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Do the Dogs Deserve the Crumbs? (Matt 15:27)

Was the Canaanite woman demanding the Jesus exorcise the demon and save her daughter? Some of the translations make it sound like she was.

She is pleading with Jesus, who eventually says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (v 24). She replies, “Lord, help me!” (v 25). (Greek students: you should memorize her answer for the next time you need help in Greek class — κύριε, βοήθει μοι.) Jesus responds, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (v 26).

If you don’t know the story, it would look like Jesus was truly cruel, but I am sure he was pressing her to exercise her faith, if for no other reason to show the disciples what true faith looked like. She truly believed Jesus could save her daughter.

The NIV translates her answer, “‘Yes it is (ναί), Lord,’ she said. ‘Even (καὶ γὰρ) the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table’” (v 27). Doesn’t that sound like she is saying, “Yes, it is right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.”

However, she is really agreeing with Jesus’ statement that it is not right to do so. ναί is a “particle denoting affirmation, agreement, or emphasis,” “certainly, indeed, quite so” (BDAG).

The other translations avoid this problem by translating καί as ascensive and γάρ as adversative. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs” (ESV, see CSB, NRSV). “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps” (NLT).

The interesting thing here is that I can find no adversative sense for γάρ in BDAG. It’s general definition is that γάρ is “used to express cause, clarification, or inference.” (1e) leaves the meaning pretty open; “oft. the thought to be supported is not expressed, but must be supplied fr. the context.” Their point is that sometimes you have to take context into account, a strange idea indeed! (Note the sarcasm.)

Even the NASB says, “but even the dogs feed on the crumbs,” with the footnote on “but,” “Lit for.” To this I say, if γάρ “literally’ means “for,” and if you are producing a “literal’ Bible, then why not translate “literally”? This is becoming a pet peeve of mine, dealing with the illusion that words have a “literal” meaning and that a “literal’ Bible should translate their “literal” meanings. If that were the case, then why not do so here?

The answer is that words do not have a literal meaning, we translate meaning, not form, and translating γάρ in its normal causal or inferential sense miscommunicates. If this is of interest to you, check out some of my video blogs on this topic.

Comments

Very interesting. I'm sorry if this question is misinformed, but I was wondering if "gar" communicates any degree of "respect"? For example, would "but" or "yet" fail to communicate the sense of respect she might have had for Jesus' statement? Even using the words "but" or "yet", I still feel like I can sense her high-degree of respect for Jesus, but I'm just wondering if "gar" conveys that more. I really love these blogs and videos. I'm slowly trying to learn some Greek so that I can understand some of the tools available to us because I really want to hear the sense that is behind the translation more clearly. But my ultimate dream is to one day be able to read the Greek New Testament, but I don't know if that will ever happen - but I saw one of your videos that suggested teaching children Greek instead of Latin as a way to help amplify their English language acquisition, and I am going to take that advice so that if my children ever desire to pick up that dream of reading the NT in Greek - even if I cannot accomplish it myself - maybe someday that will be able to! Thank you so much for your work!

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