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The Good Samaritan is not Antisemitic!





One of the most misunderstood parables of Yeshua is the Good Samaritan. Yeshua tells the story during a conversation with a Pharisee who is testing him. Because the Good Samaritan acts justly, while the two Jewish characters do not, many see this passage as anti-Jewish or at least a strong rebuke to the Jewish nation. In reality, this is a typical first-century Jewish debate over laws of impurity—should a priest risk becoming unclean in order to help someone who is dying?


What follows may not be what you’re used to hearing from me (a bit technical), but it is very important because we can see that Jesus was not attacking his own people.


You know the story. Yeshua is asked what the greatest commandment is.


Yeshua replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37–40)

The Pharisee then asks, in typical legalese, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29), and Yeshua responds with the story of the “Good Samaritan.”


Who were the Samaritans?

Before we read it, you need to know who the Samaritans were. In 721 BCE, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria. Some of the Jews were exiled to other parts of the Assyrian Empire, while Assyria imported non-Jews to the region. The was a strategy to destabilize kingdoms that they conquered. As a result, the Jews of Judah did not consider those of Samaria to be pure. When one reads the New Testament, we see tension between the two groups.


With that in mind, let’s read the brief story of the Good Samaritan.


A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have” (Lk 10:30–35).

The Pharisee concludes that the one who was a true neighbor to the man in need was the Samaritan, not the priest or the Levite. Sadly, people misinterpret this as a put-down of Judaism.


The point of the parable is not to praise the Samaritan nor demonstrate how and why to care for those in need. Rather, it is to discredit the Jewish hierarchy, the Jews’ adherence to their own laws, and claim that it is the non-Jew, the enemy of the Jews, the Samaritan, who shows mercy and love to neighbors. The parable is, indeed, a (sic) anti-Jewish polemic which can be, and has been, used to paint Jews as lesser than those of the followers of Jesus (who eventually became Christians), and adds to the antisemitic and supersessionist ideals stemming from Christianity from antiquity to the modern era. [1]

But that is not at all what Jesus is doing here. First, Jesus himself is a Jew, a rabbi and a faithful follower of Torah. The Gospel writers reveal that he is very concerned about ritual purity as laid out in the Torah. When he heals the lepers, he advises them to go show themselves to the priest and make the proper sacrifice. He is circumcised on the eighth day and honors the sabbath. (Healing on the sabbath is in no way forbidden, as the Torah doesn’t even address miracles on the Sabbath.) He travels to Jerusalem for the Biblical feasts. The point is: Jesus was a Torah-living and loving rabbi speaking to other rabbis.


Imagine a leader of leaders addressing a group of ministers. He tells the same story—but changes the Samaritan to a Muslim. He is seeking to provoke these ministers, who maybe have become complacent in expressing their love for others. You would not conclude from such a rebuke that he hates the ministers and is converting to Islam, would you? He is saying, if a Muslim, who does not have the truth, acts this way, how much more should you, who are called to be the light of the world, act in love? He is speaking a hard word, seeking to bring conviction that would result in a change of heart in the lives of his hearers.


Stop Thinking in the 21st Century

But even that is not the meaning of the parable. The problem is that we live now and not then. We misunderstand because, as the great English scholar, Richard Bauckham says, we “have failed to enter imaginatively the first century Jewish world,” [2] where a discussion between religious leaders would focus on debating the legal facets of Torah. Notice that the Torah scholar is called a nomikos— a lawyer or legal expert. This was a matching of the wits (Of course, he was no match for the Messiah!).


Let me make two points:

  1. The first person to come is a priest—a Cohen. These were an exclusive group, coming from the bloodline of Aaron. The second one was a Levite. Both had specific duties in Temple Judaism.

  2. In the story, both of these men go to the other side of the road. Why? If they were just hard-hearted human beings, as some claim, why not just walk by the wounded man? I’ll explain in a minute.


Matthew Thiessen understands why this is misunderstood.


This story has engendered numerous Christian attacks upon Judaism, the temple, and the ritual purity system. Surely, so the thinking behind such polemics goes, this story demonstrates that Jews, perhaps especially the priestly and religious elite, have interpreted the law in such a way that it discourages them from pursuing actions of compassion and mercy. Of course, this story is about the proper interpretation of the law, but it does not pit compassion against law observance. [3]

The priest and the Levite must choose between being ritually pure or saving someone’s life. Being ritually unclean is not a sin. It is a common occurrence, and the Torah makes provision. But when it comes to a priest, there is a clear directive: “A priest must not make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die, except for a close relative” (Lev. 21:1–2). On the other hand, there is the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Which does he obey?


He's not dead!

Before we go further, you might be saying, “Wait a minute… we are not talking about a corpse, the man is still alive!” He was probably unconscious; Yeshua says he is “half-dead” (Lk. 10:30). Furthermore, if he was half-dead, then there was a strong possibility that he would die in the care of the priest or the Levite, making them unclean. This is why they both go to the other side of the street; to even check to see if he was alive would risk defilement. [4] Bauckham explains:


The situation is one in which two commandments might seem to apply: one forbids the priest to contract impurity by contact with a dead body, while the other requires the priest to show neighbourly love to the wounded man. The priest's obligation, as a priest, to avoid contracting corpse-impurity conflicts with the obligation he shares with any Israelite to assist a fellow-Israelite in desperate need of help. In such a situation the legal question is: which commandment overrides the other?” [5]

Common in Jewish Thought

This type of debate is extremely common in Jewish Talmudic thought. It is almost unheard of that a person would see a man half-dead man and just keep walking, unless there was something else a foot. However, there is no doubt that if a priest, who had commitments to the people of Israel in his temple service, came across a dying man, that he would have to wrestle with what to do because of the purity laws…at least for a moment.


The Samaritan would be like any other Israelite. He too would become impure if he touched a corpse. But as I said, becoming unclean is not a sin. It was a common occurrence and the Torah made provision. “The point is that the Torah explicitly forbids a priest to contract corpse impurity, except at the death of his nearest kin.” [6]


There is the question of the Levite. Levites played a central role in Temple Judaism. It is probable that because of this, he too would be careful not to become unclean. Even though the Torah made provisions, it would hinder him being able to perform his duties for seven days.


Remember, it’s a story!

There is a point here, and it is not connected to arguing over minute issues of impurity laws. My purpose in writing this, is to show that Jesus was not sharing something anti-Jewish or antisemitic, as some have supposed.


And He is not for a minute saying that this story represents reality—it is a parable! Again, even a bad person would likely assist a dying man. What Jesus is saying is that sometimes you have to choose between two laws. We know that He often accused the Pharisees of missing the spirit of the Torah for the letter; more concerned about minor issues, than love justice and mercy. [7] Therefore, He uses an extreme example, one that is very clear, to make his point. Yeshua is telling the Pharisee that loving people is more important than ritual purity. And He uses an extreme example to show the Pharisees wrongly emphasized ritual over moral commands. He does not actually imagine that a priest would not help a dying man, simply to remain ritually pure.


Jesus himself respects the ritual laws. He does not tell them to neglect the purity laws, but says that they should practice both (Matt. 23:23). He is not saying that the Jews are bad and the Samaritans are good. The Pharisees to whom He is speaking understood exactly what He was saying. The Pharisee lawyer does not appear offended by the metaphor, and Yeshua tells him, “Go and do likewise.”


 

[1] Rabbi Michael Harvey, “Please Stop Using the ‘Good Samaritan’ Parable,” Times of Israel, April 13, 2021, https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/please-stop-using-the-good-samaritan-parable.


[2] Richard Bauckham, (1998). The Scrupulous Priest and the Good Samaritan: Jesus' Parabolic Interpretation of the Law Of Moses. New Testament Studies, 44(4), 475-489. doi:10.1017/S0028688500016684


[3] Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2020), 114


[4] Bauckham, “The Scrupulous Priest.” “He cannot get close enough to tell without risking defilement from the corpse if that is what it turns out to be. This is because, in first-century Jewish thought about such matters, corpse-impurity travels vertically through the air. If any part of the priest's body were to be above any part of a corpse, he would contract impurity.”


[5] Bauckham, “The Scrupulous Priest.”


[6] Bauckham, “The Scrupulous Priest.”


[7] “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matt. 23:23)

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Shalom from Israel! I am Ron Cantor and this is my blog. I serve as the President of Shelanu TV.

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