A Biblical Pet Peeve

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?

* * *

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

Billie (2004 – 2018)

The Dog in the Mirror

dog looking in the mirror

dog looking in the mirror
Do you believe that looking at yourself in the mirror makes you smart? Do you tend to presume that other people whom you see looking into mirrors must therefore be very smart? You may fail to see the connection between mirror-gazing and intelligence—let alone wisdom—but there’s a school of scientific thought that employs it as a yardstick in judging the intelligence of animals. Coming across this idea recently (not for the first time) made me decide, in consultation with my dog, that it was time to clear it up once and for all.

The theory goes something like this: Chimpanzees can be coaxed to examine themselves in the mirror. They can identify odd things put by scientists on their faces as being on their faces, and can even be seduced into playing around with make-up, hats and funny glasses. It has yet to be proven but perhaps—given sufficient patience and the right equipment—they can eventually come to enjoy such rewarding pastimes as injecting themselves with botox or collagen. Scientists tell us that this all proves that they are self-aware, just like human beings (self-awareness being understood as “the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals”).

Dogs, by contrast, commonly ignore their reflections in mirrors.

Dogs, by contrast, commonly ignore their reflections in mirrors. So, we are told, they lack self-awareness, and this puts them on a lower rung of intelligence as compared to chimps or any other creature that can recognize and be fascinated by its own image in the looking-glass.

Yet, merely by observing my own little dog and making logical inferences based on her behavior, I am convinced that this is the boldest nonsense.

Let’s consider how dogs can be observed to deal in general with two-dimensional images of living beings. Anyone who’s owned a dog will likely have observed these things, but I’ll talk about my own dog, a small female mutt named Billie. Like many owners, I directed her attention to a mirror for the first time when she was quite young — still in puppyhood. And she reacted as most dogs will on first looking into a mirror: she seemed to think she was seeing another dog, and struck a playful stance as she would with most real dogs. She lost interest pretty quickly in the dog in the mirror, however, and trying to attract her attention to her reflection in mirrors on subsequent occasions fell flat. Pointing to her image in a mirror would at best make her sniff the exact spot I pointed to, as if there might be something good or edible there. You would think from her behavior that her own image was completely invisible to her, for all the attention she paid to it.

At the same time, like many dogs, she has proven capable of recognizing images of animals on a television screen. She will pay attention to a nice nature show with good images of interesting animals for several minutes (before falling asleep). On a few occasions she has approached the screen to sniff at especially exciting animals. So it’s quite clear that she recognizes the animals as being animals and on some level wonders as to their reality. She has also reacted with evident interest (signified by perked up ears and close visual attention) to still images of, for example, the face of a wolf or of a cat or even of a person she knows. She therefore has no great difficulty in recognizing what such two-dimensional images represent. (She has no interest in images of rocks or buildings or other inanimate things.)

The inescapable answer is that she does recognize it, and recognizes it as being herself, and for that very reason considers it to be of no interest whatsoever.

But how then can she be so oblivious to her own image in a mirror, which can only be more lifelike than any image on an electronic screen? The inescapable answer is that she does recognize it, and recognizes it as being herself, and for that very reason considers it to be of no interest whatsoever. She is interested in what another animal might do, but quite logically she has no curiousity whatsoever about what she herself might do, and she possesses no scintilla of vanity regarding her own looks.

About a year ago it occurred to me at some idle moment to try the mirror test one more time: she being much older and calmer, and me being slightly wiser as to how to give her directions. I placed her on a chair she couldn’t escape from, directly facing a mirror a few inches away. Getting her to look into the mirror would not constitute success; only getting her to look directly at herself would count. Using the most careful and calm words and gestures, I am of the belief that I actually briefly succeeded. “Look at you, look at Billie.” For a few moments, at least, I saw her look directly into her own eyes. She held her own gaze long enough for it not to have been a random thing. But other than that she had no obvious related reaction. She then turned to look at me, and wagged her tail slightly. If she could speak, I think she would have been saying, “OK … now what?”

And “Now what?” is precisly the unanswerable question. There is no utility to Billie in looking at her own reflection. She is aware it is herself—i.e. she is self-aware—but in the absence of vanity or neuroticism about her appearance, there is simply no response for her to make to it. The image of herself in the looking-glass may as well be invisible.

In anticipation of writing this reflection on reflections, I harassed Billie by putting her in front of a mirror one more time. This time I wasn’t trying to get her to look pointlessly at herself; I was just trying to get an appropriate photo to go along with the piece of writing (as you have to accompany everything on the internet with a picture or else it doesn’t exist). Billie kept turning her head to look at me as I took pictures, because she now expects to get treats when she poses for pictures (she works for peanuts: dry roasted, unsalted). I didn’t want her turning to look at me, so this was a bit of a problem. It was solved when she caught a glimpse of me in the mirror. She was satisfied to keep her eye on me there for a little while — long enough to take a series of shots including the one at the top and the one below here.

dog looking in a mirror

So she watched me in the mirror to keep herself informed as to whether I was reaching for a treat. In other words, she used the mirror entirely appropriately, understanding its function and purpose. She knew that the reflection of me was a true representation of me, in real time. Her own reflection continued to be of no interest whatsoever to her.

I have to conclude that this is not evidence of a lack of intelligence or “self-awareness,” but evidence instead of the employment of exceedingly practical sense and the total absence of useless vanity.

I don’t know if—overall—chimpanzees are “smarter” than dogs or not, but I think this comparison of the two animals’ behavior with mirrors demonstrates only one thing for certain: the moral superiority of the canine. Unless, that is, vanity is now officially listed among the virtues rather than the vices.

And if dogs possess this moral superiority as compared to chimps, the same equation does not come out very well for the only slightly less hairy ape writing these words.

And just to prove that there is indeed nothing new under the sun, the above conclusion is mirrored, after all, in Lord Byron’s famous “Epitaph to a Dog” from 1808.

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808.


The Concern of a Canine

The Concern of a Canine

The Concern of a Canine
Yours truly is not a particularly friendly guy, as his friends would readily attest. My dog, a fourteen pound mutt named Billie, is quite different: a friend to anyone who makes eye contact with her. She is also quite different in the level of concern she’s capable of showing to unknown passersby. Life in the big city involves walking past countless individuals in states of relative disrepair; these include the addicted, the mentally ill, the disabled, the genuinely homeless and those who (for whatever reason) find setting themselves up in a busy location with the right begging schtick to be a worthwhile occupation. Billie will greet anyone who greets her, and has taken time for some I’d certainly rather walk right by.

However, the truly remarkable thing is that her capacity for concern can go beyond those who actually greet her. Continue reading “The Concern of a Canine”

The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb

Wolf shall dwell with the lamb

Dogs, we’ve often been told, are descended from wolves—or perhaps they’re more like cousins, from a common ancestor, depending on who you talk to. Whatever the case, sheep have little confusion over the issue: they recognize dogs as predators. It seems to be hardwired into the sheep’s nature. If you’re a sheep, when a dog starts approaching, you move in the other direction. This fact of life and nature is used to great effect by trained sheep dogs, who by varying their approach, gait and posture can get groups of sheep to do just about anything. Continue reading “The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb”

Is Ebola Coming for My Dog?

Ebola and dogsIn Spain, a nurse’s aide named Teresa Romero Ramos contracted Ebola from a patient (in a manner that has yet to be confirmed). In response, authorities quarantined her husband, Javier Limon, and three other people. And then today they killed her dog, a twelve-year-old mixed breed named Excalibur. The dog was showing no symptoms, and had not been tested and shown to be carrying the virus. (What message does this send to other desperately-needed health professionals dealing with Ebola victims? Just this: If you contract the disease during your work, your pets will be killed.)

In a funny (although not very “ha-ha”) way, this story may be bringing home the seriousness of Ebola to people who haven’t worried much about it. I think most people have indeed paid attention to it, and been concerned, but those of us living in the West have likely been assuming that this is a Third World disease and that the superior health systems in the developed world will be able to handle and contain it. There is some generalized apprehension, yes, but most individuals are likely not fearful for their own lives. (I think that most of us, at least until we get to a certain age, still regard ourselves as more or less immortal, anyway.) However, this killing of the dog is a little different. It is more mundane, more comprehensible: the government decided the dog needed to be killed, and it was (and this despite burgeoning protests and a petition garnering 350,000 signatories). We may find it hard to picture ourselves dying from Ebola, but we can more easily picture the van pulling up and the government agents arriving to drag our dog off to be euthanized. Continue reading “Is Ebola Coming for My Dog?”

A Man and His Dog

The Cinch Review

Billie in Central ParkIf you live in New York City, the odds are that you’re going to see famous people now and then. Even if you don’t go to their high society parties and clubs (and I for one toss every invitation in the trash on principle), you’re just fairly likely to run into them as they walk upon the sidewalk, something which even the famous must do if ever-so-briefly. Celebrities are no doubt bothered a lot less in Manhattan than they would be outside of it, because most Manhattanites (whether native or New Yorkers-by-choice) are loathe to act like they are at all impressed or fazed by anything or anyone. And then don’t forget that for every A-level famous person there are at least twenty B and C-level ones, some of whose faces may be only teasingly familiar from bit parts on TV shows, and many of them also live in New York City at least part of the time. Continue reading “A Man and His Dog”