Mark 7:24-30 – Does it represent a historical event?

The issue of miracles has long been a matter of contention between those who allow for their possibility (or likelihood) and those who disagree. At the center of the Christian perspective on miracles is the person and work of Jesus Christ. If a reader of the Gospel of Mark, for example, does not consider the historical likelihood of miracles, it is easy to dismiss the historical event behind the text that presents any given miracle story.

This article, however, argues that Mark 7:24-30, the meeting of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter is demon-possessed, represents a historical event based on several arguments related to historiographical analysis. It begins with the definitions of Gospel as a genre, including whether or not they intend to present historical truth claims, and the difference between parable and miracle stories, followed by a brief explanation of the passage. Next, a few thinkers across history are briefly surveyed for their interpretation of the historicity of this event. Two scholars are then examined for their treatment of the Gospels’ miracles stories – one a minimalist (minimizing the historical truth claims of the text) and one a maximalist (one who believes the historical truth claims of the text). Finally, the study ends with the argument on why Mark 7:24-30 represents a genuine historical event in the life of Jesus.

What is a Gospel?

Any given genre is distinct from another because of its particular set of characteristics and the particular entry within that genre at hand. Formal features, author’s intention, compositional process, setting of the author, setting of intended use, and contents constitute the characteristics that should be examined for determining genre.[1] In the case of the Gospels, there is some debate on whether they are a distinct genre or whether they are a subgenre of another genre in Greco-Roman culture.

Much of form criticism emphasized that the four Gospels “embody the early Christian proclamation of the significance of Jesus and were written exclusively to serve this proclamation.”[2] Those who disagree generally focus on comparing the Gospels to one of three genres, choosing from biography, history, or novel. Hurtado discusses the basic factors involved, making a good baseline with which to work.

Hurtado establishes the narratives of the Gospels as “not impartial accounts.”[3] They promote Jesus as a good figure and portray his enemies negatively. Given their interest in the narratives of Jesus’ ministry and his death and resurrection, as well as their relatively unified portrayal,[4] they are quite different from the apocryphal gospels that only collect sayings attributed to Jesus, portray only Jesus’ childhood, and which have different theological perspectives.[5] Hurtado describes the Gospels as at least inspired by the very popular genre of Greco-Roman biographies of the first century, but he also describes them as a distinctive subgenre within that Greco-Roman genre.[6]

Justin M. Smith provides a four-part rubric by which any work of Greco-Roman biography (including the Gospels) can be sorted. He proposes: Ancient-Definite (in which the author writes without living memory of the subject and for a definite audience), Ancient-Indefinite (in which the author writes for an indefinite audience), Contemporary-Definite (in which the author writes with the benefit of living memory  of the subject and for a definite audience), and Contemporary-Indefinite (in which the author writes for an indefinite audience). [7]

Using these categories, it is the contention of this paper that Mark’s Gospel falls within the Contemporary-Definite understanding. Such biographies are about a person of significant interest “who lived within living memory of the author and are directed toward distinguishable audiences.”[8] Eyewitness accounts are vital to Contemporary passages. In addition, Smith describes the Contemporary category with a comment on the personal nature of the subgenre. “Often in this type of biography there is a personal relationship between the author and subject that transcends a conventional interest in the subject as a moral example or person of interest.”[9]

The only difficulty in Smith’s model – as with the others – is that there is no general rubric to distinguish a hard line between a pericope as a historical event or not. This is the intention of each of the aforementioned scholars, as each recognized the ambiguity regarding historiography in Greco-Roman biography. Smith, especially, does not presume to claim any particular passage as a historical event or not. Certainly, that is not in the purpose of the cited article, but it is an indication of Smith’s perspective on the loose nature of Greco-Roman historiography.

Each of these scholars presume that there is a degree of historical truth claim within the Gospel narratives, however, which leads the present study to the point of contention over Mark 7:24-30. Each of the methods argued by these scholars allow Mark 7:24-30 within the circle of historical possibility by the virtue of its placement within a kind of Greco-Roman biography.

One scholar is more specific. Philip L. Shuler makes a few assertions about history in his monograph. He claims:

Works may vary in topic, scope, and, to some extent, purpose, but the term history is applicable in each case, and each author appears to understand its designation, although each may differ over the specific content of history. Likewise, one cannot place arbitrarily restrictive definitions upon the type of biography to which these authors refer.[10]

Smith’s model avoids the “restrictive definitions” that Shuler warns against. It also allows for a flexibility in the term “history” such that the accurate reporting of a historical event is a good possibility.

Distinguishing Parables from Historical Truth Claims

A historical truth claim is an assertion or description that is meant to communicate a story to the listener or reader that is based on one or more historical events or occurrences. A parable might, at first, seem very similar. It is worthwhile to distinguish between the two.

A parable “is an extended metaphor (an implied comparison) referring to a fictional event or events narrated in past time to express a moral or spiritual truth.”[11] In the canonical Gospels, it is different in form from the narratives of Jesus’ actions. A parable in the canonical Gospels typically leaves motives unexplained, is usually taken from everyday life (though not necessarily realistic, a la the 10,000 talent debt in Matthew 18), is the instigator of thoughtful questions (“What do you think…?”), and thus requires both the hearer to make a similar judgment about religious matters as well as to make a reversal in one’s thinking.[12] Most, if not all, of the parables are stories told by Jesus as he goes about his own story in the Gospel narratives.

The encounter between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman does not carry any of the characteristics of parables. Her motive is quite clear – she wants an exorcism for her daughter, who is not with her at the moment. Jesus’ motive is quite clear – his mission is to the Jewish people, so any miracle-working he does among Gentiles is secondary. It is not a story of everyday life. It is extremely uncommon to have a demon-possessed child in one’s family. More than that, there is no everyday-life kind of milieu to the story. It is told in a straightforward manner, as if this is what happened to Jesus one day. No question is posited in this story by either of the speaking characters. Nor is there a judgment to be passed by either the Syro-Phoenician woman or the reader. Jesus speaks about the priority of the Jewish people as a matter of fact.

Rather than a parable, this pericope is one kind of miracle story. Most miracle stories in Mark are healings, but several are exorcisms, one is a raising from the dead, and there are five miracles regarding the natural world. Telford, based on the work of Bultmann, promotes a three-part structure for the Synoptic miracle material using the terminology of ‘healing’ to function for both healing and exorcism stories. The first part consists of, “the condition of the patient being recounted, [second,] the healing described, and [third,] the cure demonstrated.”[13] This narrative matches that criteria to the letter. The woman describes her daughter’s condition in v. 26, the healing is described in v. 29, and the cure is demonstrated in v. 30.

Mark 7:24-30 is not a parable. It is one kind of miracle story; specifically, an exorcism story. It is a slice from this particular kind of Greco-Roman biography portraying the meeting of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman as a historical event.

A Brief Description of the Passage

Mark 7:24-30 is quoted here in its entirety:

And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.[14]

This miracle story fits Telford and Bultmann’s structural form, though some of the details are quite different from the other exorcism stories in Mark. Firstly, the ethnicity of the recipient is Gentile, which marks it from the other exorcisms (with the possible exception of the man possessed by Legion in Mk 5:1-20). Secondly, Jesus is reluctant to cast out the demon, whereas he has no hesitation in the other exorcism stories.[15] Thirdly, it is remarkable that he exorcises the demon from a distance.[16]

A Brief History of the History of Interpretation – Fictional Event or Historical Event?

Over the life of the church, different scholars held to different perspectives on the historicity of Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. Given the constraints of the present study, only two scholars are here surveyed.


Origen, in his commentary on Matthew’s version of this story, made some statements that show that he stands somewhat in a middling position on the historicity of the event between Jesus and Syro-Phoenician woman. In one place, he treats Jesus’ retreat from Jewish territory to Gentile territory as genuinely historical as a response to the Pharisees. On the other hand, Jesus’ entire trip through the areas of Tyre and Sidon is treated allegorically.[17]

Adela Yarbro Collins

Some who see 7:24a as redaction by the author point to Mk. 3:8 where the people from the region of Tyre come to Jesus as evidence that Jesus would not travel to Tyre. It simply functions to create a Gentile-centric setting. As to 7:24-30, Collins says that it is a form of an “objection quest,” where the objection (from Jesus) must be overcome (by her faith and persistence) in order for the quest to be successful.[18] It is merely a story that portrays the character of Jesus while simultaneously justifying the predominantly Gentile composition of the church at the time of its inclusion in Mark. She does not hold that Mark 7:24-30 represents a historical event. She sees this entire Gospel as the end result of a long line of editors.[19]

A Minimalist Perspective

Floyd V. Filson wrote several noteworthy works in the field of New Testament studies. One of those is his A New Testament History, a book published in the mid-1960s. His section on the miracles of Jesus is relatively clear, giving a glimpse at a minimalist scholar’s perspective on the alleged miracles of Jesus.

In his subsection on “The Miracles and Their Meaning,” Filson deals with the maximalist view directly and quickly, though his language could be somewhat clearer. For example, his opening paragraph on the miracles includes the statement that, “for the Gospel writers [the miracles] are an essential part of [Jesus’] ministry.”[20] The very next sentence clarifies what the previous one left cloudy: “Two things hinder their ready acceptance by many modern readers.”[21]

The first hindrance, for Filson, is “that these stories are written in a prescientific or nonscientific atmosphere, and so to an age steeped in the thought forms of modern science they seem discredited.”[22] He allows that the modern world does not know all things about science, but he does not release the principle of analogy here. He binds up the miracles in it quite nicely.

The second hindrance is “that some stories have grown in the telling.”[23] He uses a weak example in comparing Mark and Matthew’s slightly differing accounts of Jairus’ daughter. Whereas, in Mark, she is on death’s door, then dies before her father can get home, in Matthew, Jairus tells Jesus that his daughter had already died. For Filson, such an alteration from Mark to Matthew is a sign of making the story more than it was. To make the story more significant later, then, is evidence that it was not a genuine miracle originally.

As is demonstrated below, in the sub-section on the maximalist perspective, personified by Craig Blomberg, the principle of analogy is demonstrated as a weak principle that cannot deny the possibility of miraculous events. The second hindrance holds no water whatsoever. A unique event occurring to a unique individual is no less likely to be genuine if the retelling of the story makes that unique individual stronger, smarter, or faster. Maybe the retelling of the story is an intentional deception, but the size of the fish in the latest telling does not negate the genuine existence of the original fish.

A Maximalist Perspective

Craig Blomberg is a clear and thoughtful voice in the debate over the historical reliability of the New Testament, especially the Gospels. In 1987, he published a high quality monograph on the subject, which gave scholars a clear method for understanding the problems at hand as well as a possible method for solving those problems. This section will deal with this book in detail, focusing especially on the third chapter, in which Blomberg handles the issue of miracles.

Blomberg demonstrates that there are three issues behind the rejection of gospel miracles. The first is the scientific objection. He defines the objection thusly, “In short, the scientific objection to the credibility of miracles is that the discovery of the natural, physical laws by which the universe operates has proved them impossible.”[24] Though he discusses science and faith rather broadly in this subsection, his solution to this objection is rather simple. Based on Blomberg’s theistic worldview, presupposing an omnipotent personal agent, he is able to say, “Most defenders of miracles today, therefore, do not deny the validity of the regularities of nature. Instead they deny that a miracle must be a violation of such ‘laws.'”[25]

The second issue at hand is the philosophical objection, which stems out of David Hume’s thought. Blomberg pulls four reasons out of Hume’s works to show why a natural explanation is always more likely than a supernatural one. In addition, he points to a further point, which – if all four of the previous arguments were proven false – Hume said would still prove his perspective. This final point is that the weight of probability would still favor a non-miraculous explanation of every extraordinary phenomenon. Blomberg shows that such reasoning was debunked at least as early as 1819, when the book Historical Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte was published by Richard Whately. Whately applied Hume’s final point to the life of Napoleon, a unique individual for many reasons. “Whately demonstrated by it that one has no reason to believe that most of the accounts of his life are true, a conclusion which is patently absurd.”[26]

The third issue at hand is the historical objection, which comes from the work of Ernst Troeltsch. Specifically, Blomberg takes on the principle of analogy. This principle states “that the historian has no right to accept as historical fact the account of a past event for which he has no analogy in the present.”[27] In response, Blomberg says that he paraphrases Wolfhart Pannenberg, “it is not the lack of analogy that suggests something is unhistorical but only the presence of an analogy to something already known to be unhistorical.”[28]

With the problems regarding miracles generally addressed, Blomberg is free to presume the validity of at least some miracles, if not all those reported in the Gospels and Acts. His next subsection deals with the problem of identifying miracles as genuine through asking what parallels to Jesus’ miracles there are (if any), and how significant are they. He also asks after what the evidence is for the reliability of the gospel miracle stories and how strong that evidence is.

He surveys miracles in the NT apocrypha, but finds them to grow out of heretical sects like docetism in the Gospel of Peter. He also examines Greek heroes, but ultimately denies that they truly qualify as parallels. Next, Blomberg looks at magic and magical writings, but ultimately rejects those as options for understanding Jesus’ miracles. The only parallels Blomberg accepts are miracle workers from Charismatic Judaism, though the issue of authority of quite different.

In Blomberg’s view, the miracles attributed to Jesus can be considered authentic as a result of two major evidences. It is because of their uniqueness, since no other miracle worker did quite what Jesus did, and because of their central purpose, which is to act as signs and indications that the Messiah has come, which Blomberg demonstrates through binding the miracles to Jesus’ teaching as an inseparable combination.

A Case for Mark 7:24-30 as a Historical Event

Several concerns have been raised as the historicity of Jesus’ miracles in general. Blomberg’s book is incredibly helpful in this area. Individual miracles still need discussion, however. A wide range of scholars were surveyed for their perspectives on this passage and miracles in general. Their concerns are generally listed below, and are then engaged before the present study makes positive assertions with regards to the passage at hand.[29]

Many scholars have raised concerns over the historicity of Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman. First of all, any scholar who denies miracles based on the principle of analogy have a problem with this exorcism pericope from the start. Second, there is the concern that Mark does not seem to know his Palestinian geography, as he depicts Jesus following a zig-zag, illogical course all over Galilee in these chapters in the Gospel. Third, the fact that this passage can and does encourage Gentile Christians to take encouragement because it depicts the Gentile mission as an activity stemming out of the life and ministry of Jesus.

As discussed above, the principle of analogy is unable to deny the possibility of miracles. If miracles are possible, then not only is it possible that Jesus exorcised demons from the Syro-Phoenician’s daughter at a distance, but it is possible that Jesus really did predict the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70. This would allow for an early date for Mark – maybe as early as the 40s or 50s. An earlier date for this Gospel would allow for Mark to have known Jesus personally, and for the vetting of the narrative of this Gospel by eyewitnesses.

Dealing with the second point, Mark utilized a loose structure to allow for his thematic points. Mark 7:24-30 is set between the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand.”There is Mark’s well-known ‘sandwich’ technique of including one episode with the two parts of another, a form of chiasm or concentric structuring.”[30] The point of this loose structure, with regards to the passage at hand, is that Jesus is declaring the Gentiles clean and a part of the kingdom of God.

Finally, the fact that this passage does encourage Gentile Christians in that way and was probably intended to encourage them in that way does not make it any less genuine an event in the life of Jesus.

The case for the historicity of the event in 7:24-30 is already fairly well established, but there is one more topic to discuss that makes it stronger. In both versions of this passage – in Mark and in Matthew – Jesus is not only hesitant to exorcise the demon from the woman’s daughter, he actually uses what can be called a racist term for Gentiles in the discussion. The inclusion of such dialogue is unflattering, to say the least. Such dialogue makes Jesus look less appealing to Gentiles, perhaps. The description of this demon-possessed girl as a “dog” is so harsh that Matthew softens it in his version, adding Jesus’ statement about the Syro-Phoenician woman’s “great” faith.[31] Thus, Jesus looks better for complimenting her and the racist term is counteracted by his strong compliment. Luke, however, writing for a Gentile audience, completely omits the passage from his Gospel.

The harsh strength of the term “dogs” for Gentiles, as well as Luke’s Gentile-minded writing combined with his omission of the entire story, are strong indicators that this encounter was a genuine event in the life of Jesus.

[1] L. W. Hurtado, “Gospel (Genre),” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 277.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 278.

[4] Each canonical Gospel certainly has its distinctive features, but the teachings of Jesus are generally in agreement with each other, as are the narratives, etc. Much of the intricacies of the Synoptic Problem are not dealt with in this study, though it is a significant issue worth the spilling of all that ink over the centuries. For the purposes of this paper, the Synoptic Gospels especially (though John is, as well) are taken as generally the same in tone and message. Where the differences become relevant to the present study, they are discussed.

[5] Hurtado, 278-79.

[6] Ibid., 279-81.

[7] Justin M. Smith, “Genre, Sub-Genre and Questions of Audience: A Proposed Typology for Greco-Roman Biography,” in Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism, v. 4 (2007), 212f.

[8] Ibid., 213. Without belaboring the point, this paper assumes that Mark is writing for a Roman audience. There is a significant argument that Mark wrote for an audience located in Syria, but the style of the Gospel demonstrates an audience who is Roman by culture. Another topic, for another paper, it seems.

[9] Ibid. In addition, it is worth mentioning here that the tradition of Marcan authorship passed down by Papias is significant, but I disagree with Papias on one point. Papias, when quoted by Eusebius, says that Mark “had neither heard the Lord nor been in his company…” (Sean P. Kealy, Mark’s Gospel: A History of its Interpretation [New York: Paulist Press, 1982], 12). This paper maintains that the young man who has to flee naked from Gethsemane is Mark’s signature, essentially, on this Gospel. If, therefore, he was in the Garden with the disciples, then Mark knew Jesus personally. Thus, he would fit the Contemporary category as one who knew Jesus in life and who had a personal interest in writing about the subject.

[10] Philip L. Shuler, A Genre for the Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 41. Emphasis in original.

[11] K. R. Snodgrass, “Parable,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 593.

[12] Ibid., 594.

[13] W. R. Telford, New Testament Theology: The Theology of the Gospel of Mark (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 96. The essential structure is Bultmann’s, though Telford works with it some to see if it can be modified for something more specific, which is both interesting reading and nonessential to the present study.

[14] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001). Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from this tradition.

[15] The possibility of racism, etc., is dealt with in more detail below.

[16] One of those exorcisms takes place in 9:14-29, so any suggestion of a progression of demonstrating his power is on weak ground.

[17] Origen, Commentary on Matthew, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, vol. II: Mark, Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall, eds. (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 95.

[18] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia, Harold W. Attridge, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 365.

[19] Ibid, 1-43. She has a long series of comments about history and historiography in general that, while probably worth the read, could not be dealt with in detail, given the scope of this study.

[20] Floyd V. Filson, A New Testament History, New Testament Library, Alan Richardson, et al, eds. (London: William Clowes & Sons Ltd, 1965), 105.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, ILL: IVP Academic, 1987), 74.

[25] Ibid., 75. Emphasis in original.

[26] Ibid., 78.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 79-80.

[29] See the bibliography for these scholars.

[30] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 230-31.

[31] Mt. 15:21-28


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s