DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
The Good Samaritan

This parable occurs only in Luke's Gospel (10.25-37), which was written 50-60 years after Jesus died. A consensus exists nowadays that the author used some material from Mark's Gospel, and some from another  source (generally known as the Q-source, used also by the author of Matthew's Gospel). They may all have derived from an earlier oral tradition.

Some material, like this parable, is unique to Luke's Gospel. There is no way of knowing for sure what the source of that unique material is. 

Luke's author might have invented it himself. Writers of the period did not think as we do about truth and historical accuracy. It was perfectly normal to illustrate a point by what we might regard as dishonest methods. Very few reputable scholars think that the long monologues of John's Gospel, for example, are "what Jesus really said". They are almost certainly the Gospel author's personal theology expressed in words attributed to Jesus.

The truth is that the Gospel authors had no concept of historical accuracy as we do today. Theirs was a pre-scientific, pre-analytical era in which "what really happened" was of much less concern than the theology of God's action in the world.

Editing and invention were acceptable and unexceptionable. We know that passages in the Gospels are often unconnected to the contexts into which they are put by the authors. What are we to make of the discovery, for example, that the parable of the Good Samaritan has been edited into a context taken from Mark 12.28-34? Only that we have a method which to the author of Luke's Gospel was normal and honest.

Nevertheless, if other aspects of a passage are also suspect, such as incongruous or incorrect details in what otherwise appears broadly convincing, then its chances of being good history are reduced. When that is true, an increased level of caution is justified. At the very least, when searching out the Jesus of history we should be alert for clues of heavy editing to suit the author's theological purposes. 

It's possible that the parable of the Good Samaritan might have been drawn from written sources available to the author but unknown to us. It may be that Luke has inserted here a story or theme not used by Jesus, but which originated well before Jesus' time. His purpose could well have been to make a point and to reinforce it by means of a link to "the Scriptures" of the Jews - that is, the Old Testament of the Christian church.

A story with similar form and meaning as this parable can be found in the Talmud Babli or Babylonian Talmud. It was edited around the year 500, but is reputed to contain material going back to the Jewish exile to Babylon in 586 BC. The upshot is that on reflection we can't be absolutely sure whether either Jesus or Luke used this or some other prototype story upon which to base this parable.

It is possible to validate a passage of writing as good history by referring its details to something else well-known as good history. 

In relation to the details of this parable, one commentator, B B Scott, writes, "The trip from Jerusalem to Jericho passes through a deserted area, where there are many caves in which to hide. The road was notorious for bandits ... Normally, folks traveled this route in caravans for protection" [2]

He gives no source, but his purpose seems to be to give additional information so as to add weight the the argument that the parable could have been told by Jesus. That is, authentic detail (in this case the presence of bandits on the Jericho road) is presumed to support the authenticity of the parable, and in turn is thought to suggest that Jesus is therefore more likely to have told it. That may be so - but it doesn't strictly follow. There no necessary link with Jesus.

We don't know for sure from the direct evidence that the parable of the Good Samaritan came from Jesus. Despite this, a convincing argument is favour of Jesus as its original source is that it bears the stamp of a form of which Jesus is an acknowledged master. Parables are common after, but rare before, his time.

A well-established theme of Jesus was his protest against the validity of the Jewish idea that touching or eating certain things could separate one from God. The parable we're considering here seems to revolve around exactly that problem.

Many commentators argue about the Greek phrase usually translated "half-dead" or "nearly dead." This is because it bears on the possibility that the victim may have been mistaken for dead by the passers-by.

If he was dead, the first two men would have been anxious to avoid contact with the victim. Touching a corpse would have made them ritually unclean. They would have had to go through washing and purification rituals before being allowed to resume their religious duties.

Alternatively, if he was still alive, both priest and Levite would have been obliged by Jewish religious laws to help the victim. In this case they would have been prevented or delayed from attending to their vital religious priorities. It was easier by far to pass by on the other side of the road.

Either way, they were faced with considerable inconvenience and perhaps some expense.

The historicity of the parable is supported because it is so close to what we would have expected from Jesus himself. If we reject this parable, then the authenticity of the other parables would be seriously weakened - though that is not in itself a good reason for hanging onto this parable.

Regardless of its historicity, it's worth noting the striking power of this parable for its original hearers - a power that is considerably reduced for us at our considerable distance in time and radically different cultural context.

It is difficult for us to perceive an unusual element which appears to be central to the impact of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The normal progression of a structured tale of this sort would have been priest, then Levite, then Israelite. 

The progression we actually find in this parable is priest, then Levite, then Samaritan. This sequence is rather like telling a joke in which the characters are an Englishman, an Irishman and an engineer - instead of Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman. The engineer character is surprisingly incongruous - as was the Samaritan in this case. The person who eventually did help the victim would have come as a somewhat shocking surprise to Jewish listeners. 

By Jesus' time, enmity between Israelites and Samaritans was strong. The two groups disagreed about where to worship and which version of the first five books of the Old Testament should be used. Both issues were, for the period, critical. 

So Jesus was clearly making a point to his hearers by introducing the Samaritan. Witness John 8.48 when the Jews say to Jesus, "Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?" No insult could have been plainer. Samaritans were not part of the Jewish in-crowd.

If one thinks that the point of the parable is that help was given by a hated Samaritan while the "good" Jews did nothing, then one should perhaps give relevance to 2 Chronicles 28.9-15. Rudolf Bultmann points out that here a good Samaritan (the prophet Oded) is also instrumental in helping unfortunate Jews [3]. As a result of his urgings the naked are clothed, and given food and drink The feeble are brought on donkeys to Jericho.

We know from many instances that the Gospel authors often used the Old Testament to authenticate their theological schemes. If so, then perhaps Luke's author created his own story along the 2 Chronicles line. Perhaps he took a point from oral tradition about Jesus and dressed it up in his own (authentic) way. We don't know for sure.

But we do have to be cautious about attributing Luke10.36-37 to Jesus. It could be that the "Go and do likewise" is what Luke thought the parable meant. 

Many scholars propose that Jesus' parables were intended to mean whatever they meant to those who heard them, no more and no less. That is, they were devices to stimulate hearers into reflecting about themselves and the context within which they lived.

In several other parables it's clear that the Gospel author has added his own interpretation. (A good example is the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13.18, Mark 4.3 and Luke 8.5.) The same may have happened in this case.

Despite all this, very few scholars appear to think that the parable can't be rightly attributed to Jesus. Some of its details may have changed during first verbal and then written transmission. But it is so typical of other parables that to discount it would be also to discount much of the material generally acknowledged as good bare-bones history.
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[1] The Five Gospels, R W Funk et al, 1993
[2] Re-imagine the World, 2000
[3] The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 1963

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