The Samaritans: A Yesterday People Today

It was almost noon when I arrived in Nablus (the ancient biblical town of Shechem), nestled between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, the mountains of cursings and blessings.(See Deut. 11:29.) Nablus is today the center of Samaritan worship, and I had been invited to attend their synagogue.

Impatiently I drove through the winding streets, parked the car, and hurried up the narrow stairs. The high priest motioned me in to the small worship room.

He then took his place at the head of the small congregation; they formed themselves in orderly rows and bowed to their high priest. I felt somewhat out of place as the only woman there.

The congregation knelt on the straw-matted floor, bowing again, and the high priest began to chant scripture from the large silver-encased scrolls of the Torah, the congregation chanting in turn. The high priest had told me they are the oldest scrolls of the Torah in existence, dated to approximately 1100 A.D. by modern scholars. The five books of Moses contained in those scrolls are the entire scriptural basis of the Samaritan belief.

How little the world has studied about this people, the Samaritans! I had found few references, and existing accounts of their origin were sketchy. Both Flavius Josephus in the Antiquities of the Jews (11:7, 2; c:8) and references in the Bible referred to them as descendants of the Cuthaeans, the people of Cuthah in Babylonia. They were sent into Samaria by Assyrian conquerors when Israel fell to the Assyrians in 721 B.C. (See 2 Kgs. 17:24.) Moving conquered people from one area of a kingdom to another was a practice to prevent insurrection.

The Samaritans, on the other hand, claimed to be Israelites. Some scholars agree, as it is doubtful that the Assyrians would have removed the entire Israelite populace from the country. They would probably have removed only the most able Israelites, since the educated and the rich would be most likely to start an uprising. The Cuthaeans, who were also forced to flee to Samaria, intermarried with the remaining Israelites and eventually took on their religion to please “the God of the land.”

The high priest, however, insisted the Samaritan priests had been of the pure line of Aaron until 1623, when the last descendant died. Since that time, he said, high priests have been of the lineage of Aaron’s uncle, Uzziel (referred to in Ex. 6:17).

If these people were indeed Israelites and had practiced their religion, why the stigma attached to them? But I knew that the Israelites were a covenant people who frowned upon intermarriage with gentile races, which would include the Cuthaean-Israelite blood. This breaking of the law, coupled with the fact that the Samaritans were, in part, a remnant of some of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom, which had earlier separated themselves from the kingdom of Judah, could explain the dislike most Jews displayed for the Samaritans.

The Samaritans weren’t actually known as such until Cyrus of Persia ordered the Jews to return to Israel from exile (about 458 B.C.) and build a temple in Jerusalem.

The Samaritans offered to help build the second temple, but were rebuffed by the Jews as unfit to do so. (See Ezra 4:1–3.) The people of Samaria were thus forced into a group by themselves.

The schism between the two factions was completed when the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerizim (332 B.C.), proclaiming it as God’s holy place. This was considered an act of blasphemy by the Jews.

The building of the temple on Mount Gerizim was probably the result of at least two forces. First, the Jews’ dislike of the Samaritans made it difficult for the Samaritans to worship in Jerusalem. Second, Samaria had been made a separate governorship in 445 B.C. under Bagoas, and this undoubtedly made it difficult for them to travel outside the area to worship. Thus, with the consent of Alexander the Great, they built their own temple for local worship. The idea of a synagogue for general worship hadn’t as yet been introduced among the Samaritans.

Hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans was intensified when John Hyrcanus destroyed the Samaritan temple during a move to expand the Jewish Hasmonean state in 128 B.C. But the Samaritans joined the Jews in a revolt against Rome in 68 A.D.; they stayed with the Jews until they suffered heavy losses; they then turned to support the Romans. Their last active role in history was their part in a revolt against Justinian in 529 A.D., which failed.

The Samaritans suffered their own schism during the latter half of the second century B.C. when Dositheus started an anti-priestly movement, denying the sanctity of Mount Gerizim and attempting to eliminate sacrifice.

The movement had its greatest supporter in the great high priest Baba Rabba of the fourth century A.D. He expanded the Dosithean principles, writing a liturgy for laymen and building a synagogue on Mount Gerizim to replace the destroyed temple. It was not until the 14th century that the schism ended; it finally ended simply because the antagonistic groups had been so greatly reduced in number. The movement left its mark, however; worship was considered legitimate elsewhere than in the synagogue on Mount Gerizim, and prayer replaced most sacrificial rites. The Samaritans continued to observe the sacrifice of lambs at Passover.

The service ended, and the men broke up into groups, talking together. Even though the Samaritans are now free to worship as they choose under Israel’s government, they still carry the outward signs of their former oppressions.

They wore the red fez of the Turkish Moslem, and the ceremony was strikingly Arabic Moslem: the orderly rows, the bowing, and the kneeling on the floor. (Jewish ceremonies were often more disorderly, each worshiper chanting his own rhythm, while sitting on benches positioned around a pulpit.) The Samaritan service was also held on Sunday rather than on Saturday, the Jewish Shabbat—perhaps a mark of Christian inroads.

There was also no evidence of the Jewish practice of wearing the prayer shawls and phylacteries. (See Num. 15:37–39, Deut. 6:6–8.) “These are symbolisms not to be taken literally,” the high priest told me. “But no matter what the outward signs, the central significance of the Torah hasn’t changed throughout the centuries.”

I left the synagogue and drove up Mount Gerizim. It was windy on top, and the sign on the fence opposite me, clanking against its bonds, read “Rock of Isaac’s Sacrifice.” This was another chasm that separated the Samaritans from the Jews. The Jews claimed Isaac had been taken up to be offered by Abraham on Mount Zion (Moriah) in Jerusalem, former site of the Jewish temple, where the Dome of the Rock now stands. (See Gen. 22:2.)

Though the Bible states that Moriah is the mountain where the sacrifice of Isaac was to take place, substantiating the Jewish claim, the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation) does not support it, merely identifying the place as “the high country.” (The Syriac translation reads “the land of the Amorites.”) Thus, the exact location is inconclusive, allowing both Jew and Samaritan to feel he is right.

I walked to the grassy edge of Mount Gerizim. There are now basically only five clans left, some 400 Samaritans whose greatest problem today is propagating themselves.

As I looked out over Nablus, the wind had died down. Below lay the remnant of this people, and in the stillness around me the time might have been 400 B.C.

[photos] Photography by Laurel G. Cole

[photo] Nablus, center of Samaritan worship, as seen from Mount Gerizim.

[photo] Worshippers kneel on the floor and bow during Samaritan service.

[photo] Samaritan high priest chants scripture from ancient, silver-encased Torah.

[photo] Samaritan men worship in synagogue, sitting in orderly rows.

Laurel G. Cole works as assistant communications specialist, Division of Continuing Education, Brigham Young University. She lives in Orchard Fifth Ward, Bountiful Utah Orchard Stake.