Did Jesus Cross the Border? (Part 1)

by Yuri Kuchinsky


[Part 1 of this article was posted to Usenet discussion groups on 10 Sept 2002, and Part 2 on Sept 19]

Greetings, all,

Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite woman is found in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. And, according to all the standard English translations of these verses (Mt 15:21/Mk 7:24), Jesus actually crosses over into the Gentile territory before the woman approaches him, begging that he would heal her daughter.

But was this really the original version of this story? Well, it looks like now there's some good evidence that our canonical Matthew and Mark had been edited at this point, and that, in the earliest version of this story, Jesus didn't actually cross over into Gentile territory. Instead, the woman came out to meet him while he was still in Galilee!

The evidence that I will produce in this article comes from the ancient Aramaic versions of Mt (both the Curetonian and the Sinaitic), as well as from the Magdalene Gospel. Once again, it looks like there's a unique agreement between these very unusual biblical texts, that almost nobody in today's academic establishment seems to be interested in.

And yet, still and all, the way this verse looks in the Magdalene Gospel is rather odd, because of the unusual geographical indications as found in it. But soon, these rather unusual geographical particulars in the Magdalene text will be clarified, and it seems like this will cast some new light on the early history of both Matthew and Mark.

So here is this passage as it's now found in our canonical Mt. I'm giving it now in a very literal English translation, that follows very closely upon the canonical Greek text,

(Mt 15:21) And Jesus, having come away from there, withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon;
(22) and, behold, a woman, a Canaanite, from that region having come out, cried out, saying...

And here's the Greek text of this passage,

(Mt 15:21) kai exelqwn ekeiqen o IhsouV, anecwrhsen eiV ta merh Turou kai SidwnoV;
(22) kai, idou, gunh Cananaia, apo twn oriwn ekeinwn exelqousa, ekrazen legousa...

There's no difference here between the Alexandrian and Byzantine versions except for the last two words, the Byzantine version reading /ekraugasen autw legousa/, but this variant doesn't seem to have any big significance. Otherwise, there are no variants at all listed for this passage in Aland's Greek Synopsis, which, normally, should indicate that the Greek textual tradition is pretty stable here. (But, as we will see further, this is actually not the case! It's just that Aland simply missed some quite important MS variants for this verse.)


This whole section of Mt (Mt 14:22-16:12, paralleled by Mk 6:45-8:26) is lacking in Luke, so this is known as the "Great Omission" in Luke. Many commentators have argued in the past that this whole section was a late addition both to Mk and Mt. And it seems pretty clear why this section would have been added to Mt/Mk in the course of a later editing -- the big theme of this section is the opening of the movement to Gentiles. So this would provide a good reason why Mt/Mk added the Second Feeding of the Multitudes here; there are indications that this Second Feeding was expressly designed to symbolise the Gentile mission, as opposed to the First Feeding of the Jews (the symbolism of the numbers 12 and 7 is a case in point).

Thus, it shouldn't be surprising in the least that this miraculous healing of the Canaanite (Gentile) woman's daughter should be found right in this location in Mt/Mk.

But there's actually a bit of a continuity problem within this passage -- because, as can be seen above, v. 22 doesn't really follow upon v. 21 in a very smooth fashion. Indeed, if Jesus had already arrived into this Canaanite district, why is the woman portrayed as coming out of it, in order to meet him? I think the surmise should come naturally here that, in the original version of this passage, (1) either Jesus didn't yet enter this Gentile district, or (2) the woman didn't yet come out of it... And, as it turns out, indeed, in the Aramaic Matthew, the former option is what we now find.

So here's the Old Syriac Aramaic version of this passage, in Burkitt's 1904 translation,

(Mt 15:21 Aramaic) And Jesus came forth from thence, and went away _to the border of_ Tyre and Sidon,
(22) and lo, a certain woman, a Canaanite, came forth from those same borders, and was crying out and said...

So here we see that Jesus merely comes out "to the border of" Tyre and Sidon, as opposed to actually entering into this Gentile district. Thus, in the Aramaic text, the second part of this sequence is the same as in the Greek, but the first part is different, and happens to make a lot more sense overall.


While in Mk and Lk this part is pretty clear, according to Mt, there's a bit of an ambiguity there. After all, it's only in Mt that we find the following rather surprising injunction, as delivered by Jesus to his chosen disciples,

(Matthew 10:5 RSV) These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,
(6) but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

So, assuming that this text is very early (and there's no reason to think that it isn't), this should tell us quite a lot about the original agenda of the First Evangelist. And considering all this, it should make plenty of sense that, in its original shape, Mt 15:21-22 may have featured Jesus preferring to stay out of the Gentile territory; he only went up to its border, where he meets this Canaanite woman.

Thus, it looks like, once again, the Old Syriac Aramaic Matthew is apparently preserving for us the more original text of Matthew's gospel!

(The force of Mt 10:5 was apparently muted somewhat by Mt 28:19, part of the Great Commissioning at the very end of the gospel. But to me this seems like a later addition, that was probably made at about the same time as the changes in Mt 15:21 were being made.)


Myself, I'm no longer a believer either in the mainstream 2 Source Theory, or in Markan priority. And it seems like, for an average NT scholar today, it's mostly a matter of belief that these things are true; after all, very few have really examined these matters objectively for themselves...

As the situation stands now, a typical mainstream gospel commentary happens to be based on an uncritical acceptance of Markan priority. So one usually finds the compositional history of Matthew being seen from this perspective by the authors of these commentaries. But, from my own point of view (based on the work of Loisy), both Mk and Mt had been heavily re-edited some time in the second century -- to produce the canonical versions that we now see before us. And yet, to a large extent, the Aramaic versions of these gospels seem to have escaped this final re-editing.

I will not be going into the analysis of the Aramaic version of Mark 7:24 (parallel to Mt 15:21) at this time, although there's quite a bit of interesting stuff there as well. I will only note that, in the Aramaic version of this Markan passage, precisely the same language is being used as in Mt in regard to Jesus' movements.

Based on my observation, very often, the Aramaic versions of Mk and Mt actually read a lot closer together, compared to how the Greek versions read. Yet again, this should indicate that the Aramaic gospels are a lot closer to the original gospel texts, compared to what we now find in the Greek.


Recent commentators generally find that both the Markan and the Matthean versions of this story have some serious problems with continuity. In particular, as Gundry's Commentary on Mark notes, some scholars have suggested that this story was originally located elsewhere in Mk, and then was moved into this section where we find it now. The reason for such a hypothesis is that there seem to be some problems with the characterisation of this woman as a Syro-Phoenician -- Why is she being identified thus expressly if Jesus already finds himself within the Syro-Phoenician territory, in any case? (But, for my part, I see this seeming inconsistency as merely the remnants of the work on this passage as done by a late editor.)

Also, in the past, scholars have already been debating the very same question that is now raised in this article -- Is Jesus portrayed in this story as actually entering the Gentile territory? Again, according to Gundry (Commentary on Matthew), this part is quite ambiguous in Mk, while quite clear in Mt. And yet, according to Davies & Allison (Commentary on Matthew), the situation is precisely the reverse with these two passages in Mt and Mk! So Davies & Allison say that the same thing is quite clear in Mk, while somewhat ambiguous in Mt...

Indeed, I'm glad to say, Davies & Allison did actually manage to pick up on the inconsistency in Mt between v. 21 and v. 22 that I'm addressing in this article (while Gundry happened to miss it). And, in regard to Mk, I suppose that Gundry was simply blinded by his belief that Mk is supposed to be the earliest gospel... And so, accordingly, he may have simply read into Mk that there's something of an ambiguity there (since the earliest gospel is supposed to be more Jewish?). However this may be, such circular reasoning as this wouldn't be at all uncommon in our mainstream Synoptic literature.

In any case, this confusion on the part of the scholars seems to indicate that there's indeed a problem with interpreting these stories as we find them in our canonical Greek Mk and Mt. And yet, it looks like none of the commentators that I've read so far are even aware of this important Aramaic variant that I've now identified. No wonder, because neither is it mentioned in Aland's Synopsis, on which most NT scholars would rely, even if they wished to look into the textual background of any given gospel passage.


And now, let us look at what the Magdalene Gospel has for this passage.

(MG 52:1) "Then Jesus went towards Syria, and towards Gades.
(2) And there came a heathen woman of that country and besought Jesus that he would chase a demon out of her daughter."

So what we see here is that, in the Magdalene Gospel, as well as in the Aramaic Mt, Jesus does not actually enter the Gentile territory. Rather, the woman is coming out of the Gentile territory, and entreats him to help her daughter.


But there also seems to be a bit of a problem here in the Magdalene Gospel with interpreting these geographical particulars, "Syria and Gades". While the "Syria" part seems quite clear overall, what might this "Gades" be all about?

In her commentary, Margery Goates, the editor of the Magdalene Gospel, admits that she was quite puzzled by this rather enigmatic designation. One of her suggestions is that "Gades" might represent "the land of Gad", but how would that be relevant to anything?

Well, I've now looked into this problem, and it seems like the answer here wasn't really all that difficult to find -- all I had to do was simply look carefully at the map of ancient Israel, as well as into the Aramaic text of Matthew. But I will save this further analysis for the second part of this article, that I will post soon.

Meanwhile, does anyone have any questions or comments about the first part?

Best wishes,



Robert Gundry, _Mark: a commentary on his apology for the cross_, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993.

Robert Gundry, _Matthew: a commentary on his handbook for a mixed church under persecution_, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994.

W. D. Davies, and Dale C. Allison, _The Gospel According to Saint Matthew_, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991.

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