A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "Good Samaritan"?

December 4, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

Where did the term "Good Samaritan" come from?

There's a short answer and a long answer to this. Guess which one we prefer.

According to the Bible, the Israelite kingdom split after the death of King Solomon, say around 930 BC. The southern kingdom was called Judah, with the capital in Jerusalem. The northern kingdom was called Ephraim (although usually called Israel in the Bible). Fifty years later, under the reign of King Omri, the northern state moved the capital to Samaria. The name Samaria is usually the name for the whole northern kingdom in non-Biblical sources.

Both the northern and southern kingdom were Jewish, following the monotheistic Israelite religion. The differences were largely political, although there were some minor differences in religious practice--for example, in the southern kingdom, sacrifice was centralized in the Temple in Jerusalem.

In the year 722 BC, after two centuries of independence, the northern kingdom of Samaria was conquered by the Assyrians and transformed into a province of the Assyrian Empire. (This is well-documented in non-Biblical sources, such as the annals of King Sargon II of Assyria.) Military conquest meant national annihilation. Assyrian policy was to obliterate national identities and absorb them into the Assyrian Empire, and this was done largely through population transfer. Most of the Samarians was exiled; those who remained in the area were soon assimilated with the peoples that Sargon II brought in (exiles from other conquered lands.)

The mixed population formed the nucleus of a new people in the land of Israel, the Samaritans (in Hebrew, Shomronim.) They gradually adopted pagan religious practices, but kept many essentials of the Jewish faith, such as monotheism and adherence to the Laws of Moses.

Now skip ahead to 586 BC, when the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by Babylon. Unique among conquered peoples, the Jews did not disappear but retained their identity in Babylon. Fifty years later, King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and restore their nation. This was an arduous task, made more difficult by the tensions between the returning Jews and the Israelite population that had not been exiled by the Babylonians.

The most severe conflict was with the Samaritans. They regarded themselves as entirely Jewish, in every way. However, the other Jews saw them as a mixture of Israelite and other ethnic elements brought to the area by the Assyrians.

When building began on the second Temple, around 536 BC, the Samaritans offered to help but were rebuffed. Consequently, the Samaritans opposed the building of the Temple, and sent protests and grievances to the Persian satrap of the province, who forwarded them to Babyon, thus delaying the construction of the Second Temple.

Hostilities were so pronounced that Ezra, around 458 BC, declared intermarriage of Jews with Samaritans were invalid, and forced all Samaritans out of the congregation of Israel. This split was, frankly, a great tragedy in human terms, the consequences of which have extended to present times.

Ezra's proclamation stirred up further bitterness among the Samaritans, almost to the point of civil war. The king of Persia sent his able Jewish cupbearer, Nehemiah, to Jerusalem on a mission of pacification, armed with full authority. One of his actions was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. The Samaritans repeatedly attempted to interrupt construction, but the Israelites fended off their attacks.

Eventually, the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerizim, near present-day Nablus. The split between the Judeans and the Samaritans reached this peak around 300 BC.

So, in the middle of this bitter acrimony between orthodox Jewry and the Samaritans, Jesus is asked a simple question : "Who is my neighbor?" From Luke 10:25-37, New International Version:

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

26 "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

27 He answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind' ; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

28 "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

30 In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.

31 "A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.

32 "So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

33 "But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.

34 "He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.

35 The next day he took out two silver coins 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.''

36 "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

37 The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

The person who asked the original question was probably sincere in his curiosity. Rabbinical teaching was precise in its definitions. For some of the stricter, more orthodox Jews, the concept of "neighbour" was restricted to "a fellow Jew." So Jesus sought to extend this definition much farther than some might be comfortable with.

Both the priest and the Levite probably had legitimate reasons for avoiding the man. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was one that was well traveled by tradesmen. Consequently, it was also known to be travelled by robbers and thieves and it would not have been unusual for one to be used as a decoy, appearing to have been beaten, while the others lay in ambush. What Jesus was implying was that in spite of the ethnic differences, everyone should be considered a "neighbor" in both the legal and ethical sense of the term. Nowadays, it's easy for us (living in a culturally diverse society) to accept a broad definition of "neighbor." In those days, however, the definition of who was and wasn't in the tribe was critical to the survival of the society. One of Christianity's contributions to human progress was to try to extend those bounds.

For the subsequent 2,300 years, the Samaritans claimed to be "the real Jews," in rivalry with mainstream Judaism. There is, in fact, an existing Samaritan community today, centered around Mount Gerizim, near Nablus in the West Bank. In 1948, when the state of Israel became independent, the Samaritans were under the rule of Jordan. In the 1967 Six Day War, Israel took control of the territory.

The present Samaritan community is very small, only a few hundred people. They claim to be authentic Jews. They adhere to the Torah (Pentateuch) but have rejected all later Jewish law, such as the Talmud. They practice many ancient traditions that were long ago dropped by mainstream Judaism. The most famous (and well-attended, by both Samaritans and interested onlookers) centers around Passover. On Passover Eve, the Samaritans climb to the summit of Mount Gerizim, the site of their ancient temple, destroyed long ago. There they realistically re-enact the Exodus from Egypt. They pitch tents and sacrifice seven lambs, whose meat they roast over an open fire. Then, with wanderer's staff in hand, they eat the meat in haste, with bitter herbs and unleavened bread (matzah), exactly as prescribed in the Bible: an almost 4,000 year old tradition.

The term "Good Samaritan" is often misinterpreted these days simply as someone who is willing to help out in times of need. Jesus meant much more. True Good Samaritans are willing to help in spite of racial or ethnic differences, possibly at some danger or inconvenience to themselves. And everyone is our neighbor.

We should end here. The voices in my head are starting to sing "Imagine" by John Lennon. Considering the current world situation, it's no mystery that they're singing off-key.

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