Sunday, 26 August 2018

Whatever happened to the Samaritans?

Whatever happened to the Samaritans?

I was thinking about the Samaritans in the New Testament and the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and pondering about what ever happened to them. We don’t really hear much about them now.

There’s an interesting article by Tom Heneghan in the Independent, which notes that (in 2009):

“At the time of the late Roman Empire, there were more than a million of them, but, by the last century, they were down to just 146 members.”

“Half the community lives in the tidy modern village of Kiryat Luza on Mount Gerizim, the faith's holy mountain in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The other half is in the Israeli town of Holon near Tel Aviv.”

How do they differ from Jews? 

Heneghan comments that:

“The Samaritans insist the women convert before marriage and commit to a religious discipline hardly imaginable elsewhere. The Samaritans believe Mount Gerizim near the West Bank city of Nablus was the holy place chosen by God, not Jerusalem. They have their own version of the Torah and holy days similar to Jewish ones. They say that Judaism in the south, especially after the 6th-century BC Babylonian exile, diverted from the original faith.”

“In addition, women must live separately from their husbands and children during menstruation and isolate themselves after giving birth – 40 days after having a boy, 80 after a girl.

The Samaritan Bible

The piece in the Independent mentions their own version of the Torah, and I’ve uncovered a bit more detail.

The Samaritan Pentateuch, also known as the Samaritan Torah is a text of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, written in the Samaritan alphabet and used as scripture by the Samaritans. It constitutes their entire biblical canon.

It is very similar to the mainstream Hebrew one – the Masoretic text– and most variations which mostly minor are minor textual ones, many of which are also common to the Koine Greek Septuagint, which was used around the time of Jesus.

But one of the most notable differences is uniquely Samaritan commandment to construct an altar on Mount Gerizim, their holy mountain.

Chavie Lieber, writing in the Tablet, notes:

“The Samaritan Torah also offers a slightly different version of some stories. It includes parts of dialogues that are not found in the Masoretic text: For example, in Exodus chapters 7 through 11, the Samaritan Torah contains whole conversations between Moses, Aaron, and Pharaoh that the Masoretic text does not.”

“In Exodus 12:40, for example, the Masoretic text reads: ‘The length of the time the Israelites lived in Egypt was 430 years,’ a sentence that has created massive chronological problems for Jewish historians, since there is no way to make the genealogies last that long. In the Samaritan version, however, the text reads: ‘The length of time the Israelites lived in Canaan and in Egypt was 430 years.’

Samaritans believe that God authored their Pentateuch and gave Moses the first copy along with the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments. They believe that they preserve this divinely composed text uncorrupted to the present day. Samaritans commonly refer to their Pentateuch as ("The Truth")

They do not recognize divine authorship or inspiration in any other book in the Jewish Tanakh. A Samaritan Book of Joshua partly based upon the Tanakh's Book of Joshua exists, but Samaritans regard it as a non-canonical secular historical chronicle

Holidays and Practices

Chavie Lieber, writing in the Tablet, notes:

“As an ancient Semitic people, the Samaritans abide by a literal version of Torah law. Eschewing Jewish practices that are rabbinic in origins, they believe only in the Five Books of Moses and observe only holidays found in the Pentateuch, such as Passover and Sukkot, as opposed to Jewish holidays like Purim or Hanukkah whose origins are found elsewhere in Jewish scriptures.”

“Their rituals mirror an ancient world that few religions still keep today. On Passover, for example, their high priest sacrifices a sheep in a community-wide ritual, where its blood is dabbed on foreheads and later eaten together with matzo and bitter herbs. On Shabbat, Samaritans abstain from cooking and kindling fires and pray barefoot in white, identical garments.”

Origins of the Samaritans

Some modern scholarship connects the formation of the Samaritan community with events which followed the Babylonian Captivity. But others believe that the real schism between the peoples did not take place until Hasmonean times when the Gerizim temple was destroyed in 128 BCE by John Hyrcanus. The script of the Samaritan Pentateuch, its close connections at many points with the Septuagint, and its even closer agreements with the present Hebrew text, all suggest a date about 122 BC

Frank Moore Cross has described the origin of the Samaritan Pentateuch within the context of his local texts hypothesis. He views the Samaritan Pentateuch as having emerged from a manuscript tradition local to Palestine.

The Hebrew texts that form the underlying basis for the Septuagint branched from the Palestinian tradition as Jews emigrated to Egypt and took copies of the Pentateuch with them. Cross states that the Samaritan and the Septuagint share a nearer common ancestor than either does with the Masoretic, which he suggested developed from local texts used by the Babylonian Jewish community.

His explanation accounts for the Samaritan and the Septuagint sharing variants not found in the Masoretic and their differences reflecting the period of their independent development as distinct Egyptian and Palestinian local text traditions

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

It is interesting to reflect that while Samaritans were regarded with considerable hatred. Jesus' target audience, the Jews, hated Samaritans to such a degree that they had destroyed the Samaritans' temple on Mount Gerizim.But tensions were particularly high in the early decades of the 1st century because Samaritans had desecrated the Jewish Temple at Passover with human bones.

A lot is often made of the fact that the Priest and Levi walked by, not just holy men, but holy men who also would not want to become ritually unclean. But it is worth noting that the Samaritans had the same taboos, just as rigorous, about blood and ritual cleanliness, and yet the Samaritan in the story broke that taboo for the sake of a fellow human being. That's a level of the story that's not always seen.


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