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.