The Good Samaritan and the Good Samarians
Nearly a century ago, Alfred Plummer suggested that Jesus’ Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–30) may not be merely story but history. He reasoned that Jesus would not have invented a scenario in which a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan behaved in such a way “if it had not actually occurred,” and the parable would “have far more point if taken from real life” (Plummer 1922, 285–86). What if Plummer were correct, but in a way that he did not intend?
There is reason to believe that in the story of the Good Samaritan is a veiled reference to an event in the Jews’ own history, namely the account in 2 Chr 28:5–15 of the Syro-Ephraimite coalition in which 200,000 people from Judah were taken captive to Samaria, but shown mercy by the Samarian leaders.
Set these New and Old testament passages side by side and compare them. In the parable, a nondescript victim on his way to Jericho, attacked, stripped, and wounded, is rescued by a merciful Samaritan who anoints and binds his wounds, sets him on his own animal, and brings him to an inn (at Jericho, by implication) in order to care for him (Luke 10:30, 33–34). In the OT narrative, the nondescript Judean exiles are shown mercy by the leaders of Samaria who clothe their naked, anoint their wounded, and carry their injured on donkeys to be cared for at Jericho (2 Chr 28:15).
To date, Scott Spencer has offered the most prolific analysis of this comparison, in which he concludes that the “multiplicity and specificity of the connections are just too strong to ignore” (Spencer 1984, 321). The affinities Spencer discovers between the two texts are too numerous to mention here, but they include the following. (1) In 2 Chr 28:6–8, many unnamed Jews find themselves the victims of their northern assailants, while in Luke 10:30 an unnamed Jewish man also finds himself the victim of an attack. (2) The injuries of both the OT victims and the NT victim largely correspond, including the fact that they were naked or “stripped,” beaten, plundered, and left weak and helpless. (3) There is also a strong parallel in the way the victims are shown mercy, including the anointing of the wounds, the placing of the victims on donkeys, and the ultimate destination of healing, Jericho. (4) There is a verbal parallel between the “Samarians” of 2 Chronicles 28 and the “Samaritan” in Luke 10. Although the Samaritans themselves were not yet in existence at the time of the Syro-Ephraimite conflict, it is highly possible that the people living in the region of Samaria have begun to be called “Samaritans” even by the time the Chronicler narrates the story (Evans 2010, 35). (5) Furthermore, in both accounts, we find people in great need who are shown mercy from a most unexpected source—their enemies!
Although this ostensible parallel was noted in passing by some authors, including Bultmann, well before Spencer’s 1984 treatment, scholars and commentators have been slow to pick up on the idea. One exception comes from Craig Evans, who defends Spencer and advances the conversation (Evans 2010, 32–42).
At least two questions emerge from the suggestion that the Good Samaritan is predicated upon the good Samarians. First, is it plausible that Jesus would have drawn upon what may appear to us an obscure narrative and expect that his hearers would have comprehended the allusion? Second, if the allusion is real, what difference does it make in our understanding of this well-loved parable?
There are several reasons to assume that Jesus’ original audience would have caught the reference to 2 Chronicles 28 in the parable of the Good Samaritan. To begin with, Jesus offers the parable in response to a question by a single individual who happened to be an expert in the Jewish law (called a nomikos). In contemporary terms, he was an Old Testament scholar. Also, there are several reasons the OT story of an act of mercy shown by the people of Samaria to the Judeans would stand out in the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, Evans surmises that compared to the negative press that the northern kingdom usually receives at the hand of the Chronicler, the story in 2 Chronicles 28 represents an unusual act of mercy (Evans 2010, 35). Also, although the traditional canonical order in the West places Chronicles near the center of the OT, in the Masoretic Text 2 Chronicles is the final book, and the story of mercy in 2 Chronicles 28 is the last we hear of the Samarians in the Hebrew text. Moreover, the OT account was known to Josephus, who offers an unoriginal edition (Ant. 9:12.2).
There is another significant piece of evidence that demonstrates that the mercy of the Samarians had made an impact in Jewish learning, namely an explicit use of 2 Chr 28:15 in the Mishnah, Sotah 8:1. The discussion in this section of the Mishnah centers upon the preparation of the Judeans for battle in light of Deut 20:2–4. The Judean readers are reminded that Deut 20:3 speaks of drawing near to battle only “against your enemies” and “not Judah against Simeon, nor Simeon against Benjamin.” But the teaching continues that if the Judeans do in fact fall into the hand of their northern brothers, then the northern Israelites
will have mercy for you, as it is said, And the men which have been called by name rose up and took the captives and with the spoil clothed all that were naked among them and arrayed them and put shoes on their feet and gave them food to eat and something to drink and carried all the feeble of them upon asses and brought them to Jericho, the city of palm trees, unto their brethren. Then they returned to Samaria (2 Chr 28:15).
Although the formal compilation, redaction, and publication of the Mishnah is dated after the first century, the material may reflect much earlier teaching and rabbinic deliberations as early as the first century BC. An ad hoc reference to 2 Chr 28:15 in the context of a discussion of Deuteronomy 20 shows that the rabbis were aware of the historical act of mercy shown to them by their northern brothers. If this is true, it adds significantly to the suggestion that the law scholar in Luke 10 would have been aware of a veiled reference to the same event in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
But what difference does this make for our interpretation of the parable? When we look at the context in which the parable is set, we see that if the parable is a veiled allusion to 2 Chronicles 28, the lesson of the parable really packs an added punch.
When the law expert puts Jesus to the test regarding the interpretation of the law, (Luke 10:25) Jesus tells him that he must love God with all his heart and love his neighbor as himself (Luke 10:27). But Luke says that the expert wanted “to justify” himself by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). The motive “to justify” indicates that this man is looking for loopholes in the law. To whom must he show compassion and still be regarded righteous according to the law? His attitude comes off as arrogant and unmerciful.
It is well-noted in the commentary literature that Jesus does not directly answer the man’s question. When Jesus finishes the parable, he asks this law expert, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” In other words, while the man asked, “Who is my neighbor,” Jesus replied by asking, “Which of these proved to be a neighbor?” The man must respond with the only obvious answer, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus then concludes by challenging the expert to be merciful to those in need: “You go, and do likewise.” So, while the man wanted to winnow out those to whom he could pass by showing mercy (as the priest and Levite do in the parable), Jesus says, “No, you show mercy to everyone.”
So how does the allusion to the 2 Chronicles 28 narrative fit here? If the parable is indeed intended to bring to the law expert’s mind the details of the OT account, Jesus is saying something even further to this arrogant man. He meets his hubris with the notion, “Even your enemies showed more kindness to your own people than you have been willing to show to them yourselves.” This veiled historical allusion would have been used to draw out the unloving scholar, adding “rhetorical punch” to Jesus’ admonition. If this is indeed what Jesus is doing, perhaps the full weight of the story moved the law expert to show greater compassion.