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- For the British telephone helpline, see Samaritans.
Like the Jews, the Samaritans are both a religious and an ethnic group. Ethnically, they are descended from the inhabitants of Samaria from the beginning of the Babylonian Exile up to the beginning of the Christian era. Religiously, they are the adherents of Samaritanism which resembles Temple or pre-rabbinical Judaism.
The exact historical origins of the Samaritans are disputed to this day. 2 Kings 17 and Josephus (Antiquites 9.277–91) claim that the Samaritans are descendants of mixed ancestry, both of Israelite lineage and of deportees brought into the region of Samaria by the Assyrians from other lands they had conquered, including Cuthah. On the other hand, the Samaritans have always claimed to be the descendants of Israelites of the Northern Kingdom who remained behind during the Babylonian Captivity, and thus introduced none of the religious changes brought about among the Jews during this time. Some modern scholars agree. A genetic study (Shen, et al., 2004) concluded from Y-chromosome analysis that Samaritans descend from the Israelites (including Cohen, or priests), and mitochondrial DNA analysis shows descent from Assyrians and other foreign women, effectively validating both local and foreign origins for the Samaritans.
Some date their split with Jews to the time of Nehemiah, Ezra, and the rebuilding of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. Returning exiles considered the Samaritans to be non-Jews and, thus, not fit for this religious work.
The Samaritans built a rival Temple on Mount Gerizim, near Shechem. During the Hellenistic period, Samaria (like Judea) was largely divided between a Hellenizing faction based in Samaria (Sebastaea) and a pious faction, led by the High Priest and based largely around Shechem and the rural areas. Samaria was a largely autonomous state nominally dependent on the Seleucid empire until around 129 BCE, when the Jewish Hasmonean king Yohanan Girhan (John Hyrcanus) destroyed the Samaritan temple and devastated Samaria.
Samaritans fared badly under Roman rule, when Samaria was part of the Roman province of Judea, in the early part of the Common Era. However, this period was also something of a golden age for the Samaritan community. The Temple of Gerizim was rebuilt after the Bar Kochba revolt, around 135 CE. Much of Samaritan liturgy was set by the high priest Baba Rabba in the fourth century CE.
Later, under Byzantine Emperor Zeno in the late fifth century, Samaritans and Jews were massacred, and the Temple on Mt. Gerizim was again destroyed. Under a charismatic, messianic figure named Julianus ben Sabar (or ben Sahir), the Samaritans launched a war to create their own independent state in 529. With the help of the Ghassanid Arabs, Emperor Justinian I crushed the revolt; tens of thousands of Samaritans died or were enslaved. The Samaritan faith was virtually outlawed thereafter by the Christian Byzantine Empire; from a population once at least in the hundreds of thousands, the Samaritan community dwindled to near extinction.
A large number of Samaritans fled the country in 634 CE, following the Muslim victory at the Battle of Yarmuk. Samaritan communities were established in Egypt and Syria but they did not survive into modern times. During the mid 800s Muslim fanatics destroyed Samaritan and Jewish synagogues. During the 10th century relations between Muslims, Jews and Samaritans improved greatly. In the 1300s the Mamluks came to power; they plundered all Samaritan religious sites, and turned their shrines into mosques. Many Samaritans converted out of fear. After the Ottoman conquest, Muslim persecution of Samaritans increased again. Massacres were frequent. In 1624 the last Samaritan high priest of the line of Eleazar son of Aaron died without issue, but descendants of Aaron's other son Itamar remained among them and took over the office.
By the 1830s only a small group of Samaritans in Shechem remained extant. The local Arab population believed that Samaritans were "atheists" and "against Islam", and they threatened to murder the entire Samaritan community. The Samaritans turned to the Jewish community for help, as Jews and Arabs had good relations at this time, and Jewish entreaties to treat the Samaritans with respect were eventually heeded.
In the past, the Samaritans are believed to have numbered several hundred thousand, but persecution and assimilation have reduced their numbers drastically. In 1919, an illustrated National Geographic report on the community stated that their numbers were less than 150.
Until the 1980s, most of the Samaritans resided in the Palestinian town of Nablus below Mount Gerizim. They relocated to the mountain itself as a result of the first Intifada, and all that is left of the community in Nablus itself is an abandoned synagogue. But the conflict followed them. In 2001, the Israeli army set up an artillery battery on Gerizim for self defense purposes.
Relations with the surrounding Jews and Palestinians have been mixed. In 1954, Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi created the Samaritan enclave in Holon but Israeli Samaritans today complain of being treated as "pagans and strangers" by orthodox Jews. Those living in Israel have Israeli citizenship and those in Palestine are a recognized minority. They send one representative to the Palestinian parliament. Palestinian Samaritans have been granted passports by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
As a small community divided between two mutually hostile neighbors, the Samaritans are generally unwilling to take sides in the conflict, fearing that whatever side they take could lead to repercussions from the other.
One of the biggest problems facing the community today is the issue of continuity. With such a small population, divided into only four families (Cohen, Tsedakah, Danfi and Marhib; a fifth family died out in the last century) and a refusal to accept converts, there has been a history of genetic disease within the group. To counter this, Samaritans have recently agreed that men from the community may marry non-Samaritan women, provided that they agree to follow Samaritan religious practices. This often poses a problem for women, who are less than eager to adopt the strict interpretation of biblical laws regarding menstruation, by which they must live in a separate shack during their periods and after childbirth. Nevertheless, there are a few instances of intermarriage. Apart from that, all weddings within the Samaritan community are first approved by a geneticist at Israel's Tel HaShomer Hospital .
In 2004 the Samaritan high priest, Shalom b. Amram, passed away and was replaced by Elazar b. Tsedaka. The Samaritan high priest is selected by age from the priestly family. The high priest resides on Mount Gerizim.
The Samaritan religion is based on some of the same books used as the basis of Judaism, but these religions are not identical. Samaritan scriptures include the Samaritan version of the Torah, the Memar Markah, the Samaritan liturgy, and Samaritan law codes and biblical commentaries. Samaritans appear to have texts of the Torah as old as the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint; scholars have various theories concerning the actual relationships between these three texts.
- There is one God, the same God recognized by the Hebrew prophets;
- Their view of God is the same as the Jewish biblical view of God;
- The Torah was dictated by God to Moses;
- Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem, is the one true sanctuary chosen by Israel's God;
- Many Samaritans believe that at the end of days, the dead will be resurrected by a "taheb", a restorer (possibly a prophet, some say Moses);
- They possess a belief in Paradise (heaven);
- The priests are the interpreters of the law and the keepers of tradition; unlike Judaism, there is no distinction between the priesthood and the scholars;
- The authority of classical Jewish rabbinical works, the Mishnah, and the Talmuds are rejected;
- Samaritans reject Jewish codes of law;
- They have a significantly different version of the Ten Commandments (for example, their 10th commandment is about the sanctity of Mt. Gerizim).
Samaritan law is not the same as halakha (Rabbinical Jewish law). For example, Samaritans retained the Ancient Hebrew script, animal sacrifices, the actual eating of lambs at Passover, and the celebration of Rosh Hashanah in spring, at the beginning of Nisan, instead of the Babylonian-influenced fall date of Judaism. Their main Torah text differs from the Masoretic Text, as well. Some differences are doctrinal: for example, their Torah explicitly mentions that "the place that God will chose" is Mount Gerizim. Other differences seem more or less accidental.
Samaritans in the Gospels
Because of the mutual dislike between Jews and Samaritans, the Gospels twice mention good deeds by Samaritans. Jesus teaches that actions speak louder than ethnic identity or pious appearances:
- Samaritan Alphabet
- 1911 Jewish Encyclopedia, "Samaritans"
- Samarian chronology and High Priests
- Edward Kaprov Photography
- Edward Kaprov Photography 2
- The Samaritan Update
- Samaritan high priests
- Samaritans, Smallest Minority in Holy Land, Straddle Religious Divide
- The Samaritans
- Guards of Mount Grizim
- Reconstruction of Patrilineages and Matrilineages of Samaritans and Other Israeli Populations from Y-Chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Variation, by Peidong Shen, et al., in Human Mutation vol. 24 (2004), pp. 248-260
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