A Samaritan Priest raises the Torah, during Passover 2007, Mount Gerizim in the West Bank.
A Samaritan Priest raises the Torah, during Passover 2007, Mount Gerizim in the West Bank.

Today, “Samaritan” is most often associated with “good,” but to ancient Jews, Samaritans were anything but. Samaritans-Jewish hostility dated from the Israel’s split, which led to a religious schism. Jews and Samaritans both claimed to practice the true religion, and each condemned the other as heretics. Judaism has evolved with changing times for nearly 3,000 years since then, while Samaritan religion has remained the same.

Who Are the Samaritans?

In the 10th century B.C., following the death of King Solomon, civil strife broke Israel in two, with Samaria the capital of the new northern kingdom. But an Assyrian invasion destroyed the north, exiling thousands. Those left behind were cut off from Jerusalem, capital of the south and home of Solomon’s Temple, center of the Hebrew religion. In the 8th century B.C., the south suffered a Babylonian invasion and its own exile. This time, the exiles returned and rebuilt their destroyed Temple. To the returning Jews, Samaritans were outcasts. They spurned a Samaritan's offer to help with the Temple. The Samaritans retaliated by attempting to prevent construction of the Temple. The rift between the groups became irreparable.

Samaritan Religion Compared to Judaism

Like Jews, Samaritans are monotheists. The Hebrew deity is their one true god. Also like Jews, the five books of Moses comprise their sacred text. Unlike Jews, Samaritans have only one prophet, Moses. The later prophets created a revolution within Judaism the Samaritans reject. They built their Temple on Mount Gerizim, spiritual center of the Samaritan religion. Abraham’s binding of Isaac and Jacob’s dream of heaven took place on Gerizim, not Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah, according to Samaritans, who also dismiss rabbinical interpretation of the Torah. The Mishnah and Talmud are also out. Priests rule the Samaritan system. They ignore holidays and celebrations not mandated by the five books. Samaritans observe shabbat strictly, allowing no candle-burning or even sex, which in Judaism is encouraged on the sabbath.

Rivalry Between Samaritans and Jews

North-south politics sparked the conflict between Samaritans and Jews but religion later took center stage in the rivalry. Samaritans characterized Judaism as a false religion whose leaders practiced sorcery and stole the Ark of the Covenant from Mount Gerizim. So deep was Samaritan revulsion at the Jewish Temple that they once defiled it with human bones just before Passover. Jews had such disdain for Samaritans that they branded them gentiles, a label that remains to the present day. According to Jewish scholars, Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a dying man is ignored by a priest but aided by a Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), was meant to show the pointlessness of hostility toward one’s enemy.

Samaritans in the 21st Century

Today, Samaritans number only about 700 and live in two towns: Holon, near the Israeli capital of Tel Aviv, and Luza on Mount Gerizim in the West Bank. Politically, Samaritans remain neutral in the Arab-Israeli conflict. They are most visible on the Samaritan Passover, which does not coincide with Jewish Passover because Samaritans observe their own calendar. Jews abandoned animal sacrifice after the fall of the Second Temple in A.D. 70. But all Samaritan families gather on Gerizim where each one sacrifices a lamb in a Passover ceremony that’s now a well-known spectacle in Israel. Samaritans continue observing Torah purity laws rigidly, even isolating women for seven days during their menstrual cycle, and a high priest still rules. But Israel’s rabbinical authorities still refuse to recognize Samaritans as Jews.