Jewish and Samaritan Relations During the Time of Christ
Why should we care about how Jews and Samaritans related to one another 2000 years ago? Because their relationship provides extremely helpful context to understanding how Jesus and the early Christian church dealt with ethnic divisions and animosity. Learning about the deep, historical hatred between the Jews and Samaritans adds extra significance to…
- Jesus approaching the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4)
- Jesus choosing a Samaritan as the hero of his story about loving your neighbor (Luke 10)
- Jesus choosing to heal a Samaritan man and then pointing out the fact he was the only one to return (Luke 17)
- The early Jewish Christians choosing to share the Gospel with Samaritans and welcome them into the church (Acts 8)
In the Tyndale Bible Dictionary there is an excellent summary of the “Relations between the Samaritans and the Jews”…
The history of relations between the Samaritans—situated on the north around Mt Gerizim (their holy mountain), Shechem, and Samaria—and Jewish populations in Judea and then later in Galilee is one of fluctuating tensions. The ancient tension between the northern and southern kingdoms was revived with the return of exiles to Jerusalem under the Persian ruler Cyrus’s edict (c. 538 bc). The entire southern area was at the time being governed from Samaria in the north by Sanballat, a native ruler of Palestine under Persian authority. The return of exiles to Jerusalem, particularly with their intentions of rebuilding the Jerusalem temple, posed an obvious political threat to his leadership in the north (Ezr 4:7–24; Neh 4:1–9).
Opposition was at first politically motivated but became religious when sometime later, possibly in the fifth century bc, a rival temple was erected on Mt Gerizim. An example of Jewish hostility toward the Samaritans about this time comes from Ecclesiasticus 50:25–26 (written approximately 200 bc), where the Samaritans are placed below the Edomites and Philistines in esteem and are termed a “foolish people” (cf. Test. Levi 7:2).
Jewish disregard for the Samaritans was increased by the Samaritans’ lack of resistance to Antiochus Epiphanes’ campaign (c. 167 bc) to promote Hellenistic worship in the area. While part of the Jewish community resisted the transforming of the Jerusalem temple to a temple for Zeus (1 Macc 1:62–64) and eventually followed the Maccabees in revolt (1 Macc 2:42–43), sources suggest that the Samaritans did not (see 1 Macc 6:2).
Poor relations came to a climax during the brief period of Jewish independence under the Hasmoneans, when the Jewish ruler, John Hyrcanus, marched against Shechem, conquering and destroying the Samaritan temple on Mt Gerizim (c. 128 bc).
Under Herod the Great, Samaria’s fortunes improved, although animosity still continued between the Samaritans and Jews in Judea and Galilee. Holding the Jerusalem temple to be a false cultic center, and excluded from the inner courts by the Jerusalem authorities, a group of Samaritans desecrated the Jerusalem temple in approximately ad 6 by spreading human bones within the temple porches and sanctuary during Passover. Hostility toward Galilean Jews traveling through Samaria on the way to Jerusalem for various feasts was also not uncommon (Lk 9:51–53).
This animosity continued in Jesus’ day. Both groups excluded the other from their respective cultic centers, the Jerusalem temple and the Samaritan temple on Mt Gerizim. The Samaritans, for example, were forbidden access to the inner courts of the temple, and any offering they might give was considered as if it were from a Gentile. Thus, although probably more accurately defined as “schismatics,” it appears Samaritans were in practice treated as Gentiles. All marriage between the groups was therefore forbidden, and social relations were greatly restricted (Jn 4:9). With such proscribed separation, it is not surprising that any interaction between the two groups was strained. The mere term Samaritan was one of contempt on the lips of Jews (8:48), and among some scribes it possibly would not even be uttered (see the apparent circumlocution in Lk 10:37). The disciples’ reaction to the Samaritan refusal of lodging (9:51–55) is a good example of the animosity felt by Jews for Samaritans at the time.
Although there is less evidence for similar attitudes from the Samaritan side, we can assume they existed. It is probable to speculate, therefore, that the Samaritan shunning of hospitality in Luke 9:51–55 was not uncommon toward other Jews whose “face was set toward Jerusalem.1
The New Bible Dictionary gives some examples of the “hate crimes” that were taking place between the Jews and Samaritans around the time of Christ:
This by no means marked the end of the friction, however. From the scanty sources available, we learn that between ad 6 and 9 some Samaritans scattered bones in the Jerusalem Temple during a certain Passover. In ad 52 Samaritans massacred a group of Galilean pilgrims at En-gannim, though in the consequent dispute before Claudius, which followed a Jewish reprisal raid, the decision was given in favour of the Jews. Furthermore, the Samaritans suffered at the hands of the Roman rulers: in ad 36 a Samaritan fanatic assembled a crowd on Mt Gerizim, promising to reveal the sacred vessels thought to have been hidden there by Moses, and many of them were massacred by Pilate. A year after the start of the Jewish War (ad 66-70), a group of Samaritans switched allegiance to join the revolt, only to be slaughtered on Mt Gerizim by Vettulenus Cerealis.2