The Legendary Samaritan Temple
Josephus Flavius, a prolific historical writer in the first century C.E., tells of a majestic temple built by Samaritans, who considered Mount Gerizim their sacred place of worship. Josephus claims that the building was sanctioned by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C.E, and its plan was based on the Second Temple of Jerusalem. According to Josephus, a Jewish high priest named Manasseh defied cultural traditions and married a Samaritan woman; his peers gave him the ultimatum of choosing to leave his wife or Jerusalem, and upon choosing her, he was banished. To make his transition easier, his father-in-law Sanballat built an exact replica of the Jewish temple on Mount Gerizim where Manasseh could be a high priest. Later, the Jewish Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus or Yohanan Hyrcanos I would destroy the temple and the whole city around 120 B.C. by burning, as the resentment and tension over the two different ways of life exploded into warfare. (7, 13)
There is no way to verify this legend. Many consider Josephus to be an unreliable source at best, his descriptions clouded by his inherent prejudice towards the Samaritans as a people, and his dates muddled. To add to the historical ambiguity surrounding the Samaritan temple, Samaritan literature does not mention the building of a specific temple, merely a "sanctuary," which as Robert Anderson pointed out in 1991, does not necessitate a temple surrounding it. Anderson goes further in suggesting that a temple never existed, pointing out that a massive building project needs political power and money, neither of which the Samaritans possessed (2).
However, speculation has stubbornly persisted throughout the years. Almost all sources consulted definitively referred to "the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim destroyed by John Hyrcanus" and the impact its destruction had on those who worshipped there. Certainly, the Samaritans held Mount Gerizim dear and performed sacred acts of worship on its peak. But could there actually have been a temple-- and if so, has its visual representation slipped by us virtually unnoticed? Go here to find out.
Recently, the lacking archaeological evidence that Anderson bemoaned has emerged, evidence that may in fact point to the existence of temple built by the Samaritans. See Archaeology for more specific information about this exciting development.
Finding the remains of such a temple is particularly relevant to those who seek information about the Second Temple of the Jews, if Josephus' account is correct. The Second Temple, built in Jerusalem by King Solomon, was a restoration of the earlier temple erected by King David and destroyed by the Babylonians. The construction of this illustrious center of worship of the Jewish people is well documented in the Bible; this temple lacked the powerful Ark of the Covenant, which had vanished, either hidden or stolen along the trials of the Jews. Solomon dedicated the temple in 953 BC amid much fanfare, but this temple would not last through the destruction wrought by Titus and the Romans during the Great Jewish War, when Jerusalem was obliterated and the Jewish people dispersed. (4) Finding the remains of another contemporaneous temple that closely followed the dimensions of the original temple could be tangible link to a fragmented past for many Jewish as well as Samaritan peoples.
A conceptualization of the second Jewish temple.
For academic sources (2, 4, 7, 13) and image credits (The Samaritan Temple) see Acknowledgments