Earlier this month, Reverend Brandan Robertson posted a video on Tik Tok titled, “Jesus a Racist?” The video went viral and was liked by over two thousand people by week’s end. Part of its appeal, no doubt, is because people wanted to know what evidence was behind Robertson’s accusation of Jesus as a racist. With a title like that, who wouldn’t click to find out what angle he’s taking?
Robertson begins by asking, “Did you know that there’s a part of the Gospel of Mark where Jesus uses a racial slur?” (On his Twitter account, Robertson also posted a video of one of his former professors who claims Jesus “had to learn how not to imitate the racism of his culture.”) Robertson explains that Jesus uses a derogatory term to insult the woman, who refuses to back down. Like any good 21st-century progressive, she stands up to Jesus and “speaks truth to power” to confront Jesus’ “prejudices and biases.” Ultimately, the woman wins, causing Jesus to change his mind and repent of his racism.
How much truth is there to this interpretation? Easy answer: none.
Perhaps the greatest problem with the video is that Robertson has committed the textual sin of eisegesis – that is, reading a presupposition or bias into the passage in question (its opposite is exegesis, or “reading from the text,” the proper way to interpret a text). He has ignored the plain teaching of the passage and has inserted his reading instead.
The text seems to say that Jesus called the woman a dog when she asked him to heal her daughter. There’s a slight difference between the word Jesus used (kunarion) and the term referring to a wild, scavenging canine (kuon, Matthew 7:6; Luke 16:21; Philippians 3:2). Jews often used the latter as a slur for Gentiles. The term Jesus uses is a diminutive word meaning “pet dog” or “puppy” (a diminutive is a particular form of a word to connote smallness, intimacy, or endearment) So how do we understand this exchange? Calling someone a “small dog” isn’t too far off from calling them a “filthy animal,” right?
Correctly interpreting the text indicates that Jesus is testing the Syrophoenician woman. He gives her the typical response she might expect from an ordinary Jew, not what he thinks himself. As commentator R. T. France observes, “written words cannot convey a twinkle in the eye, and it may be that Jesus was almost jocularly presenting her with the sort of language she might expect from a Jew in order to see how she would react” (Matthew, p. 247).
Jesus sometimes tested people to gauge their true nature or intentions. One example appears in Matthew 8:5-13 when the centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant. Textual considerations indicate that v.7 is probably best understood as a question (“Am I to come and cure him?”; see also John 4:16-18). Lots of people went to Jesus because they wanted something from him. He fed and healed hundreds, if not thousands of people. Many wanted to see or receive a miracle. Even today, people still come to Jesus not for who he is but what he can do for them. Jesus wants to see if the woman is easily deterred. With a quick-witted but humble response, she indicates that she will stand her ground—and Jesus praises her for it.
But if Robertson is right and Jesus did repent of racism (which is indicated nowhere in the text), this destroys the entire New Testament system of salvation which is predicated upon Jesus being a sinless sacrifice for humanity’s sins (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 7:27; 1 Peter 1:18-19; 1 John 3:5). If Jesus is the racist (or misogynist, as others have tried to argue) that Robertson claims, then he is not the spotless sacrifice demanded by God’s justice. If that is the case, no one can be saved.
Robertson’s uber-progressive, socially-conscious depiction of Jesus demands a total rewrite of New Testament theology. Jesus becomes a good but flawed example of obedience instead of the savior of humanity. The gospel is not the good news authored by God but pliable, flexible teaching with which we interact creatively. Sin becomes a corporate issue involving uncaring, selfish, and abusive systems and institutions instead of something for which God holds us personally accountable. This is part and parcel of the progressive gospel that Robertson promotes.
The attempt to inject activism into the Bible to expose racism is no different from 18th– and 19th-century attempts to perpetuate it. After all, racists pointed to the same passage in Matthew’s Gospel to defend their bigotry. Both are two sides of the same coin. Maybe they should learn that God uses a different currency.
Did Jesus use a racial slur? Not unless you’re trying to read that preconception into the Bible.