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The Syrophoenician Analogy “Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?” – Romans 3:3 Geneva Bible

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The Syrophoenician Analogy:

“Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?”

Romans 3:3 Geneva Bible

 

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“. . . great is thy faithfulness.” -Lamentations 3:23b KJV 

“O woman, great is thy faith. . .” – Matthew 15:28 KJV

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A Startling Discovery

Jesus’ extravagant tribute to the faith of the Syrophoenician woman: “O woman, great is thy faith!” [1] raises a startling question. Was Jesus applying to this Canaanite what Jeremiah had ascribed to the God of Israel in Lamentations 3:23b?  Most significantly, Jesus’ use of the Greek pistis [faith] reflected the Hebrew emunah of Lamentations 3:23b rendered “faithfulness” in English.  Similarly, Paul’s use of the Greek pistis in Galations 3:11 and Romans 1:17 represented the Hebrew emunah of Habakkuk 2:4: “. . . the just shall live by faith.”

Addressing Jesus as “Lord,” the woman of Canaan petitioned the “son of David” on behalf of her demon-oppressed daughter. She did not sidestep, nor was she deterred by, Jesus’ assaying statements: (1) “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” and (2) “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” [2]

Graciously, and adroitly, she countered:

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” [3]

The parallel passage in Mark 7:24-30, particularly verse 29, makes it clear that it was the above response which prompted Jesus’ exclamation, “O woman, great is thy faith!”  Spoken according to the analogy of the faith, the woman’s words bore a prophetic ring [4] serving notice that the Syrophoenician had gotten it!

And, like Simon Peter’s confession, it originated in God Himself [5] –prompting Jesus’ exclamatory praise in the language of Lamentations 3:23b!  The faith [Greek pistis] that so characterized the God of Israel [6] had become her very own. “Deep” was calling to “deep.” [7]  Prompting, testing, and finally affirming in this Canaanite woman a greatness of faith which echoed the great faith[fulness] of the heavenly Father, Jesus startled the ancient world in a way that reverberates into our own. Then in response to her faith Jesus announced, “Be it done for you as you desire!” And the woman’s daughter was healed instantly. [8]

The Hebrew and the Septuagint: emunah and pistis

Emunah occurs forty-nine times in the Hebrew Bible. [9] It is one of several nouns meaning “faith” or “faithfulness” which are derived from the Hebrew verb aman [to be steady, firm, trustworthy; to believe]. The universal “Amen” expressed in the prayers of Christian believers throughout the world comes from aman. Another nounal counterpart of the Hebrew aman was the Hebrew emeth found in Genesis 24:27 and Psalm 85:12 [verse 11 in English versions].  Emeth appears somewhere between 100 and 199 times in the Hebrew Bible. [10]  The King James Version and 1901 American Standard Version rendering of the Hebrew emeth in Psalm 85:11 as “truth” is not necessarily at odds with either the New International Version or the English Standard Version both of which render it “faithfulness” as follows:

Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from heaven.

Since “truth” is derived from the old English “troth,” it is replete with the sense of covenant faithfulness, good faith, or fidelity. To affirm that “faith” (based on the Greek pistis, and understood in the sense of the old English “troth”) “springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from heaven” harmonizes quite well with the major theme of Paul’s Galatian and Roman epistles.

The Case Simply Stated

The case for the connection between Lamentations 23b and Jesus’ commendation of the Syrophoenician’s faith may be stated as follows:

1. To designate the “faith” of the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew 15:28, Jesus deployed the same Greek pistis which the Septuagint translators consistently used to represent the Hebrew emunah (which appears in Lamentations 3:23b);

2. In Lamentations 3:23b the Hebrew rab [variously rendered as “much,” “many,” “plenteous,” “abundant,” or “great”] has the universally attested meaning of “great”;

3. Since Jesus deployed the Greek megas [great] in Matthew 15:28 to describe the faith of the Syrophoenician, it is quite significant that he also used megas in Matthew 5:35 to represent the Hebrew rab [great] of Psalm 48:3 [48:2 in the English Bibles]. Transliterated, the pertinent passage in Matthew 5:35 appears as: “polis esti tou megalou basileos.” [“. . . it is the city of the great King”]. [11]  The Greek megalou is the genitive, masculine, singular of megas –an adjective describing tou basileos [the King].  While the Septuagint writers usually matched the Greek megas with the Hebrew gadol [great], [12]  here is an example of the Lord’s own infallible representation of the Hebrew rab by the Greek megas –also rendered “great.”

4. Using the Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, this writer counted at least 113 instances of the Hebrew rab being rendered “great” in the King James Version of the Old Testament;

5. The fact that Lamentations 3:22-24 is missing from the extant Septuagint manuscripts [13] is irrelevant. Even if the Septuagint omission of Lamentations 3:22-24 were discovered and found to contain the Greek polle [from polus] in verse 23b, the meaning in this instance would remain unchanged. For the Greek polus has the identical range of meaning as the Hebrew rab.

6. Conclusion: It is well substantiated that Jesus’ words spoken to the Syrophoenician in Matthew 15:28, if not an exact replication of the original Septuagintal translation, constituted a verbatim Greek rendering of the Hebrew affirmation in Lamentations 3:23b.

Christ’s Prerogative and Purpose

For Jesus of Nazareth intentionally to extol the Syrophoenician woman’s faith by applying the language of Lamentations 3:23b was certainly his prerogative, and would not have diminished in the least his own analogy of being. Identifying himself as the “I AM” of Exodus 3:14, [14]  Jesus of Nazareth put infinite distance between himself and every created human being. His remarkable commendation of the Syrophoenician’s faith, echoing Lamentations 3:23b, upheld, rather than obscured, that line of distinction. The Syrophoenician was, in fact, blessed, and her daughter in turn, by that orderly hypostatic union of humanity and Deity in the singular person of the Son who was born under the law “in the fulness of time” in order to redeem those under the law–both Jews and Greeks. [15]

The Master’s deployment of the language of Lamentations 3:23b concerned the substance of the Syrophoenician woman’s faith, rather than the degree of it, unless, of course, the greatness of it was by way of contrast with so many superficial or weak expressions of faith which Jesus encountered among the tribes of Israel. [16]

Jesus’ joyous acclamation of the Syrophoenician’s faith reminds us mere mortals of the awesome fact that we too are made partakers of the divine nature “now that faith has come,” as Christ’s new covenant is wholeheartedly embraced. [17]  Faith[fulnes] is an attribute of the Almighty–indeed a communicable attribute of the first order whereby an unrighteous lost soul is justified or declared righteous in His presence.  For the incarnate Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, was sent by the heavenly Father to restore faith to an elect humanity through the gospel events recorded in the New Testament. [18]

The restoration or return of that faith[fulness] which was breached in the Garden of Eden by the serpent’s cunning, the women’s deception, and Adam’s transgression, constitutes the essence of reconciliation. For through faith, a union with Christ occurs whereby the righteousness of God is imputed to the fallen totally apart from the works of the law. Only in this way is the law upheld. [19]  That glorious faith which is imparted through the preaching of the gospel [20] places humans in a position far exceeding that of Adam–even unfallen Adam. [21]  To minimize faith in the program of redemption, therefore, is to minimize “the victory that overcometh the world.” [22] Jesus did not minimize faith–He maximized it!: “O woman, great is your faith!”

Epilogue.

The Syrophoenician woman’s analogy, whereby she compared herself to the little puppy dogs that eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table, reflected a remarkable awareness of that biblical analogy of being so intrinsic to such passages as John 8:58 and Isaiah 40:15-17. [23] “. . . he that cometh to God must believe that he is. . .” [24]   Otherwise her statement would have amounted to nothing more than a “talking about talk.” [25]

As America’s first philosopher noted,

The first objective ground of gracious affections, is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or to self-interest. [26]

Just as the analogy of faith is unthinkable apart from the analogy of being, so the faith of God and the fear of God go hand in hand. With a heart-felt awareness of that objective order, the Syrophoenician did not think of herself more highly than was appropriate.  Both Matthew and Mark included, and the church-at-large affirmed, this account among the upward [ana] oracles [logia] of the faith–that written standard for all generations of the church of Jesus Christ.

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Endnotes

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[1]. Matt. 15:28 emphasis mine

[2]. Matt. 15:24, 25

[3]. Matt. 15:27

[4]. Note the Greek analogia in Romans 12:6.

[5]. Matt. 16:17

[6]. Rom. 3:3 KJV; See previous articles: “1800 Years of History Undone?” and “Onward to the Obvious.”

[7]. Ps. 42:7

[8]. Matt. 15:28

[9]. George M. Landes, A Student’s Vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew, p.5

[10].  Landes, p. 5

[11]. Keil and Delitzsch, Old Testament Commentaries, 3:1238

[12]. Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 4:530

[13]. For a discussion of this omission, see “Lamentations: To the Reader” in A New English Translation of the Septuagint at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/36-lam-nets.pdf. Joseph Ziegler’s critical apparatus designed to account for the missing text suggests that the Greek polle, rather than megas, was the adjective modifying pistis in Lamentations 3:23, perhaps based upon the reading of the modern Greek Bible.

[14]. John 8:58

[15]. Gal. 4:4-5; Rom. 2:14-15

[16].  Matt. 16:8; John 2:23-25; 6:26-29

[17]. Gal. 3:25; 2 Pet. 1:4

[18]. 1 Tim. 2:5

[19]. Rom. 1:31

[20]. Rom. 10:14-17

[21]. David C. Brand, Profile of the Last Puritan, pp. 101-102

[22]. 1 John 5:4-5

[23]. See Joel R. Beeke, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, pp. 671-672

[24]. Heb. 11:6b

[25].  See Gerstner, Dr. John H., The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 1:70-75. The eminent theologian-scholar, Dr. Gerstner, took Karl Barth, Blaise Pascal, and Wiggenstein, among others, to task over this issue.

[26]. Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on Religious AffectionsWorks, 1:274.

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Sources 

Analytical Greek Lexicon, The: Consisting of An alphabetical Arrangement of Every Occurring Inflexion of Every word Contained in the Greek New Testament Scriptures, with a Grammatical Analysis of Each word, and Lexicographical Illustration of the Meanings. A complete Series of Paradigms, with Grammatical Remarks and Explanations. n.d. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.

A New English Translation of the Septuagint. 2007. By the International Organization of Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Inc. New York: OxfordUniversity Press. http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/36-lam-nets.pdf The New English Translation of the Septuagint Online NETS: New English Translation of the Septuagint. 2009. http://ancientworldonline.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-new-english-translation-of.html

Archer, Gleason L, Jr. 1964. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago: Moody Press.

Arnt, William F. And F. Wilbur Gingrich. 1957. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Beeke, Joel R. And Mark Jones. 2012. A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books.

Brand, David C. 1991. Profile of the Last Puritan: Jonathan Edwards, Self-Love, and the Dawn of the Beatific. AmericanAcademy of Religion. Academy Series. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Brown, Frances; S. R. Driver; and Charles A. Briggs. [1907] 1962. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Araimic. Based on the Lexicon of William Gesenius as Translated by Edward Robinson. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.

Edwards, Jonathan. 1879. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, A.M., rev. & ed., Edward Hickman, 2 vols. 12th edition. London: William Tegg & Co.

Gerstner, John H. 1991. The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards. In Three Volumes. Powhatan, Virginia: Berea Publications/Orlando, Florida: Ligonier Ministries.

Harris, R. Laird, ed.; Gleason L. Archer, Jr, assoc. ed..; and Bruce K. Waltke, assoc. ed. 1980. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Second printing. 1981. 2 vols. Chicago: Moody Press.

Kautzsch, E., ed. 1910. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. Second English Edition. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.

Keil and Delitzsch. n.d. Old Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Associated Publishes and Authors, Inc.

Kittel, Rudolf. 1949. Biblia Hebraica. Stuttgart, Germany: Privileg. Wurtt. Bibelanstalt.

Kittel, Gerhard, ed. 1964. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Translated and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Landes, George M. 1961. A Student’s Vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew: Listed According to Frequency and Cognate. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Tenth Edition. 1994. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated.

Strong, James. 1894. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Tulsa, Oklahoma: American Christian College Press.

Young, Edward J. 1960. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

About the Writer

 

David Clark Brand is a retired pastor and educator with missionary experience in Korea and Arizona. He and his wife reside in Ohio. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. With a B.A. in the Liberal Arts, an M. Div., and a Th.M. in Church History, Dave continues to enjoy study and writing. One of his books, a contextual study of the life and thought of Jonathan Edwards, was published by the American Academy of Religion via Scholars Press in Atlanta.

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