The Syro-Phonecian Woman


The “Syrophonecian Woman” in the Gospel of Mark has perplexed me for some time. As an episode in Mark’s gospel (the first of the four canonical gospels to be written), and one that portrays a woman outwitting Jesus, I’m inclined to think the episode is genuine.

Then we come to the fierceness of Jesus’s rejection of the woman, who is pleading for the life of her child: “It isn’t right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.”

If Jesus is fleeing from Herod’s spies, he would be under a great deal of stress, and this might account for his harsh rebuke–which compares the local population to dogs, in contrast to the Children of God. If so, it reveals a streak of contempt in Jesus that is visible (to my eye) no where else in the Gospels. Would Jesus really risk his safety by insulting in such humiliating terms the population sheltering him?

Then there is Tyre’s odd status. Home to a pantheon of gods, including a goddess who received the sacrifice of children, the city nonetheless lay within Asher’s tribal allotment. Saving “the lost sheep of Israel” (as Jesus mentions in Matthew’s account of the story) may have been a second reason for Jesus’s journey into Phonecian territory. In short, Jesus may not have viewed the woman as a straightforward pagan.

In fact, her description as Syro-Phonecian may refer mainly to her language, Greek. Sophisticated merchants that they were, the Phonecians would have been likelier than the people of Galilee to have a good command of this international language. That would be doubly true if the woman were rich, as the presence of little dogs in her household may indicate.

If that is the case, then we have strong evidence for a bilingual Jesus.

Finally, a word about reconstruction. My version of this story is broadly reconstructed: much has been added to bring the story to a state I think eliminates the problems I’ve mentioned. All reconstruction is tentative, meant to help advance the understanding of a story. What is at stake here is not only the details and accuracy of the account, but also a search for consistency in voice and event.

The Syro-Phonecian Woman

(original text in roman type; RT’s additions in italic & enclosed in brackets)

      [When he had sent his disciples on the road,] Jesus traveled to the area around Tyre. [Because of the price that Antipas had set on his head,] he wished to enter each house anonymously, [and he was travelling as a local fisherman; despite these precautions,] word of his arrival spread. So when he entered a house one day, a woman [followed him in] and, kneeling down, said, “A demon has entered my daughter; please have mercy and cure her!”

      [Now Jesus was furious, afraid that she had revealed his identity; but at least] the woman was a gentile of Syro-Phonecian descent [and was speaking Greek. He said, “I am not a doctor—I can’t cure her.” The woman replied, “Please! She hasn’t eaten for days. The demon makes her play with her food, and now she is so weak she can’t get up from her mat.”

      “What have you done to make her eat?” After a moment, the woman replied, “I have scolded her several times, and once she was playing with her food in such a disgusting way I grabbed it out of her mouth and threw it to the little dogs.”]

      Shocked, he replied, “It isn’t right to pull bread out of a child’s mouth and give it to dogs.” She snapped in response, “Even dogs under the table eat food that children refuse!”

      [Jesus laughed and said], “[I am no expert, but] in return for such spirit, you may go home; the demon has fled from your daughter.” And when the woman got home, she found her daughter lying on her mat, and the demon fled.

      [But Jesus had to leave Tyre after that, and on the advice of his friends, he travelled north to Sidon.] [Mk 7:26b–30]

Copyright: The Rag Tree, 2012.


Painting: Queen Anne of Hungary, 1520; painter unknown; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

  1. April 19, 2012 at 10:34 am

    This is so interesting…I’ve never heard of this before. You have a great blog. Thanks for the follow and glad I found you 🙂

    • April 22, 2012 at 10:39 am

      CDH: thx for your encouraging words. The SP woman is one of the more unexpected moments in the teachings of Jesus, perhaps because a woman speaks with such energy and wit. & likewise glad to have found you. RT

  2. April 19, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    Your weblog truly is terrific, RT. Thanks so much for you spiritual and creative efforts and for putting something beautiful out there. Hope to learn more about you. – Dane Dakota

    • April 22, 2012 at 10:40 am

      DD: I much admire your weblog too (have tried my hand at drawing the nude). We can never have enough spirit & beauty…and I will be following your blog with interest…thx for the enthusiastic words! RT

  1. May 26, 2013 at 2:09 am

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