The Samaritans: A Profile
By Reinhard Pummer
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 42 illust. and photos, iv + 362 pp., $30 (paperback)
Reviewed by Craig Evans
Reinhard Pummer has written another excellent book on the Samaritans. This one traces the history of the people from Biblical times to the present. He assesses all things Samaritan: their scripture, traditions, worship, holy days, marriage, funerals, demographics, topography and relevant archaeological data, both in the Land of Israel and in the diaspora. The book is both informative and readable.
Probably the most important issue regarding the Samaritan people is their relationship to the people of Judea, that is, to the Jewish people. Pummer faults modern scholarship for all too often accepting the tendentious and biased account in Josephus (mostly in Antiquities 11, though see also Antiquities 9.288–291 and 10.183–184), which itself is based on a jaundiced reading of 2 Kings 17:24– 41. In places Josephus is simply mistaken, often with respect to chronology and demographics. Pummer concludes, along with a number of other scholars in recent years, that the “Samaritans are not a sect that broke off from Judaism, but rather a branch of Yahwistic Israel in the same sense as Jews.” This issue is no mere academic debate, but a very relevant issue today for Samaritans living in the Land of Israel.
For Samaritans, the only authoritative Scripture is their version of the Torah, which is in Hebrew and is not greatly different from the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. A number of other writings hold quasi-authoritative status, including several commentaries.
In recent years significant progress has been made in Samaritan archaeology, much of it in Samaria, though some of it in the diaspora. Of special interest is the work on Mount Gerizim, the sacred mountain of Samaritan faith. Despite the efforts of Israeli archaeologist Yitzhak Magen, who from 1984 to 2006 carried out excavations on the mountain, the Samaritan temple has not been found. The large precinct that Magen has uncovered, however, encourages us to think that a temple at one time stood nearby. The precinct dates to the Persian period, not to the Hellenistic period, as Josephus claims. Persian-era coins, animal bones, pottery and carbon-14 dating have confirmed the Persian date of this precinct.
A number of important inscriptions, written in paleo- Hebrew script, have been found in the precinct. All of them support the view that the Samaritan temple once stood here. One inscription contains the Tetragrammaton, one refers to “priests,” another reads, “before God in this place,” and still another reads, “house of sacrifice.”
Several synagogues in Israel, mostly dating to the Byzantine period, have been excavated more recently. Because of the similarities between Jewish and Samaritan synagogues, archaeologists may not initially be sure that a synagogue is, in fact, Samaritan. When inscriptions are found, their content and the use of the Samaritan script often confirm Samaritan identity. Orientation toward Mount Gerizim is another indicator. Ten synagogues have been identified as possibly Samaritan. A few synagogues in the diaspora have also been identified as Samaritan, including one on the island of Delos that in a Greek inscription refers to a “Mount Gerizim temple.”
Both scholars and nonexperts alike will learn much from this well-researched book.
Craig Evans is the John Bisagno Distinguished Professor of Christian Origins and Dean of the School of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University in Houston, Texas. He is the author of several books on Jesus and the Gospels. His most recent is Jesus and the Remains of His Day: Studies in Jesus and the Evidence of Material Culture (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2015).