Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Mark 7 contains an odd little story:

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)

The word Jesus used is kunarion <2952>. I've seen various people paraphrase the word as "puppies", but most translations use the word "dogs". Is the impulse to use the "softer" language justified by the text or merely a pious attempt to avoid potential charges of racism?

(Note this story is repeated in Matthew 15:21-28. I assume the answer to this question will cover a related question about Matthew. These are also the only two places that κυναρίοις is used in the New Testament.)

share|improve this question
This question inspired by: – Jon Ericson Jul 3 '12 at 17:30

My Take On The Question(s) Behind The Question

Based on the cursory information available in Wikipedia, Ched Myers is a Liberation Theologian. There's nothing wrong with this as it provides some valuable insight into a potential, auxiliary reading of a given text. As such, it is natural that he views this in light of social stratifications, and how those strata were crossed in given contexts.

Because of the emphasis on this area, it follows that this becomes an exchange in honor and shame which was the primary social currency of the milieu. In Myers' interpretation, Jesus cedes honor, which necessarily means that he takes on shame, and this as a foreshadowing of the implication of allowing Gentiles into the eschatological reality promised to Israel.

Where this line of thinking gets a bit dicey is where the emphasis becomes one of fairness and equality. Though Paul will later tease out a bit more of the equality of believers, at this point in the theological history of the Gospel it is more about inclusion. Jesus leaves the Pharisees in Jerusalem after a discussion of clean vs. unclean (the first part of Mark 7) and heads to Tyre, a place full of unclean people. A literary reading (my default bias) would see this as an opportune juxtaposition of two circumstances in which Mark emphasizes the reality of Jesus' teaching in the first part of the chapter.

I find the position that Jesus' response is based on argumentation and not on faith rather unpersuasive. They are not mutually exclusive nor are they even binary opposites. Faith does not preclude argumentation, nor does the woman's response indicate a lack of faith. In fact, the very response to Jesus' healing was one of faith - "she went home" without further argument. I would rather the honor/shame dynamic to be read in the sense of honor was taken from the Pharisees by Jesus and was also bestowed upon the woman by him.

The liberationist perspective certainly helps to push out the boundaries of our understanding of this situation, but needs to be taken in light of other approaches.


The diminutive may be used for any number of reasons.

  1. To soften the epithet
  2. To further humiliate the person
  3. ?? (open to other ideas)

I don't believe that issues of race were more self-evident than which words were used. I'm not advocating a "Jesus was a racist" position, but saying that racial tensions didn't ebb and flow based on which words and terms were or were not used. There's something specific going on here that Mark wants to record. I personally prefer that it was a means of Jesus setting his audience up for a dramatic reversal, and the sudden and dramatic inclusion of a "little dog" in the promise of restoration. "Puppies" may be an adequate conceptual translation in an extremely literal sense, but I think that it may soften what exactly is going on since we view puppies as cute, soft, cuddly little critters ... even though they pee on the hardwood floors right next to the paper we'd set out for them.

share|improve this answer
"Historically it was a term that the Jewish population used for Gentiles" This author claims there is no documentary support for the claim. – Bob Jones Jul 3 '12 at 19:31
Good point. Removed that sentence based on many other sources that I just found. – swasheck Jul 3 '12 at 19:39
In know why others think puppies are cuter, but I'd rather be called a dog any day of the week. ;-) – Jon Ericson Jul 3 '12 at 19:47

Jesus rewards the woman not because she came up with a clever saying, but because her saying, either intentionally or accidentally reminds Jesus of the prophecies that though the Jews come first, the gentiles will come after.

Presuming that Jesus and the woman were more comfortable speaking in Hebrew though it was recorded in Greek:

table comes from a root meaning spread out.

The dog 'KLB' shares the morphed subroot 'LQ' which means to lick, learn, and gather or glean'. And they were used as street cleaners of the things dropped or discarded.

KLB LQQ We have the elements necessary to see the reminder: "The Dogs (KLB) at the door(B) learn(LQQ)".

This is the imagery of the gleaners of the field. Those who are not of Israel and who do not gather in the first harvest, may glean in the field afterward. The small morsels left behind are available to the gentiles and sojourners "under the spreading cover of Israel" (table).

Since the kingdom of Heaven is like leaven (teaching), the reminder that the gentiles are included in the promise is particularly poignant. All she asked for was a small portion of grace, symbolized by the bread (his body) which was broken for us at a time when he (the door) was in hiding (desolation as a symbol of being rejected by Israel).

So placing herself in a position of a submissive gleaner under the cover of Israel, rather than as a ravenous wild dog, puppy may not be precise, but it probably isn't bad. Especially, since in English, we often call even old dogs puppy as a term of endearment rather than an indicator of age.

share|improve this answer

If, by the use of "puppies", the translators are attempting to soften Jesus' words, then they are missing the point of his statement. Everything about Jesus' words are objectionable, on the face of them. Adding a diminuitive suffix onto one of them doesn't lessen the coldness of the reply. (The parallel account in Matthew 15:21-28 underscores this even more by mentioning that Jesus' first response was just to flatly ignore the woman!)

The real question is, why was Jesus being so harsh? Was he racist? or was he a genocidal a**hole, as one of Beck's commenters suggested?

While I don't claim to have a clear handle on this pericope, it seems to me that one of the keys here is to notice that many of the responses that Jesus gave* to those entreating for help were NOT intended to be taken at face-value, but rather (1) as a lesson to the audience around him, and (2) as a means of exposing (and thereby honoring) the penitent's faith before all the onlookers.

(1) As for the first point, @Swasheck has already pointed out the direct context of this passage which makes it clear that the underlying thread in this passage is the true meaning of "clean vs unclean". Tie that together with Matthew's observation that the disciples themselves responded with annoynance rather than compassion (Mt 15:23; "send her away!"), and we begin to suspect that Jesus' real objective here was to expose the prejudice and bigotry in his own followers (presumably by using what appears to be a "stock quote" out of their culture).

(2) He knew her faith; he wanted everyone else to see it too. (And the idea that it was her rhetorical skills rather than her faith that impressed him contradicts Matthew's interpretation of the events [Mt 15:28].)

In effect, he is saying, "Listen everyone: I know who you think she is -- she is an annoying unclean heathen woman worth less than a child -- a dog! But now I want to show you what I see: a woman of great and noble faith that you would all do well to emulate." And so, with his scandalous reply, he effectively draws out from her an extraordinary expression of humble, earnest, deferential faith -- as a model for all of us to imitate.

*Consider, for example: - Mark 5:30 "Who touched me?" - Matt 8:6 "I will come to your house." - Mark 10:51 "What do you want me to do for you?"

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.