Scripture and Schism: Samaritan and Karaite Treasures

From Scripture to Schism: Samaritan Origins

Samaritan Pentateuch Codex with Arabic Translation
Nablus, 1477

The name 'Samaritan' refers to any inhabitant of Samaria, regardless of religion or tribe, but has come specifically to designate the Israelites whose center of worship is at Mt. Gerizim near Shechem in Samaria. This usage is derived from Josephus, the New Testament, and other Greek writings of late antiquity. But neither the Samaritans themselves nor the authors of classical Jewish literature call the Samaritans by this name, each group preferring instead to use names that support its own theory of Samaritan origins.

The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud called the Samaritans 'Cutheans' after the biblical city of Cuth near Babylon. According to the Bible (II Kings 17:24-41), when the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722-21 BCE, they expelled the native Israelites and sent Cutheans and other Mesopotamians to recolonize the area. The Cutheans adopted the religious practices of their new home, but also retained their own idolatrous forms of worship. The name Cuthean therefore contains the polemical implication that the Samaritans were an idolatrous people of non-Jewish origin.

The Samaritans do not agree with this theory of their origins. According to their own account, they are descendants of Israelites from the Northern Kingdom who were not deported by the Assyrians, and specifically of the Joseph tribes (Manasseh and Ephraim). They maintain that they inhabited Samaria before the fall of the Northern Kingdom, enjoying peaceful relations with the other tribes of both Israel and Judah until the priest Eli transferred the Northern cult from Shechem to Shiloh. The Joseph tribes continued to worship at Shechem, while the others followed Eli to Shiloh (where Samuel served Eli in the sanctuary). The Samaritans themselves therefore prefer the names benei yisrael (Israelites), shamerim (observant ones), or shamerim al ha-emet (keepers of the truth), reserving the name shomronim (Samaritans) for the ancient inhabitants of the biblical city of Samaria. Those names point to their belief that they are the true adherents of the biblical religion.