The Good Samaritan Museum
Appendices - The Samaritans
More Jewish than the Jews?; Who are the Samaritans? Samaritans and Jews; Hellens, Hasmoneans and the Jewish-Samaritan divorce; The Romans’ involvement; Samaritans and Jews in the Gospels; Samaritans and Christianity; Samaritans and Muslims; Samaritans in Israel and Palestine – a bridge?
Appendix I - The Samaritans Then and Now
More "Jewish" than the Jews???
More “Jewish” than the Jews?
The Samaritans, like the Karaites, an external Jewish sect, follow the Torah, or their version of it, literally:
Rabbi Gamliel said: “Every law which the Samaritans have accepted, they are more punctlious in observing than the Jews” (Tosefta, Pesachim, 2,2).
Samaritans, who claim to have never left The Land, believe that their worship is the true religion of the ancient Israelites. In contrast, Judaism, which they see as a related but modified faith, was brought back by the returnees from the Babylonian Captivity.
The main bone of contention between Jews and Samaritans regards the place of worship. The Samaritans believe that Mount Gerizim was the original Holy Place of Israel from the time that Joshua conquered Canaan. Jews think the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the place God chose to be worshipped.
“The Samaritan Room” in the Good Samaritan Museum shows Samaritan use of Jewish symbols, including the Table of the Showbread and trumpets instead of ram’s horns. Their decorations are closer to a literal understanding of the Bible, banning all human and animal images.
Rabbinical Judaism still looks down on Samaritans as “not truly Jews”, as it sadly does to other sects and groups, like the Ethiopians. The Samaritans, on their part, adamantly refuse to be considered a Jewish sect.
Even more persecuted than us…
It is weird from a Jewish point of view to conceive of an even smaller, and perhaps even more persecuted group in our shadow, to view ourselves in comparison to the Samaritans as the stronger and dominant element…
Samaritans were persecuted by Greeks, Romans, Byzantians, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks and Ottomans. They were forcibly converted over the eons, first to Christianity, then to Islam.
In the sixth century CE the Samaritan commuity counted about 1.5 million, but by the mid–Middle Ages, the Spanish Jewish traveller and explorer, Benjamin of Tudela, estimated only around 1,900 Samaritans remained in the Holy Land and in Syria. By the year 1919 there were only 141 left…
Today they count about 800.[See below about Israeli help with Samaritan demographics and their special status today].
Samaritans have their own share of martyrs…
Samaritan history shows a devotion and willingness for sacrifice. It took Christianity until the sixth century CE to penetrate Samaria, their stronghold. Justinian forcibly conterved them and closed down their synagogues. They revolted and most were killed.
For Orthodox Jews, Samaritans actually stand as a reminder that they might not really be that “orthodox”. Tourists from around the world come to witness the Passover sacrifice Samaritans perform verbatum to the Biblical prescription on Mount Gerizim. Rabbinical Judaism entrenched itself as true form, marginalizing Karaites and Samaritans (and even the Ethiopians), whose religion is actually closer to the Scriptures. “Dangerous innovations” like the Reform Movement in the United States and other diasporas are shunned, and, of course, they do not actually agree among themselves either.
Judaism is not really any different on that score than other religions. It is, apparently, human nature to stick to dogmas and pretend ours are the only scared truths, no matter how much we actually modified them and interpreted things our own way… Anybody searching the American Yellow Pages will find hundreds of Christian sects, all of which, with the exception of the Unitarians, claim to be the one and only absolute truth.
Who are the Samaritans?
Theories of origin
There are two main versions regarding the origin of the Samaritans:
Jews and Samaritans have different explanations of Samaritan origin:
The Samaritan version:
According to the Samaritan Chronicles, they are the direct descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s sons. Some of them are Levites, the tribe which was dispersed among all other Israel’s tribes. When King Sargon II exiled the ten northern Israeli tribes in 722 BCE, they clung to the land. Archaeological evidence also suggests that only the Israelite elite was exiled, while the simple folk stayed in their villages.
Until the 17th century CE, the community had a high priesthood claiming descendance directly from Aaron through Eleazar and Phinehas.
For the Samaritans, the original “schism” took place when Eli, the Great Priest, moved from Shechem to Shiloh, disrupting the northern cult around Mount Gerizim. Most of the people followed Eli, except for those who believed that Mout Gerizim was the place God chose. Only Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasse, kept the true tradition, and thererfore considered themselves Shomronim (keepers).
The mainstream Jewish version:
Mainstream Judaism has a significantly different version of events. According to the Second Book of Kings (17, 24-41), the Assyrian king, having exiled the 10 tribes of Israel, repopulated a desolate Samaria with various indigenous peoples, whom they displaced from their own countries. Those included the Cutheans, who, Jews believe, the Samaritans descended from. The Samaritans were a mixture of people from “Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim”.
King Sargon’s writings confirm that he deported 27,290 inhabitants of the former Israeli kingdom, and brought people to Samaria from Arabia in their stead. The Assyrians sent people to settle Samaria in several waves: “I again settled Samaria, more than (it had) previously (been settled).” (Sargon the II annals).
According to the Biblical story, lions attacked the settlers, an event explained by the exiles as a punishment for not worshipping the “God of The Land”. A Jewish priest was sent back to Judea to teach the foreign settlers the ways of the Jewish God. They followed suit, but also kept worshipping their own. “But the people would not listen and continued to follow their former practices. So while these new residents worshiped the Lord, they also worshiped their idols. And to this day their descendants do the same“.
That type of syncretistic worship follows on the purported practice of the ten tribes in pre-exilic times.
When the exiled Jews began returning to Jerusalem from Babylon in the 6th century BCE and started building the Second Temple, they refused to recognize the Samaritans as co-religionists and hence did not let them help with the construction.
Alternative Jewish versions:
However, just to make the story even more enigmatic and complex, the Book of Chronicles says that Manasseh, Ephraim, Benjamin and “the remnants of Israel” contributed to the construction of the Second Temple (2 Chronicles, 34; 9). Jeremiah likewise speaks of people from Shekhem, Shiloh, and Samaria who brought offerings to the House of YHWH (Jeremiah, 41; 5). Some Israeli scholars believe the Chronicles version is closer to the truth, and that the Samaritans were indeed descendants of Israelite tribes.
Helena Maman investigated the topic in her master thesis (in Hebrew, English abstract) for the Negev University, titled: “Is there any anti-Samaritan polemic in the Bible?” (2006). Her in-depth study points out difference in attitude and contradictory passages in the books of Kings and Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and others. While the Book of Kings sees the Samaritans or “the people of the land” in a negative light, marking them as foreigners, Chronicles relates to them as part of the people who need to be encouraged to join in the religious work taking place in Jerusalem despite their transgresions. In many ways, the issue harkens back to the even earlier schism between the northern and southern kingdoms of Judea and Israel, who had their ritual centers located in different locations (see below).
In the time of Ezra, upon the return from Babylon, separatist and purist attitudes dominated, leading to the expulsion of foreign women, purifying the “holy seed“(“holy race” is a mis-translation) from foreign “blood”, and adhering to the Temple, the House of David and the centeredness of Jerusalem. This can be easily understood against the background of expulsion and the need to keep national and ethnic coherence in a diaspora.
Peoples of the land? Mixed multitude? Adversaries of Yehuda and Binyamin?
It should be emphasized that the name “Shomronin” (Samaritans) is mentioned only once in the Old Testament! 2 Kings, 17, 29 says: “But every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived.”
That leaves a very wide open field for interpretations: who were “the peoples of the land” (Ezra, 9,1), “the mixed multitude” (Nehemiah, 13,3), or the “adversaries of Yehuda and Binyamin” (Ezra 4, 1)?
What is clear is that there is a vast unclarity…
I would not rule out the possibility that there is truth in all these origin stories. The Samaritans, like the Palestinians today, were a mixture of various elements who lived in the land over generations, migrated into it from other areas of the Levant, or were exiled there forcefully by imperialistic powers. Recent research shows strong genetic similarities between Jews and Palestinians. I would presume that Samaritan “blood” contributed nicely to the mix.
The genetic evidence
Genetic analysis suggests a common ancestry of Samaritan and Jewish patrilineages. Most of the Samaritan lineage may be traced back to a “common ancestor identified as the paternally inherited Israelite high priesthood (Cohanim). ..The common ancestor is projected to the time of the Assyrian conquest of the kingdom of Israel.”
Samaritan Y chromosome lineages cluster tightly with Jewish Y lineages, while their mitochondrial lineages are closest to Iraqi Jewish and Israeli Arab mtDNA sequences. This can be explained by the Assyrian custom of bringing in women from other parts of their empire and marrying them to the locals. That was part of their strategy to obliterate national identities. As mentioned above, those exiled were apparently members of the higher classes, while the simpler folk remained in the land and were married to the imported foreign women.
Generally, mitochondrial lineages of Jewish communities tend to correlate with their non-Jewish host populations, unlike paternal lineages which almost always correspond to Israelite lineages. In the words of Shaye J. D. Cohen of Harvard University: “Judah married a Canaanite, Joseph an Egyptian, Moses a Midianite and an Ethiopian, David a Philistine, and Solomon women of every description.”
(I was told in the past that Judaism became matrilineal during the Middle Ages as protection of the people’s core survivability because of rapes during pogroms, but it apparently had earlier origins).
Palestinians of Samaritan origin
In 1940, the future Israeli president and historian Yitzhak Ben-Zvi wrote an article in which he stated that two thirds of the residents of Nablus and the surrounding neighboring villages were of Samaritan origin. He named several Palestinian Muslim families, like the Buwarda and Kasem families as having Samaritan origins. These families protected Samaritans from Muslim persecution in the 1850s. Priests and elders from these families kept written records testifying to their Samaritan ancestry. According to The Economist, “most ethnic Samaritans are now pious Muslims.”
Samaritans and Jews
Points of contention
It’s all in the location
The most critical point of contention between Jews and Samaritans regards the chosen place to worship God. According to Jews, it is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Samaritans claim the honor to Mount Gerizim in Samaria (Shomron).
Tsedaka, a scholar and historian of the Israeli Samaritans, showed a BBC reporter the Samaritan holy sites in the West Bank: “This is called the Eternal Hill… It’s the holy of holies. I know the Jews have another version of where these events took place, but our history says they happened here” (he referred to Isaac’s sacrifice).
Shomron (Sebastia), Gerizim, Shechem
In Deutronomy 11, 26-30 God is outlying His plan to the people of Israel for a new covenant to be contracted with them upon entering the land: “And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal.” The city of Shechem is located in the “saddle” (“shechem” in Hebrew) between these two mountains.
When Joshua concluded the conquest of the land of Canaan, he indeed renewed the covenant with God on Mount Gerizim(Joshua 24: 25-26):
On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people, and there at Shechem he reaffirmed for them decrees and laws. And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the Lord.
Shechem, at the foothills of Mt. Gerizim, was the first capital of the Kingdom of Israel. In the times of King Ahab, the capital was moved to Shomron, built originally by King Omri. Shomron was devastated during the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom, and later rebuilt as Sebastia by King Herod.
Samaritans and Mount Gerizim
Shechem was the main settlement of the Samaritans, whose religious center stood on Mount Gerizim, just outside the town.
A Christian site, The Bible Journey, summarizes the historical proceedings in plain language:
After the fall of Samaria (the capital of Israel) in 721 BC, and the subsequent intermarriage between the few remaining Israelites and the new Assyrian settlers, the mixed-race ‘Samaritans’ built their own temple on the slopes of Mt Gerizim. These slopes had been ‘blessed’ at the time of the conquest of Canaan, and the Samaritans believed Abraham had prepared to sacrifice Isaac at this spot. The Samaritan temple on Mt Gerizim rivalled the Jewish temple in Jerusalem until it was destroyed in c.128 BC. This is the ‘temple’ referred to by the Samaritan woman whom Jesus met at Jacob’s well (see John 4:20).
According to many scholars, archaeological excavations at Mount Gerizim indicate that the Samaritan temple was built on the mountain in the first half of the 5th century BCE.
What’s in a name? Children of Israel – yes. Jews – no
Samaritans refer to themselves as Bnei Yisrael (“Children of Israel”), a term generally used by all Jewish denominations for the people as a whole. However, they do not refer to themselves as Yehudim (Jews).
The Talmudic attitude is that they should be treated as Jews in matters where their practice and the rabbinic practie coincide, but as non-Jews where it does not. Since the 19th century, some rabbis started to regard the Samaritans as a Jewish sect, and called them “Samaritan Jews“.
It’s all in the name
Names are important, as we all know. In a classic chicken and egg case, there are conflicting opinions whether Samaria (Shomron) is named after the Shomronim (Samaritans) who lived in it, or vice versa. The verdict is not yet out, but political repercussions abound.
The mainstream Jewish version is that Shomron (Samaria) got its name thanks to watch (shmira) towers placed on its mountains in Biblical and Mishnaic times. The Samaritan explanation of their name is that they are the true guradians /keepers of the Torah (shomrim), and Samaria owes its name to them since their holy mountian is located there. Christian fathers tended to support the Samaritan version against the Jewish one.
Practices and beliefs
Religious beliefs – Almost the same, but not quite
- The same one God is recognized by both Jews and Samaritans.
- The Torah was given by God to Moses.
- Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, is God’s place of choice for His worship.
- Resurrection and Paradise. (?)
- Priests interpret the law and maintain the traditions.
- Samaritans recognize the authority of the Torah, but not of the later sections of the Old Testament. Likewise, all later Halachic literature is rejected – the Mishna, talmud, etc.
- Their 10th commandment is about the sanctity of Mount Gerizim.
Customs and traditions
- Samaritans still have high priesthood
- Passover is celebrated by slaughtering and eating of lambs on Mount Gerizim
- New Year is celebrated in the spring as in Biblical days. The day Jews consider to be the “head of the year” is simply a Yom Teruah (day of blasting, blowing the horn), as it is described in the Bible.
- There are some differences between Jewish and Samaritan Bibles. The main one is that the Samaritan Torah states that God has chosen Mount Gerizim to establish His name. Interestingly, there are similiarities between the Samaritan text and Old Testament quotes in the New Testament. That might attest to the text’s antiquity.
- According to Samaritans, Isaac was sacrificed (or was going to be sacrificed) on Mt. Gerizim, not on Mt. Moria. Curiously, Muslims also have their own version of the story, according to which it was actually Ismail (Yishmael) whom Abraham was taking to the mountain. Hard to understand why anybody would wish to compete for that gory story, but here we are…
Language and script
The Samaritan alphabet is a variant on Paleo-Hebrew. The Jewish Hebrew alphabet is actually a stylized form of the Armaic alphabet.
The Samaritans use Hebrew and Samaritan Aramaic for liturgical purposes. Both Jews and Samaritans used Hebrew and Aramaic before the Roman exile.
Today many of them speak Arabic and have Arabic names in addition to Hebrew names. Interestingly, they speak both ancient and modern Hebrew; some speak English as well. They use ancient Hebrew script in their synagogues. Prayers are held in ancient Hebrew, a language they are the only “keeprs” of (shomronim = keepers).
Jews and Samaritans – parting of the ways
According to the classical Jewish vesrsion described above with the second book of Kings (17, 24-41) as its base, it is easily understandable why Jews treated Samaritans (often referred to derogatorily as “Kutim”) with suspicion and refused to intermingle with them. According to that version, the so-called Samaritans were put in The Land by the Assyrians to replace the exiled tribes. Imperialistic policy was not just to divide and conquer, but to exile and replace. Something similar is being done today by the Chinese to the Tibetans.
But as also mentioned (see there: alternative Jewish versions), many scholars challenge this interpretation. They argue that the people rejected by the returnees were Jews who remained in The Land, some of whom were perhaps remnants of the Assyrian exile. The split, under this interpretation was actually between people coming back from the exile and those who remained in The Land.
Tamuz, Av, Elul…
The returnees brought back new customs, habits and interpretations of the Scriptures, quite removed from the original text, such as celebrating the new year in the automn rather than the spring. They adopted the Babylonian calendar and names of the months, including Tamuz, a Babylonian god. They tended to treat the local Jewish population with disdain and aloofness. There was, of course, a class element at play as well. The Babylonians, like the Assyrians, exiled the higher classes, leaving behind the simpler folk.
Not accepted as Jews, but as usurpers of their land, the help of the “adversaries of Judea and Binyamin” (Ezra, 4, 1-6) was rejected by the returnees.
Intermarriages – out; religious schism – in
Ezra went even further in separating the returnees from the “people of the land” in his persecution and ultimate expulsion of “foreign women”. The “people of the land” refused to cooperate with the building of the Jerusalem temple and heaped difficulties on those who did. They even snitched and bad-mouthed the Jews to the Persian authorities regarding the building of the city walls, resulting in cessation of construction.
At a certain point, Samaritans achieving a more consolidated identity, legislated against intermarriage with Jews on their part, and set to build their temple on Mt. Gerizim. They also adapted the Biblical text to sanctify Gerizim mountain (The Mount of Blessing) over Jerusalem.
The exact date of the schism between Samaritans and Jews is unknown, but by the early 4th century BCE the schism seems to have been established.
Sadly, that schism has never fully healed.
Hellens, Hasmoneans and the Jewish-Samaritan Conflict
Samaritans cooperate with Greeks, renounce Jews
During Hellenistic times, the Samaritans, caring about their own safety, repudiated all connections and kinship with Jews:
Josephus Book 12, Chapter 5 quotes the Samaritans as saying:
We therefore beseech thee, our benefactor and saviour, to give order to Apolonius… and to Nicanor… to give us no disturbances, nor to lay to our charge what the Jews are accused for, since we are aliens from their nation and from their customs, but let our temple which at present hath no name at all, be named the Temple of Jupiter Hellenius.
And indeed, during the reign of Antiochus IV (175–164 BCE), the Samaritan temple was renamed for Zeus – either Zeus Hellenios (willingly by the Samaritans according to Josephus) or, more likely, Zeus Xenios, (unwillingly in accord with 2 Macc. 6:2). (Bromiley, 4.304).
In the meantime, the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, on the other hand, was defiled, leading to the Maccabean / Hasmonean revolt and victory, celebrated in Hannukkah. This was not the first or only time in our history that we were betrayed or renounced by other people for their own safety.
The Samaritans, indeed, succeeded to reach a state of autonomy under Greek rule. However, hellenization affected Samraitans as much as it affected Jews. Many Samaritans wrote and spoke Greek. A Samaritan diaspora began to develop. Samaria was divided between a Hellenized section based around Sebastaea, and a religious pious center in Shekhem (Nablus), led by the High Priest.
Jewish retaliation followed. Around 113 BCE, the Hasmonean king, John Hyrcanus destroyed the temple on Mount Gerizim and devastated Samaria.
The Romans' Involvement
Then the Romans walked onto the scene…
According to Mark A. Powel (Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey”, 2009), by the time of the Roman takeover,”Both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter the other’s territories or even to speak to the other.”
Long-held grudges and chains of retaliations are part and parcel of the Middle Eastern way of being in the world.
Those tensions were exploited by the Roman authorities to divide and rule. For example, to spite the Jews, Hadrian rebuilt the old Samaritan temple over the ruins of the old one during the Bar Kochva revolt (132-135).
Samaritans and Jews in the Gospels
Samaritans feature in several places in the Christian gospels. The stories reflect a complex relationship between the Jewish and Samaritan communities at the time.
Typically, the Samaritans were viewed by the writers of the New Testament as victims and unerdogs, a view now reiterated towards the Palestinians by left-wing westerners.
Which side is the New Testament on?
– Favoring the Samaritans
Many stories in the New Testament cast Samaritans in a favorable light. The antagonistic relationship between Jews and Samaritans might have helped to put many Samaritans “on the side of Jesus”. This was also part of the process in which the budding new daughter faith started to remove itself from Judaism, a process the Samaritans had already taken way back.
The apostles preached the Gospel “in many villages of the Samaritans” (Acts 8:1-25)
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” (John 4, 39)
Pivotal stories – the woman at the well
The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4: 9-10)
In lines 25-26 the woman accepts Jesus as the Messiah:
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
The fame of the woman at the well drew the attention of Emperor Nero. She was tortured for her newly-acquired faith and died a martyr after being thrown into a dry well. She was eventually canonized by the Eastern churches as a saint, under the category of “equal to the apostles“. The Sunday four weeks after Pascha is known as “the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman”.
Pivotal stories – the ten lepers
In the story of the ten lepers, as in the story of the Good samaritan, only the Samaritan leper seemed to be on the right side of things:
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Pivotal stories – The Good Samaritan
Jesus’ identity questioned
In an interesting passage in the book of John, Jesus is accused by Jews of being a Samaritan as well as demon-possessed. He denies the latter accusation, but does not deny the former. Was he denying being a Jew on some level?
– Not black and white
The Gospels of John and the Gospel of Luke, in particular, are favourable to the Samaritans, but the other Gospels reflect a more complex picture:
- When instructing his disciples how to spread the word, he told them not to visit any Gentile or Samaritan city, but instead, go to the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 10: 5-6)
- A Samaritan village rejected a request from messengers travelling ahead of Jesus for hospitality, since they did not want to facilitate a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Luke 9: 51-53). As mentioned above, Samaritans rejected the holiness of Jerusalem in favor of Mount Gerizim: “...when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.” (Luke 9; 54-55)
- Even in the Samaritan woman’s story there is a curious line: “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. ” (John 4:22)
- By the same token, Jesus accepted without comment the woman’s assertion that she and her people were Israelites, descendants of Jacob. Jews and Samaritans were, indeed, very close…
As the Samaritans denounced the new Jewish interpretations of the Bible, so did Jesus who accused the Jews of hypocricy, and tried to bring Judaism back to its basics.
As to the Jews, having gone through the suffering of exile and Diaspora, as well as the renewed threats to their physical and spiritual existence, first from the Greeks and then from the Romans, they now clung even more fiercely to the new ways they adopted during the Babylonian period and after it. That stance culminated with the rejection of Jesus by some circles, as they previously rejected the help the Samaritans offered in the building of the temple.
Thoughts that come to my mind
When you look at the entire picture, it seems to hint that the roots of Christian Antisemitism (a misnomer, of course) might lie in the even more ancient split within Judaism from the time of the Babylonian exile between the Returnees and the Remainers (“Peoples of the Land”) and the “Imported”, that is, the Samaritans. The story of the Good Samaritan (see below), of course comes to mind. That drama, as well as Jesus’s crucifixion, happened within the general context of the Mesopotamian and then the Greek/ Roman imperialism and was instigated by imperialistic policies of exile and replace, divide and rule. Empires, though, generally speaking, seem to “get away” with the consequences of their actions on the subjugated peoples.
About Samaritans and Israelis, see below.
Samaritans and Christianity
Early Roman period
The Temple at Gerizim was rebuilt after the Bar Kokhba revolt around 136 CE. The Delos Synagogue, dated to the second century BCE, is commonly identified as a Samaritan synagogue, making it the oldest known Jewish or Samaritan synagogue. Apparently, under the Greeks, the Samaritans also formed a sizable diaspora. Much Samaritan liturgy was writtten by the high priest Baba Rabba in the 4th century.
Initially, the Byzantian period was considered a golden age for Samaritans, whose numbers reached a million or some say a million and a half. They called themselves Israelite Samaritans and dwelled in some cities and villages in the Holy land, but also in a growing diaspora, from southern Syria to Northern Egypt. Perhaps the positive attitudes towards them in the Scriptures helped, but that did not last.
Eventually what happened to Jews also happened to Samaritans. Eastern Emperor Zeno tried to mass convert them, and when they refused, he had many killed and rebuilt the synagogue on Mount Gerizim as a church. In 484, the Samaritans rebelled and burned five churches. They elected a king and moved to Caesarea, where a significant Samaritan community lived. They killed some Christians and destroyed a church. Eventually, though, the rebellion was quelled, Zeno rebuilt the church in Neapolis and the Samaritans were banned from their mountain.
Again in 529, they tried to revolt, but as that failed, tens of thousands died or were enslaved. The Samaritan faith was outlawed, and the community dwindled from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. As a result of the persecutions and forced conversions, a Crypto-Samaritan community emerged, in similarity to the Crypto-Jewish one.
Samaritans and Muslims
Under Muslim rule, things for Samaritans went from bad to worse.
According to the historian Fayyad Altif, large numbers of Samaritans converted due to persecution under various Muslim rulers. Conversion was somewhat easier because of the clear-cut monotheistic nature of Islam in comparison with Christianity.
The al-Hakim Edict of 1021, issued by the Fatimid Caliphate, ordered all Jews and Christians in the Fatimid-ruled lands to either convert to Islam or leave. Another notable forced conversion was imposed by the rebel ibn Firāsa.
The Ottoman period is seen by the Samaritans as the worst period in their modern history. Many families were forcefully converted to Islam during that time.
These conversions and persecutions contributed to a rapid and unprecedented decrease in Samaritan numbers, and ultimately to their almost complete decimation as a unique religious community. From nearly a million and a half in late Byzantine times, they were diminished to a mere 146 people by the end of the Ottoman Era.
Many families in Nablus today, like the Maslamani, Yaish, and Shaksheer are known to come of Samaritan origin.
Samaritans in Israel and Palestine - A Bridge?
Modern Israel come to Samaritans’ rescue
How the wheels of history turn…
In an ironic twist of events, it is now the Jews, and more precisely, the State of Israel, who is giving new life to the Samaritans. The Good Samaritan Museum is but one expression of that rejuventation approach.
Holon and Mount Gerizim – resuscitating the community
Today the small Samaritan community lives in two places: the Palestinian town of Kiryat Luza near their holy mountain of Gerizim, and a neighborhood in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv.
By the late 1950s, around a 100 Samaritans left the West Bank for Israel under an agreement with the Jordanian authorities in the West Bank. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second President gave the Samaritans his patronage, and enabled them to live in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. As a sign of gratitude, the Samaritan community named their new community center as the Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Samaritan Community Center.
When Reinhard Pummer wrote his book on the Samaritans in 1987, the community totalled 500 souls, divided equally between Holon and Nablus. He reported that in 1901, the community numbered only 152 souls, who all lived in Nablus.
Prior to the Six day War and the Israeli conquest of the West Bank, the two communities were physically separated, allowed to meet only once a year on Passover, their most important holiday. This caused difficulties. The religious leadership remained in Nablus, and the Israeli one consisted of only lay people. It also made finding a partner to marry more difficult. Ben Zvi encouraged intermarriages of Samaritans with Jews, which helped to save the dwindling community.
During the First Intifada in 1987, Samaritan families decided to flee the Palestinian city of Nablus to avoid being caught up in the violence, and relocated to the sacred Mount Gerizim, where they built the town of Kiryat Luza. That story has some resemblance to the saga of the Yazidis at Mount Sinjar, but no Samaritans were harmed. The town, built over ancient Samaritan ruins, is under Israeli military protection on the one hand and the municipal jurisdiction of Nablus, on the other.
By now, Mount Gerizim has been declared an actual Nature Authority park. If, and when, I go there, I will update this post, of course.
Today the Samaritans near Nablus participate in the life of the Palestinians, while the Samaritans of Israel participate in the Israeli society. Samaritan identity is extremely complex. Neither Muslim nor Jew, they function well in both societies. Though they have their special neighborhood in Holon, they otherwise live and work among Israelis. Their children go to Israeli schools and serve in the army.
In Nablus, the Samaritans are seen as an important part of the community’s history, and are treated as a protected minority. A Samaritan child has a Bar Mitzvah at the age of 6 after having recited the entire Torah cycle. At 13, when the child begins high school in Nablus, it is assumed by the community that foreign ideas will not affect him.
Notoriously, Samaritans are the only ones to hold identity cards of both Palestine and Israel and are allowed to travel freely through Israel and the West Bank. As a result, they can live on Gerizim, but commute to the big Israeli cities.
Nonetheless, the case of one Samaritan who participated actively in the Second Intifada and got two life sentences, caused embarassment to the community, which sees itself as peace makers.
Ms. Judith Fein visited both communities and wrote a heartfelt article about the contemporary Samaritans for the BBC. She said:
“The Samaritans who live on their sacred mountain, between Palestinians in the West Bank and Jews in Israel, try to be a neutral bridge of peace between the two.” They claim to get along well with both Palestinians and Jews and even propose Mount Gerizim as an international peace centre.
This, of course, defies the Jewish concept that Jerusalem as the holiest place, but can still be taken as a good-will gesture for a three-way reconciliation. Who knows where peace will eventually come from?
The Museum at the Good Samaritan Inn is clealy an effort of the Israeli authorities in the same direction.
Engineers and bankers
Within Israel, Samaritans work as engineers, bankers, lawyers and teachers. They do not work as physicians, however, since today Judaism allows working on Shabbat to save lives and they are stricter even in this sense…
In Holon, they have a small synagogue, in which they kneel or sit on the floor. The Tora has three crowns for the three tribes they claim to have originated from.
Appendix II - The Good Samaritan Story
The Good Samaritan Story - Repercussions and Realities
Stories are not born in a vacuum. The relationship between Jews and Samaritans was fraught with enmity and mistrust from way before a Samaritan allegedly saved a wounded man while a Jewish priest and a Levite did not.
Words carry huge power when applying to religion. Jews as a collective were cast as evil and inhumane in light of the story of the Good Samaritan. Two upper-class Jews (a priest and a Levite) ignored the suffering man, but a simple Samaritan helped him. That contributed to the dose of Antisemitism and persecutions Jews suffered over the generations in the Christian world.
The simple fact that we ended up losing our homeland yet again, that hundred of thousands of Jews were killed, that our Temple was destroyed and the survivors were sent in chains to Rome, did not make a dent in how we were treated and framed by a religion presumed to promote a god of love. Empathy to our plight as a people was completely lacking, perhaps reserved only to this wounded man on the hill. In the Christian mind, the story about the uncaring priest and the Levite became a natural complement to the collective burden of guilt they burdened us with for the killing of Jesus, who was actually killed by the Romans, like thousands of other Jews. [Regarding the killing of Christ, it took more than 2000 years until the papacy finally exonerated us of this collective culpability].
The Good Samaritan Tale and Black Lives Matter
Biblical stories never die
Countless people die on American city streets without anybody giving them a hand, or worse. Here is but one example from 2009: Passers-By Ignore Brutally Beaten Homeless Man on Sidewalk. The attack and the apathy of the passerby was caught on surveillance camera.
Biblical stories never die and always find new relevance. The emotionally-laden story of the Good Samaritan has been used historically to deprecate Jews and blame us collectively about an incident which presumably happened 2000 years ago on a desert hill. Now it is brought back to life by the Black Lives Matter movement.
I stood the 8 minutes and 45 seconds in my living room in Jerusalem in honor of George Floyd as CNN was broadcasting his funeral. I was moved by the music and the feeling in the hall. I felt my eyes tearing as my heart was opening wide.
Al Sharpton’s sermon for George Floyd
Let me tell you this. Jesus told the story that there was a man laying by the side of the road. He’d been robbed and beaten. They said one man came by that was his same race, his fellow brother, and he kept walking. Then another man came by that was steep and well-read in the scriptures. Knew every scripture, knew how to quote the book back and forward. But he only quoted the book, he never lived by the book. And he kept walking. But Jesus said a third man came by and he stopped and looked at the man. He wasn’t the same race, wasn’t the same religion. But he picked the man up and he took care of restoring the man to his rightful being. And Jesus called him the Good Samaritan…
The problem is too many of you been walking by the Eric Garners, been walking by the Trayvon Martins, been walking by the Arberys, been walking by. And now we stopped for George Floyd. And I’m in Houston today because I don’t want nobody to call me a passerby.
People of the “Same Race”? Same religion?
So Al Sharpton was telling us obliquely that “people” who were “of the same race” and the “same religion” were (and still are???) the heartless villains, while the man called “The Good Samaritan” was the righteous actor. Does that apply to all people of the “same race and religion” from then to eternity? Clasical Christian Antisemites usually answer that question in the positive, or at least insinuate as much.
Several days later I read that Rev. Sharpton, whom I wasn’t familiar with before the George Floyd crisis, does indeed have an antisemitic record. Apparently the Jewish red light system in my brain still bears some connection to reality.
Mrs. King saves the day
On the better side of things, though, in 2019, Rev. Sharpton admitted to using “cheap” rethoric against Jews. He conceded that Mrs. King, who reprimanded him for his word usage, “had a gentle but firm way of correcting some of my excesses.”
Consequently Rev. Sharpton said:
“You cannot fight racism without fighting anti-Semitism.”
My personal prayer
I hope the black and colored communities will go by this last statement, and the Good Samaritan story will not be inflated again into a justification for anti-Jewish hatred. If anything, Jews were, and still are, over-represented in the American Civil Rights Movement .
I also hope the Israeli efforts of making the Good Samaritan Inn into a place of reconciliation and religious harmony will bear fruit, that the efforts on behalf of today’s Samaritans and Mount Gerizim will be recognized, that the story will lose its Jewish-hating overtones and will just be what it should be: a call for us all to be humane and listen to our better angels as we act in the world.
If this series of two humble posts, describing first of all, the earthly milieu where the story allegedly took place, might help in this direction, that will be my reward.
This post is an informative appendix to the article about the Good Samaritan Museum. The post is part of a post series about Israeli Nature Reserves and Parks and under the general category of Israel’s Best at:
This is an ongoing project currently under construction.
and you’ll get the newletter with the latest posts directly to your mailbox.