Dogs, Doggies, and Exegesis
Since the assigned lection a few Sundays ago on Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), I’ve intended to comment on what appears to me a surprisingly widespread mis-reading of the passage. Essentially, the “dogs” (who Jesus says here must wait till after the “children” have eaten before they can be fed) are taken with an extremely pejorative connotation as feral mongrels, and the scene is read as if Jesus is pictured insulting the woman and treating her with contempt. I am embarrassed to find this basic take on the passage even in the learned commentary on Mark by a scholar I deeply admire: Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: Hermeneia (Fortress Press, 2007), 366-67. But for several reasons, among them prominently the specifics of the Greek term used (unusually) in this passage, I think it pretty clear that this take is wrong.
The term used here is κυναριον, not the more common term, κυων. To be sure, the latter term is often (typically?) used in sentences that give it a clear pejorative sense: to cite NT examples,Matt 7:6; Philip 3:2; Rev 22:15. But κυναριον (which is a diminutive form of the word, along with an alternate diminutive form, κυνιδιον) is never to my knowledge used in such a sentence. Instead, all uses are in sentences that rather clearly refer to household pets. (In other European languages as well, diminutives are used with a certain almost affectionate sense, e.g., “perrito” in Spanish).
This particular term is not used in the LXX and appears in the NT only in this Markan passage and its Matthean parallel (Matt 15:21-28). A check of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae shows further that in wider Greek usage it and the other diminutive form appear always and only in statements about family pets or household dogs: e.g., Philo, Spec.Leg. 4.91, referring to household dogs (κυνιδιων) hanging around banqueting tables looking for scraps dropped to them, and Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, Vol. 2,2 p. 78, line 19, referring to “Maltese lapdogs” (κυναρια Μελιταια), here also in a setting of dining.
Collins asserts (p. 367) that the diminutive form “probably does not have a diminutive connotation in the colloquial language of Mark,” and so “probably refers to the scavenging dogs of the street.” The only references she provides (n. 39) in support of her assertion are a couple of texts in the Greek of Joseph and Asenath (10:14; 13:7), but neither text uses a diminutive form: In 10:14, the converted Asenath throws all her rich pagan food out the window “τοις κυσι βοραν” (“to the dogs” in the street), and in 13:7, Asenath refers back to this act of giving her roayl food “τοις κυσι”, both texts using plural forms of κυων.
Moreover, the dated-but-valuable lexicon drawing precisely on colloquial usage illustrated in papyri and other non-literary souces, J. H. Mouton and George Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (1930), p. 364, translates several non-biblical uses of κυναριον and κυνιδιον as “lapdogs”.
So, in point of fact, it looks like (contra Collins) Otto Michel’s little entry on κυναριον in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 3:1104, is correct after all in judging that the choice of κυναριον in the Markan passage pictures Jesus as referring to “little dogs which could be tolerated in the house,” not wild scavengers in the street. I repeat: A search of references to the diminutive forms in the TLG gives no instance of usage to refer to “wild” dogs or street “scavengers”. So, it looks like the use of the term in the Gospel scene was deliberate, a choice, of a “marked” term (in linguistics parlance), intended to connote household pets, not the “unmarked” term κυων.
This sense of a domestic scene ought to be obvious simply in reading the passage. Jesus is pictured as responding to the woman’s request by saying, “Let the children be fed first, for it isn’t right to give the childrens’ food to the dogs.” The point of the statement is the temporal priority of the “children”, of course in this case, referring to Jesus directing his ministry to fellow Jews. The metaphor presumes a setting in which the household dogs are fed the leftovers after the family has eaten (not custom-produced dog-food). (I know the practice well, having grown up in a rural setting in which the household dogs ate what we ate, only after we had eaten.)
The woman’s clever reply confirms this, respectfully pointing out that “the dogs under the table eat from the portions of the children.” “Wild” dogs and “scavenger dogs of the street” aren’t typically allowed “under the table” and around the children! And anyone with both children and household dogs will know how it goes at mealtime: If allowed, the dogs hang about the children’s chairs, knowing that children love to “drop” morsels to their pets.
Finally, we also have to ask ourselves how likely it is that the authors of Mark (writing for a Christian readership at least largely made up of converted gentiles) would have inserted a scene in which supposedly Jesus insults a gentile woman in the harsh terms imputed by some modern readers. She is “put in her place” as a gentile, but it’s a temporal place. The scene functions to explain that, although Jesus’ own ministry was confined to his Jewish people (apparently, a tradition that Mark couldn’t deny/ignore), the subsequent mission to gentiles was (Mark wants to imply) on the agenda, only it had to wait its time, and Jesus is pictured as anticipating that gentile-mission in responding positively to the woman’s respectful but clever response. For a bit further discussion of the likely intended function of the passage, see L. W. Hurtado, Mark: New International Biblical Commentary (Hendrickson, 1989), 115-16.