Understanding the Good Samaritan Parable

Who were the Samaritans?


Gustave Dore, The Good Samaritan. 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.

Understanding the Good Samaritan Parable

Dr. Amy-Jill Levine

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.

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The Galilee is one of the most evocative locales in the New Testament—the area where Jesus was raised and where many of the Apostles came from. Our free eBook The Galilee Jesus Knew focuses on several aspects of Galilee: how Jewish the area was in Jesus’ time, the ports and the fishing industry that were so central to the region, and several sites where Jesus likely stayed and preached.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Recovering the Original Meaning of Matthew’s Parables by Helmut Koester

Inn from the Good Samaritan Parable Becomes a Museum

The Samaritan Schism

Dating of the Samaritan Temple on Mt. Gerizim

Ancient Samaria and Jerusalem

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in January 2012.


Posted in Archaeologists, Biblical Scholars & Works.

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  • Rex says

    Good interpretation, what might have been the meaning of 2 pence paid?

  • Veloo says

    LDS, that’s a superb explanation.thanks.

  • LDS says

    There are many levels of understanding for this parable, and it is sad to see the deeper meanings have been lost. Yes, we can see the obvious one about our own need to be compassionate and care for those who are hurting. But, early Christians knew another one, a deeper one. Writers like Irenaeus, Clement, Ambrose, Origen, and others taught that Jesus was the Good Samaritan and that the wounded man represented each of us individually, and also all of mankind entirely.

    The priest (“the Law”) and the Levite (“the prophets”) did not (or could not) save mankind in their sins. It was the “outcast” (Jesus) that bound his wounds, “anointed” him with oil and wine, and carried his burden to the inn (the Church) where he would be safe (literally saving the man from spiritual death). In the end, he left the man in the innkeeper’s care, and promised to come again to his “church”.

    Hey, don’t argue with me about the interpretation, I’m just sharing what the first Christians believed. It would do others good to learn more about them…

    • LVIV says

      This is an awesome interpretation. Thanks for sharing.

  • Steven says

    Thanks for this gesture ! ..

  • Michael says

    I think that this is message meaning no matter who they are love them

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