The Trouble with Samaritans (Part 2)

Over the last two posts (Did the Samaritans Get a Bum Rap and The Trouble with Samaritans – Part 1), I have taken an in-depth look at how the troubles started brewing between Jews and Samaritans over the course of several hundred years. We’ve taken a closer look at who the Samaritans really were and how the returning Jewish exiles from Babylon rejected assistance from the people that had remained in the Land, including Samaritans, as they sought to rebuild the temple and city of Jerusalem.

As I hope I have shown, so far, there were certainly less-than-honorable actions on both sides of the fence that led to the bad blood between these people. However, there was another incident that was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back.

A Temple to Call Our Own

As I discussed in the last post, the Samaritans were not welcome at the temple in Jerusalem. The Jews in the southern part of the Land did not really consider them to be Jews. So, they took what probably seemed like a logical course of action in their desire to worship God. They built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim—a place of special importance for Israel from when they first entered the Promised Land. To enhance the significance of this place of worship, the Samaritans re-wrote a number of Biblical stories in Torah changing their location to Mt. Gerizim instead of the site of the temple in Jerusalem. As a not-so-subtle dig to the Jews, they wanted to change the narrative to make Mt. Gerizim the true place of acceptable worship to God.

What’s interesting is that the Jews didn’t seem to do anything about it. This status quo—a Jewish temple in Jerusalem and a Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim—was maintained for a couple hundred years. Perhaps they were too focused on the reconstructions in Jerusalem, or maybe they were just happy to see an end to Samaritan interference.

Assimilate, Or Else!

Of course, nothing good lasts forever. The end of this détente came with Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid empire. When Alexander the Great died, his empire was split between his four generals in a very uneasy coalition. The Seleucids were one of those four segments. Antiochus made a concerted effort to Hellenize the Seleucid empire. He wanted everyone to speak Greek and adopt Greek culture—including religion. As part of this effort, he pressured both Jews and Samaritans to convert their temples to pagan temples. The inter-Testamental book of 2 Maccabees gives an account of what happened:

Not long after this, the king sent an Athenian senator to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their ancestors and no longer to live by the laws of God; also to pollute the temple in Jerusalem and to call it the temple of Olympian Zeus, and to call the one in Gerizim the temple of Zeus-the-Friend-of-Strangers, as did the people who lived in that place.

2 Macc. 6:1-2

From the accounts that we have (all Jewish in their perspective), the reactions of the Jews and Samaritans were very different. The Samaritans (or at least most of them) determined to seek peace with the Seleucids and adopt Greek culture. The Jews rebelled. Josephus provides an account of the Samaritan actions—albeit from a very biased perspective. They claimed no association with the Jews. According to Josephus, their petition culminated in this request to Antiochus IV:

We therefore beseech thee our benefactor and savior, to give order to Apollonius, the governor of this part of the country, and to Nicanor, the procurator of thy affairs, to give us no disturbance, nor to lay to our charge what the Jews are accused for, since we are aliens from their nation and from their customs; but let our temple which at present hath no name at all, be named the Temple of Jupiter Hellenius. If this were once done, we should be no longer disturbed, but should be more intent on our own occupation with quietness, and so bring in a greater revenue to thee.

Antiquities of the Jews, Book 12 5:261

Personally, I think Josephus’ writings can’t always be taken at face value. He clearly had an agenda and wrote with a bias. In many ways, he was never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story. Yet, there a couple of facts that can’t be disputed: the Samaritans were left alone by the Seleucids and the Jews were not.

You also don’t need to read too deeply between the lines to see that the Jews viewed this as an act of betrayal by the Samaritans. From their perspective, if they were true Israelites as they had claimed to be then they would stand alongside the Jews in Jerusalem to fight the Seleucids.

The Jews fought the Seleucids for 38 years. In the end, the Jews prevailed and finally drove the Seleucids from the land around 129 BCE. For the first time in more than 450 years, they were self-ruled by their own king. These rulers were known as the Hasmoneans. Along with this self-rule came devotion to God and increased fervor to follow Torah. In fact, the Jews of this period surpassed any of their forefathers in strict adherence to the commandments of God. It was during this period that we see the rise of groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees that figure so prominently in the New Testament.

In light of this growing piety (and probably a sense of revenge), the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus set his sights on Samaria. In 113 BCE, he invaded and destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim. For the Samaritans, this was the last straw.

As I mentioned in my previous posts, in an honor-shame culture memory is long. Very long. For the Jews, the Samaritans had betrayed them to a foreign power and forsaken “true” worship of God. For the Samaritans, the Jews had not only excluded them from temple worship in Jerusalem but had then destroyed their own temple on Mt. Gerizim. The river of bad blood between these two groups was wide and deep. The level of hatred and animosity between these groups was huge.

By the time of Jesus, things had not improved. When traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jews would take a longer route rather than risk traveling through Samaritan areas. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus sent out his twelve Disciples to preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God. He expressly forbade them from entering Gentile or Samaritan areas. It’s no wonder that the Apostle John would later write that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9). I think he was putting it mildly.

OK, so I’ve spent 3 blog posts showing how bad things were between Jews and Samaritans. Why does any of this matter? It’s important to understand the significance of what happened when Jesus did go to Samaria and encountered a woman at the local well. In order to understand their conversation, we needed to have this background. It’s also important to understand the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.”

We’ll look at Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman in the next post.

One thought

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

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