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Who Were the Samaritans?

There once was an ancient temple society, led by hereditary high priests from the lineage of Levi who taught and transmitted the sacred words of God as preserved in the Torah (the five books of Moses). Each year at Passover the community gathered in a solemn assembly to perform the rituals on the Paschal Lamb in remembrance that God had saved them from bondage. And through the years this community worshiped God as Creator and Sustainer of all life. Yet this group was vilified and marginalized over the centuries, their beliefs mocked, their people scapegoated and eventually their holy temple destroyed by outside forces. Presently their numbers have dwindled to some 4000 active adherents.

But wait, are there not more than 4000 faithful Jews today? Yes, indeed! But we are not talking about the Jews, we are talking about the Samaritans! If we look closely, we discover that the Samaritans carry all of the important identifying features that would lead us to believe that they are faithful Israelites.

Yet, our scriptures tell us otherwise and our popular lessons generalize them as mongrels, impure and religiously vacuous. But can we help ourselves? Our view of the Samaritans is entirely shaped by the perspective that is offered to us—a perspective that is prevalent throughout both the Old and New Testament scriptures. How would our perspective and understanding of the Samaritans be enhanced if we heard their story through their own voices? How would this inform our understanding of the cultural and religious tensions that played an ongoing role in Palestinian society between the years of the Jewish return from exile to New Testament times (539 BC – 70 AD)?

Our present day scriptures have only preserved the Jewish perspective of the origin and beliefs of the Samaritans. Yet we are quite fortunate that the Samaritans preserved their own version of their origin and beliefs. By reading the Jewish and Samaritan version side by side we gain a fuller picture of the cultural and religious tensions active in Palestinian society over many centuries and our understanding of New Testament characters’ interaction with Samaritans is enhanced.

Our Perspective; The Jewish Perspective

Before we listen to the authentic Samaritan voices, we will first examine our own perspectives of the Samaritans and explore where these perspectives come from. Undoubtedly, we gain our understanding of the Samaritans from passages in the Old & New Testaments. What do they tell us? We can begin by stepping back in the distant past, to the time of the 721 BC when the Israelites were fractured into two kingdoms, the Northern Kingdom of 10 Tribes (also known as Israel with its capital at Samaria) and the Southern Kingdom (also known as Judah with its capital at Jerusalem). We remember at that time that the Israelites started a rebellion against the mighty Assyrian empire. Israel even tried to force Judah to join the revolt (see Isaiah 9). But Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom’s capital city of Samaria and deported nearly 30,000 inhabitants to Mesopotamia. What happened to these people no one knows, but expectations have abounded over the centuries that the ten lost tribes would one day return.

However, not all of the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom were deported; many of the true Israelites remained. Yet the Jewish perspective on this matter urges us to see it differently. The Jewish account in 2 Kings 17:24-41 makes a strong claim that those “Israelites” left in Israel after the Assyrian conquest did not worship the Lord God, but instead perverted righteousness, practiced wickedness and taught these things to their children.

Thus far the story sounds familiar to us.

The Power of the Jewish Perspective on the Samaritans

The claims outlined in 2 Kings 17 were passed down so convincingly over the years that Jesus was able to use this Jewish perspective of the Samaritans as a powerful pedagogical tool when he delivered the simple but profound parable now called “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10). How could Jesus teach the principle of being neighborly to even the most despicable people if they were not regarded by his listeners as despicable?

In contrast, Jesus, the Perfect Exemplar, showed utmost neighborliness to this downtrodden group by visiting them at the sacred well of Jacob.1 Despite being caricatured as refuse and thus not even worth the effort for proselytizing,2 the Samaritans proved to be some of the most anxious to receive the “good news” that God’s anointed Messiah had come (see John 4:39-42).

Samaritan Voices Speak from the Dust

Now that we are armed with the knowledge of our own perspective and the knowledge of where our perspective comes from, we can practice neighborliness by listening to the Samaritan side of the story.

Our best resources for understanding the Samaritans own view of themselves derives from key records that they kept and transmitted. First there is the Samaritan Pentateuch. They, like their Jewish relatives, highly regarded the words of God preserved in the first five books of the Bible,3 so much so that they accepted no other scriptures but the five books of Moses. Today, by comparing the Hebrew Bible against the Samaritan Pentateuch, Biblical scholars can detect word and grammar changes which suggest how the Samaritans understood and interpreted the scriptures.

The most important record for understanding the Samaritans from their perspective, however, is a document called The Samaritan Chronicle. This document claims that the Samaritans are true Israelites, descended from the tribes of Joseph (through Ephraim and Manasseh). In this document the Samaritans also claim to have preserved the Holy Levitical Priesthood, preserved the correct forms of Temple worship and sacrifice, guarded the purity of Israelite seed, and maintained true doctrines and beliefs, while on the other hand Judah languished in sin and was corrupted by Babylonian exile. The Samaritans saw themselves as the true preservers of Israelite religion while the Jews lived according to an apostate and corrupted imitation of Mosaic practices.

Let us now get into the primary documents from the Samaritan perspective, now that a general summary has been offered. As you read, notice the way that the Samaritans make use of familiar biblical characters (i.e. Eli), ideas (i.e. sacredness of the scriptures) and institutions (i.e. temple worship, priesthood) in a narrative that is not entirely familiar to us. Again, the reason why their view on the matter is unfamiliar to us is that the Jewish perspective is the only one that we have ever heard.

The Samaritan Chronicle4

(Explanatory and contextual information is to be found in the footnotes.)

“When the high priest Uzzi5 took up the high priesthood in succession to his fathers, there was a man named Eli6 the son of Jephunneh, of the descendants of Ithamar son of Aaron the priest, as overseer of the House of Ithamar.

“This Eli sacrificed on the altar of stones, and under his control was the entire revenue of the Israelites’ tithe which they offered to the Lord. He was a prince over the whole tribe of Levi, under the command of the high priest Uzzi. Now this Uzzi was but a youth, and Eli the son of Jephunneh was well advanced in age. Eli yearned to take over the position of the high priest Uzzi…And the people of Israel again did, at that time, what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and furthermore Eli the son of Jephunneh was possessed of evil designs, with the result that many of the Israelites turned from the way of truth. He seduced them, and they took after idols, formed marriage alliances with Gentiles,7 and even gave their daughters to them; and they took the daughters of Gentiles as wives for themselves…

“Now Eli was ambitious, and he let it be known that he wanted to take over the position of high priest…Eli won over to himself many of the Israelites by saying to them, ‘It is right that I should minister to a youth? I do not want such a status for myself, and I expect you to share my opinion and follow me.’ Eli went on to write to all the cities in the neighborhood of Mount Gerizim8 Bethel, and he addressed the above words to them. These all gathered to his side and they addressed him as follows: ‘We accept what you have said; we will not disobey your orders. Everything you command us we will do.’ They made a covenant with him accordingly…

“At that particular time the Israelites who dwelt in the cities of Shechem, the cities of Philistia, and the cities of Jebus were divided in two. One side followed the high priest Uzzi the son of Bahqi, and the other followed Eli the son of Jephunneh. The latter became evil-minded, and they all followed their own inclinations…The Josephites followed the high priest Uzzi the son of Bahqi, and the Judahites followed Eli the son of Jephunneh. The Ephraimites and Manassites drove out Eli and his community from the chosen place Mount Gerizim Bethel.9

“Eli and his community, with their families and cattle, departed to sojourn in the territory of the tribe of Judah at Shiloh. Eli dwelt there in that place, and he made himself an ark of gold based on the structure of the ark of the testimony. He made himself also a mercy seat, cherubs, a table, a lampstand, and altars just like those of the sanctuary of Moses, which is to be found in the chosen place Mount Gerizim Bethel.

“Eli wrote letters, sending them to the chief of the Israelites addressing them as follow: ‘Let whoever desires to see signs and wonders come to me at Shiloh, for the ark of the testimony containing the tablets is in my hands.’ He put into the ark the books of the law which were the version of Ithamar the son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, peace be upon him. A good many Israelites gathered to him, and he built at Shiloh a tent based on the design of the tent of meeting.10 This Eli did not change a single word of the holy law, but he revised the order of words.11 Eli went on sacrificing the offerings on the altars which he had made. Every one of his festivals was in accordance with the commandments of the holy law.”12

Context of Religious and Cultural Wars between Jews and Samaritans (500 BC)

So what is the context of such disputes? Some scholars have suggested that the key ingredients for these cultural and religious battles were the social conditions of the Jewish population returning from Babylonian exile as they came into contact with native inhabitants of Palestine.

In 539 BC the Persian Empire, under command of Cyrus, conquered the Babylonians and liberated the many peoples, and not just Jews, who had been living in exile. A true politician, Cyrus became the patron of each ethnic and religious group; just as the Jews were allowed to return to build their temple, so too were the Babylonians allowed to freely pursue their religious institutions,13 even though Cyrus adhered to neither of those religious systems.14

The returning Jewish exiles saw themselves as the true Israelites, marching on their exodus out of Babylonian captivity much like their forebearers had marched out of Egyptian captivity. Once back in the land of Palestine, the Jews tried to reestablish their customs, beliefs and most importantly their temple practices with its attendant priesthood hierarchy, but other groups who claimed to be true Israelites (such as the Samaritans) wanted to participate. How were the returning exiles to determine who was truly Israel and who was not?

At first amicable relations existed between the two groups who both claimed to be the true Israel (Jews and Samaritans). In fact, that a Jewish high priest15 had married the daughter of Sanballat the Samaritan governor is an example of how amicable the relationship initially had been between the two groups.16 But the peace did not last long.

We will learn more about this deterioration as we listen to the voice of a Jewish historian living six hundred years after the initial controversy.17 In his book Antiquities of the Jews Josephus relates the following story about the deteriorating relationship between the Samaritans and the Jews soon after the Babylonian exile over the issue of who represented true Israel:

Now the elders of Jerusalem, resenting the fact that the brother18 of high priest Jaddus was sharing the high priesthood while married a foreigner,19 rose up against him, for they considered this marriage to be a stepping­stone for those who might wish to transgress the laws about taking wives and that this would be the beginning of intercourse with foreigners. They believed, moreover, that their former captivity and misfortunes had been caused by some who had erred in marrying and taking wives who were not of their own country. They therefore told Manasses either to divorce his wife or not to approach the altar. And, as the high priest shared the indignation of the people and kept his brother from the altar, Manasses went to his father-in-law Sanaballetes20 and said that while he loved his daughter Nikaso, nevertheless the priestly office was the highest in the nation and had always belonged to his family, and that therefore he did not wish to be deprived of it on her account. But Sanaballetes promised not only to preserve the priesthood for him but also to procure for him the power and office of high priest and to appoint him governor of all the places over which he ruled, if he were willing to live with his daughter; and he said that he would build a temple similar to that in Jerusalem on Mount Garizein21—this is the highest of the mountains near Samaria—and undertook to do these things with the consent of [Persian] King Darius. Elated by these promises, Manasses stayed with Sanaballetes, believing he would obtain the high priesthood as the gift of Darius, for Sanaballetes, as it happened, was now an old man. But, as many priests and Israelites were involved in such marriages,22 great was the confusion which seized the people of Jerusalem. For all these deserted to Manasses, and Sanaballetes supplied them with money and with land for cultivation and assigned them places wherein to dwell, in every way seeking to win favor for his son-in-law.23

Hmmmm…the Samaritan and Jewish versions over who was true Israel is beginning to sound like two young siblings blaming the other for raiding the cookie jar (when all along they both know they that each took a cookie).

So what we see is that both groups were attempting to show why they should be the legitimate Israel and thus heirs to the legitimate priesthood, to the legitimate scriptures and to the legitimate temple. Interestingly, they shared similar, yet competing stories.24

Who is right and who is wrong? Well, actually that is not for us to decide. What we may discover in the end is that both the Jewish and the Samaritan stories have merit and truth to them. We can let the Lord work it all out in the end anyway.

Aftermath of Jewish Samaritan Controversy of 500 BC

According to some leading Jews (such as Ezra and Nehemiah), the way to verify the true Israelites was through blood lineage, hence the focus on genealogies. Thus only those that could prove that they were of the literal house of Israel (of the pure blood) were allowed to participate in the religious and social customs that defined the Jewish community. Additionally, as Josephus reported above, some of the Jewish leaders feared that Jews mixing with the native inhabitants would lead to idolatry and wickedness, which they believed had been the reasons for the exile in the first place. So, fearing a repeated disaster, leaders such as Ezra and Nehemiah created firm community boundaries25 and invoked the Mosaic Law in Deuteronomy 23 against foreign marriages (Nehemiah 13). Even then, Ezra still mourned over heedless Jews who did not follow the laws of God (see Ezra 9).

Jews Destroy the Samaritan Temple (128 BC)

About four hundred years after the initial controversy between Jews and Samaritans, the Maccabean Jews were the political and religious rulers over Palestine (c. 167 BC). Working upon the old animosity as well as new controversies, the Jewish leader of that day, John Hyrcanus, forcibly converted the Samaritans to Judaism and destroyed their temple (c. 128 BC), burning it to the ground much like the Romans burned the Jewish temple to the ground two hundred years later in 70 AD.

Samaritans in the New Testament

With this background context, we now have a richer perspective of the Jewish and Samaritan experience which informed their attitudes and world views during the New Testament times. Let us look at a few of the first instances of Jewish – Samaritan interactions/references in the New Testament and see if our new understanding sheds additional light on these passages.

Matthew 10:1-16

These verses focus on Jesus calling his apostles and delivering to them their unique commission to preach the gospel. It is interesting to note that Jesus requests that the Apostles go first to the lost sheep of Israel and then later to the gentiles and Samaritans (see especially verse 5).

Luke 10:25-37

This chapter contains the famous parable known as “The Good Samaritan.” We mentioned earlier that by working off of the Jewish negative stereotypes of the Samaritans Jesus was able to teach a powerful principle of brotherhood and neighborliness.

John 4:4-42

Even though Jesus explains that his main mission was to gather the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 10:5) in loving kindness he journeys through Samaria and shares the gospel first with the woman drawing water at the well of Jacob and then with many other Samaritans.


These are but a few of the Jewish – Samaritan interactions that we encounter in the pages of the New Testament. As we come across additional references, our new understanding of the way that the Jews and Samaritans viewed themselves and each other can offer us additional insights to the social context which gives life to the scriptures. And as we listen to those different stories perhaps then we are practicing one form of neighborliness: understanding others’ perspectives from their own viewpoint.

  1. See the beautiful story of Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:5-26. 
  2. Compare this to the words of some Nephites in response to the desire of Ammon and the sons of Mosiah to teach the Lamanites. See Alma 26:23-25. 
  3. Otherwise known as the five books of Moses or the Torah. 
  4. This translation is based on George W.E. Nickelsburg & Michael E. Stone’s Faith and Piety in Early Judaism: Texts and Documents (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), pp. 14-16. 
  5. “According to Samaritan views, Uzzi was high priest in the true line of descent from Phineas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron.” Faith and Piety in Early Judaism: Texts and Documents, p.15 n. a. 
  6. This is the same Eli who took in the young Samuel to the temple and helped him to recognize the voice of the Lord. See 1 Samuel 3. What is significant about this entire Samaritan passage, which paints Eli in a bad light, is that the Samaritan perspective is entirely plausible given the evidence offered in 1 Samuel of Eli’s fall from grace. See especially the OT story of God rejecting Eli as high priest (1 Samuel 2: 35-36); Eli’s sons (and heirs to the high priesthood) both die (1 Samuel 4:17) and see also the story of Eli dying (1 Samuel 4:18). 
  7. Notice how the Samaritans argue that the Jews were half-breeds. This is the same argument used by the Jews against the Samaritans. Some things just never change in religious and cultural wars (i.e. both sides use the same arguments against each other). 
  8. Mount Gerizim, the holy mount where the Samaritans built their temple, is located about 30 miles to the North of Jerusalem. 
  9. This is the location where the Samaritan temple stood for many years and is still the location where they gather on an annual basis to slaughter a paschal lamb for the Passover ritual. This is not far from present day Palestinian city Nablus in the West Bank. 
  10. The Samaritans are claiming that the Jewish temple and temple practices were apostate imitations. 
  11. The Samaritans, who highly revere the scriptures, charge the Jews with textual tampering thus destroying the credibility and power of the scriptures. 
  12. For further reading on the Samaritans see the following secondary sources: The Samaritans, edited by Alan D. Crown (Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1989); John Bowman, The Samaritan Problem: Studies in the Relationships of Samaritanism, Judaism, and Early Christianity, translated by Alfred M. Johnson, Jr., (Pittsburg: The Pickwich Press, 1975); R.J. Coggins, Samaritans and Jews: The Origins of Samaritanism Reconsidered (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975); Ingrid Hjelm, The Samaritans and Early Judaism: A Literary Analysis (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000). 
  13. The “Cyrus Cylinder” documents from a Babylonian perspective the way that Cyrus had liberated the Babylonians from their own irreligious leader, thus allowing them to once again freely pursue their religious beliefs and practices. See The Ancient Near East: Volume 1—An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, edited by James B. Pritchard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), pp. 206-208. 
  14. Cyrus was most likely part of the religious movement called Zoroastrianism. 
  15. The Jewish High Priest’s name was Manasses. 
  16. It is interesting to note that Sanballat’s name means “Sin (the moon-god) gives life”. Sin was the name of an Assyrian moon god. This name leads some to believe that the Samaritan Sanballat was truly an Assyrian emigrant. However, Sanballat certainly regarded himself as a true Israelite, even if his parents gave him an Assyrian name. He gave two of his own children Israelite names with the theophoric element of God’s name in their name; Delaiahiah & Shelemiah. Besides, even some prominent Jews had Babylonian/Mesopotamian names, such as Zerubbabel (which means “born in Babylon”). So the mere fact of having a foreign name does not mean that an individual is not truly of the house of Israel. See Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5:973-975. 
  17. The initial controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans was sparked during the Persian period around 500 BC. The Jewish historian Josephus lived hundreds of years later, from 37 AD – c. 105 AD. He wrote The Antiquities of the Jews around the year 95 AD. 
  18. This is again a reference to Manasses, one of the Jewish High Priests. 
  19. Manasses was married to Nikaso, daughter of Samaritan governor Sanballat. 
  20. A variant form of the name Sanballat. 
  21. This is a variant form of the name Gerazim; sometimes also written Gerizim. This is the mountain upon which the Samaritans built their temple and conducted sacrifices. This is still the case even today. 
  22. See Ezra 9. 
  23. This translation comes from Faith and Piety in Early Judaism: Texts and Documents, pp. 18-19. 
  24. We must remember that in religious and cultural wars some things never change (i.e. both sides use the same arguments against each other). 
  25. The wall that Nehemiah had constructed around Jerusalem at this time may be a physical representation of this. See Nehemiah 2. 

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