Racially, the Samaritans are difficult to identify. In 721 b.c. Sargon of Assyria destroyed Samaria. He recorded the fact on the walls of the royal palace at Dur-Sarraku (Khorsabad), as well as his subsequent policy of depopulation, deportation, and reestablishment: “In my first year of reign...the people of Samaria...to the number of 27,290 I carried away....The city I rebuilt—I made it greater than it was before. People of the lands which I had conquered I settled therein. My tartan I place over them as governor.” It seems clear that the policy of deportation applied particularly to Samaria as a city and not as a region. Jer.41.5, for example, seems to imply that a remnant of true Israelites remained in Shechem, Shiloh, and Samaria a century later; so a substratum, or admixture of the Hebrew stock in the later total population must be assumed. The newcomers from the north may be presumed to have intermarried with the Israelite remnant, and ultimately the population took the general name of Samaritans.

The completeness of the devastation left by the Assyrian invasion is evident from the infestation by wild beasts of which the immigrants complained (2Kgs.17.1-2Kgs.17.41). Superstitiously, the intruders concluded that “the god of the land” was angry at their presence and their ignorance of his propitiatory rites. They sent to the Assyrian monarch and asked him to select a priest from among the deportees to instruct them in the necessary ritual of worship. The king (Esarhaddon) acceded to the request, and some instruction in the faith of the true God penetrated the stricken district. A mixed religion resulted. “They worshiped the Lord,” we read, “but they also served their own gods” (2Kgs.17.33). Josiah’s reforms crossed the border at Bethel and seem to have extended into the northern districts. There was little, indeed, to prevent their infiltration. Religious revival was not the sort of military penetration that invited Assyrian attention (2Kgs.23.15; 2Chr.34.6-2Chr.34.7). The measure of purification, which may be presumed to have taken place in the Samaritan religion about this time, did not, however, reconcile the Samaritan and the Jew racially.

Founded as it was before the rise of the great prophetic tradition, the religion of the Samaritans was based on the Pentateuch alone. Their position was held with some firmness, and Josephus mentions a disputation before Ptolemy Philometor on the question that the Samaritan woman poses in John.4.20, the answer to which resulted in the death, according to the rules of the debate, of the defeated Samaritan advocates. Christ’s firm answer (John.4.21-John.4.23) stressed the incompleteness of the Samaritan tradition, its inadequate revelation, and the common transience of the cherished beliefs of both Samaritan and Jew. The greatness of Christ is shown in the passage, for at no time had the bitterness between Samaritan and Jew been greater. At one Passover during the governorship of Coponius (a.d. 6-9), when, according to annual custom, the gates of the temple were opened at midnight, some Samaritans had intruded and polluted the Holy Place by scattering human bones in the porches. Samaritans were thereafter excluded from the services (Josephus, Antiq. 18.2.2). They were cursed in the temple. Their food was considered unclean, even as swine’s flesh. The whole situation narrated in John.4.1-John.4.54 is therefore remarkable, the buying of food in Sychar, the conversation at Jacob's Well|Jacob’s Well, and the subsequent evangelization of the area. (See also Acts.8.5-Acts.8.25.) It is a magnificent illustration of the emancipation that Christianity was to bring to those grown immobile in the bondage of Judaistic prejudice.——EMB

The name “Samaria” came to be used for that central section of Palestine coinciding approximately with the tribal portions of Ephraim and Western Manasseh. Its inhabitants, an amalgam of those Israelites not deported by the Assyrians and the various foreign elements introduced by them (2 Kings 17:24; Ezra 4:2,10), were known as Samaritans. At first their religion was syncretistic, but by the time of Zerubbabel the heathen elements seem to have been eliminated. Disappointed in their hope of sharing in the Jerusalem temple and worship, except on Judean terms, they built a temple on Mt. Gerizim in the fifth or fourth century b.c., served by a Zadokite priest from Jerusalem, whose descendants still function among them. This temple was destroyed about 107 b.c. by John Hyrcanus, rebuilt in a.d. 135, and finally destroyed in 484 for political rather than Christian motives. The Passover lambs are still sacrificed annually on Mt. Gerizim.

The chief features separating them from Rabbinic Jews is that they accept only the Pentateuch as canonical, their interpretation of it being stricter than that of the Talmud, and they consider Mt. Gerizim to be the site chosen by God for the Temple. Though Rabbinic tradition calls them “Cutheans,” it also recognizes their right to share in the worship of Israel, if they abandon their special principles. They remained a prosperous, closely knit community until they began to decline owing to Muslim persecution. By 1955 they numbered about 250 in Nablus and seventy near Tel Aviv, but since then they have shown signs of increase.

J.A. Montgomery, The Samaritans (1907); M. Gaster, The Samaritans (1923); J.W. Lightley, Jewish Sects and Parties in the Time of Jesus (1925), pp. 179-265; M. Simon, Jewish Religious Conflicts (1950), pp. 17-25.

SAMARITANS sə măr’ ə tənz. The term normally applies to an Israelite sect that lived in the territory of Samaria and had their central sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim.


Samaritans were Israelites who lived in the northern kingdom, but there is only one mention of them in the OT (2 Kings 17:29). The word “Samaritan” as used in the NT referred to an Israelite sect whose central sanctuary was on Mount Gerizim during intertestament times. These Samaritans are best known through the mention of them in the gospel narratives.

It is impossible to write an accurate history of the Samaritans because their records are so scanty; the references to them are also highly contradictory. Their history began after the Assyrian capture of the city of Samaria in 721 b.c., and the deportation of 27,290 of Israel’s population (these figures are taken from Sargon’s record of the conquest). Their present-day traditions (which are not authenticated by documents from Biblical times) go back to Adam. Their major historic break with the Israelite tradition came at the time of this Assyrian conquest of Pal.

Samaritans believed that Joshua built a sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim, which was the center for all early Israelite worship. They dated the religious break with the Jews to the time of Eli, whom they accused of erecting a rival sanctuary at Shiloh. For a brief time there were two sanctuaries and two priesthoods. The Philistines soon destroyed the Shiloh sanctuary, and Saul persecuted the Joseph tribes, depriving them of their sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim. Their tradition says that for a time they fled to Bashan. The Samaritans recorded little about the decline of the city of Samaria except to imply that this was a political, rather than a religious loss. Shechem, not Samaria, had always been and would continue to be their holy city. They modified the story of the lion plague (2 Kings 17:24-33) by adding that the Assyrian king also permitted them to reinstitute their worship on Mt. Gerizim.

Their history as recorded by Jewish sources describes Samaritans as descendants of the colonists whom the Assyrians planted in the northern kingdom, who intermarried with the Israelite population that the Assyrians had left in the land. More likely they were the pure descendants of the Israelites left in the land, for Samaritan theology shows no sign of the influence of paganism among the colonists sent by the Assyrians. If there was intermarriage, the children became true Israelites.

Furthermore, shortly after the Assyrian conquest of Samaria, men from Manasseh, Zebulun, and Asher went to King Hezekiah’s great Passover in Jerusalem (2 Chron 30:10, 11). The city of Samaria was located in the tribe of Manasseh. As late as the time of Josiah, Manasseh and Ephraim contributed to the repairs on the Jerusalem Temple (34:9). These two tribes became the core of the later Samaritan population. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel treated the northern tribes as an integral part of covenant Israel. Ezekiel insisted on blending them with Judah as a common restored covenant people.

When Zerubbabel was building a new temple, the descendants of the foreigners brought in by Esar-haddon asked to take part, claiming that they were true Yahweh worshipers (Ezra 4:2), but they were refused. Later, foreigners from many places (4:9, 10) joined in a petition to Artaxerxes against Jerusalem, but Darius gave the Jews permission to continue to rebuild the Temple. Nothing was said regarding the Samaritans for they were not involved in this episode. The objection was raised by foreigners working together as a political block against Jerusalem.

When Nehemiah came to Jerusalem as a special representative of the Pers. crown, he was opposed by Sanballat, the governor of the Pers. subprovince of Samaria (Neh 2:10-6:14; 13:28). When Jerusalem was captured by Nebuchadnezzar, apparently he added it to the province of Samaria. Sanballat recognized that Nehemiah was creating a new political unit around the city of Jerusalem and this territory would, of course, be taken from Sanballat. Both Sanballat and his partner Tobiah of Rabbath-ammon were Yahweh worshipers. This, therefore, was primarily a political struggle, not a religious issue. It may, however, have ended as a religious schism, if one follows the reasoning of the historians who date the Samaritan break to this feud.

The actual split between the descendants of the religious groups that had constituted the kingdoms of Israel and Judah came when the “Samaritans” built their own temple on Mount Gerizim. There is no exact date for this event. Josephus (Jos. Antiq. XI. viii. 1-4) tells of the building of this temple, but the account is so confused that different scholars, on the basis of the evidence, date the building of this temple anywhere from the time of Nehemiah to the time of Alexander the Great. J. A. Montgomery, one of the finest Bible historians, believed that Josephus was expanding the Nehemiah 13:28, 29 episode and so favored that date for the temple. It was destroyed by John Hyrcanus in 128 b.c. Some scholars believe that this Samaritan temple can be found beneath the temple built by the Rom. emperor Hadrian on Mt. Gerizim. For more details on the political history, see Territory of Samaria.

The Samaritans were in general rejected by the Jews in the intertestamental period. Ecclesiasticus 50:25, 26 speaks of them as “no nation” and as “the foolish people that dwell in Shechem.” The Testament of Levi also calls Shechem “a city of fools.” This derogation is relevant to the reading of John 8:48, for the Jews called Jesus a Samaritan.

The Samaritans are mentioned by the Gospel writers in connection with the ministry of Christ. He passed through Samaria and dealt with a Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar. He remained at Sychar for two days’ ministry (John 4:1-42). His interview with the Samaritan woman reflects both the antipathy between Jews and Samaritans and the dispute concerning the rightful place for the worship of God.

At another Samaritan village, Jesus was rejected (Luke 9:52, 53). Luke’s gospel indicates that good qualities could be found in Samaritans, for a Samaritan leper returned to thank Christ for healing (17:11-19), and one of His best-known parables immortalized “a good Samaritan” (10:29-37).

On the key essentials of the doctrine of worship, however, Christ was completely Jewish in His talk with the Samaritan woman. The difference also shows that when Christ sent out the twelve disciples to work among the Jews, He gave them strict orders to stay away from Gentile and Samaritan cities (Matt 10:5-7). At His Ascension He commanded that world evangelism begin at Jerusalem, then reach out into Judea, then to Samaria, and finally to the uttermost parts of the earth. Thus, Samaria was regarded as a special unit. Acts 8:1-25 records the story of the mission work among the Samaritans. J. A. Montgomery writes as follows: “To sum up the witness of the New Testament: the Samaritan appears as an Israelite, but one whose religion is in the condition of ignorance and whose institutions are irregular.” The Samaritans, however, were not actually excommunicated by the Jews until about a.d. 300.

Politically the Samaritans prospered under Pompey’s conquest of Pal. and the administration of Herod the Great. Herod made Samaria one of the magnificent cities of Pal. Here he erected one of his great pagan temples, which he dedicated to his patron, Emperor Augustus. One of his wives was a Samaritan, who was the mother of Herod Antipas.

Herod willed the Samaritan district to his son Archelaus, who proved such a poor ruler that Augustus deposed him in a.d. 6. Samaria then fell under the Rom. procurator who governed from Caesarea. Josephus wrote (Jos. Antiq. XVIII. iv) that it was Pilate’s bloody handling of a fanatical assembly at Mount Gerizim that led to his removal as procurator, a.d. 36. The Samaritan faith was one of the legal religions (religio licita) of the Rom. empire. The Samaritans had synagogues in Egypt, Rome, and other key cities of the empire. Like the Jews, they had been taken to Egypt by the Ptolemies; from there, like the Jews, they had expanded into the key commerical cities of the Mediterranean, esp. those that did business with Alexandria. Two Samaritan scholars of high repute are known. Theodotus, c. 200 b.c., wrote an epic on Shechem, of which forty-seven hexameters are presented in Eusebius. Thallus, c. 40 b.c., wrote a history of the world.

The Samaritans suffered greatly with all of Pal. in the first Jewish revolt. Although Vespasian took action against the more fanatical Samaritans at Mt. Gerizim, the countryside was spared. He founded a new city to replace the old Shechem and called it Flavia Neapolis (modern Nablus). By the 4th cent. a.d., it was one of the great cities of Pal.

The Samaritans considered Emperor Hadrian as their first great persecutor. He destroyed most of their sacred writings and desecrated their sacred Mt. Gerizim by building his own Rom. temple to Jupiter, perhaps on the site of the old Samaritan temple.

Although the Samaritans suffered under later Rom. emperors, their worst persecutions came from the Christians. Emperor Constantine granted them religious freedom, but it was not long afterward that persecution came to them. It was so severe that they revolted in a.d. 484, massacred the Christians nearby, and even attacked Caesarea. Bethel was suddenly refortified lest its population be massacred. The final great revolt, extending from Scythopolis to Caesarea, came in a.d. 529. Emperor Justinian outlawed the Samaritan sect and destroyed their synagogues, which were not rebuilt. In self-defense many of the Samaritans at least nominally accepted Christianity. Later, the emperor’s edict was softened, but the plight of the faithful Samaritan from then on was most difficult. Nevertheless, of the many religions practiced under the Rom. empire, it is one of the few still remaining today.


One can only conjecture concerning the total theology of the Samaritans in OT and NT times. What is known of their own writings is based primarily upon the work of their theologians who wrote in the 4th cent. a.d. during the revival under Baba Rabba. (For detailed treatment of this theology, read John Macdonald’s The Theology of the Samaritans.)

Although the Jews and Samaritans had no dealings ordinarily with one another, the Jewish rabbinical records are in general not anti-Samaritan. It was about a.d. 300 before the Jews excommunicated the Samaritans. As late as the 2nd cent. a.d., some of the rabbis spoke highly of the Samaritans. They were sometimes compared to the Sadducees since both denied the resurrection of the body and both objected to the Pharisees’ emphasis upon the traditions of the elders. The Jews’ major theological indictment against the Samaritans was their insistence upon Mt. Gerizim as the true place of worship instead of Jerusalem. (For a detailed study of the Samaritans in the Talmudic period, see James A. Montgomery, The Samaritans; the Earliest Jewish Sect—Their History, Theology, and Literature, ch. X.)

The Samaritan theology of NT times (as nearly as can be traced from scanty records) seems to be similar to that of the Jews. (1) Both considered themselves to be true Yahweh worshipers. (2) Both placed the supreme emphasis on the Pentateuch not only as Scripture but as a detailed way of life. The Samaritans rejected the remainder of the Jewish canon; but, according to the records available, the Jews never specifically indicted them for this heresy. One might conjecture that the Samaritans did not include the other OT books in the canon because of the emphasis on the major importance of Jerusalem as a central sanctuary, and the relation of that city to the Messiah. The Samaritans, however, as did the Jews, looked for a Messiah, as is seen in the Samaritan woman’s reference to Him (John 4:25).

(3) The major point of difference concerning the Pentateuch was that the Samaritans insisted that Mt. Gerizim was the only true central sanctuary for all Israel. The text of the Samaritan Pentateuch in Deuteronomy 27:4 reads Gerizim, not Ebal as in the Heb. MT. The Genesis passages that emphasized Jerusalem as the place of Abraham’s offering of Isaac, and the Melchizedek episode were no problem to the Samaritans, who located these events at sites of similar name near Mt. Gerizim. Their interpretation may date from NT times, or even later. Following the Ten Commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy, the Samaritan text adds another commandment requiring the building of an altar on Mt Gerizim and the celebration of a sacrificial service there.

(4) Samaritans of OT times prob. held the same views of Moses as did the Jews, but when the Samaritans developed their own theology after a.d. 400, they exalted Moses excessively and gave him titles that Christians reserve uniquely for Christ.

(5) Like the Jews, the Samaritans looked for a final judgment with rewards and punishments in charge of the Messiah. Both Jews and Samaritans emphasized circumcision, the Sabbath, and the Kosher law. Thus Jesus could stay in a Samaritan home for two days, eating their food and drinking water from Jacob’s well (John 4:1-42).

Gnosticism and the DSS.

Gnosticism plays a part in later Samaritan theology. Some scholars attribute a strong influence to the work of Simon of Samaria (Acts 8:9-24) in the early days of that heresy. There are important relationships between the Samaritans and the Essenes in the field of eschatological thought, as evidenced by some of the DSS.

Post-Biblical works.

The 4th cent. a.d. is the most important century in the post-Biblical period, for the basic work on Samaritan religion and the canon for their social customs was written under Baba the Great. Their Targ. of the Pentateuch was written in the 5th or 6th cent. a.d.

The Samaritan Pentateuch.

Scholars have debated the value of the text of the Samaritan Pentateuch for the critical study of the OT. The MSS from Khirbet Qumran have now solved that problem. The variant readings in the text, the forms of its script, and the orthography in the text all date it not earlier than the beginning of the second generation of the Maccabees. Frank M. Gross speaks of the Samaritan text of the Pentateuch, in The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies, p. 128, as follows:

The text type found in the Samaritan is difficult to categorize. On the one hand it stands very close to the proto-Masoretic text. Yet it has a large number of readings in agreement with the Septuagint. Again, it is replete with inferior readings: expansion, transposition, insertion of parallels from other passages or books, readings of a type which must have been introduced at a fairly early date when the text was relatively fluid. They are not the result of specifically Samaritan recensional activity in all probability. In any case the Samaritan Pentateuch has been only of limited use in the task of recovering a more primitive form of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.

The most interesting comparative texts to date are in Exodus and Numbers.

Present-day Samaritans.

A small group of Samaritans still live in Nablus and in Jaffa, which is now a suburb of Tell Aviv. The 1960 census counted 214 persons in the Nablus group, and 132 persons in the Jaffa group. Mount Gerizim is still their holy mountain, and they hold their Passover services on the traditional site of sacrifice. The Day of Atonement, however, is the holiest day of their year. The Sabbath is rigidly observed. They are distinctly a religious community. Their high priest acts also as their political official in relationship to whatever Palestinian government may be in power.


J. A. Montgomery, The Samaritans—the Earliest Jewish Sect, Their History, Theology and Literature (1907); M. Gaster, The Samaritans—Their History, Doctrines and Literature (1925); J. Macdonald, The Theology of the Samaritans (1964); Priest Amran Ishak, President of the Higher Community of the Samaritan Religion, Nablus, Palestine, The History and Religion of the Samaritans.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

From the strict administration of the Law in Jerusalem malcontents found their way to the freer atmosphere of Samaria. Among these renegades was Manasseh, brother of the high priest, who had married a daughter of Sanballat, the Persian governor of Samaria. According to Josephus, Sanballat, with the sanction of Alexander the Great, built a temple for the Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim, of which Manasseh became high priest (Ant., XI, vii, 2; viii, 2 ff). Josephus, however, places Manasseh a century too late. He was a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah (Ne 13:28).

When it suited their purpose the Samaritans claimed relationship with the Jews, asserting that their roll of the Pentateuch was the only authentic copy (see The Samaritan Pentateuch); they were equally ready to deny all connection in times of stress, and even to dedicate their temple to a heathen deity (Josephus, Ant, XII, v, 5). In 128 BC, John Hyrcanus destroyed the temple (XIII, ix, 1). In the time of Christ the Samaritans were ruled by procurators under the Roman governor of Syria. Lapse of years brought no lessening of the hatred between Jews and Samaritans (Ant., XX, vi, 1). To avoid insult and injury at the hands of the latter, Jews from Galilee were accustomed to reach the feasts at Jerusalem by way of Peraea. "Thou art a Samaritan, and hast a demon" was an expression of opprobrium (Joh 8:48). Although Jesus forbade the Twelve to go into any city of the Samaritans (Mt 10:5), the parable of the Good Samaritan shows that His love overleaped the boundaries of national hatred (Lu 10:30 ; compare Lu 17:16; Joh 4:9).

During the Jewish war Cerealis treated the Samaritans with great severity. On one occasion (67 AD) he slaughtered 11,600 on Mt. Gerizim. For some centuries they were found in considerable numbers throughout the empire, east and west, with their synagogues. They were noted as "bankers" money-changers, For their anti-Christian attitude and conduct Justinian inflicted terrible vengeance on them. From this the race seems never to have recovered. Gradually-dwindling, they now form a small community in Nablus of not more than 200 souls. Their great treasure is their ancient copy of the Law.

See Samaria.


The best account of the Samaritans is Mills, Nablus and the Modern Samaritans (Murray, London); compare Montgomery, The Samaritans (1907). A good recent description by J. E. H. Thomson, D. D., of the Passover celebrated annually on Mt. Gerizim will be found in PEFS, 1902, 82 ff.