The Canaanite Woman of Matthew 15 by Lynn H. Cohick
The story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 (cf. Mark 7.24-30) is one of the most problematic stories in the New Testament. The characters seem all mixed up, with Jesus as the rude antagonist and a pagan woman as the righteous defender of the faith. Moreover, the story is difficult to classify: is it a healing narrative or a sayings-of-Jesus story or a conversion account? Matthew draws attention to the geographical place and the ethnicity of those in the story. I suggest attending to those details as well as having an appreciation for the honor-shame culture of the day helps sort out the confusion.
The stage is set in the region around the gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon, located north of Galilee. In a public venue, perhaps while Jesus and his disciples were walking or Jesus was teaching, a woman cries out for mercy. Matthew’s details are important. First, she is called a Canaanite woman, a reference to Israel’s past arch-enemy. Mark uses the contemporary designation: Syro-Phoenician (Mk 7.26). Matthew chooses a theologically charged description that intensifies the distance between the two. However, Jesus’ genealogy includes the Canaanites' Tamar (Gen. 38) and Rahab (Josh. 2), so the reader knows that in some sense, this woman in Matthew 15.21f. can claim to be “family” in an important theological sense that unfolds as the story plays out. Second, Matthew notes she approaches Jesus directly. Because of this some interpreters suggest that she is an immoral woman or at least one without a husband. But this conclusion is based on a faulty reading of later rabbinic material; recent scholarship has shown that respectable women were active in public spaces, so our protagonist should not be understood as dissolute or husbandless, only very needy. Her daughter is desperately ill.
At this point, the reader assumes Jesus will heal her daughter and go on his way. But instead he makes two astonishing statements, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” and “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Did he just call this distraught mother a dog?
A way forward is to start not with Jesus’ statements, but with the woman’s behavior. It fits a type common in ancient literature wherein a subject approaches their leader with a request, which is initially dismissed, but later conceded to. In the exchange, the leader is shone to be just and fair, and the subject is judged virtuous. Both receive public honor, a win-win situation which was uncommon in the zero-sum game of honor/shame that structured the ancient world’s social customs.
For example, Macrobius (Saturnalia 2.4.27) tells the story of an old soldier who desires the emperor Augustus to speak on his behalf in court. Initially the emperor refuses to go himself but offers to send a representative. At this the man raises his sleeve to expose his scars and shouts that he did not seek a substitute when fighting for Augustus at Actium. Macrobius notes that Augustus was suitably chastened. Not wanting to appear haughty or ungrateful, Augustus appeared in court, thereby serving his subordinate and highlighting his noble character. A similar story is told by Dio Cassius (History 69.6.3) about a woman who calls out a request to the emperor Hadrian as he passes by. At first he said he hadn’t the time, but when she declared “Cease, then, being emperor” he stopped in his tracks and granted her a hearing.
In sum, the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman fits an ancient trope or image used for rhetorical effect which turns on the virtue of a ruler (like an emperor). Given his high status, the leader sees no reason to busy himself with the problems of the average poor in his kingdom. But a good king will be chastened of that self-important spirit and respond with grace to the request. 
Now I’m not suggesting that Jesus was haughty! But I am proposing that this encounter fits a pattern whereby a ruler who had every social right to ignore a plea was nevertheless shown to be compassionate by acceding to his subject’s wishes. Most people would have thought it proper for Jesus, a Jewish prophet, to ignore the cries of someone far beneath him on the social order – a gentile woman. Therefore, Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ largess would not be lost on the crowd. Nor in this scenario is the petitioner denigrated. She maintains her high view of Jesus even as his behavior seemingly signaled otherwise. In fact, she had a much higher view of him than did his disciples, who were content to have him dismiss her. But Jesus shows he is a superior leader/prophet by recognizing righteousness when all others fail to see it. And he rewards the one who demonstrates virtue.
It is not the case, then, that Jesus lost an argument, as is often claimed. The incident revealed his character; it did not change his mind in the sense that Jesus now saw his ministry differently. The woman gave him the opportunity to highlight his good leadership qualities. Moreover, the dialogue presented the woman a chance to gain honor. She pursued the virtuous course, and with the occasion to speak (and model) uprightness publicly, she earned the highest prize in antiquity - honor. She also secured Jesus’ highest praise, “Woman you have great faith.”
Lynn H. Cohick (PhD in New Testament/Christian Origins, University of Pennsylvania) is associate professor of New Testament in the Department of Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College and Graduate School, Wheaton, IL. Lynn has written on early Jewish/Christian relations in her book, Melito of Sardis: Setting, Purpose, and Sources (Brown Judaic Studies, 2000), and several articles on women in Early Judaism and earliest Christianity. She is coauthor (with Gary Burge and Gene Green) of the much-anticipated The New Testament in Antiquity.
 For Macrobius on Augustine and Dio Cassius on Hadrian—and the connection of this material to the genealogy and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew—see Amy-Jill Levine, “Matthew’s Advice to a Divided Readership” pages 22–41 in The Gospel of Matthew in Current Study, edited by David E. Aune (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).
Image: Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 164r - The Canaanite Woman the Musée Condé, Chantilly.
Sign up complete.