The Samaritans by Jürgen K. Zangenberg

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.

Jürgen K. Zangenberg, "The Samaritans", n.p. [cited 3 Dec 2022]. Online:


Jürgen K. Zangenberg

Jürgen K. Zangenberg
Professor, Leiden University

Jürgen K. Zangenberg holds the Chair for History and Culture of Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity at the Faculty of Humanities at Leiden University (Netherlands) and holds an appointment at the Leiden University Faculty of Archaeology. He has served as codirector of the Kinneret Regional Project since 2002.

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

A term from late Antiquity, it refers to the western-most part of Asia, bordered by the Black, the Mediterranean, and Agean Seas, in what is now modern-day Turkey.

People from the region of northern Mesopotamia that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Relating to the Byzantine empire, which ruled the Eastern Mediterranean from the fifth century CE to 1453; its capital was Byzantium (modern Istanbul).

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

A more accurate name for the Ten Commandments, literally translated as the ten words (deka = ten, logos = words).

Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.

Relating to the dynasty established by Simon Maccabeus that ruled Israel independently from 140-37 B.C.E.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Of or relating to Greek culture, especially ancient Greece after Alexander the Great.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy or what later became the larger province under imperial control

The biblical belief that a Jewish leader or messiah will usher in a rule of peace and unity at the end of the world.

A religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

The kingdom consisting of the northern Israelites tribes, which existed separately from the southern kingdom of Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, all the tribes were part of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, but the northern kingdom under Jeroboam I rebelled after Solomon's death (probably sometime in the late 10th century B.C.E.), establishing their independence. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.

(n.) One who adheres to traditional or polytheistic religious and spiritual belief and practice systems; sometimes used to refer broadly to anyone who does not adhere to biblical monotheism.

Devotion to a divinity and the expression of that devotion.

rhetoric intended to oppose a specific position

Relating to the period in Judean history following the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.E.), also known as the Persian period, during which the exiles were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

a site with religious significance

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

Literally "mound," a small hill-shaped site containing numerous occupational layers of a town or city built on top of one another over millennia.

Associated with the worship of Yahweh, the god of Israel and Judah.

John 4:9

9The 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.)

Luke 10:25-37

The Parable of the Good Samaritan
25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”26He said to him, “W ... View more

2Kgs 17:24-41

Assyria Resettles Samaria
24The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria in p ... View more

Deut 11:29

29When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that you are entering to occupy, you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal.

Deut 27:12

12When you have crossed over the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim for the blessing of the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin.

Matt 10:5

The Mission of the Twelve
5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,

Luke 9:51-55

A Samaritan Village Refuses to Receive Jesus
51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.52And he sent messengers ahead ... View more

Acts 8:9-13

9Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great.10All of them, from ... View more

Acts 8:18-24

18Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money,19saying, “Give me also this power so that an ... View more

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