Origin of the Samaritan Pentateuch by Terry Giles

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.

Terry Giles, "Origin of the Samaritan Pentateuch", n.p. [cited 30 Nov 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/origin-of-the-samaritan-pentateuch


Terry Giles

Terry Giles
Professor, Gannon University

Terry Giles teaches biblical studies as professor of theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. 

Trustworthy; reliable; of texts, the best or most primary edition.

Before the Common Era; a notation used in place of B.C. ("before Christ") for years before the current calendar era.

A system of religious worship, or cultus (e.g., the Israelite cult). Also refers to adherents of that system.

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.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

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.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

Textual documents, usually handwritten.

Relating to the Masoretes, a group of medieval scribes who preserved and transmitted the written Hebrew text of the Bible. Or, the Masoretic Text itself, an authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible.

The authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible, containing both the consonants and the vowels (unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have no vowels). The earliest existing copies of the Masoretic Text date to the 10th century C.E.

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

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

Of or belonging to any of several branches of Christianity, especially from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, whose adherents trace their tradition back to the earliest Christian communities. Lowercase ("orthodox"), this term means conforming with the dominant, sanctioned ideas or belief system.

An archaeological site on the western shore of the Dead Sea, in modern Israel, where a small group of Jews lived in the last centuries B.C.E. The site was destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near the site and are believed by most scholars to have belonged to the people living at Qumran.

A text that has been revised.

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.

A religious subgroup.

Related to a particular religious subgroup, or sect; often used in reference to the variety of Jewish sects in existence in the Roman period in Judea and Samaria.

2Kgs 17

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2Kgs 17:29

29But every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made, every nation in the cities in ... View more

2Kgs 17

Hoshea Reigns over Israel
1In the twelfth year of King Ahaz of Judah, Hoshea son of Elah began to reign in Samaria over Israel; he reigned nine years.2He did wh ... View more

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