The Samaritan Schism

There is considerable scholarly controversy regarding the date of the Samaritan schism. Although some seek to identify the origins of the Samaritans in the Hellenistic  period, their beginnings should be traced back to the 6th century B.C.E. When the Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 they exiled the upper crust of society, in order to deprive the country of its leadership. At the same time, as they did elsewhere, they brought in foreign elements in in order to create a mixed population unli kely to unify and revolt. These new elements eventually mixed with the native population and together they evolved a syncretistic form of Israelite worship.

When the Judeans returned to rebuild the Temple in about 520 B.C.E., the Samaritans, identifying with the Judeans, offered to help  in the endeavor. The Judeans rejected  the Samaritans, because of their questionable Jewish  descent and their        syncretistic cult.  As a result, long centuries of hostility began. The Samaritans constantly attempted to block the rebuilding of Jerusalem by appealing to Persian authorities.

Following their rejection by the Judeans, the Samaritans set up their own cult center at Mt. Gerizim, near Schechem, modern Nablus. Yet the subsequent history of Jewish-Samaritan relations was one of continued decline. In the Hellenistic period, the Samaritans often took stands against their Judean neighbors. The Samaritan  Temple was destroyed by the Hasmoneans.   Nonetheless, throughout this period, the Samaritans continued to have an ambiguous status as Jews. They were regarded as Jews who had some- how been corrupted in their religious practices. As we enter the tannaitic period, we can trace, generation by generation, the process of final separation of the Samaritans from the Jews. Relationships were deteriorating, especially as the Samaritans sided with the Romans, perhaps already in the Great Revolt (66-73 C.E.) but definitely in the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 C.E.). By the end of the tannaitic period, the Samaritans were treated  as non-Jews.

This view is enshrined in the post-Talmudic tractate Kutim which simply appropriates laws regarding non-Jews and applies them to the Samaritans, substituting the word kuti,meaning Samaritan, for GOY, non-Jew.   In fact, kuti  became  practically synonymous with non-Jew, leading to its use by Christian censors as a substitute for GOY in Hebrew printed texts.

In the case of the Samaritan schism, certainly by tannaitic times, Jews would not marry Samaritans, since they were doubtful status. At some point, probably in the Middle Ages, Samaritans were forbidden to marry Jews. These two groups saw them- selves as independent religious communities, acknowledging only their historical connections. The rise of the modern State of Israel has ameliorated the social aspects of this conflict, but Jews are still forbidden to marry Samaritans. Some Samaritans permit marriage to Jewish women, but this leniency came about only recently since their population shrank to a dangerously low number that threatened their survival. Clearly, Jews and Samaritans separated permanently, and the prohibition of marriage be- tween these two communities was a natural result.

5 Responses to The Samaritan Schism

  • ben gershon says:

    the returning Babylonian Judeans came back with a almost a new religion .and rejected the community that was not exiled.Ezra’s attitude in todays parlance would be considered raciest


  • This is a great series and I have enjoyed reading all four parts. One thing to add to this is that when the exiles returned to what was now Yehud, the population that had remained and not been in exile took on wives who were also of questionable descent. It was Ezra who demanded that these men divorce their wives and leave them, thereby maintaining a pure nation. Sure, some of them men resisted but were also branded and not part of this renewed society. In the eyes of the Judeans, these households would have most likely been no different than the Samaritans.

  • Joels Davidi says:

    As you know Samaritan now import foreign women from the former Soviet Bloc (as per a landmark psak by their recently deceased Kohen Gadol).

  • Eric says:

    When the article talks about Samaritans having a syncretistic form of Israelite worship after the Assyrian invasion I think its important to note that the Pre-Exilic Judean population did not practice Judaism (including Samaritanism) as we know it today. For example, many of the Judean mercenary units based on the river island of Elephantine in Egypt who resided there since before the exile had worshiped YHWH but also his consort which shows that while Pre-Exilic Judeans and Israelites would have some aspects of the faith (eg: dietary laws, some form of covenant and no idols) we know today they were not fully monotheistic but rather henotheistic. I don’t believe that the Samaritans included a lot of pagan ideas from Mesopotamia or at least no more than what other Levantine peoples included the ‘stay behind’ Judeans so their rejection by the returning Exiles was due to differing factors. I believe these to be due to scriptures (most of whom were standardized and written down during the Babylonian captivity by Exilic Jewish priests and/or scribes) which claimed that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was fully destroyed (hence the 10 lost tribes) and this gave the Judeans the right to claim themselves sole inheritors of the Covenant although they would dream that YHWH would return the lost tribes one day. When they came back to Judea they came with a new form of the Yahwistic cult we now recognise as Fully Monotheistic and Mosaic Judaism arranged around the Torah scriptures. They started to impose it on other Judeans (the ‘stay behind’ – ‘people of the land’ and the Elephantine garrison community) but when the Samaritans came along they came up with a problem. The Samaritans followed the old Israelite henotheism but to the Exilic Judeans this was impossible as the scriptures stated that they were not supposed to exist! To accept them (and many were interested in the new Judaism/Israelism and even offered to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem) meant contradicting the scriptures so they were rejected as Goyim or Kutim. This explains the strange relationship between Jews and Samaritans where the Judean Exilic elite could accept Judeans who clearly mixed their worship of YHWH with other deities but rejected Samaritans who were ready to be Monotheists and fully follow the Law.

  • Eric says:

    It’s a shame there was such a schism as I believe unity between ancient Judeans and Samaritans would have created a stronger ancient Israelite community that would have been able to survive the Romans/Byzantines and possibly the Muslim conquests. If a substantial Israelite presence could have remained in the Land of Israel it would have had force the world to respect the Jewish link to the land instead of it wrongly being seen as a European-American Colonial project

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