I have been perplexed by the rift between the Samaritans and the Jews and their hatred mentioned in the New Testament. One incident is at Jacob’s well.
Yet in one of the parables it is a Samaritan who takes care of the victim who was beaten. Is there anywhere in the Old Testament that records the breaking down of Abraham’s and/or Jacob’s progeny?
Imagine the hatred between Serbs and Muslims in modern Bosnia, the enmity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the feuding between street gangs in Los Angeles or New York, and you have some idea of the feeling and its causes between Jews and Samaritans in the time of Jesus. Both politics and religion were involved.
According to the Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible (McGraw Hill) by Louis F. Hartman, C.SS.R., feelings of ill will probably went back before the separation of the northern and southern Jewish kingdoms. Even then there was a lack of unity between the tribes of Jacob.
After the separation of Judah and Israel in the ninth century, King Omri of the Northern Kingdom bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer (1 Kings 16:24). He built there the city of Samaria which became his capital.
It was strong defensively and controlled the valley through which the main road ran between Jerusalem and Galilee. In 722 B.C. the city fell to the Assyrians and became the headquarters of the Assyrian province of Samarina. While many of the inhabitants of the city and the surrounding area of Samaria were led off into captivity, some farmers and others were left behind. They intermarried with new settlers from Mesopotamia and Syria.
Though the Samaritans were condemned by the Jews, Hartman says they probably had as much pure Jewish blood as the Jews who later returned from the Babylonian exile.
The story of both Israel’s and Samaria’s failures in keeping to the way of Yahweh is partly told in Chapter 17 of the Second Book of Kings. There, too, the sacred author tells how the king of As-syria sent a priest from among the exiles to teach the Samaritans how to worship God after an attack by lions was attributed to their failure to worship the God of the land. Second Kings recounts how worship of Yahweh was mixed with the worship of strange gods.
When Cyrus permitted the Jews to return from the Babylonian exile, the Samaritans were ready to welcome them back. The exiles, however, despised the Samaritans as renegades. When the Samaritans wanted to join in rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, their assistance was rejected. You will find this in the Book of Ezra, Chapter Four.
With the rejection came political hostility and opposition. The Samaritans tried to undermine the Jews with their Persian rulers and slowed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. Nehemiah tells us (Nehemiah 13:28-29) that a grandson of the high priest, Eliashib, had married a daughter of Sanballat, the governor of the province of Samaria.
For defiling the priesthood by marrying a non-Jewish woman, Nehemiah drove Eliashib from Jerusalem–though Sanballat was a worshiper of Yahweh. According to the historian Josephus, Sanballat then had a temple built on Mount Garizim in which his son-in-law Eliashib could function. Apparently this is when the full break between Jews and Samaritans took place.
According to John McKenzie in his Dictionary of the Bible, the Samaritans later allied themselves with the Seleucids in the Maccabean wars and in 108 B.C. the Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple and ravaged the territory. Around the time of Jesus’ birth, a band of Samaritans profaned the Temple in Jerusalem by scattering the bones of dead people in the sanctuary. In our own era which has witnessed the vandalism of synagogues and the burning of black churches, we should be able to understand the anger and hate such acts would incite.
The fact that there was such dislike and hostility between Jews and Samaritans is what gives the use of the Samaritan in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) such force! The Samaritan is the one who is able to rise above the bigotry and prejudices of centuries and show mercy and compassion for the injured Jew after the Jew’s own countrymen pass him by!
It is with those centuries of opposition and incidents behind their peoples that we can understand the surprise of the Samaritan woman (John 4:9) when Jesus rises above the social and religious restrictions not just of a man talking to a woman, but also of a Jew talking to a Samaritan.
You can find more about the story of the rift between Jews and Samaritans in the various biblical dictionaries and commentaries, and scattered through the historical and prophetical books of the Old Testament.
When Jesus reached the famous well at Shechem and asked a Samaritan woman for a drink, she replied full of surprise: “Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (John 4:9). In the ancient world, relations between Jews and Samaritans were indeed strained. Josephus reports a number of unpleasant events: Samaritans harass Jewish pilgrims traveling through Samaria between Galilee and Judea, Samaritans scatter human bones in the Jerusalem sanctuary, and Jews in turn burn down Samaritan villages. The very notion of “the good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37) only makes sense in a context in which Samaritans were viewed with suspicion and hostility by Jews in and around Jerusalem.
It is difficult to know when the enmity first arose in history—or for that matter, when Jews and Samaritans started seeing themselves (and each other) as separate communities. For at least some Jews during the Second Temple period, 2Kgs 17:24-41 may have explained Samaritan identity: they were descendants of pagan tribes settled by the Assyrians in the former northern kingdom of Israel, the region where most Samaritans live even today. But texts like this may not actually get us any closer to understanding the Samaritans’ historical origins.
The Samaritans, for their part, did not accept any scriptural texts beyond the Pentateuch. Scholars have known for a long time about an ancient and distinctly Samaritan version of the Pentateuch—which has been an important source for textual criticism of the Bible for centuries. In fact, a major indication for a growing Samaritan self-awareness in antiquity was the insertion of “typically Samaritan” additions into this version of the Pentateuch, such as a Decalogue commandment to build an altar on Mount Gerizim, which Samaritans viewed as the sole “place of blessing” (see also Deut 11:29, Deut 27:12). They fiercely rejected Jerusalem—which is not mentioned by name in the Pentateuch—and all Jerusalem-related traditions and institutions such as kingship and messianic eschatology.
The aggressive expansion of the Jewish Hasmonean kingdom and the destruction of the sanctuary and the city on Mount Gerizim in 110 B.C.E. further deepened the rift between Samaritans and Jews. Countering the claims of the “Jewish heretics in Jerusalem,” the Samaritans consequently saw and still see themselves as the true Israelites and “keepers of the covenant” (shomronim or shomrim in Hebrew, echoing the Hebrew name for Samaria, Shomron).
Despite all these polemical traditions, however, Samaritans and Jews had much more in common than we might think. Both based their faith on the Pentateuch. Rather than a “split” at one particular moment, the relation between Samaritans and Jews is characterized by a long process of alienation and parallel development between the fourth–third centuries B.C.E. and the fourth century C.E. Because the Samaritans only accepted the Pentateuch, they fervently advocated Yahwistic monotheism and, above all, held Moses and (to a lesser extent) Joshua in particular esteem. Like the Jews in Jerusalem, the Samaritans followed a hereditary priesthood and accepted only a single central sanctuary. Whatever their historical origins as a distinct group, the Samaritans are probably best seen as one among the diverse range of religious communities of postexilic Judaism.
In some contrast to the passage in John cited above, New Testament texts usually share the Jewish anti-Samaritan stance (Matt 10:5, Luke 9:51-55) or show interest in non-Samaritan inhabitants of the region, such as Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-13, Acts 8:18-24). During the fourth–sixth centuries C.E., many rabbinic discussions about the Samaritans confirmed their piety but also emphasized fundamental differences in observance of certain laws, including those of marriage and of the levitical priesthood.
Marginalized by their Jewish compatriots and often violently oppressed by Byzantine authorities (especially under Justinian), Samaritans nevertheless shared many features of a common late-antique culture. From the Hellenistic to the Byzantine period, we have numerous indications of a widespread, Greek-speaking Samaritan diaspora (for example in Delos, Egypt, Asia Minor, and Italy). The situation of the Samaritans first improved under Islamic rule, but in the course of time, their numbers dwindled. Today, only a few hundred Samaritans live on Mount Gerizim and in Holon, near Tel Aviv.
At the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the land of Samaria was situated between the regions of Galilee in the north and Judea in the south. Jews travelling between Galilee and Judea would take the longer, six-day journey along the Jordan River valley rather than taking a shorter, more direct route through Samaria. The Jews avoided the Samaritans because of their bitter history.
ISRAEL SPLITS INTO TWO KINGDOMS
Hundreds of years previously, after the death of King Solomon in 975 BCE, the nation of Israel split into north and south. (See 1 Kings 11:26-39 and 1 Kings 12:1-24.) The northern tribes of Israel were collectively called Israel, and their capital city was Samaria (1 Kings 16:24). The southern tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Simeon were collectively called Judah, and their capital city was Jerusalem. A distance of 50kms separated the cities of Jerusalem and Samaria.
THE FALL OF ISRAEL
All the kings of Israel, without exception, were unfaithful and disobedient to God. They embraced idolatrous religions and were extremely wicked. After repeated prophetic warnings about coming disaster—unless Israel repented, the northern kingdom of Israel was overpowered by the Assyrians in around 724 BCE.
Many of the Israelites who had survived the attack were taken to foreign lands where they were assimilated into the native populations (2 Kings 17:5-6; 17:22-41). These northern tribes are referred to as the “lost tribes of Israel”. However, a few groups of Israelite families retained their ancestral integrity.
The Assyrians sent five eastern tribes to live in Northern Israel. These five tribes brought with them their own foreign religions and customs. The tribes were sent with the purpose of diminishing the Israelite identity and culture. The eastern foreigners intermarried with the remaining, much depleted Israelite population. This hybrid people group was the beginning of the Samaritans.
The Assyrian Empire fell to the Egyptians in 612 BCE. The Egyptians had already taken control of Samaria in 610 after taking the life of the Judean king, Josiah, who had himself hoped to conquer Israel. The Egyptians were subsequently defeated by the Babylonians, and Samaria became a minor capital city of the Babylonian empire from 605 to 562 BCE.
THE FALL OF JUDAH
In 586 BCE, the southern kingdom of Judah was also conquered by the Babylonians (2 Chron. 36:15ff), and the whole of Israel and Judah came to be known as Samaria. Many Jews were exiled from their homeland and taken captive into Babylon for seventy years, as prophesied by Jeremiah (Jer. 25:11-12; 2 Chron. 36:21). The Jewish population was taken in several stages to Babylon. It seems that only the poorest, sickest, and least skilled were ultimately left behind. These remaining people intermarried with their northern neighbours with the result that foreign beliefs and customs mixed with Jewish beliefs and customs.
THE RETURNING JEWS
The Jews were mostly treated well in Babylon. While some Jews lamented their captivity in a foreign land (see Psalm 137), others became established in their new communities. When the Persian King Cyrus was divinely led to allow the Jews to return seventy years later (Ezra 1:1ff), only the most devout Jews returned to Jerusalem with the purpose of rebuilding the city and its temple.
The Babylonian exile had been a punishment for Judah’s unfaithfulness to God, and the Jews had learned from it. The returned Jews were zealous for God and righteous living, and, with some exceptions, they never again engaged in blatant idolatry. The returning Jews were keen to rebuild the Jerusalem temple so that they could worship God in the way he had prescribed. The Samaritans offered to help the Jews in rebuilding the temple but this offer was scornfully rejected (Ezra 4:1-5).
The Jews of the post-exilic period were also zealous for the scriptures. Scribes copied them, and synagogues and schools were established to teach from them. This real repentance over past idolatry, combined with their fervour for scripture, would result in an over-scrupulous interpretation of scripture and fanatically detailed religious observances by various Jewish sects such as the Pharisees and the Qumran community.
Meanwhile, the Samaritans had developed their own version of Judaism. The Samaritans still believed in the God of Israel, but they worshipped at Mount Gerizim (instead of Jerusalem) with their own adapted worship practices. The Samaritans also had their own Pentateuch in Aramaic, which differed in places from the Hebrew Pentateuch. To this day, the Samaritans do not accept the poetic and prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures.
In around 400 BCE the Samaritans built a temple on Mount Gerizim. This caused tension and hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Jews ultimately destroyed the Samaritan temple in 128/9 BCE. Nevertheless, the Samaritan religious community still survives today.
Most Jews regarded the Samaritans as ignorant, superstitious, and outside of God’s favour and mercy. The Samaritans, however, were still very much part of God’s plans as shown in the fourth chapter of John’s gospel where Jesus brings the good news to Sychar, a Samaritan village. Moreover, Jesus specifically mentions Samaria in Acts 1:8 where he tells his disciples: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Christian churches were soon established there (Acts 9:31 cf. Acts 8:1, 4-5ff; 9:31; 15:3 CEB).