November 23, 2017

Mark Shea: Going to the dogs

PHOTO: Brandon Day

Last time we focused on the contention that the story of Jesus and the Canaanite Woman could be legitimately read as Jesus learning from the Canaanite Woman as long as it does not involve the contention that he was learning to repent his sin of racism or ethnocentrism. Because Jesus is “like us in all things but sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus never repented the sin of racism for the very good reason that he is the sinless lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29) and therefore had nothing to repent.

But let’s move on with my reader’s take, which argues that Jesus is “ethnocentric to first century Israel”, deliberately “repeats his culture’s stereotype” about the Canaanite Woman and deliberately insults her. He continues:

Please, let’s read this story in context without 2,000 years of theological freight, devotional freight, and emotional freight plus psychological guilt. When he sent the Twelve on mission, the Matthean Jesus directed them to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and urged them to steer clear of the Gentiles and Samaritans (Matthew 10:5-6).

This kind of argumentation is always problematic to me. Yes, it is true that we need to situate the gospels in their cultural context. But it is stealing a lot of bases to suggest that anybody who does not instantly accept the claims that Jesus is ethnocentric and deliberately insulting the Canaanite Woman is a benighted simpleton weighed down by “theological freight, devotional freight, and emotional freight plus psychological guilt”.

A cattle dog in Australia. PHOTO: Patrick Hendry

We continue:

Do you assume that the dogs are underneath the table eating those scraps? The greedy elites in this society eat at table, inside their walled-off, guarded homes. Their napkins are bread. The mess of excess falls from the table along with the bread-napkins. There are no dogs inside the homes.

The slaves pick up the bread and other scraps from the floor beneath the table and toss it over the walls, into the street. In the first century world of the Middle East, there was no sanitation system — animal and human waste, together with those scraps tumble into the street. This provides the wild dogs there with sustenance (and also for expendable, soon-to-die folks, like Lazarus). This is what you WALK through when you go down the street and hence why a SLAVE must wash your feet when you go to dine at a social-equal’s home in the Gospels.

There were no dogs as “family pets” in the first century Middle Eastern world of the New Testament. Little does not mean cute, but something very low on the honor scale.

So we return to the question of the meaning of dogs in first century Tyre and Sidon. Let’s spend some time on this because it is interesting for a number of reasons.

The truth is, our knowledge of daily life in the ancient world, while not non-existent, is still very sketchy, even regarding life in major urban centers like Rome. When we get to places on the fringe of the Empire, like Judea, things get even sketchier. And when we reach places on the fringe of Judea, like the Mediterranean seacoast towns of Tyre and Sidon and most especially the daily lives, customs, culture, and private opinions of each and every peasant there, the sketchiness reaches serious overload.

PHOTO: Joao Victor Xavier

Here’s reality: There are passages in Scripture—the most studied book in the history of the world—that we still cannot make confident pronouncements about, as when Paul speaks to the Corinthians of being baptized for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29). We are not entirely clear what Pilate means when he tells the Temple priests seeking to seal Jesus’ tomb, “You have a guard” (Matthew 27:65). (Does he mean “Here, have a Roman guard” or “Buzz off. Use your own guards”?) We’re not even sure what “Selah” means in the Psalms.

Indeed, much of our knowledge of antiquity, such as it is, comes from a single text. The entire Peloponnesian War, the reigns of multiple pharaohs, the whole of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, sometimes whole kingdoms are attested to us from single texts. And what life was like for ordinary peasants like the Canaanite Woman is nearly never discussed.

So the blithe assurance that everybody everywhere in the Near East regards dogs as vermin is very simply more than we know. Indeed, there is reason to think that in the coastlands where the Canaanite Woman lived, other traditions and cultural norms may have sometimes been in play. In Ashkelon, (also on the coast), for instance, there was a dog cemetery

where possibly thousands of dogs were interred in the fifth to third centuries BC. The majority of the dogs were puppies; all had similarities to the modern Canaan Dog, perhaps representing the ancestral population from which the modern breed is descended. It is the largest known cemetery of this kind in the ancient world. Its discoverer suggests that it may have been the product of a religious cult focused on the reputed healing properties of dogs’ saliva, and an otherwise obscure reference in the Book of Deuteronomy may refer to similar cultic activities in Jerusalem. Alternatively, it may have been the site of a facility for breeding dogs for trade in the Near East.

PHOTO: Piscilla du Preez

And there is, in fact, a whole breed of dogs (note the word “breed”) called “Canaan dogs“. This does not comport well with broad, sweeping pronouncements which declare it simply impossible that dogs were never regarded as pets or treated with respect—possibly even worshiped at times. They might have been. They might not have been. And that, in turn, may color greatly the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite Woman. Particularly, since the Woman herself speaks of dogs and their masters, implying not a vermin/human relationship, but pet ownership just as any modern would recognize.

My reader has a ready reply:

The woman, seeking to be a client of the Patron (really broker representing the Patron, God) Jesus, addresses him with titles like Sir/Lord and Master. It’s not that dogs have masters, it is that this woman, insulted being called dog, is not put off and publically bests Jesus by standing her ground. She, a little bitch-dog, deserves some of the scraps thrown over the wall.

Words like “master” and “dog”—and all words, really—do not derive their meaning from lexica, dictionaries, and concordances. They derive their meaning from social systems. Whenever you move the language, you necessarily CHANGE the meaning. We are a LONG WAY away from that social space and time of the Matthean community. AND that Matthean community is already distanced from the social space and time of Galilean villages!

In short, the argument is that the Woman speaks of dogs having masters, not because Canaanites kept dogs as pets, but because she sees Jesus as a “master” from whom she seeks patronage.

Could be. Might not be. But what should give us pause (or perhaps paws) about my reader’s take is that he claims to absolutely know something about the interior lives of every single long dead ancient in that time and place when he does not, and cannot, know. That is important for us to bear in mind as we continue next time.

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