The Samaritans (John 8)

The Samaritans believed themselves to be the descendants of the northern tribes, who had been exiled in 772 B.C. by Assyria. In 2 Kings 17, however, the Samaritans are described as a mixed group, composed at least partly of pagans whom the king of Assyria had brought into the land from other nations. In Ezra 4 the Samaritans appear as troublemakers for the Jews who were seeking to reestablish themselves and their temple in the land following their return from exile.

This group did not identify itself with Samaria so much as with Mount Gerizim (see John 4), near Shechem, which its members claimed was the place God had chosen for His sanctuary (see Deuteronomy 12:5, 11, 21, 26, 14:24-25, 16:6, 17:8, 18:6, 26:2). They believed that Israel had become apostate as soon as the sanctuary had been moved away from Shechem, during the time of Eli, the priest. The Samaritans rejected Jerusalem’s special place in God’s plans, and the ongoing tension regarding the proper place for the sanctuary of God is evident in John 4:20. Samaritans believed in the God of Israel, acknowledged Moses as His prophet and the Pentateuch as His revelation, and looked forward to the day when He would send the “prophet like Moses”, as He had promised (Deuteronomy 18:18). They did not accept or acknowledge any Old Testament writings beyond the Pentateuch as canonical.

The Jewish high priest and ruler John Hyrcanus destroyed the Samaritan sanctuary on Mount Gerizim in 128 B.C., and tensions between Jews and Samaritans remained high throughout the first century A.D. Samaritans scattered bones in the Jerusalem temple during Passover in A.D. 6-7 and in A.D. 52 massacred a group of Galilean pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem (Josephus, Antiquities 20.6.1 and Wars 2.12.3). Typically Jews would avoid passing through Samaria when traveling between Judea and Galilee. The Jewish accusation against Jesus that He was a Samaritan and therefore demon-possessed is consistent with the strong anti-Samaritan sentiment that motivated the destruction of their sanctuary; Jewish writings from this time (such as Sirach 50:25-26; jubilees 30:5-6 and the Testament of Levi 7:2) attest to this hostility (see also John 4:7-9). Samaritans were considered apostates and idolaters (based in part on Genesis 35:4) and were viewed as more likely than Jews to be demonized. Jesus, however, apparently regarded the Samaritans as a genuine, albeit misguided, subgroup of the covenant people.

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