Who were the Samaritans?

Does anyone know how the Samaritans were related to the Jews of Jesus’ time? Why were they such bitter enemies? Can the descendants of the Samaritans be identified today?

The following was gleaned from articles on Samaria, Samaritans and Palestine in the 2002 World Book Encyclopedia:

Until about 1029 B.C., the Israelites were loosely organized into 12 tribes. The constant warfare with neighboring peoples led the Israelites to choose a king, Saul, as their leader. Saul’s successor, David, unified the nation to form the Kingdom of Israel, about 1000 B.C. David established his capital in Jerusalem. His son, Solomon, succeeded him as king and built the first Temple for the worship of God. Israel remained united until Solomon’s death about 928 B.C. The northern tribes of Israel then split away from the tribes in the south. The northern state continued to be called the kingdom of Israel. The southern state, called the kingdom of Judah, kept Jerusalem as its capital. In about 800 B.C., the king of the kingdom of Israel, King Omri, built the city of Samaria. He made it the capital of the kingdom of Israel. The city of Samaria was about 40 miles north of Jerusalem. The region surrounding the city became known as Samaria. The region of Samaria was situated in the region today known as the West Bank in modern Israel.
During the 700’s B.C., the Assyrians, a people who lived in what is now Iraq, extended their rule westward to the Mediterranean Sea. The Assyrians destroyed the kingdom of Israel in 721 or 722 B.C. and took the ablest Israelites to Assyria as captives. The Assyrian ruler then forced people from eastern Assyria to settle in the region of Samaria. The new settlers brought their own religious ideas, but also sought to please “the god of the land.” Many of them intermarried with the remaining Israelites. People with this mixed ancestry and mixed religion came to be called Samaritans.
The Samaritans adopted the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as their scripture. But the Hebrews to the south refused to associate with them and considered their religion inferior. When the Hebrews rebuilt their temple, they refused help that the Samaritans offered. Eventually, the Samaritans built a temple of their own, but it was destroyed by the Jews in 128 B.C.
In Jesus’s time, the Jews looked down on the Samaritans as foreigners.

The Samaritans still exist as a quite small (by our standards) community in the West Bank.

They still perform the Temple sacrifices too, although in open pits on the mountain.

The Samaritans were much like the Sadducees, in that they did not accept the Writings and Prophets in Holy Scripture and could not develop the Pharisaic notions of an afterlife. They also had no synagogs, so the community was tied to the temple (Mount Gerizim) area. When their populations dispersed or migrated many were likely to have been accepted into Jewish synagogs, if perhaps with reluctance.

Jewish sources would have us think that the Samaritans borrowed the Torah and adopted it as their own. However they only had the first five books because that’s all that were accepted in the kingdom of Israel and these people were actually Israelites.

It seems that Samaritans were attracted to follow Jesus Christ even while He walked among us and they may have contributed disproportionate numbers of new members to the church in Apostolic times. It could be that this was one reason the Jerusalem church was so conservative about accepting gentiles from Paul’s missions, they had been dealing with a “Samaritan convert” problem from the very beginning and it was a hot-button issue in the region.

I think it’s a fascinating subject. I have often wondered if they weren’t unfairly abused over the fact that they had accepted converts under the Assyrian occupation, the Judaic Hebrews did just the same in other historic times. The charge that they mixed their religious beliefs is probably overemphasized, a bit of Biblical spin-doctoring, although I think they must have had a very difficult time “catechising” their people under the Assyrian oppression.

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