Since ancient times, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament has existed in multiple versions or editions. Until the second through fourth centuries B.C.E., there was no “Bible” as we know it, only different scrolls and codices circulating in different communities. Often, different readings or versions of the same scroll were kept side by side, all given religious authority and all receiving the same sacred respect. The Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) represents one textual tradition (in scholarly terms, a “recension”) that descends from an ancient and influential form of the five Books of Moses.
Other ancient textual traditions include an early form of the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint, and other forms that are harder to classify. Manuscripts recovered from the Judean Desert, particularly from the caves at Qumran, have yielded an abundance of evidence indicating the fluidity of the Hebrew Bible in the centuries before the turn of eras. That manuscript evidence, some of it dating back to the third through first centuries B.C.E., indicates that the Samaritan Pentateuch is an extension of an earlier text-type, currently labeled the Pre-Samaritan Text, found in the Judean Desert along with manuscripts in a version that would later become the Masoretic Text and manuscripts similar to the Septuagint. The Samaritan Pentateuch provides an important witness to the early textual history of the first part of the Hebrew Bible. It was considered authoritative by at least some of the New Testament writers, and it remains the sacred text of the Samaritan community.
There are several competing accounts of the Samaritan Pentateuch’s origin and early history. According to Samaritan tradition, the Samaritans represent the true Israel from which others broke away, first under the influence of Eli the priest during the pre-monarchical period, and then through the “false cult” in Jerusalem and the deceptive work of Ezra in the early Second Temple period. Likewise, Samaritan tradition holds that the Samaritan Pentateuch is the genuine version of the Torah, faithfully preserved through the centuries by the Samaritans and traceable all the way back to Abisha, great-grandson of Aaron, brother of Moses. These claims are difficult for modern historical scholarship to confirm or deny.
Perhaps the best-known version of the Samaritan Pentateuch’s origin involves the account presented in 2Kgs 17. According to some readings of this passage (including Josephus’), the Samaritans are a heretical group, forced to immigrate back to Samaria from captivity in Mesopotamia. The text venerated by the heretical group, whether brought with them from the east or developed in Samaria, further aggravates the contentious relationship between the Samaritans and the orthodox center in Jerusalem by favoring Mt. Gerizim, not Mt. Zion, as God’s chosen place for worship. Although widely believed, this reconstruction falters in several key respects. Perhaps most important is 2Kgs 17:29, which references “the people of Samaria,” (that is, inhabitants of Samaria), and not “Samaritans,” an identifiable religious sect, as Josephus believed and several older English translations reflect (for example, KJV and ASV). In other words, 2Kgs 17 does not understand “the Samaritans” as a separate religious group but rather as inhabitants of a region in which northern Israelites lived.
The manuscript discoveries in the Judean Desert have provided new clarity regarding the origin and early history of the Samaritan Pentateuch. The third- to first-century-B.C.E. Pre-Samaritan Texts from the Judean Desert are characterized by many of the editorial features found in the Samaritan Pentateuch (including harmonizing interpolations, emphasis on the role of Moses, and similar grammatical forms and spelling), but without the veneer of sectarian features favoring the Samaritan religious sect. The cumulative evidence points to the conclusion that the Samaritan Pentateuch is the product of a sectarian editing of the Pre-Samaritan text type, probably produced in the first century B.C.E through the first century C.E.