Sunday, December 12, 2010

Who Were the Samaritans?

Most Christians are familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  As modern Americans, we tend to think that the point is that a stranger went out of his way to help someone, when his own people passed him by because they didn't want to get involved. We may think an appropriate modern analogue would be a tourist in New York City coming to the aid of a mugging victim, while his own neighbors ignored his plight.

However, many of us misunderstand the significance of the story because we are unfamiliar with the history of the Samaritans and their relationship with the Jews of Jesus' time.

When Babylon was conquered by the Persians, the exiled Israelites were allowed to return home.  However, the returning Jews found their homeland partially occupied by the Samaritans, who claimed to be the descendants of Israelites who never went into exile.  They also claimed that the Samaritan faith (as defined by the Samaritan Torah) was the true ancestral faith, before it was altered by the experience of exile.  The Jews, however, believed the Samaritans to be descendants of other subject peoples who were moved to Israel by the Assyrians.  The Samaritans were not allowed to participate in the building of the second Temple, and so they built their own. The two groups occasionally fought wars, and the Samaritan Temple was destroyed by a  King of Israel a little over a century before Jesus' birth.

The Samaritans suffered persecution under rule by the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, and the Muslims who conquered the region in the Middle Ages.  Many fled, and others converted to Islam.  There is a tiny remaining population, divided between enclaves in modern Israel and Palestine.

I think that an accurate modern analogue to the story of the Good Samaritan would be to imagine an Orthodox Jew (one whose religion is identifiable by his clothing and hairstyle) visiting Jerusalem, where he was mugged and left for dead, then ignored by other Jewish passersby.  Imagine that a Palestinian came to the man's aid, protected him from hostile neighbors and paid for his hospital stay, then paid for his transportation back home.

We cannot appreciate the significance of the parable unless we understand the historical context that made the story so very difficult for Jesus' audience to imagine.  No one should be judged by their ethnic group or religion.  Each individual should be judged on his or her own actions.

No comments: