Was Jesus really "racist" against the Syrophoenician woman?

Christ Pantocrator mosaic in Byzantine style from the Cefalù Cathedral, Sicily. | (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this year I found myself enmeshed in one of those social media battles that consumes a whole evening, the kind I usually end up regretting. This was about the accounts in the Gospels of Mark and of Matthew about Jesus and His encounter with the Syrophoenician Woman in which He used a metaphor about dogs and bread. I was shocked to hear people accusing Jesus of being a bigot, a misogynist, even of calling the woman "the B word." I'm not talking about the usual array of adolescent atheist trolls (of whatever actual chronological age); I'm talking about published authors and academics, and not atheists, but rather young men from evangelical Christian backgrounds.

I had run across this idea a few times in past years, in progressive mainline church circles, but only occasionally. What shocked me was how quickly this idea has gone "viral," from a "daring" pushing of the progressive envelope among the usual suspects, to the mainstreaming of the idea among "woke" evangelicals and "ex-vangelicals." I tried to explain why they were wrong by looking at the passage in context and talking about the grammar of the original Greek and the historical context. But nothing changed their minds. I realized that they couldn't be reasoned or researched out of this error because they hadn't been reasoned or researched into it in the first place. Eventually, I disconnected from the conversation because it was so terribly sad to watch.

But last Sunday the Lectionary text was this account. The Lectionary is a schedule for reading the Bible which is followed by Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and some other churches. I was scheduled to guest preach, so I spent a few weeks studying the Gospel accounts in detail. With half of Christendom, perhaps, reading and hearing sermons on this text on the same day, including some members of my own family who, as it turned out, last Sunday visited a progressive Episcopalian church where the sermon expressed the same erroneous view I had been fighting, it is clear that this is something which had to be, and has to be dealt with.

Let me start with my core area of expertise, economics. This event recorded in the Gospels happened in the region of the city of Tyre. If you've read my book or articles about the New Testament and economics, you know that I think it's important not to ignore details such as place names, and the political, cultural and (yes) economic distinctives of each place in which these episodes in the Gospels occur. We'll come back to Tyre's economic base in a bit.

The woman asks Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. Jesus does not initially grant her request, and his disciples urge Him to send the woman away. Jesus does not send her away, instead He explains that his priority is first to the flock of Israel, and then uses a metaphor explaining that it would be wrong to take the bread from the children and throw it to dogs, but that rather the children should be fed first. Instead of rejecting Jesus' metaphor, the woman accepts it and extends it, arguing that the dogs do receive the crumbs which fall from the children's table. Jesus responds by praising her faith and addressing her with the honorific "Woman" and grants her request to deliver her daughter.

Here are something things you need to know about this passage:

Jesus does not use the standard New Testament Greek word for "dog", He uses a diminutive (small) form of the word which suggest a small household dog rather than wild street dogs. This event is the only time this Greek word is used in the New Testament to describe a dog, and it is not used in the Greek translations of the Old Testament. Now, words do have ranges of meaning, so it is possible that He just meant "dog," the dictionary definition indicates a small, often household, dog and other times when Jesus talks about dogs in negative ways, it uses the standard word.

While dogs are unclean in Torah, and Biblical references to dogs are quite often negative, that is not universal. One of the great heroes of the conquest of the Promised Land was a faithful man named Caleb, believed by many biblical scholars to be a Gentile. "Caleb" means, or is associated with, "dog" or dog-like characteristics. So there is arguably an established precedent in the Bible for a canine metaphor for a faithful gentile who wants to align with the God of Israel. Furthermore, Caleb joins Joshua and asks a favor of him, which may take on added meaning when we are reminded that Joshua and Jesus are essentially the same name when read in the original languages. So a loyal gentile named "Dog" pledges loyalty to the authority of an Old Testament hero who shares a name with Jesus. In addition, in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man the dogs come and lick his wounds, which is at least plausibly a positive reference to dogs.

So, it appears that Jesus is offering this woman a certain role in His metaphor, the role of a member of the household. By telling a story about young people and household… puppies, pets, doggies?... He suggests that her people might be suitable to be members of His house. Let's set aside the ridiculous idea that He is calling her the B word. First, it's grammatically impossible. He used the neuter case, not the feminine, and He used plural, not singular. He's not calling her anything. He's describing a class of people, probably gentiles.

Also, let's get rid of the idea that He is dehumanizing her by using an animal analogy. The Bible is filled with metaphors comparing humans to various animals, many of them positive. Jesus is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and saying that is not denying His humanity. In fact, in this very encounter with the Syrophoenician woman He refers to the "lost sheep off the house of Israel." So this is not 'Jews are humans; gentiles are animals.' Both are humans and both can be described with animal analogies. Also, please note Jesus' reference to "the house of Israel," which clearly fits with the theme that household inclusion is a theme here. Jesus' objection is not that she is a dog who doesn't deserve help, but rather that His first obligation is to His own household (otherwise He would be worse than an infidel,) who should not have bread "taken from" them.

The woman clearly sees Jesus' meaning. He mentions household dogs, she embraces and extends the metaphor (using the same Greek word.) Puppies do get the bread, but it is not take away from the babies, it simply falls to the floor. Of course, that only happens in the household space. The table is not out in the wilderness with wild dogs or even in the street, it's in the house or courtyard, otherwise her metaphor doesn’t make any sense. Jesus suggests the role of a dog who is a faithful member of the house of Israel (like Caleb before) and she responds with a metaphor which makes that scenario even more explicit. Puppies crowd around the tables while the children eat, waiting for crumbs. By the way, she does change one word of Jesus metaphor. He used the general term for young people, whereas she switches that to something again more diminutive, perhaps even a bit softer and more affectionate, more like babes. Like a good puppy, she's showing affection for the little ones.

But, of course, some people just can't get past the whole dog analogy. They remain fixated on the generally negative associations that Israel had with dogs. The problem with this fixation is that Jesus wasn't talking to an Israelite. If the charge is that He insulted her, then the focus must be on how she would receive the dog metaphor. "Dawg" is an affectionate term in American slang. Spouses sometimes call each other "pet." Context is everything here. So what was her context?

Tyre's economy was highly associated with the production of purple dye. It was almost certainly the most important commodity on which the economy was built. It was so important to the Phoenician civilization's identity that the name Phoenicia is likely based on the name of the color known as Tyronian Purple.

But what does all of that have to do with dogs?

Well, both in Phoenician mythology and in Phoenician history the discovery of the dye is credited to… you guessed it… a dog! In some legends it is Hercules' dog, in other legends it is the dog of the Phoenician god Melquart. One historian attributes the discovery to the dog of a fisherman. But in every case, the actual discovery of the commodity on which Tyre's economy is built is attributed to a dog.

In fact, there was a coin in circulation during that period which commemorates the episode, showing an image of a dog discovering the shellfish from which the dye came. In addition, recent archeological digs of the Phoenician city of Ashkelon show an extensive network of dog graves throughout the city, in which the dogs are all laid out ritualistically in the same position, in what is so far the largest ancient animal cemetery ever discovered. This is not the treatment one would expect from a culture that despised dogs. It may well have something to do with the dog's perceived role as the discoverer of the dye on which the economy was built and on which the very name of the civilization was based.

And Ashkelon shared a close association with Tyre, having been put under Tyronian control by the Persian empire. One ancient historian describes Ashkelon as a "City of Tyrians".

In that context, it appears that Jesus did not insult or dehumanize the woman, but instead invited her into His household. She understood the overture and responded to it in a humble and clever way, accepting the bread of life which was being dropped from the table of children of Israel. (Remember that Jesus went to Tyre after having been confronted by Judean religious scribes for eating bread with unclean hands.) Her willingness to take the historic role of loyal gentile, like Caleb (or like the former Tyronian King Hiram, who had a close trading relationship with David) caused Him not just to accept her but to elevate her using an honorific which is only used of one other woman in the New Testament, Jesus' mother Mary.

Promulgators of the racist Jesus calumny have matters not just regular wrong, but perfectly wrong--a complete inversion of the truth. Jesus is shockingly willing to engage, invite, accept and elevate a woman from a civilization which was not just an enemy of Israel, but an on-going enemy of His own home province, Galilee. The shocking thing, once we take into account the economic and political context of this encounter, is His generosity.

Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”

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