The Samaritans, Part 3.
May 2nd, 2002
Received by H.
Now, my dear brother, as I have promised you, I will explain in a few words the religion of the Samaritans or “Shomronim.”
From what I have put forth previously it is easy to conclude that the Samaritans, as the successors of the northern tribes of Israel, had and still have, very similar beliefs to those of the Jews. However, some points of difference do exist.
It is also necessary to reiterate once again that first century Judaism did not constitute a monolithic block, but rather showed multiple facets and diverse streamings, where Christianity, in the beginning, fitted in without problems.
It is also necessary to remember that in those old times, there was no canon of the Bible, and I am referring to the Hebrew Bible. This canon, or the list of books considered inspired, was established much later, in Jamnia, during the beginnings of rabbinical Judaism, when the religion of the Hebrews had already lost much of its diversity due to a devastating war against Rome, and great destruction of Jewish culture in Palestine.
And one of the criteria for the inclusion of the books was the following: Only those writings were admitted, where Hebrew or Aramaic manuscripts existed. We should not forget that Jewish culture had suffered many changes through Hellenistic influence, and many Jews, especially those living in the Diaspora, were no longer able to speak or read in Hebrew. They used the Greek language, the Greek Koine, recognized universally in the oriental part of the Roman Empire as “lingua franca.” This lack of command of their original sacred language had led to translations of the Hebrew writings into the Greek, even centuries earlier, a work that had been carried out in Alexandria, the most important Jewish center outside Palestine. This translation still exists, and is called “Septuagint,” a Latin word meaning “seventy,” abbreviated through the Roman number sign for seventy, LXX.
Now, the Catholic church later on would include a few more books in their canon, for example two of the Books of the Maccabees which are not considered inspired either by the Jews or by Protestants. The canon of the Bible therefore, is not a universally accepted list, but it rather varies from religion to religion, from church to church.
The Samaritans also had, and still have, their own canon of books. The shortest of all consists only of five books, the Pentateuch, or the Books of Moses, or Torah, the Law, as they are also known. The whole of the rest of the Hebrew writings are not recognized by them, neither the books of the prophets, nor those of wisdom, nor those of history, etc. This is not surprising, considering that those books, at least in part, were composed much later, after the separation, especially during Jewish captivity in Babylon. Of course, the Samaritans rejected these writings as works of Jewish heresy.
However, with their recognition of the Torah only, the Samaritans were in good company: Also the Jewish Sadducees, those “guardians of the Temple,” rejected all the other books. Here we find a very important point that both denominations have in common.
While second Temple Judaism, except for the Sadducees, revered the prophets in a special way, such as Elijah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, etc., the Samaritans exalted another man, also a prophet: Moses. Moses, to them, was definitely “the man of God.”
As to their priesthood, almost all Levites, who according to the Mosaic Law had exercised this function, had been expelled from the northern kingdom, from Israel. When the Assyrians led the intelligencia of the people into captivity, there were no priests any more, so the Samaritans started their own lineage of priests.
The Samaritans were and still are very strict in the observance of the Mosaic Law, a rigidity and fervor that even caused the admiration of the Jews, who used to admire very little of what the Samaritans did or thought. They practiced circumcision, Sabbath observance, they celebrated the Israelite feasts as the Torah specified. Of course the feast established afterwards by the Jews, such as Purim, did not find recognition by them.
The language of the Samaritans was a variation of Palestinian Aramaic, a dialect that distinguished them, but which was easily understood by the Jews. But their sacred writings, the Torah, of course were written in the sacred language of their ancestors, in Hebrew.
When one reads the Samaritan Bible and the corresponding books of the Jews, a great number of striking discrepancies are evident, partly due to errors in the process of copying, partly conscious alterations to adjust the writings to their necessities.
However, it is essential to clarify that the discrepancies were not only due to changes perpetrated by the Samaritans. The fact is that the old text of the “Septuagint” is perhaps closer to the writings of the Samaritans than to the present Scriptures of the Jews (Masoretic text), and proves with enough clarity that both parties contributed in a tendentious way to the textual variants. Additionally, it is necessary to say that even in the Hebrew Scriptures there was no universally accepted standard. Instead, a wide range of diverse variations existed, which would only be standardized when Judaism had lost its multifaceted character, after the rebellion of Bar Kokhba. Of course, the Samaritan Pentateuch escaped the unifying tendency.
After the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, the Passover lamb sacrifices ended. But the Samaritans continue with this tradition to the present day. In other words, they still cling to the archaic rites of the ancient Hebrews.
It would be false to conclude from what I have put forth that the Samaritans, in contrast to the Jews, obeyed exclusively Moses’ Scriptures, rejecting all other traditions. Of course, they rejected the tradition of the prophets, and especially, the later rabbinical precepts. On the other hand, they developed their own customs and legislations besides that which is written in the Torah. This is a natural process of development in any human community.
The Samaritans also believed in the coming of a Messiah and in an afterlife. This statement is a little general, because also amongst them, as amongst the Jews, there were several sects and branches. I will talk about some of them when we deal with the times of the ancient church.
In short, I wanted to paint a multicolored picture with my description of the Samaritans. I want you to understand that there were not “the Jews” and “the Samaritans,” but a wide range of diverse groups and sects in both communities. We always speak of the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes, because they were the groups of most importance or influence, but there were many more groups, such as the successors of the Rehabites, the Boethusians, those who called themselves “the Righteous Ones.” Even in the Jewish Diaspora diverse sects flourished, such as the famous “Therapeutae” of Egypt, healing monks who cured the illnesses of the body and the mind. And we have also already mentioned that even inside the diverse sects there were substantially different streams, such as in the example of the Pharisee Houses of Hillel and Shammai. We could also mention John the Baptist’s followers as a separate group, the Johannites, who even undertook missionary activities abroad.
I want you to understand that the primitive Christians were a part of this religious diversity, where they fitted in without problems, and that in the first decades after Jesus’ death, the question was not, “are you a Jew or a Christian?” but “are you a Jew of this or that sect?”
The Samaritans did not think of themselves as Jews, because as the name implies, a Jew is a member of the tribe of Judah with its culture and respective religion. The Samaritans considered themselves, and still do, as the successors of the northern Israelite tribes, Hebrews as the Jews are, the survivors of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, with their version (more authentic, according to their opinion) of Moses’ ancient religion.
With that, we will finish our discourse on the history of the Samaritans. However, as we have dedicated so much time to this subject, we will continue with the famous parable of the “Good Samaritan,” for which we will give an explanation that you will not find in textbooks.
See you soon, my dear brother.
Judas of Kerioth
© Copyright is asserted in this message by Geoff Cutler 2013