The Samaritans in Recent Research

We now know from the Dead Sea discoveries that texts similar to the Samaritan Pentateuch were circulating together with texts that foreshadow the Masoretic text and the Septuagint. No “sectarian” differences are present in these manuscripts, which means that the so-called pre-Samaritan texts were used side by side with the other versions. Thus, in its substance, the Pentateuch was common to Yahwistic Samarians and and Yahwistic Judeans long before the Samarian Yhwh worshipers parted company with the latter.

See Also: The Samaritans: A Profile (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016).

By Reinhard Pummer
Department of Classics and Religious Studies
University of Ottawa
December 2015

“High Priest of Vanishing Samaritan Sect Dead at 82” was the headline in one of the daily online Israeli newspapers in 2001. From today’s vantage point, this statement was wrong on two accounts. One, the Samaritans are not a sect, and, two, they did not vanish but grew substantially in the meantime.[1]

Thanks to the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), most people are aware that in Palestine, in the time of Jesus, Samaritans constituted a special group different from the Jews. However, few realize that descendants of this community are still alive, and even fewer know what made them special in antiquity and what makes them unique today.

Formerly – and in some cases still today – Bible translations into Western languages contained one instance of the term “Samaritans” in 2 Kings 17:29, depicting the latter as worshipers of Yhwh who, at the same time, were dedicated to other gods that were introduced into Samaria by the Assyrians in the eighth century BCE. Modern research, however, has shown that this passage describes accurately neither the origin of the Samaritans nor their religion, and the translation of the Hebrew term should read “the people of Samaria”. Ever since biblical times the Samaritans have been monotheists, worshiping Yhwh – the same God as the Jews – and basing themselves on the same sacred scripture, the Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch. At the same time, it is now generally accepted among scholars of Samaritanism that the Samaritans are not a sect of Judaism that broke away from its mother religion late in the history of Israel. Rather, it became clear that they constitute a branch of the religion of Israel that eventually went its own way, developing its own traditions and customs.

According to the Samaritans’ own beliefs, they are the original Israelites who have lived in the land of the Bible for more than three thousand years[2] and have kept the revelation received by Moses undiluted. In their mind, it was the Jews who abandoned the place chosen by God for his worship, Mount Gerizim,[3] and eventually built their temple in Jerusalem. In contrast to this insider view and to the scholarly view, many Jews – and some Christians – still see the Samaritans as syncretists, as intimated by a certain reading of the aforementioned passage in 2 Kings.

While older scholarship accepted some of the explanations contained in the Bible and other ancient sources – particularly Flavius Josephus’ works – regarding the Samaritans’ origins and nature, research in the last decades has painted a different picture. In particular, new insights have been gained from the advanced study of the Pentateuch in light of the Dead Sea Scroll findings and from new archaeological discoveries, above all in Samaria but also in the surrounding lands.

Regarding their sacred scripture, the traditional view among most scholars was that the Samaritans took over the Pentateuch from the Judeans when they separated and adapted it to their own theology by making various changes in the text. We now know from the Dead Sea discoveries that texts similar to the Samaritan Pentateuch were circulating together with texts that foreshadow the Masoretic text and the Septuagint.[4] No “sectarian” differences are present in these manuscripts, which means that the so-called pre-Samaritan texts were used side by side with the other versions. Thus, in its substance, the Pentateuch was common to Yahwistic Samarians and Yahwistic Judeans long before the Samarian Yhwh worshipers parted company with the latter. What scholarship once considered “sectarian” changes introduced by the Samaritans into the text, are not readings specific to the Samaritans, but nearly all of them existed already before the split. The only Samaritan addition seems to be a selection of verses added to the end of the Decalogue to emphasize the holiness of Mt. Gerizim. However, even here the possibility must be considered that the Masoretic text and the Septuagint knew of the insertion but declined to include it (Ulrich 2015:222).

Equally as important for a proper understanding of the origin and religion of the Samaritans are the archaeological excavations carried out especially in the last three decades in Samaria and beyond. Following Josephus, it was previously believed that Yahwistic Samarians built a temple on Mt. Gerizim in the time of Alexander the Great, and disgruntled and shunned priests with their followers moved from Jerusalem to the new temple. Yet, excavations have shown that a Yhwh sanctuary existed on the main summit of Mt. Gerizim already in the fifth century BCE.[5] Although no temple building was found so far, a sacred precinct was unearthed and the excavator assumes that a temple stood in it. In the Hellenistic period the precinct was enlarged and the presumed temple rebuilt. Numerous inscriptions and other objects confirm the religious importance of the site. In addition, a large city surrounding the sanctuary was built in the third century BCE.[6] A monumental staircase leading up the eastern side of the mountain to the sacred precinct shows that large numbers of worshipers and pilgrims converged on the sanctuary.

Similar to the re-dating of the erection of the Gerizim sanctuary, the destruction of it too had to be assigned a new date. According to Josephus, it was destroyed by the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus I in 130 or 129 BCE. Coin finds, however, date the destruction to 111/110 BCE. Neither the sanctuary nor the surrounding city were ever rebuilt, although Mt. Gerizim remained the religious focus of the Samaritans up to this day. The only ruins visible on the summit of the mountain before the recent excavations were those of the Theotokos church built in the fifth century by Emperor Zeno and reinforced by Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century.

Similar to the Jews, Samaritan communal worship now takes place in synagogues – two in the Samaritan quarter in Holon, south of Tel Aviv, and one (soon to be two) on Mt. Gerizim. From literary and epigraphical sources it was known for a long time that the Samaritans, like the Jews, had synagogues already in the late Roman and early Byzantine times.[7] Again, archaeological excavations have enriched our knowledge of early Samaritan synagogues substantially. Since the material culture of Jews and Samaritans at that time was very similar, it is not always easy to distinguish between Jewish and Samaritan buildings and objects. Scholars use various indicators to determine whether a synagogue was Samaritan or not. Among these criteria are the location in an area known from literary sources to have been inhabited by Samaritans, inscriptions in Samaritan script, the absence of depictions of animate beings, and the orientation towards Mt. Gerizim. Inscriptions in Samaritan script identify a synagogue as Samaritan even if it is located outside of Samaria. So far, no representations of humans or animals have been found in any Samaritan mosaic pavement. Orientation towards Mt. Gerizim is not as clear-cut as it appears. Not only can topographical conditions and previous buildings on a given spot influence it, but it also depends what is meant by “orientation”. The term can refer to the position of the entrance or the apse if there is one, or the position taken when reading the Torah or when praying.

Today all Samaritans live in the confines of Palestine, and they emphasize in their publications that it is the duty of a Samaritan not to settle outside of the land of the Bible. This was not always so. In antiquity and even into early modern times, a Samaritan diaspora existed in all Mediterranean countries where Jews were to be found. Our knowledge of this diaspora is derived primarily from epigraphic and literary sources. The earliest testimony comes from two Greek inscriptions found on the Greek island of Delos in the 1970s. On palaeographic grounds they were dated in the second century BCE. The authors of the inscriptions identify themselves as “Israelites (on Delos) who make contributions to holy Mount Gerizim”. The inscriptions were placed in a synagogue which so far has not been identified with certainty. As the number of Samaritans shrank in the course of time, the diaspora disappeared.

Hostile regimes and natural calamities caused the Samaritan population to dwindle from a large people to a few hundred individuals. Hostility towards them began with the Jewish Hasmonean rulers in the last centuries before the turn of the eras, continued with the Christian Byzantine empire in the fourth and subsequent centuries, and was renewed with many Muslim rulers from the seventh century on. Precise – or even approximate – numbers are impossible to give for the early history of the community either in Palestine or in the diaspora. Scholars have put forward estimates which range from one and a half million to one hundred thousand before the Samaritan revolts against the Byzantine empire and the adversities under Muslim rule. Some population figures have been preserved in Jewish travel reports of the Middle Ages and in Muslim sources, but more exact numbers begin to appear only in the Ottoman period. The absolute low was a little over one hundred individuals in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Today, the Samaritans in both communities together number almost eight hundred persons.

What made their numbers rise were marriages, first, beginning in the nineteenth century, to Jewish women, and, then, in this century, to women of other backgrounds, including Christian, Muslim, and non-religious women. To be eligible as marriage partners, they must agree to accept and practice the Samaritan religion. Samaritan women, on the other hand, are not allowed to marry men of other faiths, because, as opposed to Judaism which follows the matrilineal principle, the Samaritans follow the patrilineal principle, recognized in the Bible, according to which the offspring of a Samaritan father, not mother, is a Samaritan.

Another area of Samaritan studies that has received new impetus in the last few decades, is the edition and translation of Samaritan works. The oldest is their Pentateuch, but the greater part of Samaritan literary sources dates from the Middle Ages and later. Among them are Bible commentaries, legal (halakhic) writings, liturgical compositions, and historical writings, called Chronicles. Presently, a multi-year project is under way to produce a new critical edition of the Samaritan Pentateuch. A new parallel edition of the Samaritan and the Masoretic text of the Pentateuch was published (Tal-Florentin 2010), and the first English translation of the Pentateuch by a Samaritan has just appeared (Tsedaka 2013). Earlier, a critical edition of the Samaritan Aramaic Targum was published (Tal 1980-83), and this was followed by the publication of a dictionary of Samaritan Aramaic (Tal 2005) and a grammar of the same language (Tal 2014). A new edition of the texts of the liturgy is in preparation, and a new edition and English translation of the important midrashic work Tibat Marqe (formerly called Memar Marqe) is about to be published (Tal forthcoming). For some of the medieval Chronicles, we have new editions and translations, but for others we have to rely on older works.[8] Thus, there are yet many desiderata in the field of Samaritan literature.

In 1985, the Societé d’Études Samaritaines was founded in Paris as an association of scholars of Samaritan and related studies ( Its aim is to promote research on matters Samaritan through four-yearly congresses, publications, and cooperation between scholars. This cooperation has begun to include scholars from disciplines other than the traditional fields of biblical studies, history and linguistics; anthropologists and sociologists are now contributing to the study of contemporary Samaritans, both through thesis research and publications of articles and books (Ireton 2003; Urien 2011; Urien in preparation). Although Samaritanism appears to have survived into the modern world because it holds fast to its ancient traditions, it nevertheless has undergone changes throughout its history and is undergoing profound transformations in our time. To preserve the substance of its beliefs and practices it had to adapt to varying circumstances and influences – from the hostility shown towards it by the Hasmoneans, Byzantines, and Muslims to the more benevolent attitudes exercised by modern regimes. This benign disposition by various governments and populations among whom they live, however, has led to new challenges and different elements pressing in on them. As mentioned earlier, they had to make decisions regarding “new blood” for their community. This in turn caused unprecedented complications in the community (Schreiber 2014). Other factors are novel life-styles adopted by some of the younger members. Traditionally, the family and neighbors controlled most of the life of every member of the community. The lure of more independence and freedom has become strong for some and they have moved away from their kin in Holon to other parts of Israel. Some have adopted an approach to the religious education of their children that differs from their own religious upbringing, i.e. they postpone the reading of the complete Bible until the children are ready, rather than obliging them to do so at an early age.[9] A number of women have converted to Judaism, and they and their family have been ostracized and are shunned by their fellow Samaritans.[10]

Politically, the Samaritans are avowed Zionists,[11] but in Nablus they must find ways to live in peace within a sea of Muslims. On the one hand, they do not want to be painted with the same brush as the occupiers, on the other, they do want to belong with the Jews in Israel. To enable them to live in harmony with the local population they employ a variety of strategies, from lectures on their religion and customs to participation in social events where religious boundaries are temporarily suspended (Droeber 2013).


Crown, Alan D., and Reinhard Pummer. A Bibliography of the Samaritans: Third Edition: Revised, Expanded, and Annotated. ATLA Bibliography, 51. Lanham, MD; Toronto; Oxford: Scarecrow, 2005.

Droeber, Julia. The Dynamics of Coexistence in the Middle East: Negotiating Boundaries Between Christians, Muslims, Jews and Samaritans. Library of Modern Middle East Studies, 135. London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013.

Ireton, Sean. “The Samaritans: Strategies for Survival of an Ethnoreligious Minority in the Twenty-First Century.” M.A. thesis. University of Kent at Canterbury, Department of Anthropology, 2003.

Lone Samaritan. Film.

Magen, Yitzhak. Flavia Neapolis: Shechem in the Roman Period, Volume 1. Judea & Samaria Publications, 11. Jerusalem: Staff Officer of Archaeology – Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria; Israel Antiquities Authority, 2009.

Magen, Yitzhak. Mount Gerizim Excavations II: A Temple City. Judea & Samaria Publications, 8. Jerusalem: Staff Officer of Archaeology – Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria; Israel Antiquities Authority, 2008.

Magen, Yitzhak. The Samaritans and the Good Samaritan. Judea & Samaria Publications, 7. Jerusalem: Staff Officer of Archaeology – Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria; Israel Antiquities Authority, 2008.

Magen, Yitzhak, Haggai Misgav, and Levana Tsfania. Mount Gerizim Excavations I : The Aramaic, Hebrew and Samaritan Inscriptions. Judea & Samaria Publications, 2. Jerusalem: Staff Officer of Archaeology – Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria; Israel Antiquities Authority, 2004.

Pummer, Reinhard. “Samaritan Synagogues and Jewish Synagogues: Similarities and Differences.” Pages 118–60 in Jews, Christians, and Polytheists in the Ancient Synagogue: Cultural Interaction During the Greco-Roman Period. Edited by Steven Fine. Baltimore Studies in the History of Judaism. London; New York: Routledge, 1999.

Pummer, Reinhard. The Samaritans: A Profile. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016.

“Samaritans – Proud Israeli Zionists”. Video. YiS4vCnAwP8.

Schreiber, Monika. The Comfort of Kin: Samaritan Community, Kinship, and Marriage. Brill’s Series in Jewish Studies, 51. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014.

Tal, Abraham. A Dictionary of Samaritan Aramaic. Handbuch der Orientalistik. Erste Abteilung: Der Nahe und Mittlere Osten, 50. Band, 2. Teil. 2 Vols. Leiden, Boston, and Köln: Brill, 2000 (Hebrew).

Tal, Abraham. Samaritan Aramaic. Lehrbücher orientalischer Sprachen - LOS III/2. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2014.

Tal, Abraham, ed. The Samaritan Targum of the Pentateuch: A Critical Edition. 3 vols. Texts and Studies in the Hebrew Language and Related Subjects, 4–6. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 1980–83 (Hebrew).

Tal, Abraham. Tībåt Mårqe. תיבת מרקה. The Ark of Mårqe: Edition, Translation, Commentary. Berlin: De Gruyter, forthcoming.

Tal, Abraham, and Moshe Florentin, eds. The Pentateuch – The Samaritan Version and the Masoretic Version. Tel Aviv: The Haim Rubin Tel Aviv University Press, 2010 (Hebrew).

Ulrich, Eugene. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible. VTSupl 169. Leiden: Brill, 2015.

Urien, Fanny. “Frontières, mémoire et médiation dans la communauté samaritaine, sépare̓e entre Israël et les territoires palestiniens.” M.A. thesis. Paris: Écoles des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2011.

Urien, Fanny. “Rendre visible ses origines et attester son authenticité. Organisation sociale, transmission et construction identitaire dans la communauté samaritaine, située entre Holon (Israël) et Kiryat Luza (Cisjordanie).” Ph.D. dissertation. Paris: École des Hautes Études de Sciences Sociales, forthcoming.

The Wandering Samaritan. Film. _samaritan.


[1] For an account of the present state of our knowledge about the Samaritans, see now Pummer, The Samaritans: A Profile.

[2] In fact, in the Samaritan calendar, 2015-2016 CE corresponds to 3653-3654 after the Israelites’ entry into the Holy Land.

[3] Located near the modern city of Nablus.

[4] The increasing recognition of the importance of the Samaritan Pentateuch in the study of the Pentateuch as such has been strongly emphasized by Ulrich in his recent book, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible, where chapter 14 is entitled “Rising Recognition of the Samaritan Pentateuch” (pp. 215-227).

[5] The temple on the lower peak, Tell er-Ras, north of the main summit, was once considered by some archaeologists to have been the Samaritan temple. However, new excavations have shown that it was a Roman temple dedicated to Zeus and built in the second century CE. For a thorough description of this building see Magen, Flavia Neapolis: Shechem in the Roman Period, Volume 1, 236–56.

[6] See Magen, Misgav, and Tsfania, Mount Gerizim Excavations I; Magen, Mount Gerizim Excavations II; Magen, The Samaritans and the Good Samaritan.

[7] For an illustrated discussion of antique Samaritan synagogues in Palestine see Magen, The Samaritans and the Good Samaritan, 117–80. For a discussion of all ancient Samaritan synagogues known or inferred in the late 1990s, see Pummer, “Samaritan Synagogues and Jewish Synagogues”.

[8] Crown and Pummer, A Bibliography of the Samaritans: Third Edition, s.v. Chronicles.

[9] For the story of such a family see the film The Wandering Samaritan (

[10] Depicted in the film Lone Samaritan (

[11] Emphasized by the video entitled “Samaritans - Proud Israeli Zionists” ( watch?v=YiS4vCnAwP8).

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