Did the Samaritans Get a Bum Rap?

If you read the Bible—especially the New Testament—it’s pretty easy to come away with a bad impression of Samaritans. In fact, most of us would probably rank the Samaritans just slightly better than the Pharisees when it comes “disliked” groups of people in the Gospels.

Yet, are these portrayals accurate? The short answer is, not exactly. We have lost much of the cultural and historical context of these groups, which has resulted in a few passages being used to malign them. For example, would it surprise you to know that Jesus’ teachings are very closely aligned with the Pharisees? In fact, they are so similar that it would be fair to put Jesus squarely within the Pharisaic camp. Some of you are probably flipping to Matt. 23 to Jesus’ polemic against the Pharisees (and getting prepared to write a strongly worded response to this blog). Yes, Jesus is pretty hard on them, but his criticism is that of an insider, not an outsider. In fact, within rabbinic literature, we see similar rants against Pharisees by other Pharisees. If you look carefully at Jesus’ displeasure with certain factions of the Pharisees you will see that his criticism was not so much with their teachings as it was with how their actions did not reflect their teachings. I dare say that most of us would earn similar criticism.

So what about the Samaritans? Have they gotten a bum rap too? It is pretty clear from the Gospels and even rabbinic writings of the second temple period that there was an extreme amount of animosity between Jews and Samaritans. The Jews probably hated Samaritans more than they hated their Roman overlords. Was this hatred deserved?

I recently posted about my experience at a Samaritan Passover celebration and what it taught me about sacrifice. I received a lot of feedback and questions related to Samaritans in general from that post. As such, I’ve decided to take a closer look at this group. Where did they come from? Why was there so much bad blood between Samaritans and Jews? Are they really as bad as the Gospels seem to make them out to be?

Fifty Shades of Gray

One of the overall realizations that I had while studying in Israel was that not much is black and white. There is an awful lot of gray—more so than I would prefer. Answers are generally not “Yes” or “No”. The more common answer is, “it’s complicated.” One of the reasons for this is that the books of the Bible were written to specific peoples of specific cultures. There is a lot of assumed information and background that is not given. Most people of their time knew this information and to take valuable papyrus or parchment to write it down would be a waste of time and resources (not to mention being really boring). They weren’t writing in anticipation of a culture 2,000-3,000 years later reading it.

Furthermore, there is often bias built into the story. Wait a minute, aren’t the Scriptures divinely inspired? If they are divinely inspired, how can there be bias in the Text? That is a valid question. Personally, I believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture. Nevertheless, it is clear that they were written with human hands and reflect the understandings (and inherent biases) of the persons writing the accounts. I can appreciate that this idea might make some people uncomfortable, but the bias is there—and I think it adds to the veracity of the Text rather than take away from its divine inspiration.

This morning I sat in a Sunday school class of very serious Bible students. Many of them were studying the Bible long before I was even born. During our discussion, the topic of the Samaritans came up. The general views expressed by these seasoned Bible students were similar to my own. I can sum them up with a few one-dimensional stereotypes:

  • Samaritans were “half-Jews”
  • Samaritans and Jews hated each other.
  • Samaritans were the bad guys.

Implied within these stereotypes is that the problems between Jews and Samaritans were largely the fault of the Samaritans.

So, is this an accurate portrayal? Well, it’s complicated. It turns out, there is a lot of history with this group that is significant to the New Testament. Much of it would have been common knowledge to the writers and target audience of the Gospels.

So, I think it would do us some good to dive more deeply into the cultural and historical context of the Samaritans to see if we can uncover a more complete picture of them. In doing so, maybe it will give us some deeper insights into the good news of Jesus.

The Samaritan Origin Debate

As with most issues in the Middle East, there is a long history of events, actions, and reactions that result in conflict. In an honor-shame culture, memories are long. Very long. The issues with Samaritans are no different. So, we need to go back about 2,750 years.

The first contentious issue is: who are these Samaritans? Where did they come from? Are they Jews or foreigners? As you might have guessed, the answer may not be black and white. It’s complicated.

The Divided Kingdom The Baker Book of Charts, Maps & Biblical Timelines, p. 68.

In 721 BC, the Assyrians, under the leadership of Sargon II, invaded and defeated the northern kingdom of Israel and their capital city, Samaria. One of the ways that Assyria established control over conquered territories was to remove the indigenous inhabitants dispersing them throughout other parts of the empire. According to ancient Assyrian sources, Sargon II deported more than 27,000 Israelites and replaced them with people from other parts of the empire. According to 2 Kings 17:24, the Assyrians resettled people from the cities of Babylon, Kuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim (all towns in modern-day Iraq) into Israel.

Now, contrary to what most of us were probably taught, it’s pretty clear that the Assyrians didn’t remove everyone from Israel. According to some academic sources, the population of the northern kingdom may have been close to 900,000 around the time of the Assyrian invasion. Some of them escaped south to the kingdom of Judah. It is also a safe assumption that Sargon’s claim to have carried off 27,290 Israelites “as booty” is an exaggeration (typical of conquest texts). He probably carried off the wealthy, upper social stratum leaving the poor and uneducated in the land. The Samaritans claim to be descendants of this Israelite remnant that was left behind. To this day, they call themselves children of Israel.

Yet, what about the foreigners from Iraq that were resettled in Israel? The Bible provides an interesting insight into what happened with them:

When they first settled there, they did not worship the LORD; therefore the LORD sent lions among them, which killed some of them. So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land; therefore he has sent lions among them; they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there; let him go and live there, and teach them the law of the god of the land.” So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel; he taught them how they should worship the LORD. (2 Kings 17:25-28, NRSV)

The rest of 2 Kings 17 goes on to recount that while these foreigners worshiped the LORD, they continued to worship their foreign gods. The writer of 2 Kings makes the point that “to this day their children and grandchildren continue to do as their ancestors did.” In other words, these “Samaritans” are not true followers of the LORD, their conversion was a matter of convenience. They are not really Israelites/Jews. In all fairness, these foreign converts were no better at following the LORD than were the local Israelite inhabitants.

The ancient historian Josephus basically confirms this Biblical account, however, in his writings, the foreigners were not killed by lions, but by a plague. He identified these foreigners as “Cutheans” (from the town of Cuthah) and that they were called “Samaritans” in Greek. Josephus says that the Samaritans would claim the Jews as “kinsmen” when times were good, but would claim no association when times were tough.

So, are the Samaritans an Israelite remnant, as they claim, or resettled foreigners as Josephus and 2 Kings 17 claim?

Well, it turns out they are both right. Recent genetic studies of modern-day Samaritans have helped clarify matters. The authors of a 2008 study concluded that Jews and Samaritans are very closely related. Yet, based upon mitochondrial DNA (inherited from the mother) it appears that Israelites who remained in the land married non-Israelite (foreign) women. They estimated that this happened at least 2,500 years ago—right within the margin of error window for the Assyrian conquest.

I think it is fair to say that the Samaritan tradition and the Biblical/Josephus account reflect two sides of the same coin. Sort of like trying to figure out if Fox News or CNN is giving the “truth” about a news story. Both are reporting facts that suit the narrative they are telling and downplaying the rest.

What does this say about the divine inspiration of the Biblical Text? In my opinion, not much. The Old Testament tells the story of the Jewish people and God’s relentless pursuit of them. It is largely told from a Jewish perspective by Jewish authors. As such, it is not surprising that inherent biases related to Samaritans would show up in the Text. Almost all of the New Testament was written by Jewish authors. Virtually all of it came from Jewish source material. Again, it is not surprising that the Jewish view of Samaritans shows up in the Text. As I hope to show in upcoming posts, I think it makes the Gospel encounters with Samaritans even more amazing.

Yet, despite their alternative origin stories, things were not always bad between these groups. Not all of the Biblical accounts place the Samaritans in a bad light. In the book of 2 Chronicles, King Josiah initiated repairs to the temple. He went throughout the land to get funding for this restoration project. 2 Chron. 34:9 says Josiah collected funds from “the people of Manasseh, Ephraim and the entire remnant of Israel and from all the people of Judah and Benjamin and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Manasseh, Ephraim and the entire remnant of Israel would have included these people later called Samaritans.

Initially, things were OK with this group. So, when did things go wrong? Well, that’s another complicated story. I’ll attempt to tackle that in the next blog post.

Stay tuned.

3 thoughts

  1. Pingback: The Trouble with Samaritans (Part 1) | Stepping into the Jordan

  2. Pingback: The Trouble with Samaritans (Part 2) | Stepping into the Jordan

  3. Pingback: Risky Business | Stepping into the Jordan

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