|Photo and background photo by Alaa Badarneh|
The Samaritans of Palestine
By Tareq al Qudsi
Today, when we think of the Samaritans, our minds return to the biblical period and the story of the Good Samaritan (Gospel of Luke, chapter 10) or even of the Samaritan woman who gave Jesus a drink from a well located in Nablus (Gospel of John, chapter 4). But in fact, not only do the Samaritans play a significant role in the past history of Palestine, their culture and heritage live on today in a community of just over 700 persons who live near modern-day Nablus and a smaller community that lives near Holon. These are the last two remaining Samaritan communities in the world today, and they preserve the remnant of a once large and important group of people who dramatically influenced the eastern part of the Roman Empire and Western civilization.
This small community traces its lineage back to the Samaritans who lived in central Palestine thousands of years ago. This was only one of many Samaritan communities that were found throughout the Mediterranean world. The Samaritan community was quite large and was made up of colonies that existed during the Roman and Byzantine periods (from approximately 100 BC to 1500 AD). There were communities scattered along the Mediterranean coast (notably at Gaza and Caesarea), in Lebanon, in Egypt and Syria, and as far away as Byzantium, Thessalonica, Rome, and Babylon. Today these communities are long forgotten, and the only remnants that still exist are found in the pages of history books or are uncovered by the archaeologist’s spade.
The Samaritans trace their roots back to five Babylonian tribes who revered five gods of their nation. In fact, Jesus’ reference to the “five husbands” of the Samaritan woman (Gospel of John, chapter 4) may symbolically refer to these five deities. When they came to live in Palestine, the Samaritans mixed their existing beliefs with those of the early Hebrews. The Samaritans were referred to as “Cuthians,” based on their place of origin: Cutha was an old priestly city located just north and east of Babylon, reportedly built by the grandson of Noah, Cush.
Some Samaritan texts refer to the close relationship that they had with the early Israelite tribes. There were even physical similarities as time went on. Even Jesus was thought by some during his day to have been a Samaritan: “Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan?” (Gospel of John, chapter 8) However, some prominent Samaritans themselves, such as Justin Martyr, the early Christian scholar who lived from 100 to 165, referred to the Samaritan nation as “us Gentiles.” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, CXXII)
The Samaritans believe in one God, and they accept only Mount Gerezim in Nablus as God’s holy mountain; some also believe in a messianic redeemer, Taheb, who will raise the dead. They came to accept the basic teachings of Moses, but reject the remaining books of the Hebrew Bible as not within their sacred writings, nor do they accept any traditional teachings associated with the Bible.
The Samaritan people can point to a number of individuals who are found in the pages of history, and these people have a great deal to say about their history. We all remember the Good Samaritan from the Gospel of Luke as well as the woman at the well. But one other prominent Samaritan graces the pages of the New Testament. His name was Simon Magus, and he is prominently featured in the book of Acts 8:9-24. Simon lived in the first century and even visited Rome during the time of the emperor Claudius (41-54 AD). Simon Magus came to be known by later Christians as the originator of all heretical teachings that flourished under the name “Gnosticism.”
Another very famous Samaritan was the third- and fourth-century leader, Baba Rabban, who led the Samaritan community for some 40 years. He succeeded in uniting the Samaritans who lived in central Palestine, and his influence was noticed even in Rome through his contacts with the Byzantine emperors at that time.
The Samaritans living today are a modern witness to a thriving and powerful group of people who have influenced the Western world greatly since they arrived in Palestine some 2,700 years ago.