The Samaritans 


It seems the only contact our modern world has had with the Samaritans is in the New Testament. The Good Samaritan Parable and Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman are well-known, but seem to offer little information in the way of understanding this ancient religion.


Many people do not know that the Samaritan religion is alive and well, with a steadily growing population. So, who are the Samaritans? Why is it significant that Jesus used a Samaritan in his parable? And, most importantly, why are they crucial to the study of this coin?


The Samaritan religion is an offshoot of Judaism that has kept its traditions intact for more than 2,000 years. Their four principles of faith are: One God, the God of Israel; One Prophet, Moses ben Amram; The Belief in the Torah; and One Holy Place - Mount Gerizim. The Samaritans believe the same as Jews concerning final judgment, rewards, punishments, circumcision, Sabbath, dietary laws, and the ceremonial and judicial laws.   However, they study only their version of the Torah and solely observe the religious feasts laid down in the Torah.   They reject the Talmud, do not wear yamulkahs or celebrate Hannukah, have a different calendar, and observe the Shabbat fiercely.

A Samaritan high priest with an ancient Samaritan Pentateuch Scroll.

Origins and Early History of the Samaritans

The true origin of the Samaritan people is to this day unclear. As expected, the Jewish and Samaritan traditions are vastly different in their accounts of the creation of the Samaritan people.
The Jewish side of the story is written within the Torah.
2 Kings gives perhaps the most understood notion that Jews have on the Samaritans. The Samaritans, however, have a much different story. They maintain that they are, in fact, the remnants of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. Modern day Samaritans claim to be descendents of the ancient tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh and of the levitical priests who have lived in Shechem since the Israelite conquest of Canaan. (32) When the kingdom of Israel was invaded, Samaritans concede that foreigners were brought into the area. However, they claim that not all of the inhabitants were initially relocated. Those who stayed behind, it is believed, make up the Samaritans.


Samaritans praying at Mount Gerizim


Tensions Between Jews, Samaritans, and Romans

As noted previously, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact date in which Jews and Samaritans began disagreeing. What can be said for certain, though, is that it was initially limited to ideological differences. The Jews based their views from 2 Kings, and regarded the Samaritans as pagans who, though they may have embraced monotheism, perverted Judaism. At this point in time, however, there were no distinct clashes between the two sects.

The initial breaking point came in 539 B.C.E., when Jews were allowed to return to Judah after Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonian Empire. The priests of Jerusalem rose to prominence during this time, since the line of King David had been lost during the Exile. The priests declared that the temple in Jerusalem was the only sanctuary of Yahweh. The Samaritans approached this idea with reluctance, having remembered the multiple blessings of Mt. Gerizim within the Torah (Deuteronomy 12 and 27, Joshua 8). This ultimately led to the departure of multiple priests from Jerusalem in the 4th Century BCE. These priests settled in Samaria, where they received the blessings of Alexander the Great to build a temple on Mt. Gerizim. This flagrant challenge to the temple in Jerusalem was the initiation of intense ideological disputes between the two factions.

Relations between the Samaritans and Jews deteriorated over the next three centuries, but the conflict reached a boiling point between 175 and 168 BCE. Antiochus IV Epiphanes ordered the Jews to rededicate their temples, including the temple in Jerusalem, to the Zeus, king of the Greek gods. The Jews responded with the Maccabean Revolt, thus liberating themselves from Greek rule. The Samaritans, however, were much more open to Hellenistic culture and decided not to rebel against Antiochus’ wishes. What had been strictly ideological differences now became a political conflict, as Jews now knew who the Samaritans would side with in possible future clashes. John Hyrcanus, the ruler of Judah from 134 to 104 BCE, expanded the southern state and captured Samaria in 128 or 107 BCE. With the anti-Samaritan Biblical and post-Biblical writings in mind, along with recent memories of the embrace of Greek culture, Hyrcanus immediately destroyed the temple on Mt. Gerizim.

The Romans in their quest for Empire annexed the country in 63 BCE, and they quickly found that the Jewish people were not fond of anything other than self-rule. Romans considered Jews to be stubborn; not only did they want religious autonomy, but they also wanted full rights of citizenship. Many disturbances broke out in various cities, and the Romans started to use the religious division between the Jews and Samaritans for their own purposes. The First Jewish Revolt occurred in 66 A.D. and resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the expulsion of the Jews from their holy city. Some sixty years later, still filled with hope for the freedom of their people, Jewish guerillas under Simon Bar Kosiba initiated what would be known as the Second Jewish Revolt or the Bar Kochba Rebellion. Rome once again would quash the hopes of the Jewish people and punish them for their insurrection. The Romans exploited the already present tensions between Samaritans and Jews; there were two military units, recruited in the city of Samaria and probably manned with Samaritans, which were used to occupy Jewish towns like Jerusalem.

A scene from the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting the sack of the Temple of Solomon

During the time of Jesus, tensions remained high. This is why the New Testament’s mentions of Samaritans are so significant. The possibility that a Samaritan would help a Jew, and that Jesus would speak to a Samaritan woman, was a message to embrace kindness and selflessness, no matter how bitter of an enemy one may be.

There are many examples in Jewish writings, specifically the Torah and the Jewish Pseudepigrapha, that detail the anti-Samaritan feelings during this time. Ezra 4 and Nehemiah 4 also create an antagonistic feeling towards the Samaritans, particularly when referring to the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Jubilee 30, Judith 9, and Testament of Levi 5 detail the rape and subsequent triumph of Simeon and Levi over the men of Shechem. Each describe the glory of destroying the men who committed this atrocity, who are of course attributed to the Samaritans. Josephus derogatorily calls Samaritans “Cutheans.” This suggested that Samaritans were foreigners, as it refers to Cuthah, one of the places that the king of Assyria supposedly drew people from to resettle Samaria. Jesus himself was even referred to as a Samaritan by his enemies.

The Samaritans were persecuted along with the Jews by the Romans, especially emperors Vespasian and Hadrian, who equated the two groups as insurgents. Under the Byzantine Empire, the Samaritans’ lot did not improve; a revolt against the Emperor Justinian saw 20,000 Samaritan casualties. The successive years saw further degradation of their rights, and many were forced to convert to Christianity or perished during the Crusades and the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, the Samaritan numbers had dwindled to fewer than 200. A slight reversal of fortune came after the move for Israeli independence in 1949, when they were granted citizenship and rights of worship under President Yitzhak Ben Zvi. (32)


The Samaritans are quite possibly the smallest ethnic minority in the world, numbering 600 in their community.   They continue to make the annual pilgrimage up Mt. Gerizim, in the same fashion that their ancestors 2,000 years ago did.





For academic sources (17, 18, 32-46) and image credits (The Samaritans) see Acknowledgments.