The Canaanite Woman: A Conflict between Matthew and Mark?

In two Gospel narratives, representing the same incident, one writer refers to a certain woman as a Canaanite, while another calls her a Syrophoenician Greek. Does this constitute a Bible contradiction?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

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“Do the two accounts of the woman whose daughter was sick (Mt. 15:21-28; Mk. 7:24-30) refer to the same incident? If so, why is the lady called ‘a Canaanite woman’ in Matthew’s account, but she is referred to as ‘a Greek, a Syrophoenician’ in Mark’s record?”

There is no conflict between the accounts. The explanation has to do with the fact that the two writers — Matthew and Mark — are directing their respective documents to different segments of that ancient society. Thus, they adapt their terminology to the understanding of their targeted recipients.

  1. Matthew tailors his record for the Jews. This is apparent from a number of different vantage points. For example, his heavy reliance upon the Old Testament scriptures indicates this. He is writing for those who accept the Old Testament Scriptures as authoritative.

    Accordingly, with reference to this woman who lived in the sea-coast region in northwestern Palestine, he calls her a “Canaanite” lady. The pagan inhabitants of the land which Israel conquered under Joshua were known as Canaanites, being descended from Canaan, the grandson of Noah (Gen. 9:18). Many of the Canaanites had been pushed northward into Phoenicia when the Hebrews invaded the territory. This dear woman was designated as a Canaanite because her ancestry was of these despised enemies of Israel.
  2. Mark, on the other hand, is writing for the benefit of the Romans, who controlled the Mediterranean world of the first century. His Roman interest is seen, for instance, in the Latin forms which he employs to render Greek equivalents (cf. 3:17; 5:41; 7:11,34; 14:36; 15:22,34).

    This woman lived in Phoenicia (which, politically speaking, belonged to the province of Syria). Hence, she is designated a Syrophoenician. She is further denominated as a “Greek” because she had absorbed the Greek culture, obviously speaking that language. In the New Testament, the term Hellen (“Greek”) frequently is used in the generic sense of simply a “Gentile” (Jn. 7:35; Acts 9:29; Rom. 1:16, etc.; see: F.W. Danker, Greek-English Lexicon, Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000, p. 318).

These two texts regarding this noble Gentile woman do not conflict at all. Rather, they are wonderfully complimentary, reflecting the individuality of the two sacred writers.