Was the Gentile woman who persuaded Jesus to heal her daughter Syrophoenician or Canaanite?

Posted on Jun.12, 2009. Filed in Matthew, Mark. Average rating: 2.5 / 10 (Rate It).

Both Mark and Matthew record an incident where a Gentile woman whose daughter was demon-possessed came to Jesus, begging him for help. In both accounts, Jesus is initially unresponsive, saying that he is here to serve Israel, that it wouldn’t be fair to “take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”. The woman has a ready reply, however, and persuades Jesus to help her; the woman’s daughter is instantly healed.

All of the above is in both accounts of the incident. Where Mark and Matthew disagree is on the matter of the woman’s race:

According to Mark, the woman was Syrophoenician:

… but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. [Mark 7:25-30 (NRSV)]

Matthew, however, says that the woman was Canaanite:

Just 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.’ 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.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. [Matthew 15:22-28 (NRSV)]

To say that the woman was Syrophoenician would indicate that she was from a region north of Galilee. To say that the woman was Canaanite would indicate that she was from a region in Judaea, well to the south of Galilee. These are two distinct areas some distant apart, so she cannot have been from both of them.

So was the Gentile woman who persuaded Jesus to heal her daughter Syrophoenician or Canaanite?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    This problem confuses Canaan with Cana (I think). “Canaanite” is the term that the Phoenicians and Punics referred to themselves as. If the woman were from Carthage, it would still be correct to refer to her as Canaanite. The Greeks and Romans are the ones who referred to them as Punic or Phoenician.

    Tyre and Sidon are part of the region called Lebanon, but would also have been considered part of the region called Syria, just as Saint-Tropez and Nice are part of France and part of the Côte d’Azur. The region of Tyre and Sidon was well to the north of Galilee.

    Thus it would be as if Matthew had said that Jesus was traveling near Glasgow and was approached by a British woman from the area, and Mark had said that Jesus was approached by a Scot. Clearly, no contradiction at all.

  2. 2

    I don’t think that the problem confuses Canaan with Cana, but it might confuse two uses of “Canaan”.

    As I understand it, “Canaan” first referred to a small region south of Galilee, but then became a more general term for a much wider area which included Tyre and Sidon.

    The problem assumes the first usage, but in NT times that would be anachronistic.

  3. 3

    The main point, that a Syro-Phoenician is a type of Canaanite stands whether or not Canaan was being confused with Cana, and regardless of the history of the boundaries of Canaan.

    But FWIW, it appears that the big question is whether it’s Tyre or Sidon that is the oldest city of Phoenicia. These cities are both to the north of Galilee. And since Phoenicia is part of the land of Canaan, at least part of the land of Canaan has been to the north of Galilee for quite some time.

  4. 4
    Timothy Rice

    Impressed that Canaanite is suggested. Maybe even more distant, a Zidonian! There is far more to that little story, far beyond the scope of a comment here. I’m already on about 50 pages in an essay on this one… awesome journey! I enjoy the feeds.

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