To the Editor:
I have just finished reading, with great interest, Stanley Edgar Hyman’s article in the September issue on “Oxford’s New Theological Dictionary.” One very minor statement in the article, quite irrelevant to its major point, has made my hackles rise, and prompted this letter. This is the author’s impression that the parable of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament is “an anti-Semitic anecdote.”
Now, in the first place, I do not think that Jesus was given to telling anti-Semitic stories: he himself was a Jew, and a devout one, albeit, from what we can discern from the Gospels, a man of liberal persuasions, rather at odds with the traditionalists and conservatives of his day.
In the second place, what does the story really say? That a man’s being learned and orthodox and observant of ritual (the priest and the Levite of the story) does not necessarily make him a charitable human being. And conversely, that being a foreigner, an infidel, a man of small repute, does not prevent a man from being capable of performing an act of mercy, which in its one performance is more pleasing in the eyes of God than a lifetime of perfunctory ritualistic observance.
I find it fascinating to read the New Testament, separating the reportorial writing from the interpretations, the magnifying glorifications, and the legendary material which seems to have been inserted by the authors, eager to make a point. It is one of my favorite pieces of reading, and I have come to the conclusion that Jesus, if he were to appear today, would be not only a model man but a model Jewish man, both in his personal and in his public life, whatever form the latter might take in the modern world.
What the Christian Churches have made of the same piece of literature is something else again . . . I leave commentary on this to those better qualified. To me at least, there is considerable schism between what the Jesus of the Gospels had to say, and what the Christian Churches, through the ages, have taught in his name. I, personally, think he would be appalled!
Mr. Hyman writes:
I am sorry to have displeased Miss Steele by my statement that the parable of the Good Samaritan is “an anti-Semitic anecdote.” “I do not think,” she writes, “that Jesus was given to telling anti-Semitic stories.” The point at issue is not what Jesus said (to which we do not seem to have access), but what the Gospel According to St. Luke says he said (the other three Gospels never mention the parable). Nor is the story of the Good Samaritan the only material in Luke’s Gospel of anti-Semitic tendency, and it is significant that whereas in Matthew and Mark the Romans crucify Jesus, in Luke (and John) it is the Jews who crucify him. Had the Lucan writer wanted to suggest only the moral Miss Steele abstracts from his story, the general affirmation of charity and mercy over orthodoxy and ritual observance, he could have made the merciful man not “a certain Samaritan” but a common Jew, a group to whom the acts of human charity were perhaps not unknown even then. He could certainly have made it clear, as he certainly would have known, that the priest and the Levite of his story were forbidden by their occupational taboos from touching the dead or dying, rather than deliberately creating the impression that as representative types of the Jewish clergy they were indifferent or heartless.
Stanley Edgar Hyman
North Bennington, Vermont