The Samaritan-Jewish Conflict: A Profile of a Divided Faith

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews do not share things in common with the Samaritans” (or “Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans”) 

– John 4:9

“Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain (Mt. Gerizim), but you say Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship. Jesus said to her Woman, believe me, “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation comes from the Jews. But the time is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship  the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

– 4:20-24

One of my first reads of 2021 is a book by Reinhard Pummer called The Samaritans: A Profile, one of the most foremost scholars on Samaritan culture and history. A quarter of the way through and I am finding that it is really reshaping my understanding not just of a people and a culture I knew very little about, but is also reshaping the ways in which I have tended to understand their inclusion within the Biblical narrative and the scriptures. The book begins with a confession that what most people know of the Samaritans they tend to know from a select few popular passages from the New Testament, later suggesting that one of the biggest reasons for this being so is the lack of historical research available due to difficulty of reclaiming and piecing together the historical evidence.

In light of the above verses from one of the more popular passages referencing the Samaritans, the author talks about how these two ideas have led to much misconception about the nature of the Samaritans and their relationship to Israel:

  1. The fact that there existed a feud between the Samaritans and the Jews
  2. The idea that salvation comes from the Jews (which is all about location and lineage)

What’s interesting about reading the above verses in line with the other most popular NT passage regarding the Samaritans, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is that both passages underscore this idea of this existing division between the two groups, an us versus them mentality that reaches back to this historical disagreement “about the place of worship- Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem”. The elect versus the unsaved. The true worshippers versus the false worshippers. In the passage about the woman at the well in John 4 it is a Samaritan woman asking Jesus why he is hanging out with her after he asks her for a drink of water. Jesus says to the woman, if you knew the gift of God (standing in front of you), you would have asked and I would have given you spiritual water. This connects to the contrasting idea that Jesus then makes with the Jews who worship what they “know”, but the time will come when the “true worshippers” will worship in spirit in truth, emphasizing the revealed knowledge of the Christ being made available in her midst (which contrasts of course with the Gospel depiction of Jesus’ Jewish followers absolutely not getting who He is repeatedly).

In the Good Samaritan parable (Luke 10:25-37), the question being posed to Jesus is “what must I do to be saved”. What is interesting about Jesus’ answer to this question is that before telling this parable he pulls from the law in its recognized abbreviated form- love God and love others. It is the second question that leads to the parable, “who is my neighbor”, a question that it says was asked in order that lawyer might “justify himself”. As if to say, alright, I “know” what the law is, but narrow this down for me a little bit more. This leads to a parable with a bit of an unexpected twist. Jesus places the Jewish lawyer in the side of the road and makes the Samaritan, these percieved dissenters from the “truth”, the ones who don’t know, as the ones demonstrating the truth of the law. The Samaritan is the good neighbor in this story while the Jewish laywer was the neighbor being shown mercy, shifting the lawyer’s perspective as a way of erasing the divided lines that he is using to obtain his salvation as a Jewish man.

I think what’s telling is that later on in John 8 we find the Jews calling Jesus a Samaritan, one who is possessed by a demon and who does not have the truth. We miss the fact that earlier in John’s Gospel Jesus is essentially driving a wedge straight down the middle of these percieved divisions, between these two sects who declare the same “father” and ancestors, establishing Himself as the truth, the one who can heal the divide. This is what he is saying to the woman at the well, is that one day you will be made whole, and you, being the true united Israel, will be made whole by way of Christ’s unifying work. If we look at our modern day Christian sects, now divided across a multitude of lines according to this denomination and that domination, the message becomes one of Christ driving a wedge between our divisions and calling us towards a unified whole in line with the true Israel.

I think far too often we interpret the Samaritans in scripture purely through the lens of the precieved conflict. We prop this up because not unlike the laywer it helps our own position to maintain an us versus them mentality. It gives us a claim on the truth that the other does not have, even if we are, as the lawyer was, willing to extend mercy to the other. In the story of the woman at the well the Jews are the ones who worship what they know and the Samaritans are the ones who don’t. This Samaritan woman was used to be seeing as the heretic, the one who joined the wrong denomination so to speak. Today, many of us far more readily imagine a Christianity that lays claim to the exclusive knowledge of “our” denomination” and are thus called to be a neighbor to those who don’t know the truth that is ours to give. We slot ourselves into the position of the lawyer, neglecting the ways in which Jesus’ ministry looked to abolish this kind of positioning altogether precisely by turning us inward and asking us to take stock of Christianities far reaching and very fractured state. When asking “who is my neighbor, the last thing we want to think are those Presbyterians down the road or those Mennonites on the other side of town.

Understanding the history of this relationship between the Samaritans and the Jews can help shed light on how “Jew” was not a singular idea but rather an eclectic mix of people and groups that had different ideas about how their faith worked, often with disputes happening across ethnic and familial lines, but ultimately shared in the idea of an expected “messiah” who would come and fulfill the covenant promise. There were many sects within Judaism, and what is of interest for the historical study is figuring out why and if this partiuclar sect became recognized as being polarized. What poses further interest for Christians is that Christianity can also be considered a “sect” of Judaism, and in the scope of John’s Gospel there seems to be a special interest in how this connects to a divided Israel looking and waiting to be made whole. It’s worth mentioning the recent podcast series from The Bible Project on the “family of God here, as one of the things that series brought to light is the idea that the entire Biblical narrative is essentially one big sibling rivalry born out of these ethnic and familial divides. All of Israel’s neighbors, the nations they continue to battle against, are essentially nations established as coming from the line of these sons (of Cain, of Noah, of Abraham, of Isaac, etc). This kind of division reaches back to the beginning of the story and stretches into today.

This is about being called back to what it is that we share in comomon as children of God- hope and faith in the idea that what is divided will be made whole. As Christians, this is the point of Jesus’ ministry, out of which a healed and undivided Church is then able to bear witness to this kind of unity as Christ imitating people. The light on the hill. The city on the hill. The danger becomes when we make that hill, as the story of the Jew-Samaritan conflict underscores, an our hill versus your hill battle. These hills can only be brought together at the hill upon which Christ died and rose again, the very space on which Christ estbalished Himself as the new temple, the true embodied Israel shining a light on all the world.

Some early thoughts from the book.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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