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.
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
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.
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?