"Bread of the children..... "
Mark 7.24

A New Close Reading of the Text

Reading a biblical text which is familiar by long association, we pass over difficulties since we know already the sense of each episode. But examining this passage at Mark 7.24 just as it stands, without the overlay of commentary which has accrued over the centuries, one must admit that the meaning is obscure and interpretation of the words would be difficult. Here is the text:

After Jesus left there, he went to the region of Tyre. When he went into a house, he did not want anyone to know, but he was not able to escape notice. Instead, a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him and came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek of Syrophoenician origin. She asked him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, "Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not right to take the children's bread and to throw it to the dogs." She answered, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Then he said to her, "Because you said this, you may go. The demon has left your daughter." She went home and found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Mark: 7:24 (NET) .

But if an Alien Visitor from a far constellation had come here and learned to read our language accurately and was now reading the above words as normal English language, he might think to himself that the words were to be understood with the following meaning:

Jesus as a traveling prophet or minister accompanied by a group of his people, had come from his native country to the foreign coastal city of Tyre, but he could not escape being noticed. A Tyrian woman whose daughter was sick came to him begging for a cure from the feverish demon. Jesus said first : Feed my people coming with me, it not right to take what they could eat and throw it as garbage to the dogs. She replied: Yes, and there will be so much food that the doggies under the table will find dropped scraps enough. And he said: Because of this good deed, your daughter will be cured. And when she went home she found that the fever demon was gone.

Now we must go through a rather complicated interpretation of the words in the NET translation , considering the meaning of each word and phrase in detail, to see if the above meaning satisfies the authentic text in the original Greek as well as the English translation. Setting aside for the moment the traditional religious interpretation of the words, we can ask ourselves which makes better sense as meaning drawn from the actual words of the text of Mark.

The Setting of the Scene

The setting of the situation is at the Phoenician city of Tyre and the woman is described as a Greek person speaking Greek as the lingua franca of the Hellenistic world. She is also described a "Syrophoenician", an unusual adjective which appears only here in the NT, with problems of interpretation which we will discuss later. She stands outside the closely knit community of the Jewish faith, but crosses the line of social identity in approaching Jesus as a well known Jewish healer and exorciser, in hope that he can cure her ailing daughter. So much is clear.

Consider first Jesus' words to her. But exactly what is the meaning of the words "Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not right to take the children's bread and to throw it to the dogs."?

The first problem is: Who are the children that Jesus speaks of. The English text is translating the word "children" from the Greek "tekna" quite literally, a word which in Classical as well as NT Greek is much the same as the English translation. But there is a special NT use of this word for "disciples" (as in 1 Cor. 4.17; 1 Tim. 1. 2; 2 Tim. 1.2; Philemon 10; 3 Jn. 4). Since no children as such enter into this passage, it seems clear that Jesus is speaking of his followers.

I can rewrite the passage with this change: "Let my disciples be well dined first, for it is not right to take their food and throw it to the dogs." The word Gr. chortazo, is usually used for feeding animals, hence being fed to satiety. Jesus is speaking of procuring food for his disciples as newly arrived in the foreign and non-Jewish port town of Tyre. What could be more natural than the leader asking that his group of followers be well fed, since they were arriving unknown and without introductions in a foreign city?

But there is something further about "throwing the food to the dogs" which has the same meaning as our throwing food into he garbage. Throwing good food which the men should eat into the garbage is not a good thing (kalon), it is a matter of wastefulness and also lack of appropriate hospitality. But this must also mean that food is already being prepared there, that there is food ready to be served and eaten. And this is clearly not in the home of the woman being addressed, whose daughter is sick in bed with the demon at another place.

I therefore suggest that the situation takes place at a public site, specifically a food market or a restaurant under the supervision of the lady described as a Greek from a Syrian-Phoenician family. This would explain abundant food being prepared, and also that this lady is the person in charge, since Jesus is addressing her in asking for food for his men. A cookery or restaurant would have large amount of prepared victuals ready for sale, so the notion of throwing good food into the garbage would be considered as arbitrary waste.

Now consider the woman who is described as Greek. But she is also "Syrophoenician" in terms of where she lives in the port town, and also Syrian "by family background" where the Greek is "genei". This unique word "syrophoenician" would seem to refer both to the Phoenician trading city of Tyre and also to the domain of ancient Syria both economically and politically. Phoenician cities like Sidon and Tyre were known as ports on the Mediterranean sea and foci for international trading, while Syria in ancient times was a major source for the wheat which fed the western part of the Roman Empire. Things have not changed much since that time, Syria is still a strong producer of wheat, while the sea ports along the Levantine Coast are centers of trade and shipping activity.

If our interpretation follows this direction, the woman seems to be noted as a Syro-Phoenician for several reasons. She represents in the Jewish center of Jesus' world a gentile business-person who has interests in both the harvests of wheat from the eastern range lands of Syria and also the exporting of shiploads of food supplies to Italy and the West. In Tyre everyone knows who she is, so quite naturally Jesus is steered to her place of business when he inquires where he can get food for the disciples. We see him now asking her help rather indirectly, but we have to infer the actual meaning of the interchange, knowing only that it must be a place where cooking is going on in a kitchen or market atmosphere.

She answers Jesus indirectly. She understands his question and continues with the food metaphor, but she shows somewhat ostentatiously that she is an educated speaker of Greek and aware of the classical cultural tradition. Her reply ".....but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs" is a sly adaptation of Aeschylus' famous remark that his plays were nothing by the crumbs which fell from Homer's table. She knows her Cliffe Notes of the classical schools, and even uses the family word "kunarion" for doggie, aware that it is a stylish word for house-puppy as used by Plato and Xenophon in school readings from the classical anthologies. She does reply YES, and implies in smart city- style speech that the disciples will be fed and there will be no waste here but a simple over-abundance. The woman is offering to provide food in profusion for the disciples, so it is quite to the point for her to say: "The dogs under the table will eat the scraps . . . . (from the full dinner I will serve them)".

These three stages of the story fit together well. First Jesus speaks of provisions for his people. The woman replies that there will be abundant food. Finally Jesus understanding her indirect "yes", replies specifically that "for this word" of good will she can go home. Even though at a distance he will cure the child at her home by an act of tele-exorcism. Jesus does a demonic cleansing in return for a basic and necessary human favor which provides nourishment so he and his disciples can continue with their psycho-medical work.

Jesus' Conversation in Greek

At this point the question arises: What language was being used in their interchange between the woman and Jesus? It is often assumed that Jesus spoke only Hebrew and Aramaic for nor his normal speech. The Greek NT which we have must have been translated from a lost Aramaic text or series of texts. On the other hand we know that the LXX Greek translation of the OT which we have intact, was current throughout the cities of the Near East for half a dozen generations before the time of Jesus, and was the best common-language text for Jews in various countries who wanted to read their bible. That Jesus, as a person concerned with a universal philosophical message, would be completely illiterate in the Greek language used throughout his region seems unlikely.

There is no reason to think that the woman is addressing Jesus in Aramaic, but since an exchange of words does occur between them, it must have been in Greek. So the interchange between the Greek speaking Syrophoenician woman and Jesus does contains a shred of linguistic information, which points to Jesus' ability to use at least basic Greek. Jesus asks the woman for food for his follower, but he uses the word "teknois" meaning 'for the fellows, my boys' which we have wrongly translated as "for the children" which has a very different meaning. Throughout the NT the references to the disciples all use the proper Greek term "mathetes" or 'learner, scholar, disciple', a regular Greek word down from the time of Pythagoras. This use of the word "teknoi" for the disciples is found only in Matthew 10.26 and the parallel passage Mark 7.27, elsewhere it is always the proper academic term "mathetes". Had Jesus not been able to use a basic Greek vocabulary, there would have been no conversation at all. The Tyrian marketplace woman would not have wasted her time trying to communicate with an Aramaic speaking medicine-man who had no knowledge of Greek.

Two observations can be made here. First Jesus does speak some Greek because he uses the familiar word "teknon" for his followers who are as a close family to him. But this is basic Greek and he does not use the classical term a student or scholar which is always Mathetes in the Gospels. It is a much more formal word not suited for conversation with the market woman of Tyre. Furthermore, note that Jesus uses the familiar diminutive word "kunaria" for the doggies who get thrown away food, which the lady repeats in her answer that the doggies will get more than they need from the crumbs. They both use the familiar and colloquial word which is not found elsewhere in the NT, the regular word being "kuon / kunes" as at Luke 16.21 of a dog licking the hand. We seem to be dealing with the relics of a real conversation here and it must have been in Greek.

From the other side, the woman is clearly demonstrating her Hellenic education in speaking to Jesus of "food from the table of Homer", a standard reference from her schoolbook education, and she repeats as normal Jesus' familiar diminutive word "kunaria" . If Jesus did not speak Greek, she would not have used these schoolbook style references, which would have been wasted on a traveling Aramaic-speaking medicine man. She shows off her Greek education, knowing that Jesus will understand the words, and that means that he must have able to follow the thread of a Greek conversation in satisfactory detail.

When the woman speaks of the dogs eating the scraps, she says "The dogs eat the scraps. . ." in the present tense rather than the future tense which the situation would seem to require. There is a technical problem here: The Greek verb she uses is "esthio" with an accented short iota, but this verb does not have a future form. For a future tense a Greek writer has to go to a different "suppleting" verb like "ed- " or "phag-" , like English "go / went", and this is what is normally done.

One wonders why a future form from this verb would not have been used in normal Greek writing. The contracting verbs with a stem in the vowels " a e o " will have a sigmatic future form with lengthened vowel, but the verb used here has a stem in iota, which puts it is a different class from the regular contracted verbs. Apparently the Greek ear did not want to hear a lengthened iota in this context, perhaps by a similarity of the sound to the long open eta with which it was being confused in this time. A logical future form with lengthened iota " *esthIsei" would show the sigma but not the invisible long iota; but this form does not exist in any texts.

Whatever the linguistic reason for a lack of a future form, it seems the early copyists of this passage did not know, or did not want to use the suppletive verb ( ed- or phag- ) so they stayed with the present tense assuming that it would be taken in a future sense. Present verbal forms are used for future time in many languages, e.g. English "I am going " with a regular future meaning, while the present is actually a habitual tense. I rest my case that the present form "esthiei" is used by context in a futuristic sense.

Is she a Tyro-phoenician?

I suggest that we look at the Syrian-Phoenician woman again for a moment. It is with some hesitation that I raise the possibility of a corruption of the Greek text, not a matter to be taken lightly in a Biblical book. There are some five thousand Greek MSS of this gospel of St. Mark and they all show the adjective "syrophoenician". But the connection of Syria with Phoenicia as I have outlined above is hypothetical and it does have some problems, so I would like to propose another approach to this unique adjective.

Consider the possibility of the original adjective being in Greek an original tyrophoenikissa te genei or "Tyrian-Phoenician in family". With this change of the initial consonant, we have a much better meaning. She is a Phoenician as living in the general area so known. But she is also a Tyrian person living in the city of Tyre within the province of Phoenicia. Such a doubled identification on the basis of city and state is often used in historical documents, and we use it regularly in the formula "Mrs. S from Chicago, Illinois." The adjective "Hellenis" or ethnic Greek woman, further expands her identity to the international trading community of the Eastern Mediterranean world. With this change to this strange adjective, the emended form "tyrophoenicissa" does make good sense, since it describes her town, also the province where she and her family live and finally her Greek commercial connections.

Can one consider a textual emendation in a biblical text on the basis of meaning alone without authority of the ancient Greek MSS? Normally one does not want to tamper with the NT text, but in the case of a situation where a received word yields no meaning, while an emended text proposes meanings which fall neatly into place, textual emendation should be cautiously considered.

One could even ask if there is a likelihood of a cursive Greek handwritten "t" being miswritten as a C-shaped lunate sigma, a matter to refer to professional biblical text experts. More to the point might be the change in an oral tradition of "tyr- " to "tsyr- " to "syr- " via palatalization before a fronted vowel, giving Syro- from an original Tyro- (tyrophoenicissa). This would be a one-way process and could not work backward from Syr- to Tyre.

Another Interpretation. . .

But there is a traditional approach to this passage. The gospel of Mark is generally accepted as prior to accounts of Luke and Matthew, so it is interesting to turn to Matthew's re-statement of this passage: Matt. 15.21. When the disciples urge Jesus to speak with a "Canaanite" woman (note the change) who is crying and begging for help, he replies "I was sent only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel". Matthew apparently does not understand the meaning of the passage in Mark with the unique adjective "Syrophoenician", and makes a change of the woman's identity to Canaanite if only to describe her more clearly as non-Jewish or "Gentile". He sees Jesus as defining his role as "shepherd of the lost sheep" of the Jews, a separate thought added to Mark's original account. This seems quite contrary to the meaning of the words in the Marcian text, an entirely different sense of what the words are saying.

But the woman persists and then Matthew reverts to the wording he got from Mark about children's bread being thrown to the dogs, which the woman switches back to crumbs (possibly of wisdom?) falling from the (Jewish) Master's table. But the children are not the hungry disciples in Matthew's context, and where did the wasted bread some from? And why the crumbs from what table feeding the dogs underneath? Finally Jesus turns to the matter of faith and remarks to conclude this curious interchange: "Woman, you have great faith, what you wish will be done." And the daughter, whether she was there or in the house at a distance, was cured from that moment.

Matthew's account is disjointed and show no reason or rationale for the cure, while the Marcian relation ties together Jesus' need for food for his men with the woman's need for her daughter's exorcism. It is this unusual contractual relationship of Jesus' request, when combined with the woman's need for a cure, that I believe confirms this re-interpretation of the passage. Without a concatenation of Jesus' initial words with the woman's corroborating reply, the passage stands without substantial meaning.

Summary and Conclusion

Looking for a reasonable human interpretation of the text's difficult and "parable" wording, we can still keep the core sense of this important historical and religious document alive. Many people have learned their interpretations along with indoctrinated readings, and this has a tendency to fix meanings into a literary formaldehyded mode. Even difficult written texts, overgrown by time and obscured by distance, should in the end have a certain transparency, without which they become dogma without personal enlightenment. In this spirit the above interpretation has been constructed as a way of seeing into and behind the words of a two thousand year old text document, from which many of the social and historical keys have long since disappeared.

Later theological interpretations of this passage have tried to explain its meaning in religious terms, but it seems important to hold fast to the basic human factors in the account of Jesus' psycho-medical journeying through Palestine. Jesus was not a theologian, nor a cryptic casuist, nor announcer of grand truths to the people he met in his very human encounters . If dining in a food market in Tyre seems somehow trivializing in the reverential writing of the Gospels, we should remember that daily dining was not only a necessity to the people of the Levantine coast, but a social and familial ritual of great value and importance. This passage of St. Mark has a logical thread of human connection with the Lord's Prayer's "Give us today our daily bread...", as a basic human need and prerogative. And it is interesting that the dinner set with the twelve disciple at the Last Supper, has these same Mathetai or Disciples , whom we find here at an earlier date, awaiting dinner from the Tyrian Greek lady in the marketplace of Tyre.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College