the Canaanite Woman

by Yuri Kuchinsky

The following article combines two of my old posts from June 2000 (revised). It demonstrates that some later editors of the Gospel Matthew were trying to make the disciples of Jesus look bad -- as if the disciples were harsh and uncaring.

Also, some other supporting material is included at the end of this article.

Originally those two posts were sent to TC-List, where the scholars seemed stumped both by my questions and answers. It seems like in mainstream biblical scholarship all this stuff still remains a Deep Dark Secret...



From: Yuri Kuchinsky
Date: Fri Jun 23, 2000 10:34am
Subject: Canaanite woman in Mt pericope

Dear friends,

The incident with the Canaanite woman in Mt is a bit of a puzzle, because the internal logic of this passage is quite problematic.

  Matthew 15 (Young's Literal Translation -- YLT)

  21   And Jesus having come forth thence,
  withdrew to the parts of Tyre and Sidon,
  22   and lo, a woman, a Canaanitess, from
  those borders having come forth, did call to
  him, saying, "Deal kindly with me, Sir -- Son
  of David; my daughter is miserably
  23   And he did not answer her a word; and his
  disciples having come to him, were asking
  him, saying -- "Let her away, because she
  crieth after us;"
  24   and he answering said, "I was not sent
  except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

At first, Jesus doesn't answer a word in reply to the woman's entreaties. He's unwilling to help her because she's Canaanite, it seems. Then the disciples, also not being all that friendly that day, apparently, want to see her sent away, "Send her away..." But why does Jesus reply "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel"? Obviously, his reply does not correspond logically to what the disciples asked him to do.

For his reply to be logically congruous, the disciples should have in fact asked Jesus to help the woman, rather than to send her away. It stands to reason that perhaps in the source of Mt this was what they said, but that later the text was changed, for whatever reason.

There's also a parallel story in Mk 7:24-30, but it lacks this complication altogether.

At the time when I was first investigating this passage in Mt, I started to look for some variant gospel MSS, or patristic citations where the disciples would have tried to persuade Jesus to help the woman, but found none. I've also asked on the TC-List about it, but had no success.

But now there's also the Magdalene Gospel. This is what it has in MG 52:3-5,

(MG 52:3) And Jesus did not answer her a word.
(4) And his disciples begged him that he would drive the demon out of her, because she was crying after them, and beseeching them to intercede for her.
(5) and Jesus answered them, and said that he was sent to the Jews only.

It didn't seem so likely to me at the time that, of all gospel witnesses now extant, MG would have alone preserved the original shape of this story. And sure enough, I was right. Soon enough, more parallels were found, except that it was I, myself, who managed to find them.

[PART 2 of this article]

So, once again, let us compare the canonical Mt 15:23 with the variant reading that is found in the Magdalene Gospel.

(Mt 15:23) Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us."

(MG 52:3) And Jesus did not answer her a word. (4) And his disciples begged him that he would drive the demon out of her, because she was crying after them, and beseeching them to intercede for her.

The important difference here is that in the MG the disciples ask Jesus to help the woman, rather than to send her away.

I asked on TC-List if any such parallels were known in other biblical MSS, but no one was able to suggest any. But then, I found quite a few such parallels myself!

They were all from medieval Europe, and mostly in Latin, and are listed by G. Quispel in his TATIAN AND THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS, Brill, 1975. He cites the whole seven of them (along with the Magdalene Gospel). One is Dutch from the Liege Diatessaron, and one from the Heliand, a ninth-century Life of Christ in the Old Saxon.

For example, here's one Latin parallel, from the VITA JESU CHRISTI by Ludolph of Saxony,

"et discipuli eius .. accedentes rogabant eum pro ea" (vol. II, 321a)

I suppose it can be concluded on the basis of this information that an unusual and possibly quite primitive Latin Diatessaron still managed to survive in medieval Western Europe. Moreover, it seems to have been quite popular, and influenced many commentaries by various medieval scholars. But it looks like all copies of this text have been lost or suppressed, except one. And this is what the Magdalene Gospel seems to represent.

By all appearances, this rather unusual divergent reading of Mt 15:23 goes back all the way to the pre-canonical text of Matthew.

Also G. Quispel includes great many other quotes from the Magdalene Gospel in his book, which indicates very clearly that he thought very highly of this Middle English text.

Best wishes,



And now, here's some more textual support for this passage in the Magdalene Gospel, which strengthens the case for its antiquity even further. This evidence comes to us from the Gospel of Barnabas, which survives in a medieval Italian manuscript. It seems like this gospel has many parallels with early Jewish-Christian writings, although it also has quite a few later additions featuring some Islamic themes.



4. "And lo! a woman of Canaan with her two sons, who had come forth out of her own country to find Jesus. Having therefore seen him come with his disciples, she cried out: "Jesus, son of David, have mercy on my daughter, who is tormented of the devil!" Jesus did not answer even a single word, because they were of the uncircumcised people. The disciples were moved to pity, and said: "O master, have pity on them! Behold how much they cry out and weep!"

5. Jesus answered: "I am not sent but to the people of Israel."


So, in the Gospel of Barnabas, we also see the disciples begging Jesus to help the woman. And also, it can be noted that, just like in the Magdalene Gospel, Jesus' response there is more concise, and it doesn't feature the reference to the "lost sheep of the House Israel".

(Still, it seems like some later material had also been added to this version of the story; such as the detail that the woman was not travelling alone, but with her "two sons". Obviously, for a woman to travel alone was seen as inappropriate in the circles that preserved the Gospel of Barnabas for us. The same can be said about the reference to circumcision in this text.)


And here's still some more support for the Magdalene Gospel's version of this story, this time coming from the Hebrew Matthew.

Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (George Howard's translation):

(HMt 15:23) Jesus did not answer (her) a word. So his disciples approached him and said to him: "Our master, why do you abandon this woman who is crying out after us?
(15:24) Jesus answered them: "They did not send me except to the lost sheep from the house of Israel".

It's important to note that these two items both come from the Semitic textual tradition -- rather than from the Latin or Greek tradition. Thus, some Eastern witnesses also happen to preserve the earlier version of the story -- alongside with the numerous textual witnesses in the West that I've already mentioned.

Generally speaking, Diatessaronic scholars place quite a lot of value on any given divergent text being preserved both in the East and in the West, because this increases the chances that the text in question is very ancient, and possibly pre-canonical.

All the best,


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