By Bill Warren, NOBTS
Question: Why were people in the area north of Samaria not hated like the Samaritans in the New Testament period?
NOBTS Professor Bill Warren responds: The division between the Jews and Samaritans is rooted in the time when Solomon’s son Rehoboam heavily taxed the northern Israelite tribes and treated them disrespectfully, resulting in them seceding with Jereboam as their king and thereby creating the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
As told in 2 Kings 17, when Israel was conquered in 721 B.C., the Assyrians sent people to the Samaria region (the area of the two tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim, mainly) who intermarried with the Israelites, thereby creating a people later considered “half-Jews” by those of Judah. The resulting group came to be called Samaritans, with their name deriving either from the city of Samaria or a word that means “observer of the law,” as Samaritans defined it.
The Samaritans opposed the rebuilding of a temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 4), a beginning point for conflict between Jews and Samaritans. The result was that the Samaritans worshipped in their temple on Mt. Gerizim, while the Jews worshipped at the Jerusalem temple, with theological, ethnic, and political differences causing tense relationships between the two groups.
Those relationships were made even more tense when the Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple in 128 B.C. (Josephus, Antiquities 13:254-56). The Samaritans also provoked the Jews, as seen in their defiling of the Jerusalem temple by putting dead body parts there around A.D. 6-8 – Samaritans were subsequently banished from the Jerusalem temple – and often refusing hospitality to Jews passing through Samaria.
So why were the people of Galilee viewed differently in the New Testament period versus this open animosity between Jews and Samaritans? The main reason was that the identifiable group called Samaritans did not live in Galilee. Many Jews from Judea had moved to Galilee and settled there, so the Jews there were associated with the Jewish traditions of Jerusalem and not the Samaritan traditions, as seen in the travels of Galilean Jews and Jesus himself to Jerusalem for the festivals and temple events.
Jesus, raised in Nazareth across the Jezreel valley from Samaria, had a very different outlook on Samaritans versus the common Jewish disdain. He traveled through Samaria, reached out to the woman at Jacob’s well in John 4, and used a Samaritan as the main figure in the parable of the Good Samaritan. And in Acts 8, Samaritans are accepted by God as full participants in the gospel by means of faith in Christ without converting to Jerusalem-centered Judaism. Indeed, the hatred and animosities of this world fade before the love of God that makes us brothers and sisters in Christ.
Bill Warren, Ph.D., is Professor of New Testament and Greek in the Landrum P. Leavell, II, Chair of NT Studies, Founding Director of the H. Milton Haggard Center of New Testament Textual Studies at NOBTS.