Glossary of Terms



Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

Samaritan. In N.T. times, a native of the district of Samaria. The Jews of Judea and Galilee disliked Samaria. The Jews of Judea and Galilee disliked the Samaritans because they were not true Jews. In O.T. times, when Samaria was captured, the Assyrians deported most of the Israelites and moved in colonies of other peoples. Samaritans of N.T. times were the descendants of the mixture of people and therefore not wholly Jewish by inheritance. However, they shared many beliefs with the Jews, with the difference that they worshiped on Mt. Gerizim instead of in Jerusalem. Matt. 10:5; Luke 10:33; 17:16; John 4:9-42; Acts 8:25.

Samaria. In the O.T., the capital city of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, from the time of the king Omri until its capture by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. Archelogical excavations have shown that Omri and his son Ahab fortified the city with a double wall and built cisterns within the walls for water supply. Also found there were potsherds from a later time containing names and accounts of taxpayers who brought wine and oil to the king. I Kings 16:23-24; 20:1; 2Kings 13:1; 17:5-6, Hos. 10:5. Also used to mean the Northern Kingdom. 2Kings 17:24; Jer. 31:5. In N.T. times, a district located between Galilee and Judea; with Judea and Idumea, a division of the Roman province of Syria. The capital, located where the city of Samaria had been, was Sebaste, a city built by Herod. One route from Galilee to Judea went through Samaria. Luke 17:11; John 4:4; Acts 1:8; 8:1; 9:31; 15:3.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Samaritans, in the ot an ethnic term for the residents of the district of Samaria. The term appears only once (2 Kings 17:29) in the account of the settlement of Mesopotamian colonists in the region by the Assyrians, in the comment that these foreign people made gods of their own which they placed ‘in the shrines of the high places which the Samaritans had made.’ In the nt, however, the term is used exclusively for the members of a particular ethno-religious community based in the area, living for the most part around Mt. Gerizim (John 4:1-42) but residing also in their own villages throughout the region (Matt. 10:5; Luke 9:52), who might be encountered in villages neighboring on Samaria (Luke 17:11-19) or even on the roadway between Jerusalem and Jericho (Luke 10:29-37).

From these texts one learns that the Jews and Samaritans shared a common heritage (‘our father Jacob,’ John 4:12) but differed from one another radically in regard to the relative sanctity of Jerusalem/Zion and Mt. Gerizim (‘Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship,’ John 4:20). They also had different legal traditions regarding the cleanliness of vessels and, in general, they avoided contact with one another (John 4:7-10). The negative attitude of the Jews towards the Samaritans is reflected in Jesus’ statement in Matt. 10:5, in which Samaritans are linked with Gentiles in contrast to ‘the house of Israel’ (cf. Acts 1:8, in which Samaria occupies a median position between Jerusalem/Judea and the gentile world) and in John 8:48, in which the adversaries of Jesus refer to him contemptuously as ‘a Samaritan’—and demon-possessed as well. The itinerary of Jesus in Mark (10:1; it is followed in Matt. 19:1 but altered somewhat in Luke) seems to reflect a standard Jewish practice of avoiding Samaria in pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

Basically, the Jews regarded the Samaritans as a people foreign to themselves, in spite of an obviously shared heritage: the term ‘foreigner’ used by Jesus of the thankful Samaritan leper in Luke 17:18 (Gk. allogeneµs) is the term used in the Jerusalem Temple inscription excluding non-Jews from the court of Israel. (The historian Josephus relates that the Samaritans were excluded from the Jerusalem Temple by formal edict, not because of nationality but due to acts of mischief they allegedly perpetrated there). It was the alien nature of the Samaritans, as commonly perceived, that gave the ironic sting to the story of the grateful leper and to the parable of the good Samaritan: only one out of ten returned to express thanks, and ‘he was a Samaritan’; the Samaritan stranger was the good neighbor, not the priest or the Levite!

From the few references to Samaria and the Samaritans in the nt, one might be left with the impression that all of the residents of Samaria were members of this community. This is not so. There were, in fact, people of various cultural backgrounds living in the area. Nonetheless, the Samaritan community (i.e., the particular group with which this article is concerned) was quite large and had throughout the Roman and Byzantine periods (63 b.c. to fifteenth century a.d.) a diaspora of considerable size. There were communities scattered along the Mediterranean coast (notably at Gaza and Caesarea), in Lebanon, in Egypt and Syria, and as far away as Byzantium, Thessalonica, Rome, and Babylon. Today the community numbers only about five hundred but is characterized by vitality after centuries of decline. The main part of the community still resides in the shadow of Mt. Gerizim, in present-day Nablus. It is now, as in antiquity, a community led by priests. Unlike the situation in Judaism, the Samaritan priests remained active and in control of religious affairs after the destruction of their temple. There was, however, during the Roman and Byzantium periods, an active lay-led synagogue party, with which the Samaritan sect of the Dositheans had some connection.

Religious Heritage: As a religious sect, the Samaritans are a strict, Torah-observing party with a resolute pride in their religious heritage. They maintain that they and not the Jews are the bearers of the true faith of ancient Israel as expounded by Moses and as practiced at Mt. Gerizim in ancient times. The name by which they call themselves is Shamerim, ‘observers [of the Torah].’ They understand themselves to be the descendants of the Joseph tribes of ancient Israel, as Jews are descendants of the tribe of Judah. Judaism as a heresy is traced to the priest Eli, who is said to have established a rival sanctuary at Shiloh. Thus, for them, the history of the Israelite faith as traced in the second and third divisions of the Jewish Bible is not of sacred but of apostate history. The Samaritans have for Scripture only the Pentateuch, and that in their own distinctive redaction. The chief error of the Jews, according to the Samaritans, is in having edited the Torah to minimize the importance of Gerizim and in having erected a Temple in Jerusalem. In addition to Eli and Solomon, Samaritans cite also Ezra and Hillel for having led the Jews astray: Ezra for having corrupted the text of the Pentateuch and Hillel for having introduced deviant legal and calendrical interpretations. As a priestly dominated community at odds with Pharisaic interpretations, the Samaritans invite comparison with the Sadducees of nt times and with the Karaites of later times. Comparisons have also been made with the Essenes and with the type of early Christianity represented in the Gospel of John. Indeed, recent studies of early Samaritan traditions reveal early Samaritanism as but one of a greater complex of disparate religious movements and ideologies within Judaism (broadly defined) prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in a.d. 70.

Origin: As for the origin of the sect, most scholars have rejected the Samaritan claim of being the remnant of the Israelite people who have always worshiped the Hebrew God at Shechem and have turned instead to the claims of their detractors, notably Josephus, whose personal animus against the Samaritans was intense. Josephus claimed that the Samaritans were descendants of the foreign colonists from Cutha mentioned in 2 Kings 17:24, an opinion shared by some rabbinic authorities who called the Samaritans Kutim. They came to have an independent cultic life, he said, as the result of a schism that occurred in the time of Sanballat (i.e., Sanballat II, not the contemporary of Nehemiah) and Alexander the Great (late fourth century b.c.), when a temple was built on Mt. Gerizim and staffed with renegade and disenfranchised priests from Jerusalem. This cultus was corrupted by hellenization in the time of Antiochus IV (ca. 175 b.c.) (a datum with which 2 Macc. 6:1 agrees) and later destroyed by John Hyrcanus in 128 b.c. Although there seems little doubt that the Samaritan sect of nt times (and of today) was derived from the Gerizim cultic establishment of the Hellenic period and developed subsequently through Samaritan Torah teachers who produced their own redaction of the sacred text, the account of Josephus presents difficulties in the reconstruction of early Samaritan history (or prehistory). Because it is highly biased and denegrating in its intent, one must view with suspicion his claim that the Samaritan priestly caste derived its sacerdotal authority from the Zadokite line of the Jerusalem Temple. Moreover, the story Josephus gives to explain the reason for the exodus of the priests from Jerusalem to Shechem—expulsion due to intermarriage with the family of Sanballat—is problematical (although not impossible). The story is remarkably similar to an earlier incident mentioned in the memoirs of Nehemiah (Neh. 13:28-29). This has prompted some scholars to postulate a Samaritan schism as early as the Persian period (sixth century b.c.), even though the Bible makes no reference to such and Josephus himself dated the alleged ‘schism’ to the early Greek period (first century b.c.). It seems most appropriate to regard the Samaritans as a religious community that developed independently of the spiritual leadership of Jerusalem among a people who were, for cultural and historical reasons, alienated from the Jews and who, in time, found it impossible to maintain fraternal relations.

See also the "Good Samaritan" parable (text and commentary, including background about Samaritans) at


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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