You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Today I did learn again that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

I read a line from the Desert Fathers in which  Abba Poemen, making a reference to Matthew 15:27, says:

“Do we not see the Savior granted repose to the Canaanite woman who acknowledged her name?”   (GIVE ME A WORD, p 239)

So I began to wonder exactly how did this woman acknowledge her name was “dog”?

Looking at Matthew 15:21-28, the pericope in which we find the encounter of Christ with the Canaanite woman, I realized for the first time today the homonym word play in the Greek text.

The Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus seeking a healing miracle for her daughter and He says to her in response, seemingly refusing her request,  that  it is not right to give the children’s food to the dogs.   In the Greek text, you hear a homonym: the Xananaia woman and the kunariois/dogs.   The Latin cognate, caninus, also works as a homonym  in this case. .  So perhaps Jews found it a humorous homonym when they used either Greek or Latin referring to the Canaanites whom they despised.  In using Greek and Latin the Jews could easily make Canaanite sound like the Greek or Latin word for dogs.

Admittedly I usually just read the texts in English or use an interlinear text, so am not strictly paying attention to the Greek.   Today, however the homonym because obvious to me for the first time.   I will say that even in the commentaries I’ve read they usually only argue as to whether Jesus was being outright offensive in calling the woman a dog, or if he is using some more endearing term like ‘little dog’  or puppy. I don’t ever remember anyone commenting on the homonym nature of Canaanite and kunaria or caninus.

Additionally the woman prostrates herself before Jesus.   The Greek verb is prosekunei. It’s etymology implies that she behaves like a dog crouching  at the feet of her master.   She physically shows she accepts from the mouth of Jesus the label of being a dog.  She is humbling herself, or even humiliating herself before Christ.  She as a mom will do what it takes to get mercy from the master for her daughter.  She lived in a world in which masters and servants were very distinct classes and the subservient knew how to behave in the presence of the superior masters.  [In the Orthodox Church, we do  for a proskenesis, full prostration during the services of Great Lent – we bow completely getting down on our knees, elbows and touching our head to the ground.  This in the Greek implies we are imitating a dog.]

In the woman’s answer, that even the dogs (kunaria) eat the crumbs from their masters’ table, she is acknowledging that the Jews are her or her people’s (the Canaanites’) masters. She understands the insult, but in accepting the homonyn she wisely banters with Christ when she says, “even dogs aren’t stupid, they know a good thing when they see it. ”  Dogs don’t bite the hand that feeds them.

Though all of this may have been obvious to all who read this Gospel passage in Greek, it was news to me.

So,  maybe it is true that all dogs go to heaven?

2 thoughts on “You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

  1. Pingback: The Canaanite Woman is My Sister – Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. Pingback: Christ, Canaanite and Borders – Fr. Ted's Blog

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