John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.3, ch. 30 : Jesus in Relation to Competing Jewish Groups: the Samaritans,
pp 532-549

(Detailed summary)

Did Jesus have contact with the Samaritans?


A quick answer to this question would be to say: it is likely that Jesus had some sporadic encounters with the Samaritans. Unfortunately, we do not have any documents that could support this point. The Gospel texts we have on the Samaritans reflect more the situation of the early Church than that of the historical Jesus: the word "Samaritan" is absent in Mark, in Matthew it supports the decision of Christians to focus the mission only on the Jews, in Luke it serves to announce the future mission in Samaria which will be spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles, in John it serves as a context for a Christological encounter. However, in the latter case, the account is so full of precise data about the Samaritans that one can imagine that there may be historical elements at the basis of the account.

It should be pointed out that we call Samaritans people who, like the Jews, worshipped Yahweh, but they did so on Mount Garizim, not on Mount Zion, with people of the Levitical lineage as priests. Moreover, they accepted as Scripture only the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). These characteristics of the Samaritan religion do not stem from any schism with Judaism, but from the evolution of certain tribes (Ephraim and Menasseh) in the north.

Jesus in Relation to Competing Jewish Groups: the Samaritans

  1. Introduction: Why Here?

    Unlike other groups such as the Pharisees, Sadducees or Essenes, the Samaritans are not clearly identified as Jews, some placing them halfway between Jews and Gentiles.

  2. Problems of Terminology and Definition

    1. Geography

      The Samaritans can be defined as the inhabitants of a region called Samaria, located between Judea to the south and Galilee to the north, west of the Jordan River. The capital was Samaria, but renamed Sebaste by Herod.

    2. Physical descent and ethnic composition

      The Samaritans were considered to be descendants of the Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, with the addition over the centuries of non-Israelites from Assyria and the Hellenistic empires. At the time of Jesus' time there were very Hellenized groups.

    3. Religion

      The religion practiced by the Samaritans had the following characteristics:

      • A worship of the God Yahweh;
      • Mount Garizim was venerated as a place of worship rather than Mount Zion in Jerusalem;
      • The legitimate priests of the Levitical lineage in Mount Garizim were pitted against the priests of Jerusalem;
      • Only the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) was accepted as Scripture.

      Unfortunately, our sources of information are very limited, i.e., the Jewish historian Josephus, who seems hostile to the Samaritans, and the New Testament.

  3. The Problem of the Historical Origins of the Samaritans

    The traditional explanation of Samaritan theology as to its origin must be rejected as completely anachronistic: the schism would have taken place in the 11th century B.C. when Eli, an iniquitous priest, would have moved the sanctuary from Shechem to Siloam (see 1 Sam 1: 9 - 4: 18). Also to be rejected as historically inaccurate is the version of 2 Kings 17: 29 which states that, on the occasion of the deportation of the northern tribes in 722-721 B.C., the king of Assyria sent settlers to Samaria who spread their polytheistic and syncretist cult. Josephus, for his part, reuses the version of 2 Kings 17: 29 to describe these new immigrants as Chutheans (see Ant. 9: 4.1-3 #277-291), the ancestors of the present Samaritans.

    When we look closely at the Old Testament, we do not see any form of schism that might have taken place between the people of Samaria and the people of Judea. In Deuteronomy, Mount Garizim is presented positively as opposed to Mount Ebal (Deut 11: 29; 27: 12). And when Ezra and Nehemiah discuss rebuilding the temple of Jerusalem on their return from exile in Babylon in the fifth century B.C., they involve the authorities of Samaria in the discussions. It should be noted that the Samaritan tradition does not speak of a temple on Mount Garizim, but simply of a place of worship, which contrasts with the Jewish tradition and its emphasis on the temple on Mount Zion. Even a polemical text like that of Ben Sira (Sir 50: 25-26: " There are two nations which my soul hates, the third is not a nation: the inhabitants of Mount Seir, the Philistines, and the stupid people who dwell in Shechem. ") makes no reference to any temple, while denying that the Samaritans are among the people chosen by God. Tensions between Samaritans and Jews intensified during the Hasmonean period (2nd century BC) with the Hellenization policy of Antiochus IV to which the Samaritans accommodated themselves, while the Jews revolted (see 2 Mac 6: 2): in 128 BC the high priest John Hyrcan destroyed the sanctuary of Mount Garizim, and in 107 the city of Shechem.

    What can we conclude? Technically, the word "Jew" refers to someone from the tribe of Judas and living in a territory called Judea in Greco-Roman times. Following the exile of some people to Babylon, this territory was occupied by people who had either stayed there or returned from exile, and together these people constituted Palestinian Judaism. On the other side, the Samaritans came from the northern tribes (mainly Ephraim and Manasseh), practising religious worship on Mount Garizim. So while they considered themselves part of Israel, they did not define themselves as Jews and did not practice the religion called Judaism. From this perspective, one does not speak of a schism at a particular time. Rather, it is the same religion of Israel that has evolved differently in the course of events and has developed distinct practices.

  4. The Problems of the Gospel Texts

    As far as the Samaritans are concerned, the Gospels inform us more about the situation of the early church than about that of the historical Jesus.

    1. The word "Samaria" and the word "Samaritan" never appear in Mark or in the Q-source, an indication that Jesus' interaction with the Samaritans was not very great.

    2. Matthew gives us this passage: "Do not take the way of the Gentiles and do not enter a city of Samaritans; rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Mt 10:5b-6). These words probably do not come from the historical Jesus for the following reasons:

      1. The context is that of a missionary discourse (10: 5-42) where Matthew condenses several missionary discourses found in Mark and the Q-source. However, we never find such a prohibition to go among the Gentiles or Samaritans in Mark or the Q document. We would have here an addition of Matthew or his source M.

      2. We find in Matthew a parallel passage in 15: 24 where he takes up the account of Mark 7: 25-30 (healing of the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman) to turn the Syro-Phoenician woman into a Canaanite woman and to add to Mark's account this word of Jesus where he says that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. We are in front of the creative activity of Matthew or of the source M which he uses.

      3. Since even Mark's account of the Syro-Phoenician woman is probably not historical, then even more so Matthew's version.

      This refusal to go to the Samaritans would probably come from first generation Christians who were opposed to extending the proclamation of the Gospel to groups other than Jews. This refusal was not unfounded, for Jesus focused his mission only on the Jews, and there is no evidence that Jesus or his immediate followers intended to address the Samaritans as a group.

    3. In Luke the Samaritans are mentioned both in stories and in the words of Jesus.

      1. The account of the ten lepers where only a Samaritan returns to Jesus to give glory to God (Lk 17: 11-19) contains Christian and Lucan concerns and prepares the mission in Samaria too well in the Acts of the Apostles to have any chance of being historical. Luke probably uses a particular source called L.

      2. In Lk 9: 52-55, Jesus, beginning his last journey to Jerusalem, is refused entry into a Samaritan village, which leads James and John to want to order fire to come down from heaven to consume the people. The incident is not in itself improbable and seems consistent with the title of "son of thunder" that James and John carry. Unfortunately, this story is a pivotal moment in Luke's work, which presents us with a Jesus who resolutely faces death and prepares his disciples for his departure. Moreover, while Luke usually constructs his account from the Mark framework where Jesus travels to Jerusalem through the Jordan Valley, not Samaria, here he deviates from his usual framework: perhaps he mixes in elements from another journey. In any case, nothing can be advanced historically.

      3. Finally, Luke is the only one to offer us this parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10: 30-37). It is difficult to establish whether this parable goes back to the historical Jesus. We simply note the work of Luke who uses elements from Mark (Mk 12: 28-34) to provide an introduction to the parable, indicating the insertion of a particular source requiring some stitching work. But even assuming that this parable goes back to the historical Jesus, we learn little, except that Jesus had a more favorable view of the Samaritans than the majority of the Jews.

    4. John presents two passages in which the Samaritans are mentioned.

      1. The account of Jesus' dialogue with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well is well known (John 4: 4-42). Here we have a typical structure of the evangelist who presents us with a spiritual journey where, through questions and answers, a Christological encounter takes place. This account of the Samaritan woman reflects John's theology and vocabulary and announces the future mission of the early church to the Samaritans (vv. 31-38; see Acts 8). Therefore, in the face of such a grandiose composition, any historical claim could be rejected. Yet this account is full of elements showing a precise knowledge of the Samaritans:
        • There is indeed a well at the foot of Mount Garizim;
        • Jews and Samaritans don't actually share the same utensils (v.9 for drinking);
        • It is true that it is unusual for a Jewish man to address a Samaritan woman (especially with the implications for ritual purity);
        • It is true that Mount Garizim was in competition with the temple in Jerusalem;
        • Surprisingly, Jesus identifies himself as a Jew when the whole of John's Gospel presents the Jews in a negative light;
        • There's this other amazing statement by Jesus that salvation comes from the Jews;
        • There's this allusion to the Samaritan messiah, an eschatological figure called Taheb;

        It's possible that John is using historical elements with which he constructs his theological work.

      2. Jn 8: 48 uses the word "Samaritan", but as an insult in the mouths of Jesus' opponents. We are in the polemical context of ch. 8 where Jesus accuses the Jews of not being true sons of Abraham (an accusation perhaps made by the Samaritans against the Jews) and claims to be of divine origin. The Jews reply by saying that he is a Samaritan and is possessed by the devil. Now, the Samaritans had the reputation of being magicians (see Simon the magician in the Acts of the Apostles), and therefore agents of the devil. So, this polemic bears above all the mark of the debates in the first Christian communities.

    In short, we have no text that we can clearly trace back to the historical Jesus. But we can nevertheless say two things: Jesus probably had a much more favorable view of the Samaritans than of the Jews as a whole, and he probably had a few sporadic encounters with the Samaritans, without us being able to get the details.

Next chapter: Did the scribes really oppose Jesus?

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