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The Samaritans: A Profile
The Samaritans: A Profile
Reinhard Pummer
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016
376 pp., 32.99

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Robert Gundry

"And He Led Them to Samaria"

Who were—and are—the Samaritans?

In August of 1975, after meeting at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, members of the Society of New Testament Studies made an excursion to a country house in the Scottish Highlands. As a guide droned on and on about the history and features of the relatively insignificant house, the famous and normally genial Roman Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown was heard to complain, "I'm learning more about this house than I ever wanted to know." In the course of reading The Samaritans, it would be easy to complain similarly, "I'm learning more about these Samaritans, relatively insignificant as they are, than I ever wanted to know." I confess to saying so myself. The innumerable historical, archaeological, political, social, and religious details delineated concerning Samaritans from time immemorial—those details bored me at first. But gradually my boredom turned into admiration of the deep and wide scholarship of the author, Reinhard Pummer. Ultimately, my admiration graduated into fascination with his subject matter. A hard sell for him, but successful. He's to be thanked and congratulated.

Pummer has pursued a study of the Samaritans for the better part of half a century and ranks as probably the world's most knowledgeable student of them. His study has included face-to-face interaction with current Samaritans, participation in their religious rites, examination of their own literature and of literature about them from antiquity till now, and on-site investigation of archaeological remains.

The subtitle of Pummer's book, "A Profile," hints that a recent explosion of information concerning the Samaritans, both past and present, forestalls an exhaustive presentation. But there is enough, even more than enough, for you literate readers of Books & Culture. You will already know Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan and the story of Jesus' encounter and conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. Avid Bible-readers among you will likely know also about the Samaritans' supposed origin in northern Israel after its inhabitants' deportation into Assyrian exile; about the failed opposition by "the army of Samaria" to Nehemiah's rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem following the Judeans' Babylonian exile; about the Samaritan leper who alone out of a group of ten lepers thanked Jesus for healing; about Jesus' being falsely derided as "a Samaritan" by some of his opponents; about a Samaritan village that failed to show him and his disciples hospitality; and about Philip's evangelizing "the city of Samaria." Visitors to the Holy Land will likely be aware of a few (about 800) Samaritans who still live there and sacrifice Passover lambs annually on Mount Gerizim.

So what more than the foregoing can be gained from Pummer's book about the Samaritans? For a start, arguments have developed over their ethnic and religious origins. According to the Samaritans' own account, a high priest named Uzzi, who had descended from Moses' elder brother Aaron through Eleazar and then Phinehas, was officiating at a sanctuary on Mount Gerizim in north central Palestine. Eli, another priest who had descended from Aaron (but through Ithamar) and become a kind of godfather to the prophet Samuel, tried to arrogate to himself the high priesthood. Failing in the attempt, he settled for his own, illegitimate high priesthood at a sanctuary in Shiloh, a little south of Mount Gerizim. Later, the sanctuary at Shiloh shifted farther south to Jerusalem in Judea, whereas Mount Gerizim remained, and still remains, the focal point of Samaritan religion. Thus the worshipers at Mount Gerizim, i.e. the Samaritans, have always constituted the true and legitimate people of Israel, especially as concentrated in the tribe of Levi and the tribes of Joseph, viz., Ephraim and Manasseh, from which the Samaritans claim to have descended.

According to a traditional Jewish and sometime Christian view, the Samaritans came about much later than the time of Eli and Uzzi, as follows: After taking the northern Israelites captive into exile, the Assyrians replaced them with imported pagan captives who then converted to the worship of Yahweh and thus became the Samaritans but remained ethnically Gentile. Alternatively, these pagans intermarried with some northern Israelites left behind by the Assyrians and then, as in the foregoing version of this view, converted to the worship of Yahweh. Their half-breed offspring became the Samaritans.

Yet another view starts with the assumption that the Pentateuch is a fundamentally Judean and therefore Jewish document. Nevertheless, Samaritans accept the Pentateuch as Holy Scripture. Their version of it differs in some respects from the Jewish version, though, especially as regards the proper location of worship, Mount Gerizim instead of Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Given the above-stated assumption of the Pentateuch as Judean and therefore Jewish, such differences suggest that the Samaritans, being non-Judeans, revised the Pentateuch to justify their differences from Judaism. They were, in other words, a northern, sectarian offshoot from southern Judaism. This view turns upside down the Samaritan belief that Judaism branched off from an original Yahwism represented faithfully by Samaritanism.

Along with some other scholars, Pummer strongly supports a still different view. It is that the Samaritans descended from northern Israelites who worshipped Yahweh and did not go into Assyrian exile or intermarry with pagans imported by the Assyrians. The Pentateuch (even the Jewish version) contains the Israelites' northern traditions as well as the Judeans' southern traditions. At first, the Israelites exceeded the Judeans in population and prosperity. Only later, in the intertestamental period, did the Judeans gain political, military, and religious dominance over the north. Thus it almost looks as though the Jews who returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Exile, not the people we now know as Samaritans, might better be considered sectarian offshoots (though much later than in the Samaritans' account) from an original Yahwism preserved without interruption in the north.

Prior to the successive Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, King Solomon built a temple for Yahweh in Jerusalem. The Babylonians destroyed the temple, but Judean returnees from exile rebuilt it. Not long afterward the Samaritans—or Samarians, as Pummer prefers to call them at this point in history—built a temple on Mount Gerizim. Though recognizing the rivalry and contentiousness between Samaritans/Samarians and Jews/Judeans that we read about in the Old Testament, Pummer tends to play down that rivalry and contentiousness by treating their outbreaks as episodic rather than continuous, and by treating the two sides' religious beliefs and practices as largely the same. Even though worshiping Yahweh at their own temple on Mount Gerizim, for example, the inhabitants of Samaria were not yet separate from Yahweh-worshipers in Judea. Pummer has to admit, however, that the destruction of the Samaritans' temple in 111/110 B.C. by John Hyrcanus, a Jewish Hasmonean ruler, brought relations to a new and lasting low. Pummer therefore dates the start of Samaritanism as a religion separate from Judaism to the 2nd century BC, but highlights continuing contacts and enduring similarities between the two religions.

As to the Samaritans in the New Testament, Matthew's Jesus prohibits the Twelve from entering any town of the Samaritans. By making this prohibition reflect the lack of a systematic mission to "the Samaritans as a group" (following John P. Meier, emphasis original), Pummer skirts the possibility of Jesuanic antagonism against them as individuals. (Does he think this prohibition stems from Matthew more than from Jesus?)

Christian preachers often make the sermonic point that despite the supposed detour around Samaria which Galilean Jewish pilgrims regularly made because of the Samaritans' hostility to Jews, John's Jesus "had to go through Samaria" to fulfill his Father's will that he convert the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well and her fellow townspeople. Pummer points out, however, that according to the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus, it was the "custom" of Galilean pilgrims to pass through Samaria. Pummer does not discuss the possibility that mention of the woman's five ex-husbands alludes to the Samaritans' accepting as Holy Scripture only the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch) or to the five locations (Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim) from which the king of Assyria imported pagans into the cities of Samaria.

The fellow townspeople of the woman at Jacob's well gave hospitality to Jesus and the Twelve for two days. Despite citing the refusal of a Samaritan village to give like hospitality, as already noted, Luke-Acts also tells of a parabolic good Samaritan, of a distinctively thankful healed Samaritan leper, and of a Samaritan city that converted to the Christian gospel. So Luke gives the Samaritans a mixed but usually favorable review, as you might expect both from Jesus' inclusion of "Samaria" in Luke's version of the Great Commission (Acts 1:8) and from Luke's overall theme of the gospel's unstoppable progress throughout the world among all classes of people.

So far as early Jewish references to the Samaritans are concerned, Pummer continues to downplay as much as possible—even in the writings of Josephus—the antagonism that has traditionally and popularly been thought to characterize the relations between Samaritans and Jews. Exceptionally, though, Pummer's brief treatment of rabbinic literature does not display this tendency.

Archaeological excavations give evidence of a Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. So too do various literary sources, including the Samaritans' own chronicles. Yet current Samaritans deny that at any time did a legitimate temple of Yahweh stand on that mountain. Why this surprising denial? Could it be to avoid admitting that the Jews' temple antedated a temple of the Samaritans' own? For the older would have been better. Pummer doesn't venture an opinion.

It may also surprise that, like Jews, the Samaritans had, and continue to have, synagogues. In olden times, Samaritan synagogues were to be found not only at various locations in Samaria but also elsewhere in Palestine and, perhaps most surprisingly, throughout the Mediterranean world—as in Damascus, Delos, Tarsus, Thessalonica, Carthage, Rome, Sicily—from as early as the 2nd century BC and on into Christian centuries. Today the Samaritans have synagogues only on Mount Gerizim, in nearby Nablus, and in Holon, near Tel Aviv.

The wide geographical distribution of Samaritan synagogues tells you immediately that, again like the Jews, the Samaritans had a sizable diaspora. If you expected this diaspora to be accompanied by a division of Samaritanism into different sects, you would be correct. We don't know very much about their various peculiarities. But the members of one of them are said to have prayed standing in water, avoided taking their hands out of their sleeves on the Sabbath, and buried their dead with staff in hand and shoes on feet so as to enable speedy resurrection.

Peaceful relations with non-Samaritans did not always accompany the Samaritans. Under Emperor Justinian I (AD 527-565), to cite but one instance, Samaritans attacked Christians and Jews during an uprising in Scythopolis and burned their estates and churches. But the Samaritans suffered mistreatment in turn. Threats of mistreatment also led many Samaritans to convert to Christianity and, during the Muslim period, to Islam. The Crusader period brought them an interim of some relief. Their total number began to fall precipitously, however, ultimately reaching a low of about 150 between 1806 and 1931. At the same time, not a few Samaritans attained positions of considerable authority even in the Ottoman government. Yet a decree issued in the middle of the Ottoman period (in 1772, to be exact) prohibited Samaritans from wearing garments made of superior materials such as silk or even fine cotton; from riding on horses (rather, only on asses, and then only for urgent business out of town); and from building their houses high or near a Muslim's house (among other prohibitions).

Exacerbating the problem of declining population was the disproportion between males and females among the Samaritans. Males outnumbered females by almost two to one. Consequently, according to a Samaritan high priest, nearly all the girls were promised in marriage before they could speak and were married off at the age of eleven or twelve. By now the disproportion has been erased almost entirely. Also, Samaritan men are presently marrying non-Samaritan women willing to adopt the Samaritan religion. Given the Samaritan practice of patrilineality, the future of Samaritanism therefore looks more promising than it did when observers were predicting its total demise.

As Pummer warns, however, the allurements of contemporary popular culture constitute a threat. Since unlike Jews the Samaritans classify sexual intercourse as "work" and therefore prohibit it on Sabbath days, for example, you wonder whether Samaritans who have grown up in our heavily sexualized culture will maintain fidelity to their religion. Or take the case of twin boys whom the Samaritan Pentateuch required to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth but who needed longer incubation to stay alive. Upon consultation with one another the high priest and his counselors declared the boys' incubator to be an extension of the mother's womb, so that circumcision could be delayed till the eighth day after extraction from the artificial womb. You wonder whether such pilpulism will lead to young Samaritans' disenchantment. But maybe they will revise certain elements of their religion instead of forsaking it altogether.

Do you now know more about the Samaritans than you ever wanted to? I hope not, because there's much more of genetic, demographic, economic, linguistic, artistic, and musical interest both in Pummer's book and in the rich bibliography that he has amassed.

Robert Gundry is scholar-in-residence and professor emeritus at Westmont College. He is the author most recently of Peter—False Disciple and Apostate according to Saint Matthew (Eerdmans).

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