Why the Good Samaritan Story Looks a Little Different in the NLT

I live in the Chicago area. And there are certain common experiences and ideas that are understood when I talk to fellow Chicagoans. For instance, when someone starts talking about the “Ike” without any further explanation, I know they are talking about a highway that goes into the city from the west. It’s also called 290. It’s always busy (even at 3 am), and there will be a backup around the Austin exit. This is context that I just know because it’s part of my everyday experience.

I’m sure you have places and things in your life that don’t require additional explanation for listeners who share common experiences, places, activities, etc. This was true in Bible times as well. When Jesus spoke to the crowds, some references he made were simply “understood” because they were part of the everyday lives and shared experiences of his audience. But for us, who aren’t Jews living in a Roman dominated world, what was common knowledge can easily get lost in the centuries of separation and cultural differences.

This is an area where meaning-based translations are extremely helpful. Meaning-based translation views and translates the words of the Bible text through the lenses of the Bible’s contexts—culture, politics, geography, literary genre, and other elements of common knowledge for the original hearers. Accounting for the ancient contexts in translation ensures that the translated text’s meaning isn’t as likely to be missed by readers today who aren’t experts in the Bible’s world. As one of our translators says, “We’re not just translating words, we’re translating worlds.”

We received a great question about a choice the NLT translation committee made when translating the story of the Good Samaritan.

Question: When I checked Luke 10:30 in the NLT, I saw that the victimized man was described as Jewish. I saw that the ESV described him as just “a man.” Interesting. So I went to my online parallel Bibles and found that all the versions except NLT describe him as “a man” or “a certain man.” Is there any particular reason why the NLT identifies him as Jewish?

Answer from Mark Norton, member of the NLT Bible translation: This is a good question, and it does involve contextual interpretation, not just a simple argument from the wording in the Greek text. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter if the beaten man is Jewish. And as he lay there by the road, it would have been hard to tell if he was or not. But there are some reasons to presume that Jesus (and his listeners) had in mind that the beaten man was Jewish, and this presumption does strengthen the force of the story a good deal, especially for a Jewish audience.

Jesus was telling his parable with a radical surprise in it, and that surprise was clearly racially loaded. His listeners would have assumed that a traveler on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho was almost certainly Jewish. Why? The Jerusalem-Jericho road was the primary route Jews used to travel between Judea and Galilee. The reasons for this were various—the route straight north from Jerusalem, though shorter, led through Samaria (where Jews weren’t welcomed and didn’t feel safe), and it was a rough, mountainous route. The alternate route (and the route most taken) went east from Jerusalem to Jericho, then north up the Jordan Valley. The road between Jerusalem to Jericho was fairly mountainous too and it did make the journey longer, but then the journey north to Galilee followed the Jordan River, which had a good water source the whole way and was relatively flat.

The number of Samaritans on the Jerusalem-Jericho road would have been few. If they wanted to go to Jericho for trade, they likely would have taken one of their own roads to the Jordan and traveled the Jordan Valley south to Jericho, avoiding Judea altogether. The Samaritan hero in the story would have been an exception to the rule.

The other reason for assuming the wounded man to be Jewish is that Jesus didn’t identify the race of any of the first characters in the story—until the Samaritan. Here is the radical surprise in Jesus’ definition of the term “neighbor.” The person who culturally and historically had every reason not to stop was the one who in the story stopped to help the wounded man. If the wounded man had been a Samaritan too, it would have undermined the truth that Jesus was teaching, and no one would have been surprised at the attitudes of the Levite and priest, who might easily ignore a wounded Samaritan.

The BTC scholar team (and other commentators support this) believed that identifying the wounded man as Jewish was supported by the historical, geographic, and literary context. When translating the meaning of a text with clarity from one language to another, translators are forced to weigh contextual concerns along with the grammatical. Clear translation doesn’t only involve simple grammatical equations. This is clearly the case here. After close review, the BTC scholars saw the best equivalent for the literal “a certain man” to be “a Jewish man.” It is what the original listeners would have heard Jesus saying as he told the story.

3 thoughts on “Why the Good Samaritan Story Looks a Little Different in the NLT

  1. Wow! This is my first time reading this piece of information concerning why the Translators choose to use the words ‘Jewish man’, in telling the story of the Good Samaritan.
    Excellently explained. Since Jesus was talking to a Jewish audience, his listeners understood Him to mean that the ‘victim ‘ was a Jewish man’.
    This parable about the Good Samaritan was a real
    ‘heart check’ for the Jewish listeners!!
    Again, wow!!

  2. I’ve learned so much. My knowledge of the Bible has increased. I feel that the visual summary was extremely helpful.

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