A Biblical Pet Peeve

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It is one of the harshest responses Jesus is ever reported to have delivered to someone seeking his help; indeed, it’s arguably the only occasion recorded in the gospels where he responded to a sincere supplicant in a harsh manner. It is when, in initially rejecting her plea, he seems to compare a Gentile woman to a dog. As the old King James has it:

But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. (Matthew 15:26)

To call someone a dog is generally understood as intending insult even in today’s super pooch-friendly Western society, but in the Middle East, and 2000 years ago, there could be no mistaking the implication. Them’s fightin’ words. Although, culturally, it wouldn’t have been so unusual for Jews of that time and place to react negatively to Gentiles, the gospels do not otherwise show Jesus comporting himself in this way. (Earlier in the same Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had answered the Roman Centurion’s plea to heal his sick servant without any hesitation.)

But what if there has long been an error or inadequacy in translation from the Greek that puts the episode in a significantly different light?

I am not a credentialed Bible scholar, but fortunately I do not come up with this all by my lonesome. Multiple important Biblical translators going back 500 years have taken the same view, as we’ll see; however, those translations have not become the dominant ones. Doubtless, also, many preachers, struggling to give a sermon on the passage, have looked more closely at the Greek for inspiration and have noted this issue for themselves and their congregants. Personally, however, I’ve never sat in a pew and heard it spoken of from the pulpit, although I’ve heard quite a few sermons on this story over my lifetime. So I think it is something that more people should be aware of, and I’d like to go at it in my own way. (It seems, in any case, that no one can stop me.)

Therefore, let’s get to the specifics. The story in question is recounted both in chapter 15 of the Gospel of Matthew and in chapter 7 of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus had traveled to the region of Tyre and Sidon and was staying in a house there.

From Matthew 15:22–28 (ESV):

22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

In Mark 7, the woman is described as being “a Syrophoenician by birth.” Mark also says of the house where Jesus was staying that Jesus “did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden.” The issue of translation, which relates to that word “dogs,” is common to both gospels.

To look at the Greek, one can these days utilize an interlinear translation. You can find one in a downloadable version for Windows at this link. They also provide PDFs. This is a link to Matthew 15.

You will be able to see there, in Matthew 15:26, that when Jesus speaks the fateful line about not casting the children’s bread to dogs, the word in Greek that he uses is kunariois. This is the diminutive form for dogs, and this passage (and the corresponding one in Mark 7) is the only time in the New Testament in which the diminutive form for dogs is used. Translated literally it means “little dogs;” it’s been suggested that alternative ways of rendering it would be puppies, house dogs, pets, or even, if you want to be cute, doggies.

Well! Does this not change everything? Instead of comparing the woman to a dirty and predacious beast in the street, Jesus is comparing her to a puppy or a little pet. Not exactly a compliment, I guess, but nowhere near the aggressive insult of the former translation. You could even make the case that it contains elements of affection. It also provides the Canaanite woman with her opening, because of-course where would you find these little pet dogs except under the table during meals, hoping for crumbs—and this is exactly what she expresses back to Jesus. Her answer shows her great faith, certainly; but it does not come after such a cruel put-down.

I am not a preacher, but I would speculate that this makes the story much easier to preach on. I’ve never heard anyone come up with a satisfactory answer as to why Jesus spoke so harshly in this instance. It turns out, he didn’t.

So how did this come to be mistranslated in the first place? Well, turns out, it didn’t—in the first place—if by the “first place” we consider the first time the New Testament was translated directly from the Greek text into English (as opposed to previous English renderings from the Latin Vulgate). This great task was accomplished by William Tyndale in 1525. And in translating Matthew 15 and Mark 7, Tyndale renders the word as “whelps,” a synonym for puppies. (I love the edition edited by David Daniell of Tyndale’s work, with modern spelling, a gift from my better half.)

So the first try at it got it right. One of the next major translations of the Bible into English was the Geneva Bible, which first emerged in 1560. In this case you can find it (the 1599 edition) online at Bible Gateway. Here is a link to Matthew 15; scroll down to verse 26 and there you are: whelps is the word, and the same in Mark 7.

So what happened to send it all to the dogs? Well, I’m not sure what happened, but I know when it happened, and that was in 1611. The inestimable treasure that is the King James Bible, repository of so much beautiful language, still read by millions today, and which borrowed much from Tyndale’s earlier work, instead renders the word in Matthew 15:26 and the related verses (including in Mark 7) as just plain ol’ dogs. Why? I can only assume that it is impossible now to know. (Please drop me a line if you are more knowledgeable.) However, the overwhelming dominance of the King James, and its influence on later translations, basically put paid to the poor little puppies.

Still, if that was some kind of sin, there exists something of a story of redemption. The only English translation in anything like popular use today which renders the words in Matthew 15 and Mark 7 as “little dogs” instead of “dogs” is none other than the New King James Version (NKJV), first published in 1982 (and not to be confused with the 21st Century King James Version). As for the Revised Standard, the New Revised Standard, the English Standard, the New American Standard, the New International, and the (Catholic) New American versions: all of these, and more—just dogs.

An honorable mention must be given to Young’s Literal Translation, of 1898, which lives up to its name, translating the Greek literally as “little dogs.”

So far we’ve focused on the Bibles of reformers and Protestants, but our dogged pursuit of the matter cannot leave out the Roman Catholic Church. And I think this is quite interesting. In the fourth century (Saint) Jerome translated the Hebrew and Greek scriptures into Latin. This became the Latin Vulgate, and was the definitive Bible text of the Western church for centuries. How did Jerome handle the issue, translating from Greek to Latin? You can find his Mark 7 at this link. When Jesus speaks, the word is rendered as “canibus,” or dogs; when the woman replies, the word is rendered as “catelli,” or whelps. The same is true for Matthew 15. You could say Jerome split the difference; but, then, there wasn’t really a difference to split, in the Greek. I guess he just liked it that way. Yet it leaves Jesus using the harsher word, and that after all is the key point which has made the story unnecessarily difficult.

The Douay-Rheims was at first a Roman Catholic translation from the Latin Vulgate to English in the 16th century, but apparently it then went through multiple substantial revisions without changing its name. The 1899 American Edition is accessible via Bible Gateway, and it does follow the Vulgate on the question at hand. In Matthew 15, Jesus says dogs, and the woman says whelps.

The American Roman Catholic Confraternity Version (my mother’s old copy having the Imprimatur of Francis Cardinal Spellman in 1961) dispenses entirely with the whelps, and has both Jesus and the woman, in both Mark 7 and Matthew 15, speaking only of dogs. The current Roman Catholic New American Bible, as noted earlier, does the same.

So, why? Why any of it? Well, we can’t go back and ask those long dead translators for their reasoning. We can, however, and more relevantly, wonder why modern and indeed contemporary translators have not corrected the text (outside of the NKJV folks).

What is certainly true with regard to new Bible translations is that the the notion of correction is often relative. One man’s correction is another man’s destruction or vandalism. That has to be one of the main reasons why we have so many competing translations in English these days. Where is the line drawn?

In this case, I submit that the line should be drawn with those poor, long-neglected little dogs, by including them in. I believe it would have the triple advantage of being more accurate, more beautiful and more edifying.

Compare it, for example, to another instance, where a “correction” has been made in most translations, but it arguably does not satisfy the above criteria. (And there are undoubtedly many more such.)

Who—Christian or otherwise—has not heard the phrase, “[i]n my father’s house are many mansions”? This is a line that is referenced in vast swathes of English literature, and frequently invoked to this day, whether in a strictly religious context or simply as a matter of allusion.

From chapter 14 of the Gospel of John, the second verse, the King James Version (and likewise how Tyndale had rendered it):

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

It seems to me that what makes these words so very memorable and powerful is exactly the incongruity of having mansions contained within a house. Mansions themselves are very big houses, no? But Jesus is talking about the house of God here, and what He has waiting for us therein. It fires the imagination, and has fueled countless encouraging, eloquent and fortifying sermons over the centuries, as well as innumerable hymns.

But is it actually an accurate rendering of the Greek text, and in particular for modern readers? Harrumph. The modern translators don’t seem to think so. As early as the Revised Standard Version of 1946, it had been changed to rooms. “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” Other translators say “dwelling places.” Phooey! I know it’s the same fundamental point, but it’s been stripped of its poetry, and to what end? What has been gained, versus what has been lost?

And certainly, if that kind of strictness is going to be applied in cases where so much is lost in the name of gaining some supposed superior accuracy, then how much more should it be applied in the case of the little dogs of Matthew 15 and Mark 7, who are neither hurting anyone nor robbing the world of its poetry, but are merely waiting, tails humbly wagging, to receive our crumbs?

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In loving memory of all of those good dogs, both the little and the large.

Billie (2004 – 2018)