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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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an ancient sect among the Jews, still subsisting in some parts of the Levant, under the same name. Its origin was in the time of Rehoboam, under whose reign a division was made of the people of Israel into two distinct kingdoms. One of these kingdoms, called Judah, consisted of such as adhered to Rehoboam and the house of David; the other retained the ancient name of Israelites, under the command of Jeroboam. The capital of the state of these latter was Samaria; and hence it was that they were denominated Samaritans. Some affirm that Salmanazar, king of Assyria, having conquered Samaria, led the whole people captive into the remotest parts of his empire, and filled their places with colonies of Babylonians, Cutheans, and other idolaters. These finding themselves daily destroyed by wild beasts, it is said, desired an Israelitish priest to instruct them in the ancient laws and customs of the land they inhabited. This was granted them; and they thenceforth ceased to be incommoded with any beasts. However, with the law of Moses, they still retained somewhat of their ancient idolatry. The rabbins say, they adored the figure of a dove on Mount Gerizim. As the revolted tribes had no more of the Scriptures than the five books of Moses, so the priest could bring no others with him beside those books written in the old Phenician letters.

Upon the return of the Jews from the Babylonish captivity, and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple, the religion of the Samaritans received another alteration on the following occasion; one of the sons of Jehoiada, the high priest, whom Josephus calls Manasseh, married the daughter of Sanballat the Horonite; but the law of God having forbidden the intermarriages of the Israelites with any other nation, Nehemiah set himself to reform this corruption, which had spread into many Jewish families, and obliged all that had taken strange wives immediately to part with them, Nehemiah 13:23-30 . Manasseh, unwilling to surrender his wife, fled to Samaria; and many others in the same circumstances, and with similar disposition, went and settled under the protection of Sanballat, governor of Samaria. Manasseh brought with him some other apostate priests, with many other Jews, who disliked the regulations made by Nehemiah at Jerusalem; and now the Samaritans, having obtained a high priest, and other priests of the descendants from Aaron, were soon brought off from the worship of the false gods, and became as much enemies to idolatry as the best of the Jews. However, Manasseh gave them no other Scriptures beside the Pentateuch, lest, if they had the other Scriptures, they should then find that Jerusalem was the only place where they should offer their sacrifices. From that time the worship of the Samaritans came much nearer to that of the Jews, and they afterward obtained leave of Alexander the Great to build a temple on Mount Gerizim, near the city of Samaria, in imitation of the temple at Jerusalem, where they practised the same forms of worship. To this mountain and temple the Samaritan woman of Sychar refers in her discourse with our Saviour, John 4:20 . The Samaritans soon after revolted from Alexander, who drove them out of Samaria, introduced Macedonians in their room, and gave the province of Samaria to the Jews. This circumstance contributed in no small degree to increase the hatred and animosity between those two people. When any Israelite deserved punishment on account of the violation of some important point of the law, he presently took refuge in Samaria or Shechem, and embraced the worship at the temple of Gerizim. When the affairs of the Jews were prosperous, the Samaritans did not fail to call themselves Hebrews, and of the race of Abraham. But when the Jews suffered persecution, the Samaritans disowned them, and alleged that they were Phenicians originally, or descended from Joseph, or Manasseh his son. This was their practice in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. It is certain, the modern Samaritans are far from idolatry; some of the most learned among the Jewish doctors own, that they observe the law of Moses more rigidly than the Jews themselves. They have a Hebrew copy of the Pentateuch, differing in some respects from that of the Jews; and written in different characters, commonly called Samaritan characters; which Origen, Jerom, and other fathers and critics, ancient and modern, take to be the primitive character of the ancient Hebrews, though others maintain the contrary. The point of preference, as to purity, antiquity, &c, of the two Pentateuchs, is also much disputed by modern critics.

The Samaritans are now few in number; though it is not very long since they pretended to have priests descended directly from the family of Aaron. They were chiefly found at Gaza, Neapolis or Shechem, (the ancient Sichem or Naplouse,) Damascus, Cairo, &c. They had a temple, or chapel, on Mount Gerizim, where they performed their sacrifices. They have also synagogues in other parts of Palestine, and also in Egypt. Joseph Scaliger, being curious to know their usages, wrote to the Samaritans of Egypt, and to the high priest of the whole sect, who resided at Neapolis. They returned two answers, dated in the year 998 of the Hegira of Mohammed. These answers never came to the hands of Scaliger. They are now in the library at Paris, and have been translated into Latin by Father Morin, priest of the oratory; and printed in the collection of letters of that father in England, 1662, under the title of "Antiquitates Ecclesiae Orientalis." M. Simon has inserted a French translation in the first edition of "Ceremonies et Coutumes des Juifs," in the manner of a supplement to Leo de Modena. In the first of these answers, written in the name of the assembly of Israel, in Egypt, they declare that they celebrate the passover every year, on the fourteenth day of the first month, on Mount Gerizim, and that he who then did the office of high priest was called Eleazar, a descendant of Phinehas, son of Aaron. In the second answer, which is in the name of the high priest Eleazar, and the synagogue of Shechem, they declare, that they keep the Sabbath in all the rigour with which it is enjoined in the book of Exodus; none among them stirring out of doors, but to the synagogue. They add, that they begin the feast of the passover with the sacrifice appointed for that purpose in Exodus; that they sacrifice no where else but on Mount Gerizim; that they observe the feasts of harvest, the expiation, the tabernacles, &c. They add farther, that they never defer circumcision beyond the eighth day; never marry their nieces, as the Jews do; have but one wife; and, in fine, do nothing but what is commanded in the law; whereas the Jews frequently abandon the law to follow the inventions of their rabbins. At the time when they wrote to Scaliger, they reckoned one hundred and twenty-two high priests; affirmed that the Jews had no high priests of the race of Phinehas; and that the Jews belied them in calling them Cutheans; for that they are descended from the tribe of Joseph by Ephraim.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Samaritans'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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