Saturday, 29 August 2009

A Tale of Two Blogs

Standfirm in Faith has discovered these biblical passages, the ones that show Jesus learning a moral lesson from a Gentile:

Mark 7.24-37 'The Syrophoenician Woman's Faith' (New RSV):

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, 'Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.' 28 But she answered him, 'Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.' 29 Then he said to her, 'For saying that, you may go - the demon has left your daughter.' 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Matthew 15.21-39 'The Canaanite Woman’s Faith' (New RSV):

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22J ust then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, 'Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.' 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, 'Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.' 24 He answered, 'I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.' 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, 'Lord, help me.' 26 He answered, 'It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.' 27 She said, 'Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.' 28 Then Jesus answered her, 'Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.' And her daughter was healed instantly.

So what does the main man of that blog state about these passages? In the context of having a crack at Brian Mclaren in an article, Matt Kennedy further comments for explanation:

And Jesus is still overcoming his own religious prejudice today thanks to the grace of Brian Mclaren

Poor benighted Jesus - trapped in first century ethnic prejudices and, worse, he's a Jew - an oppressor of Palestinians. It has been such a struggle but the syrophonecian woman, Brian Mclaren, and TEC have together managed to bring some enlightenment to the world despite Jesus'

Moreover, the woman did not "teach" Jesus anything.

If you are correct that Jesus learned to overcome prejudice from the woman, that implies, necessarily, that Jesus first words to the woman, whatever the proper translation, represented a "prejudiced" estimation of her worth as compared with that of the Jewish people. [...]

The sort of ignorance you seem to assert that Jesus embraced prior to his "enlightenment" involves Jesus in a violation of God's moral character. God shows no partiality. But, according to Mclaren and your post above, Jesus did.

That would render Jesus unqualified to atone for sin…and we might as well eat, drink, and be merry.

His decision to heal the woman's daughter was not "justice". It was not the result of having been educated out of cultural prejudice in order to "treat equals equally".

It was an act of mercy and grace - an undeserved favour to a sinner who deserves hell. Such is true for every benefit we receive from him. We have absolutely no standing question the moral propriety of his initial words to the woman or to anyone else. The reality of our natural condition before a holy God is that we are far in far far worse shape than "little dogs" under the master's table.

There was also a comment that sums up the war being waged here:

The Rev. Kaeton expounded on Jesus' being "schooled" by the woman - stating that Jesus realized…(wait for it)...THAT HE HAD BEEN WRONG. Yeah, different religions, totally

So what's happening here is that the demand for orthodoxy is skewing the reading of the passage. This is the idea that because he is God, Jesus cannot learn any moral lesson or cannot be wrong. One wonders what his mother did during his formative years - perhaps she made jam while her son brought himself up.

The point of the passage is that Jesus's ministry was to the Jews and no one else, and he had the same tribal views you would expect of those who beleived they had a special responsibility in faith and were chosen as such by God and they would be first into the coming Kingdom. Thus they were dismissive of Gentiles and their religions. However, this female Gentile is complaining about her treatment by using the Jews language about the Gentiles back at Jesus, and Jesus realises he is making a mistake and puts it right. In other words, Jesus learns.

Of course it has doctrinal implications. It is one of those passages that has caused the so called 'orthodox' to wriggle in their explanations.

I'd much rather read the verse straight; in fact I'd much rather understand the different schools or strands at the time, from the different early Churches, and how they contributed to all the different tendencies in the New Testament among Christians who were hardly trinitarians (!) and undergoing some narrow orthodox dance.

For such insights on purely evidential work I have not seen better than the material April de Conick has been putting out on her blog. I keep a link to it from this blog, and I use it myself to read hers. The Creating Jesus strand and now Jesus on the Road to Nicea is excellent material. Of course she gets challenged and she replies. It so happens that the The Syrophoenician Woman's Faith matter has arisen in comments relating to the division between Jews adapting to a rabbinical faith and mainly Gentiles creating a distinctive Christianity. Here are the relevant comments:

rameumptom said...

This is an interesting change for Christianity, given that Jesus started out anti-Gentile. He commanded his disciples to not preach to the Gentiles, but only the tribes of Israel. And when approached by a Canaanite woman to heal her daughter, Jesus responded that the "dogs" did not eat off the Master's table - basically calling Canaanites and other Gentiles "dogs" which is still used in the Middle East as an epithet.
Interesting to see how the Christian Church changed from anti-Gentile to anti-Semitic in so few short years.

April DeConick said...


Indeed, a clear and straight answer regarding the use of the word "dogs". There is clearly a moral element to this tale, with Jesus learning.

The lesson is further clear: don't let doctrine pre-determine the meaning of a passage. You need to know the context, and you need to see the drama involved. How historic is the passage? Who knows: it remains secondary material about any such encounter, but there is the story chosen to be in the texts by Mark and by Matthew. There may have been any number of encounters with non-Jews and Jesus, but the focus towards his people was clear and the early Churches were becoming quite different regarding their population.

The biggest error of course was that the Kingdom did not come quickly; the motivation for the ministry of Jesus, and for those early Jewish believers in his messianic status, led the various believers to face disappointment. As April de Conick herself suggests, there were two results of this mistake: one was to intensify the Kingdom vision, and the other was to establish the Church as a long haul institution and that saw those revolutionary social attitudes replaced by more usual hierarchies.
April De Conick is not making any theological point: she just deals with the textual and historical evidence. But I am. Yes, this does get discussed in the seminaries and, for me, it demonstrates that so called narrow orthodoxy is wrong, and it further demonstrates that religious content is principally cultural and relativistic.


June Butler said...

...and we might as well eat, drink, and be merry.

The main man at SF sounds as if he could do with a bit of that.

john said...

Interesting passages and interesting discussion. Both passages can be read positively - in that they help to support the case for the mission to the Gentiles. As for the apparent negative (Jesus' apparent initial hostility), the criterion of 'embarrassment' tends to support historicity (though with the likelihood of a doublet). As for that apparent initial hostility, orthodox - or relatively orthodox - Christology can say, respectively (1) he's testing the woman; (2) on one version of 'kenosis', he's allowed to have ordinary Jewish prejudices but then overcomes them. If I were arguing orthodoxly, I'd go for some version of 2.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Relatively orthodox is what is at issue over on the other blog. Why should whether it is orthodox or not even be an issue? It still indicates a Jewish teacher/healer for Jews, albeit of a kind that reverses common views of ethics and morality and thus will learn a moral case from the Gentile.

June Butler said...

The discussion at de Conick's blog is quite interesting. It seems to me that the plain reading of the passage is that the woman persuades Jesus away from his prejudice. Why not?

Luke 2:52 says, "And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour." The passage implies change and, as you said, learning.

According to the main man in his sermon, "It was an act of mercy and grace - an undeserved favour to a sinner who deserves hell." If Jesus were prejudiced, "That would render Jesus unqualified to atone for sin…and we might as well eat, drink, and be merry."

What a pinched view of Christianity. I still think the main man should have that drink.

Anonymous said...

looks like Christ was teaching the woman about faith.....maybe her positive, persistent response was what he was waiting to see.....and what he affirmed.....maybe we are told the story to learn from her response rather than to come some contrived conclusion that he was learning to let go of some prejudice......the purpose of the passage is to show us how to respond with persistent faith and be assured that we will get a positive response from Christ who came for the whole world

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I think she was teaching him.

Anonymous said...

you may do(or you may want to come to that conclusion).....but that is an unusual way of interpreting the passage... it is unlikely that the purpose of the passage is to teach that Christ was prejudiced and needed teaching is more likely to be consistent with other passages re Christ, gentiles and faith.....i.e. Christ accepting non-gentiles (revolutionary) and showing what kind of faith he requires from us

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

It is not about taking some sort of average of passages here and there, like some interlocking game, but the various forces and beliefs and stances in play after Jesus and with Jesus. And then in simplest, straightforward terms, we have Jesus dealing with his tribe (tribes, actually, as they saw it) and this supposed encounter with a Gentile woman and this use of the word dogs and her plea that changed his mind. He adapted to her.

Anonymous said...

Not persuaded because from the time of Abraham, the inclusion of the gentiles was on the cards....Christ did not need persuading of this as that is what he came to complete.

Also not persuaded that there is a strong case that the passage has as its aim to show something about Christ learning from the is much more consistent with the context and the NT to read it as Christ teaching the woman about the kind of faith and response that he requires....when she reponds positively and persistently to him (showing her faith), he shows her positive acceptance.

I am not merely trying to defend the stance that Christ had nothing to learn..... I am asking what the passage is aiming to teach (given its context in its book and the NT)

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

From the time of Abraham the inclusion of Gentiles was on the cards? That's a theological point, Nersen, and nothing to do with the evidence. You be persuaded according to such doctrinal niceties. Historically, evidentially, there is hardly a thing that Abraham existed. This displays where you are coming from.

Jesus was interested in his own people and to the extent that she came on to his territory he was the one who had to adapt. Someone says the passage has historical strength because it is embarrassing. Indeed, it is embarrassing for those who want to preconceive their Jesus as somehow perfect before anyone else.

john said...


The criterion of 'embarrassment' is one of many criteria by which people attempt to weigh authenticity. All it says is that if some utterance/act attributed to Jesus seems discordant with the developed Christian position it is likely to be authentic. For example, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' is likely to be authentic because it shows Jesus registering despair, rather than 'I've got to go through this, because I knew it all along and in any case I'll be resurrected on the third day'.

As for your objections to 'Anonymous', whom you seem able to name, he phrased it badly in appealing to the historical (or non-historical Abraham). Nonetheless, there are pre-Jesus prophecies (I don't believe in prophecy ..) which talk of 'a light to lighten the Gentiles', etc. (Isaiah - used by Luke). These must have been part of the historical Jesus' 'mental furniture', whether or not he accepted them.

Why should 'orthodoxy' be an issue? Simply because these incidents (I think, one incident, which generated a 'doublet') are recorded by writers who obviously subscribe to (some sort of) Christian orthodoxy. So the question then becomes: what are they doing in their texts? (They didn't have to put them in.) These writers are wrestling - from their point of view - with Jesus, man/god/God. On the one hand, he's got to be fully human, or as near as poss., on the other hand, he's God. Split the difference, and you get a certain 'developmentalism', as illustrated (perhaps) in these stories/this story.

So it's not just reducible to EITHER pious orthodoxy OR immediately accessible historical reality (Jesus the Jew despised Gentiles until challenged by them).

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I'm not so reducing it to orthodoxy or, but I'd say this material is too early to fit into so called orthodox positions. I'm also careful regarding how much embarrassment is a reason for regarding the tale as historical. Nor am I saying, particularly, that Jesus despises Gentiles - I think (probably) he ignores them or regards them as outside the fold and of curious beliefs. All will be ordered when the Kingdom comes in, and they will have their place. But in the likely fact that he does encounter them - Galilee is a bit of a rough and mixed up area - he is shown facing a situation, responding, the situation is not good enough (protests she) and he corrects himself. That's it. I don't care whether this is 'orthodox' or not, which is a category that others are keen to bring in.

If you want my view, look at my fiction with Aki Nolo and daytime telly when Jesus reads about himself in a Bible he's borrowed. But don't take my creativity 'literally' either - he is no more capable of keeping the live broadcast going than I can if the plugs are pulled.

Erika Baker said...

"For example, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' is likely to be authentic because it shows Jesus registering despair, rather than 'I've got to go through this, because I knew it all along and in any case I'll be resurrected on the third day'."

Why have you forsaken me is a direct quote from psalm 22, and there is a lot of speculation whether Jesus meant to recite the whole psalm, which he would have known by heart, or whether he really meant to say this sentence only as a prayer, or whether the words were put into his mouth by the gospel writer because they explain so wonderfully what Jesus represents to him.

That's not to say there is no truth in it, but we do have to recognise that "was it true" is not a question people ever asked in those days. The intention was always to work out what is truth now.

The story of Solomon judging who the child belongs to is a wonderful example of this.
Solomon could easily have asked questions to verify the facts, cross examined the women, called for witnesses.
He didn't, because that's a way of thinking that just wasn't around at the time.
His truth was the truth now: Who loves that child, who can be considered to be his mother.

Sorry, Pluralist, this has nothing to do with your post. But it so exasparates me when we keep quoting verses at each other in order to determine some kind of historical truth instead of trying to understand their theological truths.

Anonymous said...

the point is that your interpretation does not fit the context .... it is not plausible that the aim of the writer was to teach Christ was being corrected by the is much more likely that the writer is teaching something about faith, gentiles and the Messiah...

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

It does fit the context of the synoptics, indeed contributes to the context. The only context it does not fit is a pre-fitting template imposed from outside. The synoptic text allows for development and growth, and in that Jesus learns.

June Butler said...

Anon, isn't it possible that Mark simply wanted to tell the story?