Who were the Samaritans?

Mt. Gerizim
The view from Mt Gerizim. Photo courtesy of BiblePlaces.com

Who were the Samaritans?

I will return to some personal posts shortly. However, this question came via email this morning, and I thought it to be worthy of sharing. This is actually a topic that I cover more extensively in chapter three of my book.

The story of the Samaritans does not begin in John 4 with Jesus’s encounter with the women at the well. Instead, it begins in Ezra 4, when the “people of the land” offered to aid the returning Babylonian captives in rebuilding “a temple to the Lord.” Their justification for such an entitlement, “We worship your God as you do and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esarhaddon of Assyria who brought us here” (Ezra 4:1–2). The Babylonian returnees countered with, “You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us” (Ezra 4:3). No doubt, this response was brought on by the effort to reinstitute endogamy (i.e., the recent expulsion of foreign women and children, Neh 13:23) and a separatist opposition to those perceived to be impure.

Many Bible scholars have contended that the “people of the land,” were indeed proto-Samaritans, or a mingled population of those now intermarried Israelites (i.e., the Northern Ten Tribes of Israel), who were conquered by the Assyrians. For example, H. G. M. Williamson argued that the phrase “people of the land” is most likely a reference to the Samaritans, which was employed by a redactor during the early Hellenistic Period, “at a time when relations between the two groups [i.e., Samaritans and Jews] were strained.”[1] Oded Lipschitz posits that the “‘adversaries of Judah and Benjamin’ and ‘the people of the land’ . . . consisted of Israelites who remained in the land and the survivors of the colonies settled under the Assyrians.”[2] Most noteworthy is the fact that Josephus used the Biblical account of 2 Kgs 17:25–26—a reference to the conquering of the Northern Ten Tribes by Assyria—for support that the later Samaritans descended from those who were subjected to the Assyrian deportation and repopulation program. One particular group that was repopulated into Samaria by the Assyrians—according to the narrative in 2 Kgs 17:25–26—was the people from Cuthah. According to Josephus, “Cutheans” was another name for “Samaritans.”[3]

Regardless, it is impossible to be 100% certain as to the genetic possibilities of the Samaritans. Some have been content with describing the Samaritans as a kind of half-breed.[4] Others have attempted to determine with some exactitude how much of the Northern Ten Tribes of Israel’s specific cultural practices were retained.[5] However, it matters little in the end.

In Jesus’s day, the Samaritans were viewed as both genetically and religiously impure. In John’s Jesus, and the Samaritan Woman pericope, this is also very clear. However, what is more unambiguous is that for the Johannine writer, Israel’s Messiah had also come to gather these Samaritans—who were viewed as impure by the Jews—into the covenant community of God. That is, the messianic age of Israel’s restoration and reconciliation was upon all regardless of their ethnicity. Thus, even the Johannine writer was not concerned with historical exactitude, but with soon-expected reconciliation for all those outside the covenant promises and community of God.

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FOOTNOTES

[1] H. G. M. Williamson, Ezra-Nehemiah (WBC 16; Dallas: Word, 1985), 40–41.

[2] Oded Lipschitz, Judah and the Judeans in the Persian Period (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2006), 255.

[3] Ant. 9.288–91.

[4] Andreas Köstenberger says: “Samaritans occupied a middle position between Jews and Gentiles, considering themselves Jews but being viewed by Jews as Gentiles.” See, Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 87.

[5] See, Jacob L. Wright, David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 144.

 

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