samaria was the area between Judea and Galilee that had been the northern kingdom of Israel after Judah and Israel split into two monarchies following the death of Solomon around 931 BC. Some two hundred years later, in 726–722 BC, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V invaded the region, captured the capital city of Samaria and deported many of its inhabitants to Assyrian cities in Mesopotamia. But some of the Samaritans remained in their land and eventually mixed with other groups who moved into the area.
This mixed – partly Jewish and partly pagan – population represented the Samaritans of Jesus’ day. Although they worshiped the same God as the Jews and strictly upheld the commands of the Mosaic law, their religion was rejected by Judaism – both because of their partly Gentile ancestry, and because the Samaritans accepted only the first five books of the Bible and worshipped in their temple on Mount Gerazim in Samaria rather than in the Temple in Jerusalem.
As a result, the Samaritans were despised by most Jews – who treated their northerly neighbors terribly, as virtual “untouchables.” The depths of this terrible disdain can be seen in the fact that Samaritans could not even be accepted as converts to Judaism. Rather than “contaminate” themselves by passing through Samaritan territory, Jews who travelled between Judea and Galilee would often cross over the River Jordan in order to bypass Samaria, rather than going through the area. Those who did take the direct route would hurry so as not to stay overnight there and would even refuse to eat in that area.
The attitude is reflected in later statements in the Jewish Talmud such as: “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine” (Mishnah Shebiith 8.10). Perhaps understandably, the Samaritans developed a deep antipathy toward the Jews, and there is no question that there was a great deal of mutual hostility and religious rejection between the two cultures (Luke 9:52-53).
This was the situation in the society into which Jesus was born. When we understand this background, we see how remarkable Jesus’ teaching and actions regarding the Samaritans truly were. We can sense the shock among many of his Jewish listeners when Christ told the parable of the “Good Samaritan,” an individual he held up as being not only “our neighbor,” but also someone more righteous than a representative priest and Levite – the Jewish religious professionals of that day (Luke 10:25–37).
The nature of Jewish-Samaritan relations (or lack of them) helps us to realize what a statement it was that Jesus chose to pass directly through Samaria instead of crossing the Jordan to avoid the area on the way to Jerusalem (John 4:4-5). When Jesus spoke with a Samaritan woman outside one of their cities, it was directly contrary to Jewish custom (John 4:9), and when he agreed to eat with the Samaritans of the area – and even stay with them overnight – it was the ultimate outrage from the perspective of the Jews: Jesus accepted the Samaritans as being no different from the Jews themselves.
When Jesus healed ten lepers from the border of Samaria (Luke 17:11-16) – at least one of whom was a Samaritan (vs. 16) – he showed he loved the Samaritans just as much as anyone else. In his teaching and serving alike Jesus accepted and cared for the Samaritans in a manner that completely negated their “untouchable” status in the eyes of many.
So, despite widespread Jewish antipathy, it is not surprising that the early Church recognized Samaritans as equal to Jews. Many Christians spread through the area of Samaria (Acts 8:1), and the evangelist Philip taught there (Acts 5:3-8). Significantly, the leading apostles Peter and John were sent on a special mission to the area in order to confirm those Samaritans who had been baptized by Philip (Acts 8:14-17) – to show that their acceptance was the official position of the Church.
The ready acceptance of Christianity by many Samaritans is likely due to their expectation of a Taheb or “Restorer,” a messiah-like figure whom they understood would be the prophet like Moses foretold in the Scriptures (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18). The Taheb, they thought, would be so much like God that anyone who believed in him would believe in the Taheb’s Lord (God himself).
In his ministry, Jesus had taught that the time was coming when worship in the temples of both Jerusalem and Samaria would no longer be important (John 4:21), and the conversion of Samaritans was one of the first steps in the realization of that truth. The acceptance of Christianity by many Samaritans became a clear intermediate step between the preaching of the Gospel to the Jews and to the Gentiles – just as Christ had predicted (Acts 2).
Even today a few ethnic Samaritans still survive in their homeland – mainly in the city of Nablus in northern Israel – and have maintained their traditional identity and worship. Some Samaritan Christians also maintain their faith – descendants of the second oldest Christian community in the world, and the only group of believers founded outside of Judea by Jesus himself.