Session 6–“’Woman, Great Is Your Faith!’: The Syrophoenician/Canaanite Woman as Rabbinical Exegete in Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28”
Text: Mark 7: 1-23, 24-31; Matthew 1:1-16; 15: 1-20, 21-28; 2 Samuel 9:1-13; Psalm 17:14-15
One of the principal insights to emerge, I hope, from this session, is the recognition that the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman in Mark and Matthew’s gospels is best understood typologically, as deliberately recapitulating many of the features of the lengthy line of women we have studied from each scroll of the Hebrew Bible—in the Pentateuch (Torah) scroll of Genesis: Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, and Tamar; in that of Exodus: the “Hebrew” midwives, Miryam, Yochebed and Zipporah; in the Deuteronomic history (Prophets, or Nevi’im): Rahab; and, in the Writings (Ketuvim): Ruth. The pericopes in Mark and Matthew bring these Hebrew narratives and the women they concern into an explicitly Christian context.
· Another, larger point of the session will be to investigate the at first sight paradoxical contention that these stories, while they draw heavily on the marginality of their characters, are not themselves marginal to the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. They are examples of a narrative strategy fundamental to both the Hebrew and Greco-Christian Scriptures: a kind of inversion, by which the margins are brought to the center of the narrative tradition, and notions about what constitutes the center are contested and displaced. In this manner, Biblical narrative tradition continually decentralizes itself, achieving thereby an open-ended quality.
· More specifically, it will be argued that the incident involving the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30, or parallel passage involving the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28, is best read in relation to the immediately foregoing pericope involving Jesus’ controversy with the “Pharisees and scribes” over what is clean or unclean (Mk 7:1-23, Mt 15:1-20). In doing so, we will follow and develop the suggestions of Bible scholars Ben Worthington (Women in the Ministry of Jesus; Cambridge UP, 1984; 65) and William Lane (The Gospel According to Mark; Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans, 1974; 259).
· Rudolf Bultmann has pointed out that these latter passages conform to a widely-spread literary form: that of the “rabbinic controversy,” which bears many points in common with what later came to be known in Judaism as “midrash.” In brief, the form is recognized by these common traits: It involves an exegetical debate between rabbis. One rabbi contests another’s assertion by reference to one or more scriptural or Talmudic texts. His interlocutor defends the original assertion by bringing to bear some other scriptural text(s), often apparently distant from the first, but which bears with it some apparently superficial or allegorical points in common. He frequently gives to this newly evoked text a novel or surprising, but engaging interpretation, thereby winning the argument.
· What Bultmann and others have generally failed to mention, is that this is the form, not only of the pericopes involving the dispute over clean and unclean, but also of the immediately following dialogue between Jesus and the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman. She contests Jesus’ assertion of the primacy of Jews over Gentiles by re-contextualizing his words, alluding, albeit obliquely, to three widely separated Scriptural passages: that involving a king’s punishment for not admitting others to his table (Judges 1:7); David’s granting a place at the table to Saul’s son, Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9:1-13), and that involving being “fulfilled” by “crumbs” in Psalm 17:14-15 (following the Septuagint translation: LXX Ps. 16:14-15). In response, Jesus extols her faith, and grants her original request for the healing of her daughter.
o The phrase, hupokato tês trapêdzes, calls to mind the punishment of Adonibezek, who held kings captive, “making them gather the crumbs from beneath the table” (ta hupokato tês trapêdzes mou,” and who now has the tables turned on him.
o The word translated in verse 27 as “be fed” (chortasthênai) is rare in both the Septuagint and Gospels, but appears in LX Ps. 16:14 as follows: “The children will be fed, and will leave the leftovers to their little ones.”
o The table (trapêdza) of verse 28 may suggest the narrative in 2 Samuel 9:7-13, in which Mephibosheth’s restoration to favor with David is symbolized by his being admitted to the king’s table. This demonstrates the generosity of David, who does not hold Mephibosheth responsible for the sins of his father.
o The force of the Syrophoenician’s implied midrash may be taken as follows: If Adonibezek was condemned for doing no better than to allow foreigners to eat under his table, should not Jews do at least that much? In the allusion to Psalm 16, Jesus’ pejorative reference to Gentiles as “dogs” (in the diminutive form, kunaria) is reinterpreted as the psalmist’s nepioi (“little ones”) who need “to be fed.” The allusion to Mephibosheth suggests that, like him, the Syrophoenician woman and her kin should not be held responsible for the sin (idolatry) of their ancestors.
· The implication of the use of this form in this passage is quite surprising: It not only places the Gentile woman in the role of a rabbi, but depicts her as the only “rabbi” in all the New Testament to win a disputation with Jesus.
· In many respects, the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman embodies the traits of the women we have considered in previous sessions. She is marginal by virtue of both gender and cultural/religious origins. Jesus here, at first, embodies the religious authority which would ignore her plight, regarding her as alien and insignificant to the community of faith. (Here, Jesus stands in precisely the same position elsewhere embodied by the “Pharisees and scribes” in their disputes with Jesus.) This woman, however, like those we considered from the Hebrew Scriptures, finds her voice and speaks back, couching her own experience in Biblical terms, thereby winning for herself a place within the community of faith, and acceptance and affirmation in the eyes of Jesus.
o This typological interpretation is consistent with the emphasis Matthew places on the inclusion in Jesus’ genealogy of several of the women we have encountered; specifically, Tamar (from the Torah), Rahab (from the Prophets) and Ruth (from the Writings). These are three of only four women mentioned in the genealogy, and the only ones mentioned by name. It is also consistent with the correspondences scholars generally recognize between the Gospel of Mark and the Hebrew Scriptures.
· It is possible that Jesus’ words are, as Jerry Cameny-Hoggatt has argued, a form of “peirastic irony—from peiradzein . . . a form of verbal challenge intended to test the other’s response. It may in fact declare the opposite of the speaker’s actual intention” (Irony in Mark’s Gospel; Cambridge UP, 1992). This verbal challenge, though, may be intended as much for the Gospel’s audience as for the woman, alone. It is possible to read Jesus’ response as an embodiment of that of the Christian community. This renders Jesus’ words in the Matthean parallel at verse 28—“O woman, great is your faith!”—all the more significant: For, her faith, the faith of one taken to be an outsider, turns out not to be outside the community, after all. The Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman reveals to the Christian community that their faith—the faith of Jesus—is greater, more inclusive, than they had supposed.
· If the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman appears, at the start of her story, marginal to the Biblical tradition by virtue of her gender, culture and religious background, her story is certainly not marginal in documentary, textual terms: A number of scholars have noted that it occurs at the very center of Mark’s Gospel, and also at the center of a distinct narrative section, 6:30-8:10, bracketed by the two feedings of the multitude. Joanna Dewey describes the periscope as the central point in an extended concentric structure comprising the entire Gospel (Markan Public Debate; Society of Biblical Literature; Chico, CA: Scholars, 1980; chapters 34-37).
· In recent times, the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman, and other apparently marginal figures in the Hebrew and Greco-Christian scriptures, such as those we have encountered in the course of these sessions, have generated a great deal of scholarly interest. It has become fashionable in some circles to depict such an interest as seditious, as constituting an insurrectional reading against the dominant values of the scriptural Canon(s) in which these characters and stories are found. But, the central position of the Syrophoenician woman’s story in Mark, and its relatively central position in Matthew, combined with Matthew’s introductory genealogy which makes prominent mention of Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth, suggest that this preoccupation with the inclusion of “marginal” figures, while it may be culturally seditious, in fact follows the promptings of the Scriptures, themselves, at least in relation to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.