Did Jesus cross the border? (part 2)

by Yuri Kuchinsky


Greetings, all,

To recapitulate the first part of this article, I have now identified another unique parallel between the Aramaic Gospel of Matthew (Mt 15:21), and the Magdalene Gospel (MG 52:1). In both passages, Jesus doesn't actually enter into the Gentile territory, but only goes up to its border.

But there still remains a problem with explaining what might have been meant by the expression "Syria and Gades", as found in the Magdalene Gospel. (In the original MS of the Magdalene Gospel, these are spelled "Surrye and Gades".)

Both the canonical and the Aramaic versions of Matthew have "Tyre and Sidon" in this passage.

As to the Gospel of Mark, with its parallel passage of Mk 7:24, there's actually a big split there in the manuscript tradition. While great many old MSS of Mark do include "Sidon" in this passage along with "Tyre", also, a whole lot of them have only "Tyre" standing there alone. Myself, I see such textual instability as an indication that this passage had been worked on for a great long time by later editors.

So now, let's look at this whole expression, "Tyre and Sidon", as found in the canonical versions of Matthew, as well as in many old MSS of Mark.


Davies & Allison (Commentary on Matthew) point out that this is a common pairing that is widely found in the Jewish Scriptures; for example in the books of Jeremiah, Joel, and Zechariah. These are generally seen as wealthy and quite powerful Gentile territories, where luxurious living is common among the elites. So, as Davies & Allison note, generally speaking, this phrase has "negative connotations in the biblical tradition". The Israeli prophets of old often condemned "Tyre and Sidon" for their decadence and immorality, while contrasting them with the righteousness of Israel.

So was this the expression that stood there already in the early version of Matthew , and also perhaps of Mark (assuming that "Sidon" did belong to the original text of Mark)? There's room to doubt this, in my view. Indeed, as we shall soon see, there's actually quite a lot of instability in this verse in the MS tradition of Matthew -- as well as of Mark -- for these names "Tyre and Sidon". So, supposing that this expression stood there already in the source of Mt/Mk, how would one explain all this textual instability?

Specifically, in the textual tradition for Mt 15:21, where the Vulgate reads /Tyri/ (which is equivalent to /Tyrou/ in the canonical Greek), Old Latin MSS show the following variations,

Syriae (k e)

Now, these Old Latin manuscripts k (Bobiensis) and e (Palatinus) happen to be very important. Both of them are very ancient, and they are commonly classified as being of "Afra" type, i.e. the type that the scholars consider as the most primitive of our Old Latin texts. (Unfortunately, neither k nor e passages survived for Mk 7:24, so we have no way of knowing what may have stood there.)

And for "Sidonis", as found in the Vulgate, Old Latin MSS show,


(/Fiden/ seems to have been the original reading of MS Bobiensis, which was then corrected to /Finensis/.)

And also, the Liege Diatessaron (which is widely believed to be a translation of an Old Latin Diatessaron, now lost) happens to contain yet another quite mysterious variant, "Sayette" instead of "Sidon". It's not so easy to say what is the meaning of this "Sayette". Although it seems to have rather little in common with "Gades", as found in MG, still, this does represent additional evidence of a textual instability in the MSS tradition of Matthew (and/or Mark), in regard to the phrase "Tyre and Sidon".

Normally, such textual instability for any given passage in the gospels should indicate that either (1) the original source text for this passage might have been different from the canonical text or, alternatively, that (2) an editorial change had been made there very early on; thus, it was this early change that exercised its influence on a large variety of MSS. But, in any case, the fact that both the Old Latin and the Diatessaronic manuscripts demonstrate such textual instability is very important.

In general, as has been noted long ago by D. Plooij, the big authority on the Diatessaron, as well as by other scholars, the Magdalene Gospel has all sorts of parallels with the Old (i.e. pre-Vulgate) Latin MSS.

So now, let us see how these variants might be explained. In fact, I suggest that the Magdalene Gospel represents the earliest text of this passage, that was later altered in various ways by subsequent editors. And, as we will now see, a good explanation for "Syria and Gades" in the Magdalene Gospel can be found pretty easily -- the explanation that happens to make perfect historical sense.

1. First let us look at "Syria", both in the Old Latins, and in the Magdalene Gospel.

In order to explain this variant, all one needs to do is simply to examine the Aramaic text carefully. The fact is that, in the Old Syriac Aramaic, the name "Tyre" is spelled sadhe-waw-rish, and pronounced "Syrr". So now it looks like our 3 MS witnesses -- the Bobiensis, the Palatinus, as well as the MG -- are actually transliterating the Aramaic, rather than the Greek text!

And so, this sure seems like yet additional indication that our earliest Old Latin witnesses, as well as the MG, may have been based directly on the Aramaic texts, rather than on the Greek -- as some scholars have already suggested in the past.

2. And now, let us look at this mysterious "Gades" in the Magdalene Gospel.

So, let's see... If we assume that both "Syrr" and "Gades" stood there originally in the source text of Matthew/Mark, and that "Syrr" was standing there for "Tyre", what could have this "Gades" stood for? In such a case, it's likely that "Gades" signified the name of yet another town in this general area.

And what could have this town been? Was there any such town nearby at the time of Jesus? There sure was -- and just in the place where we would expect it to be located for this passage to begin making perfect historical sense... The name of this town was "Kedesh" (or "Kadesh"), and it's located right at the border with Phoenicia! (One can find Kedesh on the map of ancient Israel just to the north-west of Lake Huleh.)

(See map,
http://www.umich.edu/~kelseydb/Excavation/Kedesh/Map.html )

Indeed, at the time of Jesus, the line drawn between Tyre and Kedesh pretty well delimited the border between Galilee and Phoenicia.

Thus, if the combination of "Syrr" with "Kedesh" stood there originally in the early MSS of Matthew/Mark, it's quite possible that some later Greek scribes changed "Syrr" to "Tyre", and "Kedesh" to "Sidon". This latter change may have been motivated by the desire to make this passage sound more along the Old Testament lines.

So this hypothesis will easily explain the textual instability that we find in this passage in some of our earliest MSS. And, in such a case, it looks like the Magdalene Gospel is the only existing MS that still happens to preserve this original wording.

To summarise, it looks like, in the original version of this story, Jesus didn't actually enter the Gentile territory, but merely came close to its border, as represented by a line drawn between the cities of Tyre and Kedesh. It would follow from our analysis that this was how this story originally stood in the source text of both Matthew and Mark. And the Magdalene Gospel is the only textual witness available today that still preserves this earliest source text.


Now, we may come back to this woman who came to see Jesus, and entreated him to help her daughter. While in the canonical Greek Matthew she's a Canaanite, in the Greek Mark 7:26 she's identified as "a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth". So who would have she been in the original version of this story?

Actually, the Aramaic Mark may clarify this for us somewhat, although, to be sure, according to Dr. Burkitt, the translator of this text, the Sinaiticus Old Syriac MS may be corrupt in this passage. (The Old Syriac Curetonian MS did not survive for this part of Mark.)

So this is how the Old Syriac Sinaiticus MS of Mark reads in this passage if the text is translated literally,

(Syriac Mark 7:26) "The woman was a widow from the border of Tyre of Phoenicia".

But, as Burkitt notes, the word "widow" is problematic here. According to him, this word may have originally read "a Gentile". Indeed, in the Old Syriac, the word "widow" is /arimaletha/, and the word "Gentile" is /arimaitha/. So the whole meaning of the word can be changed merely by shortening one stroke of the Syriac letter "lamadh".

Thus, according to Burkitt, the word "widow" in this text may have simply been the result of a scribal error -- since the word "Gentile" seems to be much more in accord with the general meaning of this whole passage, as we now find it in all Greek MSS of Mark.

Well, it now looks like the Magdalene Gospel may help us to clarify this textual difficulty in the Old Syriac Mark. Because, as cited already, the Magdalene text happens to feature the word "heathen" in this passage, which is certainly very similar to -- if not the same as -- the word "Gentile". (The Middle English spelling is /hethen/.)

(MG 52:2) And there came a heathen woman of that country and besought Jesus that he would chase a demon out of her daughter."

And so, it does look like the Magdalene Gospel happens to lend some pretty good support for Burkitt's theory that the word "widow" may merely have been a scribal error in the Syriac.

(While analysing this passage, some scholars have seen the word "widow" in the Syriac text as quite significant, because it may be representing a parallel with the story in 1 Kings 17:8-24 [Elijah and the widow], which could have originally been seen as the proof text for the Markan story. But now it looks like this theory has been weakened somewhat by the preceding analysis.)


Of course, most NT scholars today believe in the priority of Mark. But it sure looks to me like the Greek Mark isn't all that early in this passage. In fact, this obviously looks like a later Gentile-oriented version!

(Canonical Mark 7:26) "a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth"
(Syriac Mark 7:26) "a Gentile from the border of Tyre of Phoenicia". (Incorporating the emendation as suggested by Burkitt.)

To me, the Aramaic text sure does seem to precede what the Greek Mark has here. (Indeed, it would clearly be primarily in the interests of the authors of the Greek version of Mark's Gospel to portray this woman as a native Greek speaker, which she isn't in the Aramaic text.)

But the Syriac version of Matthew may represent here the text that is even earlier than what we find in any version of Mark.

All the best,


(Copyright 2002)

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