A Look at the Ancient Samaritans
THE greatest teacher ever to walk the earth, Jesus Christ, once related a heartwarming illustration about being neighborly. He spoke of a kind and compassionate man, one who was willing to expend himself in behalf of a total stranger. Both a priest and a Levite ignored the plight of this stranger who had been beaten up by robbers and left behind half-dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. But the compassionate man attended to the stranger’s immediate needs and paid out the equivalent of two days’ wages for his care. He even obligated himself to pay any expense incurred beyond that amount. (Luke 10:30-35) The compassionate man of Jesus’ illustration was a Samaritan. What did that mean? Just who were the Samaritans?
Other statements made by Jesus Christ about the Samaritans reveal that they had a partly foreign, non-Jewish heritage. He specifically excluded them when instructing his apostles to concentrate their efforts on the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 10:5, 6) On another occasion he spoke of a Samaritan as a “man of another nation” or “race.”—Luke 17:16-18, Kingdom Interlinear Translation.
But how did a people not of the “house of Israel” come to live in a large section of Israelite territory? This happened after the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C.E. The Assyrians carried many Israelites into exile, thereafter replacing them with foreign peoples.—2 Ki. 17:22-24; Ezra 4:1, 2.
These foreign peoples in time came to share certain religious beliefs of the Israelites. How did this happen? Because the Assyrian conquest devastated much Israelite territory, lions increased in the land and began to roam closer to towns and villages. (Compare Exodus 23:29.) Apparently for this reason many foreigners fell prey to lions. The new settlers reasoned that this was happening because they did not worship the God of the land, and notified the king of Assyria accordingly. In response, the Assyrian monarch sent back a calf-worshiping Israelite priest from exile. This priest taught the transplanted population about Jehovah. But he did so in the same manner as had the first king of the toppled ten-tribe kingdom, Jeroboam, who introduced calf worship. So although knowing something about Jehovah, the foreign people still continued worshiping false gods.—2 Ki. 17:24-31.
Eventually the beliefs of these foreigners appear to have been modified. Mixed marriages doubtless contributed to this, as an Israelite population (though greatly reduced) still remained in the territory that had been conquered by the Assyrians. (2 Chron. 34:6-9) Racially, then, the Samaritans appear to have been descendants of remaining Israelites and the foreign peoples brought into the land. It appears that, in the centuries that followed, the Samaritans did not have any contact with the worship of Jehovah at Jerusalem and so continued to differ religiously from the Jews.
The Samaritans even built their own temple on Mount Gerizim in competition to the one at Jerusalem. While that temple no longer existed in the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Samaritans were still worshiping on Mount Gerizim. (John 4:20-23) They accepted only the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, and rejected all the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, with the possible exception of the book of Joshua. Therefore they had but an incomplete understanding of Jehovah God and his purpose. For this reason Jesus Christ told a Samaritan woman: “You worship what you do not know.” (John 4:22) Nevertheless, on account of their basic acceptance of the Pentateuch, the Samaritans practiced circumcision and looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, the prophet greater than Moses.—Deut. 18:18, 19; John 4:25.
The racial and religious divisions existing between the Jews and Samaritans gave rise to considerable prejudice. The Jews generally looked down on the Samaritans and refused to have any dealings with them. (John 4:9) The term “Samaritan” was even used as an expression of reproach. A case in point is when unbelieving Jews said to Jesus: “Do we not rightly say, You are a Samaritan and have a demon?”—John 8:48.
Jesus Christ, however, did not adopt such a prejudiced view toward the Samaritans. Of the ten lepers he healed of loathsome leprosy at one time, one was a Samaritan. This Samaritan was the only one who returned to Jesus, thanking him and glorifying God with a loud voice. (Luke 17:16-19) Still another time, at Jacob’s fountain, Jesus spoke extendedly to a Samaritan woman and thereafter spent two days in the Samaritan city of Sychar to declare God’s truth. As a result many became believers. (John 4:5-42) Furthermore, Jesus’ illustration about the neighborly Samaritan made it clear that an uncompassionate view of Samaritans was wrong.—Luke 10:30-37.
It was doubtless because the Samaritans were far more closely related to the Jews racially and religiously that the opportunity for them to become disciples of Jesus Christ was extended even before it opened up to uncircumcised Gentiles. Many Samaritans became believers and, as disciples of Jesus Christ, enjoyed an equal standing with Jewish believers. (Acts 8:1-17, 25; 9:31) After this, Peter first declared the “good news” to the Gentile Cornelius and his household.—Acts 10:25-48.
True Christianity indeed brought unity to peoples who had long been estranged and divided. It was just as the apostle Peter told Cornelius and his household: “For a certainty I perceive that God is not partial, but in every nation the man that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34, 35) Therefore, in the early Christian congregation, Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles, having rejected false ideas and unfounded prejudices, enjoyed companionship as brothers and sisters. Barriers that had existed for centuries were eradicated from their midst.
True worship today also unites people of all races and nationalities. Evidence of this can be seen among Jehovah’s Christian witnesses.