Did Jesus preach a message only relevant to Jews? Was Paul’s extension of Christianity to the gentiles never intended by Jesus?
The New Testament appears to not always be clear on the issue. Paul, of course, believed Jesus had finally made accessible the God of Israel to gentiles. His letters were written almost exclusively to gentiles. In Jesus the wedding feast for all peoples prophesied in Isaiah 25 was beginning in his midst. As the earliest Christian writer, it seems likely Paul was just reiterating the welcome of gentiles Jesus preached. This has always been the belief of the Church. But can Paul be trusted as a source for the views of the historical Jesus? There seem to be early opposing voices.
For instance, Paul mentions in Galatians 2 that when he came to Jerusalem, he found Peter welcoming only other Jews to his table. Peter seems to have believed, at least before being confronted, that gentiles were not fit for the Jesus movement.
In addition, the gospels of Mark and Matthew seem to present Jesus as much more concerned with Israel than with the gentiles. Both make use of the rather embarrassing story of the Syrophoenician woman who comes to Jesus begging him to heal her daughter of a demon. Jesus, surprisingly, compares her and all gentiles to dogs begging under the children’s table – the table of the Jews. Matthew augments this ethno-centrism by including two sayings concerning the exclusively Jewish nature of Jesus’s ministry (10:6, 15:24). If Paul is adamant there is one table for all people, why does Jesus call this woman a dog and claim to have “only for the house of Israel”?
Luke, writing his gospel using Mark and possibly Matthew, may give us a hint as to what is happening. Certainly Luke includes material that goes back to Jesus, but his Jesus is noticeably kinder to gentiles. Being a keen writer, he does not simply regurgitate Mark. Luke excludes the Syrophoenician woman presumably because it would have startled his gentile audience. Similarly, no sayings about the house of Israel appear in Luke either. Is this an attempt to cover up the hard reality about Jesus?
Though it would be easy to conclude that the earliest Christians along with Jesus were anti-gentile, I think a closer look reveals that all our sources present Jesus as welcoming to gentiles and Jews alike.We will examine Mark 7, the text most devastating to the image of a hospitable Jesus.
The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter”(Mark 7:26-29).
It appears Jesus adopted the prevailing Jewish view that gentiles were like dogs, low and unclean. For those awaiting the grafting of the gentiles into the family of the God of Israel, the wait would continue. The gentiles, it seems, will forever be cursed, receiving only the crumbs of God’s blessings.
There are problems with this line of thought though. If Jesus is only giving the crumbs fit for the gentiles, why does the he accomplish the healing of the daughter? Why is he so impressed by her response?
Daniel Kirk offers a way forward by reminding readers to notice Mark’s arrangement of his pericopes. http://www.jrdkirk.com/2011/02/03/the-blessed-dog-of-mark-7/ He argues that the miraculous feedings on either side of the exorcism are the key. The first feeding, one performed in Jewish territory, produced baskets of leftovers. The subsequent feeding, this time in the gentile region of Sidon, also produces a surplus. Jesus builds for the gentiles their own table and again the crumbs amount to baskets and baskets of food.
Despite this the disciples remain ignorant of Jesus’ ability to produce an excess out of the seemingly insufficient.
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
“Twelve,” they replied.
“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
They answered, “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”(Mark 8:17-21)
Having witnessed Jesus break bread twice the disciples are afraid they will be in trouble for forgetting to bring bread. They cannot see the fullness of the blessings Jesus brings. The woman, however, knows the crumbs will satisfy for the crumbs are more than enough. If there were baskets of leftovers at the table of Israel and baskets of leftovers at the table of the gentiles, Jesus satisfies all people.
There is further evidence to support this interpretation. To start, the theme of Mark 7 is the distinction between clean and unclean. The Pharisees teach that a clean outside makes a clean inside. The Pharisees are indignant because Jesus’ disciples do not wash before they eat and so confront their teacher. Jesus responds to them “it is not what goes in that defiles a person but what comes out of the heart”(Mark 7:15). Along with this, he makes the radical claim that all foods are clean. A significant portion of the Jew’s identity is here trivialized by Jesus. The Pharisees are wrong to assume the gentiles are unclean simply because they do not wash or eat as the Jews. These have nothing to do with defilement. It is the strictly washed and dietary observant Pharisees who are unclean, for out of their hearts comes slander, arrogance and folly(Mark 7:22). Again, Mark’s placement of texts has suggested something unconventional is going on with the story of the gentile woman.
Lastly, the placement of the healing of a deaf mute immediately after the story points toward this reading. In this gospel, proper hearing and sight are required to understand Jesus. Mark uses particular healing stories to represent the process of the reader coming to understand the gospel of Jesus. Having finished the story of the faithful gentile woman, will the reader too have ears to hear the message about clean and unclean? Will the reader “be opened” just as the deaf man? Or, will he remain blinded like the Pharisees and the disciples?
Unlike the disciples, the Syrophoenician woman has ears to hear what Jesus is preaching. She has eyes to see that Jesus is not limited in the blessings he brings. Unexpectedly, Mark has used this story to subvert the Jewish attitude toward gentiles inviting all to come and experience Jesus.
Next time I will examine a much more problematic text, Matthew.