The Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim (John 4)

The rift between the Samaritans and the Judeans dates from an early period. According to 2 Kings 17 the Samaritans were the descendants of Mesopotamian peoples who were forcibly settled in the lands of northern Israel by the king of Assyria in the wake of the exile of 722 B.C. They combined the worship of Yahweh with idolatrous practices. The construction of a Samaritan temple to Yahweh on Mount Gerizim (picture above) and the establishment of a rival, hereditary priesthood dates from the fourth century B.C. Josephus reported that the high priest Manasseh was threatened with expulsion from Jerusalem on account of his foreign wife, Nikaso, the daughter of the Samaritan Sanballat. Sanballat in turn promised to preserve the priesthood for Manasseh, to appoint him as governor over his lands and to build a temple similar to that in Jerusalem on Mount Gerizim, provided Manasseh would remain with his daughter (Josephus, Antiquities 11.8.2).

The Samaritans, however, viewed themselves as the faithful descendents of Israel and saw the Judeans as apostate. They accepted only the Pentatech (The first five books in the Old Testament) as Scripture; in their version Mount Gerizim is described as the chosen place for the sanctuary (Deuteronomy 11:29-30, cf. Jon 4:20).

The history of the temple site at Mount Gerizim is full of turmoil:

  • From the time of the building of the Samaritan temple (often dated to 388 B.C.), Samaria functioned as a temple-state under the leadership of its own priestly aristocracy.
  • During a period of Greek domination, the Samaritan temple was renamed as the temple of Zeus, the Friend of Strangers (2 Maccadees 6:2).
  • After the Maccabean success the Samaritan temple was attacked and destroyed by the Hasmonean priest-king John Hyrcanus in 128 B.C. (Antiquities 13). This act sealed a permanent rift between the two communities and to a large extent underlies the hostility between Jews and Samaritans reflected in the New Testament (John 4:9).
  • Emperor Hadrian built another temple to Zeus there (second century A.D.)
  • The Christian emperor Justinian constructed a church on this spot (sixth century), which later was destroyed by Arabs (seventh century).

Archaeologists have uncovered remains from Justin’s church, Hadrian’s temple and the temple John Hyrcanus destroyed. The words of the woman at the well reflect Samaritan devotion to this site.

The Samaritans, like the Jews, expected a Messiah to come. They revered Moses as the true prophet and, based upon Deuteronomy 18, cherished hopes that a prophet like Moses would one day restore both themselves and their sanctuary. They described this Messianic figure as the Restorer. A Samaritan document called the Memar Marqah, though written in the fourth century A.D., contains earlier Samaritan traditions. It states “Let the Restorer come safely and sacrifice a true offering. The Restorer will come in peace and reveal the truth and will purify the world and establish the heads of the people as they once were” (Memar Marqah, 2:33, 70, 180). The Samaritan woman reflected this expectation when she declared “I know that Messiah… is coming. When He comes, He will explain everything to us” (John 4:25). Jesus reply was, as frequently the case, understated: “I who speak to you am He” (John 4:26).

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