Reading Justice – Mark 7.24-30 and Euripides’ Jocasta

Euripides (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while ago, as my class was meandering through the Gospel According to St. Mark, I mentioned (again) that to read GMark properly, one must have a good grasp of allusions and external sources. I believe, and have stated before (my book, ]], that there exists a strong possibility the Syrophoenician woman has a strong allusion to Euripides’ Phoinissai.

There are thematic elements, to be sure:

Jocasta associates justice with the order of the universe. She personifies the idea of isotês (‘equity’), as Eteocles personified and deified the idea of tyranny/monarchy (506), and describes it as a cosmic principle of universal applicability (541-6), which has taken the form of cyclic change, succession of opposites or periodicity, as happens, for example, when day and night succeed each other in turn. The philosopher Heracleitus, who focused on the juxtaposition and unity of opposites, had remarked that ‘The Sun shall not outdo the day; otherwise, the Furies, helpers of Justice, shall find him’ (fr. 94 D-K). In the Euripidean passage, equality takes on a political resonance which evokes the ideal of the same political and legal rights as the prerequisite of democ­racy. This ideal informed the political discourse of the Athenians of the fifth century and is reflected for example both in Pericles’ discussion of the Athenian democracy in Thucydides (2.37.1) and in Theseus’ similar remarks in Euripides’ Suppliants (404). – Papadopolou, Euripides.

If Jesus in Mark is bringing about something radically new in the political realm (don’t separate church and state just yet), then we get the sense that the Syrophoenician woman is demanding equality for the Gentiles in the new kingdom inaugurated by Jesus (i.e., equality with the Jews).

There is more. In one scene, there is a near verbatim quote, paralleled between Creon and the Syrophoenician woman:

What? Isn’t it right for that other to be given to the dogs?

No, for the vengeance you are exacting is not a lawful one.

Yes, if he was his country’s enemy, when not born an enemy.

Well, he rendered up his destiny to fate.

Let him now pay the penalty in his burial too.

Read the scene. The entire scene. How does this shape your understanding of the death of Jesus?

Now, what about the entire idea of equality between Jew and Gentile?

Am I convinced GMark is trying to get you to hear something of Euripides? Yes, and notably because others have seen something of Euripides in other Gospel accounts (Origen, Contra Celisum 2.34). Does this make the accounts false or untrue? No, especially if you understand how ancient writers worked their magic.


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One Reply to “Reading Justice – Mark 7.24-30 and Euripides’ Jocasta”

  1. I’m not a theologian as good and relevant as you are, Joel, but it seems obvious that the pursuit of equality from a Gentile to a Jew both in the social aspect as in the religious is present throughout the N.T. – Acts 6 describes that pursuit in the social aspect rather clearly; Paul settles it in the religious aspect in his epistles.
    I give all credence to those like you who study and demonstrate that, many used the event and teachings of Jesus to inject their social and religious aspirations of equality (and perhaps a few others) in their writings. Contrary to what many propose, that this is an argument against authenticity of the events narrated in the N.T. and divine inspiration, I content that this rather reinforces the principle of inspiration as the issues approached by the message of the Gospel writers were not issues taken off some “magical hat” unknown to their target audiences. God is very smart in communicating with finite beings!

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