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In the Good Samaritan parable (Luke 10:25-37), the first two people who see the beaten up man are a priest and a Levite. However, a priest is a member of the Levite tribe.

So why include both since they are (somewhat) interchangeable? Jesus could have used a Pharisee, Sadducee, a rich man or even a lawyer instead.

(I know that using a group of three is common device in speeches (and joke telling) so I understand that there had to be three.)

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    Great question. +1. Whatever the significance, what we can be sure of is that Jesus' choice of characters here would have been outrageously offensive to His Jewish audience! – Jas 3.1 Dec 23 '14 at 0:34
  • Three also has some significance in Hebrew story telling, as I understand it. Something like, the listener will identify themself with the third person in the story. – Thom Dec 23 '14 at 19:42
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    This is just speculation, but maybe Jesus was calling attention to the two different “levels” of Levites. The Levite (without the authority) knew he shouldn’t come in contact with a dead body since he’d become unclean. The priest, however, who was holy, was “particularly enjoined to avoid uncleanness”. Jesus may have been saying that it doesn’t matter what “levels" of importance they were, either of them should have stopped to show some compassion. – John Martin Dec 29 '14 at 15:26
  • @John Martin, I think your analysis has credit. I'll try to do some research on it tomorrow. – seedy3 Nov 18 '15 at 1:44
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    I may try to put this into a proper answer with proper explanation; here is the reference with the principles for this interpretation: Allan Kardec, The Gospel According to Spiritism, ch. 15 Without charity there is no salvation – Ricardo Jun 7 at 7:02
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Setting to the scene

The parable of the Good Samaritan is told by Jesus shortly after an expert of the law summarizes the law into 1) Love God and 2) Love your neighbor. This scene occurs in the town of Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-55.) The text then states in verse 29,

But the expert [of the law], wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In Dr. Craig Keener's IVP Bible Background and Commentary, Keener notes

Jewish teachers usually used “neighbor” to mean “fellow Israelite.” Leviticus 19:18 clearly means “fellow Israelite” in the immediate context, but the less immediate context applies the principle also to any non-Israelite in the land.


Why choose a priest?

In Keener's comment we see the first clue as to why Jesus chose both a Priest and a Levite: Someone like a Roman would not have been considered a "neighbor" under Leviticus 19:18. Similarly, a thief or robber would not have been considered a neighbor because they would not have been good practicing Jews (or they wouldn't be out robbing). This doesn't explain why a Jewish character who was not associated with the temple was not chosen as a character for this parable.

A second good reason for this choice comes from the Word Biblical Commentary on Luke (Vol 35B) by Dr. John Nolland. In his commentary, he notes:

The Jericho of NT times is to be distinguished from ancient Jericho. Herod the Great was responsible for this town, which was about a mile and a half farther south near the mouth of the Wadi Qelt (Josephus War 4.452-53; see further Fitzmyer, 886; Finegan, Archeology,83-85). Over a distance of approximately eighteen miles, there was a descent of about 3,300 feet. The road passes through desert and rocky country (Josephus War 4.474), and Strabo (16.2.41) reports Pompey's dealings with robbers there. The location is suitable for robbers and for traveling priests and Levites, quite a number of whom lived in Jericho and traveled up to Jerusalem for their periodic responsibilities at the Temple (Str-B, 2:66, 180).

In this commentary, Nolland hints that perhaps the reason Jesus chose these two characters was because these commuters (priests and Levites) were the most likely of travelers along this road aside from robbers and the robbed man - that is these were the only remaining suitable characters as the other character types suitable to the setting had already been used.

Furthermore, the Priest may be an intentionally ambiguous choice made by Jesus. In Leviticus 21:1-3 priest are given specific and explicit instructions not to touch a dead corpse

The Lord said to Moses: “Say to the priests, the sons of Aaron—say to them, ‘For a dead person no priest is to defile himself among his people, except for his close relative who is near to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, and his virgin sister who is near to him, who has no husband; he may defile himself for her.

Should a priest become unclean by touching a corpse he had to undergo an elaborate ritual cleansing lasting 7 days. (Numbers 19:2-13 and Ezekiel 44:24-27) This would have rendered priests virtually useless for an entire week leaving the temple short staffed - a tough and frustrating position to put the community, the temple, and the individual in. The priest would have no way of knowing if the victim was alive or dead and checking could render the priest unclean. It is perhaps for this reason that the Priest falls victim to the Bystander Effect.

Keener notes,

Priests were supposed to avoid especially impurity from a corpse; Pharisees thought one would contract it if even one’s shadow touched the corpse. Like the man who had been robbed, the priest was “going down” (v. 31), hence he was heading from Jerusalem and did not have to worry about being unable to perform duties in the temple. But rules were rules; although the rule of mercy would take precedence if the man were clearly alive, the man looked as if he might be dead (v. 30), and the priest did not wish to take the chance. The task was better left to a Levite or ordinary Israelite. Jesus’ criticism of the priesthood here is milder than that of the Essenes and often that of the prophets (Hos 6:9). ... Rules for Levites were not as strict as for priests, but the Levite also wished to avoid defilement.

Alternatively, Nolland believes

The priest’s failure to help is more likely to be motivated by fear of the robbers

This could also easily be a staged trap; looking to lure an unsuspecting victim to a vulnerable location whereupon robbers could spring their trap and attack the cornered individual. My belief is that it was probably a combination of both concerns.

Nolland also notes,

(In any case, the burial of a dead man without relatives able to take responsibility for the funeral appears to be a duty that in Jewish tradition takes precedence, even for a priest, over purity laws [m Nazir 6:5; 7:1; Mann, JQR ns 6 (1915–16) 415–42])

This duty that Nolland notes is known as פיקוח נפש (Pikuach Nefesh), the principle in Jewish law that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious consideration. When the life of a specific person is in danger, almost any mitzvah lo ta'aseh (command to not do an action) of the Torah becomes inapplicable.

In any event, this all provides another clue as to why Jesus may have chosen the priest as a character in his story. A priest would have been expected to know all of his duties and the law to a greater degree than the average layperson. While a layperson might need to consult an expert of the law, a priest would not have needed to consult such an expert.

Simultaneously, as this parable is directed at an expert in the law, the expert would have known all of the above. Just as the priest is looking for a loophole to avoid the inconvenience of helping his neighbor, the expert of the law is looking for a loophole to avoid the inconvenience of loving his neighbor. This parallel is intentionally drawn by Jesus.

By selecting a priest of the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus selects a character which would have been looked up to by the expert of the law. This is because the Great Sanhedrin (the highest Jewish court in the land) met in the Hall of Hewn Stones in the Temple in Jerusalem. This would make the priest a pillar of the community and further increases the likelihood that the priest would have been well versed in the law. This means that the character is someone that the expert of the law respected and who's position and status would have been enviable. Therefore, the situational parallel allows the expert of the law to identify with and put himself in the place of the priest in the parable, while the prestige and status of the priest also causes him to desire to do so. While the inconvenience of ritual cleansing and concern for personal safety and by the priest might might allow the expert to understand the avoidance of the injured man on an individual level, on a political level, the expert in the law would have understood the scandal of a pillar of the community like a priest shirking his responsibility under the law.

Finally, the selection of a priest connects the parable back to the original question posed to Jesus by the expert of the law in Luke 10:25.

Now an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Because the priest was responsible for offering sacrifices on behalf of individuals, this makes the priest a gatekeeper to salvation and eternal life, thus connecting the story to the original question.

When discussing the priest, Nolland concludes

His priesthood should have made this man a good candidate for coming to the aid of the needy man, but in this case such an expectation was not borne out in practice. In the story the role of the priest is to raise hopes and then to dash them. The needy man’s situation has now measurably worsened. Nobody else might come on the scene soon enough.


Why choose a Levite?

Some reasons for the choice of a Levite are immediately obvious based on the exposition above:

  • A non-Jew would not be a "neighbor"
  • Priests, Levites and robbers are the most likely characters on the path
  • Other characters already used

However, there are a few additional reasons as well. Nolland notes,

The Levites were second-ranking figures to the priest in Jewish religious life, from whom one might expect a little bit less (non-Aaronic descendants of Levi, they were entrusted with secondary roles in the life and worship of the Jerusalem temple). ... At this point the story is open to a number of possible developments. (Is it after all an anti-clerical story, and now an ordinary Israelite will come along and save the day? Will God intervene with angelic help and shame the religious figures? Is the story to be a tragedy in which the injured man’s demise brings shame upon the covenant community?)

Therefore, because of the lower expectations for Levites, the reasoning that it might impair temple function is less of a concern as a generic Levite tasked with menial, janitorial and other trivial temple duties would not impair the functioning of temple life.

Additionally, by Selecting a Levite as the secondary character, Jesus moves from the most prestigious character (the priest, a pillar of the community) to a common "man-on-the-street" type of character and then finally to a villain archetype. The Levite therefore provides a transition from one end of the continuum to the other.

Despite this, this character is still one with which the expert of the law can identify. The reason being that most experts of the law were Levites and therefore, the expert of the law whom Jesus was speaking with was in all likelihood a Levite himself. It's possible the expert of the Law was even a temple worker from Jericho himself! (though there is no support for that in the text outside of a correlation/stereotype between Levite temple workers and experts of the law) This helps to make the plot twist of celebrating the moral superiority of the villain more jarring by still providing a character with which the expert of the law could identify with.

At the same time, it also provides a sensible transitional half-way point between the character we would most expect to be neighborly to the character we least expect to be neighborly. Should Jesus have chosen a Jew outside of the legal expert's probable tribe he 1) would not have been a temple worker and 2) would not have been a Levite and therefore less likely to be an expert of the law like Jesus' challenger.

Examining the contrast

What can be equally elucidating is examining the contrast that exists between a Samaritan and a Levite and Priest which might not exist to the same degree with another character.

Dr. Darrell Bock introduces his commentary on the parable this way:

The original impact of the parable of the good Samaritan is generally lost today. After centuries of good biblical public relations, our understanding of a Samaritan as a positive figure is almost a cultural given. But in the original setting, to a Jewish scribe a Samaritan would have been the exact opposite, a notorious “bad guy” and traitor (see discussion on 9:51–56 above). That is an important emotive element to remember as we proceed through this parable. The hero is a bad guy. Culturally he is the last person we would expect to be hailed as an exemplary neighbor.

In fact, the parable turns the whole question around. The lawyer asks who his neighbor is in the hope that some people are not. Jesus replies, “Just be a neighbor whenever you are needed, and realize that neighbors can come from surprising places.”

The story builds on a common situation, a seventeen-mile journey on the Jericho-to-Jerusalem road. This rocky thoroughfare was lined with caves that made good hideouts for robbers and bandits. The road was notoriously dangerous, the ancient equivalent to the inner city late at night. Josephus notes how some took weapons to protect themselves as they traveled this road and others like it. (Jewish Wars 2.8.4 §125).

And Nolland notes,

The traditional enmity between Samaritans and Jews is well captured in m Šeb 8:10: “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like one that eats the flesh of swine.”

In fact, the Samaritans were so hated that when Jewish travelers would journey from the Nazareth area of the Galilee region to Jerusalem (in Judea), many Pharisees would take the longer, more circuitous route through Perea

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This would add approximately 30 miles to the journey. In fact, in order to take this route, a Pharisee would have to travel the very road on which the story takes place. (It is also interesting then that Jesus just completed this journey and had an altercation with the Samaritans noted in Luke 9:51-55. Jesus was also leaving from Bethsaida [Luke 9:10] which is located on the northwestern most tip of Galilee. This means that it really wasn't any shorter [or longer] to travel through Samaria when departing from Bethsaida.)

Historically, the enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews arose during the Assyrian invasion (721 BC) of the Israelite capital Samaria when some Jews surrendered and were thus not taken into captivity and exiled. During the exile and captivity of the Israelites, the Samaritans began building a new temple on Mount Gerizim in the 5th century BC as the temple and the kingdom of Judea in Jerusalem was inaccessible to the Samaritans at the time, being under the control of King Hezekiah before later falling under Assyrian control (703 BC) (though Judea was later restored at the decline of the Assyrian empire [640 BC]) and then subsequently under Egyptian occupation (609 BC) and Babylonian control (601 BC).

This was wildly offensive to the Jews as God had commanded the temple be built in Jerusalem. Therefore, the Levites had a special tension with the Samaritans as their temple was an affront not just to their religion, but to their livelihoods as well.

While Jews from other tribes certainly had cause for enmity with the Samaritans due to their surrender to the Assyrians, they would not have shared the priestly tensions in the same way a Levite would have.

Conclusion/Summary

To summarize this, the reason for the Priest was fairly obvious, but the reasons for the Levite in addition were:

  • The expert of the law would have more easily identified with them
  • Special enmity with the Samaritans other character choices would not have shared
  • Only other character likely to be on that road on a regular basis
  • Other most common characters already used for other purposes
  • Less concern/issues with ceremonial cleanliness
  • More jarring, yet sensible transition
  • A non-Jew would not have been a neighbor

Typically repetition indicates greater importance in Jewish custom and adds emphasis and was common. While Jesus probably could have chosen another character, this comparison was very effective, so why ruin a good thing?

  • Some very salient points here James, thanks for doing the digging and posting this. I personally found the matter of fear for one's life being suggested as not a good reason to come to the aid of another and will try to remember it in a similar situation. – Ruminator Sep 11 '17 at 17:47
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Keep in mind that the parable is given in the context of a lawyer who knows the commandments and seeks to justify himself by defining who should be considered his neighbor.

Priests and Levites were people vocationally called to be ministers to God. Traditionally, they would have followed all the rituals and rules that were prescribed in the Law. The priests were all Levites, and they ministered to God in the temple directly, and were served/assisted by non-priest Levites. The passing priest and Levite might have been concerned about ritual cleanliness, but the text doesn't dwell on it. The Old Testament Prophets and Wisdom literature dwells on the fact that the Law is meant to be understood in righteousness and not in letter only. For example Psalm 50, Isaiah 1, and Micah 6, which denigrate sacrifice (even as prescribed in the law) when it is not matched with righteousness, thanksgiving, mercy, and justice. After all, God is not hungry, he is not confined to a house, he already owns everything, etc.

The priest and the Levite arguably were vocational servants of God, so they actually should have been the people who showed the mercy understanding that the sacrifice of God is to show mercy, yet they pass by.

The lawyer is deliberately trying to manipulate the boundaries of the Law in order to justify the ways in which he falls short of the law he just defined: loving God with all the heart and neighbor as yourself. By trying to define the neighbor, he is trying to define where he can get away with not loving. So Jesus takes a Samaritan who is archetypically defined by worship rituals that are contrary to the prescriptions for the temple found in the Law, and showing how he fulfills the Law by being merciful. The lawyer is forced to sheepishly admit that the guy who isn't defining the boundaries of the Law (and even is in rebellion to them) is a better fulfiller of the Law than the Levites who do it all by the book, and more importantly, than the lawyers ready to justify their lovelessness.

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    I don't think you really answered the question asked ("why both a Levite and a priest?") but instead a different one ("what does the parable mean"). – ThaddeusB Nov 18 '15 at 5:34
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    They were both people vocationally associated with the temple. One offering sacrifices and the other assisting those who offer sacrifices – Ben Mordecai Nov 18 '15 at 10:52
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    The meaning of the parable is always the key to the meaning of the details – Ben Mordecai Nov 18 '15 at 10:53
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Luke must have attached a great deal of significance to this parable. Not only is he the only evangelist to record it; he begins the Gospel with details of a real priest who leaves Jerusalem: [ESV except as noted]

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. (Luke 1:5)

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. (1:8-9)

And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. (1:23)

In passages with both "priests and Levites" it is common to see priests as sons of Aaron (Exodus 28:1) and then define Levites narrowly as descendants of Levi who are not of the sons of Aaron. Could someone other than a Levite legitimately serve as a priest? Luke's introduction which adds the background of John the Baptist serves as a reminder of the other reasons why a descendant of Aaron would be called a Levite, not a priest:

  • A higher calling. Zechariah's son was a son of Aaron (from both parents). He should serve as a priest in Jerusalem in the division of Abijah; yet John is not a priest. He is a Levite who is always found outside of Jerusalem.
  • Age. Priests served from 20 to 50. Those too young or old are not priests. They would be called Levites.
  • Gender. Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron yet was not a priest. This plays no part in the parable as Levite (Λευίτης) is masculine.

A son of Aaron who was not serving as a priest, would be a Levite whenever “priests and Levites” were considered collectively. By opening the Gospel with John the Baptist, Luke has a priest (Zechariah) serving in the Temple who leaves Jerusalem for his home town in Judah and a Levite (John) who is not serving in the Temple having left to baptize along the Jordan River.

The parable is told when the lawyer asks “Who is my neighbor?” On the surface Jesus does not answer this question. Instead He tells a parable which demonstrates how to love:

Of these three, which one seems to you to have become the ‘neighbor’ of the man who fell among robbers? (10:36 CJB)

The answer to “who” is secondary and is driven by the three types of people Jesus places on the same road as the injured man.

First, all have one thing in common: they left Jerusalem. A person leaving Jerusalem might be traveling for any number of reasons, but priests and Levites leaving call attention to their service in the Temple adding a “religious” perspective to the traveling aspect of the parable. Jesus reminds the lawyer there are legal reasons why a person would leave Jerusalem, a city in which they do not live. Priests and Levites have regular periods of service which require travel from their home to and from Jerusalem. In addition there are three times during the year (Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Booths) which all men should travel to and from Jerusalem.

Even without the opening of the Gospel, the most common reason a priest leaves Jerusalem is their period of service had ended and they were on their way home. So when “a certain” priest left Jerusalem the “certain man” on the side of the road might be a neighbor who was returning to the same "neighborhood" where the priest lived.

The lawyer's first question was, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:25). Inheritance recalls the distribution of land and the injured man should be returning to land promised to his family. On the other hand Levites were given cities scattered throughout the inheritances of the other tribes (Joshua 21). A priest, a son of Aaron should be headed back to his city:

The lot came out for the clans of the Kohathites. So those Levites who were descendants of Aaron the priest received by lot from the tribes of Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin, thirteen cities. And the rest of the Kohathites received by lot from the clans of the tribe of Ephraim, from the tribe of Dan and the half-tribe of Manasseh, ten cities. (Joshua 21:4-5)

If taken literally, a “certain priest” in the parable could be a “neighbor” only to the tribes of Judah, Simeon, Benjamin, Ephraim, Dan, or the half tribe of Manasseh. Adding a Levite to the parable has the effect removing the possibility the injured man lived outside the territory to which the uninjured men were traveling. It describes a scene where the Levite is passing by a person who cannot be excluded as a "potential" neighbor on the basis of where they live.

There are added layers to the element of being a neighbor. Since all of the travelers were in Jerusalem, they were temporarily neighbors during their stay. The priest has a job in the Temple to officiate on behalf of all the people. In this sense his work also places him as a "neighbor" to any person and he should stop to help the injured man. However, to the lawyer, or one who is seeking a reason not to help, which is the implication in the lawyer's question, a neighbor may be narrowly defined by where a person permanently lives. So in terms of answering the lawyer's question of "who" adding an unidentified Levite describes a scene of a man ignoring another person who might actually be a neighbor in the sense of where each person lives.

The parable has added elements of irony as a priest and Levite are always "neighbors" when working in the Temple; yet in terms of an inheritance are never neighbors in a local sense (they live in different cities). Also in Jesus' day the Samaritan would never be a neighbor to either a priest or Levite as both left or were driven from Samaria during Jeroboam's reign and continued to shun this territory after returning from exile.

Finally, the parable ends with the Samaritan promising to return to the place which he took the injured man. This echos the fact a priest and Levite will return to Jerusalem, either for their next period of service or the next required feast. Thus Luke uses the "leave and return" element of travel to introduce the parable:

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. (10:1)

The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” (10:17)

And he employs the element at the end of the Gospel adding Jerusalem and the Temple:

And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem... (24:33)

And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God. (24:52-53)

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This is, of course, just an opinion, but here's what I see:

The key to understanding this is in verse 30. Some translations bring this a little more home, but the man had been beaten so badly he was on the verge of dying. Contact with a dead body renders someone ritually unclean and they are not permitted to participate in temple worship.

Priests and Levites both participated in temple worship. If they were to stop and help and the person were to expire on them, they would not be able to continue with their temple worship. And so, they passed up their opportunity to serve God by helping the Samaritan for serving God by working in the temple.

To me, Jesus is using this as an example of what not to do. He taught to serve God first by serving one's neighbor.

This is a summary of my teaching here: http://forerunnerintl.org/?p=22 on this same subject.

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    Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. Please don't "preach" at readers. Instead, describe your perspective without prescribing it. We're looking for lectures rather than sermons. Please keep in mind that not all of your readers here are Christians. I've made an edit. – Dan Dec 23 '14 at 20:05
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    We're also looking for a little bit more than mere opinion here. We particularly study the historical, linguistic, and literary dimensions of the text and prefer answers to cite expert-level resources in these areas. – Dan Dec 23 '14 at 20:07
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    Hi Thom. Yes, I agree about the dead bodies, but this does not answer my question: what is the difference between these two characters? – Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE Dec 23 '14 at 20:17

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