The Israelite origins of the Samaritans

My reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan, outlined here and here, depends largely on two factors.

The first factor concerns the alleged inter-textual relationship between the parable and the story of the prophet Oded in 2 Chronicles 28. Does the parable actually invoke the Chronicler’s story of the Judean captives and their merciful Israelite brethren? For those who did not find my analysis of the textual parallels compelling, fortunately at least one other interpreter has made a similar case (Craig Evans, Luke’s Good Samaritan and the Chronicler’s Good Samaritans, in Biblical Interpretation in Early Christian Gospels. Volume 3, pg 32-42).

The second factor, the one I want to explore in this post, concerns the plausibility of the analogous relationship I drew between the pre-exilic Israelites of the Northern Kingdom and the post-exilic Samaritans of Samaria. Were the Samaritans of Jesus’ day really “brethren” of Jews in the same way Israelites were once “brethren” of Judeans? Were Samaritans and Jews obligated by the Torah to love each other as kin? Would the prophet Oded have championed an inter-tribal solidarity between Jews and Samaritans founded upon a common covenant and a common paternity as he did in the days of Israel and Judah? For the reasons presented below, I think we can safely answer these questions in the affirmative.

Samaritan origins in Jewish perspective

We can begin by examining the ways in which 1st century Jews understood Samaritan origins. The most popular Jewish view tended toward polemic. The account in 2 Kings 17 represents such a view, implying that the entire Israelite population of the Northern Kingdom was removed and replaced by gentile peoples during the Assyrian exile. Josephus and various passages in the Talmud follow this precedent, claiming that the Samaritans are descended from a Mesopotamian people called the “Cuthim.” So while Samaritans themselves claimed to have descended from the sons of Joseph, many Jews in the time of Jesus considered them to be essentially foreigners.

This popular Jewish perception of Samaritan origins, however, being grounded more in centuries-old mutual antagonism than in historical memory, is roundly rejected by modern historians. For many Jews of the second Temple period, the hostile people of Samaria simply had to be foreign impostors. Or at least this is what they hoped.

Yet other Jewish traditions paint a very different picture of Samaritan origins, one more in line with what we know about the limits of Assyrian resettlement projects. In the Chronicler’s appropriation of the Kings text, for instance, the exile and resettlement of the Northern Kingdom is strangely omitted. Still more surprising, according to the Chronicler Hezekiah and Josiah appealed to the remnant Yahwist peoples of northern tribes Ephraim and Manasseh for services at the Jerusalem Temple (2 Chronicles 30:1, 34:9). Long after the Assyrian exile, men from “Shechem, Shiloh, and Samaria” were coming to the Jerusalem Temple and making sacrifices to YHWH there (Jeremiah 41:5). John P. Meier draws this evidence together:

Telling is the consistent attitude of the southern prophets before, during, and after the Babylonian exile (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Haggai, and Zechariah). In the writings attributed to them, hope is expressed for the restoration and union of the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This hope contravenes any idea that the northern tribes had been permanently and irrevocably contaminated by some polytheistic or syncretistic pagan religion. Neither do we find in these prophetic writings any idea of the ‘ten lost tribes’ of northern Israel, exiled from their land by the Assyrians…
John P. Meier, The Historical Jesus and the Historical Samaritans: What can be Said? 210.

As far as some Biblical texts are concerned then, many sons of Joseph remained in the land and continued to worship YHWH after the Assyrian conquest. Some of these peoples surely became the Samaritans.
More interesting still, some later Rabbinical writers were willing to entertain the Samaritan claim to Israelite ancestry (V. J. Samkutty, The Samaritan Mission to Acts, 81).

A Samaritan is like a full Jew (m. Nedarim 3.10b; b. Masseketh 61b (II.2); Samaritan meat is kosher (b. Masseketh Kuthim 61b (II.1); Samaritans could teach the Pentateuch to Jewish children (Tos. Abodah Zarah 3.1); Samaritans were considered Jews, equivalent to Jews, or “Israelites” (Tos. Terumah 4.12, 14).

Although such writings do not represent the prevailing view, it appears a large number of Jews around the 1st century did consider the Samaritans to be a kind of Israelite, descended, at least in part, from the peoples of the Northern Kingdom.

Jesus and the Samaritans

The witness of the New Testament, perhaps our best source regarding Jewish-Samaritan relations, corroborates this last point. As was the case with some other Jews of the time, Jesus and his disciples appear to have maintained a generally favorable view of Samaritans. Although the Matthean Jesus does not identify the Samaritans with “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” neither does he group them with “gentiles” (Matthew 10:5 cf. Acts 1:8, 15:3). Even here at Jesus’ most negative, Samaritans are not simply pagan non-Jews; they exist somewhere in between.

Yet more positive evidence abounds in our sources. Jesus portrays a Samaritan as Torah-observant in his famous parable, and accepts without comment a Samaritan woman’s assertion that she and her people are Israelites (John 4:12). Jesus and his disciples likewise associate with, buy food from, and preach to Samaritans despite the purity concerns raised by other Jews (John 4, Luke 17:11-19, Acts 8:4-25).

When Jesus’ treatment of Samaritans is contrasted with his treatment of gentiles, a clear distinction can be seen as well. While Jesus brings his message of the kingdom to Samaritan towns, he does not similarly fraternize in pagan towns. Jesus does not eat with pagans but dwells with Samaritans (John 4:40, Luke 9:52). Peter preaches to and lays hands on Samaritans prior to his visionary enlightenment concerning a Jew’s ability to eat with gentiles (Acts 10:28, 34-35). Meier therefore rightly concludes:

There is a multiple attestation in Lucan and Johannine traditions that Jesus stood over against the typical Jewish views of the day in that he held a benign view of Samaritans, even when that attitude was not reciprocated. (231)

Putting this all together, Jesus and his first followers should be counted among those Jews who regarded the Samaritans as wayward descendants of the idolatrous Northern Kingdom rather than as foreign pagan replacements. Although they were not Jews—having rejected the Davidic monarchy, the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Latter Prophets of YHWH—they were Israelites nonetheless.

Even if we cannot ascertain Jesus’ perspective on this issue with absolute historical certainty, the ways in which the Lukan and Johannine Jesus treats Samaritans is categorically different from the way he treats gentiles. It is this Lukan remembrance of Jesus that is particularly important for our interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

delacroix_samaritaan1849_grtThe good Samaritan and the good Israelites of Samaria

I would contend that the above background illuminates Jesus’ choice to conjure a Samaritan rather than a Canaanite or Syrophoenician or a Jew for his parable. He did not choose the Samaritan because he was a kind of gentile or a pagan, nor simply because he was popularly hated by Jews; Jesus chose the Samaritan because he held a singular position in Israel’s history and social landscape. The Samaritan, at least according to some Jews, was a kind of Israelite, estranged from God and God’s house, yet bound to the Jew by a shared covenant of brotherly love (Leviticus 19:17-18). Only he, the Samaritan, could take the place of the Israelites of Samaria, and by binding up his Jewish brethren fulfill the words spoken by the prophet Oded long ago.

At its heart, the parable of the Good Samaritan condemns the renegade leaders of the Jews for neglecting God’s house, the house of Israel. It does so by juxtaposing the heretical Samaritan with Israel’s religious leadership. Only from his unique position as both insider and outsider can the Torah-deficient Samaritan put the Jewish leaders to shame, for only the Samaritan can repudiate truths found in the Law while at the same time fulfilling them. Only he can reject the true temple while administering true priestly service of oil and wine to the children of Israel. Only he can reject God’s true Davidic kings while shepherding and defending the lost sheep of Israel. Only he can reject the true prophets while obeying the words of the prophets. Only he can reject the true people of God while loving them as himself.

For all intents and purposes, the Samaritan, and only the Samaritan, is the mirror image of the priests and keepers of the Law. The Samaritan rejects the letter of the Law while fulfilling its spirit. The Jewish leaders reject the spirit while fulfilling the letter. For this reason the Samaritan not only seamlessly invokes the Oded story, he delivers the most potent critique of the Jewish leadership possible.

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