Mark 7:24-30 may be one of the most troubling episodes in the NT. It begins in Tyre with Jesus in a “house” (Markan redactional setting?) in an attempt to stay out of the public eye, but as so often happens with Mark’s secrecy theme the word gets out. He is approached by a Greek woman, a Phoenician from Syria, who begs him to cast a demon from her daughter. Jesus replies that the children (i.e. Israel) should first be fed as it is not right to take their bread and toss it to the dogs (i.e. Gentiles), but in response to her witty retort that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table Jesus grants her request. Matthew’s version (15:21-28) drops the private house setting but notable changes include the woman is a Canaanite (a traditional enemy of Israel), the cry to the “Lord, Son of David,” the silent treatment she receives followed by a remark that Jesus was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel and Jesus explicitly commends her faith in the end. The scene is part of the great Lukan omission of Mk 6:45-8:26 so perhaps it was not in Luke’s manuscript of Mark or accidently skipped over, but I suspect Luke deliberately omitted the whole block, finding a story like this offensive and wrong in pre-dating a Gentile mission before Acts 10. There are many approaches one could take to Mark’s pericope: a historical-critical (does the story reflect the attitude of the historical Jesus or some early Jewish Jesus-followers), form-critical (a miracle tale? A Pronouncment Story that is unusual in the gospels for Jesus appears to be the opponent and the Syrophoenician woman the victor), narrative-critical (how does this fit larger narrative themes in Mark such as that Jesus’ presence or identity is unable to remain a secret, “outsiders” consistently have more perception about Jesus then the supposed “insider” disciples, the gospel will eventually go out to the nations after the mission to Israel [Mk 13:10]), ideological-critical (issues of gender, ethnicity, boundary-crossing and hybridity). To do full justice to it requires more than just this post, but my focus here will just be on the theological question of how to deal with the offensiveness of the story.
Over at the Text this Week, there a a number of resources listed at both the popular and the scholarly level and from google search I found some other scholarly or popular treatments available online (Great Shelford, “The Syrophoenician Woman and her Dogs” ExpTim; David Rhoads article reprinted in Reading Mark: Engaging the Gospel; Markus Schäfler, The Syrophoenician Woman; Alan H. Cadwallader, “When a woman is a dog: Ancient and modern ethology meet the Syrophoenician women” The Bible and Critical Theory and see also here; Surekha Nelavala “Smart Syrophoenician woman: A Dalit Feminist Reading of Mark 7:24-31” ExpTim; Brian Incigneri Jesus and the Dog; Holly J. Carey “Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman: A Case Study in Inclusiveness” or Anna Butler “A Place at the Table” in Leaven 19; David D.M. King The Problem of the Syrophoenician Woman: A Reader Response Analysis of Mark 7:24-31). What brought this story again to my attention was at the recent conference on the Bible and Zionism at Sheffield (I discuss my paper here), one session featured the Palestinian Liberation theologian Naim Ateek leading a group discussion on the parallel passage in Matthew and I enjoyed getting to discuss it with professors from different disciplines, students and Jewish or Christian religious leaders who sat in on that particular session. Ateek rightly dismisses the reading revolving around the diminutive κυναρίοις as suggesting Jesus meant little puppies instead of scavenger dogs (yet the possibility that she had a different cultural attitude to dogs under the table came up in the discussion; cf. the article by Shelford above). Ateek wants to interpret Jesus’ treatment of the woman as really designed to bring to light and challenge the disciples own prejudices, though others were persuaded that the woman truly taught Jesus to move beyond his culturally inherited prejudices. The latter reading could work for systematic theologians who accept Jesus’ full humanity, but how do you deal with this difficult text?