Jesus and the Canaanite woman: Divine insult or figure of speech?

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman, who pleads with Him to heal her daughter. She acknowledges that He is the long-awaited Messiah, by calling Him ‘Lord, Son of David’. For the Jews all understood, and even many non-Jews were aware, that the promised Christ would be a descendent of David. Jesus heals her daughter, and He proclaims that this woman has great faith. Similarly, He said about the centurion: “Amen I say to you, I have not found so great a faith in Israel.” (Mt 8:10). If the Lord and Savior publicly proclaims that your faith is great, you have exceeded the measure of even many of the faithful Israelites.

{15:21} And departing from there, Jesus withdrew into the areas of Tyre and Sidon.
{15:22} And behold, a woman of Canaan, going out from those parts, cried out, saying to him: “Take pity on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is badly afflicted by a demon.”
{15:23} He did not say a word to her. And his disciples, drawing near, petitioned him, saying: “Dismiss her, for she is crying out after us.”
{15:24} And responding, he said, “I was not sent except to the sheep who have fallen away from the house of Israel.”
{15:25} But she approached and adored him, saying, “Lord, help me.”
{15:26} And responding, he said, “It is not good to take the bread of the children and cast it to the dogs.”
{15:27} But she said, “Yes, Lord, but the young dogs also eat from the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters.”
{15:28} Then Jesus, responding, said to her: “O woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you just as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

So then why does our Lord say to this woman: “It is not good to take the bread of the children and cast it to the dogs.” Is our Lord calling her a dog, insulting her, humiliating her, making an accusation, engaging in name-calling, and using a most demeaning term? Not at all. To explain the words of the Lord Jesus Christ in such a reprehensible manner would be a grave sin and in effect an accusation against the Savior.

To the contrary, Jesus was using a figure of speech, not unlike the figure whereby He calls His own disciples sheep, or the figure by which He Himself is called the lion from the tribe of Judah, or the figure whereby Paul calls Christ a spiritual rock (1 Cor 10:4). The use of an animal as a figure does not indicate an accusation, nor name-calling, nor deliberate humiliation, nor are such figures demeaning terms. The figure indicates the plan of God, whereby the Israelites are chosen first, to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah. But when He does arrive, he completes the part of the plan concerning the Jewish people, and then expands the chosen people so that Gentile and Jew are equal in the one Church. “Is God of the Jews only and not also of the Gentiles? On the contrary, of the Gentiles also.” (Romans 3:29).

Let’s look at this passage more closely. The woman is essentially requesting a miracle from the Son of God. She has no right to miracles, despite her great faith, and she realizes this. She pleads for the help of our Lord. Now our Lord’s first response is to ignore her. He requires persistence of her, just as of us, before granting to her so great a favor as a miracle for her daughter. This behavior of our Lord is not an insult. He is not treating her as if she were less than any other human person made in the image of God.

Next, He teaches: “I was not sent except to the sheep who have fallen away from the house of Israel.” This reference to the Israelites criticizes them, because many have fallen away. Note that Jesus uses the figure of an animal, sheep, to refer to the Israelites. And since He is saying that they have fallen away, it is not entirely a complement; they are lost sheep. Jesus is teaching the woman and the disciples about the plan of God for the salvation of Jews and then too of Gentiles.

The woman then approaches and adores Him, and she says, “Lord, help me.” She is not as lost as many of the sheep of the house of Israel. Like the centurion, her faith is greater than the faith of many of the Israelites.

Jesus then continues to teach her and the disciples, by saying: “It is not good to take the bread of the children and cast it to the dogs.” He is continuing to explain the plan of God, whereby the food of Divine Revelation is given first to the Jews, and then to the Gentiles. The Jews are favored first, so as to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah. Thus, the figure is fitting whereby the Jews are called children, and the non-Jews are figuratively called dogs. But notice that before calling Jews children and Gentiles dogs, the Lord first used the figure of lost sheep to refer to Jews. Therefore, the use of an animal as a figure, when referring to the Gentiles is not an insult, not a demeaning term, not a deliberate attempt to humiliate the woman. For Jesus knew all along that He would establish His Church equally for Jews and Gentiles.

In the Golden Catena of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Remigius explains the figurative meaning of this encounter with the Canaanite woman:

“Allegorically; This woman figures the Holy Church gathered out of the Gentiles. The Lord leaves the Scribes and Pharisees, and comes into the parts of Tyre and Sidon; this figures His leaving the Jews and going over to the Gentiles. This woman came out of her own country, because the Holy Church departed from former errors and sins.”

As a figure for the Church, which is gathered from both Jews and Gentiles, this woman is not being insulted or demeaned by Christ. She is instead being used as a way to teach the disciples and as a way to teach all the faithful from that time forward. For Christ even knew that this event would become a part of the Gospel teaching.

As for the fact that she was a Canaanite, Jesus had already chosen Simon the Canaanite (Mt 10:4) as one of His twelve Apostles. So it cannot be the case that Jesus was insulting the woman by calling her “a dog” because she was a Canaanite.

Correction: As Fr. Ryan has rightly pointed out, the term Canaanite (or Chananaeus in the Latin) when applied to Simon is a translation of a Hebrew word for zeal, not a reference to a place. Saint Jerome erred when he wrote that the word referred to the place Cana. I erred (above) when I implied that it referred to the Canaanite people. My translation of the Bible is from the Latin, not the Hebrew and Greek; my translation ‘Simon the Canaanite’ is in accord with the Latin and with the Douay translation (Cananean). The NAB also has Cananean, so the translation was not wrong, just my interpretation of the word. For Simon the zealot’s geneaology, see this chart.

Notice, too, that in the figure used by Jesus, He uses the plural: “dogs”. Therefore, again, He is not calling her a dog. Instead, He is using a general figure for all Gentiles, teaching her and us about the plan of salvation, whereby the Gentiles are at first outside of the chosen people, the Jews. But when the Messiah arrives, He joins Jews and Gentiles as one Church, as one chosen people.

Moreover, the Jews have always admitted non-Hebrews to the Jewish faith. In the Old Testament, on many occasions, various non-Hebrews were admitted to the Jewish faith. most notable among these was Ruth (the wife of Boaz) who is in the direct line of ancestry of Mary (Luke 3:32) and therefore of Jesus. So the idea that Jesus regarded this Canaanite woman as a dog compared to children is not true.

Now let’s consider her response to the figure used by Jesus of children at a table and dogs. She says: “Yes, Lord, but the young dogs also eat from the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters.” Jesus uses the word ‘dogs’, but she replies with the diminutive word for dogs (young dogs, or puppies, or ‘doggies’), such that the figure makes the dogs as friendly pets. Jesus accepts this interpretation, this advancement of the figure, again indicating that He was not using the term ‘dog’ as an insult — as a Pharisee would use the term — but merely as one of many figures in His teachings.

Fr. Ryan’s false interpretation

Over at the New Theological Movement blog, Fr. Ryan Erlenbush continues to use the internet to spread his doctrinal errors as widely as possible. In his recent post, Fr. Ryan misinterprets and distorts the meaning of this passage from the Gospel of Matthew. Fr. Ryan claims that when Jesus said to the Canaanite woman, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs,” our Lord was calling her a worthless dog, making an accusation, engaging in name-calling, and deliberately humiliating her “with this most demeaning term”. He even terms the exchange: “The divine insult — ‘You are a dog’ ” How does he explain why the Lord would act in such a manner? by exclaiming: “How good and loving our Savior is!” He also claims that the woman’s response to Jesus means this:

“It is altogether true what Thou sayest, O My Saviour. I acknowledge that I am a worthless dog, and not worthy that the children’s bread should be given to me, who am a Gentile.” [Why did Jesus call the Canaanite woman a “dog”? To teach us how to pray!]

In effect, Fr. Ryan is accusing Jesus Christ of speaking in a reprehensible manner, contrary to the teaching of the Church about our loving merciful Lord, and the goodness of human nature, and the equality of all human persons before God. It should be unthinkable to the faithful of Christ that anyone of any nationality or religion would be called a worthless dog by anyone, let alone by Christ.

To the contrary, Jesus was using a figure of speech. He was not demeaning the woman, nor insulting her, nor calling her a worthless dog, nor engaging in the sin of name-calling, nor deliberately humiliating her. Persons who behave in such a manner toward any human person are committing a sin:

{5:22} But I say to you, that anyone who becomes angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment. But whoever will have called his brother, ‘Idiot,’ shall be liable to the council. Then, whoever will have called him, ‘Worthless,’ shall be liable to the fires of Hell.

To describe the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in such a manner in effect accuses Jesus of sin, the sin of denigrating a human person because of his or her nationality or religion. For the Church rejects any discrimination against human persons, and any harassment of them, because of their nationality, ethnicity, or religion:

“We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: ‘He who does not love does not know God’ (1 John 4:8). No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned. The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion.” (Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, n. 5).

The Magisterium teaches that discrimination or harassment of anyone based on race (or nationality, or ethnicity) is contrary to the mind of Christ. Therefore, the interpretation cannot be correct which says that Christ was deliberately insulting and humiliating and demeaning the Canaanite woman.

The teachings of Fr. Ryan Erlenbush contain many serious doctrinal errors, incompatible with the teachings of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium. His theological explanations are often devoid of sound Roman Catholic theology. His interpretations of Sacred Scripture are often contrary to sound Roman Catholic exegesis. For a list of some of his errors, see this page.

UPDATED TO ADD: Fr. Ryan claims that he is merely presenting the teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. But none of them say that Christ was deliberately speaking so as to demean or insult the woman, none of them use the term ‘divine insult’, none of them claim that Jesus was calling the woman a dog. Saint Jerome notes that the term ‘dogs’ is used by Jesus to indicate the Gentiles, because of sins that were prevalent among them. But Jerome does not say that Jesus was deliberately insulting the woman, nor that Jesus called her a dog, nor that our Lord intended to insult, demean, and humiliate her. To claim that this was the intention of Jesus is to accuse Jesus of sinning, for every human person is made in the image of God. No human person is a worthless dog.

The saying of Jesus was a figure of speech, just as Saint Remigius said: “Allegorically; This woman figures the Holy Church gathered out of the Gentiles.” Jesus would not call this woman a dog, just as He would not call the Church a dog.

ALSO: Blessed Pope John Paul II’s commentary on this passage:

Particularly touching is the case of the Canaanite woman who kept on asking Jesus to help her daughter who was “cruelly tormented by a demon.” When she prostrated herself before Jesus to beg his assistance, he replied, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” (This was a reference to the ethnic diversity between the Israelites and the people of Canaan, which Jesus, Son of David, could not ignore in his ordinary behavior. But he referred to it from a methodological viewpoint in order to arouse faith.) Then the woman intuitively made an unusual act of faith and humility. She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Because of these words, so humble, courteous, and trusting, Jesus replied, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (cf. Mt 15:21-28).

It is an event difficult to forget, especially if one thinks of the numerous “Canaanites” of every time, country, color and social condition, who stretch out their hands to ask for understanding and help in their needs! We should note that the gospel narrative continually stresses the fact that when Jesus “sees their faith,” he works the miracle.

Blessed John Paul sees no insult, no humiliation, no very demeaning term in this exchange.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Biblical scholar

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5 Responses to Jesus and the Canaanite woman: Divine insult or figure of speech?

  1. Jonathan says:

    Thank you for this post. Just reading the title of Fr. Ryan Erlenbush’ post ”Why did Jesus call the Canaanite Women a ‘dog’ ” completely rubbed me the wrong way.

  2. Ron Conte says:

    In the Latin, Jesus uses the word ‘canibus’ (dogs), whereas the woman uses the word ‘catelli’, which is the diminutive form, even a term of endearment, used to refer to young dogs or puppies. Saint Jerome acknowledges this difference in that he says (in the golden catena) — “she compares herself not to the dogs, but to the whelps.” The word whelps, refers to the young of an animals; for dogs it is specifically used like the word ‘puppies’.

    In the Greek text, the word used by the woman AND by Jesus is the diminutive (kynárion for puppy versus kýon for dog).

  3. Jonathan says:

    Thank you Ron. I try from time to time to have Fr. Erlenbush debate your articles, but he never publishes any comment that may have your name or a link to this blog. I therefore sometimes have to cut and paste some of your arguments to get through. Hope you don’t mind.


    • Ron Conte says:

      Thanks for your efforts, Jonathan. I don’t mind. But as you can see from his responses, Fr. Ryan is not open to any theological argument contrary to his own position. He assumes, and sometimes even states outright, that his position is identical to that of the Saints and Church Fathers, when in fact they said no such thing.

      He ignores the fact that the Greek text has ‘puppies’ rather than dogs in both places. He ignores the fact that all the editions of the Sistine and Clementine Vulgate use catelli (puppies). He goes so far as to make the patently false claim that puppies are not friendly pets and the diminutive is not a term of endearment. He contradicts even the dictionary definition of words in order to reject any argument that refutes his own position. Here is what Cassell’s Latin Dictionary says about the word catelli (plural), catellus (singular) :

      “(dim. of catulus), a little dog, puppy: Pl., Cic., Juv.; as a term of endearment: Pl.; Hor.”

      The abbreviation ‘dim.’ means diminutive. The abbreviations after each definition are citations from ancient authors who used this word with the corrresponding meaning — proving that the word was understood, in Christ’s time and even earlier, as puppies, even as a term of endearment.
      Pl. is T. Maccius Plautus, died 184 B.C.
      Cic. is Cicero, died 43 B.C.
      Juv. is the first century A.D. poet Juvenalis
      Hor. is Horatius Flaccus, died 8 B.C.

  4. Ron Conte says:

    By the way, the Nova Vulgata uses catelli (puppies) in both places, in accord with the Greek text.

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