Understanding the Good Samaritan Parable

Who were the Samaritans?

This article was originally published in January 2012. It has been updated.—Ed.


 
Understanding the Good Samaritan Parable

Dr. Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University explains how getting an accurate answer to the question “Who were the Samaritans?” can shed light on how shocking the Good Samaritan parable would have been to Jesus’ audience.

The Good Samaritan parable is one of the most beloved gospel stories for young and old alike. The story is told in Luke 10:29–37: A man going from Jerusalem to Jericho is attacked by robbers who strip him and beat him. A priest and a Levite pass by without helping him. But a Samaritan stops and cares for him, taking him to an inn where the Samaritan pays for his care.

As Dr. Amy-Jill Levine discusses in a column in the January/February 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, the story has proven a popular one for sermons over the years, and it has been interpreted in many different ways—ranging from a tale about ritual purity to lessons about personal safety and even freedom fighters or universal healthcare. These sometimes-unusual interpretations are no doubt an attempt to find meaning in the parable for the times and concerns of a changing audience. And although that may be a worthy cause, Levine notes that in order to grasp the full import of the story, one must understand the times and concerns of first-century Judea, where Jesus and his followers lived. To do this, one must understand the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. This is sometimes hinted at in modern interpretations of the parable but rarely fully grasped.

So who were the Samaritans, really? Levine explains that they were not simply outcasts: They were the despised enemies of the Jews. Yet where listeners would have expected a Jew to be the hero of Jesus’ story, instead they would have been shocked to hear that it is a Samaritan. As Levine explains, only by understanding this reality does the powerful message of the parable come through:

The parable offers … a vision of life rather than death. It evokes 2 Chronicles 28, which recounts how the prophet Oded convinced the Samaritans to aid their Judean captives. It insists that enemies can prove to be neighbors, that compassion has no boundaries, and that judging people on the basis of their religion or ethnicity will leave us dying in a ditch.

Read more from Dr. Amy-Jill Levine about interpreting the Good Samaritan parable in Biblical Views, “The Many Faces of the Good Samaritan—Most Wrong,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2012.
 


 
Interested in Biblical parables? Read the Bible History Daily feature “The Parables of Jesus.”
 


 

Related Reading

Inn from the Good Samaritan Parable Becomes a Museum

The Samaritan Schism

Dating of the Samaritan Temple on Mt. Gerizim

Ancient Samaria and Jerusalem

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  1. Edoardo Shmuel says

    The narrative of the Good Samaritan was written well after the event. The word Samaritan doesn’t only mean the member of this community, it also simply designs in general an inhabitant of the region of Samaria, in Israel. The story wants to underline that after some priestly Cohen or Levi, just a common man had mercy. Even today, when a Jew wants to get married, he is asked if he is a Cohen, a Levi or ISRAEL, because the laws of getting married are different. Evidently, to the transcribers of the Gospel it did sound difficult to write the story of the “good Israel”!

  2. Sharon says

    It is interesting to see the manner in which various groups interpret the same story. It reminds one of the concept of “spin”. We tend to forget that while all of the parables have meaning beyond the time in which they occurred, we should not lose sight of their historical context.

  3. John says

    From a non-scholar’s view I see a story with many facetted meanings. First, it is the story of man with God (Jerusalem=Garden), his fall, redemption and life until the ‘Samaritan’s’ return. Second, halfway through he was beset upon to ultimately kill him. Taking of his outer garment left him without his true identity. Priest (religion) could not save him. Self-righteousness by observance could not (Levite = Law). Only compassion from one who did not owe it (Jews only neighbor was another Jew) had the means (wine=blood of sacrifice; oil=Spirit). Inn is God’s favor toward believer in this life. Two denarii (days wages = two God Days). Samaritan’s return will assure every requirement settled by Him, not man.
    Most all the sermons are still valid. It is just without First Century ‘ears’ much of the story’s impact is missed, including the discussion with the lawyer leading up to Jesus telling the story.
    I much appreciated Professor Levine’s enlightened historical explanation of the Inn and where it was on the road. I thought it was near the end of the journey. Her explanation brings much more clarity to my understanding of the Good Samaritan.

  4. Rachel says

    I am doing a report on the Good Samaritin, and if there are any kids out here reading this, please read on because this is in a translation that kids can understand. So one day, robbers came and attacked a man who was traveling on the road. The bad men left him half dead. Some people came along the road, but they passed by him, thinking that they were better than him. Then, finaly, a person stopped to help. This man was a samaritan, and the Samaritans and this man were not friends.(they were enemies) Even though their people did not like eachother, the nice samaritan came, put him on his own prized donkey, helped clean up his bloody wounds (boo-boos for kids), and took him to an inn (hotel) to stay in. The samaritan paid for the visit with a lot of his money. Then when Jesus finished talking, he asked his follwers around him which person they were: The men that passed him, or the Samaritan. Jesus was trying to say to be nice to your enemies, even when you despise (hate) them the most. That is what the samaritan did

  5. TeresaShira says

    You’re all missing the real story. This was not a real story (it’s a “parable” after all) and was written when followers of Jesus were trying to distance themselves from Jews and the Torah. The author of the story purposefully puts the Cohen and Levite in a bad light because he wants to portray Jews as heartless. He tops it off by having the hero be a member of the Samaritans, who were in fact enemies of the Jews. (It was the Samaritans who tried to keep the second Temple from being rebuilt.) It is an anti-Jewish story, and that’s it.

  6. Gnarlodious says

    The “parable” was anti-Jew propaganda intended to wrest religious legitimacy from the priesthood by portraying Jews as not human. Just one of a long list of badmouthing and wedge-driving perpetrated by Christians in their campaign of replacement theology. The same propaganda technique has been used through the centuries to justify persecution and mass murder. Not exactly something Christianity should be proud of.

  7. neil says

    Jesus was a Jew, His followers were Jews, the people he was telling the story to were Jews, its reasonable to presume that the main character of the story was a Jew. This is not an anti Jewish story; it is a story about religious pretense vs true acts of love and self sacrifice.

  8. JAllan says

    The story may have been adapted to an anti-Jewish purpose, but remember, Matthew was a Jewish Christian writing AFTER the fall of the Temple, when Sadducee leadership was no longer viable (without literal sacrifices) and the Pharisees were contending with the Messianic Jews for influence. Matthew’s view was that Judaism should proceed with Messianic rabbis in charge, but this did not happen because the influx of Gentiles took the Jewishness out of the church. Christian era Judaism evolved, therefore, from the Pharisees, most of whom were actually reasonable and would have endorsed this parable.

    Nevertheless, in the form that Jesus may have told it, the parable is less anti-Jewish than anti-ESTABLISHMENT. The powerful men in Judaism were MORE concerned with ritual purity than with compassion, and they condemned Samaritans because of their LACK of purity as seen by Jews and because of differences in theology (e.g. Samaritans believed in pre-Davidic practices of worship). Jesus is saying that ritual purity and theology were irrelevant when the situation called for loving kindness (chesed), so the impure heretic was the true righteous (tzedek) man. Some American retellings (in the 1960′s South) had a black person as the Samaritan. Today it might be a GAY black MUSLIM!

    John’s metaphorical interpretation (3 above) also has some good points. In this case, it could be an expansion on the Prodigal Son, in which the victim of the robbers is the RETURNING Prodigal. But Neil (7) sums up the way I understand it. The religious establishment, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim or whatever, sometimes gets in the way of the basic teaching.

  9. Viorel says

    Viorel Lingurar
    The Good Samaritan parable:
    Just like everything in the Bible the minute you take it out of context you further yourself from the intended meaning.. The entire parable is an answer to a question, also understanding the historical political, economic, situation of that time gives a deeper meaning
    When we read the Bible we have to let the Bible tell us its message

  10. Henry says

    The Good Samaritan story proves that one does not have to be a Christian, Jew, or a member of any religion to know right from wrong. The Good Samaritan acts because he knows it is the right thing to do and not from the expectation of a reward or the fear of punishment. . He doesn’t need the Ten Commandments or a priest or a religious leader to tell him what to do when he comes upon a fellow human being in distress. In that sense he is a secular humanist acting out of love.

  11. Daniel says

    It’s shocking to see how misinterpreted this parable is. The man who is robbed and beaten within an inch of his life represents us, as in mankind. The fact that a Samaritan, an enemy of the Jews had to help the man means that the man was absolutely incapable of doing anything to save himself. This parable shows us that we are helpless beings as sinners and we are in a position that makes us receive aid even from our most hated enemies. We are to rely on God’s grace only as we are in no position to do ANYTHING for ourselves. This also tells us that we cannot do anything to earn our salvation, or even add to it. God does everything for us and we are to just acknowledge this and trust that he will make us into beings that are holy in His eyes. I emphasize the point that HE, as in God, makes us into the people he really wants us to be, which are perfect people.

  12. Matt says

    After looking at some of the comments I can see what the article author meant about so many interpretations! If you look at the context, it’s a direct explanation of “love your neighbour as yourself”, not an extended metaphor.

  13. ROBERT says

    I find it interesting that famous parables in the New Testament need to be explained in a way to validate their meaning. Historical facts and scientific facts have proved that many things in the new testament were written by persons who were not present or even alive at the time the events took place. The writers obviously were enemys of the Jewish religion or people or they wouldn’t be making the Jews the bad guy or scape goat. It’s easy to dismiss the fact that early Christian Emperors murdered thousands of non christians sometimes in a day, burned heritics to death,and many unfair and disgraceful practices continued for two thousand years right up to the present day. The Jews of biblical times were taught to obey 613 commandments. It seems highly unlikely that they were such bad people. The evidense isn’t there. The mass burial sites,concentration camps,gettos,destruction of houses of worship,desecration of graves,burning of books,and stealing of property by Christians and their leaders is swept under the carpet. There is alot of evidence showing who the criminals are. However, smoehow we seem to focus on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

  14. JAllan says

    To Robert (13), the parable is NOT making Jews as such the “bad guys” (or “misguided guys”), but the people in charge of the Jewish nation. Poor Jews who could not afford the “props” to put their religion on display were despised by those who could. Jews who had certain disabilities or diseases (such as “leprosy,” which may or may not be what modern medicine calls Hansen’s Disease) were “ritually impure” for life, so they were not “acceptable” in the Temple. In Jesus’ audience the poor would have understood the moral faults of the Priest and the Levite, because many of them were treated the same way as the injured man was by Priests and Levites. The Samaritan was a surprise because the Jewish power structure had long (since the return from Babylon) taught that EVERY Jew should hate EVERY Samaritan, yet this “enemy” was treating the man in the story the way every poor Jew in the audience would have WANTED to be treated himself, but would not have EXPECTED a Samaritan to treat him.

    This allowed Jesus to make the point that having a HEART turned toward God was more important than making lists of commandments and checking off the ones that had been obeyed and the ones that had not. This made the message of Jesus acceptable to Gentiles (that is, the rest of the world) as a universal message. Unfortunately, later generations used parables like this and twisted them into hatred of Jews in general. Obviously Jesus never meant this nor did Matthew, who was writing as a Jew to Jews (primarily Hellenistic Jews outside Judea, since he wrote in Greek, and the Greek does not read “like a translation” from an Aramaic original, which has never been discovered) about who should lead the Jewish faith.

  15. Arlon says

    Maybe a correction, it’s not a gospel. It’s a parable. Jesus is the gospel. He is the good news. :)

  16. Alexandra says

    Interesting discussion. I now see more clearly that the parable is about about our utter need for God’s mercy. (yes, we are the victim). But we are also challenged to be like the Samaritan. The parable is clearly a warning to us that we should not let our own power and prestige (priest and Levite ) make us cold to the needs of others. We need to be humble, like a warefaring stranger despised and neglected (Samaritan). That is, we need to have compassion on others, as Jesus (represented by the Samaritan) does on us. One more thing. Do you notice that the innkeeper agrees to in effect lend his own money ,relying on a promise from a travelling Samaritan that he (a total stranger and a foreigner), will pay him back? The innkeeper too is a good neighbor.

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  18. Eleanor says

    At least twice Jesus affirms the election of the Jews by God through whom salvation for the world comes (himself) to the (Samaritan) woman at the well and the (Phoenician) woman who is willing to accept the leftover crumbs from Jews. Jesus weeps (in love) over Jerusalem. In reference to himself as the bridegroom on many occasions he is alluding (within the understanding of his hearers) to the betrothed relationship between God and his people, the Jews. Jesus loves his Jewish people and is heartbroken by their rejection, as in later times by his grafted in bride, the “Church.” So be thankful for his forgiveness, grace, love and salvation, that you will live forever in his presence in the glorious marriage to come.

  19. Alethea says

    The lawyer answered his own question The one that showed mercy and Jesus said go and do the same. What is so hard to understand!
    Remember Jesus was from the line of Judah and the line of Aaron the high Priest. He was a King and a Priest.

  20. E.T.V. says

    Jesus came to teach the New church Nation. yet the Old Church Nation also teaches the same thing. Love God with all your soul and strength. love thy neighbor as thyself. no matter what religion they are. teach the coming of Christ to all.

  21. Hope says

    A modern day interpretation.

    A welfare recipient is beaten and left on the side of the rd. A pastor and a PTO soccer mom, fresh home from adopting her missionary African baby, walk by the beaten victim. A gay man dressed to the nine in his most Fabulous pride parade costume stops and exclaims OMG… (yes…just a word…don’t give it power…duh) He takes the welfare recipient to an inn and pays for her care. Through his compassion he awarded the kingdom of heaven ( Its within and cannot be accessed without the key of love)

    I simply cannot understand how followers can’t get this. Then again I can’t expect a small child to grasp quantum physics. I beg for a change of mind, a rebirth of spirit, and for Childish (consciousness) to be put away..You see only in part now…Please….head to the then…the complete. ……
    if you find this offensive, please read Corinthians 13 twenty times or until you understand. This is a message of love and absolute frustration with the lack of love and discernment of spirit in the Christian community.

  22. Rick says

    Has the charge of Samaritan syncretistism been proven? I’ve seen the charge many many times, but some scholarship describes the schism in terms of differing interpretation and practice. Remember, the winners write the history.

Continuing the Discussion

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