Monday, May 24, 2010


I might have been 15 or 16 when I discovered that the Samaritans, mostly known through the famous Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan, still existed in the Middle East. Ever since then I have been intrigued and fascinated by this community, once quite extensive in Palestine and the Roman world (there were ancient Samaritan communities as far afield as Sicily). Ed Conrad remembers me in my early undergrad days asking questions about the Samaritans. For me I guess what was important was that the Samaritans had consistently received a bad press in the biblical narratives, hence the punch of the Good Samaritan story, but if they were still around I was intrigued to find out what their side of the story was. Why was it so infrequently referred to in the studies of Ancient Israel and ancient biblical religion? So when doing my PhD, I was determined to get my hands on whatever Samaritan texts in translation I could find. I couldn't find a lot, the Memar Marqah, the Asatir, the Samaritan version of Joshua and the subsequent history of Ancient Israel. I also read a number of studies of Samaritan religion.

For those who don't know, the Samaritans reject the legitimacy of the Temple at Jerusalem, reject the very legitimacy of Jerusalem itself as a sacred site. Instead they believe that Mt Gerizim near modern day Nablus on the West Bank is the true site intended for the worship of the God of Israel, being the ancient Mt Moriah where Abraham took Isaac for sacrifice. If Jerusalem is illegitimate so too is the priesthood that was based there. The Samaritans maintain a line of priests and high priests claiming a direct descent from Aaron, the first High Priest according to the books of Moses. The Samaritans also venerate as scripture only these books of Moses, the Pentateuch, the Torah. They have their own version of Joshua which introduces a Chronicle of the history of Israel and the Samaritans but these aren't counted as scripture. The Samaritans reject as false all the additional books of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testaments. I found the Samaritan Chronicle a fascinating read. Not only are the kings and priests of Judah and Jerusalem treated negatively (with the exception curiously of David, who while not counted as among the Samaritans is treated fairly positively notwithstanding) but also the kings and priests of the northern kingdom based at Samaria. In the Samaritan account, the Temple at Mt Gerizim was as much challenged by the Samarian kings as by the Judahite establishment. The Samaritans name for themselves means something like the Faithful or the Pure.

So I was interested to read this article by Benjamin Balint on the modern Samaritans via a link at Dr Platypus. The article describes the celebration of Passover by Samaritans this year at Mt Gerizim. Unlike Jews, for whom Passover is a household feast, Samaritans observe Passover as a pilgrimage feast i.e. it's a Temple feast and hence must be observed at the sacred site of the Temple, Mt Gerizim. The article touches on the rescue mission launched last century by a Jewish group and subsequently supported by the second President of Israel whereby Samaritan men married Jewish women who had effectively converted to Samaritanism. The Samaritan community numbered then only 140 people and was in danger of dying out. Now, while split into two communities based in Nablus and near Tel Aviv in Israel, they number some 730. I also found out from the article that Yasser Arafat appointed a Samaritan to the Palestinian Legislative Council. Nablus Samaritans aim to keep good relations with their Arab neighbours. In actual fact, I remember this fascinating story from 2007 on the now lamentably defunct ABC Radio National Religion Report program about Samaritans in Nablus. It would appear that Samaritan priests have a reputation as being effective fortune tellers and dealing with magic and consequently are in great demand from both Muslim and Christian Palestinians and some Jews as well.

While I recommend Balint's article at the same time I have some problems with aspects of it. He glosses over a key fact of Samaritan history crucial to the antipathy between Samaritans and Jews at the base of both the Good Samaritan story and also John's account of Jesus meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well. Balint says:

When the Jews made Jerusalem, some 40 miles to the south, the exclusive center of worship—a chosen city for a chosen people—the Samaritans regarded the Jewish cult as illegitimate. This initiated the ancient “temple race” between the Samaritans and the Jerusalem-centric Jews whose beliefs and history shaped modern Jewry. By permission of Alexander the Great, the Samaritans built a temple of their own, measuring 400 by 560 feet, atop Gerizim. In use for some 200 years, the temple was destroyed before the first century BCE, never to be rebuilt.

He then recounts ancient tales of Samaritan-Jewish antipathy:

The 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus reports on Samaritans who intruded into the temple in Jerusalem one Passover eve and scattered human bones to render the place unclean. The Samaritan Chronicle boasts of another episode in which Samaritans substituted rats in a cage of doves being carried to Jerusalem as temple offerings.

The antipathy ran both ways. Among Jews threatened by a rival to Jerusalem’s claim of exclusivity, a deep anti-Samaritanism prevailed. This culminated in a rabbinic ruling by Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi that, despite their scrupulousness in the observance of biblical law, the Samaritans were to be considered as Gentiles in every respect.

In Balint's acccount these attempted acts of Samaritan desecration seem odd; he gives a clear sense of them being unprovoked or due to some irrational rivalry. But he omits a key fact about the destruction of the Samaritan Temple. It was destroyed in 128/29 BCE by John Hyrcanus who was both the High Priest of Jerusalem and ruler/de facto king of the independent Maccabean Jewish state that had extended its rule over much of Palestine. Hyrcanus's son and eventual successor, Alexander Jannaeus, made it official and declared himself king as well as high priest thus restoring the old priestly kingship that hadn't been seen in Palestine since the Iron Age. In light of the facts of the destruction of the Gerizim Temple, the Samaritan attempts at desecration of Jerusalem's Temple don't seem so irrational.

Balint also cites scripture to give a picture of a long antipathy between Samaritans and Jews:

The Bible recounts that when Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem and its temple, the Samaritans tried to prevent them; Sanballat, then leader of the Samaritans, mocked “these feeble Jews” (Neh. 4:2).

I have to confess that I'm sceptical of such stories. Jews and Samaritans share the same religious origins i.e. they both share the Torah as scripture and both follow the Mosaic Law, albeit in different ways. Both were also in origin Temple religions with a shared framework of ritual and symbolism. It is a curious fact that Mt Gerizim is referred to a number of times in the Torah but never Mt Zion. The fact is we don't know who wrote the Torah or where it was written (or even when). It's generally assumed that Jerusalem was the location but can we be sure of that. Perhaps the work began at Mt Gerizim or was even a much more collaborative work across the various shrines and scribes and priests of Yahweh. Certainly the Torah represents the rewriting, the reconstruction of the older Palestinian cults of Yahweh, a process I think most likely took place in the Persian period, a process I think was an indigenous response to Persian (religious) hegemony.

We know very little of the religious world of Persian Palestine (or of Greek Palestine in the Ptolemaic and Seleucid periods either, for that matter). As Balint observes, Ezra-Nehemiah paints a picture of rivalry and antipathy between Samaria and Jerusalem. A similar sense of antipathy emerges in the Twelve Minor Prophets and there is also the fiction that all the Israelites of the north had been deported by the Assyrians to be replaced by foreigners and 'half breeds' thus making northern religiosity suspect. But we know from Assyrian archives that the north was not depopulated en masse. A substantial minority, but a minority nonetheless, were deported and replaced by foreigners but the majority remained behind. The 'ten tribes' were never lost but always remained in the land. Obviously, Ezra-Nehemiah and the Twelve Minor Prophets are written in Jerusalem or at least with a Jerusalem perspective and quite likely much later after a breach between Gerizim and Jerusalem.

When did that breach occur? We don't know but I'm inclined to think it was very late. What I find most telling is that in the 4th century BCE, the Jewish military colony at Elephantine in the south of Egypt wrote to both Samaria and Jerusalem asking permission to rebuild their own Temple. So for this ancient Jewish community both Samaria and Jerusalem had equal and authoritative status. We know that both Samaria and Jerusalem gave approval to the rebuilding of the Temple at Elephantine and gave instructions about how the cult was to be conducted there. Presumably then for these Jews in southern Egypt there was no breach. It must have come later.

The Samaritan Chronicles were written quite late, definitely after the breach, probably after the destruction of the Gerizim Temple. They read almost as a response to Kings, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles and the Twelve. I mentioned above that they give a fairly positive portrait of David. The name David means beloved and in the biblical accounts everyone loves David (he, however, is much more limited, and faithless, in his affections) and it seems the Samaritans also fell under his spell. The Samaritans also regarded the northern kingdom as apostate but in their account both Judah and Israel apostatise and only the Samaritan community, centred around the Temple at Gerizim, stays faithful. Furthermore, while both apostate north and south suffer deportation by Assyria and Babylon respectively, God protects the Samaritans and keeps them in the land.

I don't regard the Samaritan Chronicle as history, any more than I regard Samuel, Kings, let alone Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah as history. But I think all of them contain elements of history in their stories. I hope to write some more about that at a later stage.

But right now I want to say how thankful I am that the Samaritans survive and I hope that they will continue and maybe even grow. Because they follow a much more literal application of the Mosaic laws they can never be be a large community. Oddly enough I think that such Samaritan literalism may well have been an innovation because I don't believe those laws were meant to be followed en masse. They are portraits of utopia and had their strongest application in Temple practice, whether it be in Jerusalem or Gerizim (or Leontopolis or Elephantine for that matter). But to be followed by everyone and in every way, I don't think so. But that's something for another post. But I am not someone who believes in one religion for all (or no religion either). I like the mosaic of religious plurality and don't want to see religions die out, particularly small and vulnerable religions like the Samaritans, the Karaites, the Mandaeans, the Donmeh, the Parsis/Zoroastrians, not to mention the many indigenous religions. Like languages, religions express something about what it means to be human. The death of a religion, like the death of a language is an irreparable loss. Religious diversity must be fostered, encouraged, sustained and celebrated; respected.

All religions are inter-related and Christianity needs to recognise and acknowledge its Samaritan roots, to acknowledge and honour the Samaritan woman at the well, the Good Samaritan and all those early Samaritan converts mentioned in the book of Acts. To that end I think the Samaritan Torah should sit beside both the Masoretic and Septuagint versions in Christian Old Testaments. Furthermore, I think the Samaritan Chronicle should be included in Christian Bibles, perhaps as an appendix to the Old Testament, to show that there was another account of that history by another community who saw themselves, and still do, as the faithful holding on tenaciously to the religion of ancient Israel, to the God of Moses and Abraham, when all others had forsaken it.

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