed in the same way that Matthew does. This passage in particular is paralleled in Matthew, but Matthew notes the faith of the woman as being the reason she was healed. In the Markan version of the story, Jesus makes no mention of faith. This is yet another indication that the drive of this story is not about faith or even about the healing itself.
Salvation is first for the Jews, but it is not exclusive. Jesus came to bring salvation to all people. All people, just like all foods, will be clean. Kee writes:
Her lack of cultic cleanliness was no barrier to her participation in the powers of the New Age at work through Jesus. As the beneficiary of that power, she becomes the symbol and prototype of other faithful Gentiles who will share in the benefits of the kingdom of God.
(Kee 1977, 92)
The woman had many things going against her from a cultural standpoint. Yet that didn’t stop her dogged pursuit of Jesus and it didn’t stop His interacting with her on a very human level. The salvation of the woman in question and the healing of her daughter with the unclean spirit was more important than any social construct, both to her and to Jesus.
While Jesus was sent first to the Jews, all people, like all foods, were ultimately intended for cleanliness. It is not the ethnicity of the woman that qualifies her to Jesus, but it is what’s in her heart. Jesus is κύριε, offered for all people be they male, female, Jew, gentile, dog, child, or cynic.
Her faith is not mentioned in the Markan passage, but the woman clearly has great faith to step so far out of social boundaries to plead with Jesus for her child. Our faith will sometimes require us to step outside of normal social boundaries. God is not bound by any cultural or social conventions and He calls his people to love one another regardless of these conventions. All people, even those on the very edges of society, are worthy of Jesus’ attention and they are therefore worthy of our attention. Jesus offers healing to all, regardless of their demographic.
This is certainly a difficult passage, but when it is treated with the appropriate study and attention, it has wonderful homiletical and pastoral applications. A person looked down upon by society for many reasons is applauded for her willingness to step across cultural boundaries to access Jesus’ healing power. Her prayers on behalf of her little daughter are answered and everyone learns an important lesson about societal norms and how seriously they are to be taken in a Christian context.
In a culture where society is quick to draw lines and boundaries between different groups of people, this passage speaks freedom from stereotypes. In a time and place where people are quick to identify with others who look or talk or act just like them and Sunday morning is often said to be “the most segregated time of the week,” this passage is a challenge to Christians to reach out to people they might normally write off or ignore. In a day where praying for others seems a lost art, this passage encourages the church to keep praying for other people, even when they are not present. In a world that lauds individuality and insists there is no real need for a Messiah, this passage lifts up humility and acceptance of Christ as “κύριε.”
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