This is the second installment of my series on the Samaritan people, in honor of Real Samaritans for Peace Day (November 19). In our first installment, we learned that the Samaritans of the Parable are still alive and practicing their ancient religion.
[Photo: Kiryat Luza, the Samaritan community on Mt. Gerizim]
Will the Real Samaritans Please Stand Up?
Who, then, are the Samaritans? Where did they come from? Why was there such antipathy between Samaritans and Jews? What religion did Samaritans practice? And what happened to them after the days of the New Testament?
There’s controversy on some of these matters. Let’s start with the non-Samaritan side. Here’s a description from Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews.
“[By 721 BCE]…[t]he Kingdom of Israel had…been reduced to the status of a vassal kingdom by the expanding Assyrian empire to the northeast. But soon after the death of Tiglath-pileser III, Assyria’s great warrior emperor, Israel decided to flex its muscles and throw off the Assyrian yoke. This was its last mistake. The Assyrians descended and carried off all the people of property, dispersing Israelite nobles throughout the empire as nameless slaves who would never be heard from again. In times to come, their land would be colonized by subject peoples from elsewhere in the empire, who one day intermarried with the remaining peasant stock, would come to be known as Samaritans.”
2 Kings 17 takes a similar view of the origins of the Samaritans. The North Kingdom of Israel, it says, fell to the Assyrian empire as punishment for its sins. The inhabitants had worshiped foreign gods and even put up two gold statues of calves and a sacred pole for Asherah. The Assyrians brought in new settlers from elsewhere in the empire—places like Cuthah and Hamath and Sepharvaim, and they brought the worship of their own gods with them.
The God of Israel sent lions to attack these heathens, and as a result, the settlers converted—sort of. They took up the worship of the God of Israel, but alongside their own idols. Their descendents, the Bible writes, meaning the Samaritans, did the same thing.
Josephus echoes the story in 2 Kings, and adds that while Greeks call them “Samaritans,” the Hebrew call them “Cuthem”—“from Cuthah.” These Cuthem are evidently an unsavory lot who sail with the prevailing winds. Writes Josephus, “When they see the Jews prospering, they call them their kinsmen, on the grounds that they are descended from Joseph and are related to them, but when they see the Jews in trouble, they say that they have nothing whatever in common with them.”
If that's the public story, you can imagine what got said off the record. The only epithet we know about is “Cuthem,” but there were no doubt others. I’ll bet Jews and Samaritans told jokes about each other—most likely versions of the same jokes that have at one time or another been applied to every outsider group or rival. Did you hear the one about the two Samaritans who go into an inn? Or, my favorite, Why did the Samaritan cross the road?
Today, we’d send both sides to diversity training.
Heretics, idolaters, half-breeds…This is, to put it mildly, not quite how the Samaritans see themselves. It is a good guideline, however, to help us understand why, as the commentator of John 4 helpfully reminds us, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans,” and why the idea of a “Good” Samaritan was, at the time of the New Testament, an outlandish notion. It would be somewhat akin to telling a Southern during Reconstruction the story of the Good Carpetbagger . . . or anyone with a 401(k) today the story of the Good Wall Streeter.
The Origins of the Samaritan People
Let’s first figure out whom we’re talking about. The word “Samaritan” today refers to a religious and ethnic community that uses the Samaritan Pentateuch for its sacred text and believes Mount Gerizim is the proper place for worship. That usage hasn’t always been the case, and when reading ancient documents, it’s hard to be sure whether “Samaritan” refers to that group or refers more generally to any inhabitant of Samaria, the former North Kingdom. That can lead to all sorts of confusion.
Samaritan religious beliefs revolve around the four principles of their faith:
- One God, the God of Israel
- One—and only one—prophet, Moses
- One holy book, the Pentateuch, and no other books.
- And one holy place, which is Mount Gerizim, the Mountain of Blessings.
The last item is the source of all the trouble between Samaritans and Jews.
Samaritans themselves prefer to be called “Israelites,” and settle for “Israelite Samaritans.” To them, “Samaritan” doesn’t mean “inhabitant of Samaria.” Those are Samarians, not Samaritans. Instead, “Samaritan” derives from the word Shomrim, “keeper of the law.” That goes to the heart of what Samaritans believe about themselves and their origins.
The Civil War
For that story, let’s set the Way-Bac dials for the time period of the Book of Judges, the 11th Century BCE, and hear what the Samaritan Chronicles, the major work of Samaritan history, has to say.
“A terrible civil war [has broken] out between Eli son of Yafni, of the Line of Ithamar, and the sons of Phineas, because Eli son of Yafni resolved to usurp the High Priesthood from the descendants of Phineas.
When the Great High Priest Ozzi learnt of this, he thoroughly disowned him; and it is even said that he rebuked him.
Thereupon he and the group that sympathized with him, rose in revolt and at once he and his followers set off for Shiloh.
“Thus Israel split into factions...”
These words were written in the 14th century CE by Abu’l Fath. Here’s what he’s talking about.
The first capital of post-Exodus Israel was not Jerusalem, but ancient Shechem. Today, the city is known as Nablus. It is nestled in a valley between two mountains: Gerizim and Ebal. These mountains appear in the 11th chapter of Deuteronomy: “And it shall come to pass, when the LORD thy God hath brought thee in unto the land whither thou goest to possess it, that thou shalt put the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal.”
It was at Shechem that the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua, reaffirmed their covenant with God, as described in Deuteronomy 27. Six tribes stood upon Mount Gerizim to recite the blessings for following the laws of the God of Israel, and the other six tribes stood upon Mount Ebal to recite the curses on those who disobeyed the Lord.
As far as the future Samaritans were concerned, this made Mount Gerizim, the Mountain of Blessings, God’s chosen place, and the proper center of Israelite worship.
Around the 11th century BCE, the priest and judge Eli—the one who was rebuked by the Great High Priest Ozzi—established a new worship site at Shiloh. This drove a wedge between the proto-Samaritans in Shechem and other Israelites, who recognized other prophets and additional books that make up the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament.
The Era of Divine Disfavor
The tribe of Judah and the city of Jerusalem became increasingly dominant. Jerusalem was the political capital, the economic capital, and to a greater and greater degree, the religious capital. The traditionalists in Shechem were increasingly unhappy, and following the death of Solomon, as you know, the previously united Kingdom of Israel broke in two: the Kingdom of Israel, known as the North Kingdom, and the Kingdom of Judah, known as the South Kingdom. Both Samaritan and Jewish scholars agree that the break involved a division within the priesthood.
For the next two hundred years, the two kingdoms struggled, until the regional superpower, the Assyrians, took over in 721 BCE. This ended the “Era of Divine Favor,” the Rahuta, which began with Moses, and started the “Era of Divine Disfavor,” the Fanuta, which will last until the coming of the savior, or Taheh.
What happened to the ten tribes of Israel that made up the North Kingdom? Samaritans tell us that the deportation primarily affected the aristocratic leadership in the city of Samaria, and involved far fewer people than is generally claimed. The Joseph tribes of Menasseh and Ephraim were relatively untouched, and it is from those tribes that today’s Samaritans claim an unbroken line of priestly succession all the way down to the current High Priest Elazar bin Tsedaka bin Yitzhaq, the 131st of his line, a direct descendent, according to their genealogical records, of Aaron the brother of Moses.
Roughly two hundred years later, the Kingdom of Judah falls to Babylon, and Jews endure fifty years of captivity in Babylon before being permitted to return to their homeland.
After the exile, during the Persian period, a Jew, Nehemiah, becomes the Persian governor of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. He outlaws marriages with “foreign women,” scuttling a marriage between a daughter of the Persian governor of Samaria and a son of the Jewish High Priest. Although the governor of Samaria wasn’t a “Samaritan” as we use the term, it was one more wedge between the Jews and their increasingly distant cousins on Mount Gerizim.
Both Samaritans and Jews credit a contemporary of Nehemiah’s, Ezra, of the Book of Ezra, for completing the schism. Ezra, according to tradition, established the canon of the Hebrew Bible, including books other than the Pentateuch, and insisted on the centrality of Jerusalem as the one holy place for the worship of God. For this, Samaritans refer to him as “Ezra the Cursed.” From that time on, Samaritans and Jews are clearly different religions, even though they spring from the same root.
The Tenth Commandment
One important question is which came first — the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch, or the Jewish version? There are roughly 7,000 differences in the two versions, most involving different orthography. The differences that matter, as you might imagine, involve the chosen place for the Almighty. In 22 verses in the Book of Deuteronomy, the SP version says, “In the place that the Almighty HAS CHOSEN,” referring to Mount Gerizim, which had already been blessed. The corresponding Jewish Masoretic MT text—in each case—reads, “In the place the Almighty WILL CHOOSE,” meaning Jerusalem, which came later.
To make sure there’s no ambiguity, the SP version even offers a different Tenth Commandment in Exodus 20, which basically summarizes as, “Keep Mount Gerizim holy.”
To make the number of commandments ten, the SP combines “I am the Lord thy God” (or “Shehmah your Eloowwem”) and “you shall not have any other gods before me” into a single commandment, followed by “You shall not make for yourself an idol” as the second.
They’re not alone, by the way, in adjusting the number. The Jewish Talmudic version has “I am the Lord your God” as the first commandment, and combines “No other gods before me” and “No idols” as the second.
On the Christian side, Anglicans list “I am the Lord your God” as the preface and separate “No other gods” and “No idols” into separate commandments. The Orthodox churches combine “I am the Lord” and “No other gods” into a single commandment, and make “No idols” the second. Finally, Roman Catholics and Lutherans combine “I am the Lord,” “No other gods,” and “No idols” into a single First Commandment and break the “No coveting” into two commandments: “not your neighbor’s wife,” and then “not anything that belongs to your neighbor,” an important distinction, as you might well imagine.
(The Eleventh Commandment, of course, in all traditions, remains “Don’t get caught.”)
Abominations and Desecrations
As the Persians gave way to Alexander’s Macedonians, the governors of Samaria and Judea chose sides, with Samaria going with Alexander while Judea stayed loyal to the Persians. The governor of Samaria, Sanballat III, gets permission from Alexander to build a temple on the Mountain of Blessings. It’s good news for the supporters of Mount Gerizim.
Now, Alexander (unsurprisingly) appoints his own governors to his new provinces. Jerusalem, long used to foreign overlords, accepts the new boss (same as the old boss). Samaria, however, takes less kindly to the new boss, and burns him alive. The city aristocracy flees Shechem. Alexander’s troops hunt them down. Hundreds of Samarians—some may also have been Samaritans, though not all—take shelter in the caves at Wadi ed-Daliyeh. The soldiers build a fire at the entrance, and everyone inside dies of suffocation. The high priest in Jerusalem takes advantage of the moment to switch sides, and in the process annexes several Samarian districts to Judea.
After Alexander’s death, the Seleucid rulers nominally control the region, but soon they’re in a struggle with the Ptolemies. The leaders of Judea and Samaria intrigue in the background. Under Antiochus IV Ephiphanies, there’s a general persecution of religious Jews, culminating in the sacrifice of a pig on the altar at Jerusalem, the “abomination of desecration.”
Some sources report that the Samaritans, trying to butter up Antiochus, agree to name their Mount Gerizim temple after Zeus, more evidence of Samaritan perfidy and heresy, but if the story has any truth in it—and that’s not at all certain—it’s far more likely that the renaming was involuntary.
The Abomination of Desecration triggers the revolt of John Hyrcanus. The Samaritans sit out the battle, enraging the Jews. John Hyrcanus subsequently attacks Samaria as punishment for their lack of support, and destroys the temple on Mount Gerizim.
By the arrival of Pompey the Great and the beginning of Roman rule in 63 BCE, the Samaritans have already been made virtual foreigners in their own land. But we know who they are; these are the Samaritans of the New Testament, the Samaritans we know best.
Which brings us back to where we started in our discussion of the Samaritans and the people I know today.
Whatever Happened to Pontius Pilate?
While there are no more mentions of Samaritans in the New Testament after Acts, it turns out the Samaritans aren’t quite out of the story. They have a little epilogue all their own.
During the tenure of an otherwise obscure Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, a “lying Samaritan” (that’s Josephus’s phrase) tells everyone he has found sacred vessels on Mount Gerizim that were left there by Moses. A crowd gathers, and Pilate panics. He sends in soldiers and things get out of control. He’s convinced it’s a conspiracy and has the leaders of the movement executed. The Samaritans file a formal complaint with the governor of Syria, Pilate is sent back to Rome.
As it happens, he wasn't able to wash his hands of this case, and so got fired from his job.
The third and final part of this series appears Sunday.