Sight Magazine – Sight-Seeing: We call people ‘good Samaritans’, but there’s a complex story behind that phrase



“Good Samaritan” is a label often used to describe someone acting selflessly for the good of others, even if they are complete strangers.

Some may recognize that the phrase originated in a biblical story, one of the parables of Jesus told in the book of Luke, chapter 10. In this story, a traveler from the Samaritan community, an ethnic and religious group in the Middle East, comes across a man who had been robbed and beaten by the side of the road.

The injured man was ignored by two bystanders, both from religiously respected groups in Jesus’ Jewish community: a priest and a Levite, a tribe with special religious responsibilities. On the contrary, the Samaritan renders first aid to the victim, places him on his donkey and transports him to an inn where the beaten one is housed, cared for and fed – all his expenses being paid by the traveling Samaritan.

Passover pilgrimage of the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, West Bank, 2006. PHOTO: Edkaprov (Edward Kaprov) (under CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

As a Bible studies teacher who has written about the Samaritans, I’ve learned that while most of my students have heard of the “good Samaritan,” fewer are aware of the social and historical realities reflected in the story – yet unless the Samaritan community still exists today.

hidden lesson
Samaritanism and Judaism share a common origin in ancient Israel, but the rift between the two communities had already widened for centuries before the birth of Jesus.

“Throughout the history of the group – particularly during the first century, the backdrop to the story of the Book of Luke – the Samaritans were often marginalized and discriminated against by their neighbors. The relationship between the ancient Jews and their Samaritan neighbors were hostile, so people listening to the story would have been shocked that the hero was a Samaritan.”

The group’s holy text is its own version of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: what Christians call the Pentateuch, and Jews call the Torah. The center of Samaritan worship is on Mount Gerizim in what is now the West Bank, instead of Jerusalem, where the Jewish temple was. Faith has its priesthood, its religious calendar and its theology. According to Samaritan belief, a messianic figure called the Taheb will usher in an era of divine favor, during which the Ark of the Covenant will be revealed, and Mount Gerizim will be restored as the only recognized center of worship.

Throughout the group’s history—particularly during the first century, the backdrop to the story of the Book of Luke—Samaritans were often marginalized and discriminated against by their neighbors. The relationship between the ancient Jews and their Samaritan neighbors was hostile, so people listening to the story would have been shocked that the hero was a Samaritan.

Indeed, the parable reverses social reality. Those who were to act righteously and model behavior for others failed where the Samaritan succeeded. The parable challenged social norms and prejudices based simply on ethnicity, religious affiliation and where people make their home.

Biblical mentions
The story of the Good Samaritan is not the only time the Samaritan community makes its presence felt in New Testament literature.

Just a chapter earlier, Luke 9, describes an unwelcome welcome Jesus’ disciples receive as they are about to enter a Samaritan village. Jesus and his party are heading for Jerusalem: an offense to the Samaritans’ belief that Mount Gerizim is the proper place of worship, a matter that has often functioned as a shorthand for all that separated the two communities.

The villagers therefore choose not to help the travelers on their way. In response, the disciples are ready to invoke divine retribution as a punishment from heaven. Jesus does not want it, and rebukes the disciples while leaving the villagers in peace.

The Gospel of John describes a particularly significant conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan. Exhausted from a recent trip, he asks a woman to draw water for him from a well. She’s rather taken aback, because as the chapter’s editor explains, Jews don’t mingle with Samaritans. Nevertheless, she does as he asks. Their ensuing conversation mentions the main tenets of belief where Samaritanism and Judaism differ, despite their many similarities: their contrasting ideas about prophets, “messiahs,” and where to worship. According to the story, she and many people from the nearby area became disciples of Jesus.

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Early converts
In fact, it is very likely that the Samaritans were among the first disciples of Jesus’ movement.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus commands his followers to preach only to the house of Israel, and not to Samaritans or non-Jews, appearing to display an anti-Samaritan bias. The Gospel of John, however, paints a completely different picture, first with the story of the Samaritan women at the well.

Later in John, when detractors accuse Jesus of having a demon and being a Samaritan, he only denies the former – apparently refusing to distance himself from the Samaritans.

The book of Acts, which describes the beginning of the Christian church, includes the story of Stephen, who is described as the first martyr among Jesus’ disciples. Acts 7 depicts Stephen trying to defend himself against accusations of blasphemy, using a text that is at least influenced by Samaritan tradition, if not a version of what will become known as the Samaritan Pentateuch itself.

The book of Hebrews in the New Testament also shows Samaritan tendencies, such as the reference to heroes from the Samaritan tradition.

Despite this important role in the early Jesus movement, the relationship between Christianity and the Samaritan was not always positive. The group often had to navigate between much larger and more powerful groups, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Violence, displacement and conversions – voluntary and forced – have greatly reduced the Samaritan community over the centuries.

21st Century Samaritans
Today, the Samaritans number about 1,000 people. Most are in communities outside of Tel Aviv and near the West Bank city of Nablus, where they find themselves situated between Israeli and Palestinian cultures and institutions. Most Samaritans hold Israeli nationality and have Israeli health insurance, but many also attend Palestinian schools, speak Arabic, and have both Hebrew and Arabic names.

The small size of the modern Samaritan community makes them easy to ignore. But for those willing to listen, the message of the Good Samaritan – a message of kindness, not blinded by nationalist, religious or ethnic bias – resonates louder than ever.The conversation

Terry Giles is a professor of theology at Gannon University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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