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June 18, 2005


Figures 5

The precise origins of Samaritanism remain a topic of scholarly debate. The biblical account in II Kings suggests that the Samaritan cult began after the Assyrian deportation of Israel’s leading citizens in 722. The foreigners whom Assyria introduced to the land, together with Israelites who had been left behind, combined elements of Israelite worship with practices from other local religions (including lion-worship; cf. II Kings 24-34). The Samaritans themselves claim uninterrupted continuity of worship on Bethel and Gerizim from the patriarchal period. It is unlikely that either account reflects the exact circumstances of the group’s origin, and strong ideological currents influence many observers’ assessment of the evidence.

Samaritans adhere to the Torah (albeit in a slightly different version), and to this day continue to observe the required sacrifices at their temple on Mt. Gerizim. They reject the biblical traditions that identify God’s chosen mountain as Zion, and identify their break with the dominant strands of Judaism as their resistance to Eli’s decision to start a rival temple at Shiloh (whence come the stories of Samuel, who anointed Saul and David as kings — so that the entire story-cycle from the time of Eli recounts the miscarriage of God’s purposes).

For the purposes of studying Christian origins, one need not adjudicate questions of whether Samaritans constitute an “authentic” variety of Judaism or a heretical offshoot. The vital point is that Samaritans considered themselves as the authentic heirs of the Torah and the traditions, as opposed to the deviant form that centered on Jerusalem. At the same time, the Judeans whose worship centered on the Jerusalem Temple considered Samaritans to be deviant, and themselves to be the authentic children of Israel.

This kind of conflict recurs frequently as religious traditions grow and develop; while we may need to make discernments about truth and error in such cases, only rarely can one make disinterested judgments about who can make the soundest claim to “authenticity.” Are Samaritans Jews? Well, no, not in the received sense — but the basis for the received sense is itself what a Samaritan interlocutor would want to question.

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External Links:

Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-06), “Samaritans

Wikipedia, “Samaritan

Livius, Samaritans

Young People’s Bible Dictionary and Harper’s Bible Dictionary, “Samaritans

Posted by AKMA at June 18, 2005 08:09 PM