Scripture and Schism: Samaritan and Karaite Treasures

The Samaritan Renaissance of Late Antiquity and the
Encounter with Rabbinic Judaism

Sefer Peliatah de-Markah (Markah's Book of Wonders)
Scribe: Abraham ben Phineas ha-Kohen Nablus, 1898
ms. 3506

After the Samaritan temple at Mt. Gerizim was destroyed, Samaritan life was characterized by declining political fortunes under a succession of foreign regimes — the Romans, the Byzantines, and various Islamic empires. At the same time, the literary record testifies to continuing and even intensified cultural productivity, often paradoxically in conjunction with particularly difficult periods of oppression.

Throughout late antiquity, the Roman and Byzantine rulers of Neapolis (as Shechem was now called) sometimes treated the Samaritans on a par with the Jews and at others singled them out for particularly harsh treatment. The period of Christian rule in Palestine (324-634 CE) saw expropriations of land, the reduction of Samaritan farmers to tenancy under Christian landholders, and confiscations of Samaritan property by the Church. Many Samaritans took refuge in Sasanian Iran (talmudic Babylonia), while others converted or were forcibly converted to Christianity. The result was a drastic decline in the Samaritan population.

At the same time, this period saw a renewal of Samaritan literary, religious, and political creativity, resulting in sweeping ritual and administrative consolidations that both systematized and transformed Samaritan communal and religious life. It was the era of the Aramaic Targum (translation) of the Samaritan Pentateuch, of midrashic expansions on biblical narratives, of permanent additions of liturgical poetry to the prayer book, and of a renewed sense among the Samaritans of their importance as political actors on the world stage. The two figures most closely associated with the developments of this period are Baba Rabbah ("the Great Gate"), a religious and political reformer of the third or fourth century CE, and Markah, the great Samaritan midrashist of the fourth century.