The Samaritans are unique among the many religious groups described in the Bible apart from traditional Judaism and Christianity: the others have long passed into oblivion, but the Samaritans still survive in our own day, as a community preserving its ancient rites on its holy site, Mount Gerizim (Map 1:X4), near the ancient site of Shechem and the modern city of Nablus.
The Samaritans are best understood as a conservative group within the total spectrum of Judaism. This rather clumsy definition is necessary because of the ambiguity of the word “Judaism.” The word is sometimes used in a biblical context to denote the community owing allegiance to the Jerusalem authorities, with the Jerusalem Temple its chief holy place; sometimes it refers to a broader complex of beliefs and practices, united mainly by reverence for the holy traditions enshrined in scripture. The Samaritans should be included in the Judaism of the second type but not of the first. (See Judaisms of the First Century CE.)
We can obtain some knowledge of the Samaritans from the Bible, but because these references are not free of polemic, it is best to begin by noting that our sources of knowledge include important material handed down by the Samaritans themselves. Chief among this is the Samaritan Pentateuch. The scroll preserved by the present‐day Samaritan community is claimed by them to date back to Abishua, the great‐grandson of Aaron mentioned in 1 Chronicles 6.4; it is actually a medieval scroll, although it certainly preserves older traditions sometimes valued by textual critics (e.g., at Deut. 27.4 the reading “Gerizim” for “Ebal” is often preferred). The fact that the scroll contains only the Pentateuch is doubly significant: it reminds us that this is the extent of the writings regarded by the Samaritans as scripture; and it illustrates the conservative nature of the group, deeply distrustful of anything that smacked of innovation and modernizing.
Other features of their religious practice illustrate this point also. They have observed the Sabbath with great strictness, spurning those devices that Jews developed to facilitate ordinary life on the Sabbath. Ritual requirements, in particular those relating to food laws, have been understood and imposed with a greater degree of literalism than has been usual in Judaism as a whole. They claim that their holy mountain, Mount Gerizim, which is mentioned in the Pentateuch (Deut. 11.29; 27.12), has a greater claim to veneration than does Mount Zion, for Jerusalem entered the people's history only relatively late, at the time of David.
In these characteristic features it is possible to see the Samaritans as having a recognizable position within the spectrum of Judaism at the beginning of the common era. New Testament references, especially in Luke and Acts, make it clear that by that time the Samaritans were an established group.
Unambiguous earlier references are few, the clearest being found in the Apocrypha. In Sirach 50.26, “the foolish people that dwell in Shechem” are condemned as if they were an alien group; 2 Maccabees 6.2 makes a slighting reference to their willingness to compromise their ancestral traditions. Each of these statements is polemical, a hostile comment from a rival religious position. Much the same can be said of Josephus, who has frequent and almost invariably hostile references to the Samaritans, particularly in his Antiquities. Although the historicity of his description of the building of the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim in the time of Alexander the Great has been much doubted, its destruction by the Jewish king John Hyrcanus late in the second century BCE is beyond serious dispute.
Samaritan origins have often been described in terms of a schism, as if there were some specific event that separated them from the Jews. The Samaritans' own Chronicles date that event as early as the time of Eli, before the establishment of the monarchy. That is unlikely to be historical; equally improbable is the Jewish version, preserved in 2 Kings 17, which pictures the Samaritans as descended from aliens of non‐Yahwistic origin, from which the true Israel was bound to distance itself. (This story gave rise to the later, contemptuous name for the Samaritans, “Kuthim” [from “Cuthah” in v. 24] and is also the only place in most English translations of the Hebrew Bible where the word “Samaritans” is found [v. 29].) This is religious polemic; nothing in Samaritan practice suggests any link with Assyrian or other foreign origin. Nor should the Samaritans be identified, as is sometimes done, with those left in the land at the time of the Babylonian exile, or with the opponents of Ezra and Nehemiah. Their distinctive identity emerged later, and it is unlikely that any single event precipitated a schism.
How far they preserved characteristically northern traditions is difficult to decide. As the Hebrew Bible is a Jerusalem collection, hostile to the north, it is not easy to identify any distinctive northern traditions that the later Samaritans might have inherited. In any case, their characteristic features arise from the Judaism of the postexilic period, since all that we know of Samaritanism relates to religious rather than political or national characteristics: which books were holy, where might sacrifice properly be offered, which families might legitimately exercise the priesthood.
Some scholars have claimed to detect similarities between the Samaritans and the Dead Sea Scrolls community, but these are also widely questioned. More striking is the obvious sympathy toward the Samaritans shown by the author of Luke‐Acts, who twice in the Gospel goes out of his way to praise a Samaritan (Luke 10.33–36; 17.15–18). It has also been suggested, though this is less certain, that Stephen, the central figure of Acts 6–7, was of Samaritan origin; certainly Simon Magus (Acts 8.9–13) came to be associated with a heterodox form of Samaritanism. It is therefore clear that in the Roman period the Samaritans were an identifiable group, comparable with, but distinct from, the larger Jewish community; John 4.9, though the accuracy of the rendering has been questioned, expresses the situation clearly. There was a Samaritan diaspora, and the community maintained its existence, with a rebuilt temple, through the changing political circumstances that affected Palestine. The fourth century CE was a time of revival, with many of their theological and literary traditions reaching definitive form at that time. In the centuries since, their numbers have declined and they have suffered persecution, but they retain something of their distinctive identity and their ancestral home, despite all the political and religious turmoil that has affected Palestine.