Who Were the Samaritans?
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 15 August 2016; Revised 3 October 2016
Sources: Bibliographic data for scholarly publications cited may be found at the end of the article. References to Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, are from The Works of Flavius Josephus (c. 75-99 A.D.) trans. William Whiston (1737); online. References to tractates of the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); online. Click here for Talmud Abbreviations.
Vocabulary: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
Contrary to the widespread belief of Christian scholarship the Samaritans identified in the apostolic writings belonged to the Jewish world. The tendency of Bible scholars to regard the Samaritans in Yeshua's time as non-Jews begins with two false premises. The first false premise is they are not called "Jews," so they must not be Jews. This mistake owes to the failure of recognizing that the term Ioudaios (pl. Ioudaioi), translated as "Jew(s)," refers to Judean Jews as a religious expression. Of course, Essenes, Herodians, Sadducees and Zealots are never called Ioudaioi, but they were clearly Jewish. The second false premise is that the Samaritans were pagan transplants brought into the region by the Assyrians when the northern tribes were conquered, deported and then disappeared in the mists of history. See my article The Twelve Tribes of Israel in which I rebut the false belief of the lost tribes.
The history of the Samaritans is certainly bound up with the founding of the Northern Kingdom of Israel after the death of King Solomon (c. 931 BC; 1Kgs 11−12), its decline and eventual destruction by Assyria in 722 BC. The name Samaria (Grk. Samareia for Heb. Shomron) was a place name of a mountain and the city built on it (1Kgs 16:24), as well as a territory (Obad 1:19), meaning "mountain of watching," and the residents thereof. In the Tanakh Shomron refers primarily to the city of Samaria, 42 miles north of Jerusalem, which was the capital, residence, and burial place of the kings of Israel from the time of Omri, the sixth king of Israel (885-874 BC) (1Kgs 16:23-28; 22:37-39; 2Kgs 6:24-30). Jezebel made the city infamous as the center for Baal worship (1Kgs 16:29-33) and the martyrdom of many prophets (1Kgs 18:2-4).
In 726-22 B.C. Assyria invaded the Northern Kingdom and after a 3-year siege Samaria fell. The Assyrians deported many of the residents and replaced them with pagans from five different locations (see 2Kgs 17:5-6, 23-24; Ezra 4:9-10; Ant. IX, 14:1). Some of the people brought into the territory intermarried with Israelites left in the land. According to the Kings history the Assyrian immigrants were attacked by mountain lions, and they decided to convert to the God of Israel. As a result the King of Assyria appointed an Israelite priest to educate them in Torah religion (2Kgs 17:25-28). Even with this social upheaval there is no evidence that all northern Israelites were exiled or totally assimilated into a Gentile culture and ceased to exist. Members of the northern tribes still participated in the pilgrim festivals in Jerusalem after the Assyrian occupation (cf. 2Chr 30:1, 21, 25; 31:1; 32:17, 23; 34:9, 21; 35:17; 36:13).
Later, the Greeks conquered the region (331 B.C.) and Hellenized the area with Greek inhabitants and culture. Then the Hasmoneans, under the Jewish high priest John Hyrcanus, destroyed the city c. 120-119 B.C. as part of his effort to remove Syrian hegemony from the land (Ant. XIII, 10:2). After a long period without inhabitants, the city of Samaria lived again under Pompey and the Romans (63 B.C.). Finally, Herod the Great obtained control of Samaria in 30 B.C. and made it one of the chief cities of his territory. He built a temple there in honor of Caesar and renamed the city Sebaste, using the Greek word for Augustus, the emperor (see Ant. XIV, 4:4; 5:3; Wars I, 7:7; 8:4. This pagan worship stands in sharp contrast to the worship of the Samaritans described in John 4:20.
In the first century the territory of Samaria lay between Judea on the south, Galilee on the north, the Mediterranean on the west and the Jordan River on the east. In terms of government Samaria became part of the Roman province of Judaea, which included Judea and Idumea. Josephus gives this description of Samaria:
"Now as to the country of Samaria, it lies between Judea and Galilee; it begins at a village that is in the great plain called Ginea, and ends at the Acrabbene toparchy, and is entirely of the same nature with Judea; for both countries are made up of hills and valleys, and are moist enough for agriculture, and are very fruitful. They have abundance of trees, and are full of autumnal fruit, both that which grows wild, and that which is the effect of cultivation. They are not naturally watered by many rivers, but derive their chief moisture from rain-water, of which they have no want; and for those rivers which they have, all their waters are exceeding sweet: by reason also of the excellent grass they have, their cattle yield more milk than do those in other places; and, what is the greatest sign of excellency and of abundance, they each of them are very full of people." (Wars III, 3:4)
Arguments for Jewish Identity
First, Samaritans were Israelites by genetics. The use of "Samaritan" by the apostles (Luke 9:52; 17:16; John 4:39, 40; Acts 8:25) and Yeshua (Matt 10:5; Luke 10:33) demonstrates their distinction from Gentiles and the belief that they were descendants of the northern tribes. The Samaritan woman referred to Jacob as "our father" (John 4:12) and Yeshua did not dispute the fact. The historical reference obviously excludes Gentile citizens that migrated into the territory. The woman believed herself to be a genetic descendant of Jacob making the Samaritans in general bona fide members of the covenant people of Israel. In fact, a modern DNA study of Samaritans living in Israel has concluded:
"Of the 16
Samaritan mtDNA samples, 14 carry either of two mitochondrial haplotypes
that are rare or absent among other worldwide ethnic groups. Principal
component analysis suggests a common ancestry of Samaritan and Jewish
patrilineages. Most of the former may be traced back to a common ancestor in
the paternally-inherited Jewish high priesthood (Cohanim) at the time of the
Assyrian conquest of the kingdom of Israel."
Second, the Samaritans were Jews by religion. They had a four-fold creed: (1) One God, YHVH; (2) one prophet, Moses; (3) one book, the Pentateuch; and (4) one place for worship, Mt. Gerizim (Lizorkin-Eyzenberg 46). They shared the beliefs and practices of mainstream Judaism of the day and reverenced holy traditions set forth in the Torah. The Samaritan Jews venerated Mt. Gerizim as the holiest of mountains because they believed that in the days of Uzzi the high priest (1Chr 6:6); the ark and other sacred vessels were hidden there by God's command (Ant. XVIII, 4:1). Richard Coggins writes, "The Samaritans are best understood as a conservative group within the total spectrum of Judaism. This rather clumsy definition is necessary because of the ambiguity of the word "Judaism" (OCB 671). In modern Judaism the Samaritan Jews might be comparable to the Karaite Jews, who regard the written Torah as the only authority for Jewish practice.
Third, the Samaritan Jews used what is now called "Samaritan Hebrew" in a script that is the direct descendant of Paleo-Hebrew (ancient Hebrew), while the Judean Jews adopted a new form of square, stylized letters that were part of the Aramaic alphabet. In addition, due to the Hellenization of Samaria the Samaritan Jews had developed their own translation of the Pentateuch into Greek called Samaritikon (Lizorkin-Eyzenberg 47).
Fourth, the Samaritans were Jews because they believed in Messianic prophecy (John 4:25). In Samaritan literature the Messiah is known as Taheb, which has been variously explained as "he who restores" or "he who returns" (Morris 272). Taheb-traditions explain that since the disappearance of the Tabernacle, the world has been suffering under divine displeasure. The Taheb will end this suffering and restore the period of favor, establish true religion, and destroy the followers of Ezra (i.e., the Pharisees). He will live 110 years on earth, and then die ("Samaritans," JE). The Samaritans particularly hoped that the Messiah would restore worship at Mt. Gerizim.
Fifth, the apostles interpreted the Great Commission to "make disciples out of all nations" (Matt 28:19) solely in terms of making disciples of Jews. The beginning point, Jerusalem, and the next place Judea would certainly be Jewish, so the rest of the itinerary of Samaria and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) must likewise focus on Jews. Thus, Philip, a deacon, opened a mission in Samaria (Acts 8:5) and then Peter and John proclaimed the Good News in many Samaritan villages (Acts 8:25). The Good News did not go to the Gentiles until God specifically commanded Peter to go to Cornelius and it was such a "big deal" that Peter was called before the elders in Jerusalem to explain himself (Acts 10:28; 11:2-3). There was no such concern about witnessing to the Samaritans, because they were Jewish.
Luke never mentions Samaria or Samaritans in his narratives of Paul's journeys nor does Paul mention Samaritans by name in his letters. Of course, when Paul traveled from the Diaspora to Jerusalem (Acts 9:26; 15:2; 21:15-17; Rom 15:25; Gal 1:18; 2:1) he would have traveled through Samaria. There is support for the probability that Paul ministered among Samaritans. The recent discovery of a marble inscription, written partly in Greek and partly in a Samaritan form of Hebrew and Aramaic, testifies to the presence of Samaritans in Thessalonica ("Thessalonica," HBD). So, it is very likely that the God-fearing Hellenistic Jews who responded to Paul's message in Thessalonica (Acts 17:4) were Samaritans.
Prejudice Against Samaritans
In the first century Samaritans were despised by Judean Jews largely for their refusal to recognize Jerusalem as the center of Jewish worship (John 4:20). In the Talmud the Samaritans are referred to frequently with the slur "Cuthean." Cutheans (Heb. Kutim) were among those brought by the Assyrians from their native Cuthah to Israel to populate the area of Israel left desolate by his deportation of native Israelites. Yeshua alluded to this prejudice when he referred to a Samaritan leper he healed as a "foreigner" (Grk. allogenēs, Luke 17:18). Some lexical sources define allogenēs as "of a different race" (LSJ, Mounce, NASBEC, Thayer). The use of "race" is an unfortunate choice because in modern times it has taken on an evolutionistic meaning with Darwin's distinction between three supposed races (Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Negroid).
In reality there is only one race, the human race consisting of all those descended from the first couple. Strong's Concordance specifically defines the term as "not a Jew." However, BAG defines allogenes as simply "foreign." Danker clarifies the meaning as "of a different people group." The noun is derived from allos, "another, different" and genos, "line of descent, i.e., offspring, family." In other words Yeshua's line of descent was from the tribe of Judah and the Kingdom of Judah, whereas the Samaritan's line of descent was from any of the ten northern tribes that made up the Kingdom of Israel. In addition, from the regional perspective of Galileans and Judeans, the Samaritans with their distinctive theology and customs were definitely foreigners. (Americans have similar regional differences.)
Because of intense prejudice Samaritans and Judean Jews generally avoided contact, as the woman of Samaria said to Yeshua, "Judeans do not share with Samaritans" (John 4:9 mine). The woman was shocked because Yeshua had asked her for a drink of water. What the woman really meant is that Judeans did not use vessels with Samaritans. This practice ostensibly stemmed from the Mishnah regulation "the daughters of the Samaritans are deemed unclean as menstruants from their cradle" (Niddah 4:1). Eating the bread of Samaritans was regarded as eating the flesh of pigs, but this probably refers to eating with Samaritans (Shebiith 8:10). However, the prohibition of sharing may refer to other restrictions. One Rabbinic writer expressed the non-association as avoidance of a business partnership (Megillah 28a), which is reflected in Bible versions with "have no dealings with" in John 4:9.
The Samaritan woman placed the blame for the lack of "sharing" or "dealings" squarely on the Judeans, although there was one occasion when Samaritans did not extend a welcome to Yeshua and his disciples (Luke 9:51-53). God certainly imposed no such restrictions (cf. Deut 2:6). What should be noted is that all the pejorative comments against Samaritans and restrictions in association mentioned in the Mishnah and Talmud were written by Pharisees, so that the clarifying comment must use Ioudaioi to mean strict Pharisees or Judean Jews. The term cannot refer to Galilean Jews, Hellenistic Jews or other sectarian Jews who had no scruples about traveling through Samaria and engaging in commerce or other activities with Samaritans. After all, the disciples went into the town to buy food (John 4:8), so the generalization of most versions is clearly inaccurate.
In contrast to the Pharisees and other Judean Jews Yeshua showed respect for the Samaritans. He said that he came only for the lost house of Israel (Matt 10:6; 15:24) and so he ministered in Samaria (Luke 9:51-56; John 4:39-43). He rebuked his disciples for their hostility toward the Samaritans (Luke 9:55-56). Yeshua shocked a Torah expert by depicting a Samaritan as a model for obeying the second great commandment (Luke 10:30-37). Yeshua later healed a Samaritan leper and praised him for his gratitude (Luke 17:11-18). The Samaritan's actions may be contrasted with the Judean whom Yeshua healed at the pool of Bethesda and who not only did not thank Yeshua or praise God, but reported him to the Temple police as the one who told him to carry his mat (John 5:1-15).
The Jewish world in the first century was clearly diverse. A variety of Jewish groups existed in the first century, some of which are mentioned in the Besekh. The diversity of these groups indicate that there was not one Judaism but many Judaisms during that time. The first century Jewish historian Josephus identifies the Pharisees, Saduccees, Essenes and Zealots as the four principal sects of that time (Antiquities, XVIII, 1:1-6). Similar to these sects the Samaritans shared the beliefs and practices of mainstream Judaism of the day and reverenced holy traditions set forth in the Torah. Best of all the Samaritan Jews welcomed the message of the Messiah (John 4:39-42; Acts 8:4-8, 25).
HBD: Holman Bible Dictionary. Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1991.
JE: Jewish Encyclopedia (1906), JewishEncyclopedia.com, 2002-2011.
Lizorkin-Eyzenberg: Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of All Israel. Jewish Studies for Christians (Tel Aviv), 2015.
Morris: Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John. William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1971. (New International Commentary on the New Testament)
OCB: The Oxford Companion to the Bible. ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. Oxford University Press, 1993.
Copyright © 2016 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.