Understanding Samaritan Israelites

In Jewish Culture and History by Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

First, the Samaritan Israelites defined their own existence in exclusively Israelite terms. The Samaritans called themselves – “the sons of Israel” and “the keepers” (shomrim). Jewish sources refer to the Samaritans as “kutim.”

The term is most likely related to a location in Iraq from which the non-Israelite exiles were imported into Samaria. (2 Kings 17:24) The name Kutim or Kutites was used in contrast to the term “shomrim” which means the “keepers” – the terms that they reserved for themselves. Jewish Israelite writings emphasized the foreign identity of Samaritan religion and practice in contrast to the true faith of Israel. The Samaritan Israelites believed that such identification denied their historical right of belonging to the people of Israel. The Samaritan Israelites were the faithful remnant of the Northern tribes – the keepers of the ancient faith.

Second, Samaritan Israelites had always opposed the worship of Israel’s God in Jerusalem, believing instead that the center of Israel’s worship was associated with Mt. Gerizim– the mount of YHWH’s covenantal blessing (Deut. 27:12). On the other hand, Jewish/Judean Israelites believed Mt. Zion in Jerusalem was the epicenter of spiritual activity in Israel. One of the reasons for the rejection of the prophetic Jewish writings by the Samaritan Israelites was that the Hebrew prophets supported Jerusalem and the Davidic dynasty.

Third, the Samaritans had a fourfold creed:

  1. One God–YHWH,
  2. One Prophet–Moses,
  3. One Book–Torah,
  4. One Place–Mt. Gerizim.

Most Jewish Israelites of Jesus’ day agreed with the Samaritan Israelites on two of these points: “one God” and “one Book.” They disagreed on the identity of the place of worship and on other books that should also have been accepted by the people of Israel – the Prophets and the Writings.

Fourth, the Samaritans believed the Judean Israelites had taken the wrong path in their religious practice of the ancient Israelite faith, which they branded as heretical, as the Jews did of the Samaritan’s faith expression. The relationship between these two ancient groups can be compared to the sharp disagreements between Shia and Sunni Muslims today. To those outside, both groups are Muslim, but not to the Shia and the Sunni. To them – one is true and the other is false; one is real and the other is an imposter. The Samaritan-Jewish conflict was in this sense very similar. In many ways, this conflict defined the inner-Israelite polemic of the first century.

Fifth, as was mentioned before, the Samaritans are not to be confused with a syncretistic people group that also lived in Samaria (gentile Samarians), who were most probably the people who approached returnees to Jerusalem to help them build the Jerusalem Temple and were rejected by them. (Ezra 4:1-2) Due to their theology, the Samaritan Israelites, the remnant of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, could not support Temple building in Jerusalem. In 2 Chronicles 30:1-31:6 we are told that not all the people from the northern kingdom of Israel were exiled by the Assyrians. Most of them remained even after the Assyrian conquest of the land in the 8th century BCE, preserving ancient Israelite traditions that would differ from later innovations of the Judean version of Israel’s faith.

Sixth, the Samaritan Israelites used what is now called “Samaritan Hebrew” in a script that is the direct descendent of  Paleo-Hebrew (ancient Hebrew), while the Jewish Israelites adopted a new form of square, stylized letters that were part of the Aramaic alphabet. Moreover, by the time of Jesus, the Samaritan Israelites were also heavily Hellenized in Samaria proper and in the diaspora. Just as the Jewish Israelites had the Septuagint, the Samaritan Israelites had their own translation of the Torah into Greek, called Samaritikon.

And lastly, the Samaritan Israelites believed that their version of the Torah was the original version and the Jewish Torah was the edited version, which had been changed by Babylonian Jews. Conversely, the Judeans charged that the Samaritan Torah represented an edition edited to reflect the views of the Samaritans. As you can see, this was not an easy relationship

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