Samaritans observing Passover on Mount Gerizim in 2006. Edward Kaprov.(Wikimedia Commons)

Samaritans observing Passover on Mount Gerizim in 2006.
© Edward Kaprov (Wikimedia Commons)

At the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the land of Samaria was situated between the regions of Galilee in the north and Judea in the south. Jews travelling between Galilee and Judea would take the longer, six-day journey along the Jordan River valley rather than taking a shorter, more direct route through Samaria. The Jews avoided the Samaritans because of their bitter history.

Israel Splits into Two Kingdoms

A Brief History of the Samaritans (and Jews)Image: Map of Israel and Judah, showing Samaria and Jerusalem. © Tyndale House Publishers (Source: Visual Bible Alive)

Hundreds of years previously, after the death of King Solomon in 975 BCE, the nation of Israel split into north and south. (See 1 Kings 11:26-39 and 1 Kings 12:1-24.) The northern tribes of Israel were collectively called Israel, and their capital city was Samaria (1 Kings 16:24). The southern tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Simeon were collectively called Judah, and their capital city was Jerusalem. A distance of  50kms separated the cities of Jerusalem and Samaria.

The Fall of Israel

All the kings of Israel, without exception, were unfaithful and disobedient to God. They embraced idolatrous religions and were extremely wicked. After repeated prophetic warnings about coming disaster—unless Israel repented, the northern kingdom of Israel was overpowered by the Assyrians in around 724 BCE.

Many of the Israelites who had survived the attack were taken to foreign lands where they were assimilated into the native populations (2 Kings 17:5-6; 17:22-41). These northern tribes are referred to as the “lost tribes of Israel”. However, a few groups of Israelite families retained their ancestral integrity.

The Assyrians sent five eastern tribes to live in Northern Israel. These five tribes brought with them their own foreign religions and customs. The tribes were sent with the purpose of diminishing the Israelite identity and culture. The eastern foreigners intermarried with the remaining, much depleted Israelite population. This hybrid people group was the beginning of the Samaritans.

The Assyrian Empire fell to the Egyptians in 612 BCE. The Egyptians had already taken control of Samaria in 610 after taking the life of the Judean king, Josiah, who had himself hoped to conquer Israel. The Egyptians were subsequently defeated by the Babylonians, and Samaria became a minor capital city of the Babylonian empire from 605 to 562 BCE.

The Fall of Judah

In 586 BCE, the southern kingdom of Judah was also conquered by the Babylonians (2 Chron. 36:15ff), and the whole of Israel and Judah came to be known as Samaria. Many Jews[1] were exiled from their homeland and taken captive into Babylon for seventy years, as prophesied by Jeremiah (Jer. 25:11-12; 2 Chron. 36:21). The Jewish population was taken in several stages to Babylon. It seems that only the poorest, sickest, and least skilled were ultimately left behind. These remaining people intermarried with their northern neighbours with the result that foreign beliefs and customs mixed with Jewish beliefs and customs.

The Returning Jews

The Jews were mostly treated well in Babylon. While some Jews lamented their captivity in a foreign land (see Psalm 137), others became established in their new communities. When the Persian King Cyrus was divinely led to allow the Jews to return seventy years later (Ezra 1:1ff), only the most devout Jews returned to Jerusalem with the purpose of rebuilding the city and its temple.

The Babylonian exile had been a punishment for Judah’s unfaithfulness to God, and the Jews had learned from it. The returned Jews were zealous for God and righteous living, and, with some exceptions, they never again engaged in blatant idolatry. The returning Jews were keen to rebuild the Jerusalem temple so that they could worship God in the way he had prescribed. The Samaritans offered to help the Jews in rebuilding the temple but this offer was scornfully rejected (Ezra 4:1-5).

The Jews of the post-exilic period were also zealous for the scriptures. Scribes copied them, and synagogues and schools were established to teach from them. This real repentance over past idolatry, combined with their fervour for scripture, would result in an over-scrupulous interpretation of scripture and fanatically detailed religious observances by various Jewish sects such as the Pharisees and the Qumran community.

The Samaritans

Meanwhile, the Samaritans had developed their own version of Judaism. The Samaritans still believed in the God of Israel, but they worshipped at Mount Gerizim (instead of Jerusalem) with their own adapted worship practices. The Samaritans also had their own Pentateuch in Aramaic, which differed in places from the Hebrew Pentateuch.[2] To this day, the Samaritans do not accept the poetic and prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures.

In around 400 BCE the Samaritans built a temple on Mount Gerizim. This caused tension and hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Jews ultimately destroyed the Samaritan temple in 128/9 BCE. Nevertheless, the Samaritan religious community still survives today.

Most Jews regarded the Samaritans as ignorant, superstitious, and outside of God’s favour and mercy. The Samaritans, however, were still very much part of God’s plans as shown in the fourth chapter of John’s gospel where Jesus brings the good news to Sychar, a Samaritan village.[3] Moreover, Jesus specifically mentions Samaria in Acts 1:8 where he tells his disciples: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Christian churches were soon established there (Acts 9:31 cf. Acts 8:1, 4-5ff; 9:31; 15:3 CEB).


[1] The word “Jew” is derived from the word “Judah”.

[2] The Pentateuch consists of the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Samaritans reject all other books of the Old Testament.

[3] The parable of the Good Samaritan presents the Samaritan in a very favourable light, but we must be mindful that Jesus chose the figure of the Samaritan for effect in his story (Luke 10:25ff). The thankful, healed Samaritan leper is also presented in a favourable light (Luke 17:11-19). The Samaritan woman, and indeed her whole village of Sychar, are presented as people ready to accept that Jesus is the Messiah (John 4:4-42).

© 2nd of September 2009, Margaret Mowczko

A Brief History of the Samaritans (and Jews)

Mt Ebal on the right, Gerizim on the left.
© V. Gilbert and Arlisle F. Beer (Source: Visual Bible Alive)

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