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Dogs, Doggies, and Exegesis

October 11, 2012

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.

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17 Comments
  1. CJ Tan permalink

    Dr Larry,

    Thanks very much for this very insightful (and encouraging) intepretation of a text that has cause not a little controversy surrounding Jesus’ apparent harshness at the woman.

    My own take would be that as a secondary consideration, the text teaches a persevering faith in asking for mercy even when one realizes one is in no position of merit to do so.

    Blessings,
    CJ Tan

  2. It would indeed seem counterintuitive for a text to present Jesus unfavorably; that is, with a firmly negative view about non-Jews, or Gentiles. Still you yourself noted that unfavorable as this is, in effect it squares with Jesus’ frequent insistence that he had been sent to the lost sheep of Israel; i.e., Jews, and not Gentiles.

    So why did Mark include this incident, which on the face conforms to tradition – by insulting gentiles, goyem? Likely it was because in all honesty, in fidelity to early reports of Jesus, he had to picture Jesus as feeling he was sent primarily for the Jews; telling his apostles not to enter Samaritan homes, at times. This had to be reported … no matter how it contradicted later efforts by Paul and others, to “Anglicize” Christianity. NO matter how many times they attempt to picture the God who once overwhelming favored Jews as his “chosen people,” now turning about – and apparently issuing ringing endorsements of “Greeks” and other Gentiles.

    To be sure, the diminutive might seem almost affectionate. Yet “dogs” was one of the most common and violent ANE insults of all.

    Likely though to be sure, your more positive reading was subtly put into the text. But it could not be made too obvious or foremost. Not without Mark (and Jesus) all-too-obviously violating the traditional devotion of God to his “chosen people,” the Jews, over and above the “nations” and so forth.

    • Dear Wentham,
      One the one hand, you catch my point that the text reflects and engages Jesus’ focus on his own people, told here with a view to the gentile believers for whom Mark seems to have written. Indeed, the whole of Mark 7–8 seems particularly focused on anticipating the future gentile mission, portraying foreshadowings in Jesus’ own ministry.
      So, as I’ve indicated previously, the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman isn’t an incident of “insult”. You’re still taking “dogs” without regard for the Greek term used (and exclusively in this story in the NT): “kyon” was used as insult; there is no instance in Greek of “kynarion” used as insult. (It’s important to engage the text of Mark, which is Greek, not English.) And you’re lifting the word out of its context, which is a proverbial saying about household management: You feed the children first and then the family dogs. (Note in particular Mark’s use of “first” in his rendition of Jesus’ saying.)
      Mark’s point is that there isn’t a “contradiction” (for him) between Jesus sent to his Jewish people and the subsequent spread of his message to Gentiles. It’s what he (with Paul) affirms as the divinely-intended sequence: to the Jew first and then to gentiles.

      • If there are real differences between the first OT theology of salvation primarily for the Jews, and the later theology of salvation primarily for non-Jews, then it is ethical or moral, to obscure this difference?

        Is it moral to obscure a real conflict in our sacred literature, and thus to over-stress its reliablity?

        Is it moral to stress the reliability of unreliable things? Like selling a car with bad brakes, as “perfect” and “safe”?

      • Er, “Brettongarcia” (and I’ve earlier asked you to use your name, OK?), yet again (as with a number of your previous comments), it’s actually not very easy to figure out what you’re trying to say. You seem to be making some sort of accusation, but I don’t recognize anything in my posting or subsequent comments to which your comment applies. So, in the interests of patient clarification of your apparent confusion, the following reiteration: My point about the Markan text is precisely that the author is flagging up that Jesus’ own mission was directed to fellow Jews, this reflected in the statement ascribed to him that “the children” must be fed “first”. Writing likely for a readership made up heavily of converted pagans (“gentiles”), he wanted to reflect this and yet also present this story as a precursor or foreshadowing of the subsequent spread of the Gospel. That “the children” must be fed “first” presupposes (in the proverbial saying cited) that the “household dogs/pets” will be fed thereafter. So, no flim-flam going on, no dodgy sales of used cars (whatever you’re referring to), no cover-ups. I fear that you really must learn to read more carefully before commenting.

  3. Bain Wellington permalink

    On thoughtfulspirituality’s point about “almost all English translations”, what was (until very recently) the standard Catholic English translation used for liturgical readings in the British Isles and Ireland as well as in most Anglophone countries outside North America had “house-dogs” (Jerusalem Bible, 1966), altered to “little dogs” (New Jerusalem Bible, 1985); cf. Vulgate “catellis” (denoting small size: whence “lapdog” or “puppy”).

  4. Otto permalink

    I am wondering: maybe a translation “little dogs” or “pet dogs” is overtranslation anyway. For Mark the deminutive was necessary to distinguish scavenger dogs of the streets from household dogs but I do not think the type of pet dog we know was common at that time, especially in Jewish context. I appreciate Larry’s exegetical correction but an overtranslation might be unnecessary because it suggests an anachronistic picture

    • Otto, I’ve suggested “household dogs”. The point is that the statement ascribed to Jesus evokes a household in which you have to feed children & the household dogs (who lounge around under the table).

      • Otto permalink

        Thanks, agreed. I just wanted to clarify (in light of some previous comments) that the diminutive in the Greek should not be taken as a diminutive in the English as well.

  5. Mark permalink

    Thanks for this — I’ve always wondered how to parse the different commentaries on this. But as a parent of young daughters I have to say that this distinction might have been lost on the woman herself: surely “no” and “not yet” are functionally equivalent when your child is sick enough to send you off begging a foreign exorcist for help. Dog or doggie, it’s a harsh response. I see the theological distinction, but don’t you think setting the story in the context of a maternal response to a threatened child is intended to evoke empathy in the reader? Or let me ask it this way: do you think Mark expected his readers to be a little shocked by Jesus’ initial reply?

    • We have to try to read such texts in their ancient context, not psychologize them in modern terms. I simply find it counter-intuitive to imagine that the Evangelist would have intentionally included an account that he saw as presenting Jesus unfavorably. That goes against two key results of gospel criticism: (1) that the authors were authors, able to make decisions about what to include, exclude, modify, etc.; and (2) that they wrote precisely to valorize Jesus as supreme.
      I repeat: “Mark” presents Jesus as focused on a ministry to the Jewish people, though Mark certainly wanted also to posit the subsequent inclusion of gentiles as part of the larger plan. It’s this salvation-historical issue that is forefront, not parental psychology. In the Markan scene, by Jesus’ emphasis that “first” the “children” must be fed, he likely intended readers to see the (divine) rationale for Jesus himself not going to the gentiles.

      • Mark permalink

        Thanks. But it’s precisely because I do take Mark as an author, with the ability to modify and so forth, that I’m still struck by the issue being presented through a mother interceding for her child. I concede everything you say, and whenever I preach this I am very mindful of the fact that we’re the first generation of Christians who would be sympathetic to the common contemporary interpretation that Jesus learns something from the woman. I don’t propose that interpretation myself. But I still think it’s surprising that Mark chose a mother to raise the issue. Doesn’t the Hebrew Bible have lots of examples of places where we’re supposed to recognize a special intensity to the maternal bond?

        How about this: do you think Mark expected that we would be on the woman’s side, at least, from the start, hoping that Jesus will go ahead and do the healing? Or do you think Mark expected his audience’s initial reaction to be that it was unreasonable for a gentile to expect Jesus would heal her child, and inappropriate for her to ask?

      • Mark, To turn to your question, I think that Mark expected gentile readers to see themselves foreshadowed in the gentile woman (the emphasis in the narrative is ethnic, not gender), and in Jesus’ response to her to see both the rationale for Jesus confining his ministry to Jews and also the promise of the widening of the gospel to include them (gentiles) subsequently. The woman’s problem (her demonized child) is serious, to be sure, and Jesus is pictured as showing mercy to this gentile, even though it wasn’t in his mission-statement.

      • Mark permalink

        Thank you. This really is helpful. So, the point is the first readers weren’t reading as “readers” or even “ancient readers” but as people who immediately saw the woman as representing them. And they didn’t have much at stake in the narrative’s tension or the woman’s anguish, because they knew that the day of the Gentile in the church had in fact come by their time (they were proof). And in any case, Jesus goes off and feeds the 4000 in gentile lands.

      • Mark: Yes, and even more. This account forms part of a series in Mark 7 that foreshadow the gentile mission (e.g., the discussion about clear/unclean in 7:1-23 which precedes the encounter with the woman in fact is intended to set up the scene, and 7:31-37 has Jesus in another gentile area, the Decapolis, healing another). And, as you say, all this is then followed by the 2nd feeding account in Mark 8, the numbers of which suggest a gentile association.

  6. It is interesting that almost all English translations of the Mark passage translate κυναριον simply as “dogs”. A very few add “little”, reflecting the fact that it is a diminutive, and one did add “pet”, which reflects what you say above. Oh, and Tyndale used “hounds”. One did also have a footnote that pointed out that the Jews often referred to Gentiles as dogs.

    I wonder whether the bad reading actually arose from a student of Koine? Perhaps it is more likely to have come from an English reader (or readers) and then to have became so widely accepted that it was read back into the Greek? Just a thought.

    • I do suspect that other, more familiar, uses of “dogs” (as in the pejorative uses I cite in the NT, but also oft-cited uses in Jewish and pagan texts) have formed a pre-conception with which readers approach the Markan episode in question. And, yes, it is possible that it’s some translation-word, “dogs”, that colors the reading. This is yet another instance where it’s important to be able to consult the Greek evidence, and the TLG provides a wonderful means of doing so.

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