Josephus on Samaritan Origins

According to Joachim Jeremias, the Samaritans in Josephus are viewed as a “mixed Judeo-Gentile race,” a position held in some circles even today. Jeremias, however, is wrong. This essay focuses on Josephus’ origin stories for the Samaritans and draws attention to the names he uses for the Samaritans. As we will see, these names have less to do with the Samaritans’ actual origins, but instead, the names Josephus applies to the Samaritans have a social-rhetorical function of categorizing these people as not us, that is, not Jews/Judeans.

See Also: Jesus the Samaritan: Ethnic Labeling in the Gospel of John (Brill 2019).

By Stewart Penwell
Corydon, IN
October 2019

The study of the Samaritans in Josephus is a field of its own and is accompanied by vast research. This essay is necessarily limited to specific passages concerning Samaritan origins in Josephus and, even then, will not review all of them. For a comprehensive analysis of the Samaritans in Josephus, see Reinhard Pummer (2009).

       Joachim Jeremias had set the tone of the discussion about Samaritans for several decades between his entry on the Samaritans in TDNT (1965) and his publication of Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (1969). In the latter, Jeremias wrote concerning the Samaritans: “During the post-biblical period, the attitude of the Jews towards their neighbors the Samaritans, who were regarded as mixed Judeo-Gentile race, underwent great changes and run into extremes. The older accounts tended to overlook this, with the result that they have a false picture” (Jeremias 1969, 352). Fifty years later, however, we can see that Jeremias has also created a “false picture” of the Samaritans and particularly with the notion of a “mixed race.” Yet, in a perhaps overlooked book review of Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, Jacob Neusner rightly states: “That one-fourth of the work should concern racial purity is perhaps a reflection of the obsession of the country in which it was written [i.e., Germany] rather than of the country which it concerns” (Neusner 1971, 201). Since Jeremias’ discussion of Samaritans is included in “Part Four: The Maintenance of Racial Purity,” I encourage everyone to reconsider what we know about the Samaritan people in our primary source material, and it is my hope that this essay can serve as an impetus in that direction (see also Coggins 1975).

       In order to begin to correct Jeremias’ “false picture,” let us note that in Josephus, the names of people groups are connected to geographic locations. Accordingly, the people group Josephus identifies himself with is “Jews/Judeans.” He states: “This name [Ἰουδαῖοι], by which they have been called from the time when they went up from Babylon, is derived from the tribe of Judah; as this tribe was the first to come to those parts, both the people themselves and the country have taken their name from it” (Ant. 11.173). In this passage, Josephus notes that the name Jew/Judean only began in the post-exilic period (i.e., after 538 B.C.E.) but that Jew/Judean is a derivative of Judah, the tribe that inhabited that region. Accordingly, we can see that names, and particularly ethnic names, are defined geographically.

       I contend, as well as other scholars, that Josephus uses ethnic categories for the Jews (Mason 2001, 2007; Esler 2009) as well as for the Samaritans (Feldman 1996). Since Josephus uses ethnic categories for Jews/Judeans and Samaritans, I use a social-scientific model of ethnicity in order to draw attention to Josephus’ portrayal of Samaritan origins. According to this model, there are multiple cultural features used by a group for how they understand themselves (in-group identity) as well as for how they understand other groups (out-group categorization). In particular, John Hutchinson and Anthony Smith have identified six cultural features that are used instrumentally (that is, in the moments of everyday practice) to 1) inculcate its members as well as 2) to differentiate them from other ethnic groups. The cultural features are as follows:

H-S #1: a common proper name to identify the group

H-S #2: a myth of common ancestry

H-S #3: shared memories of a common past (including heroes, events, and their commemoration)

H-S #4: a common culture (norming, including religion, customs, or language)

H-S #5: an attachment to a geographic homeland

H-S #6: a sense of communal solidarity (Hutchinson and Smith 1996, 6–7).


Josephus portrays the Samaritans as a separate ethnic group from the “Judeans” (cf. Ant. 10.184, 17.20, 18.85), yet at the same time, he recognizes the Samaritans’ claim to Israelite descent (cf. Ant. 9.291; 11.341). Using these six cultural features as a heuristic tool highlights the fact that Josephus’ criticism was not that Samaritans were a “mixed-race” (whatever that term means) or even that they were Gentiles. Instead, Josephus’ issue with the Samaritans was their wavering communal solidarity (H-S#6) with the Jews/Judeans (see Ant. 11.340; 12.257, 261). I have decided to focus on the origin stories because it is here that Josephus firmly establishes his main criticism of wavering communal solidarity against the Samaritans (Ant. 9.291; 11.340; 12.257).

       In Antiquities, Josephus tells two origin stories for the Samaritans. The first story Josephus records focuses upon the name “Cutheans” for the Samaritans. The second origin story revolves around the name “Shechemites” and reveals a certain ambivalence of Josephus toward the Samaritans. There is a possible third origin story for the Samaritans concerning the name “Sidonians,” but for simplicity’s sake, we are only concerned with the first two. As we will see, the purpose of calling the Samaritans by these other names is not only to distinguish but, indeed, to separate them from Judean ethnic identity.

Samaritans are Cutheans: Josephus’ First Origin Story

According to Josephus, when the ten tribes of the northern Israelites were deported by Assyria, they were replaced by another people (cf. Ant. 10.184). These people are the “Chūthaioi,” and this “is the name by which they have been called to this day because of having been brought over from the region called Chūtha, which is in Persia, as is a river by the same name” (Ant. 9.288). Josephus also speciously “explains” that “those who are called Chūthaioi (Cuthim) in the Hebrew tongue [are called] Samareitai (Samaritans) by the Greeks” (Ant. 9.290). It is important to note here that the name Cuthean is derived from and defined by its geographic location, and as such, the name is a tool for Josephus and other Judeans to use in order to assert the foreignness of the Samaritans.

       Perhaps the most intriguing fact is how Josephus’ version is different from the account in 2 Kings 17. In both accounts, the Samaritans were “freed from the pestilence” (Ant. 9.290) of lion attacks (2 Kgs 17:25) with the introduction of Yahwism. Yet, rather than condemn the Samaritans for religious syncretism (such as in 2 Kings 17:29–41), Josephus seemingly praises them because “even to this day” the Samaritans continue to use “these same rites” in which they “worshipped Him [Yahweh] with great zeal” (Ant. 9.290). For Josephus, the issue is not the Samaritans’ Yahwism (H-S #4: a common culture, embracing such things as religion) but rather the Samaritans’ lack of “communal solidarity” (H-S #6) with the Judeans to the south.

       In the Cuthean origin story of the Samaritans, Josephus does not disparage their religious practices but rather their opportunistic identification with Judean ethnic identity. At the end of his first account, Josephus states his central criticism is that the Samaritans “alter their attitude according to circumstance” (Ant. 9.291). When the Judeans are prospering, the Samaritans “call them their [relatives]” and recall how they are descendants of Joseph (Ant. 9.291). Yet, when the Judeans are in trouble, the Samaritans “say that they have nothing whatever in common with them (Judeans) . . . and they (Samaritans) declare themselves to be aliens of another race” (Ant. 9.291). In this origin story, the Samaritans were Cutheans from Persia who had become Yahwistic Samaritan-Israelites. What was troublesome to Josephus, however, was their dual-ethnic identity, which could be turned to their advantage when necessary.

Samaritans as Renegade Judeans: A Second Origin Story

The second origin story begins with Josephus repeating his criticism from Ant. 9.291 concerning the opportunistic “nature of the Samaritans, as we have already shown somewhere above” (Ant. 11.341). According to Josephus, the Samaritans meet Alexander the Great outside of Jerusalem, and because “Alexander had so signally honored the Jews,” the Samaritans “decided to profess themselves Jews” (Ant. 11.340). Josephus remarks that when times are good for the Judeans, the Samaritans “suddenly grasp at the connection with [the Judeans], saying that they are related to them and tracing their line back to Ephraim and Manasseh, the descendants of Joseph” (Ant. 11.341). Yet, the Samaritans ultimately did not “profess themselves Jews” when they met Alexander; instead, they said to him “that they were Hebrews” (Ant. 11.344).

            In this, Josephus’ second origin story, the Samaritans’ claim to be Hebrews is a distinct possibility given that here Josephus states the Samaritans’ main city of Shechem “was inhabited by apostates from the Jewish nation (ἔθνους)” (Ant. 11.340). Furthermore, Josephus adds: “Whenever anyone was accused by the people of Jerusalem of eating unclean food or violating the Sabbath or committing any other such sin, he would flee to the Shechemites, saying that he had been unjustly expelled” (Ant. 11.346–347). Consequently, if Shechem were inhabited by Judean deserters, then this would certainly help to legitimize the Samaritans’ claim of Israelite/Hebrew lineage. Regardless of this possibility, however, Josephus concludes this section with double reference to the Samaritans as “Shechemites” (Ant.11.344, 347).

       The name “Shechemites” is found earlier in Josephus when he tells the stories from the book of Judges (cf. Ant. 5.240–1, 243, 247, 248, and 250–1). Magnar Kartveit suggests that the name “Shechemites” implies that “the Samaritans had a connection to the original inhabitants of the city, and this runs counter to his first story that they are immigrants” (Kartveit 2009, 94). In this case, then, Josephus uses the name “Cuthean” to designate the Samaritans as foreigners and outsiders to Israel, whereas the name “Shechemites” is used to denote the Samaritans as heretics (apostates/deserters) within Israel but not Judeans.

            The last point is illustrated by the fact that although they “decided to profess themselves Jews” (Ant. 11.340), the Samaritans ultimately did not do this but rather self-identified themselves as “Hebrews” (Ant. 11.344). While it certainly would have been beneficial for the Samaritans to say they were Jews in accordance with Josephus’ repeated criticism, the Samaritans did not do this according to Josephus’ account. Instead, the Samaritans professed they were “Hebrews” by “tracing their line back to Ephraim and Manasseh, the descendants of Joseph” (Ant. 11.341). Joseph, Ephraim, and Manasseh were not, after all, Jews or Judeans, which, as we noted earlier, is a term for the inhabitants and descendants of Judah (see Ant. 11.173). Joseph and his descendants were “Hebrews,” and in this way, the Samaritans only denied their identification with the Yahwist Judeans to the south. The Samaritans identified themselves with those Hebrews who settled in the north, symbolized by Mount Gerizim and the city of Shechem, where Joseph was buried (Josh 24:32). Since the Samaritans identified themselves as the descendants of Joseph (H-S #2), they were an inherent danger to the construction of Judean identity.

Josephus Doth Protests Too Much: The Samaritans are Jews?

The third and final occurrence of Josephus’ criticism of opportunism against the Samaritans is during the Maccabean revolt: “When the Samaritans saw the Jews suffering these misfortunes, they would no longer admit that they were their kin or that the temple on Gerizim was that of the Most Great God, thereby acting in accordance with their nature, as we have shown” (Ant. 12.257; cf. Ant. 9.291; 11.341). Ingrid Hjelm has shrewdly observed that since Josephus’ criticism is “the hypocrisy of the Samaritans,” and given that these “accounts state that they are not Jews, which, in consideration of their hypocrisy, should imply that they, in fact, are Jews and therefore should partake in the fate of the Jews whether good or bad” (Hjelm 2000, 208). However, Hjelm’s statement needs nuancing because the Samaritans, according to Josephus, did not identify themselves as Jews or Judeans.” Instead, as in the previous section, the Samaritans consistently identified themselves with the tribes of Joseph in the north, so they were “Hebrews” who shared descent with the Judeans but were not themselves “Jews” or “Judeans.”

            In light of his main criticism of opportunistic hypocrisy against the Samaritans, Josephus thought that the Samaritans, as Yahwists, should demonstrate solidarity with their Judean co-religionists to the south. According to sociologist Everett Hughes, it is “the living of a common life and the facing of common problems” that stimulates the development of a common ethnic identification (Hughes 1994, 92). In light of Hughes’ principle, it is reasonable for Josephus to criticize the Samaritans for their wavering communal solidarity (H-S#6) instead of critiquing the Samaritans similar, if not identical, ethnic features such as Yahwistic cultic practices (H-S#4). For example, the Samaritans request to Alexander “to remit their tribute in the seventh year, saying that they did not sow therein” (Ant. 11.343). Alexander “replied, ‘But I have given these privileges to the Jews’” (Ant. 11.344; added emphasis). Josephus subtly acknowledged that both Judeans and Samaritans shared this cultural practice. Another example is that both Judeans and Samaritans kept the Sabbath. Albeit in Ant. 11.346, the Samaritans were Sabbath-breakers, but in Ant. 12.259, the Samaritans were Sabbath-keepers. Regardless of whether Josephus thought the Samaritans were good or bad at maintaining the Sabbath, the important point is that the Samarians had anything to do with the Yahwistic practice in the first place if the Samaritans were indeed foreigners from Cutha.

Conclusion: The Samaritans Are a People Group Too Close For Comfort

It was clearly important for Josephus, as well as other the Judeans, to distinguish themselves from the Samaritans. So much so that Josephus provided conflicting information about them, such as whether or not they maintained the Sabbath. In this regard, Pummer states: “[i]f one takes into consideration to what lengths intra-community quarrels can go. Any argument will do—contradictions are no obstacle” (Pummer 2009, 152). In so doing, however, these contradictions disclose an ambivalent attitude toward the Samaritans who were both at once foreigners (Cutheans) that also practiced Yahwism and ancient inhabitants of Shechem (Shechemites) who took in Judean renegades. This ambivalence is perhaps what Jeremias intended when he commented that Jewish attitudes about Samaritans “run into extremes” (Jeremias 1969, 352). Regardless, Jeremias’ statement that Samaritans “were regarded as mixed Judeo-Gentile race” fails to take into account these “extremes.” As a result, Jeremias created his own “false picture” of the Samaritans as a racially impure people, but as we have seen, this was not Josephus’ concern.



Coggins, R. J. 1975. Samaritans and Jews: The Origins of Samaritanism Reconsidered. Growing Points in Theology. Atlanta: John Knox Press.

Esler, Philip Francis. 2009. “Judean Ethnic Identity in Josephus’ Against Apion.” Pages 73–91 in A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Sean Freyne. Edited by Zuleika Rodgers, Margaret Daly-Denton, and Anne Fitzpatrick McKinley. Leiden: Brill.

Feldman, Louis H. 1996. Studies in Hellenistic Judaism. Leiden: Brill.

Hjelm, Ingrid. 2000. The Samaritans and Early Judaism: A Literary Analysis. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Hughes, Everett C. 1994. “The Study of Ethnic Relations.” Pages 91–96 in On Work, Race, and the Sociological Imagination. Edited by Lewis A. Coser. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hutchinson, John, and Anthony David Smith. 1996. Ethnicity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jeremias, Joachim. 1969. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period. London: Fortress Press.

Josephus. Translated by H. St. J. Thackeray et al. Loeb Classical Library, 10 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926–1965

Kartveit, Magnar. 2009. The Origin of the Samaritans. Leiden: Brill.

Jeremias, Joachim. 1964. “Σαμάρεια.” Pages 88–94 in vol. 7 of Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Edited by Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey William Bromiley, Gerhard Friedrich, and Ronald E. Pitkin. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Mason, Steve. 2007. “Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History.” Journal for the Study of Judaism 38 (4–5): 457–512.

Neusner, Jacob. 1971. “Review of Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 39 (2): 201–3.

Pummer, Reinhard. 2009. The Samaritans in Flavius Josephus. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

— — —. 2016. The Samaritans: A Profile. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.


Article Comments

Submitted by Elizabeth on Wed, 05/26/2021 - 08:53


I came across your respected article today while reading "The Good Samaritan: A Type and Shadow of the Plan of Salvation" (…). Which might interest you to read. Your research and insights give me a great deal to think about as I consider that in the article above the author believes that Jesus Christ presented himself as a Samaritan in the parable of the Good Samaritan. And If we consider this for a moment in light of what you have written 1) Jesus has a lack of “communal solidarity” with the Judeans; 2) Jesus identifies was not a full Jew because of His mixed race, being the Son of God, born of Mary. The above article also gives scriptural corroboration for this identification of Jesus with the Samaritans in the Gospel of John when some Jews in Jerusalem rejected Jesus with the insult "Say we not well that thou art a
Samaritan and hast a devil? John 8:48. Perhaps because Nazareth is right across the valley to the north of Samaria and because Jewish people generally thought as little of Nazareth as they did of Samaria (John 1:46) the two locations could easily be lumped geographically and culturally together.

With the samaritan comes from the Gospel of John when some Jews in Jerusalem rejected Jesus with the insult "Say we not well that thou art a
Samaritan and hast a devil? John 8:48 Perhaps because Nazareth is right across the valley to the north of Samaria and because Jewish people generally thought as little of Nazareth as they did of Samaria (John 1:46) the two locations could easily be lumped geographically and culturally together.

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