Identity and name
The Samaritans are an ethnic and religious community who claim, in competition with the Jews, to be the true inheritors of ancient Israel and the covenant. Their beliefs are very similar to those of the Jews. The main differences are that they only recognise the Pentateuch (Torah) as Scripture, not the Prophets (including the Former Prophets or historical books) or the Writings; and that they identify the one place where God is to be honoured with sacrifice according to Deuteronomy 12 as Mount Gerizim, south of Shechem (modern Nablus), rather than Jerusalem. The community still celebrates Passover (Pesach) each year on Mount Gerizim. They are now less than 800 strong, but in biblical times were much more numerous, including much of the population in the highland area of Samaria. The community now is split between those who live in and around Nablus, and others who live in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv.
Their name is derived from Samaria (Hebrew Shomron), the name of the ancient capital of the kingdom of Israel between ca. 880 and 722 BCE, which was used as the name of the local province or area by the imperial powers which ruled it thereafter.
Samaritans in the Old Testament?
There is no word in the Hebrew Bible corresponding to ‘Samaritan’, which is a Greek word with a Latin ending. But there are a few texts which make different points about the population of the former territory of the kingdom of Israel after it had been brought to an end by the Assyrians in 722 BCE.
2 Kings 17
The passage in 2 Kgs 17:24-41 is contradictory. It begins by assuming that the deportation of Israeltes by the king of Assyria after 722 BCE was total. The Israelite population was deported en bloc to various places in Mesopotamia, and the Assyrians brought people from there to replace them. The king of Assyria sent back a priest of Bethel to teach them how to serve YHWH, but they continued to worship their own idols alongside YHWH (v. 33). But v. 34 follows this up by saying that they ‘did not fear’ YHWH or keep his covenant, and in v. 35 we read that YHWH made a covenant ‘with them’, which in the context could only mean the foreigners brought in. But of course the covenant was not with them, but with the Israelites who had been deported! The explanation is probably that from v. 34 we are reading the words of a second author, who treats the northerners as Israelites, but ones who, like their ancestors, were unfaithful to YHWH.
There are two different stories here. Either the northerners after 722 were not Israelite but foreign, or they were Israelites who refused to be faithful to YHWH. Neither description fits the Samaritans as described above, who are firm monotheists and certainly claim to be Israelites. Nevertheless, the text, with its contradictions, was applied to the Samaritans by the Jews. It may be the origin of the legend of the ‘Ten Lost Tribes’.
Ezra and Nehemiah
Ezra chapter 4 refers to ‘the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin’ (v. 1), or ‘the people of the land’ (v. 4). In v. 2 they say they have been worshipping YHWH since they were brought to the land by king Esarhaddon of Assyria (681-669 BCE). In vv. 9-10 people of various origins brought to the land by ‘the great and noble Osnappar’ (probably king Ashurbanipal, 668-ca. 627) are mentioned. Like the first story in Kings, this stresses the foreign origin of the ‘adversaries of Judah and Benjamin’. By implication, these must be the people living to the north of them, though the time of the settlement is put somewhat later.
In Nehemiah’s memoir (Neh 1:1—7:5; 12:27—13:31), Nehemiah’s chief opponent is Sanballat, who was the governor of Samaria. Nehemiah does not dignify him by that title, but see Neh 4:2. Opposition to the rebuilding of the wall therefore comes especially from Samaria. But on the other hand, a son of the high priest marries a daughter of Sanballat, much to Nehemiah’s disgust (Neh 13:28), which shows that there were friendly relations between the elites of Jerusalem and Samaria.
In 2 Chronicles 30 King Hezekiah of Judah (ca. 725–ca. 696 BCE), after the fall of Israel, sends messengers to the northern tribes to invite them to the Passover in Jerusalem, and some obey the summons. Later, King Josiah (640-609 BCE) in his 12th year destroys idolatrous worship ‘in all the land of Israel’ (2 Chron 34:6-7), and in his 18th year celebrates a Passover, at which ‘all Judah and Israel who were present’ participate (35:18). The author clearly believes the northern tribes were still there, they were not ‘lost’, and were genuine Israelites who only had to be guided to worship YHWH correctly.
Passages in Jeremiah and Ezekiel look forward to the restoration of the northern tribes, and the reunion of Israel and Judah. See, e.g., Jeremiah 30; 31:1-37. There are several names in these chapters that appeal to the northern traditions: besides Israel, there are Jacob, Samaria, Ephraim, and Rachel. The poetry assures the people of Israel that they will be brought back from exile. They had not been swallowed up where they had been taken. Ezekiel’s acted parable, Ezek 37:13-28, looks forward to the union of Israel and Judah under one king.
Neither of these prophetic books shows any knowledge of a settlement of foreigners on the land of the northern tribes.
The Samaritans and history
It can be seen that the biblical evidence is contradictory, and some of it is prejudiced and unreliable. Can other evidence help to provide a clearer picture?
The Assyrian conquest
It was standard practice in the Assyrian empire to deport many of the people of a conquered territory, especially its upper classes, to elsewhere in the empire, and replace them with others from other parts. In an inscription, king Sargon II of Assyria (722-705 BCE) claims to have deported 27,280 prisoners from Samaria. This is about 25% of the estimated population of the kingdom after it had been reduced in size by a previous Assyrian campaign in 732. The city of Samaria itself was not destroyed. So the majority of the native population remained, and while there were certainly incomers, they do not seem to have interfered with the native religion and culture.
The Samaritan temple
Archaeological excavations on Mount Gerizim have revealed a temple built in the mid-5th century, the time of Nehemiah and Sanballat, and replaced by a bigger one in Hellenistic times. Many dedicatory inscriptions have been found, addressed to the God of Israel (‘YHWH’, ‘God’, or ‘Adonai’). The names of persons include many famous biblical names, and many formed with the name YHWH (beginning with Yo or ending with –yah).
Judaeans and Samarians as friends
The community that worshipped at this temple must have been more like today’s Samaritans, Israelites who are exclusive worshippers of YHWH, than either of the pictures in 2 Kings 17. And there is evidence that they had neighbourly contacts with the other Israelite community of exclusive YHWH-worshippers based on Jerusalem, for they developed similar institutions and customs, such as synagogues and ritual baths. Above all, they shared the Torah. This was probably not yet complete in the early 5th century, but the copies in the hands of each community at later periods were more or less similar, suggesting that it was completed through mutual contacts and discussions.
The major exception is that the Samaritan Pentateuch contains additions, especially after the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, bringing together texts mostly from Deuteronomy highlighting the role of Mount Gerizim.
Jews and Samaritans as enemies
The Samaritan temple was destroyed by the Judaean king John Hyrcanus in 112 or 111 BCE in the course of his conquests in Palestine. He may well have felt he was carrying out the commandment to have only one place of sacrifice. The Samaritans were not allowed to rebuild the temple, and they have sacrificed on the bare mountain without a temple ever since. It was probably in response to this that the Samaritan scribes included the rights of Mount Gerizim in their texts of the Torah.
It is from this point on that Jews and Samaritans have regarded each other with mistrust and hostility. Samaritans developed accounts of their history to show that they were the true Israel, just as texts in the Jewish scriptures (i.e., our Old Testament) tend to show that Jerusalem is the only legitimate religious centre of Israel. The views of the Jewish rabbis moved from regarding Samaritans as Jews to regarding them as Gentiles.
Kartveit, Magnar. The Origin of the Samaritans. Leiden: Brill, 2009.
Knoppers, Gary N. Jews and Samaritans: The Origins and History of their Early Relations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Pummer, Reinhard. The Samaritans: A Profile. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016.