In the New Testament of the Bible, the Samaritans are regularly spoken of. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke. The story of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the water source from John is well known.
The Samaritans and the Jews from the time of Jesus did not get along well. The history of the Samaritans goes back to the repopulation of the Israeli Northern Empire, after the Exile.
The evangelist, Luke, in particular, mentions the Samaritans frequently, both in his gospel and in Acts. Jesus speaks positively about the Samaritans.
In the Bible and especially in the New Testament, different groups of people come across, for example, the Pharisees and Sadducees, but also the Samaritans. Who are those Samaritans? Various answers are possible to this question. The three most common they; the Samaritans as residents of a certain area, as an ethnic group, and as a religious group (Meier, 2000).
Samaritans as residents of a certain area
One can define the Samaritans geographically. The Samaritans are then the people who live in a certain area, namely Samaria. In the time of Jesus, that was the area north of Judea and south of Galilee. It was located on the west side of the Jordan River.
The capital of that area was formerly called Samaria. King Herod the Great rebuilt this city in the first century BC. In 30 AD, the city was given the name ‘Sebaste’ in order to honor the Roman emperor Augustus. The name Sebaste is the Greek form of the Latin August.
Samaritans as an ethnic group
One can also see the Samaritans as an ethnic group of people. The Samaritans then descend from the inhabitants of the northern kingdom of Israel. In the year 722 BC, part of the population of that area was deported by the Assyrians in Exile. Other settlers were sent to the area around Samaria by the Assyrians. The remaining Israelites of northern Israel mixed with these newcomers. The Samaritans then emerged from this.
Around the time of Jesus, the area around Samaria is inhabited by different ethnic groups. Jews, descendants of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and descendants of the Greek conquerors from the time of Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC) also live in the area.
Samaritans as a religious group
The Samaritans can also be defined in terms of religion. Samaritans are then the people who worship God, Yahweh (YHWH). The Samaritans differ in their religion from the Jews who also worship Yahweh. For the Samaritans, Mount Gerizim is the place to honor and sacrifice God. For the Jews, that is the temple mount in Jerusalem, Mount Zion.
The Samaritans assume that they follow the true line of the Levitical priesthood. For the Samaritans and the Jews, the first five Bible books attributed to Moses are authoritative. The Jews also acknowledge the prophets and the scriptures as authoritative. The latter two are rejected by the Samaritans. In the New Testament, the writer often refers to the Samaritans as a religious group.
Samaritans in the Bible
The city of Samaria is found in both the Old and the New Testament. In the New Testament, the Samaritans are spoken of in the sense of religious unity. In the Old Testament, there are only a few indications of the origin of the Samaritans.
Samaritans in the Old Testament
According to traditional Samaritan theology, the separation between the Samaritan and Jewish religion took place when Eli, the priest moved the shrine to sacrifice from Mount Gerizim to near Shechem, to Silo. Eli was a high priest in the time of the Judges (1 Samuel 1: 9-4: 18).
The Samaritans claim that Eli then established a place of worship and priesthood that God did not want. The Samaritans assume that they do serve God in the true place, namely Mount Gerizim, and hold the true priesthood (Meier, 2000).
In 2 Kings 14, it is described from verse 24 that Samaria is being repopulated by people who do not originally belong to the Jewish population. This is about people from Babel, Kuta, Awwa, Hamat, and Sepharvaim. After the population was plagued by wild lion attacks, the Assyrian government sent an Israelite priest to Samaria to restore worship to God.
However, that one priest has restored the worship in Samaria is considered impossible by Droeve (1973). The ritual and purity requirements of the Jewish religion actually make it impossible for one man to perform it correctly.
The king of Assyria sent people from Babylon, Kuta, Awwa, Hamat, and Sepharvaim to the cities of Samaria, where he assigned them a place of residence instead of the Israelites. These people took possession of Samaria and went to live there. The first time they lived there, they did not worship the LORD. That is why the LORD released lions on them, who tore some of them apart.
It was said to the king of Assyria: “The nations that you have brought to Samaria to live in the cities there are not aware of the rules set by the God of that land. Now he has released lions on them because the people do not know the rules of the God of that land, and they have already killed some of them.
“Then the king of Assyria commanded:” Send back one of the priests who have carried you away to the country where he comes from. He must go and live there and teach the people the rules of the God of that land.” So one of the priests who had been deported returned to Samaria and settled in Bethel, where he taught the people how to worship the LORD.
Yet all those nations continued to make their own statues of gods, which they put in their new home in the temples that the Samaritans had built on the sacrificial heights. (2 Kings 14: 24-29)
Samaritans in the New Testament
Of the four evangelists, Marcus does not write about Samaritans at all. In the Gospel of Matthew, the Samaritans are mentioned once in the broadcast of the twelve disciples.
These twelve sent Jesus, and he gave them the following instructions: Do not take the road to the Gentiles and do not visit a Samaritan city. Rather look for the lost sheep of the people of Israel. (Matthew 10: 5-6)
This statement of Jesus fits in with the image Matthew gives of Jesus. For His resurrection and glorification, Jesus focuses only on the Jewish people. Only then do the other nations come into the picture, such as the mission order from Matthew 26:19.
In the gospel of John, Jesus talks to a Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 4-42). In this conversation, the religious background of this Samaritan woman is highlighted. She points out to Jesus that Samaritans worship God on Mount Gerizim. Jesus openly reveals himself to her as the Messiah. The result of this encounter is that this woman and also many residents of her city come to believe in Jesus.
The relationship between Samaritans and Jews was poor. “Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (John 4: 9). Samaritans were considered unclean. Even the saliva of a Samaritan is unclean according to a Jewish comment on the Mishnah: “A Samaritan is like a man who has intercourse with a menstruating woman” (compare Leviticus 20:18) (Bouwman, 1985).
Samaritans in the gospel of Luke and in Acts
In the writings of Luke, the gospel and the Acts, Samaritans are most common. For example, the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) and of the ten lepers, of which only the Samaritan returns gratefully to Jesus (Luke 17: 11-19). In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the descending series was originally to be a priest-Levite layman.
The fact that in the gospel Jesus speaks about priest-Levite-Samaritan and that it is precisely the Samaritan who does good, pleads for him and therefore also for the population of the Samaritans.
In Acts 8: 1-25, Luke describes the mission among the Samaritans. Philip is the apostle who brings the good news of the gospel of Jesus to the Samaritans. Later Peter and John also go to Samaria. They prayed for the Samaritan Christians, and they then also received the Holy Spirit.
According to Bible scholars (Bouwman, Meier), the Samaritans are described so positively in the gospel of Luke and in Acts, because there was a conflict in the early Christian congregation for which Luke writes. Because of Jesus’ positive statements about the Samaritans, Luke would try to stimulate mutual acceptance between Jewish and Samaritan Christians.
That Jesus speaks positively about Samaritans is evident from the allegation he receives from the Jews. They thought that Jesus himself would be a Samaritan. They cried to Jesus, “Do we sometimes wrongly say that you are a Samaritan and that you are possessed?” “I am not possessed,” said Jesus. He is silent about the possibility that he would be a Samaritan. (John 8: 48-49).
Sources and references
- Doeve, JW (1973). Palestinian Judaism between 500 BC and 70 AD. From exile to Agrippa. Utrecht.
- Meier, JP (2000). The historical Jesus and the historical Samaritans: What can be said? Biblica 81, 202-232.
- Bouwman, G. (1985). The way of the word. The word of the road. The creation of the young church. Baarn: Ten Have.
- New Bible Translation