A man near death lay on the side of the road. He had been attacked by robbers and stripped of everything he had. A Priest passed him by but ignored him, as did another religious functionary. But the third man to encounter him, a Samaritan man, rescued him, and nursed him back to health. This nameless hero is commonly referred to as the Good Samaritan, and in the Christian world his example has been the inspiration for many charities and groups of people who seek to do random acts of kindness.
So who or what were the Samaritans, what is their history, and what do they believe?
The question of who the Samaritans were is a complicated one. Depending on who you ask you will get a different answer. If you ask Orthodox Jews they will tell you that they are Mesopotamian pagans who were brought in by the Neo-Assyrians. If you ask scholars and they will say that they were a distinct sect of Jews. Most surprising to me when I started researching for this video is that the Samaritans are not some lost ethnic or religious group mentioned in an ancient text that have long since disappeared, but in fact are an ethno-religious community that still exist today. They continue to practice their religion and customs in two known communities; their older community near Mt. Gerizim in the West Bank, and in Neve Pinchas, a Quarter of the coastal city Holon in Israel, numbering about 800 people between them.
If you were to ask them what the Samaritans are, they would tell you that they were the true Israelites who have preserved the authentic word of God passed down at Sinai by Moses. So, where do the Samaritans come from?
The Samaritans themselves trace their origin to the period of the Judges before the creation of the Kingdom of Israel under King David. The Schism between Judaism and Samaritanism, according to the Samaritans, begins with the rivalry between two High Priests, Eli, and Uzzi. According to Israelite tradition Priests of their religion were supposed to be descended from Moses’s brother Aaron. Both Eli and Uzzi were descendants of Aaron, but from different sons of Aaron. Uzzi was descended from Aaron’s son Eleazar, while Eli was descended from his other son, Ithamar. The Samaritans believe that the only legitimate high priests came from the line of Eleazar, and their center of worship on Mt. Gerizim.
The Old Testament claims that after the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan under the command of Joshua, that they took the Ark of the Covenant to a place called Shiloh and set up a center of worship there. The Samaritans claim, however, that the Ark was originally set up at Mt. Gerizim, but after a dispute between the two High Priests, Eli left Gerizim with his followers and the Ark of the Covenant and set up a rival sanctuary at Shiloh. The Samaritans build up their claim with the subsequent history of Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who were known to be bad leaders who lost not only their lives in a battle with the Philistines, which resulted in the loss of the Ark of the Covenant, and the destruction of Shiloh. The Samaritans portray these events as proof that the descendants of Ithamar were not legitimate holders of the office of High Priest. These events, according to the traditional narrative, all occurred before 1000 BCE.
The Jews have their own explanation for the split between themselves and the Samaritans. The Hebrew Bible doesn’t make a big deal about the different worshiping communities of Shiloh and Gezirim. In fact, the Hebrew Bible only mentions the Samaritans once, “Howbeit every nation made gods of their own, and put them in the houses of the high places which the Samaritans had made, every nation in their cities wherein they dwelt.” This section of the Old Testament is describing the conquest of Northern Israel by the Neo-Assyrians. Orthodox Jews have interpreted this passage as the Samaritans siding with the Neo-Assyrians and worshiping other gods in addition to the God of Abraham. What we do know is that the conquest of Northern Israel resulted in settlement of people from the Mesopotamian city of Cutha into Samaria, which resulted in Rabbinic sources referring to the Samaritans derogatively as Cutheans, implying that they are not real Jews.
So, if the Samaritan’s believe their split from the Jews came before 1000 BCE, and Jews believe it came in the late 8th century BCE, when do Scholars believe this split happened? Well, it should be no surprise that the scholars can be quite divided on the issue. They are still debating whether the Samaritans are ethnic or religious descendants of the Northern Israelites, essentially making them a sect of Judaism, or are they a sect that separated from Judaism and became its own religion.
Those that emphasize the former of these two points focus on the similarities of the Samaritans to other contemporary Jewish sects. Those who see Samaritanism as a separate religion from Judaism focus on the long term perception of division between the two by the Samaritans themselves. Some in this latter camp see the Samaritans as practicing a religion more closely related to the pre-Temple Israelite religion, which as mentioned in my video on the Origins of the Jews, is seen by scholars as a different religion than Judaism. Because the Samaritans did not face the same kind of Diaspora that the Jews had, it is believed by some that they retained a more authentic Israelite religion, whereas Judaism was influenced by the Babylonian Exile.
However, most modern scholars believe that the true split between the Jews and Samaritans came during the Hasmonean Dynasty, which was the Kingdom eventually set up by the Maccabees after the events of Hanukkah, which you can learn more about from my video on that subject.
This split occurred, at least in part, due to the destruction of the Samaritan Temple at Mt. Gerizim. The Jews built their first Temple sometime during the 10th century BCE under the rule of King Solomon, which was later destroyed by the Babylonians in the early 6th century BCE, and rebuilt with aid from the Persians in the late 6th century BCE. Well, sometime in the 5th or 4th century BCE a temple was built on Mt. Gerizim. This temple would later be destroyed, but its uncertain as to when and by whom. Our old friend Josephus says that the Temple at Gerizim was destroyed by the High Priest John Hyrcanus I around 113 BCE, but the Talmud claims that the temple was destroyed by the High Priest Simeon the Just some time in the 4th century BCE, but most scholars tend to go with Josephus’s account, which makes them believe that the true split between the Jews and Samaritans is more recent than either party’s account.
The reason they go with the Josephus account is the continued influence Judaism had on Samaritanism long after their respective accounts for the split, such as doctrines and rituals. This means that the split between the two most likely began as a political dispute, rather than a religious one.
So how did the Samaritans go from a major population group in the region, to numbering approximately 800 today? Well, there’s a long history of rebellions and persecutions.
While the Jews revolted against the Romans during the first two centuries CE, the Samaritans were pretty quiet, and remained so until the Christians took power in the Roman Empire. Under Constantine I they were pretty well off, getting to rebuild their temple on Mt. Gerizim and construct a number of Synagogues across Samaria. However under Emperor Theodsius I the Romans made Christianity the official religion of the empire and began implementing discriminatory laws against non-Christians, such as forbidding them from holding public offices, banning them from serving as lawyers, or even from testifying against Christians in a court of law. Over time these persecutions piled up until the Samaritans decided to revolt against the Romans, or as modern historians call them the Byzantines. Similar to the Jews they had three revolts spread across the two centuries in 484, 529, and 556, which resulted in tens of thousands of Samaritans being killed and sold into slavery outside the Roman Empire, along with many forced conversions. By the time the Muslims invaded in the 7th century, the non-Christians within the empire had plenty of reasons for siding with the Arabs.
Things weren’t looking too good for the Samaritans under Christian Rule, and unfortunately they wouldn’t fair any better under Islamic Rule. The early Muslim conquerors did not know exactly how to treat the Samaritans because they weren’t certain whether they were a people of the book, and some believed that the Samaritans were harbingers of polytheism. In the Exodus Story there is an incident where the Israelites started worshiping a golden calf while Moses was away on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. In the Jewish and Christian versions of the story Moses’ brother Aaron is the one who makes the idol, but in the Quranic version of the story it is a character named al-Samiri, who Muslims believed to be the father of the Samaritans. There was much debate over this amongst Islamic scholars during the Middle Ages, which resulted in occasional persecutions of the Samaritans.
As Arab Muslims settled in the Levant, the Samaritans became victims of intertribal warfare, with their homes being burned and looted, as well as their women being raped. To avoid persecutions, some Samaritans converted to Islam, just as many converted to Christianity under the Byzantines. Things did not improve when rule shifted to other Muslim Dynasties. A brief reprieve was experienced during the Crusades when Christians conquered lands populated with Samaritans. The story of the Good Samaritan in the Bible is credited with the positive treatment of the Samaritans by Crusaders.
But by the Mamluk period the population of the Samaritans had dwindled to just a few thousand, and by the fifteenth century most Samaritan communities outside Samaria had disappeared. By the time the Ottomans conquered the Levant in 1516 there were about 500 Samaritans left, and that number was shrinking. During the Ottoman period the Samaritans went through a cycle of being employed by local Arab Rulers as bankers and bureaucrats, becoming wealthy from their positions, and then having their property taken away by the local governors, and in case you’re wondering, the same thing was being done to Jews in Europe at the same time. It was also during the Ottoman period when the Samaritans claim that the line of high priests descended from Phinehas died out.
In the 19th century this situation got worse. Islamic legal scholars demanded that the government put the Samaritans to death if they didn’t convert to Islam. They did this because they saw the Samaritans as being a non-religious peoples. The Samaritans tried to prove that they were indeed a religious peoples, but the Muslim scholars refused to believe them. The only thing that saved the Samaritans from being wiped out was a written declaration from the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, claiming that the Samaritans were Jews. This saved the approximately 200 Samaritans still living at the time, but it also put a bad taste into the mouth of more conservative Rabbis.
But things would finally begin to brighten for the Samaritans in the 20th century. In 1905 a Samaritan man moved from the community near Mt. Gerizim to Jaffa in order to succeed in business. After his death his sons eventually moved to Holon in 1951. With the help of future Isareli President, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, they created a special settlement for Samaritans in Holon, which became a second pillar for the Samaritan community. Things continued to improve in 1952 when the Jordanian government allowed Israeli-Samaritans to visit Mt. Gerizim and participate in their Passover festivities. Things got even better for the Samaritans after Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, which opened up movement between the two Samaritan communities in Holon and Nablus. The Samaritan community in Nablus would drastically shrink in the 1990s during the first Intifada, when Samaritan families moved from the city to newly built homes on Mt. Gerizim, in the village of Kiryat Luza, in order to escape the violence. Since the establishment of the state of Israel, the Samaritans have grown from a population of just under 200, to approximately 800 today. Although far from secured, the Samaritans seem to be showing signs of recovery.
So like the Jews they have had a history of persecution, but what are the similarities and differences in their religions and customs?
Like the Jews, the Samaritans worship the god of Abraham, Yahweh. But the Samaritans believe they are practicing an uncorrupted version of the Israelite religion, seeing Judaism as having been altered by the Babylonian Captivity.
When it comes to religious texts both the Jews and Samaritans use the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; which the Jews refer to as the Torah, while the Samaritans refer to it as the Pentateuch. The other books in the Hebrew Bible, such as the histories, wisdoms, and prophets, are not used by the Samaritans, who believe that only the Books of Moses hold any spiritual or theological authority. There are some differences between the versions used by both groups. Some are major such as the Pentateuch explicitly saying that Mt. Gerizim is God’s chosen place of worship, while the Torah just refers to any place God chooses. Most of the other differences are minor, and likely accidental.
Although they don’t use the rest of the books from the Hebrew Bible for religious practice, they do use them as histories. The Samaritans have three main sources for their history, and much of it is based on the books of the Hebrew Bible they don’t’ use religiously, acting a lot like commentaries on the texts.
When it comes to religious celebrations, both groups celebrate Passover, Shavuot, and Yom Kippur. The holiday with the biggest difference is Passover, in which the Samaritans still engage in animal sacrifice. The Jews once practiced animal sacrifice as well, but after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem the practice ceased. This is because it is believed that the only place an animal sacrifice is allowed to be done is in the Temple on Mt. Zion. Today that spot is occupied by the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam. Most religious Jews believe that they cannot engage in animal sacrifice again until the Temple is rebuilt on that site. The Samaritans on the other hand believe that it is okay to conduct this sacrifice without the temple because the sacrifice was first made by Moses, before the Temple was built. However, they do believe that the only place this sacrifice should be made is Mt. Gerizim, which the Samaritans still control, meaning that there isn’t anything standing in the way of them engaging in this sacrifice.
Another difference is the blowing of the Shofar, a ram’s horn, on New Years and Yom Kippur. Traditionally, the Samaritans have refrained from blowing the Shofar because it is supposed to be reserved for times when a Temple was standing. However this has changed in recent decades, with the Samaritans now blowing the Shofar on Yom Kippur.