Who Were the Samaritans?

Scripture Readings: 2 Kings 17:24-34, Luke 9:51-56

When most Christians hear the word "Samaritans," they probably recall the well-known parable in Luke 10:25-37 of the Good Samaritan, who helps an injured Jew. Some of us may also remember that John 4 relates the story of Jesus teaching a Samaritan woman. What we don't appreciate is that both of these gospel stories are scandalous, because Samaritans were accused of being idolaters by Jews and later by Christians as well.

So, who were the Samaritans? The area of Palestine known as Samaria is South of Galilee and North of Judea. This region was part of the northern kingdom of Israel, after the united kingdom involving the twelve Israelite tribes (built by David and maintained by Solomon) split in the mid-tenth century BCE into "Israel" and Judah (today roughly the area known as Judea).

The original capital of the northern tribes of Israel was Shechem, which in the gospel of John is where Jesus talks with a Samaritan woman (at Jacob's well near the town of Sychar). In 876 King Omri built the city of Samaria about 7 miles west of Shechem as a new capital for Israel. Omri's son Ahab married a princess of Tyre named Jezebel, and Israel's trade with the nearby Phoenician city led to a mingling of religious traditions that was denounced by the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 16:29-34. The reign of Jeroboam II in Samaria (784-748) was condemned by the prophets Hosea and Amos for its moral and spiritual decadence.

When the Assyrians conquered all the northern tribes in 722, the leaders of Samaria were deported and other Assyrian captives were resettled in the city. This mixing of peoples in Samaria led to greater mingling of religious traditions. In 538 the Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed the leaders of Judah, who had been taken into exile by the Babylonian Empire in 587, to return to Jerusalem. Samaritans offered to help these returning Judeans rebuild the temple destroyed by the Babylonians and proposed that the two peoples worship there together. When the Judeans refused their offer, the Samaritans tried to prevent the rebuilding of the temple. After the Judeans fought them off and constructed their temple in Jerusalem, the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerezim.

When Alexander the Great conquered the area in 322 BCE, he stationed some of his soldiers in Samaria. About a century later the Judeans revolted against the Greek ruler, because he had desecrated their temple in Jerusalem. The Judeans succeeded in renewing what is now described as a Jewish state, and then they destroyed the Samaritan temple and the city of Shechem. But "Jewish independence" was short-lived.

In 64 BCE Pompey imposed "Roman peace" on the region and freed the Samaritans from the oppressive rule of the Judeans. Then in 30 BCE Caesar Augustus granted Samaria to Herod, a half-Jew, who built up the city and renamed it Sebaste (Greek for Augustus). Herod sponsored Greek cultural activities in Sebaste and stationed some of his foreign mercenaries there. In the time of Jesus, King Herod ruled (under the Romans) over Samaria, as well as over Judah (now called Judea) and Galilee.

When Jesus travels from Galilee in the North of the Roman province of Palestine to Jerusalem in the South, he has to go through or around Samaria. Matthew 10:5 reports that Jesus told his disciples not to enter Samaritan towns, but to minister only among Jews. Luke 9:51-56 relates that Jesus wanted to enter a Samaritan town, but was excluded. In the gospel of John, however, Jesus not only accepts water at Jacob's well from a Samaritan woman, but he and his disciples stay for two days near the ruins of Shechem with the Samaritan residents of the town of Sychar. (Jn. 4:40) Acts of the Apostles, written by the author of the gospel of Luke (who told the parable of the Good Samaritan), records that the apostle Philip's mission to Samaria was successful, and that the apostles Peter and John also made converts among the Samaritans. 

We hear nothing more in the New Testament about Samaritans, but the first centuries of the Christian era reveal they continued to find favor with Rome. About three years after the crucifixion of Jesus, the Samaritans succeeded in having Pontius Pilate removed as Prefect of Palestine, because Roman soldiers under Pilate's command had massacred a gathering of Samaritans on Mount Gerezim.

In 72 a colony called Flavia Neapolis was built not far from the ruins of Shechem to house veterans of the Roman military campaign that crushed the Jewish revolt (66-70), and the present Palestinian city of Nablus takes its name from this Roman colony. In 200 the nearby Samaritan city of Sebaste was given the status and privileges of a Roman colony, and early in the second century a Roman theater seating 6,000 and a temple to Jupiter (Zeus) were erected in Flavia Neapolis.

Good relations with the Romans enabled the Samaritans to build synagogues in many cities of the Roman Empire, but the conversion of Constantine to Christianity had dire consequences for Samaritans as well as for Jews. In 436 laws were promulgated that prohibited the construction of Samaritan or Jewish synagogues. Samaritans in Flavia Neapolis revolted against Roman rule in 484, but the Byzantine Emperor Zeno quickly put down the uprising, removed Mount Gerezim from Samaritan control, and built a church there. An imperial law in 527 ordering the destruction of all Samaritan synagogues led to another Samaritan revolt in 529, and the Samaritans destroyed many churches and monasteries in Palestine before the uprising was brutally put down.

Under Muslim rule from 638 to 1099 most of the people of Samaria were forcibly converted to Islam, although a few continued to keep the religious traditions of their Samaritan ancestors. Whether Muslim or Samaritan, they suffered once more when the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land and slaughtered all those who refused to convert to Christianity. For more than seven hundred years (1187 to 1917) the surviving people of Samaria were again under Muslim rule. After World War I the British governed Palestine until the war of 1947-48 left the area of Samaria under Jordanian control. In the Six Day War of 1967 the Israelis seized Samaria, and the area is now part of the "West Bank” (meaning the west bank of the Jordan River).

Today, the descendants of those who endured centuries of foreign rule over Samaria are Palestinians. Nablus (beneath Mount Gerezim at what was Shechem) and Sebastiya (Arabic for Sebaste, the Greek name given the city of Samaria by King Herod) are largely Muslim cities. Where Samaritans and their descendants resisted and endured foreign rule by Persians, Greeks, Judeans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Islamic Caliphs and Sultans, now Palestinians resist Israeli occupation.

In the biblical era, Samaritans were crushed first by rulers imposing a Jewish orthodoxy and later by rulers demanding a Christian orthodoxy. However, during the time of pagan Roman rule, Samaritans thrived. So, today we might read the parable of the Good Samaritan not merely as a story about being a good neighbor. It might also remind us that religious pluralism, which the Samaritans enjoyed only among the pagan Romans, nurtures tolerance.

 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016