Monday, July 19, 2021

The Samaritan Woman

The interpretation is making the rounds - trust me, it's making the rounds - that the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well is a primarily racial lesson in the New Testament. If you have never heard this before, it's because it's new.  It was never asserted until recently.  Not before the 21st C, I don't think, though something may come up about that to prove me wrong. I recognise the type of argument.  To those who have signed on to this, it seems to not be a political statement, but an understanding-of-the-real-meaning-of-the-scriptures argument, which should inform our political understanding going forward. 

I think the opposite is much closer to the truth, that it is a modern transparently political understanding being applied retroactively to the Bible. That the Jews generally did not like the Samaritans is clear from John, Luke, and Matthew.  Secular sources confirm this, but also show that there were varieties of opinions about them. Even Jesus specifically excludes them from evangelism in his early ministry, telling his disciples to avoid the towns of both the Gentiles and Samaritans. Once his mission to the Jews is established, he seems to relent. Whether he regarded them as the next group for harvest, I don't think it is wise to speculate.  It looks that way, but mind-reading Jesus isn't a good way to proceed. 

They were regarded as half-Jewish, half-Gentile. Some considered them heretics, some a different tribe, and secular sources report that some Jews considered them an affiliated group that was in error. They were descended from the Jews who had not gone into the Babylonian captivity mixed with the Assyrians that Babylon sent to occupy the land. Because they stayed straight through, the Samaritans regarded themselves as the real chosen people, Assyrians or not. Even at worst case, the Jews considered them much closer than Greeks or Romans would be. Luke uses the word allogenhs, "another-family/tribe" to describe them. The Jews were familiar with people who were different in what we would call a race: Simon the Black, and the Ethiopian eunuch (maybe the same person) and several OT references. "Ethiopian" didn't mean a geographic area, it meant "black person." The early church didn't seem to have an issue with this.  

The first gentile came into the Church in Acts 10, but there were Samaritan believers mentioned in Acts 8. So the Jews didn't consider them actual gentiles, just annoying, suspect, heretical distant kin. That they had intermixed with the Assyrians does seem to have been an issue. It gets mentioned. It is an overread to claim it was the main issue, especially when most sources talk exclusively about their false worship on the wrong mountain or other strictly religious differences. 

We might think it is just human nature that the genetic difference was the (really) important one at the time, but that is imposing our framework on them. It's fun to be cynical, wink-wink like that, but there isn't evidence for it.

There is also the related belief that Jesus came to heal divisions like this in the world, that people of many tribes and nations would get along better. But the New Testament emphasises that we are all to come out of our tribes to join the new one, the Jesus tribe, the New Covenant. At a minimum, whatever other identifications we have from our previous lives are supposed to be unimportant enough to be not worth mentioning.  There is neither Jew nor Greek in the new kingdom.  But what the others from those tribes, those left behind are supposed to be doing isn't mentioned. Jesus makes no mention that he hopes Jews and Samaritans in general - or Pharisees and Essenes, or Greeks and Romans, or Medes and Parthians - would get along better, only that any were welcome to follow him (and then they had jolly well better get along). We can make up stories based on our picture of Jesus, and in our modern era, when folks think that "Peace of Earth" has something to do with the absence of war, that is what we will almost automatically think. Yet Jesus spoke of bringing division and a sword, and spoke of war among the nations as something that would always be happening. He also told us in some contexts to leave them behind quite heartlessly.


james said...

I'd not heard that one. Jesus bears down on "worshipping in spirit and truth" and ignores ethnic categories. It's kind of hard to miss that.

I'd heard of the Syrophoenician woman "teaching Jesus a lesson." Those with more Greek than I say he refers to throwing food to the puppies--a bit different than street dogs; more part of the family.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I had never heard that about puppies rather than dogs. I hope it's true that's what was meant. But sometimes Jesus says hard things and we are stuck with them.

james said...

The Blue Letter Bible references various definitions: Strong's is "puppy"