And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.
-Mark 7:24-30 (ESV)
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.
Disclaimer: In using the title of the song Who Let the Dogs Out? written by Anselem Douglas and originally covered by the Baha Men, I am in no way attempting to be insulting to any individual or group of people, either those addressed within the context of this blog post or otherwise. Given the core statement made by Jesus in the Mark 7 quote, it just seemed like a “clever” title for my missive. That is the complete extent of my intention for using the song title.
Note: I’m taking an interpretation written by well-known New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado and using it as a springboard to make a suggestion of my own. I certainly don’t expect Hurtado (should he ever read this) to agree with me and frankly, what I’m doing in today’s blog post is something of an “experiment.” Just so you know.
Was Jesus a racist? This question doesn’t come out of thin air. There have been several recent conversations in the blogosphere in relation to Messianic Judaism (click the link to see my rather specific definition for the term) and whether or not proponents of Messianic Judaism as a form of Judaism, rather than an all-inclusive “Christianity,” is racist. (See Judah Himango’s blog post Two Church: Defining Bilateral Ecclesiology in Simple Terms for the latest discussion) The suggestion is that, by insisting that the modern Jewish disciples of the ancient Jewish Messiah are a Judaism and, like all other Jews, are the sole inheritors of the Mosaic covenant because they are the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that Messianic Judaism and Messianic Jews are being racist. That is, Messianic Jews, by overtly excluding non-Jewish Christians from the conditions of the Mosaic covenant (the Torah), are denying people access to being obligated to the full weight of the Torah mitzvot based on race.
The topic is extremely rich and can be taken in a lot of different directions, but since I had recently read Dr. Hurtado’s above-quoted blog post and it’s companion article, I thought I’d use them as the focus of my investigation. They really are quite fitting since they directly address Christ’s interaction with the (non-Jewish) Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7 and he appears to treat her rather badly because she’s not Jewish. But is that really the case?
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.
Was Jesus racist? Seemingly not, according to Dr. Hurtado, at least not in a way where he was being “cruel” to the non-Jewish woman. What Hurtado describes is a situation whereby Jesus seems to order his overall ministry, with the Jews (“the children”) “served” first, and only afterwards are the domesticated “dogs” under the table (non-Jews) fed. According to Hurtado, Jesus wasn’t being insulting or racist and in fact, he was certainly “inclusive” (using a modern term appropriate for such discussions) of non-Jews, but he did not see them on the same lateral plane at that point in time. They (we) wouldn’t be served until after his death, resurrection, and ascension. During his first coming, Gentiles didn’t occupy the same “space” or the same roles relative to his mission to the Jews as the Jewish redeeming Messiah and Savior. Nevertheless, he did take the time to “feed the dog under the table” so to speak.
This is made a bit more clear by Dr. Hurtado’s subsequent blog post:
One further observation about the little scene between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30 is that the initial response ascribed to Jesus is not a derogatory reference to the woman, or a simple misogynist or racial put-down, but is instead a parable-like saying specifically appropriate to the woman.
The part about the “parable-like saying specifically appropriate to the woman” could stand some examination. If I say that the sequence of events we see in Mark 7:24-30 represents how Jesus saw the prioritization of his ministry in relation to Jews and Gentiles, and if I say that, based on these verses, it was Christ’s intent to “feed” both the “lost sheep of Israel” and the non-Jews living among Israel, but giving a later temporal priority to the non-Jews, then can I generalize this as Christ’s intent to maintain some sort of distinction for the disciples among the nations that he would later (after the resurrection) command his Jewish disciples to make? (see Matthew 28:18-20).
Hurtado doesn’t directly address this issue and he would probably disagree with how I’m using his material. He seems to say that the only difference between Jewish disciples and Gentile disciples is that the Jews would be brought in first. The Gentiles would enter discipleship later on. But is the only distinction temporal?
Based on the Last Supper narratives (Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:7-39 and John 13:1-17:26), Jesus intended on bringing all of his followers, Jewish and Gentile alike, into covenant relationship with God via the New Covenant (see Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36), a covenant which confirmed and expanded upon the previous covenants God made with Israel. Prior to this point, the non-Jewish nations did not have direct access to God through covenant (unless they converted to Judaism). Only through the blood and bodily death of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection could we be brought in and placed on a level plane in the Kingdom relative to access to God and experiencing God’s love for us. This fits quite well with what Hurtado wrote.
But would that make a difference in how Jesus saw the Gentile disciples made after his ascension to how he saw the Syro-Phoenician woman? Was it his intention to elevate the “dogs sitting under the table” to the status of “children sitting around the table?” Given that Mark was writing his Gospel primarily to non-Jewish disciples, I believe I can make a case for the answer “no.” Otherwise, Mark’s description of this transaction becomes wholly anachronistic to the disciples from the nations (i.e. non-Jewish Christians).
I’d like to suggest that the distinction between the Jewish and Gentile disciples wasn’t necessarily temporal, but sequential and derivative. In fact, the way I understand how Gentiles manage to be injected into a relationship with God through the covenants (specifically Abrahamic and New) made with Israel, it would have to be.
Paul appears to echo Mark’s theme and suggest one that mirrors my suggestion in his famous letter to the church in Rome:
There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
-Romans 2:9-11 (ESV)
This short verse tells us several things. First, Paul, in speaking to a “mixed congregation” of Jews and non-Jews, continues to draw a distinction between them (he calls them “Jews” and “Greeks,” not “Christians” or some other all-inclusive term designed to negate any distinction between the two groups). He also says two things that seem to be contradictory. He says that God shows no partiality” between Jews and Greeks, but he also says “the Jew first and also the Greek,” which dovetails very nicely into Hurtado’s analysis of the Mark 7 passage where he describes a “temporal” prioritization, but also a sequential prioritization, where the Jews would always be considered before the non-Jews regardless of circumstances, good or bad.
Since Paul at this point, is addressing Jews and Gentiles who are all covenant members under the Messiah, it is reasonable to say, in my opinion, that the relationship between Jews and non-Jews remains distinctive. The non-Jews are not considered before the Jewish disciples, and their (our) relationship with God derives from the Jews after the non-Jews have entered into covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We are equal, because God shows no partiality, but the distinction between Jew and Gentile is maintained as is the rather (on the surface) unflattering relationship between the Jewish “children” and the non-Jewish “domesticated dogs,” though a kinder metaphor such as parent to child (no, it’s not a perfect metaphor) might be more fitting.
There’s a strong tendency to try to understand the relationship between believing Jews and believing non-Jews in terms of 21st century western cultural, social, and legal definitions. America and the other nations of the west, are based on a strong imperative to treat all people of differing races, cultures, ethnic groups, languages, and nationalities as equal in terms of law and access to resources. Our system of equality is flawed, but the principle exists and it’s a good one.
But we can’t seem to get around the fact that first Jesus (as described by Mark) and later Paul both differentiated between the Jewish and non-Jewish followers and disciples of the Messiah. The Jews were brought in first but they continued to be first, even after the Gentiles were brought into covenant. The Jews were directly descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and as such, were the beneficiaries of all of the covenants God made with Israel. The people of the other nations would not be able to enter into covenant with God except through Jesus and the New Covenant (the original blessings can be traced back to the Abrahamic covenant) and thus, Jesus and later Paul, order their priorities differently depending on…yes, on race. They order them differently based on whether or not a person is physically a descendent of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob or not. Everybody except for the Jewish people, are not.
Was Jesus a racist? Not in the sense we understand the term today. He did however, differentiate based on racially associated covenant relationships. Being Jewish was one thing. Being non-Jewish was something else. Through Jesus, we Christians enter into a relationship with God, think of it as going from wild, scavenging dogs, to domesticated dogs. Not very flattering, as I said before, especially if we (to extend Mark’s metaphor) continue to consider the Jews as “children” by comparison. On the other hand, maybe we’re much newer additions to the family and must continue (as in many families) to pay deferential respect and have differing privileges than the older members of the family.
But setting aside the uncomfortable literal interpretation of this language, the difference between the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers is not one of God’s love or access to our Creator, but of older vs. younger or, who we are as non-Jews in the family is directly derived from the older Jewish members. Jews are “served first.” The dogs eat what the children eat but the children will always come first. Or the younger family members eat what the older members eat, but the younger eat later, waiting first for the older members to be served. Perhaps we even eat only because the older members of the family, the root, provides the nourishment.
I don’t think I’ve “solved” the “are Messianic Jews racist” debate. I admit that I’ve taken liberties with the text and explored alleyways Hurtado would likely not approve of. I’ve also probably raised more questions than I’ve answered, but I wasn’t actually trying to answer questions. I’ve been trying to introduce the possibility that Jesus never intended to eliminate any of the “specialness” of the “Children” of Israel when he, through God’s grace and mercy, made a way possible for the people of the nations to also enter God’s Kingdom. I think our connection will always be through Israel and we will always be dependent on Israel (and Israel’s firstborn son Jesus) for our access to God.
Something to think about anyway.