The Syrophoenician Woman by Claudia Setzer

The Syrophoenician Woman is a unique figure in the gospels, because she successfully challenges Jesus and he commends her for it (Mark 7:24-30). This narrative sharply contrasts with the usual form of New Testament short stories, which highlight one of Jesus’s sayings and give Jesus the last word. The Syrophoenician woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter of demon possession; he initially rebuffs her with a saying, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” which most interpret as a rebuff due to her gentile status. Surprisingly for the gospels, the woman counters Jesus with her own argument, “Sir, even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus responds positively, telling her “Because you have said this [literally “for this word (logos)], the demon has gone out of your daughter.” The woman’s own teaching seems to turn the tide and provoke Jesus’s healing for her daughter.

Why does Jesus at first turn the woman away?

The “children” in Jesus’s saying are understood as the children of Israel, or the Jews, and Jesus says his mission is primarily to reform the nation of Israel. “Dogs” (literally “little dogs”) have a negative association in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 22:16) and rabbinic literature, probably linked to the ferocious wild dogs in the Mediterranean world. In the New Testament they are also associated with impurity and otherness (Rev 22:15), so here “dogs” means “outsiders” or non-Jews. This saying of Jesus looks back to a period of Jesus’s mission to the people of Israel, before the later expansion of the message to non-Jews.

Why is the woman significant?

Some have noted that the woman’s status as a woman, gentile, and foreigner would render her “triply marginalized,” especially as compared to the other two groups who appear in chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus experiences opposition and misunderstanding from two groups of Jewish males. He sparred with Pharisees over the value of purity regulations (Mark 7:1-15), and showed frustration at his disciples’ lack of understanding of his saying about food and good deeds (Mark 7:17-23), “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” The woman may exemplify this saying as a non-Jew who consumes ritually impure food, but whose words show wisdom and healing. Others point out that the woman may also symbolize the community of Mark’s Gospel, which includes many gentiles, is outside of Palestine, and, like most early communities of believers, includes many women.

The woman is said to be from Syria Phoenicia (Mark 7:26). Syria was the name of the Roman province that included parts of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Israel, later merging with Judea to become Syria-Palestina. Phoenicians were an ancient Semitic people related to the biblical Canaanites, who inhabited city-states throughout the Mediterranean. One of their population centers was Tyre, a coastal city in present-day Lebanon, about twelve miles north of the border with Israel. Both geographically and ethnically, the Syrophoenician woman represents someone on the borders between Jews and gentiles. In verse 7:26 the word “Greek” also designates her as a non-Jew.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus praises the woman for her “word” (logos) and credits it as the reason for her daughter’s healing. Interpreters have responded to this story by turning it into an example of the woman’s faith, perhaps importing the idea from the story of the woman with a flow of blood in Mark 5:25-34. The earliest example of this transformation appears in Matthew’s version of the story (Matt 15:21-28) where the woman is called a Canaanite and praised for her faith. Biblical translations invariably include a subheading to Mark’s version of the story such as “the Syro-Phoenician Women’s Faith.” Given her quick and clever response and Jesus’s praise for her word, a better subtitle would be “the Syrophoenician Woman’s Wit.” Most interpreters have understood the story to be part of the expansion of Jesus’s mission to the non-Jewish world. The story also assumes that women and non-Jews were part of the cultural milieu of the earliest communities around Jesus.

Claudia Setzer , "The Syrophoenician Woman", n.p. [cited 11 Jul 2020]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/syrophoenician-woman

Contributors

setzer-claudia

Claudia Setzer
Professor of Religious Studies , Manhattan College

Claudia Setzer (PhD Columbia) is Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College in Riverdale, NY. Her books include, The Bible and American Culture: A Sourcebook (Routledge, 2011, with David Shefferman), Resurrection of the Body in Early Judaism and Early Christianity (Brill, 2004), and Jewish Responses to Early Christians (Augsburg Fortress, 1994). She studies early Jewish-Christian relations, the development of belief in resurrection, women in the Greco-Roman era, nineteenth-century women interpreters of Scripture, and the Bible in American culture.

A form of ancient government in which a single city was self-governing and often extended its political sphere to the surrounding countryside. Ancient Mesopotamian and Greek city-states are particularly well-known.

Supernatural, spiritual beings that appear in the traditions of many cultures. In the Hebew Bible, demons are often fallen angels; the New Testament makes mention of demon possession, where a demon inhabits a human body.

a person who is not Jewish

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Contaminated as a result of certain physical or moral situations, and therefore prohibited from contact with holy things. (See also: "purity" (HCBD).)

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy or what later became the larger province under imperial control

A program of good works—or the calling to such a program—performed by a person or organization.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

Mark 7:24-30

24From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 ... View more

Ps 22:16

16For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled;

Rev 22:15

15Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

Mark 7:1-15

1Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defil ... View more

Mark 7:17-23

17When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you n ... View more

Mark 7:26

26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

Mark 5:25-34

25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; a ... View more

Matt 15:21-28

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have me ... View more

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