Omri (885–873 BCE), the sixth king of the northern kingdom of Israel, founded his new capital Samaria (Hebr. šōmrôn) on land purchased for the high price of two silver talents (7,200 shekels; cf. 2 Sam. 24.24) from the family of Shemer (1 Kings 16.23–24). Archaeologists have found traces of a rural estate from the eleventh to the early ninth centuries on the hill of Samaria, on which Omri's new city was built; it was easily defended and located near important trade routes (Map 5:X4). Like the names Israel and Ephraim, Samaria may have become an alternate name for the northern kingdom as a whole (1 Kings 21.1; 2 Kings 1.3).

Although the principal temple cities of the kingdom were Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12.29; see Golden Calf), an inscriptional reference (ca. 800 BCE) from Kuntillet ʿAjrud (northern Sinai) to “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah” suggests that a shrine to Yahweh also stood in Samaria (cf. Hos. 8.5). Omri's son Ahab built a temple to Baal there (1 Kings 16.32), perhaps for his Phoenician queen Jezebel. When Jehu overthrew the Omride dynasty, he demolished Baal's temple and turned it into a latrine (2 Kings 10.27), but a shrine to the goddess Asherah continued to exist (1 Kings 16.33; 2 Kings 13.6; Amos 8.14?).

Samaria flourished in the time of Omri and Ahab and again during the reign of Jeroboam II in the mid‐eighth century. During the latter period Samaria symbolized the entire northern kingdom for the prophets Amos and Hosea, who condemned Israel's religious and social ills. The Samaria Ostraca, a cache of sixty‐three inscribed potsherds recording what may be tax receipts, illustrates the concentration of wealth that the prophets criticized.

Kings of Samaria alternately allied themselves with or fought against Damascus (1 Kings 20.34; 2 Kings 5.5; 16.5) and Judah (1 Kings 22.2; 2 Kings 8.26). They enjoyed trade and diplomatic relations with the Phoenicians, whose artistic influence is apparent in references to Ahab's ivory house (1 Kings 22.39) and in the hundreds of eighth‐century ivory furniture inlays (see Amos 6.4) excavated at Samaria. Splendid walls of local limestone cut in the precise Phoenician style surrounded Samaria's royal precinct. In later times pottery, bronzes, seal impressions, and locally minted coinage from the Persian period (sixth–fourth centuries) indicate that Samaria continued to be more open than Judea to foreign influences.

Assyria conquered Samaria in 722 BCE, transforming it into the capital of the province of Samerina. The Assyrians deported Samaria's leading citizens and resettled conquered peoples from Syria and Mesopotamia there (2 Kings 17). Nevertheless, a large population of Israelites probably remained. The Judean kings Hezekkiah and Josiah made political overtures to these surviving Israelites (2 Chron. 30.1–11, 18; 34.3–7; cf. Jer. 41.4–6), and prophets describe a future reunited Israel (Jer. 31.1–6; Ezek. 16.51–55).

After the Babylonian exile, Samaritans led by the governor Sanballat opposed Nehemiah's attempts to rebuild Jerusalem (Neh. 4; 6). These Samaritans were probably Jews living both in Judea and in Samaria (cf. Ezra 4.4) who had continued to worship and to administer the territory of ancient Israel in the exiles' absence; their quarrel with Nehemiah was political, not religious. It is notable that Samaritan women are not mentioned among those whom Jews have wrongfully married (Neh. 13.23), although for priests such intermarriage was unacceptable (13.28).

From the many Yahwistic names on Wadi Daliyeh papyri (375–335 BCE), it seems that ruling‐class Samaritans of the Persian period revered Yahweh. Late in the fifth century, Jews living in Egypt wrote for help in rebuilding their temple at Elephantine to leaders both in Jerusalem and in Samaria. Sometime after the arrival of Alexander the Great (332 BCE), the Samaritans constructed on Mount Gerizim near Shechem a temple of Yahweh to rival Jerusalem's, but evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests that the definitive religious break (the “Samaritan schism”) between Samaria and Jerusalem, so apparent in the New Testament, did not occur before the Hasmonean period (second century BCE).

Alexander the Great's army destroyed Samaria in 331 after a rebellion. It was rebuilt to become a wealthy Hellenistic city surrounded by a massive wall with a series of monumental round watchtowers (one, ca. 19 m [63 ft] in diameter, still stands to a height of over 8 m [27 ft]). The Hasmonean John Hyrcanus destroyed the city in 108 BCE, but it began to revive after Rome took over Palestine (63 BCE). Herod the Great embellished the city on a grand scale, renaming it Sebaste after the Greek title of the emperor Augustus. This magnificent city, with its colonnaded streets, stadium, theater, and temples, was demolished during the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 CE), but it soon revived and flourished until finally declining during the Byzantine period.

Samaritans appear in key episodes in the Gospels and in Acts. Some reject Jesus (Luke 9.52–53), but he portrays a Samaritan as a good neighbor (Luke 10.29–37). Jesus' friendly meeting with the Samaritan woman (John 4) demonstrates his openness to women; by her testimony she becomes one of the earliest missionaries (4.39). Philip's ministry to Samaria (Acts 8) is the first by an apostle outside strictly Jewish territory; Samaria is a symbolically transitional place between Judaism and the gentile world into which the Christian movement will travel.

Mary Joan Winn Leith