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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Jews and Samaritans, Jews and Non-Jews

In the Samaritans we encounter a group that had similarities with—but also more significant differences from—the triad discussed above. Like the Sadducees, the Samaritans accepted as authoritative only (a form of) the Torah, or five books of Moses. They shared with both the Sadducees and the Essenes of Qumran a conviction that there was only one temple at which communal worship should be centralized. Unlike the Sadducees, but again in common with the Essenes, the Samaritans did not consider the Jerusalem Temple as valid. And perhaps of greatest significance, their claim to be the true Israel, aimed primarily against the Jerusalem leadership, parallels the self-identity of the Qumran community.

But the differences are striking. The Essenes' hatred for Jerusalem and its Temple was limited to the present. As in the past, in the messianic future Jerusalem would be the site for the true priesthood and the authentic sacrificial worship of Israel. For the Samaritans, on the other hand, the Jerusalem Temple was not and never could be that sacred place ordained by God for his worship. Instead, the territory of Samaria, with its capital at Shechem and its temple on Mount Gerizim, was the intended focus for priest, cult, and worship. The Samaritans traced their lineage back to the same twelve tribes as the Judeans or Jews. While the Davidic monarchy and Jerusalem as the city of David were crucial for Judean self-understanding, the Samaritans could point to other ancient traditions associating Shechem and other Samaritan sites with centralized and sacrificial worship of God. In effect, supporters of the Samaritan claim to be the true Israel were drawing from the same traditional sources as the Judeans, but with vastly different interpretations and consequences.

From the Judean or Jewish perspective, two things were clear: God had chosen Jerusalem to be the site of his Temple, and, despite their claims, the inhabitants of Samaria were a culturally and religiously mixed people, not the homogeneous monotheistic community they claimed. A Judean text, 2 Kings 17.24–44 , provided crucial support for this position.

These differences in interpretation had practical consequences. When exiled Judeans or Jews returned from Babylon to rebuild their city, they brusquely rejected offers of help from the Samaritans, whose words of friendship they regarded with utmost suspicion. Nehemiah viewed with horror intermarriage between the son of a priestly family from Jerusalem and the daughter of a leading Samaritan family ( Neh. 13.28–29 ). As the book of Nehemiah and subsequent history make abundantly clear, not everyone shared Nehemiah's distaste for such unions. Around the time of Alexander the Great's conquest of Syria-Palestine, another marriage between these leading families was forged. This time the governor of Samaria, who bore the apparently common name Sanballat, chose to ensure his son-in-law's happiness by constructing a temple, on the model of Jerusalem's, atop the sacred Mount Gerizim. Archaeological, historical, and epigraphical evidence confirms at least the general contours of this story. This temple had not been standing for long when the Samaritans, for reasons unknown to us, rebelled against Alexander the Great's representative in that area. Although Alexander's reprisals were swift and severe, the temple was apparently spared destruction.

Throughout the remainder of the fourth century, the third century, and most of the second century, the Samaritans maintained their central cult on Mount Gerizim. They escaped the wrath of Antiochus IV, although it is difficult to determine the exact nature of the compromise they reached with him. The effects of hellenization among the Samaritans are also difficult to gauge, but as in Jerusalem there must have been many who did not view all Greek influence as incompatible with the distinctive features of their beliefs and practices. In any case, the Samaritans were not the target of Hasmonean expansion until the time of John Hyrcanus. Early in his reign, in 128 BCE, he destroyed the temple on Mount Gerizim, ransacking Shechem in the process. Two decades later he returned to effect the complete destruction of that city and of the city of Samaria.

Given the centuries of hostility between Jews and Samaritans, it is surprising to learn of the basic compatibility between the beliefs and practices of these two feuding groups. The Samaritan Pentateuch and the form of the Torah accepted in Jerusalem had hundreds of minor differences between them. But apart from the former's insistence that God had chosen Shechem as the place for his worship, there are few theologically crucial contradictions in these competing texts. Even after the destruction of its temple, the Samaritan priesthood retained much of its power and prestige. To this day, a small group sustains the distinctive core of Samaritan teaching: we, not they, are the true heirs of Moses.

One other group needs mentioning: non-Jews, especially Greek and Roman non-Jews. Even a cursory discussion of the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in antiquity is a daunting task. We have discussed relations between the Jewish state and the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, neighboring Syro-Palestinian peoples, the Romans, the Spartans, and others. We have seen that some Jews eagerly embraced Hellenism and with equal alacrity abandoned all distinctive aspects of Judaism, while others felt that only by intractable opposition to even the slightest hint of insidious Hellenism could they preserve their Jewish way of life. Between these two extremes, individual Jews made their way through daily rounds of trade and commerce, heated discourse, friendly transactions, habit, and ritual, with most people forming their opinions about others on the basis of personal contact, hearsay, and preconceptions.

Yet even in antiquity, when the degree of literacy and the technology of mass communication were undeveloped in comparison with today, there were influential voices, whose words—preserved for us in written form—carried weight. Throughout the Hellenistic period the Jews were the subject or object of observation and analysis by interested writers. Sometimes these observations were firsthand; on other occasions, they were based on a less than clear understanding of sources that may themselves have been obscure. Were Greco-Roman writers favorably disposed or antagonistic toward Jews and Judaism as they understood them? The answer depends in part on chronology. By and large, observations dating from earlier in the Hellenistic period are more favorable than those composed later. Particularly influential in this regard were the Maccabean revolt and its aftermath. However we assess the factors that motivated Antiochus IV, it is difficult to deny that his Judean policy was important to him and that his lack of success there was a severe embarrassment. We must assume that he mobilized not only military armies, but masses of propagandists in his efforts to discredit, if not completely destroy, Judaism. His scribes would have been given free rein to incorporate every anti-Jewish remark they had ever read or heard and additionally to create new stories that would denigrate the distinctive beliefs and practices of the Jews. To this period may date the origins or more likely the popularity of tales concerning ritual homicide and ass worship among Jews. This contrasts with earlier praise of the Jews as a nation of philosophers who shunned the crudities of belief and expression that marred so many other peoples.

Sources of information, especially when not firsthand, were another determining factor in the tone of statements about Jews. From the very beginnings of Ptolemaic rule, even before Jews had been welcomed into Egypt and allowed for the most part to compete on an equal footing for the wealth that flowed into and out of Alexandria, there were all sorts of occasions for friction on social, cultural, economic, and religious levels, and such animosities were severe and frequent enough to find their way into writings that originated in Egypt. Because Egypt was held in high esteem by many in the Greco-Roman cultural elite, these views were widely circulated and provided a filter through which even eyewitnesses viewed Jews and Judaism. Nonetheless, we ought not to underestimate the talents, energy, and curiosity of individual writers in the Greco-Roman world. Even when they used secondhand or second-rate material, such writers frequently give evidence of an enviable ability to perceive and even to appreciate.

Given these factors, another question often arises: Were there many non-Jews who became Jews, and if so, did this result from an active proselytizing by Jews? The available evidence allows for more than one interpretation. Clearly most if not all Jewish literature from the Hellenistic period was aimed at Jewish audiences. On the other hand, even in such literature there is evidence that its authors were not unaware that non-Jews might also be reading it. Individual examples of conversion are not absent. More numerous are statements in praise of one or more of Judaism's distinctive features. Although such positive statements would not necessarily or even regularly lead to conversion on the part of author or audience, they could create a context for such action. Most likely those interested in Judaism would have seen it as an addition to rather than as a substitute for whatever religion, philosophy, or combination of both they were then practicing.

Population figures have also played a role in attempts to answer this question. According to some, the Jewish population increased so dramatically in the Hellenistic period that no explanation other than successful missionary activity can explain it. But in the view of others, the increases cited are within what could be expected given what is known of life span, mortality rates, and similar factors in the ancient world. In fact, there is as much uncertainty on just this point as there is in trying to arrive at reasonable estimates of population for a given area.

Still, throughout the Hellenistic period a number of writers commented on the Jews—some favorably, some unfavorably, and still others in a mixed vein, all influenced by a variety of cultural and social factors and by their source of information. A few of those who wrote or who read these words formed an attachment, formal or otherwise, to Judaism. Unfortunately, the hostile words and characterizations were more often preserved, and they influenced later generations to think and act antagonistically toward the descendants of the Hellenistic Jews we have been discussing.

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