The Samaritans were a people group who resided in a portion of ancient Israel towards the end of the Old Testament period and who, like the Jews, worshiped Yahweh. They also held to the five books of Moses as the law of God. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe an adversarial relationship between the Jews who returned from exile and the Samaritans. This animosity persists into the New Testament era as seen in places like John 4. Today there are very few Samaritans left. However, by the end of the Old Testament and certainly into the New, the Samaritans were a large and significant ethnic and religious group.
History of the Samaritans
In 1 Kings 12 tells us how, after the death of King Solomon, the kingdom of Israel broke apart with the nation of Israel to the north, and the nation of Judah to the south. Judah was ruled by the line of David in Jerusalem. It is from the nation of Judah that Judaism and the Jewish people arose. The northern nation of Israel was governed by their kings from the city of Samaria. 1 Kings 12:25-33 describes how Israel's new king, Jeroboam, turned the people from worshiping God at the temple in Jerusalem (in Judea) and established his own priesthood. The kings who followed him never turned from this. 200 years later, God brought judgment on Israel. They were conquered and taken into captivity by the nation of Assyria.
2 Kings 17 describes this fall and explains how the Assyrians scattered the people of Israel from their land and transplanted other people in their place. God, however, punished the new inhabitants for their idolatry so severely that the king of Assyria brought back some of the Israelite priests to teach the new residents to worship the God of Israel. He wanted to appease God's wrath. In the overall historical narrative of Scripture, this seems to be where the Samaritans find their origin and where they began to developed into the distinct people we find later in Scripture. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus concurs with this assessment.1
This history would perhaps explain Jesus' description of the Samaritans when He says:
John 4:22, "You Samaritans worship what you do not know. We worship what we do know, because salvation is from the Jews."
The Samaritans dispute this assessment of their origins and profess to be the true Israel.2 They claim to trace their priesthood not only back to Aaron but all the way back to Adam.3 This claim, however, is both biblically and historically untenable.
Belief and Practices of the Samaritans
There is a general creed held by the Samaritans which states:
"We say: my faith is in Yahweh; and in Moses the son of Amram, they servant; and in the Holy Law; and in Mount Gerizim Bethel (or "Mount Gerizim, the house of God); and in the Day of Vengeance and recompense"4
Both Jews and Samaritans are strict monotheists who seek to obey the Law of Moses, but how they understand that law can be quite different.5 Some of these differences are important to note:
The Location of the Temple: One of the most distinctive beliefs of the Samaritans is their rejection of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and their insistence that God instead appointed Mount Gerizim as the proper place for His worship. This belief even features in the conversation Jesus has with the Samaritan woman in John 4, when she says:
"Sir,” the woman replied, “I see that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, yet you Jews say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem," (John 4:19).
This Samaritan belief is so strong that their version of the Torah adds it into the Ten Commandments.6 Once we realize this, it gives us an even deeper picture of the humble faith of the Samaritan leper in Luke 11:19. He submitted to Jesus' instructions to go "show himself to the priests," obviously meaning the Jewish priests of the Jewish temple system, something that would have been totally anathema to his Samaritan convictions.
The Scriptures: The Samaritans accept only the Torah, or the five books of Moses from Genesis to Deuteronomy, as authentic scripture. They reject the rest of the Old Testament. Their version of the Torah is in most places very similar to the Jewish Torah but does contain some substantial differences, including obvious additions that establish their religious distinctives like the Samaritan temple doctrine. The Samaritan doctrine of the scriptures became one of the chief divides between them and the Jews.7
The Calendar and the Festivals: The Samaritans operate on an entirely different calendar. This places their festivals or feast days on different days than those of the Jews, festivals that also differ notably from Jewish practice.8 It is noteworthy that 1 Kings 12:32-33 lists the changing of the days and practices of the feasts in Israel as among the sins of King Jeroboam when he turned the people of Israel from worshiping God at the temple in Jerusalem. While it is unlikely the later Samaritans were still using Jeroboam's calendar and feasts, it is relevant to note that division over the days and practices of the festivals goes back to the very beginning of the division between Israel and Judah that would eventually lead to the Samaritan people.
Magic and Superstition: While modern Samaritans deny that they ever practiced magic, and indeed it may never have been formally condoned by Samaritan leadership, archaeology has unearthed a variety of amulets9 and astrological texts10 which show that magic and superstition were a part of the everyday lives and practices of many Samaritans. We see this also in Acts 8 where Phillip brings the gospel to a Samaritan city where the people had previously been devoted to a man named Simon because of his acts of sorcery.
The Messiah: While Samaritan's reject most of the Old Testament prophets, they still have a Messianic figure in their teaching known as the "Taheb." This expectation is based primarily on the passage in Deuteronomy 18:18-22, the promise of a future prophet like Moses.11 In the Samaritan Torah, this passage is also contained in Exodus twenty alongside the ten commandments.12 In John 4:25-26 when the Samaritan woman spoke of the coming Messiah, and Jesus affirms that He is the one, she probably had this particular prophecy in mind. This would fit with John's theme. For example, he compares Jesus to Moses in John 1:17, says that Moses wrote about Jesus in John 5:45-46, and mentions the people declaring "This really is the Prophet who was to come into the world!" in John 6:14. All of this seems to point us back to Jesus being the Prophet like Moses of Deuteronomy 18.
- 1. J. Julius Scott Jr., "Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament" (Baker Academic, 1995) 197
- 2. J. Julius Scott Jr., "Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament" (Baker Academic, 1995) 199
- 3. John Bowman, "Samaritan Documents Relating to their History, Religion and Life" (Pickwick Publications, 1977) 39
- 4. Robert T. Anderson and Terry Giles, "Tradition Kept: The Literature of the Samaritans" (Hendrickson Publishers, 2005) 265
- 5. J. Julius Scott Jr., "Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament" (Baker Academic, 1995) 199
- 6. Benyamim Tsedaka, "The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah" (Eerdmans Publishing, 2013) 173-174
- 7. John Bowman, "Samaritan Documents Relating to their History, Religion and Life" (Pickwick Publications, 1977) i
- 8. J. Julius Scott Jr., "Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament" (Baker Academic, 1995) 199
- 9. Robert T. Anderson and Terry Giles, "Tradition Kept: The Literature of the Samaritans" (Hendrickson Publishers, 2005) 405-409
- 10. Robert T. Anderson and Terry Giles, "Tradition Kept: The Literature of the Samaritans" (Hendrickson Publishers, 2005) 410-411
- 11. J. Julius Scott Jr., "Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament" (Baker Academic, 1995) 199
- 12. Benyamim Tsedaka, "The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah" (Eerdmans Publishing, 2013) 174-175