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Samaritans and Jews in the Gospels

A supporter recently asked why, in New Testament times, the Jews were hostile to the Samaritans and suggested that we publish the answer as an article in the Herald. Here it is.
Call a man a “good Samaritan” today and he’ll take it as a compliment. It’s on a level with being a “knight in shining armour”, a “hero” or a “gentleman and a scholar”. Calling a first-century Israelite a Samaritan was the swiftest route to becoming the proud possessor of a broken nose, or worse.

Inauspicious beginnings
Although they are a very small sect, the Samaritans still exist and claim to be the direct descendants of a faithful nucleus of ancient Israelites. But to first century Jews the Samaritans were a “mixed race” contaminated by foreign blood and false worship. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus records that at times of Jewish prosperity the Samaritans were ready to acknowledge their blood relationship to the Jews but in troublesome times, they denied any kinship with the Jews, claiming instead that they were descended from Assyrian immigrants.

The Samaritans are not referred to a great deal in the New Testament but from the few references in the Gospels it is evident that there was little love lost between them and the Jews. After the Assyrian king Shalmaneser deported the northern tribes of Israel in the eighth century BC, he repopulated the Israelite capital Samaria with deportees from other kingdoms that had fallen to him. The motley band of immigrants, it is believed, mixed with the Israelites who remained and so the Samaritans came into being. Some recent studies suggest that the Samaritans were descended from disgruntled priests who moved to Samaria from Jerusalem after the return from the captivity in Babylon. What is for certain is that the root of the conflict between Jews and Samaritans was religious. The Jews revered the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, whereas the Samaritans based their religion solely on the writings of Moses.

After the return from Babylon, when the Judeans began rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple under the leadership of Ezra, Nehemiah and Zerubbabel, their non-Jewish neighbours opposed the work. In Nehemiah 4:2 the Samaritan army was a threat to the building of the walls and the second chapter of Ezra records that Jerusalem’s enemies, including the Samaritans, requested the Persian King Artaxerxes to call a halt to the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Samaritan hostility was not calculated to establish a good relationship with their Jewish neighbours. Little wonder then that in the following centuries, little love was lost between Jews and Samaritans.

Excluded from the temple in Jerusalem, the Samaritans constructed a rival temple on Mount Gerizim. After the Jewish high priest John Hyrcanus destroyed the Gerizim sanctuary in 128 BC, the Samaritans built another in Shechem, close to where Jesus’ encountered the Samaritan woman in John 4, hence her statement in verse 20 that “our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship”.

Unclean dogs
In the centuries following the Babylonian exile, attitudes to the Samaritans hardened. In the apocryphal Wisdom of the Son of Sirach, composed in about 200 BC, Ben Sirach writes:

My whole being loathes two nations,
the third is not even a people:
Those who live in Seir and Philistia,
and the degenerate folk who dwell in Shechem.

In the Antiquities of the Jews (Book 11, 8:6), Josephus refers to Samaritans as “apostates of the Jewish nation”. Others regarded the Samaritans as idolaters, as expressed in the Midrash Rabbah in a comment on Genesis 35:4:

R[abbi] Ishmael b[en] R[abbi] Jose was going up to pray in Jerusalem. [On the way] he passed the Palatinus [Mount Gerizim] and was seen by a Samaritan who asked him, “Whither are you going?” “To worship in Jerusalem,” replied he. “Would it not be better to pray at this holy mountain than at that dunghill?” he scoffed. “I will tell you what you resemble,” he retorted; “a dog eager for carrion. For you know that idols are hidden beneath [the mountain], for it is written, AND JACOB HID THEM, therefore you are eager for it”. (Midrash Rabbah, vol 1, 81:3)

The Jewish nation acknowledged no affinity with the Samaritans, making the charge in John 8:48 Jesus was “a Samaritan” and had a demon probably the worst insult that could be hurled at a religious Jew. Later rabbinic tradition regarded the Samaritans as ceremonially unclean and destined for hell, as reflected in the Mishnah: “The daughters of the Samaritans are regarded as menstruants from their cradle” (Mishnah “Niddah”31b), thus making the vessels they handled unclean. John 4:9in most English Bibles reads that “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” but the NIV footnote “Jews do not use dishes Samaritans have used” probably echoes the prejudice more accurately.

Violence
From time to time the polemics erupted into violence. According to Josephus, “Hatred also arose between the Samaritans and the Jews for the following reason. It was the custom of the Galileans at the time of the festival to pass through the Samaritan territory on their way to the Holy City. On one occasion, while they were passing through, certain of the [Samaritan] inhabitants of a village... joined battle with the Galileans and slew a great number of them (Antiquities Book 20 6:1). Galilean pilgrims often crossed the Jordan and travelled to Jerusalem on the east bank rather than go through Samaria. Those who chose to pass through Samaritan territory did so at great risk and in 52 AD a group of Galilean pilgrims were massacred by Samaritans at En-gannim.

Jesus and his disciples experienced Samaritan hostility when, in Luke 9:51‑53 he “set his face to go to Jerusalem” for the Passover festival. The Samaritans refused to receive him. However, in John 4, the Samaritans welcomed Jesus and his followers with civility and hospitality. The change of attitude was due, no doubt, to the fact that the woman at the well had announced that Jesus was a prophet but, as there were still "four months to harvest", it was evident that Jesus and the disciples were not returning from a festival in Jerusalem.

Religion is man’s default setting. It is his most fundamental drive and, as such, generates strong feelings which, if left unchecked, can erupt into extreme violence. Religion was at the root of the enmity between Jews and Samaritans but through Philip’s preaching of Messiah in Samaria the wall of hostility that separated the two communities was demolished. The gospel is still God’s way of healing divisions and establishing peace between Jews and Gentiles and between nations.

This article was first published in the Herald in December 2009

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