Belief, Bible Study, Christ, Gospels, Mark, Matthew, New Testament

What Happens When Jesus is Racist?: The Syrophoenician Woman

We are spoiled for choice when it comes to reckoning with Jesus of Nazareth. For atheists, he was just another Jewish apocalyptic preacher. (I think there was a time when “Did Jesus exist?” made the rounds as a question and almost all historians of the Ancient Near East (ANE) agree that a man named Jesus actually existed; the miracle stories they leave to theology.) For believers, that flow chart branches a lot. Was he wholly divine? Was he wholly human? Was he both? Was Jesus also God, or was Jesus next to God? Your New Testament will be no help on this by the way.

For me, at this moment right now, Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish apocalyptic preacher who worked on behalf of the poor, the cast-aside, the hungry, and the needy. (I will no doubt have completely changed my Christology the next time we meet.) I, personally, don’t need him to be the Son of God, but would not be dismayed if it turns out he is. I don’t need him to be divine. How any of us think about Jesus — if you think about Jesus at all — is what you get to do with your one wild and precious life and no one should stand in your way*.

[Except don’t be a dick? If your belief in Jesus compels you to gatekeep Christianity, silence women, preach a Prosperity Gospel, and harm queer people all across the spectrum, then I feel comfortable saying your belief is bad and it is doing bad things to your soul.]

Both Mark and Matthew understood that there was a divine component to Jesus. Mark locates it at the baptism by John. Matthew (and Luke) locates it at Jesus’s very conception. John is way out on his own with the suggestion that Jesus of Nazareth was ever-present from the beginning. (One of the reasons why I say your New Testament will not help you is that none of our gospel writers really agree on the fundamentals of what Jesus’s purpose was. And that’s even before we get to the letters of Paul — the earliest Christian writings we currently have. What is interesting in Paul, though, are these glimpses of the oral traditions passed around these newly forming Christian communities after the crucifixion. In one of his letters, Paul quotes a creed that we have never seen anywhere else, in the Bible or any other ANE writings, that suggests that the very first Christians located Jesus’s divinity at the resurrection. All of this is called Adoptionism, and the Adoptionism argument is: was Jesus actually God, or did God adopt Jesus because of his righteous ways.)

The above is a long throat-clear/level-setting for what I really want to write about, which is the exorcism of the Syrophoenician (or Canaanite woman’s daughter. Because I think it captures an actual event (minus the exorcism), and shows us Jesus as a human being.

The story shows up in Mark (Mark 7:24-30) and Matthew (15:21-28). They are almost the same story; however, Matthew adds some stuff that Mark doesn’t. (In fact, all the gospel writers after Mark in the New Testament use Mark as their rough draft and add their own bells* and whistles.) The bones: Jesus is among the Gentiles in Tyre and Sidon***. A Gentile woman (Mark calls her Syrophoenician; Matthew calls her a Canaanite) begs Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus initially refuses, and his reason isn’t super explicit, except he uses a racial slur against the woman (likening her and other Gentiles to dogs). But this woman isn’t easily cowed. She argues back, insists that even a Gentile is worthy of healing, and Jesus changes his mind. In Mark he says, “Go; the demon has left your daughter.”

[* For one thing, because Matthew is pushing an Incarnation Christology — God came to earth in the form of a human baby — he has the Canaanite woman say, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” (Matt 15:22)

[** LENNY: I can’t help it! It gets me mad! It gets me upset! Why, Meg’s always run wild–she started smoking and drinking when she was fourteen years old, she never made good grades–never made her own bed! But somehow she always seemed to get what she wanted. She’s the one who got singing and dancing lessons; and a store-bought dress to wear to her senior prom. Why, do you remember how Meg always got to wear twelve jingle bells on her petticoats, while we were only allowed to wear three apiece? Why?! Why should Old Grandmama let her sew twelve golden jingle bells on her petticoats and us only three!!!

BABE: I don’t know!! Maybe she didn’t jingle them as much.]

[*** There is some geographical parallelism in Mark. Jesus will offer a teaching or a feeding to the Jews, and then he’ll be taken by boat to the Gentile communities to work a miracle, teaching, or feeding there, too.]

What do we do with this passage? What do we do when Jesus is racist?

My study Bible used to be a New International Version (NIV), though I prefer a New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) now, and the modern editors of the NIV have added a heading to the Mark account, “Jesus Honors a Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith,” and in Matthew, this story is labeled, “The Faith of a Canaanite Woman.” The NRSV does a little better. (Though it’s important maybe to point out that these section headings do not appear in the original texts. Also not in the original texts: chapters or verse numbers. Those all came later.) For Mark, the NRSV labels it “The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith” and in Matthew it’s “The Canaanite Woman’s Faith.”

The NIV is an Evangelical Bible, and is translated with a theological purpose. The NIV doesn’t want to focus on Jesus’s racism and his human crankiness. Jesus doesn’t “honor” the Syrophoenician woman’s faith at all. In fact, a better heading for this section might be, “Jesus is a Jerk and Regrets It.”

(I will absolutely be executed as a heretic when our country finally settles on theocracy as its main governing position.)

I think, as believers anywhere along that path, it is our duty to sit with this story. Not smooth it over. Not erase this flash of cruelty. Not make it about the Syrophoenician woman’s faith — which is strong — but about Jesus’s humanness. I am far more comforted by a human Jesus than I am by a divine being who hasn’t fucked up. This passage, in both Mark and Matthew, is often used to describe Jesus’s conversion of the Gentiles to…well, we can’t call it Christianity yet because Jesus is still alive. But essentially, he’s converting/convincing people to his way of thinking about God’s laws and what is required of people here and now on earth. But that’s an Evangelical reading, which never sits well with me. It takes the focus away from what the text literally tells us.

One way New Testament scholars decide if something was actually said/done by Jesus is to see if it’s something that goes against what the gospeler is trying to get across. (I haven’t said this in a while, but: The Bible — the WHOLE Bible — is a political document with differing points of view and a variety of biases.) Mark’s purpose is to write a gospel that can be used in concert with existing Jewish liturgy and to announce that Jesus is the Christ/Messiah. The Syrophoenician woman’s story is a strange interlude, and shows Jesus acting in a way that is unusual and uncomfortable. So — I feel this maybe actually happened, because it’s an uncharacteristic portrait of Jesus. (And by “actually happened” I believe a Gentile woman approached Jesus and begged for a healing. She believed her daughter was demon-possessed, and she was in a time/culture that allowed for demonic possession. Mark is absolutely obsessed with demons. Did her daughter have a demon? I don’t know. I don’t think so? But that’s my own bias. Did Jesus heal this girl in some way? Again, I don’t know. These are issues of theology rather than textual investigation.)

And if Jesus is wholly human AND wholly divine — he is just being his Father’s son here. God throughout the Hebrew scriptures calls for outright genocide, not the “mild” racism on display with Jesus here. God is often cranky. He is jealous and vindictive and absolutely picks favorites. Why wouldn’t Jesus, too, have some of those traits?

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