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Like the Jews, the Samaritans are both a religious and an ethnic group. Ethnically, they are the inhabitants who lived in Samaria from the beginning of the Babylonian Exile[?] up to the beginning of the Christian era. Religiously, they are the adherents of Samaritanism. The historical origins of the Samaritans are unclear to this day.

In the past, the Samaritans are believed to have numbered several hundred thousand, but persecution and assimilation reduced their numbers drastically. An illustrated National Geographic report on the community, dated 1919 states that they number fewer than 150. Since that time, their numbers have risen to just under 650, divided about equally between their traditional home on Mount Gerizim[?], over the Palestinian town of Nablus (all that is left of the community in Nablus itself is an abandoned synagogue), and the Israeli town of Holon, just outside of Tel Aviv. While they have no particular status in Israel, they are a recognized minority in the Palestine and send one representative to the Palestinian parliament.

Inevitably, as a small community divided between two 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 side.

One of the biggest problems facing the community today is the issue of continuity. With such a small population, divided into only four families (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 the land of Israel during the early Christian era, Samaritans fared badly. Due to intense pressure to convert to Christianity (often with threats of violence) Samaritans took to attacking Christians. Christians used the threat of force to convert Samaritans and Jews to Christianity, and often had outright attacks on both Samaritans and Jews. The holy places of both groups were taken over by the Christians. By the 3rd century both Samaritans and Jews were second-class citizens. Under Zeno (47419) Samaritans amd Jews were massacred. A Samaritan fight to create their own independent state took place in 529; thousands of Samaritans died. The Samaritan faith was virtually outlawed by the Christian Byzantine Empire.

A large number (most?) of Samaritans fled the country in 634 CE, when the Arab Muslim army won at Yarmuk. 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.

By the 1830s only a small group of Samaritans in Shechem remained extant. The local Arab population (not a reflection of worldwide Islam) 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.

The Samaritan religion is based on some of the same books used as the basis of rabbinic 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.

Religious beliefs:

  • 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 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 Talmud of the Land of Israel are rejected.
  • Samaritans reject Jewish codes of law.
  • They have a significantly different version of the Ten Commandments; their 10th commandment is about the sanctity of Mt. Gerizim.

Samaritan law is not the same as halakha (Rabbinical Jewish law); Samaritan law is based on a strict adherence to the letter of the biblical text, without any of the information from the oral law which characterizes Judaism.

In current Western culture, due to the biblical parable called the Good Samaritan, being called a Samaritan is considered a high compliment as a person who is ready to immediately assist others in distress.

The Samaritans is also the name of a British telephone helpline for people in crisis, particularly those facing suicide. The organisation, which has links with the similar Befrienders International[?], takes its name from the Christian parable of The Good Samaritan, but is itself non-religious. See The Samaritans.

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