Many people know about Samaritans from the New Testament parable of the “Good Samaritan,” which Jesus told in Luke 10:25-37. According to that parable, Samaritans and Jews in the 1st Century A.D. hated each other. In case you’re wondering if Samaritans still exist, I can assure you that they do, because I had the privilege of meeting one in 2010 at the Samaritan Museum on Mount Gerizim, which is just north of Jerusalem. He happened to be the brother of the Samaritan high priest, and is usually the person who speaks to visitors at the Museum.
There are currently only about 800 Samaritans left in the world, with half of them living on Mount Gerizim, and the other half living in Holon, near Tel Aviv. Over the centuries, a large portion of their population became Christian, and later, Muslim. In fact, it is believed that the people living right below Mount Gerizim in the town of Nablus (Shechem), who now identify as both Palestinian Arab and Muslim, were once Samaritans. Today, the Samaritans living in Holon are required to join the Israeli Army, however, since Mount Gerizim’s Samaritans are duo-Israeli/Palestinian citizens, they are not required to join. Mount Gerizim is located in the West Bank, which is a contested area of Israel, because it used to belong to Jordan until Israel took it during the Six Day War in 1967. West Bank means that the area is on the “west bank” of the Jordan River.
While at the Samaritan Museum, the brother of the Samaritan high priest provided a lot of information about the Samaritans and what makes them unique. First of all, the Samaritans originated as a people starting in about the 8th century B.C., when the Assyrian Empire was at its height. Several Assyrian kings, especially Sargon II, would swap the captured inhabitants of one area with the captured inhabitants of another area, in order to make it more difficult for their newly-conquered subjects to rebel against them. For example, when the Assyrian Empire conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was also known as Samaria (the name of its capital), they deported a large number of its inhabitants to the northern regions of their Empire, never to be seen again. This is where the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel” originates. The Assyrians, then, took other conquered peoples and brought them into Northern Israel/Samaria. The Israelites living there eventually mixed with these other peoples, and this fusion became the Samaritan people.
While on Mount Gerizim, I learned that Samaritans believe that they are descended from the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Levi. The first two listed are among the ten tribes deported by the Assyrians. Jews believe that they are descended from the tribes of Judah (where the word “Jew” comes from), Benjamin, and Levi. These tribes lived in the Southern Kingdom of Israel, so were never deported by the Assyrians. Most of the tribes of Ancient Israel had their own allotment of land, however, the tribe of Levi became the priests, so they were scattered throughout all of Israel and never allotted their own land. That means that both the Jewish and Samaritan claim of having Levite lineage is possible. Researchers have actually administered DNA testing on Jews claiming priestly lineage (people with the last name of Cohen qualify, since that is the Hebrew word for “priest”), and concluded that a Jew claiming priestly descent from Europe and another from Northern Africa actually have a unique chromosome (Y-Chromosomal Aaron) not found in any other population group in the world. When the test extended to Samaritans claiming priestly descent, the chromosome was not exactly the same, but extremely close.
What makes the Samaritan religion different from Judaism is that, wherever a Jewish Bible reads “Jerusalem,” a Samaritan Bible says “Mount Gerizim.” Mount Gerizim is referenced in the Jewish Bible, but does not have the importance that the Samaritans give to it. At the end of Deuteronomy, it says that after the people of Israel left Egypt, they eventually went with Moses to the top of Mount Ebal, where they read the curses that God would place upon them if they disobeyed him. Then, they went to nearby Mount Gerizim, and read the blessings that God would place on them if they obeyed. Perhaps this, and the fact that Mount Gerizim was located in Samaria while Jerusalem was not, attributed to why it is now revered by the Samaritans. The New Testament potentially references the importance of Mount Gerizim to the Samaritans as well. In John 4, a Samaritan woman told Jesus that her ancestors had been worshipping on “this mountain” (the mountain was not specified, but was probably Mt. Gerizim). Not far from the Museum is the remains of a Samaritan Temple, but a Jewish king destroyed it in the 1st Century B.C. A Byzantine church was later built over it, so most of the visible remains come from that latter period.
There are a few other interesting comparisons between the Samaritans and the Jews. For example, on Mount Gerizim, I saw an outdoor, circular area, where the Samaritans still sacrifice a lamb on Passover each year. Visitors are actually welcome to watch. Jews no longer literally sacrifice a lamb on Passover, but they do put a lamb bone on their Passover table to remember the ancient practice. Similarly, like the Jews, the Samaritans follow Deuteronomy 6:9’s injunction of placing God’s commandments on their doorposts. However, whereas Jews follow it by placing a tiny scroll (mezuzah) containing Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 inside a little box adhered to their doorposts, Samaritans carve out a Bible verse of their choosing above their doorways.
Thankfully, Samaritans and Jews do not hate each other as they once did. They are now accepted as Israeli citizens, even if they live in the West Bank. Additionally, another interesting development in the Samaritan community has to do with marriage. Samaritans are only permitted to marry within their community, however, since their numbers are dwindling, there is now a new rule. If a Jewish woman is willing to convert to the Samaritan version of Judaism, then a Samaritan man can marry her. It does not apply to Jewish men though.
Sources and Further Reading
Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Nablus.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/place/Nablus (accessed December 2, 2019).
Feldman, Rachel. “Diving Deep into Mezuzah Customs and Lore.” Judaica WebStore. September 22, 2019. https://blog.judaicawebstore.com/judaicapedia-what-is-a-mezuzah/ (accessed December 2, 2019).
Ireton, Sean. “The Samaritans: Strategies for Survival of an Ethno-Religious Minority in the Twenty First Century.” Anthrobase. 2003. http://www.anthrobase.com/Txt/I/Ireton_S_01.htm (accessed December 3, 2019).
“Mount Gerizim.” Bible Walks. February 23, 2018. https://biblewalks.com/sites/MountGerizim.html (accessed December 2, 2019).
“Samaritan Museum.” Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/samaritanmuseumhargrizim/ (accessed December 4, 2019).
Shen, Peidong, Tal Lavi, Toomas Kivisild, Vivian Chou, Deniz Sengun, Dov Gefel, Issac Shpirer, et al. “Reconstruction of Patrilineages and Matrilineages of Samaritans and Other Israeli Populations from Y-Chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Variation.” Human Mutation 24, no. 3 (September 2004): 248–60. https://doi.org/10.1002/humu.20077.