Rethinking Israelite Samaritans And Their Diaspora

The sources present us with at least two vastly different histories of the Samaritans. On the side of the Samaritan sources, we only have the Samaritan Pentateuch. Other Samaritan documents are simply dated too late, from the 10th century C.E. They are therefore problematic from the standpoint of historical reliability. Some documents date from as early as the 4th century. Jewish evidence is slightly better, but is either late (3rd – 6th centuries) and/or anti-Samaritan in nature. In other words, the problem in Israelite Samaritan studies resides in the lack of reliable historical sources that could give a clear picture of Samaritan life and theology in the time of Jesus. Some level of clarity can nevertheless be established.

First, let us look at what we know would be agreed by both the Israelite Samaritan and the Israelite Jewish groups. These things are mainly concerned with issues of Samaritan self-definition:

1)      The Samaritans referred to themselves Bnei Israel (Sons of Israel) or God’s people Israel.

2)      Samaritans were a sizable group of people who believed themselves to be the preservers of the original religion of ancient Israel. The Samaritan population, including the Diaspora population, was very large by the standards of the time and was comparable to the population of their Jewish counterparts.

3)      As was mentioned already, Samaritans believed that the center of Israel’s worship ought to have been Mt. Gerizim rather than Mt. Zion. They argued that this was the site of the first Israelite sacrifice in the land (Deut.27: 4) and that it continued to be the center of the sacrificial activity of Israel’s patriarchs. The place where blessings were pronounced by the ancient Israelites was also believed to be identical with Bethel and Mt. Moriah.

4)      The Samaritans essentially had a fourfold creed: 1) One God (Yahweh), 2) One Prophet (Moses), 3) One Book (Pentateuch) and 4) One Place (Mt. Gerizim).

5)      The Samaritans believed that the people who called themselves “the Jews” had taken the wrong path in their religious practice by importing novelties into the land during the return from the Babylonian exile. Together with their rejection of Zion, Samaritans rejected the leading role of the Davidic dynasty in Israel, because of its strong connection with Jerusalem.

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Now that we have made a partial summary of the undisputed history and beliefs of the Samaritans, let us turn to the Jewish version of that same history. This record essentially comes to us from the two Talmuds, Josephus, and another largely Jewish source – the New Testament.

1)      Samaritans were a theologically and ethnically mixed people group. They believed in One God. Moreover, they associated their God with the God who gave the Torah to the people of Israel. The Samaritans are genetically related to the remnants of the Northern tribes who were left in the land after the Assyrian exile, but they intermarried with Gentiles who were relocated to Samaria by the Assyrian Emperor. This act of dispossession and transfer from their homeland was done in a strategic attempt to destroy the people’s identity. This strategy was successful.

2)      In the Jewish rabbinical writings, Samaritans are usually referred to by the term “Kuthim.” The term is most likely related to a location in Iraq from which the non-Israelite exiles were imported into Samaria (2 Kings 17:24). The name Kuthim or Kuthites was used in contrast to the term “Samaritans” which means the keepers of the Law. The Jewish writings emphasized the foreign identity of Samaritan religion and practice in contrast to the true faith of Israel that they now saw as developing Rabbinical Judaism. Though rabbinic literature evaluated the Samaritans in a largely negative light, rabbinic portrayals of the Samaritans were not exclusively negative. The literature shows that, for the Rabbis, the presence of the Shomrim (The Samaritans – the keepers of the Torah) was a challenge to be seriously reckoned with. Undoubtedly there was continuing polemical interaction, especially after the fall of Jerusalem.

3)      The Judea-centred Israelites (the Jews) believed that not only did the Samaritans choose to reject the words of the prophets regarding Zion and David’s family; they also deliberately changed the Torah itself to fit their theology and heretical practices. One of the insights that can be gained from comparing the two Pentateuch’s, the Torah of the Samaritans and the Torah of the Jews, is given here as an illustration. The Samaritan text reads much better than the Jewish one. In some cases, the stories in the Jewish Torah seem truncated, with wandering logic and unclear narrative flow. In contrast, the texts of the Samaritan Torah seem to have a much smoother narrative flow. On the surface, this makes the Jewish Torah problematic. Upon further examination, however, this could lead to an argument for the Samaritan Pentateuch being a latter revision or editing of the earlier Jewish text. However, in the light of Qumran discoveries that show agreement between the Samaritan and Qumran texts, a case can also be made for editing of an older text made by the Jews as well.

One of the reasons for only considering the Gospel of John according to its traditional interpretation has to do with a lack of familiarity with the large body of Samaritan scholarship. This scholarship shows the Israelite Samaritans were as much included under the inner-Israelite umbrella as the rest of what is today – referred to as Jewish movements of the Second Temple period. If the reader uncritically accepts the definition of who the Israelite Samaritans were from anti-Samaritan sources such as the writings of Josephus; it would be impossible to see what we are suggesting. On the other hand, if the Ancient Samaritans are also allowed the right of self-definition and therefore placed on the map of Israelite movements in the time of Jesus, this would open a way for a completely different reading of the Gospel of John. (For a very serious student of Israelite polemic, please, visit this page.)

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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.

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  1. Luis Cortes

    Is there in the Old Testament any evidence of the two Torah (Samaritan and Jewish)? It would be very interesting.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      You should read more about the Samaritan Torah. A lot of materials are available. Once you do your questions will reflect that. Blessings, Eli

  2. Mary Stutzman

    I’ve got a question regarding your alternative reading of the Woman at the Well. The usual interpretation has left me unsatisfied. Samaritans being Keepers of the Law – wouldn’t they have stoned her if she had been an adulteress? If she couldn’t have a baby, it seems a reasonable thought she could have been dumped all those times. What about Jesus’ comment about the “one she has now”? Do you think He was saying that with that one she was in adultery? Whatever your answer is, can you tell me how you come to the conclusion. Thank you!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Mary, please, read the article. All the answers to these questions are there. Let me know when you are done. Dr. Eli

  3. Kat Hobaugh

    This article has made me think about self-definition. Often times we hear the words blind faith or faith of a child interpreted as being somewhat gullible. Perhaps Jesus is talking about their self-definition. Thinking… Matthew 19:14 “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

  4. Riccardo

    Sadly, I think we don’t even realize how much we steepotyre. Myself included. It’s easier. It’s instant. It takes conscious effort not to do it .to really look at the person and realize they don’t fit into a nice, reductionist box. As a writer, yourself, Judy, I’m sure you know how hard we work to not create stock and cliched characters. We try to give them a mix of traits and likes and dislikes that might clash and pull in different directions. Ironically, we do this to make them more real’. Whereas, every day, we turn real people into cliches. Writing characters is a good exercise to learn not to steepotyre, I think. Great post.

  5. […] nor is it pro-Samaritan. Rather it is the Gospel that sets forth an apologetic argument with the goal of converting Israelite Samaritans to the faith of the Apostles in Israel’s God through Jesus Christ.  This agenda is very much […]

  6. Stephen Lockwood

    The concept that the Qumran texts read more similar to the Shomrin texts than Yerushalym is very interesting. This more so, because the Essens were thought to be Temple Priests that were upset with the politics of the Roman run Sanhedrin.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      How so, can you please explain?

  7. […] particular interest in topics that appeal, though not exclusively, to Israelite Samaritans is characteristic of this Gospel (to read more about it click here). This may point to the fact […]

  8. mohan

    You mean Qumran texts are the Samaritan texts ?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      No, I do not mean that. Though some have argued that in the past. But I do think that there are similarities between Qumran and Samaritans for example both had 10 commandments in their mezzuzot (Mezzuzah).

  9. Ilya Gromov

    Eli,

    you wrote – “One of the insights that can be gained from comparing the two Pentateuch’s, the Torah of the Samaritans and the Torah of the Jews, is given here as an illustration. The Samaritan text reads much better than the Jewish one.”

    Did I miss this illustration or do you have it in some other post?