In this second post on the story of “the Good Samaritan” (the story set as the Gospel passage for this coming Sunday), we give consideration to where this story takes place—and whether than matters for how we hear and understand the story. Was Jesus telling this story in Galilee? Or in Jerusalem? Or somewhere else? And how might this matter?
For the first post, see https://johntsquires.com/2022/07/05/the-good-samaritan-a-parable-luke-10-pentecost-5c/
Much of the activities of Jesus take place in Galilee, in both Mark’s earliest account (Mark 1–9), and in Matthew’s later reworking of his narrative (Matt 4–18). Those activities, in Luke’s orderly account, are compressed into a much shorter narrative (Luke 4–9). At a crucial turning point, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Galilee was behind him; Jerusalem was before him.
However, to get from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south, it was necessary to pass through Samaria. Matthew, following Mark, skips over this essential component of this trip; Jesus leaves Galilee and arrives in “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” in the space of just one verse (Matt 19:1, following Mark 10:1a). For the Matthean Jesus, who insisted that he had nothing to do with Samaritans (Matt 10:5), the avoidance of any comment about this geographical necessity in this Gospel is quite understandable.
Not so for Luke. Jesus quite explicitly travels through the region of Samaria, as we have noted in exploring previous sections of this Gospel. He journeys in Samaria in 9:52–56. He is “on the way” to Jerusalem (10:38; 13:22, 31–35), but is apparently still in Samaria many chapters later. Curiously, Luke reports that, after a full seven and a half chapters, Jesus was still “going through the region between Samaria and Galilee” (17:11). He heals ten lepers and sends them to the priests to be “made clean” (17:14); and the one who returned to thank Jesus was a Samaritan (17:16).
We should note that when Luke tells of the meal that Jesus and with Martha and Mary (10:38–42), we might well expect that he was in Bethany, far to the south, near to Jerusalem—for this is where John locates the sisters (John 11:1; 12:1–2). However, Luke simply says that this meal was in “a certain village” (10:38), and it is clear that Jerusalem is still some way in the distance (13:33–35).
We know from other sources that there was entrenched, longterm distrust, even hatred, between the Jews and the Samaritans. John reflects this in his account of Jesus’s encounter with a Samaritan woman by the well of Jacob (“Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans”, John 4:9).
The Samaritans were regarded as being the descendants of the people who committed idolatry after the Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom (2 Kings 17:5–6) and resettled the northern region with people from other locations in their empire (2 Kings 17:24), from “every nation [who] still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived” (2 Kings 17:29).
Flavius Josephus, a late 1st century CE historian, retells the sequence of events we read in 2 Kings, indicating that the Samaritans descended from this hybrid, unfaithful group of people (Antiquities 11.297–347). He also recounts an incident which entrenched the antagonism of southern Judeans towards the northern Samaritans (Antiquities 11.297–347).
The Samaritans attempted to undermine the returning exiled Judeans with their Persian rulers and slowed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple (Ezra 4:6–24). Josephus notes disagreement about which site should be the location for the temple (Josephus, Antiquities 12.9-10); the same issue is reflected at John 4:20-22.
Samaritans had built a temple on Mount Gerizim, one of the ancient holy sites in the northern kingdom (Deut 27:12; Josh 8:33–34; Judg 9:7). That temple was destroyed in 107BCE, when John Hyrcanus destroyed the temple and the capital city of Samaria.
Josephus recounts a later time when some Samaritans scattered bones of dead people in the in portico of the Jerusalem Temple, thus rendering it unclean (Antiquities 18.29-30), and he gives a graphic description of the time when Cumanus (governor of Judea 48-52 CE) was bribed by some Samaritans, leading some Judean brigands to mount an uprising. Cumanus ordered the Romans to join with the Samaritans in battling the Judeans; many were killed, many more taken captive (Antiquities 20.118-123).
References to the Samaritans in the 3rd century CE Mishnah may reflect views current at the time of Jesus: “Rabbi Eliezer used to say, ‘He that eats of the bread of Samaritans is as one who eats the flesh of swine’” (m. Seb. 8.10); “the daughters of Cutheans [Samaritans] are menstruants from their cradle” (m. Nid. 4.1).
The Lukan Jesus takes a clear stance on the Samaritans; he is deliberate in his acceptance of those most hated of outsiders, the Samaritans. He stops his disciples from bringing harm on the Samaritans (9:52–56); he uses a Samaritan as an example of neighbourliness (10:29–37); and he commends a Samaritan leper for his faith after he had offered thanks to Jesus for being healed (17:15–19).
The Samaritan motif continues into the story of the early faith communities; it was the people of Samaria who first accepted the Gospel when it was preached outside of Judea (Acts 8:5–25). Indeed, Samaria figures in the programmatic statement that Jesus makes when he appears, resurrected, to his followers, and instructs them, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
These Samaritans bear witness to the ways that Jesus and the earliest followers of Jesus would welcome outcasts into their midst. The community of the faithful would reflect diversity in this way, that both respectable and disreputable would be given a place.
That Jesus was, according to Luke’s erratic geography during the journey narrative of chapters 9–19, still in Samaria when he tells a story about who is “a good neighbour”, is telling. That it is a Samaritan who is that good neighbour, adds power to the story he tells. In this story, no Jew exhibits the behaviour that the Torah mandates, of loving your neighbour; it is a Samaritan who lives this way. The power of the story is intensified by where it is being told.