Bible Background: The Samaritans

This people group descended from the Israelites.  They believed in the one true God.  They studied the books of Moses.  They faithfully adhered to the spirit of God’s law.  So, why were they reviled by their Jewish brothers? 

Throughout the gospels, we read about different people groups that played a significant role in the land of Palestine during the first century.  These people influenced the culture in which Christ ministered, and He tailored His messages in order to both reach and respond to these groups.  Learning more about these people can add greater detail and deeper understanding to our study of the gospels.  What follows is a thumbnail sketch of one of these groups–the Samaritans.

Identity

  • The Samaritans were an Israelite sect that lived in the territory of Samaria between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south.
  • Their central sanctuary was located at Mt. Gerizim near the town of Shechem.
  • They believed in one God, in Moses the prophet, and in the Pentateuch as the Word of God.
  • They believed that Mt. Gerizim was the site of worship originally intended by God (Deuteronomy 27) and that the temple and shrines in Jerusalem were a perversion of the Lord’s instructions.
  • Jesus taught that the Samaritans were often more conscientious in adhering to the spirit of the Law than were the Jews (Luke 10:25-37).

Historical Development

  • The Samaritans believed themselves to be direct descendants of a faithful segment of the nation of Israel, which developed alongside the northern kingdom.  They dated their beginnings as early as the eleventh century B.C. when Israel’s center of worship was moved from Mt.Gerizim to Shiloh in defiance of God’s command (Deuteronomy 27).
  • Jewish tradition links the origin of the Samaritans to the account of 2 Kings 17:24-41, which claims that the Samaritan people developed as a result of intermarriage between the Israelites and the Assyrian colonists who entered the land following the fall of the northern kingdom.  This interpretation of the passage is unlikely.  The word often translated as “Samaritans” in 2 Kings 17:29 simply means “inhabitants of Samaria.”  No definitive evidence exists to link the later Samaritans to the inhabitants of Samaria at the time of the Assyrian conquest.
  • It is more likely that the Samaritans developed following the exile from devout descendants of the original inhabitants of the northern kingdom who remained in the land following the Assyrian conquest.
  • When the Babylonians captured Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar added the city to the province of Samaria.
  • At the time of the return, the Samaritan governor Sanballat recognized that Nehemiah was creating a separate political entity that would be distinct from Samaria.  In response, the Samaritans vigorously opposed the rebuilding of the Jerusalem walls (Nehemiah 4:7-8).
  • A complete split between the Jews and the Samaritans occurred when the grandson of Eliashib, the high priest, married the daughter of Sanballat.  This marriage violated the statute prohibiting mixed marriages.  Because Eliashib refused to dissolve the marriage, he was expelled from the temple service in Jerusalem.  He settled in Samaria where Sanballat constructed a temple for him on Mt.Gerizim.  There the Samaritans conducted worship until 128 B.C. when John Hyrcanus destroyed the temple.
  • In addition to the rift caused by Samaritan worship at Gerizim, the schism between the Jews and Samaritans grew during the intertestamental period because the Samaritans established political alliances with the Ptolemies and Seleucids, increasingly embraced the influence of Hellenism, and refused to join the resistance against the Seleucian ruler Anticochus Epiphanes.

Reaction to Christ

  • Reaction to Christ among the Samaritans was mixed.
  • After Christ’s conversation with a Samaritan woman, she and her fellow villagers believed in Him (John 4:1-43).
  • The Samaritans would not receive Jesus because He was traveling toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:52-53).
  • A Samaritan man was the only one of ten lepers healed by Jesus who returned to thank Him (Luke 17:16).
  • The Samaritans were receptive to Philip’s message concerning Christ (Acts 8:1-25).

Resources for Further Study

  1. Green, J., McKnight, S., and Marshall, I.H. (eds.) Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downsers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1992)
  2. Tenney, Merrill C.  New Testament Times (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1965)
  3. Tenney, Merrill C.  The Zondervan Pictoral Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1975)
Trey GarnerTrey Garner
Trey Garner is the Pastor of Children's Ministries at Faith Church. He has been married to his wife Deb since 2001. They have two children named Noah and Lauren. Originally from Texas, Trey appreciates barnwood, armadillos, and Blue Bell Ice Cream.
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