The Samaritans in the New Testament

The Samaritans in the New Testament
© 2001 L. S. Bernstein

At the beginning of the first millennium love was not lost between the Jews and the Samaritans. Territorial and religious rivalries were accompanied by incursions of both parties into the others` territories. In the time of Jesus, Jews traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem preferred to make a detour around Samaria rather than go through it. In 52 AD, a group of Jewish pilgrims were massacred by Samaritans and in retaliation Jews attacked Samaritan villages.

Samaritans constituted a considerable portion of the population in the Roman province of Palestina and as such their presence is also felt in the New Testament.

Unlike the Old Testament, which stigmatizes the Samaritans as non-Jewish outsiders (2 Kings), the New Testament liberates the Samaritans from cultic discrimination. In addition, Jesus was not afraid to walk through Samaria (John 4:4-29), he had dealings with its people and was probably known there (Luke 10:51-53). So much so, that in a fierce verbal altercation he is accused by Jews of being a Samaritan who is possessed by a devil (John 8:48).

Although it may be possible to find affinities between the settings of Jesus and some Samaritan characteristics, such as the Samaritan belief in a Savior from the house of Joseph (their own Patriarch); their adherence to the written word (unlike the “Prushim”, the Pharisees); and their pursuance of cultic simplicity (in contradiction to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem); the large number of references in the New Testament to the Jewish prophets (Prophets are not included in the Samaritan corpus) entrenches Jesus deeply in the Jewish tradition (which later enables Christian prefiguration).

At the same time Jesus seems to be thinking differently of the Samaritans. He tells his disciples “Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mat. 10:5-6). Thus, in the context of Matthew’s parables, it is the Jews who are the lost sheep that need saving, not the Gentiles or the Samaritans. This probably refers to ignoring the “eleventh commandment” – Love thy neighbor, a subject which Jesus discusses in the same Gospel (Mat. 5:43-44), and to which, gentiles, not being Jewish, were not bound, and which the Samaritans seemed to be following.

“Love thine neighbor” is written in Leviticus 19;18. One would point out here (digressing slightly from the Samaritans), that the Hebrew word used in Leviticus is not “neighbour”. It is the word “Re-a” (Hebrew letters: Resh, Ayin). A “rea” is someone near to one, he (it is written in the masculine gender) can be a friend, a neighbor, a human being of akin spirit. In this sense the Samaritan in the parable who helped a human being in distress (Parable of the Good Samaritan) was following that “eleventh commandment”. What a “Rea” is not, – he is not an enemy.

However, the same letters, “Resh, Ayin”, pronounced “Roa” have a contradictory meaning. “Roa” in Hebrew is `badness\evil`. It has been translated from Hebrew in many ways, according to context. [Deut.28:20., Hoshea 9:15, 1 Sam. 17:28, Ecc. 7:3]
Thus, when Jesus says (Mat. 5:43-44) “Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy” [hate thine enemy is not in Leviticus] ” but I say unto you, love your enemies …” he also seems to be giving a sermon or elaborating on the Hebrew semantic significance of the letters “Resh – Ayin” in Deut.28;20, which can be placed in a contradictory context.
In other words, Jesus seems to be reading it both ways: “Lereacha” “Leroacha”, love to your Rea and \or love to your Roa.

Such an interpretation would suggest an explanation for the “love thine enemy” injunction. It might also shed a light on Jesus’ use and knowledge of Hebrew. And it would reject the hypothesis that Jesus was of Samaritan background as the Samaritans do not add nor detract from the Pentateuch.

The Samaritans, however, love their neighbors (and the stranger) as themselves, to wit, the parable of the good Samaritan. We know that love will become the essence of the new Christian religion.

Another reported historical incident, thought not in the New Testament, appears in 2 Maccabim 6:1-2 where the Samaritans are accused that when Antiochus IV demanded that they give a Greek name to their temple they conceded for it to be called “Temple of Zeus the Friend of Strangers, as did the people who dwelt in that place”. The merchant whom the Good Samaritan helped was a stranger, and being unconscious the Samaritan could not know whether the stranger was good or bad, a friend or a foe. Thus it is possible that Jesus is not using the characters in the parable as mere symbols, but is referring in the Parable to a real Samaritan tradition, at least 150 years old, whose significance had not been well understood. (The Samaritans were accused of catering to foreign gods).

The positive treatment of the Samaritans in the New Testament did not save them from persecutions in the early periods of Christianity (Byzantine.) From the 7th century onwards, except for the period of the Crusades, they will exist under Muslim rule, their numbers constantly decreasing.

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