Matthew Chapter 15:21-28

  This should be a very short section. Following will be the feeding of the 4,000. The two together would have been unduly long, so better a short one.

21 Καὶ ἐξελθὼν ἐκεῖθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἀνεχώρησεν εἰς τὰ μέρη Τύρου καὶ Σιδῶνος.

22 καὶ ἰδοὺ γυνὴ Χαναναία ἀπὸ τῶν ὁρίων ἐκείνων ἐξελθοῦσα ἔκραζεν λέγουσα, Ἐλέησόν με, κύριε, υἱὸς Δαυίδ: ἡ θυγάτηρ μου κακῶς δαιμονίζεται.

And having come out of that place, Jesus traveled into the territory of Tyre and Sidon. (22) And seeing (him) a Canaanite woman from that region having come out cried out, saying, “Have pity on me, Lord, son of David. My daughter is badly afflicted by a demon.” 

I’m not entirely pleased with “badly afflicted by a demon”. More accurate would be something like “is badly demonized”, but that has a very different meaning in English than “being afflicted by a demon”. So it will have to stand. Just recognize that the word that begins “daimon” is actually a verb. If it’s any consolation, the Latin reads much like my translation. Or, my translation more accurately reflects the Latin, rather than the Greek.

Tyre and Sidon are old Phoenician cities. They were still important commercial centres in the Roman era, and overwhelmingly pagan. James Tabor believes that Jesus came here to visit his real father, Pantera, because there is a gravestone in Germany that commemorates a soldier named Pantera who was originally from Sidon. Since there is a general overlap in the time frame–or, at least, it cannot be positively shown to be outside a span of time that would make the relationship virtually impossible–Tabor concludes that it commemorates Jesus’ actual father. Well, he’s slightly more circumspect than that, but not very much.  The tradition that Jesus’ biological father was a Roman soldier named Pantera dates from the Second Century, probably close to a century after Matthew wrote. It was meant as slur against Jesus, that he was a Roman bastard, but it seems that Tabor has met very few bits of tradition that he doesn’t accept.

My suspicion is that this story was added late. Or later. The purpose of the story is to show that Jesus was interested in pagans, too. As such, it would have come about when pagans started joining followers in significant numbers. Although thinking about it, the story doesn’t have to be that late. After all, our earliest documents from the NT are written to pagans. More, this story was, more or less in the form of Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, to be included in Mark.

What’s particularly interesting is that Matthew calls her a Canaanite. Now, of course, this term is familiar from the HS, but this is the only occurrence of this word–or any form of it–in the NT. It is used nowhere else. So we have to ask why Matthew chose to use this particular word. Why did he spurn “Syro-Phoenician, for example? As a Jew, Matthew should have been very familiar with the idea of Canaan, and should have known that Canaan had ceased to exist centuries before. Is this meant as a nostalgic bit, intended to echo sentiments of the post-Exodus period? Or was it meant to demonstrate the age of Jewish tradition by referring to a long-ago past? Do those questions present a distinction without a difference?  Once we answer that question, we have to ask who this was intended to reach? Other Jews? Or pagans?

On the surface, it would seem that this reference would mean more to Jews than to pagans. Had any of this latter group ever heard of Canaanites? Recall that this term had fallen out of usage several centuries before; likely the only people familiar with the term would be those having read the HS. Was Matthew using the term as a means of solidarity with Jews? “Solidarity” may not capture the correct nuance; perhaps the intent is, by using a term that most pagans would not know, to demonstrate a bond with those in his audience who were Jewish, and who might have been feeling a little marginalized by all the pagan references Matthew has been using, Sort of throwing them a bone, as it were.

These thoughts were on the surface. What happens when we dig down a little? By being deliberately obfuscatory, by referring to a group of people who had long since departed the scene, but who played a big role in the early parts of the HS, was Matthew once again trying to show the connection to the more ancient Jewish tradition? To demonstrate to his pagan audience that this tradition had dealt with this tribe of people long ago, in the past so distant that most of the audience would be unfamiliar with the term? And suppose that Matthew had planted people in the audience* (this was meant to be read aloud to a group, recall) who would ask “Who are the Canaanites?”, which would give the reader the opportunity to expound on the ancient history of the Jews, to which they were connecting by becoming followers of Jesus. In this manner, the use of “Canaanite” would fall in with the predominantly pagan composition of the audience. But feel free to disagree. Just be prepared to provide reasons why this interpretation is less likely than another.

*Of course, this suggestion is deliberately over the top. It’s deliberately a bit ridiculous. However, these are the sorts of assumptions and inferences that Tabor draws in The Jesus Dynasty.

21 Et egressus inde Iesus, secessit in partes Tyri et Sidonis.

22 Et ecce mulier Chananaea a finibus illis egressa clamavit dicens: “ Miserere mei, Domine, fili David! Filia mea male a daemonio vexatur ”.

23 ὁ δὲ οὐκ ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῇ λόγον. καὶ προσελθόντεςοἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ ἠρώτουν αὐτὸν λέγοντες, Ἀπόλυσον αὐτήν, ὅτι κράζει ὄπισθεν ἡμῶν.

24 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Οὐκ ἀπεστάλην εἰ μὴ εἰς τὰ πρόβατα τὰ ἀπολωλότα οἴκου Ἰσραήλ.

25 ἡ δὲ ἐλθοῦσα προσεκύνει αὐτῷ λέγουσα, Κύριε, βοήθει μοι.

26 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Οὐκ ἔστιν καλὸν λαβεῖν τὸν ἄρτον τῶν τέκνων καὶ βαλεῖν τοῖς κυναρίοις.

27 ἡ δὲ εἶπεν, Ναί, κύριε, καὶ γὰρ τὰ κυνάρια ἐσθίει ἀπὸ τῶν ψιχίων τῶν πιπτόντων ἀπὸ τῆς τραπέζης τῶν κυρίων αὐτῶν.

28 τότε ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῇ, ω γύναι, μεγάλη σου ἡ πίστις: γενηθήτω σοι ὡς θέλεις. καὶ ἰάθη ἡ θυγάτηρ αὐτῆς ἀπὸ τῆς ὥρας ἐκείνης.

But he did not respond to her speech. And having come forward his disciples besought him, saying, “Send her away, she that shouts after us”. (24) And responding, he said, “I was not sent except to the sheep having been lost of the house of Israel”.  (25) She, having come, groveled at his feet saying, “Lord, help me.” (26) And he, answering, said “It is not proper to take the bread of the children and throw it to the dogs.” (27) But she said, “Yes, lord, and for the dogs eat from the the crumbs having fallen from the table of their master”. (28) Then answering, Jesus said to her,  “O woman, your faith is great. It shall become as you wish. And healed was her daughter from that hour.

The discussion about “Canaanite” was appropriate because Mark told this story about a Syro-Phoenician woman. Most of the details transferred directly, except for the ethnic background of the woman. So it was a deliberate choice made by Matthew. Why did he make that choice? (See previous comment)

Second, we have the word “groveled”. It probably bears repeating that the word <<προσεκύνει>> means something like, “act like a dog before”. The implication is that of a dog lying down before you and showing its belly. This is an act of submission, allowing the superior full access to the dog’s vulnerable underside. It’s an act of surrender. In human practice, the person performing this ritual fell on their stomach, face down, into the dirt. IOW, they groveled. This rite was practiced in the ancient Near East as way to pay respect to a superior, usually a king. At some point during his conquests, Alexander began to insist that his generals perform this before him. Now, as king of Macedonia, he was a primus inter pares, a first among equals. Greeks did not grovel before other Greeks, or before anyone. This was not a Greek, but an Asian practice, and these generals found it offensive. The point is that this woman groveled, face down in the dirt. This was an act of extreme humility.

And Jesus demurs, and calls her and those her ethnic background “dogs”. Not exactly a lot of respect, a borderline ethnic slur. But this was not an uncommon attitude back then. Other groups were just that: others. The Greeks called them “babblers” (barbaroi). The NT calls them, ‘the peoples’, which I will no longer translate as “Gentiles” because the Greek does not have that sense. Jesus is insisting that only the children of Israel are worthy of his attention. 

But, of course, he relents. This text, or the corresponding version in Mark or Luke, was the gospel text one very hot summer Sunday, in a church without air conditioning. The priest decided it was too hot to deliver his sermon. Instead, he asked a question: Do you think Jesus really wasn’t going to help? An excellent point.

But the point is her faith. Recall that Jesus called Peter “of little faith” not so long ago. As I said in Mark, and have said here, this story was probably added to tell us that Jesus was going to visit his father Pantera. Oh, wait. This story was added as an invitation to non-Jews, as a demonstration that non-Jews were part of Jesus’ mission, and to show that, often, non-Jews had a greater faith than Jews. Recall we had the story of the Centurion earlier, who had faith enough to realize that Jesus only had to say but the word and the servant would be healed. This story was in Mark, but the story of the Centurion wasn’t. So we’ve had two very distinct stories to indicate that non-Jews could–and often, or at least sometimes–have a faith greater than Jews. The point, of course, is to explain why the assemblies were predominantly made up of former pagans by the time Matthew wrote.

Now, we also had the paired stories of the Bleeding Woman and Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. Both of these obviously showed a lot of faith, and their requests were consequently granted. Those, I would suggest, are core stories of Jesus, very old, dating well back into the teachings about Jesus and his ministry. Did they happen, in any way, shape, or form? Let me rephrase that: aside from the miracles performed, did Jesus encounter these two people while he was alive? Or, since we don’t know, and will never know, do we think it’s likely that these encounters took place? While the probability is probably against it, I would say that these encounters are at least possible, and that the probability may reach into the range of 20-25%. The likelihood of the Centurion, or this woman, is down in the single digits. The low single digits. The genesis of this story occurred early enough to make it into Mark; the Centurion story did not, so this story is more probable than the Centurion. How much more? We may be talking percents of a percent. Tyre and Sidon are not that far from Caphernaum; the question is whether Jesus would actually go there. And we’re not told he went into either city, but he went into the area attached to the two cities. Most cities at the time had outlying areas, mostly agricultural areas that revolved around the city. Larger cities had larger areas, so it’s not impossible that Jesus drifted into the outskirts of the area attached to Tyre and Sidon. But given the message, and the value of creating the story, I’d say it’s not very likely to have happened. As for Jairus and the bleeding woman, the tales of the wonder-worker came from somewhere, and these two were at least in territory that Jesus probably walked and preached.

23 Qui non respondit ei verbum.

Et accedentes discipuli eius rogabant eum dicentes: “ Dimitte eam, quia clamat post nos ”.

24 Ipse autem respondens ait: “ Non sum missus nisi ad oves, quae perierunt domus Israel ”.

25 At illa venit et adoravit eum dicens: “ Domine, adiuva me! ”.

26 Qui respondens ait: “ Non est bonum sumere panem filiorum et mittere catellis ”.

27 At illa dixit: “Etiam, Domine, nam et catelli edunt de micis, quae cadunt de mensa dominorum suorum”.

28 Tunc respondens Iesus ait illi: “O mulier, magna est fides tua! Fiat tibi, sicut vis”. Et sanata est filia illius ex illa hora.

Advertisements

About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on August 23, 2015, in Chapter 15, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. In my experience, many have called Matthew the “Jewish” Gospel. That said, too what extent is it significant that Matthew says Jesus went to pagan territories/cities? How do discussions of purity in Matthew elucidate why he did something like that? If there are any points of Matthew is historically rooted in his visitation to an impure area, what comment does Matthew give on that visitation, or Jesus?

    As for the Canaanite woman, I tend to lean towards the idea that Matthew sought to draw out the past to demonstrate the present. Perhaps, as you said, the reference would fall on deaf ears. Though, if a Jew of the 1st or 2nd century heard such a thing, I suspect they may be extremely uncomfortable as it brought new life, purpose, and salvation to those who were their traditional opposition. That said, I wonder if, assuming Matthew is written to a primarily Jewish audience, the reference to Canaan was a rhetorical devise to certain means. I’m not sure what those means are, but it may be worth considering.

    Cheers!

  2. Excellent points, all. Taking this apart as an historical document, a story of Jesus going to pagan areas were already being told by Mark. As I read this, stories about Jesus interacting with pagans were later additions to the tradition. They were an ex-post-facto rationalization for the mission to the pagans that had begun under Paul. No doubt this made a lot of Jewish followers of Jesus uncomfortable, as you point out, something that hadn’t occurred to me lacking a strong background in the HS, and the HS traditions. Since this made Jewish followers uncomfortable, stories had to be created to show that Jesus had intended this all along, that he had always dealt with pagans, so it was OK. [Again, bear in mind that I’m writing as someone looking at the NT, at the texts and the way the texts developed and changed the underlying story from an historical perspective. What do these texts tell us about the development of the movement that became Christianity, based on these texts that we have…]

    It’s the same thing with the “it’s not what goes in the mouth, but what comes out that makes a person impure”. Jesus never said this; to contravene the dietary laws probably never occurred to him. Had Jesus said this, Paul and James would not have had the contention described in Galatians. It was only as the message spread beyond Jews–after Jesus’ death–that the idea of dietary laws became an issue. So once again we have to have Jesus tell us it’s all right.

    When I first began reading the gospels seriously, I characterized them like this: Mark was a journalist, Luke was a novelist, John was a theologian, and Matthew was a rabbi. Hence, the reference to Matthew as the “Jewish” gospel. However, as I’ve been reading Matthew more closely, I’m working on the theory that he was not born Jewish, that he came from a pagan background, and that he was probably one of the god-fearers described in Acts. These were pagans who admired the Jewish traditions and learning and spent a lot of time in synagogues, whether or not they eventually went the circumcision route and became actual converts. At some point I have to collect all my pieces of evidence and turn them into a coherent argument so we can see if it holds water or not. In the same way, I’m not entirely sure that Matthew was writing for Jews. I believe that the point when most converts were former pagans had been reached well before Matthew, possibly as early as Mark, and this may be one of the reasons Mark decided to write a gospel: to help explain all this to pagans. Matthew took this a step further. Much of the argument for his being Jewish rests on assumptions and the statement he puts in Jesus’ mouth that “not an iota of the law will be lost”. I’m not sure these are convincing. NT scholarship is chock-a-block full of such unexamined assumptions.

    As I mentioned, this is the only time the word Canaanite is used in the NT. As such, we have to assume it was a deliberate choice. Why? Again, your point about Jews hearing this and being uncomfortable is spot on. But was the audience hearing this mainly Jews? Does his use of “Canaanite” make it more–or less–likely that the bulk of the intended audience was Jewish? I can’t answer that. But it’s all definitely worth consideration. A lot of it!

    Thanks for the great insights. I do not have your background, so your thoughts are very much welcome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: