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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East

Reinhard Pummer


The origin of Samaritanism and the Samaritans is in the second–first centuries bce, as an ancient off-shoot of Judaism. This date is now generally accepted by scholars of Samaritanism. The Samaritans themselves still hold the view that a schism occurred in the time of Eli, the priest at Shiloh (1 Sm.1:9, 2:11). According to Samaritan tradition Eli, “the insidious one” (Samaritan Book of Joshua, ch. 43), left Mt. Gerizim and settled in Shiloh, where “he gathered the children of Israel into a schismatical sect” (Samaritan Book of Joshua, ch. 43; cf. also Abu 'l-Fatḥ, Kitāb al-Tarīkh, ch. 10). Jewish tradition, on the other hand, holds that Samaritanism arose after the fall of the northern kingdom when, according to 2 Kings 17 , Israelites were deported and pagans were settled in their stead. The same view was current in early scholarship. Gradually, it was realized that it was untenable and that the split between Jews and Samaritans must have occurred much later. On the basis of Ezra 4:1–5 , many thought that the separation had taken place after the Exile, in the time of Ezra. It is now clear, however, that in the early post-Exilic period there was no real break, only the beginning of tensions between northern and southern Israelites. Thus, the prehistory of the Samaritans, as it were, begins then. The history of the Samaritans proper (as opposed to the Samarians, or inhabitants of Samaria, and “proto-Samaritans”—i.e., northern Israelites in the time leading up to the break) begins in the Maccabean period, with the hostilities they endured from the southern Israelites, which culminated in the destruction of their temple by John Hyrcanus in approximately 110 bce. [See Samaria.] Jerusalem and its Temple ceased to be of importance to the northern Israelites, whose main defining criterion became their exclusive orientation toward Mt. Gerizim. Although the two communities went their separate ways, they did have contacts with each other throughout the centuries.

During Byzantine and Muslim rule, the number of Samaritans dwindled rapidly, until there were fewer than two hundred individuals left. It was only in the twentieth century that their numbers increased from approximately 139 In 1909 to 560 In 1994. Today the Samaritans live in two centers, Nablus and Ḥolon, the latter a southern suburb of Tel Aviv. However, from the Hellenistic period to the eighteenth century ce a far-flung diaspora existed whose traces are to be found in literary, epigraphic, and archaeological sources. Samaritans have lived in Egypt, Greece, Syria, Italy, and North Africa.

As a branch of Judaism, Samaritan religion shares its foundations. The Samaritan Bible, however, comprises only the Pentateuch but excludes the Prophets and Writings. The Samaritans do not of course recognize rabbinic writings; they developed their own traditions, albeit in a less structured and canonical form than those of the Jews. They also have their own Aramaic Targum, their specific liturgy and liturgical compositions, and their chronicles.

The center of Samaritanism is and has always been Mt. Gerizim (map reference 175 × 178) south of Nablus, ancient Shechem. [See Shechem.] According to Josephus, the Samaritans built a temple on the mountain in the time of Alexander the Great (Antiq. 11:302–347) that was destroyed two hundred years later by John Hyrcanus (Antiq. 13:255–256; War 1:63). Before Yitzhak Magen's recent excavations on the main peak (map reference 175 × 178), which began In 1984, archaeological finds had suggested that the temple mentioned by Josephus stood on Tell er-Ras (map reference 1761 × 1793), a lower peak of Mt. Gerizim, north of the main peak. [See Ras, Tell er-.] Beneath the Roman temple to Zeus, built in the time of Antoninus Pius (138–161 ce) and probably renewed by Caracalla (211–217 ce), a large structure was discovered that was thought to have been somehow connected with a Hellenistic Samaritan sanctuary, a hypothesis subsequently questioned. Magen's extensive excavations on the main peak (1995 was the twelfth season) have, however, brought to light remains of a large settlement from the Hellenistic period.

SamaritansClick to view larger

SAMARITANS. Roman coin of the city of Neapolis. Depicts Roman temple to Zeus at Tell er-Ras. Second/third century CE. (Photograph by R. Pummer)

The fortified city on Mt. Gerizim was approximately 40.5 hectares (100 acres) in size; it was built in about 200 bce, in the time of Antiochus III (223–187 bce), and destroyed by John Hyrcanus (134–104 bce) between 114 and 111 bce. The finds include sections of the city wall, towers, large dwellings and service buildings, oil presses, storage jars, lamps, numerous coins, and inscriptions in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Magen identifies an area of more than 2 hectares (5 acres) on the summit as a sacred precinct, enclosed by a wall and accessed via a 10-meter-wide staircase ascending from the west. The excavations In 1995 have brought to light remains of a gate and enclosure walls from the Persian period. Ashes and bones found at the site have been dated by the C-14 method to the fifth century bce. The implications of the new finds have yet to be assessed. The Hellenistic pottery and coins found under the temple to Zeus and dating from the second century bce come, in Magen's opinion, from the Hellenistic city on the main peak (see his article in New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, Jerusalem and New York, 1993, vol. 2, p. 489).

Outside Samaria, Samaritan settlements are known from literary and epigraphic sources, the most important of which are Damascus, Egypt, Athens, Delos, Corinth, Rome, and Syracuse. From a seventh-century ce literary source, Samaritans are known to have lived also in Carthage (Vat. gr.1502, fol. 175). No archaeological remains, apart from inscriptions, that can be identified as Samaritan have been uncovered in the diaspora. It should be kept in mind for the literary sources, that the occurrence of such terms as Samareus, Samaritēs, and Samaritis are not unequivocal references to Samaritans in the religious sense; they may well be, and probably often are, an ethnic designation characterizing colonists from Samaria. Only terms such as Samaritai tēn thrēscheian (Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum, sixth century ce) or Israeleitai hoi aparchomenoi eis hieron Argarizein (two inscriptions found on Delos and tentatively dated to the third/second and second/first centuries bce respectively); clearly designate Samaritans by religion. Inscriptions engraved in Samaritan script or in Greek and Samaritan letters are of course also clear indications.

In antiquity, the Samaritans used a modified form of Hebrew script, known as Samaritan script, although for inscriptions they also utilized Greek; Samaritan script remains distinctive of the group. Its immediate ancestor is the Hebrew script of the end of the Second Temple period. The languages used by the Samaritans in antiquity were Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. They began to use Arabic in the Middle Ages. Eventually, a hybrid Samaritan Hebrew language developed.

Samaritan material culture in Greco-Roman times and in the Byzantine era was practically indistinguishable from its Jewish counterpart. In the last analysis, only the presence of Samaritan script allows the attribution of remains to the Samaritan sphere. In Samaria, the fact that the area was inhabited primarily or exclusively by Samaritans is another means by which the provenance of material remains can be determined.

SamaritansClick to view larger

SAMARITANS. Hellenistic remains. Section of the Hellenistic city recently unearthed on the main peak of Mt. Gerizim and, in the background, Tell er-Ras. (Photograph by R. Pummer)

On the basis of the latter criterion, oil presses, miqva'ot (“ritual baths”) jars, oil lamps, and tools excavated at Qedumim (map reference 165 × 179), located 10 km (6 mi.) west of Nablus, have been identified as Samaritan. Similarly, a considerable number of oil lamps found in the region of Samaria are considered to be of Samaritan origin, even though only a very small number are inscribed in Samaritan script. The symbols on the lamps are the same as on Jewish lamps—the menorot (“candelabra”) and other cultic implements used in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritan lamps exclusively are decorated with daggers or knives and ladder or steplike designs as well. The former may be connected to the Offering of Isaac, the latter to the staircase leading from Neapolis (Nablus) up to the temple on Tell er-Ras, although the latter was a Roman temple. A number of sarcophagi were found that were called Samaritan, even though the same type was also found outside the area of Samaria; they clearly show Roman and Jewish influences.

The city of Samaria probably began minting coins in about 375 bce and continued to do so until 333/32 bce. The coins bear the inscription šmryn, either in full or in various abbreviations; it is not clear whether this refers to the city or the region. Much discussed are those coins bearing the name yrb῾m. However, the evidence of these coins is too vague to shed light on the development of Samaritanism, or proto-Samaritanism.

Roman coins from the cities of Samaria depict emperors and symbols from Greco-Roman mythology. Of particular interest are the city coins of Neapolis minted between the reigns of Antoninus Pius and Volusian (251–253 ce), with a gap in the reign of Septimius Severus (193–211 ce). They depict Mt. Gerizim with a colonnade at its foot, a staircase leading up to a temple, and a second, smaller structure on the second peak. Whereas the identity of the latter building is unknown, the temple must represent the Roman temple to Zeus built in the second century ce on Tell er-Ras. The many gods and goddesses, together with their temples or cult places, depicted on the coins from Neapolis after Domitian (81–96 ce), are testimony to the predominantly pagan character of the city. Under Domitian the city coins of Neapolis do not depict any pagan symbols. Some scholars therefore believe that this was out of regard for the Samaritan population. In contrast, contemporary coins of the city of Samaria, a Roman settlement at the time, do bear symbols proper to the worship of Kore/Persephone.

Although it was known from literary sources and inscriptions that the Samaritans had a number of synagogues during the Roman-Byzantine period, archaeological remains of some of them were only recently uncovered. They are identified as Samaritan either by mosaic inscriptions in Samaritan script or by their location within the core area of the Samaritan settlement. To the former category belong synagogues in Shaalbim (map reference 148 × 141), Beth-Shean (197 × 213), and Ramat Aviv (131 × 167); and to the latter, Ḥusn Ya῾qub in Nablus, Mt. Gerizim, Khirbet Samara (1609 × 1872), El-Khirbe (1671 × 1846), Ṣur Natan (Khirbet Majdal) (1508 × 1832), and Kefar Faḥma (167 × 199). Epigraphic evidence shows that Samaritan synagogues also existed outside of Palestine: in Thessalonike, or Delos, and in Syracuse. Literary evidence alone is available for the existence of a Samaritan synagogue in Rome in the sixth century ce. The synagogues in Palestine were built in the fourth/fifth–sixth/seventh centuries ce. They were probably destroyed during the Samaritan revolts in the sixth century; some were rebuilt in the late Byzantine period. The synagogue on Delos has been tentatively dated to the third/second century bce, the one in Thessalonike to between the fourth and sixth centuries ce, and the one in Sicily to the third/fourth centuries; the existence of a Samaritan synagogue in Rome is inferred for the fifth century ce.

The architecture and mosaic art of Samaritan synagogues are virtually identical to those of Jewish synagogues. Differences exist in the orientations of the buildings—toward Mt. Gerizim rather than Jerusalem—and possibly also in the complete avoidance of the depiction of living beings on mosaics, which no Samaritan synagogue has but some Jewish synagogues do. Because a large part of the region of Samaria still awaits thorough archaeological exploration, the picture that has begun to emerge can only be considered preliminary.


Coggins, Richard J.Samaritans and Jews: The Origins of Samaritanism Reconsidered. Atlanta, 1975. Thorough assessment of biblical and postbiblical Jewish texts, archaeological evidence, and Samaritan literature concerning the early history of Samaritanism.Find this resource:

    Crane, Oliver T.The Samaritan Chronicle, or, The Book of Joshua the Son of Nun. New York, 1890. An old translation, but the only one in print.Find this resource:

      Crown, Alan D., ed.The Samaritans. Tübingen, 1989. The most comprehensive modern treatment of all major questions related to the Samaritan tradition by specialists.Find this resource:

        Crown, Alan D.A Bibliography of the Samaritans. 2d ed. Metuchen, N. J., 1993. Complete bibliography on all aspects of Samaritanism.Find this resource:

          Crown, Alan D., Reinhard Pummer, and Abraham Tal, eds.A Companion to Samaritan Studies. Tübingen, 1993. Encyclopaedic dictionary that complements and expands the anthology by Crown (1989).Find this resource:

            Dexinger, Ferdinand, and Reinhard Pummer, eds.Die Samaritaner. Darmstadt, 1992. Besides tracing the development of Samaritan studies in German and English contributions, the book contains an article assessing the present state of research and a comprehensive discussion of the origins of Samaritanism.Find this resource:

              Magen, Yitzhak. “Mount Gerizim and the Samaritans”; “The ‘Samaritan’ Sarcophagi”; “Qedumim: A Samaritan Site of the Roman-Byzantine Period”; “The Ritual Baths (Miqva'ot) at Qedumim and the Observance of Ritual Purity among the Samaritans”; and “Samaritan Synagogues.” In Early Christianity in Context: Monuments and Documents, edited by Frédéric Manns and Eugenio Alliata, pp. 91–230. Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Collectio Maior, 38. Jerusalem, 1993. The most complete and up-to-date accounts in English of the excavator's recent findings.Find this resource:

                Meshorer, Ya῾acov. City-Coins of Eretz-Israel and the Decapolis in the Roman Period. Jerusalem, 1985.Find this resource:

                  Pummer, Reinhard.The Samaritans. Leiden, 1987. Concise introduction with forty-eight plates illustrating historical and contemporary aspects of Samaritanism.Find this resource:

                    Purvis, James D.The Samaritan Pentateuch and the Origin of the Samaritan Sect. Harvard Semitic Monographs, 2. Cambridge, Mass., 1968. Seminal work with a detailed discussion of the Samaritan script.Find this resource:

                      Reeg, Gottfried.Die antiken Synagogen in Israel, vol. 2, Die samaritanischen Synagogen. Beihefte zum Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients, Reihe B, no. 12.2. Wiesbaden, 1977. Discusses all those places for which literary or epigraphic evidence exists. However, it is now believed that not all stone inscriptions necessarily come from synagogues. The new excavations of synagogues were not yet known (see Magen above).Find this resource:

                        Stenhouse, Paul.The Kitāb al- Tarīkh of Abū 'l-Fatḥ. Sydney, 1985. English translation with notes of the most important Samaritan chronicle, based on the author's unpublished critical edition of the Arabic text.Find this resource:

                          Sussman, Varda.“Samaritan Lamps of the Third-Fourth Centuries A.D.Israel Exploration Journal28 (1978): 238–250.Find this resource:

                            Tal, Abraham.The Samaritan Targum of the Pentateuch: A Critical Edition. 3 vols. Tel Aviv, 1980–1983. New, critical edition with an extensive introduction (in English and Hebrew).Find this resource:

                              Reinhard Pummer