From the Forthcoming New Translation of the Gospels
My plan to write a regular blog has become something else entirely. This first and only post turned out to be the basis for a new book proposal, which the Modern Library has accepted. I seem to be a die-hard writer of books, so I will be re-translating all four Gospels in the hope of making the text more meaningful and accessible to a wide range of readers.
Many thanks to those who have read this post and emailed me with proposals, comments, and encouragement! And please, keep in touch. The same email address, Biblewhatabout@gmail.com, is still active for my readers and other inquirers.
Unless Ye All Become As Little Doggies
What is the Bible like? Forget for a moment all the questions about what it means. What does it even sound like in the original Greek and Hebrew? You might picture me putting my ear to the ground—ordinary reference books like dictionaries, concordances, grammars, and commentaries make up that ground—and just trying to hear the Bible a little better. It usually turns out that I hear in the distance a thundering herd of evidence—which ends up trampling over what I used to think the Bible was like.
That’s certainly the case for the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Mark, Chapter 7. (There’s a parallel story in Matthew 15:21-28.) To start with, here’s an authoritative translation of the story, in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:
24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 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.
Below is my own new, exploratory translation of Mark 7:24-29. There’s lots of fascinating stuff in the Greek, but most of what I’ve identified among the original words is the diminutives, or words for small things, characterized by the -ion (plural –ia) ending placed on ordinary nouns:
24 From there he set off and went out into the district of Tyre. He entered a house because he didn’t want anyone to know of his arrival, but he wasn’t successful in escaping notice. 25 Quite the contrary: a woman whose little daughter (thugatrion) was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away, and came and groveled at his feet. 26 But the woman was part of the Greek world, and Syrophoenician by ethnicity. She asked him to throw the minor demon (daimonion) out of her daughter. 27 And he said to her, “First allow our offspring (tekna, plural of teknon) to eat their fill (kortastheinai), as it’s not fitting to take a loaf of bread from posterity in its childhood (tekna) and toss it to the little doggies (kunaria, plural of kunarion).” 28 But she answered back, telling him, “Master, even the little doggies (kunaria) under the table eat some of the small children’s (paidia plural of paidion) scraps!” 29 And he said to her, “What you say makes me tell you: get out of here (hupageh), because the lesser demon (daimonion) has gone out of your daughter.” 30 Then she went back to her house and found her small child (paidion) thrown onto the bed, the minor demon (daimonion) having gone out of her.
Let me start with Verses 26, 29, and 30. I’ve specified “minor” or “lesser” in my translation because this is a diminutive, literally “little demon.” Though this is the usual word for “demon” in the New Testament, and can be translated accordingly, I chose to emphasize its technical form. This is because the victim of this creature is first presented, in Verse 25, not just as a “daughter” but as a “little daughter”—not at all a common word. The text goes out of its way to specify that she is young or tiny. I suspect humor: the “little daughter” has a “little demon.”
In Verse 28, Jesus uses a word for “children” that is not a diminutive, and that stresses birth and racial descent (the noun is visibly related to a verb for giving birth, tiktō): these are the official children, if you will, the offspring or the posterity, Jews as the children of God, the chosen people.
The Syrophoenician woman does not throw back that word at Jesus, but rather substitutes yet another diminutive, paidia. This is, like daimonion, a common word, but it is technically the diminutive of pais, which roughly means “youngster”; paidia is thus, at its root, a super-diminutive, and a brash translator might go as far as “little-tiny children.” Anyway, as in the instance of daimonion/thugatrion, it’s not far-fetched to intuit a play on words, since ancient literature played often—much more often than our literature does—with sound and image, allusion and etymology.
I sense the woman is thrusting on Jesus a contrasting image to that of the natural-born heirs. Her word seems to be more about children simply as little people, facts on the ground, who are equally in need of food no matter what race or religion they belong to. This is the predecessor to the Save the Children ad: these aren’t your people’s children, but look, they’re children.
But the real kicker to this passage is yet another diminutive, kunaria, for “puppies” or “little dogs” or “doggies” (Verses 27 and 28). In the entire Greek Bible, only this passage and its mirror in Matthew (15:21-28) use this word. It’s a rare word generally, and apparently a slangy one. (Skulax is the ordinary, neutral word for “puppy” throughout ancient Greek literature.) A close study of the lexicographical evidence doesn’t make clear whether kunarion or its sister word kunidion is cruder; they both appear in stage comedy, and in Plato they appear in the same (unusually for Plato) scurrilous passage (about rhetorical trickery for leading an opponent into appearing to state that his dogs are his parents and their puppies his siblings).
The ordinary word kuōn, “dog,” tends to be negative in ancient literature: dogs are dirty, dogs are outcasts, dogs are lawless, dogs gnaw corpses; dogs are shameless, mating in the street; female dogs are especially shameless, not only mating in the street but barging around, making noise, thrusting their noses everywhere, demanding attention—behavior deeply despised in women in the ancient world. In the Greek lyric poet Semonides’s notorious misogynist poem of the seventh century B.C., one of the archetypal bestial females is the dog-woman (lines 12-21), who has to go everywhere, hear everything, and see everyone (though clearly she should be locked up instead); she’s a loud nuisance even to guests, and she won’t stop yapping even if you smash out her teeth with a rock.
It makes sense that, in this encounter with a pushy woman oblivious to propriety, Jesus’ mind turns immediately to a dog metaphor. But how could it be without further significance that he is shown choosing this word for dogs, kunaria—which is like “pooches” in English, a word partaking of age-old contempt but also susceptible to gentler connotations? An epigram of Martial (Book 1, Poem 109), written within a few decades of Mark’s Gospel, celebrates the adorable, perfectly house-trained Issa, whom the poet calls, in Latin, a catella, or puppy or little dog. Issa sleeps in her master’s bed and has had her portrait executed with impressive skill. In some parts of the Roman Empire, clearly, certain dogs had reached the status of spoiled modern family pets. Would Jesus have been alluding to this, on any level?
If not, then why kunaria? In Koinē Greek, the dialect of the New Testament, diminutives often lost their associations of littleness and cuteness and endearment. Had that happened to kunaria? I think not, as in those cases the diminutive tended to take over in the language, pushing out the ordinary word. With so few occurrences of kunarion in the Bible (and of both kunarion and kunidion in all of ancient literature), the word choice suggests something special.
I’d like to bring in some more pagan literary evidence. In certain Greek and Roman authors, the begging, thieving dog is a comic motif. In Aristophanes’s Wasps, for example, two dogs go to court over the theft of household cheese (893ff.). Especially intriguing in regard to this passage of Mark is a passage of the first-century A.D. Roman novel The Golden Ass (Book 7, Section 14). A man who has been magically but accidentally transformed into a donkey by his girlfriend has just played a role in rescuing a kidnapped young noblewoman from bandits and returning her to her lawful betrothed:
From then on, the young married lady gave me the title of her deliverer and coddled me assiduously. On the very day her nuptials were finalized, she took the trouble to order that my manger be filled to all three dimensions with barley, and that enough hay be served me to satisfy a Bactrian camel. But nevertheless, to my mind no curses were deadly enough to rain on Photis [the narrator’s careless girlfriend] that day. At least she could have turned me into a dog instead of an ass; I saw that all the dogs were gorged and swollen with leftovers from the lavish banquet and raids on the tables.
At least in the larger Roman Imperial world—the world of the Syrophoenician woman?—the most magnificent, bountiful kind of feast is supposed to provide enough food actually to stuff the dogs; and people are in such a good mood, and so confident of the food holding out, that they even indulge pushy canines—who behave like this woman—grabbing what they’re normally not entitled to. Notice also that in the Mark passage the children are to “eat their fill” (Verse 27)—that’s clearly a better translation than just “be fed”; this verb is often used of feasting in scripture, and is more like “stuffing oneself” in pagan literature.
The dogs the woman pictures perhaps can’t even eat all the children’s leftovers on this occasion; they eat “some” (literally “out of”) the scraps (Verse 28). (Who’s got a story of a dog gorging once he lands something very good and very plentiful? A cat of mine slinked into a neighbor’s house and toppled a plate of chops from the top of a microwave onto the floor, and a small, cute dog ate them all. Emergency surgery was needed to save the dog’s life.)
In all, the woman’s words can seem like a wittily tactful and ridiculously humble blessing, a prediction of overwhelming prosperity for the Jews, and a pledge of more than satisfaction with their leavings. This would be quite a clever take on the idea of the “eschatological banquet” that will fulfill the Jewish covenant at the end of history.
And Jesus sounds as if he accepts the message with a smile, a laugh, or an eye-roll while granting the miracle. The command hupageh (Verse 29) is one of sardonic dismissal, but does not necessarily lack tenderness. Jesus uses the word when his own disciples get the wrong end of the stick. (“Get along with you!” is a roughly equivalent old-fashioned expression.) For Jesus to be using the word to a foreign woman—who is probably clutching his ankles in ritual supplication, but to whom, according to the purity laws, he should not even be talking—in conceding that she is right, and deserves a miracle, is extraordinarily moving.