Who Are the Samaritans? (Dan Liu)

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Edkaprov (Edward Kaprov)., Samaritans marking Passover on Mount Gerizim, West Bank – 20060418CC BY-SA 3.0

Who are the Samaritans? And what can we learn from their portrayal in the New Testament?  To begin, many of us are familiar with the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman found in John 4.  Their dialogue highlights some commonalities and distinctions between the Jews and the Samaritans. We learn from the woman that the Samaritans shared a common ancestry with the Jews — note how she claimed “our father Jacob,” the son of Abraham (4:12), as part of her heritage. The place where she and Jesus met was at Jacob’s well (John 4:6, Genesis 33:19, Joshua 24:32). Moreover, as their conversation proceeds, we learn that the Samaritans and Jews disagreed on where proper worship could be carried out — the Jews insisted on Jerusalem, whereas the Samaritans worshipped on a mountain in Samaria, Mt. Gerizim. Finally, like the Jews, the Samaritans likewise were awaiting a “Messiah” (4:25).

Some Historical Background

     So, who were these people? Historical scholarship tells us that “the Samaritans were the descendants of the foreigners who settled in Israel after the Assyrian invasion in 722 B.C. and with whom the Jews had often unlawfully married.”[1] Today, Samaritans still live in the West Bank near Mount Gerizim. Modern journalism reports that

According to Biblical tradition, the Israelites were divided into 12 tribes and the Israelite Samaritans say they are descended from three of them : Menasseh, Ephraim and Levi. After the Exodus from Egypt and 40 years of wandering, Joshua led the people of Israel to Mount Gerizim. There he united the tribes with a ceremony that included a blessing for Mount Gerizim (which became known as the Mountain of the Blessing) and a curse for Mount Ebal (the Mountain of the Curse).[2]

Sharing common ancestry and history with the tribes of Israel helps to explain the similarities and differences between Jews and Samaritans. Samaritans actually follow a “slightly different version” of the first five books of the Old Testament, written in their own dialect. Their vision of a Messiah also differed from that of the Jews.[3]

Clues from the Text

     Let’s consider from other passages in the Bible what we can learn about the Samaritans. In His instructions to the twelve, Jesus distinguishes between “the Gentiles,” “the Samaritans,” and “Israel” (Matthew 10:5). The Samaritans were not just another group of Gentiles, since they needed specific mention, and yet they were not a typical part of Israel, according to scholar Jacob Jervell.[4]  In John 4:9, the gospel writer mentions that “Jews do not associate with Samaritans,” even though Judea bordered Samaria. It seems all too familiar to our human nature to despise others from another “tribe,” especially when they may be closely related in history or ancestry. The sons of Zebedee, James and John, sought to call heavenly fire down to destroy a Samaritan village that Jesus and the disciples were passing through, since its inhabitants “… there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53).  Jews who opposed Jesus accused him of either having “a demon” or being “a Samaritan” (John 8:48). Those Jews apparently despised these neighbors but interestingly, Jesus only refuted the accusation of demon possession, not addressing the Samaritan “smear” at all.

     Jervell describes the Samaritans as “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”[5] He remarks that “for Luke they are Jews who have gone astray.”[6] He observes that among NT writers Luke mentions the Samaritans the most,[7] and concludes that Luke’s intent was to demonstrate how “the apostles’ own approval of Samaria” (Acts 8), how they “themselves brought the lost sheep of the house of Israel back to Israel to be part of the restored people of God”[8] was a significant milestone.

     Returning to Acts 8 will help us see what Jervell means. We recall that Philip went down to Samaria to preach the word. There he encountered Simon, who practiced magic. The apostles Peter and John were sent from Jerusalem to Samaria, and they prayed for the new believers among the Samaritans and rebuked Simon for the “wickedness” in his heart (Acts 8: 22). On their way home, “Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages” (Acts 8:25). The Samaritans thus received an apostolic stamp of authority on their restoration to this new Israel.

Other Samaritans in the New Testament

      Jesus demonstrated love to the Samaritans, as evidenced in his conversation with the woman at the well. He saw commendable qualities in other Samaritans. Consider this passage:

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him — and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

Luke 17: 11-19

Jesus directed the ten lepers to go to priests (He must have known that among them was a Samaritan, so it must have been acceptable from His point of view to send one to the priest[9]). Jesus also commended the only one who returned to thank Him, the “foreigner,” the Samaritan.

     Balthasar van Cortbemde creator QS:P170,Q21345062 , Balthasar van Cortbemde – The Good Samaritan, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

Another Samaritan that Jesus regarded highly was the one in the parable who was travelling, as a priest and a Levite had been, on that road between Jerusalem and Jericho (Luke 10:25-37). Unlike the religious Jews who each passed on the other side of the road, the Samaritan was moved by compassion. The Greek verb σπλαγχνίζομαι comes from the root splagxnízomai – “from splanxna, ‘the inward parts,’ especially the nobler entrails – the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys.”[10] The Samaritan’s compassion welled up viscerally, from a depth of feeling, and became action. Luke uses this word (or a related form) in his gospel in three other places.[11] In the first, John the Baptist’s father Zechariah describes “the tender mercy of our God” (Luke 1:78). In the second, Jesus was moved by compassion when he came to Nain and saw a widow walking alongside those carrying her dead son: “When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” (Luke 7:13). Finally, we find this word used in the Parable of the Lost Son: “‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him’” (Luke 15:20). In terms of language, the Samaritan’s actions compare to the “tender mercy” of God, the compassion of Jesus, and the love of the father awaiting his lost son’s return. Jesus calls us to pay attention to the godly action of this true “neighbor” (Luke 10:36), who responded compassionately to another man in need.

Conclusion

     Samaritans and Jews were related, sharing some common ancestry, similar faith books, and living near one another. Jesus recognized the godly character possible in the Samaritans, though Jews often despised them. In fact, He not only recognized their value but also held them up as examples to learn from and imitate. It seems that God regards highly the humility, gratitude, and compassion of all peoples, perhaps especially those of a group that the majority culture may marginalize or look down upon, that we may learn from their example.

***

Some questions or practical suggestions:

1. Who might you consider to be a “Samaritan” in your own life? Someone from another ethnic group, perhaps? Or from another socio-economic status?

2. Consider Jesus’ compassion toward the woman at Jacob’s well. Though she was “different,” He did not hesitate to initiate a conversation with her. Keep this in mind the next time you encounter a Samaritan in your interactions.

3. We tend to look up to people who are similar to us. Can we step back for a moment, consider, and learn from the good examples of people not like us? Can I humble myself and learn from a Samaritan in my life?  


[1] Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 18.

[2] Judith Fein, “The Last of the Good Samaritans,” BBC Travel, August 30, 2018, accessed January 7-8, 2023, at https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20180828-the-last-of-the-good-samaritans.

[3] Blomberg, 18. Another good read about today’s Samaritans was written by Terry Giles, entitled “We Praise People as ‘Good Samaritans,’ But There’s a Complex History Behind the Phrase,” The Conversation, August 19, 2022, accessed January 7-8, 2023, at https://theconversation.com/we-praise-people-as-good-samaritans-but-theres-a-complex-history-behind-the-phrase-188036 .

[4] Jacob Jervell, Luke and the People of God: A New Look at Luke-Acts (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002), 113-132. Jervell’s analysis provides the gist of my discussion in this section.

[5] Jervell, 113.

[6] Jervell, 124.

[7] Jervell, 113.

[8] Jervell, 127.

[9] Jervell, 122.

[10] Bible Hub, “Strong’s Concordance: 4697. Splagchnizomai,” found at https://biblehub.com/greek/4697.htm and accessed on January 8, 2023.

[11] Ellen F. Davis, Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives for Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry (Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church), (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 76-79.

Author: Dan Liu

Dan has degrees from Yale (American Studies), Harvard (public policy), and Rochester University (religious education). He serves as an elder in the Hong Kong Church of Christ. Married for 32 years, he has two sons, one daughter-in-law, and one grandchild. Email: danliu1961@gmail.com. Dan 擁有耶魯(美國研究)、哈佛 (公共政策)、Rochester University (宗教教育) 等院校學位。現時是香港基督教會長老。結婚32年,育有兩子及一兒媳、一孫兒。電郵:danliu1961@gmail.com

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