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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 60, 2012

ALAN H. CADWALLADER, Beyond the Word of a Woman: Recovering the Bodies of the Syrophoenician Women (Hindmarsh, SA: ATF Press, 2008). Pp. xxxviii + 374. $44.00

‘Magisterial’ is probably not a word Alan Cadwallader would wish to have applied to this book with its male feminist engagement with the text of Mark 7:24–30, since ‘magisterial’ might be thought to have ‘kyriarchal’ overtones. But the scope and scholarly detail of the work, the depth of its approach, and the engagement with ancient sources support this description. The book’s argument, moreover, is compelling and fresh.

Beyond the Word engages its reader on a journey of discovery concerning the ancient background to a text that has already been much considered in feminist biblical scholarship. Cadwallader uses the theory of ethology, a mode of describing human behaviour in terms of the behaviour of other animals such as dogs, mice or chimpanzees, as one interpretive key for his analysis. In the ancient world behind the text, ethology is evident largely in literature and oral discourse; in our contemporary world it appears particularly in the mode of scientific experiment. With careful attention to primary sources, Cadwallader argues that the reference to dogs in Jesus’ response (7:27) to the woman’s request on behalf of her daughter (7:26) cannot be interpreted as other than offensive.

The linking of woman and dog is part of a logocentric world view where both are understood as outside of, or lacking, reason. This linkage is key to Cadwallader’s unfolding argument and his interpretation of the woman’s response. With skill, Cadwallader analyses the words of the woman (7:28) beside the words of Jesus (7:28) (esp. 162–67). He shows that not only does the woman speak reason, identified by the male protagonist, namely Jesus, as logos (7:29), but she does this more elegantly than her interlocutor. Beyond the Word makes a case, however, for taking the interpretation of Mark 7:24–30 beyond this reading of the force of her logos. That it is the male protagonist who identifies her speech as logos remains problematic for Cadwallader (esp. 216–24). If this were where the story ended, the episode might keep its hearer within the logocentric universe where the narrator’s description of the woman (7:26) and the offensive retort of the Markan Jesus (7:27) seem to place it.

Comparing 7:24–30 with other episodes in the Gospel of Mark, such as 5:1–20, Cadwallader rejects readings that interpret the woman’s word primarily as teaching the Markan Jesus about his mission to the gentiles. Rather, in his final chapter Cadwallader ask his reader to focus on the other female in the story, the one described as daughter (thugatrion 7:25, thugater 7:29) and child (paidion 7:30). Drawing on the shift in focus from 7:29 to 7:30, he argues for a shift in focus from word to body. The last word is given to a woman’s embodiment of her release (7:30). This female embodiment which he reads as inhabiting a space of relationship between women-mother and daughter, courtesan and companion, older woman and younger woman—if not outside the logocentric world of the text is, in some senses, counter to it and undoes its logocentric force, becoming an interpretive key for the entire story.

While the book is replete with interpretive highlights, it is this final chapter that provides a satisfying turn in, and insightful conclusion to, Cadwallader’s reading of Mark 7:24–30. Again he appeals not only to a close reading of the Greek but to a reading which listens for the rhetorical effects of language in its material contexts (esp. 242–46). He challenges translations of the text that efface the women’s bodies when they presume that the male character absent from the final verse should provide the focus for its interpretation. Instead, read in the context of the references to food in the episode and the range of uses of kline more generally, 7:30 can be translated to reveal the woman returning home to find her daughter taking her place (reclining) at the table, and the unclean spirit gone. The exorcism occurs not only because of the word of a woman (7:29) but “beyond” this word because of the prior and continuing relationship between the women (7:25, 30). Cadwallader allows the narrator’s descriptions of the bodies of the women, their embodied actions at the outset and the end of the narrative to speak back to the drama of the word passed between the woman and the Markan Jesus.

The chapters are titled in relation to the problematic identification of the women with dogs and this left me somewhat uneasy, as while Cadwallader identifies and critiques the derision of the woman as alogos, the wider question of the derision of dogs and other animals that this ethological framework entails receives little comment. But this is a minor point in what is a rich and rewarding book.

While the level of detail in Beyond the Word can be challenging for the reader, it is a challenge I hope many will take up. The book deserves a readership well beyond the world of feminist and postmodern biblical criticism. Cadwallader’s work on ancient sources alone should be read by scholars of Mark for the insights it offers into the world behind the text. Moreover, his attention to the poetics of the Greek text are too rare in synoptic scholarship. I recommend this book to all serious students of Mark’s Gospel.

Review by
Monash University and MCD University of Divinity