09 April 2024


To give you a better sense of how ancient Israelis felt about Samaritans, you gotta think about how the average conservative Evangelical in the United States feels… about Muslims.

Yeah, there y’go. Distrust. Uncertainty. Irrational fear. Their common claim is all Muslims believe the same as certain warped terrorists do—that their strict interpretations of the Quran and Hadith authorize them to violently fight and oppress the people they consider pagan. And that they wanna implement their customs (i.e. sharia law) in this country, as if it were even legal. (Nevermind the fact a number of Christian nationalists among them are plotting to do precisely the same thing to Americans with their messed-up interpretations of the Old Testament.)

Samaritans had a similar reputation in ancient Judea. The Judeans figured they were right, and Samaritans wrong. Really wrong. Dangerously wrong. They considered them heretics, pagans, and foreigners who shouldn’t even be in their land; and had nothing to do with them.

And Samaritans believed precisely the same thing right back at Judeans. They considered themselves the actual descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the real successors and keepers of Moses’s commands, the true servants of God. To Samaritans, the Judeans were the heretics and foreigners; a bunch of Babylonians who moved to Jerusalem, built a temple, and started worshiping God weirdly. Pharisees added all these extra books to the bible (the books from Joshua to Chronicles—or if we’re following the Christian book-order of the Old Testament, from Joshua to Malachi), plus a whole bunch of rabbinical loopholes which the Samaritans found hypocritical and offensive. Worse, the Judeans had all this wealth and political might—and heretics with power is frightening innit?

Samaritans still exist, by the way. They never went anywhere. Lots became Christian, but many stayed Samaritan, stayed in the land, and survived the Romans, Rashiduns, Ummayads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Mamluks, Mongols, Ottomans, Brits, and Israelis. Still think Jews and Christians are heretics.

Oh, there are parallels aplenty between Judeans and Samaritans back then, and Christians and Muslims today. And let’s not forget the hate crimes: Some Judean would get a little political power, and decide to go into Samaria and slaughter a bunch of Samaritans. Some Samaritan would get vengeful and attack Judeans as they traveled through Samaritan territory. Not for any good reason; solely because of old grudges. By Jesus’s day this behavior had been going on for the past 400 years. Like the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but without explosions.

Gotta remember that animosity, fear, and rage they had towards one another, whenever we read about Jesus visiting Samaria.

Samaritan history.

Where did Samaritans come from? If you remember your Old Testament, the tribes of Israel split into two countries in the 9th century BC. Southern Israel (usually called “Judah” by the Deuteronomist, the guy who wrote Joshua through Kings) was led by the descendants of David ben Jesse; its capital was Jerusalem, and the LORD’s temple in Jerusalem helped insure the southern Israelis stayed more faithful to God than not. Northern Israel (usually just called “Israel”) was led by the descendants of Jeroboam ben Nebat, then the descendants of Baasha ben Ahijah, then Zimri for a week, then the descendants of Omri, then the descendants of Jehu ben Jehoshafat… Let’s just say it wasn’t a stable kingdom. Its capital was Šomrón, or as the KJV renders it, Samaria.

After two centuries of pagan or apostate kings in northern Israel, the LORD allowed Sargon of Assyria to conquer Samaria in 722BC. The Assyrians dragged the people of the major cities into exile, then repopulated them with people Assyria had conquered from Iraq and Syria. Not, complained the Deuteronomist, for the better.

2 Kings 17.24-34 NRSVue
24 The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim and placed them in the cities of Samaria in place of the people of Israel; they took possession of Samaria and settled in its cities. 25 When they first settled there, they did not worship the LORD; therefore the LORD sent lions among them that killed some of them. 26 So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land; therefore he has sent lions among them; they are killing them because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” 27 Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there; let him go and live there and teach them the law of the god of the land.” 28 So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel; he taught them how they should worship the LORD.
29 But every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived; 30 the people of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the people of Cuth made Nergal, the people of Hamath made Ashima; 31 the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. 32 They also worshiped the LORD and appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the shrines of the high places. 33 So they worshiped the LORD but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away. 34 To this day they continue to practice their former customs.
They do not worship the LORD, and they do not follow the statutes or the ordinances or the law or the commandment that the LORD commanded the children of Jacob, whom he named Israel.

Bear in mind the “priests whom you carried awy from there” 2Ki 17.27 had gone wrong centuries before, after King Jeroboam ben Nebat had established two shrines to the LORD in Dan and Bethel—and despite God’s obvious command against making images to worship, Ex 20.4-6 Jeroboam’s shrines used gold calves to represent the LORD. 1Ki 12.28-30 None of the Samarian kings had ever corrected this error, which is why the Deuteronomist considered none of these kings any good.

So basically the Samaritans were considered just the same as the Samarians before them: They worshiped God wrong, and worshiped all their other pagan gods at the same time. The only reason they bothered with the LORD was ’cause they didn’t wanna get killed by his lions. But they didn’t love the LORD, and had no formal relationship with him.

Various Christians describe Samaritans as “half-breed Jews.” That’s a little offensive… but partly true. The Assyrians deported Samaria’s city-dwellers, but they largely left behind everyone else. Many of those Samarians fled to Judah, and their descendants became Judeans, and then Jews. But many Samarians stayed—and intermarried with the people the Assyrians settled there. And that’s what happened to “the lost tribes of Israel”: They’re not lost. They became either Jews or Samaritans.

Southern Israel was later invaded by the neo-Babylonians, and its city-dwellers were dragged off to Iraq and Persia. Less than a century later, after the Persian Empire took over, they were permitted to return and rebuild Jerusalem. So when a whole bunch of Babylonian Jews showed up in southern Israel and tried to set up a colony, they quickly got pushback from the Samaritans who lived just north of them—who’d been there three centuries by then, and believed they were native. You know, same as white Americans do. Or Palestinians, when European Jews started settling Israel in the early 20th century. (History repeats itself a lot.)

By Jesus’s day, Judeans considered the Samaritans worthless; a bunch of half-pagan heretics, a blight of gentiles taking up space in their homeland, people they’d rather drive out or wipe out. And would, if only the Romans would look the other way.

Samaritan religion.

Though the Old Testament describes Samaritans as a bunch of pagans who barely followed the LORD, things changed a lot in the centuries thereafter. Clearly the LORD got to work on them! Samaritans got rid of their paganism, and by Jesus’s day exclusively followed the LORD.

But not the same way Pharisees and Sadducees did. Which is why Samaritanism was considered a different religion, and still is.

Just like the Muslims believe Arabs are ethnic Hebrews descended from Abraham, Samaritans likewise believe they’re ethnic Hebrews. They dismiss any Assyrian or Mesopotamian ancestry they might have (and in case you’ve forgotten, Abraham was also a Mesopotamian). They believe they’re full descendants of Israel. Therefore they do so have a covenant with the LORDwho rescued them from Egypt, and settled them in Israel.

The Jews, Samaritans insist, are the ones who have it wrong. They figure the head priest Eli and his sons, whom God condemned for their sins, 1Sa 3.11-14 were the ones who corrupted it. These false priests took the tabernacle to Jerusalem and turned it into the temple. But a proper temple of the LORD needed to be established, so the Samaritans did—at Mt. Gerazim in Shechem. King John Hyrcanus of Jerusalem had it knocked down in 110BC, but the Samaritans still worshiped at its ruins—both then, and today.

Same as the Judeans, the Samaritans had multiple denominations. There were orthodox Samaritans; like Sadducees, they ran the temple and limited the bible to the Law. There were the Dositheans, followers of the Samaritan prophet Disitheus; like the Pharisees, they had synagogues. These groups didn’t appear to have too many differing beliefs. Most of their disagreements were about who held power—the priests or the rabbis.

The main things they believed were:

  • God’s proper temple was at Mt. Gerazim.
  • The Law is scripture. The rest of the bible is just prophetic commentary.
  • There’d be a second coming of Moses. Not literally; he’d be like Moses. Dt 18.15 Nonetheless they called him the Taheb, the “returning one.”

Arguably, the Taheb was who the Samaritan woman meant when she talked with Jesus about how Messiah was coming. Jn 4.25 ’Cause Messiah means king, whereas Samaritans had never had their own king. They’d always been ruled by foreign kings—Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Jews, and Romans. So, no real concept of a Messiah. But they had a Taheb. And you realize Jesus fulfills that prophecy too. Ac 3.22-26

Samaritan Christians.

Of course we know of when Jesus met a Samaritan woman and prophesied to her, and she in turn led her village to meet their Messiah. Jn 4.1-42 And Jesus’s evangelist Philip later returned to Samaria and led a bunch of them to Jesus, and got the apostles to join him. Ac 8.4-25 You might notice the presentation of the gospel to gentiles comes later, in Acts 9—because regardless of what Judeans thought of Samaritans, they actually didn’t consider them gentiles. They were fellow descendants of Israel. But, y’know, heretic.

But Jesus wants to save heretics too.

Historians lost track of the growing Samaritan Christian community in the second century. We figure they were simply absorbed into the other Christian congregations in the area.

Later, when the Roman Empire officially became Christian, overzealous Christian nationalists would occasionally persecute Samaritans and force ’em to become Christian, and this is likely why their numbers are so few. Of course Jesus does not wanna save people that way; persecuting ’em into Christianity don’t create followers, but terrified hypocrites who will say anything to stay alive. As soon as persecution is over, or their persecutors get distracted, they’ll go right back to what they were. But you try telling a nationalist this.