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Samaritans

Samaritans: group of monotheists worshipping YHWH on Mount Gerizim. They are related to but not identical with the inhabitants of ancient Samaria.

Samaritanism resembles Judaism, but there are several differences.

  1. Samaritans think that the temple of YHWH should not be on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, but on Mount Gerizim near modern Nablus (ancient Shichem);
  2. they believe that their line of priests is the legitimate one, as opposed to the line of priests in Jerusalem;
  3. they accept only the Law of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) as authoritative, and have a slightly different text of these books. The Prophets and Writings are not recognized as divinely inspired.

The relation between Samaritanism and Judaism used to be tense (as is implied in Jesus' well-known story about the good Samaritan, which presupposes that it was uncommon for Samaritans and Jews to help each other). To understand these tensions, we need to go back to the first quarter of the first millennium BCE, before the two religions had developed their characteristic ideas and customs.

By then, the cult of YHWH was probably widespread in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the temple of Jerusalem was not the only place of worship. In the large cosmopolitan city of Samaria, the capital of Israel, many believers venerated YHWH without feeling any need to go to the peasant town that was Jerusalem. YHWH had not yet become the one God of later times, and many Samarians and Judaeans accepted other gods together with YHWH.

The rise of Judah and the rise of monotheism took place in the seventh century, after the fall of Samaria and the deportation of 'the lost tribes of Israel' to Assyria (724). Towards the end of the seventh century, king Josiah tried to reform the cult in Jerusalem, an act that is associated with the composition of the core of the Biblical book of Deuteronomy, which contains the regulations of the reform program. From now on, the stories and laws of the five first books of the Bible (the Torah or Pentateuch) were at the heart of Jewish monotheism.

The fall of Jerusalem in 587 and the deportation of the elite of Judah to Babylonia did not change this. On the contrary. Far away from Jerusalem, the Torah became even more important.

In 539, Babylon was conquered by Cyrus the Great, the Babylonian Empire became part of the larger Achaemenid empire, and the Jews were allowed to return home. Yet, because there was no king from the house of David anymore, the priests of Jerusalem rose to prominence, and they said that the temple of Jerusalem was the only true sanctuary of YHWH. To promote their claim, the text of the scriptures was revised, taking into account ideas that had originated in Babylonia. (Some scholars think the prophet Ezra, who is called 'the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven', was responsible for this reediting.)

There are two variants of the Torah: the well-known Jewish version, and a second, Samaritan version. The texts are essentially the same (although there are differences), and this can only mean that both variants go back to the same original. In other words, the holy book of the Samaritans was composed after ca.500 BCE, and Samaritanism, as a recognizable group of believers, did not originate before the fifth century.

This means that three theories about the origin of Samaritanism can be discarded:

  1. The Samaritans themselves believe that in the age of the Judges, the sanctuary with the Ark of the Covenant was at Mount Gerizim, and that the wicked priest Eli removed it to Shiloh. From there, king Solomon brought the sacred objects to Jerusalem. The Samaritans think that the schism between their own community and the Judaism of Jerusalem dates back to this period.
  2. In the Jewish Bible, it is suggested that the Samaritan community originated in the northern kingdom of Israel. When the ten northern tribes separated from Judah, they started to accept foreign beliefs. In other words, Samaritanism originated when the Israelites left the Covenant.
  3. Another Biblical explanation is that the Samaritans descended from the people that settled in Samaria after Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians and the original inhabitants of Samaria had been deported.

These theories have in common that they maintain that originally, there was only one, pure and uncontaminated religion, and that later, there was a schism between Samaritanism and Judaism. Probably, this is the wrong perspective. Originally, the cult of YHWH was widespread, and over the centuries, two religions developed. At some stage, the Samaritans accepted the Torah that had been written in Jerusalem, and made some changes to it.

We can probably be a bit more precise about the moment when the Torah was introduced in the north. In the 330's, there was discord among the priests of Jerusalem, and several members of this order left the city. They settled in Samaria, and in 332, they were able to get permission from the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great to build a temple near Shichem on Mount Gerizim, a few kilometers east of Samaria. Archaeology has more or less confirmed this story, which is told by Flavius Josephus, because it has shown that Shichem was rebuilt at about this moment.

In itself, the foundation of a temple was not problematic. There were Jewish shrines in Egypt and several scholars assume that there was a sanctuary in Babylon too. But the temple of Shechem was close to Jerusalem and challenged the latter's position as the one and only shrine of YHWH. From now on, the two groups were to grow apart, and the differences were to increase. The city of Samaria, more cosmopolitan than Jerusalem, was inhabited by several groups of pagans, and their cult practices may have influenced those of their YHWH-worshipping fellow-citizens. (It must be stressed that not every inhabitant of Samaria was a Samaritan, and not everyone who venerated YHWH lived in Samaria.)

The two groups grew apart when they responded differently to the omnipresent Greek culture. In 168, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes ordered the Jews to rededicate their temples of the supreme god to the Olympian Zeus. In the south, Judas the Maccabaean organized a revolt and purified the temple of Jerusalem. In the north, the people of Samaria, which was more open to Greek culture, were not willing to resist Antiochus, and their monotheist fellow-citizens were not in a position to show the same zeal for their faith as that shown by Judas and his followers.

What had been a religious division, now became a political conflict as well. The southern state, liberated  from Seleucid rule, became an independent state again, ruled by high priests from the Hasmonaean dynasty. One of them was John Hyrcanus (134-104), who greatly expanded the Jewish state and captured Samaria in 128 or 107. The temple on Mount Gerizim was immediately destroyed. Again, this is archaeologically more or less confirmed, because the occupation of nearby Shichem came to an end in the last quarter of the second century.

There is some linguistic evidence that the Samaritan Torah was rewritten at about this time. It may have been a response to the destruction of the Samaritan temple.

Now, there were two hostile groups of monotheists: the Jews, which were focused on the Jerusalem temple, and the Samaritans, which were not. Most Jews lived in Judah, but there were also Jews living outside the country (in the Diaspora); and there was a non-Jewish minority in Judah. The same applied to Samaritans. Although many lived near Samaria, there were non-Samaritans living in Samaria too, and there were diasporic Samaritans (e.g., on the Greek island Delos).

When the Romans annexed the country, which they called Judaea, they started to use the religious division for their own purposes. For example, there were two military units, recruited in the city of Samaria and probably manned with Samaritans, which were used to occupy Jewish towns like Jerusalem. The Jews clearly detested the other monotheists, which they often called 'Cuthaeans', an ethnic expression that suggested that the Samaritans were foreigners.

At the same time, the members of the Samaritan community dreamed of restoring their sanctuary. In 36 CE, a man, usually called the Samaritan prophet, and many armed followers occupied Mount Gerizim. The governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, dispersed the crowd, but the emperor Tiberius considered Pilate's use of violence excessive and recalled him. During the Jewish War of 66-74, the Fifth legion Macedonica stormed Mount Gerizim, probably putting an end to another attempt to rebuild the temple.

The Samaritan community might have disappeared, but a teacher named Baba Rabba reorganized the believers and their ideas. The Samaritans flourished in Late Antiquity, with synagogues on several places. It did not abolish the high-priesthood (as the Jews did). Outside Israel, the community flourished as well, with synagogues in Thessalonica and Sicily.

However, in the sixth century, there was a Samaritan revolt against the emperor Justinian. He suppressed the insurrection with a ferocity that was already commented upon by his contemporary Procopius.note A second insurrection, suppressed with just as much violence, took place in 578/579.{{John of Ephesus, Ecclesiastical History 3.27.} This, and the rise of Islam, may have been the beginning of the decline of the numbers of Samaritans.

In the second half of the twentieth century, however, the Samaritan community unexpectedly more than doubled its size. In 1948, there were exactly 250 Samaritans (192  in Nablus and 58 in Tell Aviv). In 2003, the community consisted of 656 people, of which 346 were living in Holon, and 310 near Mount Gerizim.

This page was created in 2004; last modified on 31 March 2014.