In contemporary English-speaking society, even those quite unfamiliar with the Bible know the term “Good Samaritan,” used to describe a kind stranger who offers help to someone in need. It originates in a parable told by Jesus in the Gospel called “of Luke,” (10:30-37) in the New Testament. In Russian iconography, it is generally called Притча о добром самарянине / Pritcha o dobrom samaryanine — “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”
The point of the parable is that one’s neighbor is whoever shows concern for one’s well-being by actually helping.
Traditional Eastern Orthodox iconography, however — based on opinions of various Church Fathers, etc. — distorts the parable into something quite different — an historical allegory from the supposed “fall” of humankind to the resurrection of Jesus and beyond.
There is a very interesting 14th century example found in the narthex of the Pech Patriarchate, in Serbia. You can see it here — the narrow and long bottom segment on the ceiling, just above the curve of the arch:
It illustrates the tale in brief, beginning at left, as the inscription says:
ЧЕЛОВЕКЬ НЕКЫ СЬХОДЕ ОТ [I]ИРУСАЛIМА ВЬ [I]ЕР[I]ХОНЬ ВЬ РАЗБОИНИКИ ВЬПАДЕ
CHELOVEK’ NEKUI S’KHODE OT IERUSALIMA V’ IERIKHON’ V’ RAZBOINIKI V’PADE
“A certain man going from Jerusalem to Jericho among thieves fell…”
We see the man setting out at far left. Then he is attacked by — not ordinary thieves in this fresco, but by demons — devils. We can see that they are devils because they not only have naked, hairy bodies, but they also have the hair standing up to a point high above their heads, which is the stereotypical way of depicting demons in Slavic Orthodoxy, though in traditional Russian iconography they are commonly quite black. So this is not a straightforward illustration of the parable, but an allegorical interpretation.
This transformation of the parable began as early as John Chrysostom, who in his Homily 15 on Matthew mentioned the Samaritan, and then talked of people fallen not among thieves but among demons and beset by anger.
The interpretation of the parable in Orthodoxy became that the man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is Adam — the first man, and representative of humanity. He leaves Jerusalem — interpreted as Paradise — when he falls into sin. He then travels through the dangers of the fallen world (represented by the road to Jericho), beset by demons — who also represent sin and human passions — and is overcome by them.
Next we see the man left beaten and near naked by the side of the road. Two men pass by, see him, do nothing, and walk on. The one at left is identified by title as
СВЯЩЕННИК/SVYASHCHENNIK, a priest. The second at right is titled ЛЕВИТЬ/LYEVIT’ — a Levite.
This is interpreted as Adam/Man falling wounded under the assaults of demons, of sin and the passions on his journey through life. They rip the “garment of grace” from him. The Priest and Levite represent the Old Testament Law of Moses and the Priesthood of Aaron, which cannot ultimately help the wounded man in Eastern Orthodox belief. In some examples, they are represented by an Old Testament prophet — Moses or another, depending on the version — and by John the Forerunner or Baptist — who supposedly do not stop to help the wounded man because God has another planned helper.
That other helper — a Samaritan — comes walking along, sees the poor man lying by the road, and begins to aid him. Just as the iconography has transformed the thieves into devils, it now transforms the Samaritan into Jesus, with the distinctive cross in his halo.
Jesus treats the man’s wounds — the effects of sin — by pouring on oil and wine, which are interpreted as the New Testament and the mercy of God. He bandages the man and takes him along. Though in the biblical parable he places the man on a beast to carry him, the iconography here uses another interpretation — that the “beast” is the body of Jesus. That is why we see Jesus carrying him, rather than the man being placed on an ass.
In the final scene, Jesus has brought the man to an inn, where in the morning he gives two coins to the innkeeper, telling him to take care of the wounded man, and promising that later when he returns, he will pay the innkeeper for any additional expenses for that care. The two coins are interpreted as the Bible and Tradition (or by others as the Old and New Testaments). The inn represents the Church, and the innkeeper the clerics and teachers of the Church. The morning is interpreted as the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, and his promise to return is seen as the Last Judgment, when people will be recompensed according to their deeds.
In some examples, the man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is shown as young at the beginning of his journey, but as old, grey, and bearded as he progresses — he is aged by sin.
Now all of this rather convoluted interpretation is cobbled together from the opinions of various early “Church Fathers,” etc.
Clement of Alexandria identified the Samaritan with Jesus in his treatise on the rich man in Mark 10, and the two coins as the reward the angels will receive for their services to mankind.
Origin — as described by Jerome — said he received an interpretation of the parable from an “old presbyter.” This interpretation is much the same as that found in Eastern Orthodoxy, with these equivalencies:
The man traveling = Adam
Jerusalem = Paradise
The robbers = “the hostile powers,” i.e. demons
The Priest = the Law of Moses
The Levite = the prophets
The Samaritan = Jesus
The wounds = disobedience
The beast on which the Samaritan places the man = the body of Jesus
The inn = the Church
The two coins = the Father and the Son
The innkeeper is the “chairman” or authority of the Church
The Samaritan’s promise to return = the Second Coming
Origin recognized this as an allegory rather than the primary meaning of the parable, and did not agree with everything in the “old presbyter’s” interpretation.
Now interestingly, the roots of the allegory may lie in docetic and Gnostic sources. An old Syriac manuscript — attributing docetic views to Marcion — says that Jesus
“…first appeared between Jerusalem and Jericho, like a human in form, image and likeness, but without our body” (British Museum cod. Add. 17215, fol. 30).
So there we have the Jerusalem and Jericho elements of the story, though of course much was to be added.
The Church Fathers had varying interpretations of the elements of the parable. Those wishing a more complete study of the opinions of early Christian writers on the matter will find it in The Good Samaritan in Ancient Christianity, an article by Riemer Roukema in the publication Vigiliae Christianae: A Revew of Early Christian Life and Language, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Feb., 2004), pp. 56-74 (19 pages).